Joining the Chorus

by johnmccreery

I’ve decided to join a chorus. A simple statement of fact. There is, however, a story to be told.

My research on the social networks of members of teams whose award-winning ads appear in the Tokyo Copywriters Club Copy Annual led me to a series of books officially edited by a famous copywriter, Maki Jun. Most of the work of assembling and copy editing the books in question was done by Matsunaga Mitsuhiro. Someone at the ad agency where I once worked, connected me with Matsunaga. Matsunaga connected me with Maki Jun. Maki said that he would support my project, introducing me to people, that sort of thing. Then, however, a few months later he died.

At Maki’s wake, I discovered that advertising was only one of the worlds in which Maki had been a mover and shaker. He was also the driving force behind the Roppongi Men’s Chorus. While chatting with some of the members who attended the wake, I was asked if I would like to join the chorus. Then, however, nearly three months in the States keeping an eye on the grandkids intervened.

When we got back I sent emails to a couple of the chorus members I’d met. That is how, yesterday, I came to be an onlooker at at one of the group’s rehearsals and then, along with Ruth, participated in its Bonenkai, “Forget the Year Party.” At the rehearsal I rediscovered a feeling I had forgotten how much I had missed. In high school, I played trombone in a marching band, and the rush when a large group of people make music together is incredible. Sitting and singing along as the chorus practiced brought back just how good that feels.

But it wasn’t just the music; this is one of the most welcoming groups I have ever seen. Those who know the demographics might be surprised. The chorus is made up of men, who range in age from forty to eighty-plus. They are, as one of them put it, a group whose members were either born to money or made it for themselves. These are all successful men, artists, businessmen, even a few politicians. They are comfortable with themselves and each other, and, if the group has one strict rule,  it is that nobody gets to be erasou, “stuck-up and determined to show off how important they are.” Everyone takes direction from the director and section leaders, who are mostly younger than the chorus members but all professional musicians. There is a lot of casual banter, and the director has no qualms about  making good-humored fun of a member’s performance. When the singers’ get it right and their voices come together, the sound is amazing.

The central figure in the group is a composer named Saegusa, and some of the members grumble that the project on which he has embarked the group leaves them feeling down. Saegusa, who is fiercely anti-war in any form, is writing a series of 13 pieces called “Letters.” Each is based on the last letter from someone who died during World War II. Letter 1 was the last letter from a member of the French Resistance. Letter 2, the piece being practiced last night, was from a Japanese soldier in the South Pacific. Letter 3 is promised for early next year. Suffice it to say that neither the music nor the lyrics puts one into an “Ode to Joy” mood.

Another surprise, several wives besides Ruth turn up at the forget-the-year party. They are warmly welcomed and join in the fun. I take this as another sign of how comfortable with themselves the chorus’ members are.

I will have to learn to sing and to sing in Japanese. But the rush is there and the chance to become friends with some incredibly nice and interesting people is irresistible.

Come the new year, I will join the chorus.

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4 Comments to “Joining the Chorus”

  1. This seems awesome. Congratulations, John.

    Without (I hope) engaging in the erasou of analysis, it’s interesting to me to think about what’s wanted from leisure. I can see how it might be surprising for rich, distinguished people to blend with a group in their off hours, but maybe that’s what being ‘off’ from the daily grind of wealth and distinction feels like. Conversely, I’ve known many a ‘little’ man who used his leisure to seek individual glory, even if just by winning a local league tennis match at all costs. Of course my samples are mostly U.S.American and Italian, so I’m not sure how well my observations translate.

    I do know that as a professor my professional life feels like it’s dominated by forming opinions and making decisions, so when I’m off I fairly ache for someone else to take the lead; which surprises, confuses, delights or disappoints many people who expect me to be a professor 24/7.

  2. Thanks, Carl. If anyone was being erasou here it was me. Rereading what I wrote, I detect a strong undercurrent of the “F**k you, look what I’ve done” feeling that welled up when I made better grades than the jocks I detested in high school. Growing up fat, astigmatic and uncoordinated and building on a strongly Oedipal reaction to my dad (I was a classic “Mama’s boy”), I compensated by defining myself as superior to the assholes who got the girls while I got the grades and made All-State band. Pretty obnoxious stuff.

    That said, your remarks about leisure are intriguing. My Dad, who worked in a shipyard and devoted much of his free time to his church liked to go fishing. When I asked him why he like to go fishing so much, he said, “If I just told people that I was going out to stare at the water, they’d think I was crazy.” For me, joining the chorus will be, at least in part, an undone bit of growing up. I may, at last, at age 65, have a gang of male friends, something that has eluded me all my life.

    But, enough of me, turning back to the group: It may be important that the members of the chorus aren’t just distinguished and well-off men, at a point in their lives where they feel comfortable with themselves. They are Japanese, and Japanese society is famous for it’s time-out moments, when conventional hierarchies are suspended. After work drinking parties at which subordinates can get blasted and say to their bosses things that they would never say in other settings are one example. Traditional local festivals, where people dance in circles or the men (now young women, too) dress up in traditional costumes and parade the local god’s shrine around the neighborhood are another. Both are liberally lubricated with alcoholic beverages, the overriding principle being that what is said or done while under the influence doesn’t count against you in everyday life. It is, I believe, important for understanding these customs to realize that the hierarchies that govern everyday life are only suspended. They are back in full force the day after the party is over. The rule that what is said and done while drunk not only protects subordinates with something to say to their bosses. It also protects the hierarchy, since nothing said under the influence is allowed to constitute a challenge to it.

    In this respect, Japan is very different from China, where rivalry never stops and you have to be careful about letting yourself go.

  3. Oh look, you get to enjoy your successes and pleasures. No worries there. Maybe I captain my local tennis team for similar reasons, but playing together is fun and so is a beer after.

    I love that story about your Dad. I feel that way about a lot of things I ‘do’, that they’re really ways of looking busy while I go interior and recover from / recharge for obligatory sociability.

    I also love that the Japanese have built the pressure valve into their normal leisure. In Europe the carnival or ‘charivari’ was more visibly a special occasion, but still there’s an understanding that hierarchy is actually legitimized and strengthened by periodic ritual suspension or reversal. Historians struggle over this a bit, because it’s tempting to want to assign the baccanale to either heroic resistance or ruthless domination, when in fact it’s a much more subtle negotiation of the two. Is this Geertz’ ‘deep play’?

  4. That “understanding that hierarchy is actually legitimized and strengthened by periodic ritual suspension or reversal” is something I learned almost from the horse’s mouth, reading works by Max Gluckman assigned by Victor Turner. In the history of anthropological theory, it appears at a particular time and place, in the efforts of Gluckman and his students and colleagues who comprised the Manchester School to integrate Marx and structural-functionalism. Ritual was seen as a means of overcoming contradictions that might otherwise lead to revolutionary change. The psychology and notions of how symbols work were taken largely from Freud, especially The Interpretation of Dreams, with rites of reversal playing a role analogous to neurotic symptoms or dream imagery, allowing the acting out and release of pressures inherent in the contradictions of the society/person in question. This view of how societies and individuals work continues to inform my thinking. The shades of Marx and Freud may be enough to damn it in many eyes; but I know no better inspiration for serious insights into concrete situations, when rational choice is plainly insufficient.

    “Deep play” may be an example. Here, however, is another case in which the historian/ethnographer’s insistence on close attention to detail becomes, I believe, important. First, consider the cockfight itself, a bloody duel to the death between birds with whom, if Geertz is right, men identify with phallic intensity (cocks/cocks, the ethnographer’s double entendre is, says Geertz, deliberate). Then recall that Clifford and Hilda Geertz saw the cockfight in 1958. Less than an decade later,

    The 1963 eruption of Mount Agung killed thousands, created economic havoc and forced many displaced Balinese to be transmigrated to other parts of Indonesia. Mirroring the widening of social divisions across Indonesia in the 1950s and early 1960s, Bali saw conflict between supporters of the traditional caste system, and those rejecting these traditional values. Politically, this was represented by opposing supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), with tensions and ill-feeling further increased by the PKI’s land reform programs.[7] An attempted coup in Jakarta was put down by forces led by General Suharto. The army became the dominant power as it instigated a violent anti-communist purge, in which the army blamed the PKI for the coup. Most estimates suggest that at least 500,000 people were killed across Indonesia, with an estimated 80,000 killed in Bali, equivalent to 5% of the island’s population. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indonesian_killings_of_1965–66)

    Turning back, then, to the chorus. Thanks to this discussion, I now have several questions.

    Does the warmth and conviviality that makes the chorus so appealing conceal tensions, conflicts or contradictions that could tear the group apart? I have heard that there were fears that the chorus would fall apart after Maki Jun’s death and, as noted in the previous message there are some who grumble about Saegusa’s taste in music. Is anything else going on?

    Does it matter that, while both after-work drinking parties and local festivals involve suspensions or reversals among people who are stuck with each other for most of their everyday lives, the men in this group are neither classmates, neighbors, or lifetime employees of the same company? Their lives and interests may intersect outside the chorus; but on the face of it and based on the small sample of business cards collected so far, they are not members of another group in relation to which the chorus provides relief from the everyday pressures of group membership.

    To what extent, then, is this chorus a form of sociability both rooted in Japanese custom and habit and based on social relationships of a different character from those in the “classic/traditional” examples? How would recognizing the differences between the chorus and other examples in social infrastructure affect our interpretation of how the chorus operates?

    Lots to look at here.

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