1996 Report from the Virtual Mayor on Kyoto's 1200th Anniversary



By W. David Kubiak

A few odd, organic reasons for optimism
amid the gaud, corruption and apathy
of the old city today

PART I: UNNATURAL HISTORIES: Big Body Belches and Grassroots Groans

Let's start with the few things that are still perfectly clear in Kyoto - like the total dominion of the cement lobby, the big power puppet show of local governance, and the motives of those flogging ancient corners with the neon gash of 7-11s, MacDownloads, Shakeys, Kentucky Fried, and their innumerable Nipponized belch-alikes. To anyone retaining the slightest peripheral vision, depth perception or courage of memory, it is a desperately depressing time to walk the town.

This is not just the "ya-shoulda-been-here-back-in-'52-mate/twang the spittoon" voice of old-Asia-hand one-upsmanship. This is a voice that has gargled away to commiserable silence one too many times on arriving airport limos, trying to console trembling friends who had saved mightily for this pilgrimage - their once in a lifetime trip to the holy land - the Japan that blessed their youth with glimpses of astonishing craftsmanship, cosmic Zen mania, erotically intense ways of life-as-art, and hope - the Japan that lives on in Alan Watts paperbacks, $50 coffee table tomes, battered haiku anthologies and tourist training films - the Japan nowhere visible to their panicking eyes as we whiz along the brutally electrified concrete gulches pouring traffic into Kyoto. Salvador Dali, paying his last respects to the town shortly before his death, caught the mood: "Dios mio, what a trajeeec mess they make of her..."

The tragedy is not just architectural chaos, although demolishing 2,000 graceful wooden buildings a year for two decades in a town this size does take its toll, especially when they are instantly replaced with prefab tenements and kitsch facades that would make New Jersey wince. The tragedy is that one of the most beautifully crafted cities of the world, the master artisans who created her, and the spiritual/aesthetic traditions that gave her life can all be so blithely swept away. And just at a time when the values that "old Kyoto" epitomized are being trumpeted from every Green and New Age pulpit as humanity's best/last hope for sanity and survival. But, as one of my designer draped university students recently challenged, "If our tradition is so smart, why is it dead?" Excellent question - turn it around fast. "Alright, class, why do ancient truths and manifest wisdom fare so wretchedly in today's market place of ideas? Class...?"

Haven't had much to offer my bereft pilgrims either. Too late and bootless to point out, "look, I did try to warn you..." or "well, yeah, but compared to Nagoya..." or "just be cool, 'that Kyoto' is sure to be reissued soon in VR, interactive CD and all popular multimedia formats..." But to those of you who still love and admire Kyoto's lush mythology from afar, it must be said: Stay Home! What has happened here has/does/will hurt.

If, however, you are less pilgrim than knight or mercenary - seeking righteous battle, exotic arms, damselary distress or just the Mother of All Hard Ball with some heavy Big Bodies, get your ass over here! Local activists - anti-high rise Buddhists, anti-nuclear moms, anti-"development" environmentalists - are all now soliciting foreigners' aid and abetment under a Gaian "Best of Times/Worst of Times" banner. (Quietly conceding, of course, that the Best still lurks in spectral probability waves, out there with Schroedinger's Cheshire Cat, while the Worst tends to be fully actualized, concretized and in your face.)

There are, however, several unique (or at least strange) reasons to believe that grassroots partisans of this apparently defeated and occupied city may not only have a chance, they might have important new messages for activists everywhere. First, they are starting to talk strange - using words like anthroculture, ki theft and social endocrinology. Years of cross-pollination here between ecologically concerned ki energy groups, radical Buddhists and eastern medical adepts, on the one hand, and new-lefty community-power coalitions swayed by Gaian thought and living systems theory, on the other, are giving birth to a vocabulary of activism that sounds more like meta-medicine than political science.

Second, they are starting to view the world strangely. Heretofore discrete groups devoted to a wide variety of seemingly distinct problems (in education, ecology, agriculture, minority/women's rights, health care, etc.) have begun to notice that whatever their issues, they all end up facing the same enemies: a relative handful of huge corporate bodies that they now see as the prime generic source of most social/ecological pathologies.

[These are no longer fringe views. Even the staid, republican but apparently pissed off Japan Architectural Association has toyed with this analysis. On June 19th, as their sardonic contribution to Kyoto's 1200th festivities, the JAA sponsored a full-day forum that decried the common malignant influence of Japan's great corporate bodies on schools, family life, political integrity, international relations and the natural environment. (Perhaps the only thing the Big Bodies weren't explicitly damned for was their recent creation of in-house architectural divisions that now monopolize 85% of the rapidly shrinking construction market, idling and impoverishing hundreds of JAA independents.)]

And finally, they are starting to act strange. Like the raggedy white-shirted Tiannemen hero standing alone against government tanks, Japanese citizens also face their leviathan foes completely unarmed. Without exception, citizens banding together here to seek reforms or redress are denied: nonprofit status (money), access to vital documents (information), objective press (exposure), non-glacial court suits (justice), as well as legislative recourse to initiatives, referenda or even functioning "legislators" (democracy).

[Point of info: Japanese lawmakers do not make laws, they simply debate bills presented by the ruling bureaucracies. The precious few "representatives" who even try to represent constituents' interests in these proceedings are called, with unintended irony, the shimin- ha or "citizen faction." Everyone else represents the well-funded has of the LDP, Socialists, Communists, etc. who pay their electoral pipers and call their incumbent tunes. Thus what goes on in any "representative" assembly in Japan has little or nothing to do with citizens, and primarily reflects accommodations among the bureaucracy, large corporate bodies and local reps of national party headquarters.]

Forget. too, local influence, let alone control, over police, media or even their children's schools, and you begin to appreciate the hopelessness of their situation. Their dogged persistence under such duress, while valiant, has been virtually fruitless, causing immense frustration, stress and exhaustion. Many citizen groups thus began exploring ways to revive their spirits and apologize to their bodies for all the political ravage. Techniques differ - from New Age group massage, counseling and tree hugging, to ancient animistic retreats, pranayama and conspiracy (conspiration) rituals.

But whatever their means, many activists here now talk of a moving "rediscovery" of the body - as a model of noncoercive political order (cf. Lao Tzu and the Yellow Emperor); an existential compass; and/or an inspiring source of immune system analogies for future movement scenarios - with activists cast as "immunogentry," the restless lymphocytes of Gaia's body politic, and virulent corporate bodies as the disease organisms. (Ralph Nader as macrophage?)

Such bio-social intuitions also led to the intriguing prospect of the body as a player. Contemplating humans demographically as sentient, sacred and highly suppressed animals (rather than as blacks, women, Christians, unionists, etc.) suggests some very different social agendas and a vast "new" constituency of support.

In sum, Japan's populists and would-be reformers are racking their synapses to redefine their impasse as surmountable. Considering the global stakes, they deserve and need your help, especially help developing and propagating the categories of thought that render their visions viable. As a first conspiratorial step toward which, may I furtively entrust you with the following sampler and brief evolutionary history of their most fertile concepts. May your force be with them...

Go to
Part II

The Rectification of Memes

Explorations in Bio-Social Anthroculture

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