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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Queen Is Coming! The Queen Is Coming!

I know, I know. We fought the American Revolution to get rid of the monarchy. But I can still get excited about Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Manhattan later today, can't I?

Things weren't always this good between me and the queen. I lived in Britain while Princess Diana was still alive, which wasn't the queen's finest hour. Indeed, the way I felt about the queen then was akin to how I later came to feel about Dick Cheney. No, she wasn't the British answer to Darth Vader, but I detected she was a control freak, who liked to pull strings from behind the scenes. Later, when the nation turned against her in the wake of Diana's death — a moment captured so well by Stephen Frears in his film, The Queen  — I wasn't at all surprised. Caught off guard, she had shown her true colors, and there would be no more Trooping the Colour by her guardsmen.

Well, more fool me. Your Majesty, you easily weathered that storm. Not only did you win back the affections of many of you subjects but you've won me over.

To what do I owe this volte-face? I think it dates from the period when I lived in Japan, another small island nation with a monarchy.

Living in Japan taught me:

1) The value of stoicism.
By that I don't mean stiff upper lip, which in my experience can come across as emotionally cold, dismissive, and snarky. Rather, I mean gaman — the Japanese word for people who display forbearance and poise in the face of adverse circumstances beyond their control. Now that's a quality I can admire, and even the most ardent anti-monarchist must concede that Elizabeth II has it in spades hearts. As a New York Times put it in an article announcing her impending arrival in the Big Apple:
Although the queen arrives in the summer’s worst heat wave, she is not the wilting kind. The dark hair has gone white and the shoulders are a bit rounded with age now, but her step is still lively and the face engaged on a reception line or at a garden party as she shakes another hundred hands and speaks with simple dignity.
2) Respect for the aged.
Japanese have an expression for talented older people: Living National Treasures. It's a meme we Westerners would do well to adopt — the idea that people who have made an art of what they do over time can't easily be replaced and so should be celebrated while they're still alive. Still going strong at 84, the queen has perfected the art of meeting-and-greeting and making small talk, in a way that may never be surpassed.

If I were to write a play about the queen, I might put her on stage with the 77-year-old comedienne Joan Rivers, who, too, merits Living National Treasure status. Both Rivers and the British monarch are experiencing career revivals after having had many an annus horribilis and being subject to popular misconceptions, such as the idea that they are mean spirited and heartless. (Rivers won Celebrity Apprentice last year, and now there is a film out about her life.)

But there is also a sense in which they could be each other's alter egos. According to Jonathan Van Meter, who wrote a profile of Rivers for New York Magazine, Rivers lives in a style fit for a queen, replete with live-in butler and stiff dinner parties with finger bowls. By the same token, I have this hunch that the queen would relish being Rivers for a day, telling people to their faces she's ambivalent about feminism and detests whining and victimhood and laziness.

(Ultimately, however, the queen has the edge on Rivers as far as national treasures go: her face is etched with the patina of age, a mark of far superior value.)

3) An appreciation for the fact that Britain doesn't have an Imperial Household Agency.
I was living in Tokyo when Crown Prince Naruhito married Masako Owada. I vividly recall many people expressing their concern about how this brilliant young woman would fare at the hands of the Imperial Household Agency, the government agency in charge of state matters concerning Japan's imperial family. A stickler for protocol, the agency had bullied Masako-san's mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, into having a nervous breakdown when she first entered the palace. Michiko-san lost the ability to speak for several months and hasn't been the same since. But maybe Masako-san, the popular thinking went, was more of her own person and could resist the brow-beating?

Well, around eight years ago, Masako-san largely disappeared from the public eye, reportedly due to emotional disorders caused by pressures to produce a male heir and adjust to life in the Imperial Family. Ben Hills is an Australian journalist who has published a book about the princess's plight. He reports she has been suffering from shingles and deep depression and calls her a "prisoner" of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Compared to what is going on in Japan, life in Britain's Royal Family seems positively touchy feely.  (That Kate should count her blessings!)

Queen Elizabeth's great-great-great grandmother Queen Victoria is a kind of patron saint to those of us who are inclined to chase after elephants. She got through her long reign by dint of her vibrant personality and wicked sense of humor — much more our style! That said, if all goes well Elizabeth will soon match her famous ancestor as the only other monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne. Long live the queen! 

Question: Does my change of heart make sense, or have I gone completely bonkers?


Peter said...

I was chatting this morning to someone in the office who lives beside Hanover Square, in lower Manhattan. Saturday morning, three huge trucks pull up outside the little park in the square, he says. Out come the existing park railings, suddenly replaced by new ones with shiny gold tops. Out come the shrubs, to be replaced by new updated trees. The gates are replaced too. Off go the trucks. Turns out the Queen is visiting a memorial to British citizens lost in 9/11 today, which sits in Hanover Square.

So my perspective is, whatever we think about the Queen in theory, people seem to go out of their way to try to impress her - even in New York. Why is that, I wonder. There's an old joke which says the Queen must think the entire world smells of fresh paint.
At least she probably won't get hit by a power cut here, as happened her at a dinner in Toronto the other day.

Anonymous said...

Interesting juxtaposition between traditional English values and Japanese. The Japanese themselves love to compare themselves to the Brits. (Although I doubt the reverse is true.)

I recently read a novel that takes place during the Battle of England, during which Londoners by and large 'got on with it' in spite of being bombed every night and never knowing in the morning when they departed their Underground sanctuaries if their homes and shops would still be standing or a pile of smoking rubble. Admirable.

This "stiff upper lip" ("SUL") attitude seems to me to be a bit different from "gaman." "Gaman" is more about "suffering in silence," while SUL seems to be choosing to live as normally and positively as one can in the face of adversity. (I have never lived in England, so I defer to your experience.) Whereas a "gaman"-ing Japanese might think, "parts of my life suck, but I must just bear them," it seems to me that the SUL Brit is saying, "I won't let the Jerries spoil our picnic! What's a few bombs on a sunny day?!"

In Japan there are times of course when "gaman" is the only appropriate response, as anyone who has experienced being the last person squeezed into a Tokyo commuter subway car knows. You just hang in there till you reach your stop and life re-continues. "Gaman" is the attitude one dons when going to the dentist.

But "gaman" by its nature should be a temporary thing. A coping mechanism -- a clamp on the valve until the pressure can be safely released.

The pressure was not allowed to be released for the Japanese princesses, and the resulting breakdowns are no surprise to anyone who has seen the repressed Imperial family. (You might ask why the women break down and not the men. My guess would be the women, who are expected to represent traditional Japanese female virtue, are simply held to a higher standard. At least the guys can get drunk....)

The Brit Royal Family in contrast has safety valves. Sure, there are the uncomfortable uniforms and morning suits, silly protocols, SUL moments during national tragedies, etc., but then they let her rip. Prince Charles all stiff and proper one moment, bedecked in four pounds of medals and Royal Clusters, and talking trash to his lover on the phone the next.

As for 'have I gone bonkers?' Well, you have nurtured your bonkers well over the years. :-) All seriousness aside, I suspect you may actually identify with the Queen. Just a bit. Scary, isn’t it?

ML Awanohara said...

Thank you for encouraging me to parse what exactly I mean by "SUL" and "gaman." Both are terms we Seen the Elephant types tend to bandy around, without necessarily picking up on all the connotations.

I think you are right in noting that SUL is often coupled with black humor and understatement. The example you've provided certainly rings true: "I won't let the Jerries spoil our picnic! What's a few bombs on a sunny day?!"

Here are a couple of more examples (someone should really collect them, perhaps they already have?):
* At the Battle of Waterloo Lord Fordyce of Crote had the misfortune to be struck by a cannon ball that severed his left leg below the knee. He turned to the Duke of Wellington and said “Gad Sir! My leg’s off. That’s going to make it damn tricky to play cricket.”
*Trapped beneath the peak of K2 by a four-day blizzard Sir Hugh Bermondsey recorded in his diary “Still chilly out. Cursed bad luck we forgot to bring that extra 6 ounces of tea. Leg fell off from frostbite this morning.”

Now I have nothing against the use of a SUL in situations where you might otherwise be overwhelmed by huge feelings and humor can provide some relief. It's a marvelous coping strategy not to mention a key element of British cool. (For an exhaustive explanation of SUL and British cool, see this post by Jamie Stokes, a Brit who lives in Poland and has mastered the art of humorous blogging.)

Where I do part company with SUL is when it becomes a way of repressing one's emotions and failing to reach out to other people in need. If you've ever been to a British funeral, you'll know what I mean. Instead of comforting the family in mourning, people walk about with hushed whispers. It can make things even more painful...

SUL can also have a snarky edge to it. Brits excel at putting on a cold, superior demeanor and telling people to "snap out of it, pull yourself together, get a grip, buck up" and generally making it clear they don't suffer wimps gladly. It depends on the situation of course, but generally speaking, I don't approve of pressuring other people to suffer in silence...

This is in sharp contrast to Japanese gaman, or at least my reading of it. For me, gaman is akin to the famous British ability to keep going in the face of adversity. In Japan's case, that could be something as mundane as the daily commute or something as major as having to rebuild after WWII. (Perhaps it's an earlier meaning of SUL I'm talking about? Not sure...)

Obviously, Queen Elizabeth hasn't got the gaman/SUL for surviving crowded Japanese subways. As Peter says, it's possible she thinks the entire world smells of fresh paint...

But she does have the spirit and the fortitude to carry on in the face of adversity, which is how she got through the debacle following Diana's death. It's probably also why she didn't cancel her visit to NYC today, as less hardy souls might have done...especially octogenarians. It's bleedin' hot here!

awindram said...

Funnily enough, we do actually call certain veteran performers or personalities "National Treasures". David Attenborough is often referred to as one, as is Bruce Forsyth.

While there does seem to be interesting similarities between ourselves and Japan, I think one of the key differences is we don't share their Francophilia.

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks for the link to the article on Britain's "national treasures." In Japan, it would only be the Golden Oldies who would make it onto that list--you wouldn't see the likes of Kate Winslet or Andy Murray being nominated until they were at least 70, and that's if they had practiced and perfected their crafts by then (unlikely in Murray's case).

I also found curious the following graph:
"People want to hug treasures. They have huge likeability, which transcends their star status, success, age, class and intellectual barriers. Often, they need to have 'come through' adversity and clawed their way back from the brink."

I'm not a Japan expert per se--as this blog says, I traveled there merely to see the elephant--but I'm almost certain that huggability wouldn't be a criterion for national treasure status in Japan (which incidentally would almost certainly disqualify the queen). Rather, this status is conferred on people who have mastered the traditional arts, and it's further implied that these arts might have died out without their help.

My sense is, the queen fits this definition to a tee. She is a master at what she does and has kept certain traditions alive. Of course, we could debate about what exactly she does, and whether those traditions are worth keeping alive--but that would require another blog post.

To sum up, while the queen hardly needs another title, I for one would be happy to start the movement to grant her the informal title of Living (Inter)National Treasure. My sense is, "international" would be more apt in recognition of the fact that a significant portion of her work is performed on the world stage.

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. on the Francophilia: No, England and Japan don't share the Francophilia but they do have in common the fact that each is an island with a complicated relationship with a close neighbor on a nearby continent. In Japan's case that would be Korea...

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. to Anonymous: You mentioned that I might identify with the Queen. I hope you didn't mean in terms of age. Perhaps you meant you could see me having thoughts like this:
* "Every time I decide to take a holiday, someone declares a war somewhere or there is some distressing natural disaster..."
* "I am surrounded by idiots, most of whom are too dense to realize it, and yet I must shake their limp, sweaty hands and offer them tea... But they have yet to figure out how to undo a sunny day, and besides it is all rather humorous in a cosmically ironic sort of way..."

LOL. Am I really that transparent? You're right, that's pretty scary.

Anonymous said...

It is very hot indeed! I just went out and my car's thermometer read, "107." Fortunately, that is in Fahrenheit. Still....

Gaman (我慢) is a great word and used a lot in Japan, as you say, generally as "don't complain." The Japanese might also refer to the positive quality of character you mentioned - persevering - as nintai-ryoku (忍耐力). Going about their lives in the face of the Blitz, they might translate as makenu: e.g., Rondon shimin ha kuushuu ni makezu (ロンドン市民は空襲に負けず。。。) "makenu" = "to not give in to..."

I would love to see the Queen on the subway!!! ("Oooo, pardon me, but I do believe you are stepping on my foot.") Somehow, I think she would promptly state, "We are not pleased!" and have her Royal Marines clear the car. Victoria's extended family and offspring are responsible for several bloody wars over bad manners. ("Shooting the Duke was rather bad form. Conscript my subjects!") And we (American colonists and the French Army that won most of the battles for us) did not boot out the Brits just because of a 3% VAT on tea. We got VERY tired of the pretense that class = culture, and breeding = ability.

As a model for a commemorative figurine, Queen E is fine; beyond that, I do not see her vast wealth and prestige sufficiently justified by any meaningful positive contribution to the human condition. At least Bill Gates gave us Windows (which often works)....

Party pooper. I know.

awindram said...

I don't agree with the choices in that article. Stpehen Fry is already at the level of national treaure. I think the article is suggesting that Murray and Winslet may eventually become national treasures. Not convinced in Murray's case. Even if he was charismatic and charming, sportsmen rarely seem to become national treaures as it's likeability rather than achievement which Murray doesn't have. Bobby Robson was probably the last sports-based person I'd class as a national treasure.

I think in the UK sense, national treaure usually equates to "I'd love to have this person as my Uncle/Aunt." Which seems to fit in with the huggability. So interestingly they'd seem not to fit the idea of stoic stiff upper lip. It's usually someone who has been constant in the public eye for a generation or two. The sort of older celeb who spends their retirement being witty on talk shows but who can be self-deprecating about it.

The Japan / Britain comparisons are very interesting. Have you written any posts on that? If not, you should. In my very limited three week experience of Japan last year, it struck me that Japan seemed to be how Britain used to be. Their society seemed more deferential. While difficult to articulate what I mean, and aware that my experience is based merely on tourist observations and tourist ignorance so obviously I'm not breaking the surface of the society's habits and mores, but it appeared to be a far more deferential society. Fairly straight-laced and polite, but very much keeping an emotional distant. It kept reminding me not of the Britian of now, or the Britain I grew up with, but rather a distant idea of Britain that I'm not entirely sure ever actually existed in reality (I contend we have a long tradition of loutishness) - the Britain depicted in Noel Coward plays and films. A Britain of observing deference and social mores that seem baffling to the outsider.

ML Awanohara said...

Anthony, I think you've hit the nail soundly on the head in suggesting that Japan could be Britain of some years ago. That's exactly where I think I was going with this blog post. I started off my travels in Britain, where I came to dislike Stiff Upper Lip. That was the era of Princess Diana and her attempts to crack open British reserve and make it okay for people to express their emotions.

Being an American, I was temperamentally suited to Diana's campaign. I completely bought into her villainization of the Royal Family--which is why I didn't like the queen.

But then something interesting happened. I went to Japan and in Japan I discovered gaman, which I think took me closer to what British people meant when they used the expression "stiff upper lip" in the 1940s and 1950s. It's the message in the classic British wartime poster: "Keep Calm and Carry On" (the "keep calm" part being superfluous).

Another aspect of gaman is politeness, and this, too, dovetails with what Britain was probably like during and just after the war. The idea is that you wouldn't want to burden others or upset them by pouring out your emotions.

As I will probably demonstrate again in this blog (thanks for your words of encouragement!), this lens I got from living in Japan--we all know the Japanese make the best lenses!--has colored some of my impressions of Britain.

Though I of course knew that the queen was of the generation who believes in not letting your upper lip quiver like a blancmange (as the last Mitford sister apparently put it in the March issue of Tatler), I didn't really understand why that was a good thing until I was immersed in a culture that took this sort of trait seriously. I suppose it was like stepping into a time warp?

Also, as the queen has aged, I find that I have started seeing her through the filter of a Living National Treasure as the Japanese define it: i.e., a person to be treasured because she has mastered, and is keeping alive, traditions that might otherwise die out. She is a link to past generations that is worth preserving in my view (though not in the view of our anonymous commentator!).

ML Awanohara said...

One last note on "Living National Treasures": As mentioned in my post, I had been thinking about the comedienne Joan Rivers in this light some weeks before I knew the queen was coming to town. I never used to like Rivers before, and had largely ignored her for years except at Oscar time (and then, I noted with some satisfaction, she'd been relegated to the TV Guide channel). But ever since this year's Oscars, when she was back on E!, I've been giving her a second look, helped along by the media attention she's been receiving for her Celebrity Apprentice win, the documentary that was just released on her life, and her new TV Land reality series. (She is having a moment...)

Even now, I don't like her in the sense of wanting to hug her and call her my new best friend, but I do like watching her. I find her refreshingly funny. As Jonathan Van Meter says in his New York Magazine profile, she continues to have a "radically modern presence"--no mean achievement at 77.

To sum up, here is the rundown of my criteria for Living (Inter)national Treasure, and why I would nominate both Rivers and Queen Elizabeth II as candidates:

1) She* has been in the public eye for a long time.
2) She has had her ups and downs as far as popularity goes. Or, as Heidi Klum might put it: One day she was in, the next day she was out.
3) She has suffered huge personal losses. (Rivers' husband committed suicide, and she had a falling out with the TV networks in the 1980s that almost led to the end of her career.)
4) She has been subject to popular misconceptions over the years. (As explained in my post, both women have been criticized for being mean spirited and heartless.)
5) She has carried on practicing her craft despite these setbacks. (While the queen doesn't practice a craft in the traditional sense, I think she's turned meeting and greeting into an art.)
6) There has been some kind of turning point, which leads to a career revival. Usually the person is fairly old by the time this happens--so has earned our respect for endurance power and for the link they provide to our collective past. But it's not just that, there is also the discovery that her work is still relevant, perhaps more so than ever, and that she belongs in the center, not the periphery, of our culture. (I think Rivers represents the era when it was okay to laugh at politically incorrect jokes. As she told a reporter when her film screened at Sundance, "I would have been laughing at Auschwitz.”)
* Living National Treasures do not have to be women of a certain age, but I think they very often are (women live longer and have greater powers of endurance!).

I'm aware that a raunchy, notoriously uncensored comedy icon who is also a plastic surgery freak makes an improbable pairing with Elizabeth Windsor, who epitomizes English reserve, wears sensible suits and shoes, and has allowed herself to age gracefully. But the two also have some surprising similarities. We learn from Van Meter's profile that Rivers chooses to live like a queen, and though we don't know Queen Elizabeth's true opinions, from some of the gaffes her husband has made, it's easy to imagine she has views that align with those Rivers possesses--in Van Meter's words:
Ambivalent about feminism. Detests whining and victimhood and laziness. Hated Precious. "I got very annoyed," [Rivers] says. "I thought, Oh, get a job! Stand up and get a job!"

Joy Richards said...

So glad to hear that dear Liz had a good trip to New York or just 'York' as she prefers to call it. I know for a fact that she really can't be doing with all these modern nonsenses.It did cause a few confusions as Phil (who is a little, well, befuddled these days) kept asking for a trip to the Railway Museum and the Castle Museum. It is a good job his butler was on hand to adjust the time on his watch else he would not have been able to ask for afternoon tea on time. In these hard times we Brits are having to make some economies and it would seem that some of the minor royals will no longer be getting spending money from us poor tax payers. I am unsure as to whom the phrase 'Minor Royals' refers. Is it very small royal personages - the Corgis perhaps? Or perhaps royals who don't have their own crowns but have to go and hire one for special occasions? Anyway, a darn shame I think. I don't think most people have any idea how exhausting it is going to banquets with foreign dignitaries and opening events, hospitals etc., not to mention the Royal Variety Performance (exhausting for anyone to sit through). Shaking hands with regal authority is a little recognised skill. Well I hope you enjoyed their visit. I do hope Phil didn't embarrass himself with Obama. He does tend to make racist remarks - that's Phil, not the gorgeous Barak of course.

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks, Joy! I was pretty sure I had gone bonkers, so your reality check is much appreciated. You should note though that it wasn't my purpose to address the question of whether or not Britain really needs the Queen let alone all of its minor royals. Rather, I was taking her (and their) existence as a given.

Another trait that comes from living in Japan for too long is a tendency to say shoganai, which is how I feel about Britain's (or for that matter, any) Royal Family at this stage of my life. Shoganai is a variant of gaman, as described above.

As Barry Eisler, who worked in Tokyo for many years and went on to write several best-selling thrillers, explains, shoganai is the equivalent of "nothing can be done" or "c'est la vie"--except that whereas Western expressions stress one's external circumstances, shoganai focuses on the inability of the actor to change his or her circumstances. "The person is restrained, but the restraint has an element of self-imposition, indeed, arguably, of learned helplessness," Eisler says.

Well, I've reached the point of "learned helplessness" when it comes to engaging in arguments for or against monarchy. So resigned am I to their existence that I've even allowed myself to think: since we're stuck with the queen, we may as well enjoy her. Indeed, as I've tried to show in this post, she's not half bad!

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