National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

End of an era gives Japan a chance to hit the reset button

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Maybe we’re immortal. It’s not a new idea. Christianity’s appeal over 2,000 years rests largely on its promise of eternal life. In Japanese Buddhism, the soul passes from life to life — a dreadful prospect, it was held, which only the enlightened escaped.

Buddhist karma secularized is reincarnation. Some people believe in it. Most probably don’t. Interest in it flares from time to time. It’s flaring now, says Shukan Post magazine (Jan. 11). No wonder, with Japan soon to pass from Heisei to a brand new, still unnamed, era.

A little boy in the Kansai region gave his mom a jolt one afternoon in Heisei 15 (2003). She was peeling garlic. Suddenly little Tomo, aged 3 years 11 months, piped up, “Let me do that.” Mom’s eyes widened. Tomo explained, “I used to do it before I was called Tomo.”

Baffled, she handed him the garlic … then, more hesitantly, the knife. What would he do? Her surprise deepened. He performed the peeling with a skill far beyond his years and experience. Not only that. Normally left-handed, he wielded the knife effortlessly with his right hand.

Shukan Post hears the story from Chubu University professor Masayuki Okado, who studies reincarnation scientifically, following in the groundbreaking footsteps of American psychiatrist Ian Stevenson (1918-2007). Okado’s focus is on whether consciousness can exist independently of the body — an unsettled question.

Tomo, it seems, had memories of living in England and being called Gillis. His English father was a chef — hence the child’s deft hands. Some months later Tomo saw a TV news report of a train derailment in Japan. He became excited. “In England too!” he cried. Where in England? “Southall” — a suburb in West London. “People died.”

His father, skeptical but intrigued, turned to the internet. Sure enough. Sept. 19, 1997, Southall: seven killed, 139 injured in a high-speed train collision — two years before Tomo was born.

We’re not told how Gillis in England died before being reincarnated as Tomo in Japan. However that may have been, Tomo at 4 began missing his English mom. He cried for her, wanted to see her.

Then the memories faded. By age 7 he’d forgotten everything. That’s typical, says Okado, citing Stevenson’s research at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Beginning in 1967, Stevenson and colleagues interviewed more than 2,000 children in 40 countries who claimed to recall past lives. The memories generally start around age 3 and vanish by 8. Memories persisting into later childhood are rare; into adulthood, highly exceptional, though not unheard of. Sometimes the merest chance can trigger long-buried “memories” — the glimpse of a stranger’s face, for instance: “I know that woman! Where do I know her from? Not here.” Suddenly a whole new life opens up. A whole old life, rather. A former life.

“It was always bright,” said Tomo of his former life. “Even when it was cloudy. It never rained or snowed. I never felt cold.”

Metaphorically speaking, Japan will be reincarnated on May 1. Era names in Japan go back to its first contacts with Chinese civilization, circa 500. The name changed at the Emperor’s or shogun’s discretion — sometimes to mark an auspicious event, sometimes as a defense against inauspicious astrological portents. Only in modern times did the Emperor’s reign define the era. Japan entered the Heisei Era with the death of Emperor Showa in 1989.

Poised between the old and the new, we naturally ask ourselves, What’s in store for us? Who knew, as Heisei began 30 years ago this month, what was in store for us? Unforeseeable to all but a handful of visionaries was what actually occurred: the economy’s crash, technology’s surge, the “aging society,” the “working poor,” the internet, the smartphone, “diversity,” “gender equality,” “LGBT pride,” “artificial intelligence” — the list is long; this hardly exhausts it.

Suppose the new era also lasts 30 years. By the end of it we’ll have seen things, be taking things for granted, that are unimaginable today.

Meanwhile, there’s the transition — an unprecedented 10-day break from it all. Japanese will be challenged to do what they are notoriously not good at: rest, relax, take a step back from productive life and, each after his or her own fashion, reflect. Ideally you will step out of your work routine on April 27, not to reenter it until May 6.

A good rest is itself a kind of reincarnation. One becomes “a new man,” “a new woman.” The last transition unfolded in an atmosphere of mourning. This one will be a celebration, the Emperor abdicating, not dying. Shukan Gendai magazine invites us to look forward to parades, processions, bargain sales, TV specials. The new Emperor will speak — what will he say? Some 200,000 people will mass in front of the Imperial Palace. Will there be trouble? The line between joy and anarchy can be a fine one. Recall (as Shukan Gendai does) last year’s million-strong Halloween celebration in Shibuya, in which a truck was overturned, women were groped and 19 were arrested.

High spirits are suspect in Japan. Anxious notes sound through Shukan Gendai’s coverage. Will we survive 10 days’ leisure? Will the system break down? Will pensions be issued, taxes processed, government services uninterrupted, hospitals normal? Even the usual Golden Week break, five or six days long, has employers fretting about the days that must pass before employees are back to their workaholic selves and systems back to par. Here we’re in uncharted territory.

That’s what it’s all about, of course, for better and/or worse. For better, let’s suppose — more tolerant, more diverse, more inclusive, less judgmental. Aera magazine in December introduced a new group claiming dignity as a sexual minority — asexuals. “If there’s no romance in your life you’re not human,” a 22-year-old man recalls being told five years ago. Nonsense, says Aera in effect. “Humanity” is gradually proving a broader category than anyone could possibly have anticipated even as recently as Heisei 1. As the new era unfolds, we may discover that the broadening has barely begun.

Reincarnation can help. “If we can think of ourselves as having formerly been someone else,” Okado muses to Shukan Post, “won’t that encourage us to respect other races, other genders, other cultures?”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos,” is now on sale.