Japan: An Enignma Wrapped in a Cliche

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(939 words)

Much has been written about Japanese culture in the wake of  the 311 disaster.  Some of it has been insightful, and some of it clichéd.

During Meltdown Week, I found this post on Jack McCafferty’s blog:  “Why is there no looting in Japan?”  The answers posted varied, many of them self-serving, others vaguely racist.  After many years in Japan, I have learned that, basically, I really don’t know anything about Japan.  I  live here, but that doesn’t mean I understand it.  So I re-posted the question on Facebook.  A young Japanese woman answered, “We were taught not to be selfish and think just of ourselves, but also others.”

This collectivism, thinking of the group before the self, also explain why a metro area of 30 million can stay remarkably civil day after day, despite packing into commuter trains.  Of course, not everyone behaves, but usually they do.

Going-along-to-get-along can lead to passiveness and this is where the critics of Japanese culture come in.  New York Times reporter Ken Belson noted in a story on jishuku, or self-restraint, that:  “Even in a country whose people are known for walking in lockstep, a national consensus of the proper code of behavior has emerged with startling speed.”  Even after several years in Japan, Belson fell for a cliché.  Writing on deadline will do that to even the best.  The truth is that it was not simply self-restraint, but sadness.  This country was in mourning, quietly and informally.  Japan’s tidy farms and factories had been rolled under the sea.  Children swept away.  A funeral shroud of silence fell over Tokyo.

One morning, I found a wire story that stated the workers as the Fukushima complex, like all Japanese, followed a samurai code of obedience that required that they follow orders from their managers.  (I haven’t been able to find the passage again, and assume it was wisely deleted.)  Not understanding Japan is one thing – everyone has trouble, even Japanese.  However, assuming that you do understand it because you have read James Clavell’s “Shogun,” is infinitely worse.  Should a Japanese reporter say American behavior is defined by a code of honor from the late 19th Century migrant laborer known then as the “cow-boy”?  Mr. Belson, on a better day, offered a story that explained the workers’ motivations — social responsibility and protecting their homes and neighborhoods, though for many, all had been swept away.

One of the better news sources, the Christian Science Monitor, ran a story by a reporter awed by of the polite apologetic language of counter clerk at a car rental:  “We are so sorry to tell you that we have no vehicles for rent at all.  I have no excuse for not being able to be more helpful.”  A lovely misunderstanding of the situation.  The clerk and the reporter are in the formal relationship of customer and service-provider, so it would have been more surprising for the clerk to slip out of this set piece of interaction and speak informally:  “Sorry, bro, all out of cars.  Can’t help ya, that damn disaster in Tohoku.”  As for not making an excuse, the clerk may have felt no need to point out the reason.   Japanese conversation has a tendency to leave  the obvious unstated, in this case, the disaster.  It could be any combination of these, or none.  As I said, I live here, but that doesn’t mean I understand it.

The best course, it seems, is to avoid explaining the entire culture in one encounter.  That doesn’t work anywhere:  “You see, he pointed a gun at us.  In America this is a common way to demand respect.”  Still the temptation is there.

From Time magazine:  “What’s unique about Japan is really a combination of a deep belief in Buddhism and Shinto religious rituals and what we call a collectivist culture where others are at least on par with the self, if not more important.”

The Time writer offers an example:  “We walked to the corner and the light turned red and there were no cars.  I started crossing and I looked back and she and the others were still standing on the corner waiting.  I said ‘It’s ok, there are no cars.’  She smiles and the light turns green and then she starts walking and says, ‘Now doesn’t that feel better.’  It has nothing to with ‘Is it safe to cross?’  A red light is a signal that everyone must obey.  And it’s not blind obedience to authority, its devotion to a real communal culture where the focus is always on the other.”

Is this an example of something? Maybe, but of what, I’m not sure.  Tokyo residents jaywalk often, but they do it carefully to avoid being honked at (tragically embarrassing), and making full-body contact with high-speed, internal-combustion vehicles.  We can’t know why the woman waited for the light.  She might have felt the need to encourage the foreigner to respect law.

She continues:  “In restaurants, you never pour your own sake, you have to notice whose glass is empty and you serve them.  It’s these little rituals [that have prepared them for this crisis] so that even if you have one bowl of rice, you share it with a stranger.”

You shouldn’t let a person’s glass become empty – fill it before that happens.  But isn’t this just good manners with a bit of extra ritual?  As for sharing a bowl of rice with a stranger – that’s common decency.  I as recall, Americans of a certain belief system refer to this as “being Christian” and “Christian charity,” but, perhaps, it is part of the traditional code of the cow-boy.