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.
  • Friday, November 25, 2005

    Flash in the Adventurepan? I know not.

    What can I say? Things have been travelling at the speed of light, and it's all I can do to hold on.

    I took a bit of an ass chewing for posting on another blog while neglecting to post on my own. This was a first blogasschewing, and since I'm pretty low on the Blogum Pole, I raced over here and began posting. I know where I stand. Would hate for someone to think I didn't know my place.

    I have a second reason to write this blog at 2:30am on the day before I leave for the USA... I've been trying not to get un-jetlagged during my stay in the USA. 1 week is shitty for the reason that, should I become un-jetlagged, I'd show up to work on Monday and still be jetlagged. Fuck that. I'll just keep weird hours over here.

    Seriously though.

    Things have certainly been moving fast for me in a number of different areas of my life. I've been living a monk-like existence over the past few months, and some of you are privy to certain events that certainly shattered that lifestyle (or just made me look like a real ass. Contact me for details). In any case, I've been a might preoccupied.

    I'm currently in New Jersey. I drove up here from DC, where I was from Friday to now [Turkey Day], before which I was in New York City. Did I mention I was in the USA for just one week? This would explain why I haven't called some of you, for which I offer my sincerest apologies. I was stretched thin. Here's the rundown:

    Cool city. I was a little skeptical -- a lot of people I've met from New York City have been real fucktards, so I was weary. However, my local guide showed me the side of the city that he knew would appeal to me (dive bars, Korean restaurants, ethnic shit), and I enjoyed meeting and talking to the locals.

    Here's my guide:

    He's not a sherpa guide. He's a Korean American guide, and I'd like to say that he's is easily the most generous host I've had in any city. I owe him (and his girlfriend) big for their generosity and hospitality. Amazing.

    DC is DC, though the social nexus / hub of all my friends in DC relocated. I feel really guilty that I wasn't able to call more people, but I simply couldn't make the time. I was awake when people were at work, I was asleep when I could have called, and I'd wake up at like 11pm which was too late to call. Ugh.

    New Jersey:
    Thanksgiving was a hoot. I saw sorta-relatives (i,e. relatives of my uncle who is married to my dad's sister) who I haven't seen in 21 years. It hurts me that I can say that, and I remember playing with these people when I was younger. "Wow, it's been 20 years. We watched Live Aid on TV."

    In any case, they're all from Peru, so Thanksgiving will end up something like this:

    OK, I know what you're probably asking yourself:
    "Is he brushing the teeth of that donkey jawbone?"

    And the answer is no. It's a musical instrument, and it sounds cool. I mean, yeah, it's a donkey jawbone, but that was before some industrious South Americans turned it into a musical instrument. My cousin was rockin out on some drums earlier. It was awesome.

    Unfortunately I was not able to see as many movies as I would have liked to've seen. I saw Walk the Line and thought that the performances were outstanding, both on the stage and off. I saw a lot movie previews that I probably won't ever be seeing, which sucks. MUNICH looks good, though the idea of an elite Israeli assassin squad having anything resembling feelings and a conscious is, as we all know, complete bullshit. Seriously. Who knows what I'll be seeing in the theatres in Japan, but rest assured, it's gonna cost me a fuckload of money. Movies in Japan ain't cheap.

    OK, so the holiday season is upon us, so I should have something that upsets me enough to write about it.