Oct

25

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In spite of all Japan’s amazing qualities—number one, for me, being the food, also the design, the cuteness of the children, the low cost of living and convenience—there are some major deal breakers about the culture here which makes it obvious I can’t stay. The number one for me would ironically be ones that the Japanese are most proud of: The fuinki or “atmosphere” and omotenashi, or the "customer service/hospitality.” These are things that are exquisitely curated at every level through design and behavior and quite jealously guarded. Let’s start with the fuinki. The atmosphere. The fuinki reminds me of a soothing noxious gas filling up every space in the room and breathed in by the people.

The phrase “not a hair out of place” comes to mind wherever I go. Cleanliness is very important to Japanese culture. And the colors are so beautiful, whether on a dump truck, the train, or a department store. They are surprising combinations that somehow work well together. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but not a hair is out of place. I guess I mean this literally. There are as many hair salons in Tokyo as Dunkin Donuts in New York and training to be a hair dresser in Japan is like training to be a doctor in America. Everyone from the children to the grannies are perfectly accessorized in brand new fashions. The babies, literally, carry backpacks and purses. The men over 25 are in pressed business suits. Under 25 they’re in stiff t-shirts and wide-leg Dickies pressed of every tiny wrinkle. To me it is incredibly oppressive.

In public you have to be almost silent. Even a sudden broad facial expression will draw attention from people around you. It’s stressful. A baby about two years old was looking at his mother’s iPhone on a full but completely silent train one recent weekend when he let out a loud giggle at something he saw. Immediately, his mother’s hand shot across his stroller to cover his mouth while she pleaded with him to be quiet. While the unsupervised children in Japan are smiling and joyfully running, the grown people seem visibly miserable and exhausted to the point that every day I see some of them so tired they’re able to sleep standing up on the packed train. They remind me of Tor during our high school days in which we too led very Japanese style existences, come to think of it.

The work load is a lot. Up until fairly recently the official standard work week included Saturdays. (Unofficially this continues). And the workday doesn’t end after work, because Japanese business people are expected to socialize and drink with coworkers and clients after that.

But back to the fuinki. As many of you know, Merlin is very funny and sometimes he makes a joke while we’re walking down the street. I laugh, not like a hyena, and I really have to believe i’m not an obnoxious or loud person, but I do occasionally perform a natural bodily reaction in response to joy that comes out in the form of a medium volume noise. So when I indulge this behavior, this laughter, at least five people around me are guaranteed to make full 180 degree turns to see who has disturbed their precious mood of misery and look at me with such disgust it is like I’ve abused an animal in front of them.

A Japanese superstition is that it is bad luck to whistle at night. The neighbors will think there’s a madman on the loose. Another one is that if you lie down after a meal you will turn into a cow. I’ve also heard it as pig.

Pleasure for pleasure’s sake, happiness, joy…these are not things the Japanese seem to seek out. It is why Japan ranked in the high 50s on the World Happiness Index Report, below Venezuela. In a way a happiness report doesn’t make sense here in a culture where people take pride in being unhappy. It’s like the old Kanye West saying from before he was cancelled: not smiling truly makes them smile.

 One thing I really do enjoy about Japanese people is their self deprecating humor. When they complain about their lives to me, I check myself before feeling too sorry for them, because I realize they are trying to be funny in a way. And they are funny. From listening to them you would think every one of their bosses is crazy (definitely true). Their kids are lazy (doubtful). Their wife is always mad at them. And she’s ugly. (Ha. Ha. Ha). A very funny student was showing me pictures of his business trip to Portugal. Flipping through them he explained (in near perfect English) he had absolutely no fun because he was working day til night, and due to his extremely poor English he couldn’t understand a thing that was going on. “Wow, beautiful pictures though,” I said. (He shakes his head) “But, my wife (getting to a picture of an impeccably dressed middle aged Japanese woman in front of a vista) is in them, and she is… not beautiful.” Then he burst out laughing.

A really strange thing has happened recently. After an incredibly hot and humid summer, fall has begun. The leaves have started to change, the humidity has lifted, there is snow on the top of Fuji. Where I come from, this is many people’s favorite time of year. It’s Christian Girl Autumn. A time when everyone feels annoyingly positive and back home we would be saying to each other, “I’m so excited to wear layers! Let’s go apple picking or stay in and watch a movie. Don’t you love fall?” The first fall day like this, every student I saw greeted me with “It’s so cold!” What? Just yesterday you were using “atsui, ne?”— “hot, isn’t it?”— as a perfunctory greeting in place of “hello.” Now suddenly it’s cold? I respond like, “oh, I love this weather.” They look at me like they’re embarrassed for me or I’m bragging. It’s like “Ooo, someone’s in looove. You love cold? Good for youuu.” “??” (I’m obviously reading into this, but it’s the impression I get. I’m thinking, “am I going crazy here?”). So yesterday, it was a lightly breezy 75-and-sunny with not a cloud in the sky. In other words an Objectively Perfect Day (OPD). I was explaining to Merlin that I couldn’t wait to see what the students thought of this weather or if they would still find a way to complain. Exactly as I was saying this, a woman walked by on the phone, complaining to someone “atsui, ne?” And then, as if to make sure we heard her, she repeated it, this time. In. English. “It’s soooo hot.” We couldn’t believe it. We were laughing so hard. Well, as hard as we could while stifling our laughter so as not to disturb the fuinki. Suddenly the sun was out so it was back to, “it’s so hot”? What? Do you remember August when it was 99 and humid? No.

(Side note: there is nothing sinister or spooky about fall in Japanese culture. In fact, though they will take any opportunity to redecorate and have gone all out for Halloween, they don’t seem to have taken the leap from spiders and skeletons and witches on brooms to a feeling of fear. The accompanying Halloween messages are quite cheerful. Summer is the traditionally “scary” season in Japan, when all the terrifying Japanese ghost stories take place and kids transform their schools into “horror houses” for their end of year parties before vacation.)

It is another situation where up is down and down is up, so I really can’t compare or understand the fuinki because the significance and symbols mean something completely different to them as they do to me. But to me, their fuinki is what I will very American-ly diagnose as “triggering to my anxiety and depression.” I look around at the people on the train, their eyes either closed or on the ground, and I can’t see them any other way. Because to maintain this perfect fuinki and to perform the perfect omotenashi—hospitality—you have to hide your humanity.

There are two recent examples of this involving a really sweet person I work with named N*. I really can’t say anything bad about her as she is an angel who has gone above and beyond for me. She even accompanied me to the doctor when I needed to, translating everything, including questions that clearly humiliated her to have to ask me—like if I was pregnant (I’m not), and held my hand and told me “gambate—fight! or a better translation, ‘you can do it!’” when I had to get a shot. She is the administrative assistant at work, a position only open to pretty young women (not officially, but culturally) and she is required to wear heels and a pink scarf around her neck that signifies her level in the company (her boss wears an orange one, and their bosses wear blue ones). She also has to praise the students and deliver our feedback to them in appropriately respectful terms, and manage customer service, booking, and sales (subject to competitive targets and quotas each month). She works insane hours and is paid less than I am. And it seems she is also responsible for managing the faux pas of the foreign staff, like the following: I lightly sneezed in the presence of a student. Not a hacking sneeze, but a short, dry one as triggered by some dust in the air. I’m the first to admit I’m not the most well-mannered person in the world, but I distinctly raised my elbow to cover my mouth and clearly said “excuse me.” Well my coworker N* burst into nervous laughter and began apologizing on my behalf to the student who had to hear that. I was kind of annoyed to be honest. I already said “excuse me.” In my mind, a human reflex that every one us experiences merits just that. (Actually, in MY culture, it’s the OTHER person who is supposed to apologize, in a way, by saying ‘God bless you’ but never mind.)

Another time recently, I was eating my bento box in an empty classroom during break time. I had finished the delicious assortment of flavors (shrimp, an amazing spicy noodle salad, fried chicken, saucy tofu, Japanese pickles, some greens) and was staring at the empty box, admiring its packaging, when a student who was a bit early for the next class popped his head in. He began to read the label of the box to me, written in kanji which I can’t read. “Five colors, six flavors,” he said it said. (I bought this very cheaply, for around 400 yen or $4). Two of the dishes in the box had been the same color—the shrimp and the chicken—but each had its distinct flavor, so I guess that’s why it was called “five colors, six flavors.” Just as I was about to respond to his information, N* walked by and gasped. She began nervously laughing and apologizing to the student that he had to see his teacher, not eating, mind you, but looking at her empty bento box about to clean it up. She was making eyes at me, like, “how embarrassing! Oh no! Haha” I’m like, trying to look at her reassuringly back but thinking “…i’m sorry, i’m not embarrassed that an adult student had to learn something most children learn in the first grade, namely that their teachers are human beings who eat and exist outside of class hours.”

This reminded me of another time, some teachers and I were eating in the common area during official break time, when the doors are locked to students. N* gingerly approached us to say she would be opening the doors early because a student named Taiki had made an appointment with her to study for his level-up test. “Wait, isn’t Taiki a kid? Who is 8 years old?” “Yes,” she said. “That Taiki.” So, we have to clean up and hide in the back room for his benefit? (He wouldn’t be coming with his parents since at 8 years-old, kids can usually do everything on their own). “Yes. Sorry. As I told you,” she said, becoming visibly nervous, “he will be coming soon, so please…hide your selves.”

To quote William Blake it is through sh*t like this I believe that the kids who are so cute and free slowly lose the divine joy that comes so naturally to them and over time become anxious and depressed. It is all for the benefit of the fuinki and the omotenashi, which makes us pretend that the humanity in us is bad and the corporate world is great.

(train above that was decorated for its 90th birthday. I believe you can see the outline of a child trying to get my attention from inside. The sign on the window is that this car is women's only during rush hours—a tale for another letter) (I love the design details on the train below)


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