Before moving to Tokyo, I taught English in a countryside prefecture known as Tottori. I loved it there. My only complaint was my noisy neighbor that liked to play taiko drums early in the morning (usually between 5:30am – 6:00am). He would open all the doors and windows so that it could be heard by all. He would play to no discernible rhythm and consistently modulate the tempo making it all the more irritating.
Unfortunately, the place where all the noise was coming from was a Shinto shrine.
But why should places of worship and the fallible men and women that run them be exempt from criticism? If church and state are indeed separate in this day and age, then I should be able to proceed as if I were complaining about noise from a dance club or pachinko parlor. I had always been told that Japanese almost never complain directly. For example, a noisy neighbor would hear any complaints via the apartment building landlord.
But what about a foreigner? Could a foreigner even complain in Japan—let alone about noise coming from a shrine? This was going to be an interesting social experiment.
I composed a note written in the most polite Japanese I could muster that said: “Would it be possible to please not play taiko drums so loudly and so early in the morning?” I went to the shrine office and knocked on the door. No one there. I left the note somewhere it would be found.
The noise stopped. But then started again about a month later. Damn. I thought I was on to something there.
I visited the shrine office on many occasions; however, no one ever answered. I think the only time anyone was actually at the shrine was when the drums were being played. I noted the phone number pasted on the door.
I called the shrine office. A woman answered, and I introduced myself and reiterated what I had written on the note. She asked me to hold on and transferred me to a man (her husband?). He told me he got the note, but that he has to play early in the morning—something about the sun and the spirits.
You gotta love organized religion—wine into blood, fire and brimstone, sun and moon, spirits and holy books. Why can't you just focus on being nice to people...and not waking them up with cacophonic drum playing?
My girlfriend worked at Tottori city office at that time. I asked her if there was any hope of complaining about the noise coming from a shrine. She said that the city office received all sorts of complaints (usually about broken street lights or signs with the wrong kanji); however, there was no way you could complain about a shrine. They enjoyed a privileged place in society.
Well, it's a good thing that priests, shamans, and kings are infallible gods. Otherwise, we might have a society where Catholic priests molest young boys or emperors rape and massacre Chinese cities.
So much for the separation of church and state.
I wondered if anyone else in my apartment building shared my sentiments, so I decided to conduct a brief survey. I typed up a short note asking to please email me if you are bothered by the shrine drummer in the morning. I didn't want people to know it was coming from a foreigner, so I asked my girlfriend to “native-ize” the Japanese. I printed-out the note and left a copy in everyone's mailbox in my apartment building. My girlfriend said that no one would answer. She was wrong, but not by much. One person answered with a single line: “I completely agree with you.” At least one Japanese person agreed with me. If nothing else this response served as a kind of therapy for me. It wasn't just me (the freak foreigner) that was annoyed by this dude.
I sought further solace in the thoughts and opinions of coworkers and students. One student suggested wearing earplugs to bed. I tried this for a night and hated it. If you didn't already know, wearing earplugs while sleeping is not the best of ideas. Rolling over on my side would often shove the earplug further into my ear canal, and the resulting change in pressure would implode my skull.
Another student asked me where the shrine in question was located. She asked as if she knew of it. I told her, and she replied, “I know that shrine! I used to live near that shrine. I was so happy when I moved.”
Yet another student knew that I liked to write funny songs in Japanese: “You can't do anything about it, so write a song about it. Your shrine story is funny.”
I took his advice and wrote a song about it entitled “The Shrine Drummer.” You can find the mp3 and lyrics on my Japanese website if interested. Ignoring the preachy warnings of coworkers, I performed the song at Tottori's local live house Afterhours. If black vans could drive around Japan broadcasting imperialist propaganda, then I could certainly sing a song about a noisy shrine drummer. I was just a bit worried about getting knifed after the show. That's what they do here, you know. They knife you.
To my surprise the song went over much better than I had expected. In fact, I played it at every subsequent show at Afterhours because the audience requested it calling out “shrine drummer!” between songs. One guy in the audience asked me afterwards where this shrine was. I replied, and he wasn't at all surprised: “I know that shrine!”
I slipped deeper into the depths of madness. My school manager suggested moving me to another apartment, and I seriously considered the generous offer. However, I only had about 3 months to go before the end of my English teaching contract. That would be pretty lame to move my whole apartment for such a short time. But in retrospect maybe it would have been worth it after all.
Psychedelic madness consumed me. As a farewell gift to the shrine drummer, I interviewed him on video one fateful morning. Inter-splicing my jackass comments, I edited the video into my first attempt at a comedy video. It wasn't really comedy for anyone other than myself. It was revenge. But it felt good. I had officially become a darkworker.
I posted the video on YouTube. There it stayed with lackluster hits for over a year. Then some pissed-off right-wing foreigner-hating Japanese dude stumbled upon my video and ripped it off YouTube. He then posted it to Nico Video (a Japanese video sharing site) using his account. He tagged it with a myriad of anti-foreigner tags. How dare this foreigner insult our culture? The video got over 5000 hits in a single day.
My website was bombarded by a bunch of pissed-off Japanese guys. Japanese women didn't seem to care. I got lots of high-quality comments from very upstanding, intelligent citizens of the world. You gotta love that Internet!
Thinking I'd surely get knifed at my next live show, I took the video off YouTube. That didn't solve the problem, though, because the traffic was coming from Nico Video. I complained to Nico Video stating that the user violated my copyright. Luckily, he had even left my logo/copyright tag in my video, so this wasn't hard to prove. Nico Video took the video down about an hour later, and it faded back into obscurity.
• Comedy is dangerous. Name me any famous comedian, and I guarantee you that he/she has offended people multiple times in their tenure as comedian. A comedian that has never offended anyone is not famous. I decide to take the risk because otherwise I'll never know what the world's limits are. But at the same time I don't want to get knifed either.
• Some topics are taboo. Apparently religion is one of those topics. How about politics? I wonder if that one is safe. American comedians love dancing with the taboo, but Japanese comedians avoid it like the plague.
• Foreigners are not as welcome here as I thought—esp. loud, obnoxious ones like me. There's a significant population that wants us ragamuffins out of here. You can visit, and you'll be greeted with a hospitable smile as you hand over your yen. But don't overstay your welcome. It almost parallels white America welcoming the black slaves with open arms. Then telling them to “go back to Africa” after freedom was finally granted. I remember watching a TV interview with a Filipina housewife living in Japan. She said something like 'Foreigners living in Japan are basically slaves that pay taxes.'
• If you make waves, don't expect other foreigners to come to your defense. I'm the uppity slave that's gonna get the others a whippin'. They hate me just as much as the plantation master. I'm the nail that sticks up, and I'll get hammered down by Japanese, Americans, Canadians, and Nepalese alike.
• Turn off any and all anonymous commenting on your websites. Look at the brainless comments on YouTube, and you'll see the logic behind this. The old adage “If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all” does not apply to the good ol' WWW.
It's a crazy crazy world out there. Be nice, and try not to get yourself knifed.