Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Tokyo T-shirt Oracle

(Thank you to the editors at Japanzine, where this story was published in 2004)

From the start I must confess that I have for many years been a covert student of divination. In my solitary room I have shuffled and reshuffled tarot cards, squinting at them for hours in hope of a sensible future. In India. use of the I Ching was so prevalent amongst the traveling set that I needed a copy just to figure out what was going on. You’d hear a sentence like, “Man, I just got Hexagram 36 and I am getting the hell out of Agra.” When I came to Tokyo however, I left the Tarot, I Ching and Runes at home, in favor of a collapsible umbrella, as well as formal and casual slippers.

Thankfully I have discovered, here in Tokyo, a home-grown divinatory system that is free and available in the metro area day or night, especially if the trains are running. I am learning the art of divination by t-shirt, so much easier than clouds, entrails or tea leaves. The words are all around you all the time—now you simply begin to read them.

Members of the community, for reasons unknown, have chosen to wear cryptic messages, in English, emblazoned on their bodies. Consulting the oracle could not be easier. You simply ask your question silently and then hold it in your mind until the answer appears, written across the chest of a stranger. (An undue amount of concentration is not necessary and can in fact be dangerous in a moving crowd.) There is no question that cannot be answered at rush hour in Shinjuku station in less than a minute. You may find the answer almost before the question is asked, jostling to get past you and onto the train.

For example, I might ask if this weekend is the appropriate time to seek out human contact. (The long-term traveler, you understand, is by necessity a solitary creature.) I hold the question in my mind as I walk toward the train station on a rainy late summer day and in a minute or two my question arrives, carried on the back or chest of a stranger. The answer might be, to quote from previous oracles, ‘Super Derby’ or ‘Devil Man’ or ‘System Trouble’.

Now, as with any oracle, interpretation is often tricky. Happily, the t-shirt oracle is generally in favor of pleasure. The god of this oracle is no transcendent naysayer, but rather a generous deity who wishes us to enjoy the things of this world. This puts it far ahead of, say, picking a verse at random from the Bible. (Side note: Is it just me or do other people always get the verse condemning Onan?)

The oracle can be refreshingly direct, providing messages such as ‘Nothing is so Valuable as Friendship’ or, ‘No, I Don’t Think So.’ Of course, messages may also be cryptic. Wondering if I ought to strike up a conversation with the handsome English-speaking man at my local convenience store, I asked the oracle for guidance and received the answer ‘Just Add Water.’ The next day I asked again. A woman with enormous breasts walked by wearing a purple shirt peppered with silver stars. It read, ‘Let’s Go to the Mall and Scarf Snacks.’

Scarf Snacks?

Regular practice, of course, is the key to developing ease of interpretation. It is not helpful, or appropriate, to question the person wearing the t-shirt, also known as the oracle-bearer. Oracle-bearers are seemingly unaware of their divinatory function and may, if questioned, stare blankly at their own chest, as if astonished to find words there. Any attempt at enlisting the aid of the oracle-bearer is unhelpful and may even cause alarm.

I confess that I myself have broken this rule on occasion. I sought advice from the oracle regarding whether or not I ought to be spying, night after night, on the young man next door as he lounged around wearing loose boxer shorts and eating popsicles. I was on platform number 12 waiting for train to Shibuya when the answer came, a young woman wearing all yellow, and the words ‘Supernatural Feeling.’ I was so surprised that I caught her arm.

“Please, what is the meaning?”

“Excuse me,” she said, trying to get past, but I held on to the edge of her shirt.

“Your t-shirt.”

She stared down at it. “Su-per-na-tu-ral Fee-ling,” she said.

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

She stared at me and tugged the edge of her shirt from my hand before running off.

Let this be a lesson to us all. Do not interrogate the oracle-bearer. It is not appropriate.

(It should be noted that, in cases like these, where the answer is persistently unclear, you may feel free to adopt the most positive response. After all, if the universe means ‘No’ it ought to say so. Thus, I stared at the boy next door through no less than three popsicles, all of them a stunning blueberry color that tinged his lips and tongue.)

I will confess that there was a time when my life seemed directionless, devoid of point or meaning. Such is the malaise of modern man. It needn’t be the case. The t-shirt oracle can remedy this, providing as it does, a continual source of advice and direction.

I remember well the day when, exiting the station, on the escalator down, I saw a man rising opposite me, a tall lanky youth with smooth arms and between them, a message: “Roads? We Don’t Need Roads Where We’re Going.”

I received the message into my heart before it occurred to me that I had not asked a question. The universe did not wait for my cue anymore but instead spoke directly.

What a joy, to be embedded in a universe that not only listens but speaks! What relief, to be rescued from silence.

I hope all my readers in the metropolitan area will find the solace I found in the T-shirt oracle, which is available to the watchful anywhere that people gather, the non-stop holy billboard of a world that never stops speaking, a place where there is no reason at all to be lonely.

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