• Posted:

    29 November, 2013

I turned 50 two weeks ago. Time to make new promises. And one of the promises I made myself was: no more mistakes! The next day, of course I made a terrible mistake: I went to buy shoes and, finding them a size too small, I bought them anyway because I believed what the salesperson told me: that the shoes would eventually fit. They didn’t.

Here’s a piece of advice: trust your feet, not the shoe seller.

I made that mistake because I forgot the obvious. My head may still be a mistery to me (as all human heads are, especially to their owners). But my feet I should know—and I should listen to my feet. Within the years, I’ve been more and more believing that listening is the main key to every kind of human interaction1.

And how can I be expected to listen to others — especially strangers or foreigners — when I forget to listen to my own feet?


Anyway. Because my country is now in bad economical shape, nearly as bad as Greece, I resisted 10 days before buying another pair of shoes. I have a new pair now. My feet still hurt, but I know better than to blame my recently arrived shoes. Unfortunately that’s what unwise people do when in a crisis: they blame others. They shut themselves in, and blame others. Immigrants, for instance, are an easy target in troubled times.

Sometimes one just doesn’t learn the lesson.


I would love to see American and European leaders learn the Japanese way for CEO’s or political leaders who did wrong to apologize with a long bow. We don’t bow, so I guess to utter the words “I’m sorry” would be close enough. Some cynical observers say it is just a gesture. Most of the times it doesn’t amount to much—the wrong is done; but I say: it amounts to something. I would like some American and European and Portuguese CEO’s to say “I’m sorry”. Unfortunately, in the West we have a long time tradition that mistakes are always done by the others, not me.


Maybe you know the joke: a man is driving his car in the speedway and the radio says: “Attention! Attention! There’s a crazy man driving in the wrong direction on the speedway!” And he mutters: “One? There’s hundreds of them!”


These days, Europe is in turmoil. The idealistic concept of a political union between former foes is being damaged by the arise of nationalism. Proud nationalism on the side of those who are having a good economical moment, angry nationalism on the side of those who have their feelings and their quality of life hurt. Both of them are not very rational.

I must now say I’m a bit upset with the levity with which, a few years ago, a coined term coined in the Anglo world became of “natural” and common use. I’m referring to the sad acronym PIGS, built after the initials of four (lately five) countries: P from Portugal, I from Ireland, G from Greece and S from Spain. And the result is: PIGS. I quote the BBC News:

PIGS is a horrible acronym. But this is how the financial markets refer to the troubled and heavily-indebted countries of Europe – Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain.
(Some analysts use PIIGS to include Italy – Europe’s longstanding biggest debtor.)
Just how bad a situation are the PIGS in, and how does that compare with the UK?2

Needless to say, it has been adopted by journalist and, as far as I know, by government officials in the EU. How can it be? How short can these people’s memory be? Don’t they know that reality is created also through words? And that one of the steps in the ugliest wars is to—through basic propaganda– take away from our foes their humanity? Turning them into animals?

The paradox is even greater when we see the markets gaining humanlike qualities (they’re “sensitive”) at the same time that countries and people become “pigs”, “junk”…3

They’re playing with fire. Reckless teenagers playing with fire. Deaf.


Sometimes people say with contempt “Oh, those are just words”. Well, words can do wonders. They can instigate hate, they can command horror, they can move you, make you smile, make you get a point–and they can also heal. Or help us to deal with the reality. Talking-about is better than not talking-about. And with survivors of terrible experiences sometimes the main task—besides saving them and helping them in pratical matters—is to make them talk. And to listen to them.


I should clear a bit my point. I truly believe words can do wonders. That, when in crisis, when tragedy or grief or shock strickens, words can help the healing process. But we intellectuals tend to confuse words with us talking—i.e., lecturing. When sometimes the healing power relies in listening—listening to those in need, or in trouble.

In terrible events like those in the Tohoku region in March, it appears that volunteers and foreign help had great importance. Solidarity was crucial, not only for pratical matters, but also as a statement: We’re with you. You’re not alone. There are many forms of being nice to others—and listening is one of them.


A volunteer is a citizen who decides to give a part of his/her precious time to the benefit of others. Something you usually only do for your family.

Now, cynics love to say that “Hell is full of good intentions”. They are right. It does happen. But what these cynics tend to forget is that hell is full of bad intentions even more. If you listen to these guys for a while you end up believing that the really right thing to do is to do nothing, because “anyway it would never amount to nothing”, “caring for other doesn’t pay”, “eventually they will even turn on us”, and so on.

Wrong. To care for others is better than not to care for other. To be helpful to others when in trouble is better than the opposite. To embrace foreigners and take them home with us is better, even at a certain risk, than to shut them out. And no, it is not “natural” for communities to suspect outsiders. It is an atavism. It is cultural, as everything human is. Which means it can be changed.

(I would say maybe 15% to 35% of good intentions go wrong. But 90% to 100% of bad intentions really go wrong. There’s a big difference.)


Not all Non Governamental Organizations (NGO’s) are good just because they are NGO’s. Being a non-profit organization is not proof of saintity.

My good Japanese friend Keichii decided on his own to be a volunteer in the Tohoko affected area. To go there and try to help. That’s how you become a volunteer. And Keichii, who also has another name, became through the internet and now in person, my main contact with some survivors. I’m grateful to him for that.

By the way, he told me that, when some religious types came to visit their camp, the refugees avoided them. I’m glad they did so. From a coldblooded business point of view, it may be sound policy to try to bring religion to people in grief. But it’s not too polite, or friendly, or noble. Grief and loss give the occasion to help—to listen—not the best timing to market our Gods.


Yes, not all NGO’s are good. (The same way not all politicians are “bad”.) And good intentions sometimes lead to disaster, yes.

Yet, nowadays it is widely accepted that NGO’s are needed, as well as concerned citizens. Not to compete with governments and enterprises, but to complete them.


Fully understanding what being a citizen means and belief in the common good are needed. Volunteers can be clumsy, but they can also “make a difference”. My friend Keichii most recent task was to teach Portuguese to a community from around Fukushima that has been lodged in Tokyo until a few days ago.

I asked him: “Why teach them Portuguese? What’s the point?”

His answer was plain: “They have not much more to do but linger around. So, it helps them pass the time.”

I made a wild guess: “Mostly old people, right?” He said yes. Some of them saw children being washed away from a rooftop. And they kept asking across the weeks: “Why them? Why not me, that am old and had a life?”

My friend Keichii didn’t answer. What could he answer? He just listened. He just sat there and listened. And then gave them language courses.

This decent people, I believe, though I’m no specialist, have survivor’s guilt. Most of what Keichii does is listen to them. And teach them a language they won’t very likely be able or interested to use. Unless they befriend some Brazilian. There are lots of Brazilians in Japan, you know.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Natsuo Kirino’s Out is one of the first Japanese novels to deal earnestly with the Dekassegui situation: the return to Japan of Japanese descendants who din’t speak Japanese.

The irony, as it usually happens with immigrants, is that in Brazil they were “the Japanese”; and here they became “the Brazilian”.

I would look forward for Japanese fiction writers to put more Brazilian Japanese in their tales, written or TV made. Like, in soap operas. Even if sometimes they are really trashy, Soap operas can do good too. Soap operas helped a lot of Portuguese divorced middle-age women a lot across get some solace for their sorrows and loneliness.


Being Japanese, Keichii went to see where he could help. And went to the first refugee camps. Then he found out that there was also a refugee camp for foreigners, much larger than he would expect.

And so it happens Keichii is not only Japanese. He is a Japanese, yes, but a Japanese born in Brasil. By the way, there is a Brazilian Japanese in Natsuo Kirino’s Out. There are not many, as far as I know, in current Japanese literature. I long for more dekassegui in stories, even in TV soap operas. These sons of Japanese who see themselves as Japanese in Brazil and Peru, but come back and have trouble fitting in.


Keichii, whom I also know by his “Brazilian name”, Oscar, found out that he was most needed in this refugee camp of foreigners living in the Tohoku region, full of Sri Lanki, Dutch, Australians, Brazilians, and so on.

A Japanese that spoke great English and Portuguese (and even another couple languages) was most welcome. And Keichii/Oscar told me: one of the things that surprised him was how many of these foreigners didn’t want to leave. He listened to them. Eventually he asked: “Why? Why don’t you want to leave?”

And here’s the answer these foreign refugees gave: “Because our friends are here. What kind of people are we if we abandon our friends?”

The same story was told to me a couple of days ago here in Tokyo, in a bar nearby Omote-Sando, by these two Portuguese girls Anabela and Paula who leave here—one of them married to a Japanese, the other to an Australian. (I myself am married to a French woman—my God, what does this tell about us people?)

Anyway: people would approach them with sort of a puzzled look. “Why didn’t you leave, like most foreigners did?” Tough question. What can you answer? One of them eventually found the best she could, by saying, with a smiling shrug: “Tomodachi.”


Every day is the end of the world for someone. It is a blunt fact. Everyday someone’s world crumbles and comes to an end. It’s a private fall, that strikes mostly individuals and their families—community spirit can be a balm, yes, but within strict limits.

Two monthes ago I went to the funeral of a good friend, Bela, who died at 46. She was survived by her parents, always the worst thing possible. Somehow, I did what I picture Keichii/Oscar did while being a voluntary dealing every week with this torn community form the Tohoku region: I sat and listened to Bela’s parents, and I let them talk, sometimes cry. And ocasionally I told a joke, because humour can be a great tool when in despair. My job was simple: to sit with Bela’s parents, to listen to them, to empathise, to tell the occasional dirty joke. Will their pain and void be healed? Never—never completely. But I helped them pass the time a bit, and did so in the critical point of the mourning.


I could not do anything for my longtime friend who died. But I honored her memory by attending to her parents. I played family.

It is a good word, family. Too good a word to be used only for blood kin. Remember, we are cultural beings. We can decide. When a family is alive, it is constantly moving. Sometimes our new neighbor may act more like family than a blood relative.


Suspicion comes out of fear. Now, I don’t dislike fear entirely. Fear can be useful. In certain situations, fear is a great surviving tool. The same could be said for pain. They’re both good warning devices.

Problem is, fear can also be a very negative force. Pushing us eventually to close to lethargy. Fear can stop a whole economy, fear can ruin a lot of lifes. It’s everytyhing but comfortable to live in fear. But when you are used to live in fear, you might become convinced that’s the way to be. It is not.

Closed communities may tend to fear strangers out a past bad experience. It is a fact, outsiders can be mean. The same way drunken drivers exist, or hidden predators. Or sharks in the ocean. So what?

As most trivial stories explain, the wolf is not always in the forest, where we’re afraid to go. Sometimes the wolf is in our home from the very beginning. I know that from experience: my worst enemy is not the other, my worst enemy is me. We close ourselves to outsiders without being aware that we are not bulding a castle wall, we’re building a prison.

Fear may sometimes be an acceptable adviser, but is always a bad master.


The first time we picture a stranger we stereotype him/her. I tis not our fault. It is this little boxing machine you have. Most of the times, it’s pratical, and it sort of works, like crossing to other side of the street if you see people that look “suspicious”. Suspicion is important, it makes us warn the authorities if we “see any suspicious behaviour or package in the airport”. Terrorism and violence do exist—the same way there are sharks in the ocean and pedophyles turned loose. But how come we’be been hijacked—we, our minds, our imagination, our very souls—by terrorism? Fact is, fear is easy to instigate. You spend a lot of energy and love and money to raise a child, when it only takes a drunken driver or a driven man drunk on God or Righteousness to (in seconds) erase that life from the map of the living. It is a fact: fanatics have that kind of power. And we tend to associate fanatics with other cultures. Wrong. They are among us.

Yes, stereotyping others is not our fault. But it’s up to us what to do next.


It is quite clear for me every morning when I wake up. At any given moment, each one of us can turn into someone we dislike or never expected to become.

Yes, crisis pull out the very best out of people, sometimes, as it have in the Tohoku dramatic events. Both inside and outside Japan, a beautiful solidarity movement spread.

But crisis can also show our most unpleasant side. “What are these people doing in our land? Are they taking away our work, our resources? Are they wasting our resources, are they taking food from our children’s mouth or on the verge of kidnapping them?

Everyday I receive junk mail on the dangers out there. Urban legends. One in particular upset me and it arrived just the other day: “Watch out for crippled people who ask for your help. You go helping them and then you feel a sting and when you wake up–if you do wake up—you have a big scar and one kidney less.”4

It is an oax, most of the times, but what sets my alarm is that some of these paranoid mails are sent to me by friends. “Better safe than sorry.”

Now what? Is it not enough to fear gangbangers, terrorists, job-stealing migrants, legal or illegal aliens, now I should start fearing disabled people too?

What kind of person am I going to turn in if I start following this train of thought?


Once, 30 years ago, I was playing this silly table game, Risk. It is a game where you go on war—as it happens so often in games, and gladly it does, for I believe we need violent videogames and films and Erogoru stories to chase away our demons. I’m a believer in teaching children violence is unacceptable, but I’m also a believer that if we don’t allow stories to clean up our inner violence, our societies will face a greater problem.

Anyway. I won that game—against four of my best friends. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop harassing them: “I won! I won! You idiots loss! I won!” I was so obnoxious claiming my victory, and nagging them about it, that eventually one of them came out with these sentence: “Rui, some people don’t know how to lose. You, you don’t know how to win!”


And, facing nowadays problems in the European Community, with the blame falling over “the Greeks”, and then “the Portuguese”, “the Irish”, “the Spanish”, I see such an unpleasant behaviour from nowadays Europe’s winners that I find myself remembering those words from 30 years ago, and mumbling: “Some people have really short memory. Some people don’t know how to win.”


Everybody needs help. But when you’re proud, it is tough to accept help.

Portugal has been for a long time a nation of immigrants. An estimated third of our population lives abroad5.

And, like Japanese, we’re quite adaptable. And used to sort of let ourselves dwell into the landscape. Sometimes we push it too far at the point of being a near invisible community in most countries we migrate to, even if we were there for decades or even a century: Germany, Canada, United States, Venezuela, South Africa, France… The Portuguese workers are usually praized as hardworking and reliable—something we aren’t always praised for in our own country. Our economy just colapsed this year. We are in trouble. Many political decisions for the next 10 years are not decided by our government, but by an EC directory and the IMF.


This is a very good reason to tell Japan did well in embrace foreign help—even from countries like the Maldives, that smallest of nations who owe a great deal (as many countries in the world) to Japanese solidarity, generosity, technology. And my argument is this: if we Portuguese need help, if the European Community needs help with dealing with its hidden monsters, if former Yougouslavia needs help in rebuilding a sane set of nations (now sadly “purified” of its ethnic melting pot), if poor devastated Haiti population needs help in learning how to manage their lifes, if the US need help in re-formating their role in the world chess game… If Germany needs help in reframing its view about Europe as a community… Now, with all these ifs and need for help, it would be sort of puzzling if you decided that, unlike four thirds of the world, Japan can stoicly and proudly solve alone its own problems.


It takes a lot of generosity to give. And Japan has been doing that a lot in the last decades world crisis.

Now the obvious: it takes also a great deal of generosity to accept a gift. To accept help. To see that learning technique from foreign nations isn’t enough: individuals and newcomer communities may always have something—a different approach to life values, for instance—a different way of playing the life’s dance—that may surprise you.


In Europe, we’ve been having a great student exchange program—Erasmus. It brought undergraduate students to live and learn in other European cities. One of the side effects of this exchange was for young people to fall in love with a new nation—its culture, its people, its way of doing things. Sometimes more than in love with “the people”. These students would be back to their countries with new learning and… with dividided loyalties. The point was: the children of Portuguese or Danish were going to be something else: openminded Europeans. I fear that, with the raise of nationalism, Erasmus may somehow begin to be stalled.


Out of meeting strangers come misunderstanding. Being with people that already know our cultural code is safe. But ‘cultural codes’ sometimes end up being an excuse to be lazy.

The good thing at meeting a stranger, especially when you are young, is that even if he proves not to be very interesting, the meeting has strong possibilities of being challenging and exciting, just because the cultural codes are different. Meeting other people is good for the brain, the soul, the heart. The feet too. They need movement.

Moving your feet is keynote to change perspective. It is a good cure against fanaticism6.

Fanatics abhorr movement. They claim righteousness is where they stand. Fanatics are on the side of death, not life, even if they pretend otherwise. How can they care for other ways of thinking if they know theirs is the right one?


A fanatic is always a fanatic, even if he wants world peace. I fear that kind of people, the one who is always right. I feel for the sanity of a community who, in the XXI century, is not open and kind to its minorities. I’m specially afraid of fanatics who try to push their love. The ones who love humankind so much they start killing humans. Like the stupid crazy guys who love so much Life and unborn babies that they bomb clinics and kill people. John Lennon—whom you may know as Yoko Ono’s husband—was killed by a fan. The poor ugly killer’s words were: “I love you, John.”


It takes work and time and will to overcome the differences. But if you don’t do that, then what? It’s a very big world. Time is short, pick what you want to see, pick what kind of person you want to be.


Israeli writer David Grossman’s son was killed by a shell while riding a tank in the last war in Lebanon, five years ago. The tragic irony is that Grossman was one of Israel’s main advocates for peace—Uri was 20, and about to finish his compulsory military service when the war broke on. He had plans to go to New York to study arts. He died some 30 minutes before the truce was declared by both sides.

Grossman’s words were: “We, our family, have already lost in this war.”


On the other hand, the Lebanese writer Fatima Sheraffedine wrote a marvellous children’s book called My country is at war, based on her childhood’s experience during first war in Lebanon. Hers in not a libel against Israel. It’s a statement, and a children’s book. Good children books are often provocative. It helps children grow their minds.

I feel privileged to have friends on different sides of conflicts. It’s not always comfortable to have divided sympathies, but it is comforting to see there are people on both sides who can see above the obvious grudge. People who could—and can—talk to each other, because I’m a living witness they are nice people to talk and listen to.


One of my favourite stories on the subject of divided loyalties is The House of Russia, a cold war novel by John Le Carré made into a film, with Sean Connery in the role of an English publisher turned spy against his will. In Moscow, he ends up with an important secret document that will give a huge advantage to his country in the cold war game. But he falls in love with a Russian girl (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). And eventually he finds himself in a excruciating dilemma: who to chose? To whom should he be more loyal? To his country or to the woman he loves?

I find his amused answer (to such a grandiloquent question) irresistible. Especially with Sean Connery’s Scottish accent: “I never had such an easy choice. I chose the woman I love.”7


Grossman now recently published a novel that, I’m sure, will give voice to other parents’ grief. A gruesome irony is that he had planned to write this book many years before he thought the tragedy would struck him. He invested on the project when he read about a woman whose son had died, and her way to mourn him was to walk, nearly barefeet, along the border between enemy countries.

Writers do that sometimes. They turn their grief, or their fellow man’s grief, into fuel for works that will eventually help heal others, because these are not books made only of words popping out of the writer’s brilliant minds, these are works that come out from the artists’ very effort to listen—to listen to another one’s voice, and pain, and fear.

Jonathan Swift did that when, facing Irish famine, he wrote in 1729 the moral, philophical and literary masterpiece A Modest Proposal. Voltaire did that when, shocked by Lisbon 1755 earthquake and tsunami he wrote the moral, philophical and literary masterpiece Candide.


Some people believe talent is what makes a good writer. I think it is compassion.

Compassion is a very important tool. Not in the religious sense, to “feel pity for other” but in its most literal meaning: to understand the passion of the other.

And here’s the trick about compassionate people. Compassionate people know they are no better than others. That ugliness can pop out of ourselves. I know, by personal experience, that I can be a lot of things I dislike: a xenophobe, a misogenous, a hater. I don’t have to go out to search for the vilains of my stories. I search them inside me—and, so far, I always find them.


And we should all try to be as happy as we can. Not only because we have the right to aim for it. It is also because we are more openminded when we’re happy. We all are aware of what usually tend to happen with depressed people. They can only see the bad side of things. But when you’re in a good mood you know that darkness and light coexist inside every one of us, inside our families, communities, whatever their size—the size of a village or the size of an European dream of peace and prosperity. When you’re in a good mood, you see both sides; when you’re in pain, you tend to see only the darker side.

I don’t think there is a moral superiority in being compassionate and open to others—I don’t want to go in that direction. But there is a clear practical superiority in embracing differences and accept new family ties.

And the same way we should not let fear run our lifes, we should not let depression or suspicion run our societies—our common world, our common ground.


We can not save the lost lifes of the terrible incident in the Tohoku region. But we can honor them by learning again a lesson in friendship, solidarity, Kizuna. I was going to add with my tenor voice: “and never forget!” But let’s not be too naïf. Let’s just try to take longer to forget that lesson. Agreed?

By embracing new and old friends, by making peace with some foes. (Not all, enemies can be fun too). By helping the living. And by, eventually producing, as tragedies allowed in the past: Voltaire’s Candide, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Primo Levi’s If this is a man, Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, the same way as David Grossman’s tale of pain and dispair in beloved memory of his dead son.

Oh, and listen to your feet. Listen to your feet, don’t blame the shoe. Although the lower part of our body, feet are quite clever.

They keep firmly grounded, but they are always ready to be on the move.


Tokyo, July 3, 20118

  1. A sculptor’s main task is to listen to the wood, or the stone, or the iron. Reading a book is listening the author’s version of the world. And writing? It is listening too. You can’t dance together if you don’t listen to the music of things.   Listen to nature, listen to others, listen to our body. 

  2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8510603.stm 

  3. By the way, I actually sort of “saw it coming”, in my 2008 novel Tourist Destination. But I admit I was also inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1977 film Serpent’s Egg. 

  4. It’s an uglier twist of the urban legend of “the Kidney Heist”. Check http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-urban-legends-myths.php. 

  5. Not a statistic fact, by the way, but it’s a fair perception of ourselves. And perception is important. In some ways perception is reality. 

  6. Another one, according to Amos Oz, is humour. 

  7. The nice ending is: they all move to Lisbon (this Englishman and this Russian woman plus her Russian uncle) and become a family. 

  8. I am grateful to Japan Foundation for having me, to EUNIC, to the Italian Cultural Institute.  

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