Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to Keep Your Integrity in Japan

(First off, this blog just won't let me seperate my paragraphs the way I want in this post for some reason, but I hope you can see where the seperations are somehow. Prease excuse.)

We are everything, and everything is us. However, sometimes I think it is important to be able to make seperations between ourselves and the environment we live in. I've found that it can be especially tricky at times for a gaijin living in Japan. Listed below are three quandaries I have stumbled across.

First, everything around you in Japan is artificial. Perhaps its the effect of such a large population living in such close quarters on a relatively small island chain. Basically, if there is flat ground in Japan, it has been cultivated by man in some way. Either it is in the form of towns and cities or rice fields. If you go into the mountains, it is nearly impossible to get a 360 degree view of pure nature without the effect of man. Either you see concrete dams (which are in every single river in Japan save three), powerlines, or huts for hikers and workers. But this applies to human behavior in Japan as well. Anything that humans do, think, or say in Japan seems to have "a way to do it." There are accepted ways to do everything in Japan, from greetings, to speech, to cleaning your house, to parking your car, to being an artist, to reaching enlightenment, whatever. This is the trickiest part, and the most violating of free-will.
However, I think a lot of the problem of this has been my perception of the world as either "affected by man" or "pure nature." Maintaining this dichotomy has made me stifled in Japan because I see everything as "affected by man," and look for the "pure nature." So instead lately, I've been looking at man's affect as a part of nature. Everything I see, is "pure nature" manifesting itself through human behavior. In Japan, people just seem to be extra ... mmm ... what can I say ... genki ... or enthusiastic about production and their effect on nature. One way I came across this new-found seeing everything as nature was by looking at the strict form and uniformity behind everything. Surely there are strict rules behind form and uniformity in Japan, but that is only the frame and initial idea; the actual manifestation of this law is not uniformity and perfection, but a wide array of remarkably individual people all trying to conform. It is not perfect, and it can be beautifully strange. Humans may be one of the most interesting things in nature.
Second, Japanese society always seems to be looking up or down. This has been described as a "vertical society" as opposed to a more "horizontal" found in the West. For Japanese, everyone around them is either their junior or superior in some way socially, so you have a society where you are either looking up or down in the social sense to everyone around you. This becomes very obvious in the Japanese language. There are specific forms of verbs and nouns and sentence structures you are supposed to use (keigo it's called in Japanese)when talking to either someone above or below you, which may be just one reason for the famed difficulty of learning the Japanese language. The effect of this is that your conversations in Japan are already pre-dictated at least a little, and puts a lot of limits on what you want to say and how you say it. This makes it often difficult to have an honest heart to heart talk with some Japanese.

However, there is a very easy way to deal with this stifling limitation: treat everyone according to their quality and potential instead of automatically pre-judging them by their appearance or social status. While living in Japan, I do have to mind Japanese social structure to an extent, but also because I'm gaijin, I am also a bit excused from a lot of these social laws. The effect of this is that I can know more about my coworkers personal lives and true feelings after one year than other people who have known them for a decade. Because I am excused from a lot of this, Japanese will often open up to me a bit more and relish in their freedom of expression. Seeing this phenomenon so socially engrained here in Japan does allow me to see it's more universal existence in human nature around the world. And you know what? I'm not impressed. In most situations, I will obey the accepted social rules, but I'll be paying a lot more attention to your actions than your social status.

Thirdly, Japan loves the familiar, and feels ... differently about the unfamiliar. This is similar to my first point, but this is more about the effect of this phenomenon rather than just stating it's existence. So yes, Japan loves the familiar, and if something isn't, like a controversial topic of discussion or an avante-garde artistic display, it's at least in a comfortable and acceptable setting where people may cushion the shock a bit. In all honesty, I have met some of the most generous and genuine people in my life in Japan, but I think credit is due more to their personalities than the Japanese culture. And I don't know any culture that could shower it's upstanding citizens and well-paying visitors as conveniently, comfortably, and pleasantly as Japan, but sometimes one is able to see the sensitive conditionality of it all. A few times I've wandered to it's boundaries and sensed the looming, cold, and impersonal concrete wall that lays just beyond the pinky hello-kitty fog of acceptance. Perhaps forgetting to say the right amount of thank you's and sorry's if you are being done a favor or if you have made a mistake in the system somehow. (For instance, showing up to work late and hung over, or asking for your paid-leave holidays when other people are still showing up to work). As a young caucasian American male, I stand in a great advantage to many other gaijin, but it sure does still feel stifling sometimes.
I have to say, practicing aikido has helped me understand the solution to this iron wall Japan can be: If there's a big train comin' down the tracks, GET OUT OF THE WAY! Get out of the way of the machine, don't fight it because you will lose and it will be unpleasant. Don't spend any more time or do any more favors than you have to in the system. Use your time effectively for your own desires. Rereading this last part I can't help but feel a little strange, as so much I believe in requires standing up against unjust opposition. But in the context of the topics in this blog entry, I feel confident in this answer to threats from the Japanese machine. Perhaps when I have a home and kids and matters are a bit more serious than they are now, things will shift.
Thanks for joining me for more generalizations about Japanese culture from a young aikido practicing English teacher.


  1. Very profound insight. I wonder what Sensei Strange would say, as he had a similar experiance teaching in Japan...

  2. that was one of my favorite posts....

  3. How does a pink Darth Vader relate to your post?