Japan musings

I came back about a week ago from a weeklong trip to Japan. We covered a fair amount of ground in the week, seeing a few big cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto), some smaller towns (Nara, Obuse), some villages (Tsumago, Magome) and a lot of nature in between (the Kumano Road being probably the most impressive stretch). There’s a quote that floats around expat circles about how after a month you can write a book about a place and after a year you can’t say anything, or something like that, so any observations I had are probably the result of an overzealous instinct for generalization, but what the hell. Here are my thoughts, in order of decreasing frivolity.

You remember Lost in Translation, how Bill Murray is a foreign big shot actor doing a silly whiskey commercial? Probably based on a true story. Here’s Leo DiCaprio trying to charm the Japanese into buying tires, and then there’s my favorite, Tommy Lee Jones, the “BOSS”, showing off the tough guy look that pretty much had to have been intelligently designed for the sake of selling small vending machine cans of café au lait. It could be worse though, they could be advertising the milk cartons filled with sake that you can occasionally find in city vending machines (check the bottom right hand corner of this picture).

Japan is commonly thrown around as an example of a collectivist society. On a social level, I can’t speak with any authority, but I noticed some interesting things about consumer culture. In a the realm of buying things, where people in Japan are not oppressed by a lack of choice, there is a surprisingly amount of homogeneity. Like transparent umbrellas. Everybody has a transparent umbrella (happily, there’s a blog post on pretty much every social phenomenon, which saves me the burden of proof). Granted, most New Yorkers probably have one of those black, rough plastic handle, single-use price-gouged umbrellas that look like, in the words of Tom Waits, “dead birds” after you’re done with them, but when it rains in New York it doesn’t feel like a mini invasion of alien landing pods.

Even more common than transparent umbrellas are flat, rectangular flip phones. They look like this or this, and, apart for a very rare iPhone or Blackberry, I didn’t see a different kind of cell phone during the whole week I was there. No non-flip phones, no boxy flip phones, no non-Berry with a full keyboard. They all look like Razors. Whether this is the result of valuing conformity or simply because everyone simply has more or less similar preferences, I don’t know, but it’s a stark contrast to what you see in, say, China.

Of course, there are pockets, some really extreme, of nonconformity, but the diversity within these pockets is pretty minor. I have one specific example in mind, which is girls that put a lot of effort into their appearance. The demographic should probably be more narrowly defined , but I don’t know enough to do that, so let’s stick with that generalization. Girls in general are very fashionable in Japan, especially in big cities (and not in any fetishized sense), but there’s some subset of them who clearly go the extra mile, but who also all look identical. Here are the basics: ginger hair, usually with blond streaks, which is usually artificially curly and made to stand up and out, eyeliner, enough white make-up to remove any traces of texture or color variation on the skin, rouge, and at least one piece of clothing that involves light denim. Not making any facial expressions helps, as does blinking a lot. Maybe this what a Japanese person would think if he visited a Texas sorority, but it creates a weird effect in Tokyo. The weirdest part is that there isn’t much of a gradient. You either go for this look or you don’t bother, and the girls look so different from the people around them that the overall impression is that an army of fembots was set loose on the streets.

Another general point that makes it into our general public sentiment, in the West, towards Japan is the strength of their work culture. Any perspective is obviously very superficial and probably reflects ideas that I had before arriving, but here’s what I saw. Formality is followed to a tee. People who say that Americans are polite because we say “Thank you” for everything and make small talk have never so much as sniffed Japan. Imagine if you walked into 7-11 for a slushy sometime around midnight, somewhere in America, and the people behind the counter shouted “Good evening, sir!” in unison. You would probably leave the store immediately just to be on the safe side. Imagine if the ticket collector for Amtrak bowed every time they entered or exited your carriage car (you’ll have to imagine a ticket collector who is physically able to bow, which is not all of them). Imagine someone working at McDonald’s come out from behind the counter to help you with something. Good service in Japan is not just a question of being nice or friendly, it’s a form of social theater, and everyone has rehearsed their roles to perfection. If you say that it’s insincere, I’ll contend that pretty much all good service is insincere.* In any case, as a customer, it’s great (and customer in the broadest sense, because as a customer of Japanese tourism, the Japanese public is extremely helpful).

What struck me most about this work culture is that it didn’t seem like people loathed their jobs, even when they were dead-end, mindless service jobs. In America, at all levels, people have a habit of voicing their dislike about their jobs. This is probably endemic at low paying jobs (try to get a laugh from someone working in CVS), but really, it’s pervasive in our culture. Everyone thinks that they deserve to be doing something better, and I think the result is that fewer people give their all to a job, because trying really hard in a job, unless there is an obvious promotion at stake, is a sign that you’re satisfied with your position. I can’t speak to the motivations of Japanese workers. I have no idea why people are really nice (though, if bicyclists riding like idiots on city sidewalks are an indication, it’s not as simple as ‘they always follow the rules’). Maybe it’s all a fraud and everyone’s really unhappy on the inside. But if that’s the case, they go to incredible lengths to keep you from finding that out. The overall feeling is that people don’t resent the work they do. I grant that a lot of that may be due to social pressures, some of them probably unhealthy, but I also think there has to be some kind of different attitude towards work in general.**

The last two pieces of Japan I wanted to touch on are aesthetic: minimalism and miniaturization. On the first, there’s not much to say. Minimalism is dominant in Japan. Interiors tend to be sparse and clean. Japan’s historic attractions all have a subdued beauty; they’re no Taj Mahals or Bavarian castles. You don’t need a strong imagination to make the jump from a traditional Japanese house to modern interior decorating. What I was wondering was whether there has ever been a culture, apart from those two, put such an emphasis on minimalism. Around the world and throughout history, rich people like stuff, and they like big stuff more than little stuff, so what happened in Japan?

Miniaturization is just as pervasive of a phenomenon. Japanese people like small things, and the effect is especially noticeable with bars and restaurants. Most of these are tiny. High real estate prices aren’t the culprit. For example, Shinjuku’s Golden Gai is an area that’s about four small parallel streets, each with maybe two dozen bars on each side. If one bar bought another bar and combined the two, the new larger bar could serve more clients than the two could serve individually, because they would get rid of a wall, and could get rid of one bar area and one bathroom. And yet, despite rents which are very high, most of the bars can sit a maximum of 8 to 10 people. 8 to 10 people! That’s not even a bar! That’s a small dinner party. In America, we go to one bar over another often because of the other people that will be there. In Tokyo, if you go out with a group of 5 friends, there won’t be much room for other people. Restaurants are the same way. Some are big enough for 6 to 8 parties, but many are comprised of just the bar and maybe one or two small tables. You certainly won’t find any of the three storey monstrosities you sometimes get in Beijing.

What’s interesting about this culture of tiny bars and restaurants is how it fosters a different approach to marketing and presentation. Many bars and restaurants don’t advertise, even on their own front door. If you pass one of these on the street, you’ll have a vague sense that something is sold inside, but you won’t be able to see inside without opening the door. Outside, there will be nothing except a few characters (written in calligraphy, for extra difficulty). As a tourist who speaks no Japanese, you won’t poke into these establishments (sometimes, when they’re on the second or third floor of a building, you won’t even where to poke). To drive the point home, some bars are members only. I wouldn’t even go into a place that was so tucked away in the U.S. unless I heard about it from someone else. From the few conversations I had with bar owners, it sounded like that’s how it worked in Japan – everyone has places that they know, and they go those. Otherwise, you’re stuck with a choice overload problem.

I enjoyed Japan, though I’m not sure it’s a place that would be easy to live in.*** From what I can tell in a week, which admittedly is like judging character at a speed dating event, Japan came across as a country that was all about the details. Japan, especially if you spoke some Japanese and had a strong liver, seems like a great place to amass a horde of great anecdotes to tell at cocktail parties. If Japan were a high school student, it’d be the quirky one who was quirky for the sake of being quirky. I didn’t really get any big picture driving force for Japan. Maybe it’s twenty years of economic stagnation (for all the talk of technology, every computer I ran across was really old), maybe it’s an impotent democracy, maybe it’s losing its Asian primacy to China. I just didn’t feel much mojo. I’d love to hear what people who’ve spent more time there think.  It also seemed weird, especially given how much Western culture permeates Japan, how non-international the outlook of most Japanese people was, something that manifested itself, at least on some level, by the total (at least visible) lack of immigrants. Tokyo is rich, but it didn’t feel nearly as international as Hong Kong, or Singapore or even Shanghai. But here is where I’m starting to talk way above my actual knowledge, so I’ll stop. If you’ve read this far, give yourself a pat on the back.

*It’s not relevant to Japan, so I’ll argue it here. No one is born wanting to serve you, otherwise they wouldn’t have to be paid to do it. Congratulating good service is basically us rewarding people for not hyperbolically discounting. Imagine a simple model where someone in the service industry has two choices, be helpful or not be helpful. Being helpful costs them effort, but pays them back long term through return customers and a general good reputation. Being not helpful is easier short terms, but costlier long term. Whether because the costs and benefits are different or because of some social factors, people in Japan are much better about being helpful.

** An interesting aside. China has terrible service, and while I was in Japan pondering the contrast, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my old Chinese teacher when she talked about why she didn’t enjoy living in South Korea. She’s a linguist, and pretty sensitive to language issues, and took exception to how the Korean language formalized relationships between people. There are apparently lots of levels of formality in the language, and you have to always use the right ones, etc. , etc. China got rid of most of these types of formalities (along with large portions of the social classes to which they referred) during the Cultural Revolution. Korea was insulated from these effects, and I’d venture to guess that so was Japan. I would not be surprised if the contrast in service industries had something to do with this.

*** Counter-example: I have fond memories of Osaka, where I pretty much just spent the night. I was admittedly tired and hungry when we arrived, and maybe this was just coincidence, but out the restaurants and bars around our hotel, there were a fair number cooking up burgers, and a fair number blasting hip-hop. Coupled with the guidebook’s description that Osaka was proud of its tradition of cheap, hearty food, well, that’s a city I can get behind.

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4 Responses to “Japan musings”


  1. 1 clementia May 21, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    if you stay in Japan for a dozen months, you will probably catch up with Tocqueville with a book called “muses in Japan” or “Muses in Japan”.

    this essay is really amazing…or i could wait for your “Non-democracy in China” after some time?

  2. 3 M July 3, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Whew! With this I am caught up on reading and responding to your blog.

    I had quite a long fascination with Japan. I loved the aesthetic, and was enormously impressed by the historical bit where Japan voluntarily gave up the superior military capabilities of the firearm in favor of swords (they were, for a short period of time before giving it up, producing guns better than any in Europe), and how Japan was not only the only Asian country not effectively imperialized, but also it managed to modernize within a few decades and become an imperial power itself on par with Europe. That’s completely unique in modern history.

    By no means have I figured out Japan, but my fascination with it began to fade when I gradually began to see this strange, horrid perversity that wove itself throughout Japanese society. When I caught a glimpse of that, Japan did make a lot more sense, but it also terrified me and I abandoned my interest in it. The perversity I saw is a very visceral thing so I can’t explain it very well. There’s a sense in which Japanese float in a fantasy world that suppresses their humanity in a way that I haven’t seen in any other society in the world. Japan is a mode, existing in itself; ten, twenty, thirty years ago, that mode resonated with the modern world, but it no longer does.

    I’m normally militantly opposed to cultural and social essentialization, but when it comes to Japan, all my normal tools of analysis break down. I should also add, this strange modality only exists in aggregate. Japanese people as individuals, removed from social performances, are perfectly human. Also, it seems like when you move away from urban centers into more rural locations, the people become much more familiar in their humanity. I went to a tiny town on Shikoku (the island nestled underneath the main island), and there was this weird, tall and burly white British guy with an Abe-Lincoln-like beard who had taken up residence there with his Japanese wife. He was the owner of a small hotel there, and he seemed fairly well-integrated into the overall society there. I don’t know if that’s evidence that it’s easier to integrate outside of the intricacies of urban performance, but it sure seemed that way.

    The girls you’re referring to, they were mostly in Tokyo and Osaka, right? Comparatively, there were none in Kyoto? It sounds like you’re describing the Ganguro subculture. Japanese sub/countercultures are very strange. There is a sense in which they are a performance that isn’t really even in opposition to the mainstream culture, it’s just another tentacle of it.

    I think I’ve remarked, maybe not to you, that one thing Japan really has going for it is that it’s the most tourist-friendly country in the world.

    A comment about homogeneity: back in the 20th century, there was a survey of foreign students in Britain, and a vast amount of them remarked that the most surprising thing for them in Britain was the sight of white men doing manual labor. Similarly, when I went to Japan, what caught me completely off guard was how strange it was that the manual laborers in construction gear were indistinguishable in body type and facial structure from the businessmen in suits. When you say it’s not very international, yeah, it’s an extremely homogenous society. Not that there aren’t minorities; they’ve just been severely oppressed over time such that they remain marginalized (Okinawans in the south, and the Ainu in Hokkaido and northern Islands). Also, there has been no mass immigration. All I know of are some Koreans that came over during WWII (have you heard about the North Korean schools in Japan? Crazy stuff).

    Perhaps the lack of physical differentiation between classes didn’t strike you as much because you’re coming from China and Vietnam where there also might be less homogeneity (in particular, neither place has an underclass that are dark-skinned). But, at least with the Chinese I know and have seen, there are a tremendous range of facial structures and different structures often match up with social classes in a way that isn’t the case in Japan.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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