To Respect or Not to Respect

In Japan people still wear masks. Many Japanese wore masks before the pandemic – and the Spanish writer Blasco Ibáñez mocks the Japanese of the beginning of the XXth century in his La vuelta al mundo de un escritor (The World Tour of a Writer) for «increasing the ugliness of the Japanese» with this «poultice». Nowadays the mask is worn by everyone, indoors and outdoors, in the street, and even in the countryside, in the mountains. Few faces with oriental features are seen uncovered. But not so of Westerners, and I am somewhat repulsed to come across them, to observe foreigners abusing a rule that the locals scrupulously follow. It is a comparative lack of respect, as if contempt for the docility of their hosts were written on their uncovered faces, as if they were smarter, better looking. I would also like to take off my mask, which is very uncomfortable with my glasses, and with so many changes of temperature in places and transport, but modesty prevents me from doing so, a shame I have that, if it were not known and accepted willingly, would be painful. Many of the norms in Japan are followed by the Japanese because of the enormous peer pressure that pervades all activities, which greatly increases the difficulties of being different. I am probably also a victim to some extent of the effect of this pressure when I wear the mask.

A few days ago I visited Ise Shrine near Nara. The buildings of the two temples, the spaces surrounding them and the manicured parks and forests in which they are located are exquisite, lush and luxurious, a pleasure for most visitors, religious or not. For me, the visit gave me some displeasure, especially when I witnessed a lady approaching a Shinto priest and requesting a rite of which I can know no more than what I saw: the woman held out an envelope to the priest and took off her coat, which she left resting on a bench; the priest threw a pinch of something that looked like salt on either side of the woman; the two went around the fence of the temple’s central courtyard, inaccessible to visitors like me, and entered the grounds; The priest then gave way to the lady who stepped forward and, with great reverence and recollection, clapped her hands twice; they then retraced their steps. I found the behaviour as haphazard and pretentious as I experience that of Catholic priests, with little effort of estrangement, on the few occasions when I have to attend a mass, generally for rather sad reasons. All temples are the product of the fear of death, and the more precious and cared for they are, the more they convey to me the sensation of successive generations of individuals, often enslaved, trying to avoid their anguish by diverting resources towards the construction and improvement of these facilities. It is not that I have an ideological stance on this, but simply that this idea grips me throughout the visit, preventing any other feeling, any partial enjoyment. I observed the Shinto ritual that day from the same, unavoidable, point of view.

For all this, I had to do myself a particular violence when, on leaving the temple grounds and passing under the torii, the wooden arch at the entrance, instead of turning around and, facing the temple, bowing twice like all the Japanese people with me, I continued resolutely forward. Surely no one minded my defiance, and only I suffered and enjoyed it.

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