Letter from Japan — From the June 2014 issue

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For a time I had felt helplessly drawn to particular breeds of the Japanese trivial: the most important Internet-cat band of our day, a café where you could pay to cuddle with a young woman, the twenty-foot singing hologram that went on a concert tour around the country. Which meant that as soon as I heard about the Japanese hole-digging contest, I was going to find some reason to go. In part I was looking for any excuse to visit my brother, Micah, and his fiancée, Sydnie, in Japan, especially in the lead-up to their wedding. But I also justified the effort and expense I put into writing about these things by telling myself, and others, that, though they seemed indefensibly frivolous, they were obliquely about quite important things — the commercialization of intimacy, say, or the way technology shapes our need for approval. This is standard journalistic practice: many essays purport to be about one thing but reveal themselves to be about some other, profounder thing. Story A might be about the game of Monopoly, but its real role is to give cover to Story B, which is about the decline of the American city. Generally speaking I am most interested in moments in which the gap between the two stories seems the widest, in which the manifest events are highly, perhaps even irresponsibly, leveraged in the production of latent meaning. Competitive hole digging, as far as I could tell, promised both infinite frippery and infinite significance. It was a symbolic gold mine. On the surface it was about digging a hole. Beneath that, I mean, take your pick. Futility and death. Knowledge and revelation. It was a contest in which great industry and skill would be brought to bear on an undeniably silly task, and the result would resemble a cemetery of disinterred graves. I paid for my own ticket.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His book, A Sense of Direction, is out now in paperback (Riverhead).

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