Flying back into the chaotic LA airport from Japan – I wondered what the reaction of a Japanese tourist might be. Not a speck of signage in their language and no apparent logic to any of the snaking lines filled with every shape and size and person imaginable many of whom were dressed immodestly or in grungy sweat suits. What would the Nihon-jin (Japanese citizen) think about the unwelcoming and miserable looking security guard who kept yelling at the new arrivals to stay behind an unnoticed red line on the floor. The disorder was disconcerting.
What a striking contrast to Narita Airport with English language signs everywhere and information booths filled with uniformed smiling attendants and the whole scene populated by well dressed, quiet, and orderly citizens. No doubt, America does the multi-culti thing better than anywhere on the planet. This is hugely important – that we all learn to get along. But it is really striking to step off a plane from Japan and be confronted with the contrast at LAX International Airport. Japan a homogenous society with a strong prevalent group-minded culture and Los Angeles International Airport – where middle aged men with Mohawk haircuts and teenagers with tattooed necks and exposed cleavage (butt and breast) wait in the security lines with Moslems, Hispanics and African Americans.
We can all agree that moving towards world peace will require that we learn to care more deeply about one another. It is pretty clear that the ideals of equality and human freedom proclaimed in our Constitution can foster this kind of caring. Americans are great about helping out – we volunteer and give to charities and participate in civic life in our communities. The example of Ted Kennedy, his life of public service and caring for the downtrodden as well as the way he cared for his friends shined a light on what is so great and inspiring about America. These activities don’t occur in the same way in Japan. Not at all.
But one could say that Japanese citizens and their good manners point to a significant way in which caring for one another lifts up the entire society. Manners, after all, are largely derived from the wish not to offend others – which is the other side of the coin of respect for others. In a country where the harmony of the group is explicitly promoted as it is so openly in Japan – manners play a comforting role in managing the huge urban populations. No one talks on cell phones in the subways. No one litters. People form orderly lines on the train platforms. There is a benefit bestowed to the whole society when its citizens follow and respect the law – even the little ones such as waiting at the corner until the light turns before we cross the street.
I knew I was not in Boston when the jazz club owner, where we had just finished playing, accompanied us back up to the street at the end of the night to deeply bow as we parted.
So let’s all start a little viral manners campaign out on the streets in the USA this week. Respect and connect. Maybe it will catch on and spread.
I was struck by a story in the newspaper I bought in LA today about the American father who sent up the home-made helium balloon that he said his son was in. It is a dark story though. It turned out this was a publicity stunt dreamed up by the father for personal gain – a stunt that played upon the sympathies of millions of TV viewers. In Japan no one could face the shame of having misled so many people. That story would never have happened there.
This was the twelfth year in a row that Kazumi Ikenaga has invited me to come to Japan to play music with him. He sets up a two-week tour with about 10 gigs and we work pretty hard – traveling to and from clubs and concert venues and setting up – and playing intensely night after night – we love doing this. It is such a huge affirmation of all of the musical work we do. For the past three years I have had a traveling companion on this trip, Renee came one year, then I brought my father along one year and last year I was accompanied by my friend Joe Innskeep. This year, I came alone, and I cut down on my sightseeing considerably; concentrating my energies, mental and physical, on the music.
The songs that I have been writing these past two years at the MacDowell Colony, the ballads and the lyricism I try to bring to my playing has been so well received. I receive feedback in the way of comments from my listeners in Japan. These comments are so generous – expressions of such attentive listening – so open and heartfelt and appreciative. They can make me cry.
The energetic part of our playing (up-tempo) has continued to evolve and intensify these past few years. I think because I have experienced how patience is such a huge part of making music work. I feel like I was able to put into practice for the first time the ability to watch and not judge and see where the energies of the other players were– not needing them to meet my expectations of where I think the rhythmic energies needed to be. And in that waiting – and the good manners implied in that – the grooves developed organically – and our stories unfolded night after night. Going to new places each time we performed and confirming for me what I most love about playing music. That it is an endless path and clearly one that is connected in relationship to the many people I play with and play for and for the many friends and family members who help sustain the blessing of these many connections.
Onward, in kindness and harmony – which also sounds to me like a synonym for manners,