Sunday, November 27, 2005

That's it, the rosey colored glasses are off!

My buddy Henry said that to me on the train on the way up to Tokyo the other day. "The rosey colored glasses are off. This whole 'polite Japanese persona' thing is a bunch of bullshit."

I chuckled knowingly and asked, "Why on earth would you say such a thing?"

to which he responded, "How many times do I have to get shoved before I punch someone? I don't care if it's crowded. Kindergarten playground rules apply."

Welcome to Japan. Popular media would have us believe that it's all tea-ceremony and "SO SORRY SO SORRY"s, but anyone with half a brain and a 3rd grade education in history could probably tell you without even coming here that such a notion is a might suspect. People with a long tradition of politeness and tolerance don't have the sort of historical rapsheet that Japan has...

OK, so why am I writing about this?

I recently read a book called Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Modern Japan by Alex Kerr. I wouldn't say this book was particularly an "eye opener," but he elegantly put into words certain things that I harp on a lot, and offered a lot of reasons for their existence. Another thing that I liked about the book is that it was very non-judgmental. In the conclusion, he notes that he never once says, "Japan should" or "Japan has to" when talking about certain subjects. Like me, he likes it here, but he is still bothered by some of the things he sees. However, he never takes on the viewpoint of some arrogant outsider who thinks he knows what's best for a country that he doesn't come from. Good stuff. I would highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in Japan, or anyone who thinks Japan is all caramel waterfalls and dancing candycanes.

Here are some points of the book that I really liked:

  • #1: Japan is not scenic. It is kind've shitty looking.

    Here's what most people think of when they think of Japan:

    Perdy ain't it?

    But the reality is more like this:

    Well, maybe not typical. That's Shibuya, the spot I know best in Tokyo (and probably my favorite area). That's what I think of when I think of Japan. In Dogs and Demons, the author does an awesome job of quantifying how the Japanese government if systematically destroying nature in an attempt to control it. Is there a .001% chance that someone could lose property in a 500 year flood? Cement it! Is that hillside kind've steep, even though no one is anywhere near it? Cement it! He also does an excellent job of explaining how government workers hook up cement contracting companies because when they retire, they're guaranteed a job in the company where they can get hooked up by their ex-coworkers. Repeat cycle until the entire country is covered by cement.

  • #2: Japanese people are very oppressable

    I've always been fascinated by how Japanese people so delightfully accept blatant oppression by their employers, and almost cheerfully accept situations that absolutely suck. And I'm not saying this because it would suck for me. I know it sucks for them too, because they tell me it sucks, but they will "persevere." Ganbarimasu! When I started working at my current job, I asked the Japanese people under me to provide an employment history and their hobbies and shit. Most of them wrote that they enjoy working, and a lot of people in Japan will tell you the same thing. "I enjoy work." Ironically, it seems that Japanese people go out of their way to ensure that work sucks. If it doesn't suck, they impose rules to make it shitty, and are borderline cruel to new people. This brings me on to my next point.

  • #3: Japan loooooove rules
    The author talks about how Japan is rule and regulation happy, and how crippling it is for small businesses and entrepreneurs. More specific to me, how wherever you go, there are loudspeakers telling you what to do, telling you not to forget this and that, telling you to fill this out here, that there, etc etc.. It's very reminiscent of the military, so I guess I'm used to it. I talked to my dad about it and he brought up a good point: In any bureaucracy immerges a very strong CYA (cover your ass) culture. Regulations create a paper trail, replacing any and all personal accountability on the part of the individual. All the bases are covered, and if one isn't, a new form is created and everyone is peachy.

    "Kawaii" in Japanese means "cute," and it's a serious driving force in Japan.

    For example, here's the Fire safety mascot:

    I know when I see this, I think Fire Prevention.

    Here's the Narita International Airport's mascot:

    These are just a couple of examples. The author talks a little bit about how Americans also tend to live in the past, but that we're caught up in returning to adolescence, while Japanese people seem to be more caught up in returning to childhood. Penguins and Koalas and Pandas are a big deal here, and some of the women I work with, even though they're in their 50s, have stuffed animals all over their desks. One of them signs her name on our documents with a snoopy stamp. The author attributes this to a combination of many things, namely all the rules babying people from the time they're little, and an educational system that reassures everyone that they don't need to do anything on their own, to the point that speaking out is highly discouraged and often comes with social retribution, including bullying and worse yet, being ostracized from the group.

    So what's my point? The point is, it's a great book. There isn't a lot of literature about Japan that discusses some of the darker sides of the society. The author seems at a loss for what the future holds for Japan, but he seems to think it has to come from the people. He thinks this will be difficult because like I mentioned before, the Japanese education system puts an enormous emphasis on conformity and not speaking out. In the USA, we say "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," which means if you complain, you will be placated. Conversely, the Japanese have the saying "Deru kui ga utareru" -- the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, i,e. the nonconformist gets knocked back into place.

    I'd hate to seem like I'm Japan bashing in any of these posts. Being American, I like who I am and don't see myself becoming "Japanese" and I sure as fuck would never give up my American Citizenship. For all its problems, I love the USA and would never forsake it. Still, I obviously have a lot of interest vested in Japan, and I like it here a lot for a lot of different reasons. Like any country it has its problems, and I get a kick out of people who run around with the aforementioned rosey colored glasses on. Japan is safe and its people are quite polite, but one must scratch the surface (as in any situation) to get to the heart of the matter. Dogs and Demons does an outstanding job of bringing out so many of the realities that are either overlooked or covered up behind a facade of smiles, bows, and cement.

    Ok, time to switch gears.

    I saw a trailer for Memoirs of a Geisha when I was stateside. My reaction:
  • I guess there were no Japanese actresses available for the part
  • I didn't realize they had blue color contact lenses back then
  • No way am I gonna see this movie

    My Prediction for a Japanese reaction:
  • Regardless of the quality of the movie and acting, they will think it sucks cuz they used Chinese people to portray Japanese people, which will be seen as quite unforgivable

    My reaction to this probable reaction:
  • Ironic and HAHAHAHAHAHAHA: Most Japanese people think The Last Samurai was a great movie, even though it depicts the last Samurai, yes, Samurai, and everything that a Samurai represents for Japan, as a drunken American soldier. You can do a lot with that one. Have at it.

    Blogger Jinxy said...

    Excellent post.

    This is the kind of quality work and perspective on a foreign culture I'm talking about.

    I'll have to check out that book as I'm considering bidding on moving to Tokyo for two years in the semi-near future.

    I recently read an awesome article about why the Japanese are so fascinated by little girls in school uniforms, rubbing up against people on the Metro, bukkake, and animie porn.

    But I just don't remember what it said.

    Nice post.

    11:59 PM  
    Blogger Never A Dull Moment said...

    dude... according to the novel, the geisha doesn't have blue eyes -they're supposed to be a natural greyish color

    and the last samurai is ken watanabe, not tom cruise - he's only the story teller.

    5:32 AM  
    Blogger Robert Paulson said...

    I hear Koala bears are delicious.

    5:43 AM  
    Blogger Paul said...

    that's gay. it should be called memoirs of a gaysha. and as for the last samurai, i think the implication was that tom cruise somehow became a samurai. i think hollywood is just that arrogant. also, they wouldn't have spent a large portion of the movie mapping his insanely fast and smooth transition of mastering the samurai skills and being accepted by them, which is equally preposterous. and gay. it shoulda been called the last gay samurai.

    ken watanabe certainly kicked some serious ass in that movie, but I was a little disappointed during a press conference when tom cruise came over here to promote the movie. tom cruise said "I FIND THE MEIJI DYNASTY VERY COMPELLING" .. so compelling, in fact, that he pronounced the J in Meiji as a "zh" sound. i guess when you're really compelled by something, you're allowed to annihilate the pronounciation. then ken watanabe said that tom cruise was a bit of a samurai in real life, and it showed tom swinging a sword (golf club) on the battle field (golf course) with the shogun (prime minister koizumi).

    maybe im a language snob, but c'mon. and ken? have some pride! tom cruise would like nothing more than to see your entire country converted to a bunch of non-psychology-believing scientologists. i wonder what miyamoto musashi would think about that.

    7:54 AM  
    Anonymous Out In The West Texas Town Of Odessa said...

    Do you think they used Chinese actors because they thought it would be a cruel joke or what? That's hardly something that could have been 'over-looked'. I'm going to find the Architect and demand some fucking answers. This is Artistic Negligence. Maybe it has something to do with WTO regulations. Maybe they could not afford to hire Japanese actors. Well done on the book review, I would like to buy that now but you know how it is when the damn things just keep stacking up. Eventually you have to take a stand against compulsive book hoarding and actually read some of them.

    12:52 PM  
    Anonymous Binger's Game said...

    Dude, don't be so hard on Maverick. He did flip off a MiG 28 from about 2 meters while controlling a 4G inverted dive.

    2:31 PM  
    Blogger Paul said...

    MiG 21, you retard...

    Even tho it looked suspiciously like an F-5. hehehe

    11:04 AM  
    Anonymous brando said...

    I've never been to japan so I don't have a very well rounded concept of how things work there. Is this the type of crazy ass stuff you were talking about?

    4:26 PM  
    Blogger Never A Dull Moment said...

    Miyamoto Musashi would have another confirmed kill as a samurai if he were to have is way... maybe it would be called the book of six rings... the last ring to kill all scientolgist ass-kissers?

    3:52 AM  
    Anonymous brando said...

    That movie stars Ziyi Zhang! It's not going to suck. Beautiful people make great movies. And they lead great lives too. In fact Ziyi Zhang is no longer from China. She is American. I decree it so. Why? The beauty, that's why.

    4:13 PM  

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