A Conversation with Kazufumi Shiraishi

Me Against the World is essentially a personal journal. Why did you decide to use this unconventional format?

When I was writing, I really didn’t have any particular intention in mind, other than to write out my personal thoughts. So I just decided to create this character and call him K, which is the initial of my name, Kazufumi. Otherwise, normally, I would be writing simply in the first person, but by writing as K I felt I could express my own thoughts from a more removed, objective distance.


In the first few pages of the journal, we get the impression that the author, Mr. K, is a misanthrope. Yet, as we find out later, he thinks, and cares for deeply, about universal love. What do you think is the connection between his love and hate for humanity?

What I’m most concerned about is, you see, the fact that people in Japan, and in other countries like Japan, tend to talk indiscriminately about love all the time, bandying the word about so much. They tend to use this word in a terribly nebulous sense, and in a rather convenient fashion to suit their own ends. So, today, when people talk about fighting terrorism, they say it’s to protect their family, that it’s because they love their family, or that they love their country, and so on and so forth. Love, love, love! Well, that’s all well and good, but with everyone throwing the word around so much, that is, with the word having achieved so much circulation, it’s as if its currency has dropped in value, like the dollar depreciating in the throes of an inflationary economy. Frankly, I don’t think it even has any market value anymore; so much so that it’s gotten to the point, I feel, where we need to stop and think what this thing called love is in the first place; what it was originally all about! To that end, if you trace its origins all the way back, like going upstream a river, you find that the root of love, it’s fundamental cause, is death. And that’s what I wanted to say in this novel. In other words, if there is no death, there is no love. Human beings perish, without fail, within a brief passage of time, far briefer than, say, trees. Human existence involves consciousness, which fades away along with the body, before we disappear, in the end. And love is something that compensates for this ephemerality. If we don’t die, there is no love, no nothing; no family, no marriage, nada. In other words, if you think about what’s truly everlasting — well, everyone thinks that love is eternal, but what’s truly everlasting as an absolute truth, what forms the foundation of love, is our mortality, isn’t it? The act of dying itself? And that’s what I wanted to say. That’s also why Mr. K, when he thinks about love, is left with no choice but to think about death. He goes on to essentially ask the question, how is death regarded by people in general? The answer is lamentable. What we find entrenched all over the world is this doctrine that people don’t die. If you look at what religious scholars are saying in the field of comparative religions, you find that the one thing all sorts of religions, including the three major ones, have in common is that they are all, ultimately, in denial of death. They talk about the immortality of the soul, instead, you see. So, on the one hand there’s this belief that death is an illusion, but on the other hand, without death, how can we actually experience love? It’s because of death that life becomes precious; it’s because of death that we feel love and cherish. In other words, those fellows going on about how we don’t really die, how the soul goes on forever, also say, on the other hand, that that’s what love is. In effect, they’re saying that we secure immortality when love is at the foundation of our existence. Accepting this in a vague manner, we say to ourselves, oh, right, love is important; oh, right, even after death approaches we humans don’t really die; oh, and that’s what saves us. Death is our salvation. Well, that’s rubbish, if you ask me. And so that’s why this Mr. K has his doubts about such commonplace notions. When you ask the question, what is love, what’s at the heart of love? When you probe deeply for an answer to such a question, you arrive at the fact that love emerges from death; that we love precisely because life is truly a hair’s breadth away from oblivion. And if love is priceless, it’s because life is short; we try so desperately to wring some value out of it.


I believe this book will resonate with pensive, young people. In fact, the journalist in the beginning says he’d like Mr. K’s writings to be read by them?

Well, yes. In our time of youth, we muse over questions like why was I born, what’s my higher purpose, and how should I live the rest of my life, right? And there are no answers to be found. But the message I’m trying to get across is this: Just because you can’t find any answers, don’t copy down, verbatim, some makeshift answers that someone else wrote down.


While writing Me Against the World, did you have the youth audience in mind?

I simply aimed to write for the editor, Mr. Ishikawa, who was in charge of this book. He was the most original person I knew back then. This isn’t a novelistic novel at all, right? There really isn’t any particular story; it’s just, in the end, something like a confession.


It’s essayistic.

Yes, rather peculiar, don’t you think? I basically wrote this for Mr. Ishikawa, believing that if there was anyone who would find what I had to say interesting, it would be him. In fact, he appears in the story as Mr. I.


I was really touched by how the introduction alludes to the idea that melancholy is like a rite of passage in youth.

The thing about youth is, even though you’re aware of death’s inevitable approach, at that time, it seems so distant in the future. But I think people should, when they’re young, take time to imagine, a little more realistically, their own end.


Is Mr. K a composite of all the philosophers you champion? 

Well, I’ve read the works of most philosophers when I was young.  But the most talked about philosophies, like structuralism, escaped my comprehension. Even epistemology eluded me halfway through, so my readings have stopped in the vicinity of writers like Sartre, but I have read up on most philosophies, be it German philosophy or French philosophy or British and American philosophy. As to the question of which philosopher influenced me heavily, that would probably be Schopenhauer, I think. Of course, the other influence has been existentialism. Writers like Sartre and Camus were, of course, my personal favorites; so much so that I began reading Greek philosophers only after I finished my exploration of existentialism. But ultimately it wasn’t as if I re-read any works of philosophy before writing Me Against the World.


So it was all a spontaneous outburst, would you say?

Yes, well, what’s interesting about philosophical views is that you stir up those views with your personal life experiences, and keep doing so until only those that seep through the filter of your life experiences remain.


Are there any Japanese philosophers or schools of thought that influenced you in writing Me Against the World?

Well, certainly Buddhist philosophy. So, for example, Dogen and Shinran; works by Buddhist priests, you know. Also Tannisho. Such works, I believe, heavily influenced me. I find them tremendously interesting.


Toward the end of the book, there’s a section that discusses the power structures of the world, and some parts of it read like a political manifesto. Can you expand on this? What is your particular vision for how governments should govern? 

I don’t think there is any governmental structure, or political system, that can realize social welfare, in its purest sense. And I also believe that one day the idea itself of changing the world through politics or fulfilling some vision through politics will disappear. I think it’s pointless, for the most part, to have high expectations for politicians.


Would you say that politics is something that has to be transcended in the end?

It’s not about transcending really. Politics is a vital function in human society, providing a host of things like a social welfare system, a safety net, and improving security and maintaining peace and order and such. Politics, in effect, integrates all these functions. So essentially what it boils down to is that it’s a mechanism: a bureaucracy, plain and simple. The heyday of bureaucracy, though, happened when the earth was much bigger than it is today, back when nation states were in the business of procuring natural resources from faraway places to continue providing for its own people, and thereby secure their legitimacy to go on staying in power. This has been going on since the Greeks established the city state, the polis. But today, the world is a much smaller place in that there are far fewer frontiers to explore and exploit, and, as a result, it has become more challenging for those in power to keep providing for their own people, or help them achieve affluence. That capability, that original function of bureaucracy to help win absolute legitimacy to rule, is no longer there in this day and age.


So where do you think bureaucracy is headed? Could it ever give way to the emergence of a leaderless society?

What Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen bank, is doing is just that, don’t you think? Gandhi, too, had such a vision in mind, with his ideas about self-contained and self-reliant villages, numbering 9,000, or was it 5,000; each one a unit of a decentralized system. To such ends, again, bureaucracy is vital. And, taken to the next level, perhaps the time will come when one day politicians will cease to exist, with only bureaucrats serving as reminders of our political past. The problem with democracy, though, is that, while it’s qualified, for instance, to make promises of achieving economic prosperity, made possible, to a certain extent, by leveraging bureaucracy, it has problems of addressing spiritual concerns. In this age of secularism, when the modern nation state is characterized by the separation of church and state, those concerns are all relegated to religion and its leaders, right? In other words, secularism poses a challenge for truly formidable leaders, with a universal appeal, to emerge; leaders that can appeal on a political/functional level as well as on a spiritual level, in the vein of, say, Louis the XIV or the emperor of Japan formerly; two leaders whose power rested on their claims of divine lineage. Perhaps that’s why theocratic leaders, like those hell-bent on forming a caliphate in the Middle East, still can garner such sizable followings, even in this day and age. However, today, religion is compromised too. If you take a look at that situation where that woman refused to approve a same-sex marriage in the US by signing her name to authorize a marriage license, on the grounds of her religion, you can see that religion is being taken advantage of. But there’s no going back from the separation of church and state in the modern world. So the challenge becomes, in effect, the question of, again, bureaucracy. How should it develop hereafter? How should it evolve to facilitate the emergence of leaders who are both politically and spiritually in sync? That, I believe, is the number one theme for the future of politics. Without somehow integrating politics and spirituality, politicians will always remain, relatively speaking, woefully ineffective.


In your discussion of immortality in the book, it seemed to me that you were talking as much about immortality as you were about the importance of forgetting.

I think it’s meaningless to live for a thousand years or beyond, with the kind of body we’re equipped with. One key aspect of our bodies is the chromosomes, right? In other words, our bodies are designed to reproduce for the survival of the species, not the individual. To that end, culture, at its core, is shaped by the reproductive act, which ensures the passing down of chromosomes, and civilizations, as such, are by and large characterized by sexual interests, proclivities and tastes. But because of our physical limitations, because the telomere’s capacity to duplicate has its limits, if we wish to prolong our lives we have to replace our physical bodies. Now we’re entering cybernetics territory; the stuff of Hollywood. You know, cyborgs, robots; Terminator territory. And in that sense I believe it’s possible to go on living forever. But then, what for? What matters is whether there’s any need, a sense of inevitability, even.


When you talk about this need, this sense of inevitability, you’re talking about meaning?

Yes, absolutely.


Me Against the World also skewers warmongers. Why do you think we still have wars?  

We humans are repulsed by war at an instinctual level, especially when a dead child becomes a cause célèbre, as we saw recently when the news exposed the corpse of that poor Syrian boy washed out on the beach. The sight is unbearable. But the reason why it’s unbearable stems not from any noble principle. It’s an innate, gut reaction. Obviously, because the death of a child impinges on propagation. But if our repulsion to war stops at the level of basal instinct, I’m afraid wars will never cease. Ninety percent of the world’s children will have to die first before such a thing can happen. What I’m saying is, feeling sad and sorry for the loss of a child is because such a loss pierces through the most primitive part of our mind. But despite experiencing aversion at such an instinctual, primordial level, despite our bodies being embedded with such a powerful emotion, our rationality kicks in and overturns this emotion — this primordial repulsion. And that’s why wars continue to rage. So, in the end, that strong emotion is nothing more than a transient phenomenon. What are we to do then? How can we make wars disappear, once and for all? The only answer, obviously, is to change human consciousness. And by this I don’t at all mean promoting such notions like “let’s remember we’re living things” or “let’s return to nature” or some such thing (laughs). We human beings are in need of acquiring a new type of knowledge; one that helps us understand, in sum, what our true origins are and how we are allowed to go on existing in this world. To that end, it’s been said that the development of yoga and meditation in India and its flourishing around the world has been salient. But we need to go even further. We need to keep looking for that key that could transform our consciousness. To that end, I think we can turn to our faith in language; you know, words. I believe it remains, to this day, the most effective means toward achieving a pivotal transformation. We’ve been coming up with all sorts of inventions, and I think some day there will be a breakthrough in language. Some new concept we can leverage.


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