Japan [or, insert your country here] is a behaviorist society. Japan pays attention to antecedent circumstances. Japan doesn’t give pats on the back.
Pictures of the floating world? I don’t see any. The Japanese world is heavy and slow and dull with repetition. You can see it any morning at 8:30 or 9:30 or 10:30, before bureaucracies, businesses, and shops open, in the faces going to work. Like everywhere else, then. What’s floating? What’s watery? The woodblock print? No, the Japanese will hammer you over the head about your safety at a gym, but go helmetless, mother and two children, on a bicycle. At a gym, the doors are locked and the signs warn you about falling, hitting yourself, hurting yourself, having a heart attack. Better not go in there and do that. Take your scooter on the road, but don’t forget not to wear your helmet, in case you don’t get into an accident.
In Japan, before the 1990s, ramen was known as a factory-made fast-food lunch—and to many in the US, it was a just-add-water dorm-room staple. But when Japanese chefs began to pay close attention to ramen, they shaped a kodawari (an “obsession”) around the human noodle.
Japan is an adolescent Dada movement; it carries a G-rating. It isn’t absurd, but goofy; it isn’t extraordinary, but precious. It is Dada of the Superego, Dada of Supervision. Nature in Japan is something to get geared up and dressed for; you go into it equipped. Nature to the Japanese is a procedure, not a process, in the oily way we have come to use that word in the United States. In Japan, nature is a mistake that must not be made again.
Within a month of naming Dada, Hugo Ball was doubtful that he and the Dadaists would “go beyond Wilde and Baudelaire in spite of all our efforts.” Japanese literature has hardly gone beyond Sei Shonagon, and she was 10th-century. Murakami plays fiddlesticks but drinks wine; Mishima drank whiskey but played samurai. Soseki wasted time on England, Endo on Jesuits. Kipling and Henry Adams both hoped the Japanese would remain artists, which shows how little they saw of the Japanese on their brief visits to Japan. And with us? Holden Caulfield is still more widely known than Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman severally or together. For that matter, Holden Caulfield still sells better than J. D. Salinger. Ball feared that the Dadaists would “just remain romantics.” Before that, he had said more hopefully: “The dadaists are babes-in-arms of the new age.” Will we never get rid of childhood as the paragon of, the cradle of, artistic creation? The child as aesthete, or the child as ascetic: this was Emerson’s dilemma when he was being a romantic.
“Clever reticence,” what Dada was averse to, Japan stands for. Admit your reticence, confess your shyness, but never protest that you’re clever. The Chinese, I recall, were much more like American graduate students, always on the lookout for the “smart” one, if too easily impressed. You’re clever (“cong ming”), they would say, perhaps only in condescension.
Yesterday in class Hannah Haruka was telling me how she decided to quit going to “private school” because she was always “sleepy.” I suggested that she was “sleepy” as a defense against the boredom she was feeling in “private school.” I also suggested that she was probably not the one to “decide” whether she was going to go to “private school.” Her parents were the deciders. I was ugly in my way, and on and on we went, missing each other. Hannah Haruka would never admit to being bored by school, private or public. She couldn’t see, I saw, that I was on her side. I wanted her to say that school was boring. The most common thing my students say to me here is that they’re “sleepy.” I asked if she didn’t think there was a difference between being “sleepy” and being “tired,” and if the place you were when you were “sleepy” might have something to tell you about why you were sleepy. And I kept pressing her not to keep talking as if she were the one making decisions for herself about her schooling. It was all a misunderstanding. Hannah Haruka and all her contemporaries know the English word “sleepy.” And “private school” to them doesn’t mean private school as that term sounds in my middle-class American ears. It means “cram school,” a British English Japanese word for the place where Japanese kids go to get stuffed for the college entrance examination. Hannah Haruka was saying that she wanted to quit going to school after school because she was so tired she could do little else but fall asleep there or worry about falling asleep there. She refused to concede, though, once we’d finally cleared that up, that she could ever be forced to spend too long in school. The Japanese don’t ask if the shoe fits; they just wear it. Many people are Japanese.
The Japanese can sleep anywhere at any time.
In the morning, Japanese housewives on their balconies beat their futons
and then with big plastic clips pinch them to the railings they’re slung over.
I saw a young woman prepare a bite of noodles in her spoon with chopsticks. I timed her: 37 seconds she fiddled with it.
The key to the Japanese batter Ichiro’s success is his meticulous preparation, and the key to his meticulous preparation is the preparation in his preparation of his preparation.
Japanese men buy shoes at least a half-size too large for their feet, so they can get them on and off easily. This is the most boyish thing about them.
There’s no such thing as a cocktail party in Japan. I am never invited anywhere, but neither are the Japanese.
For all I know, Japanese men see Japanese women as the Harvard geologist Nathaniel Shaler, according to his wife, saw women: they “only existed in a generalized way and not as objects of definite personal interest” (Townsend 203).
At the party tonight, Yuko, leader of the 5 kohai organizers, told me: “We Japanese like to wait in lines.” Three Japanese professors had just been complaining to me about waiting in the line that I, a fourth professor, not Japanese, had just brought to Yuko’s attention. I smiled. I suggested that since the dishes were the same from the left edge of the table into the center as from the right edge of the table into the center, there could two lines, one from the right and one from the left, and that would solve the problem of the line. Said Yuko: “But the plates are on the left side.” And so the easily dividable stack of plates and napkins and chopsticks remained in one column on one side of the table, and the line remained in effect for 30 minutes—such that each person could have a rubbernecking moment in the middle of the table upon realizing that, yes, the next five dishes were the same five dishes they had just served themselves from. It was suitable for a French farce.
I got to thinking on the way home that Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class has Japan covered: the 100 paid staff up and out front to meet any public are showing the fee-payers how well-spent their money is. Pecuniary culture, conspicuous leisure, or conspicuous working, the show of being at work (sort of the way mobsters arrange to be at the work-site, but eating and drinking in chairs), conspicuous consumption, invidious distinction—all staged in “the higher learning” scene: the struggle, the effort, the expense, of getting in, but at the same time the enabled and facilitated handling, the musikashiness. Japan had a feudal format, a feudal font, and just doesn’t seem to have the will to let go of it. “In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men,” Veblen wrote, “it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.”
In Japan, the personal signature is made with a stump of tusk. Now everyone has a synthetic resin stamp, but I suppose in the olden days when power really was concentrated in an elite, elephants had to die for the privilege the signature confers.
Japanese, if they don’t start an English sentence right, will back up and try again, and again, and again, like threading a needle, until they get the first words right, before they go on. Some of my students might stutter their way into 5 or 6 repetitions of the same two or three or four words before they get going.
Some Japanese men like to think of themselves as skippers of yachts or great big polo players, or, is it, as owners of a team of polo horses? They are out on the green lawns in England or South Africa or Abu Dhabi, mounted; but no, they’re little boys with skipper sweater anchors on their chests, or Ralph Lauren polo horses on their short sleeves.
A Japanese woman can disappear in a train car’s seat, though dressed in black and white check. She can hurry for no evident reason. She can not like to be looked at without looking at you, though she is dressed to see.
It isn’t always cold in Japan, but Japanese women tend to dress as though it is or is about to be. Thai women, on the other hand, live where it’s usually hot, relatively hot, but they could be dressed for anything. They’re ready.
An x-ray in Japan is a Roentgen, appropriately enough.
Japan is a good place to do longitudinal studies in, because nothing changes from generation to generation there. “This is a problem in Japanese debates,” said a man who has been judging them at universities for thirty years. He meant, this is how we do debates, i.e., we don’t have debates. In Japan, you don’t ask a question. You say, I have a question, then ask it. Then someone doesn’t answer the question, but says, I can answer the question. Now we have an unasked question and an unanswer(ing) answer. You don’t show a graph, either. You put up a graph and then say, Please look at the graph.
Land of the Seldom Blown Nose
Land of the Unblown Nose
Land of the Indulged Sniffle
Land of Shameless Snuffling
Land of Hand-Cupped Toothpicking
Land of the Relished Sucking Sound
Land of Cherished Snot
Land of Toilet Paper Napkin.
The Japanese are always lining things under and pointing things out and fencing things in and hedging things around. No people gesture as bigly and rudely. “It is one of the paradoxes of human relations in his novels,” John Carey writes of Thackeray, “that children should be loved so dearly, yet be largely incapable of love themselves” (Thackeray: Prodigal Genius 136). This can be generalized.
“Elfish everything seems,” the mongrel American, Japanifying, writes. Speaks the Japanese, the words staying on the molar teeth, the jaws and lips refusing to be part of the vocal tract.
“We could eat some rice” means, when my students say it, “We ate some rice.” Somehow they have gotten the idea that “could” is a tense marker, a part of the past tense. Or is it a marker of their sense that life allowed them to do something when they were in that time? “I was very enjoyed it” is another common error.
The Japanese can be depended on not to surprise you. If you like that sort of thing, you should like the Japanese. They are regular, well-trained, dutiful. Even their rebels are regular. Every night in any city or town, at least one of them will tear the air with the throttle of his motorcycle, much more a machine for making angry noise than for getting around. The bicycles can be counted on to squeak painfully when braked, but the Japanese don’t take notice.
The favorite English words of the Japanese: maybe, delicious, because, could, beautiful, sweets.
The Japanese cough openly because they were told it is “good for health” to do so. But when they ride bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles, they don’t fasten the chinstrap of their helmet, or they hitch it but have the strap adjusted so it hangs loose. As if the first thing they’d want in case of a fall is for the helmet to come off the head and be thrown safely out of harm’s way.
When at a bar or restaurant, Japanese like to talk loud and laugh out, launch their laughs, neither of which they do or like to do at other times in other places. They jet at things when in company. They sneeze when they sneeze and cough when they cough, and snort and snuff and burp and slurp. If they pull a kleenex from a box, they mark the act with a sound of exertion: oishow. When they get an iced coffee, they stir the milk and sugar into it until the ice melts. The men protest their boundedness in convention by scuffing the soles of their shoes when they walk and taking off their shoes on trains and buses as soon as they can. They give their kindness to their feet.
Another thing that impresses me about Japanese is that two sips of tea satisfy them; one cup of coffee lasts them for 45 minutes in a cafe. They can go without snacks. They are always over-prepared and small-portioned.
The Japanese let things squeak, laugh, burp, slurp, squeal—brakes on bicycles, metal to metal, and seem to think nothing of it. They ride bikes as if they were chairs on wheels. They don’t adjust things, but let them go as they are. The bike is too small? The rider is too big? No, the bike is and the rider is, and it goes and he or she rides it, as is. Factory settings, that’s what Japanese are.
It may take two months to get an automatic deduction arranged for one’s phone and internet bill. The signature is still suspect in Japan, and trust is put in a stamp, in ink, and in wiping the ass of the stamp after ink has been applied to it and has been applied to paper. Rubber bands, pieces of tape, receipts, stickers, packages, wrappings—the Japanese use all of these things, and produce and stock them so that they can be used. None ask, why are we using these things? They are used.
Groupism, one member of the Japanese Diet called it recently, in saying why the nuclear plant melted down.
The Chinese, too, had a very high tolerance for extraneous noises. I was told more than once in Shanghai that noise is a sign of life. I have been told more than once in Nara and Kyoto that the Japanese tell themselves to make signs of life. Why? Because the Japanese also tell themselves that the Japanese are negative. They need to be told to be positive, so they shout out and call out and announce things to each other. They show and tell, all the time.
Like those things in Japan that you put on your index finger or your thumb, to thumb through pages one at a time—not too loose, not too tight. But even just right, a help-touch is a distant second-best, and nowhere near as good as naked touch.
“I am your just small gentleness I have a pain in it with me who can impressed”—on a children’s bench in Nara.
The Japanese did another great thing when they made a sandwich have three parts, not two, but without cutting it into thirds.
Walking, driving, jogging, bicycling, shopping, lining up, the Japanese pretend to do a lot of not noticing each other, not acknowledging each other. Do we do this too? Do we do it as much? Do the Japanese have better or more peripheral vision than we do? Are they better at pretending not to notice? Or are they not pretending to do anything more than not notice themselves? A lot of people are good at that. But get a Japanese who wants to move ahead, get past you—up goes the arm like a barrier and off they go through the space they’ve cleared by this obscenely costly gesture.
The Japanese like sausage, bread, sugar, cream, and prosciutto, which they describe as “raw ham.”
If you tell a chef or owner of a restaurant in Japan that the food you’ve just eaten is especially delicious, they don’t say, exactly, “Of course,” but rather, “You wouldn’t expect less” or “We wouldn’t think of saying so ourselves, but we know it to be so.” That’s the tone of the “Arigato” or “Yokatta” they answer your praise with.
I’ve met the nicest people in Wakayama City—Thai, Japanese, Sri Lankan. I got my first aroma massage therapy here, from Hana, and got to that from a woman on the street. She was Japanese and friendly, open. I was surprised. I’d been here five years, and never encountered anything like it in Nara, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hakodate, or Tokyo.
I found an old junk store in Wakayama City, a thrift shop, called a recycle store here. What a husband and wife had collected over 30 years. I found lots of things to buy, from jewelry to paintings, and as I added purchases, the man kept giving me little things.
The illogical, ridiculous blankness of the Japanese is shown me almost every time I ask for an explanation of a practice. They don’t explain things, but offer the begged question and the tautology as explanation. Why do some cyclists, scooter riders, and motorcyclists wear helmets that don’t fit the head and, fit or not, are left unbuckled or, if buckled, loosely hitched under the chin? Great carefulness in some things, great recklessness in others, where the dangers are manifestly higher.
I’ve asked several Japanese trainmen in the station which of two or three trains scheduled to go to Osaka (for example) within twenty minutes of each other is the fastest. That is, which will get me to Osaka soonest. I should ask, “Which of these trains will arrive first in Osaka/Nara/Kyoto?” Tonight, two trainmen told me that the “express” train would. Now, I know that the express trains in Japan are what we would call “local” trains in the US. That is, they make every stop along a line between origin and final destination. These train men must know that. But they may have meant that the 11:07 train from Osaka to Nara will beat the “Limited Express” leaving at 11:20 or 11:23 from Osaka to Nara. It isn’t faster, but it may get to Nara first—if that’s possible. I’ll have to check. There is also a “Rapid Express,” which I think is slower than a “Limited Express,” which I think is always faster-to-destination than an “Express” train. I think the “Limited Express” is always the fastest of the three trains, the one that makes the fewest stops along its line. Maybe that’s what limited means: a limited number of stops. But isn’t that a negative manner of selling a train ticket? An apology: we can only make a few stops, sorry, sorry. But if Express, express. And if Express is express, then Rapid Express would be faster than Express and Limited Express would be—or what? How did they come up with the designation “Limited Express” for a train that’s faster than “Express”? And why wouldn’t “Rapid Express” be the fastest? In asking around about this, I was told that I was far from the first foreigner to be baffled or confused by the designations, and that the Kintetsu Railway Company was at fault. Japan Railway (JR), the woman who told me this seemed to imply, doesn’t make the same mistake.
The Japanese have a yen for—here, pat the heart-side of your chest with your right hand, as the woman I just mentioned did—not trusting their suitcases to stay shut. So they all seem to own a suitcase strap or they avail themselves of a suitcase wrapping service. I may have missed such services in 25 years of flying around the US, but I have noticed them in Japan, if not in other Asian countries. Maybe the Japanese make assurance doubly sure by using both a suitcase belt and a wrapping service.
There’s a heedlessness, an obliviousness, a straight-aheadness in the way the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Chinese carry themselves in walking and driving—in going forward, in taking a direction and moving in it. It doesn’t seem intentional or purposive. It doesn’t seem to involve a decision to ignore others or to prioritize oneself. But the effect of it is that they seem to thrust in, pass by, take a place, establish a position, as if there were no one or nothing in the place, near it, or going to it. They don’t look for leave, it seems; they assume the position, take the place, with annoying single-mindedness. This appears to me to be a studied or deliberate or considered or practical or habitual or performed refusal to look another person in the eye, to admit directly, by face-to-face looking, that the other person is there, that other persons who want the same thing you want exist. I suppose if I asked a Japanese, Korean, or Chinese why they do this, they would first wonder if they do what I’m accusing them of (and so would show that they have no idea that they do it). Do they do it to each other, or only to foreigners? Yes, they do it to each other.
Of the ten or twelve dishes available at the Kansai airport in Terminal 2, all are fried or are of noodles. Why aren’t the Japanese fat?
At ramen stations, there’s a noodle dryer that, when it gives the noodles a spin or a blow or a suck, is as loud as a weed-eater. Why? In this society that prizes quiet and non-interference, why the loud machines, the high-pitched small-engine whine?
A knife is a utensil not easy to come by in many Japanese eateries.
I can’t help thinking that the biggest mistake of the Japanese is slurping or sucking when they eat soup with noodles. It diminishes them every time they do it, and the reason they give for doing it, that it cools the mouthful—doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But then few of their reasons do. Their reasons aren’t reasons. They’re just aspects of the situation one is seeking an explanation for. Maybe all our reasons for or reasons why are just that. Why would sucking the heat into your mouth cool the broth or the noodles? Why not blow on the broth or the noodles, as we in the US do, to cool down the spoonful of soup we’re about to put in our mouth? The Japanese don’t blow or suck before they stick the food into their mouths, they stick it in and suck simultaneously. This is a learned behavior.
A rule of places, with Wakayama City as the zero place: the more there is going on in a place, the more things there are to do in a place, the more expensive that place is, the more it costs to be in that place. I’m 57: there’s not a lot going on, not many things to do: I’m not expensive to be in. And, by extension, where I am is more than enough for me, and costs me less, and leaves me less well met by others like me. Others are elsewhere, where there’s more to do and more going on. So go where you’re told there’s nothing going on; go where, when you say you’re going there, people wonder why you’d be going there; be where, when people ask you how long you’re staying, and you say four days, they tell you that’s three and a half days too many.
Every people its ingenuity. Japanese their packets of kleenex, Siamese their sizes of plastic bag for holding liquid, tied air-tight and leak-proof at the top with a rubber band like a top knot on a pretentious monk; Japanese their hinges for things that need to be laid neatly in rows that unlayer with a neatness, or the moistened towels at the bagging stations in grocery stores or the cane holders in shopping carts or the baskets provided under chairs and ledges for putting clothes and purses in.
Teaching English in Japan: When I say “language,” “communication,” “writing,” “presentation,” saying these words in English, without adjective, my Japanese students always assume I’m talking about “English”—assume that I have put the adjective English in front of all those nouns. I could never be asking them, because I’m a native speaker of English teaching English in Japan, how it is for them to communicate, present, speak, write, and read Japanese. The question makes no sense to them. It wouldn’t make sense to ask the same of English in the US. I know, because I asked. Asking any person what it’s like to use their own language is like asking them what it’s like to be alive.
Japan and Thailand differ in toilet tools, accessories for cleaning the anus. Japan gets a robot to do it, touchless. Thailand makes you take a hose like those that are part of American kitchen sinks and get up under there and squirt.
In English, teach the “you”: the you must be said. In Japanese, the “you” mustn’t be said. English doesn’t work without “you.”
The Japanese will cry out in public like town criers, if they’ve been hired to and told to (and sometimes handed a megaphone). I’ve never heard a town crier. Japan has many, though, barking and hawking to passersby. Owners of businesses here make some of their employees stand and cry out their products. But I can sit in a classroom with my head 12 inches from two students in lively, continuous talk with each other and not hear what either of them says, not a word of it, unless I lean in even closer to their mouths.
At the Shinagawa JR Station for the Narita Express, I got hung up reading a sign: Ecute. It took me a minute. I thought it might be French for “listen.” It was Roman-alphabet Japanese for “Exit.” The Japanese, when they take a foreign word in, do their best to Japanify it. So you might see, on a menu, “Itarian Coffee,” and ask what that is. It’s “Italian Coffee.” But right under that are printed the words “Flavor” and “Latte,” and it will take twenty minutes to explain to your companion that, to be consistent, the menu ought to read “Fravor” and “Ratte.” We have an equivalent, when we’re in grade school, learning how to spell and pronounce, and it goes by the name of “alphabet.” That’s all this stuff is, the so-called Japanese syllabary at its unremarkable work. Each phoneme gets its even-steven turn in the vocal tract. The name of a cake shop in Nara and elsewhere is Archaique: what to make of that?
Everything Japanese people do—sneeze, drink, walk, talk—you are sure they did because they were told to, shown how to, practiced doing, obediently do.
Matcha do about nothing: that’s Japan.
You shouldn’t compare black people to monkeys. Japanese people are like monkeys.
“It makes you annoying,” Sayo says when something annoys me. What annoys us makes us annoying.
The Japanese girl groups aren’t the only Japanese who talk and sing like Alvin and the Chipmunks. At the laundromat, a TV screen beats down chipmunk talk on customers using cartoons.
So many things happen at once that it’s hard to say what’s pointless, useless; nothing may be. Everything that happens may be necessary and free. Especially because most things are monetized now. So that boys practicing baseball—practicing parts of the game, not playing the game—for six hours on Saturday and Sunday doesn’t necessarily indicate that the Japanese are, ultimately, not serious people. Maybe it’s even that, since the boys seldom play a game against another team, and are never watched by anyone but each other and five or six coaches, they are very serious, and bear watching.
A woman watches to see if you care about her, a man cares to see that you’re watching him.
My students said: “On the hurry she is clever than me” and “Easy to remind the name of her.”
The following sentences were translated from Japanese into English by students taking the English section of a university entrance exam:
It can’t necessarily be said that we don’t recognize very different colors as the same red color.
Solving the question that my daughter may look a red which I look as a blue which I look thing is difficult. The possibility that red which each people see is difficult may be right.
Nobody can say that all of us regard the color someone regards as red as red.
The color red as for me might be to you as for me the color blue.
My daughter looks my red as my blue [regards, sees, watches, thinks, feels, knows, perceives, takes, realizes, beholds, understands, interprets]
Nature: what the Japanese arranged so that they can express surprise, take photographs, draw pictures, and use machines on.
Half the male population of Japan wear shoes that offer them a trip, a fall, or a coming off with each step taken.
All drunks are bad, but Japanese drunks are special.
Tipping in restaurants: let’s stop that, says a US expat who’s been living in Japan for five years. Let’s see how that revolution shakes out.
The Japanese make it clear to me that we all like to wrap ourselves as gifts to give. Some of us spend a lot of time (and money) binding and packing ourselves, strapping and wrapping, ribboning and bowing, scarving and hatting and gloving ourselves. Some of us also tie gifts on our gifts, packs and purses and bags and packs.
If you are an average Japanese you will be launched forward when you sneeze. You will call attention to your feet. And when you make even the slightest exertion of yourself, you will call attention to that also with a brief speech.
The Japanese are a careful people and a prepared people. They are not cautious so much as precautious. They push ahead when they walk, talk, listen, stand in line. Hence they can be surprised at the tiniest departure from routine, from expectation. Or they put on a good act of surprise. They also give tiredness and sickness and busy-ness a nice off-stage introduction and plenty of room to move. And of course they carry bags inside of bags and contents inside of contents. They pack their spaces and they fold and unfold their complete belongings. They seem to have time to do everything. They carry what they need and they find occasion to need what they carry. They use all the hooks and bells and lights and whistles they build into seats, chairs, tables, shelves, ledges, carts, cars, trains, buses. They miniaturize umbrellas. They make stuff sacks in all sizes, up to futon size, and they suck the air out of that. The Japanese suck the air out of everything. They dislike sunlight, direct or glancing, and shut it out of their space as quickly as they can. The train leaves the station and eight curtains are drawn annoyedly before the eyes or the laptop screens have had a chance to be bothered. It’s a reflex, a trained habit, a result of a government that came out blasting in 1951 about the effect of sun on skin and the possibility of skin cancer. One woman even gets up from the other side of the train to close the curtains opposite her on the sunny side of the car.
I woke up from a dream saying “At least I’m not a white name is the thought of all Asia” (1/1/16).
There are those for whom the desire to call a “litigious society” a “liberal society” is almost irresistible, so obsessed are they with seeing the world in terms of “freedom” (they’re all for it) and “security” (they’re afraid of it). Japan is into safety. The United States should be into freedom. Wherever freedom is disappearing, security, care, and liberal politics are to blame.
You can say the Japanese are nice, but then they’re never not. They are just as nice as they are indifferent by design to getting into anything with other people. And they never make mistakes.
In Japan, “I’m sorry” only makes sense to someone if the person saying it is at fault for something there’s sorrow about. If your friend is frustrated because she can’t get wirelessly connected, your “I’m sorry” makes no sense. If your student has a cold or a fever, your “I’m sorry” is confusing. Japan is a no-fault country when it comes to the facts of life.
Teaching English in Japan, I meet students who have been so trained to listen to English that they can’t hear it. That’s an exaggeration. I mean that classroom language teaching, formal teaching of a language as a language, presents listening as a part of the study or learning of a language, which is never how one encounters a language outside the classroom. We don’t encounter language and language doesn’t encounter us. It’s more like breathing or walking. In the classroom, listening means paying attention to recorded voices, answering questions about what was said, taking quizzes about comprehension of the meaning of what was said, repeating what was listened to, etc. Listening is thus divided from speaking, reading, and writing, the three other big deals of language as presented in a classroom, where each is something to do now in order to learn the target language. Anyway, my students in Japan expect to listen to English—to hear it, I should say, when they listen to it—in a certain way. And so they can’t hear it when they do hear it, either out of the classroom, before class starts, or just after it ends. They are at a loss about it at those times. They can only identify it as English. I want my students to stop listening to English and start hearing it. But I doubt that most of them will ever “catch” it, as they like to say.
Japan looks locally and globally much more like self-reliance in practice than the United States does.
In English we can say, “You’re listening to me but you’re not hearing me.” We can also say, “I know you can hear me but you’re not listening to me.” In both cases, the second half of the sentence is another way of saying, “You’re not understanding what I mean/want/do/think/feel.” (Now, people are saying, “get” for “understand.”) But if you try the same thing with verbs of sight, you don’t get quite the same result. We can’t say, in English, “You’re seeing me, but you’re not watching me.” “I know you watch me but you’re not seeing me.” (We don’t say, “I see.”) On the other hand, we can ask someone, “See what I mean?” more readily than we can, “Hear what I mean?” We can say “You hear” “You know” “You get” “You feel” and “You see” “what I’m saying?” And these are all equivalent.
I love that the deer in Nara never seem to get the point of selling people deer cookies. They eat the cookies, but they’re not the consumers. They’re free-riders.
Japanese women wear what male clothiers call boxer briefs instead of what female clothiers call panties. They do it because they don’t want the seam of the underwear to show at the place where the buttocks become thighs. In boxer briefs, the seam shows halfway down the thigh. Where a seam shows, there is no seamlessness. Where there isn’t a seam, there is seamlessness. But we only talk of things being seamless so as not to call attention to the necessity of seams.
We don’t have the discipline Japanese have. They don’t have the discipline they’re supposed to have. What a mixed bag of air-conditioned comfort and dilapidated, outdated, unrepaired, poorly maintained, ticky-tack jerry-rigging. Like Thailand, torn-down, half torn down, partly built, partly unbuilt. Like Shanghai in 2001.
Japanese are not noticing, reminding, or reminded people. They are trained people, habitual people, patterned people, routined people, used-to people. They look at things already looked at and marked for looking at, famous things famous for being looked at. They don’t look around. They are guided in all they do. They are highly guidelined.
The Japanese love convenience because more than half the things they do are otiose and gratuitous.
“It’s not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault.” I’ve said that, but never without holding the thought that it was somebody’s fault, probably mine, mostly mine, or the other person’s, mostly the other person’s. There are states in the United States that are called “no-fault states,” in which, if you get into a traffic accident, the emphasis of the investigation into the accident isn’t to determine who’s at fault, presuming that both drivers are insured. I don’t think insurance companies sell “no-fault” policies. And how about societies? Does a no-fault society exist? If any do, Japan is not one of them. Japan is an at-fault society, even a sole-fault society. Tourists in Japan often marvel at how the Japanese wait at the crossing to cross a street even when there’s no traffic and even if they’re in a hurry. When they do get the green to cross, the Japanese cross in the lines painted on the road that define the crossing place. I got an answer for why they don’t cross the street against the light when it would be perfectly safe to—an unexpected answer. The usual answer is either “We have many rules” or “We don’t do that here.” But when Kimiko stopped me from crossing against the light several meters out of the crossing zone, she said that if something happened to me while doing that, insurance wouldn’t cover me—or it would be a big problem. I would be at fault, in other words, and the money I’d spent to insure myself against accidents wouldn’t cover me. My insurer would not be responsible. All the caution and precaution I had taken, all the occasions when I had followed rules, all that discipline and frustration and annoyance—for nothing. Better to follow the rules, better to act as if the worst could happen, and out of nowhere, at any time. Then it wouldn’t be my fault. It would be someone else’s, and they would have to pay.
The Japanese expression of surprise is so uniform and usual and evenly distributed that it must have been taught and coached into being, and trained into use, or so genuine and natural that I wonder if the Japanese are continuously experiencing things for the first time—and so have no use for or concept of memory or habit.
Let’s call nations “shops,” after Adam Smith’s or Napoleon’s “nation of shopkeepers,” or as if they were advertising agencies. So: “Those years, specifically, were 1868–1912: the Meiji era, during which Japan became the first non-Western shop to develop a modern commercial literature.”
The headline of this article is sensational: Nara isn’t “ruled” by deer, and these photos, by Yoko Ishii, aren’t magical. They’re documentary, and the collection of them as a whole shows how unmagical the deer here are. (Edward Abbey liked to talk of deer as overgrown mice.) The collection is only magical in the sense that there are no people in the frames. That’s unreal and inaccurate, because the cultivated deer-people symbiosis here, or the fauna-cement ratio, is also high on the list of things to see while visiting Nara—and Japan. On the other hand, the Nara deer aren’t quite “ruled” by the Nara people, but every year they are herded together by some Nara people and their antlers are cut off. Anyone can go watch this being done. The deer are forced to bear it. The human rationale is economic: being one of the two most “famous” Nara tourist attractions (“Daibutsu” is the other), the deer mustn’t endanger the people. I’ve never seen a deer attempt to gore a tourist, even when the antlers are relatively short and the tourist deserves it. But the precautionary principle is paramount in Japan. Some have probably said that de-antlering benefits the deer, doing what turnstiles and sign-posts can’t do, what trunks, branches, and other deer used to do. I’ve also heard people say that “it doesn’t hurt the deer,” because hard antlers no longer have a live nerve or a blood supply. I’m glad they can’t prove that by me. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/nara-deer-city-photos_us_5848664ae4b08c82e8895eea?ncid=engmodushpmg00000003
The price of Japanese culture is that nothing ever gets to be about you unless it’s a mistake. The price of American culture is that everything is always about someone. Both prices are too high, and neither of them captures all the available information.
You can’t say, in English, “In Japan, everything is built smallered.” You seem to have to say, “on a smaller scale,” and raise the problem of “scale,” and so of what that’s built on, and then decide in which context you’re going to deal with that question for the time being—architecture, logic, language, philosophy, geometry, etc.
Let’s eat some soy-milk skin. Let’s eat some “salad purple” (sarada murasaki) eggplant. This variety can be eaten fresh “amid the growing popularity of salads.” It “goes well with various dressings because it does not have a strong flavor. I recommend lightly pickled eggplants,” Machida said. Which means sweetened, as almost all Japanese pickles are pickled with sugar, whatever else they’re pickled with. “Machida pays great attention to ensure that the delicate variety does not get bruised or unevenly colored. ‘It can become bruised even when leaves touch its flesh as they sway in the wind. [“Flesh” isn’t right here, because there’s the skin first, covering the flesh.] And I take care that it doesn’t get sunburned by preventing its exposure to direct sunlight.’” No wonder Japanese fruits and vegetables are so expensive: nature has to be stopped so that they can be brought spotless to market. The man talking here grows his new eggplant variety on 500 square meters, releasing 200 liters of water into it four times a day at two-hour intervals. “Machida prunes carefully to create a space around his plants to prevent their leaves and stems from touching each other. Tall hedges surround the field to block the wind” (from The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun, 8/23/16).
In the above, with its “pays great attention,” “delicate,” “take care that,” “carefully,” “prevent,” “block,” you have the ethos of Japanese society. It is an expensive, time-consuming ethos, in which one’s natural hurry and self-interest must be choked back or held in almost continuously. Great patience must be had. The delicacy of approach to every gesture, to every utterance, to every step, move, or pause, is correspondingly gross. Shall I indicate that you sit down? Shall I count you your change and show you me in the process of so counting it? Shall I preempt my own going in such-and-such a direction by thrusting my arm ahead of me to indicate what direction I’m about to take in front of you? Yes, yes—you shall do all of these things, no matter how tedious, how expensive, how inefficient, how unnecessary, how maddening.
Is your lower part swollen like a drawstring bag? The eggplant’s is.
“Japan is in some sense uniquely blessed as a land of ruins. Its rapidly aging population, low birth rate, urbanization and lack of immigration have left a legacy of ghost towns and more than 8 million abandoned homes, or akiya. That tally could hit 21.5 million, one-third of all residences nationwide, by 2033, according to the Nomura Research Institute.”
The seniority system is a—the—one-upmanship system. From birth, you are one up on everyone born after you. You get a status or power that is n + 1 relative to those born a year, a day, after you—and you hold this position until the year you stop being n + 1; that is, until you’re dead. This is the sempai-kohai system in Japan, and it reigns also in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. It’s ingenious. Behind it, legitimizing it, is the imperial or king system. The emperor or king says, “I (and persons related to my blood and sperm) come first. I own all of this. I am seniority. But the rest of you, all of you not directly related to me by ties of blood and marriage, get to have a system in which the oldest among you can play at being Number One. You will never be sempai to me or mine, but you can go quite far in holding your own and holding down others by virtue of your birth-year alone. My two-year-old son is sempai to the oldest of you, but otherwise, you can lord it over, and expect deference from, anyone younger than you.”
Met a man today—he came up and asked if I was German, if I had German blood—who began talking to me by lamenting that nobody in Japan converses. Everybody speaks, but there is no dialogue, “only one way.” He wanted to go to another country. He is Japanese, but he has been to other countries, knew of Denver, and had “driven through” Colorado. He has no settled place to be, or be from, now, but moves around. He then spoke for five minutes or more without stopping. He said that he hated white people, that they had ruined Japan, Japanese women in particular. He now likes Muslims, even though he’s a Christian, because they don’t allow their women to mix with white people or to kiss in the middle of the street. White people seek only money and victory and sex. They treat all women not their own as “sex objects.” He likes Muslims in Afghanistan because they have “honor killings” and they fight the white man. Nobody else will fight the white men, except certain Arabs and Muslims. They call white men “the devil,” and they are right to. Even though he is a Christian, and believes we are all evil, he thinks some of us are worse than others. Of the evil white men, the English are worse than the Americans because more “arrogant.” The Americans are cowards, with their atomic bomb and their drones. They don’t fight like men, with honor, face to face. They are hypocrites. They seem nice and act nice and look nice, but they are animals, and they have ruined Japan. Even the cherry blossoms are genetically engineered. “You have to go into the mountains to see the real cherry blossoms. It’s a humble flower, not this big thing around here. Japan is a cherry blossom now, genetically modified.” White people have it in their blood to be the way they are. “You can’t mix sake and whiskey. You just can’t. Some things don’t mix.” Half-breeds are the result, and half means not full, and he feels sorry for the half-breed children whose selfish parents have destroyed their identity. “Half-breed children have no identity.” He wasn’t certain that if his daughter had a sex with a white man he would kill her, but he understood the idea of honor killing. He appreciated the Muslims now more than ever. “The Muslims will save the world,” he said three times, and sipped from his can of beer. He didn’t seem to want or need me to say anything, and he didn’t seem to mind that I was a white man. I was an example of the kind. His English was nearly fluent. “English is a man’s language, and women don’t need it. I tell all the girls not to take English. What do they need to speak English for?” As I left, he told me to “have a good time.” (4/17/12, Nara)
The Japanese don’t consult themselves about things piecemeal or case by case (even though they all seem to know the phrase, “case-by-case,” which they use as Japanese, but mistakenly: we would say “It depends” where they say “case by case,” and who knows what they say when we say “on a case by case basis”), but do them categorically, as the Chinese drink this color of tea in this season or eat that melon in that season. A young woman in a warm room has her lap blanket draped over her legs—because it’s cold outside, because it’s winter, December. If it’s 82 degrees in the room, it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t ask herself if she’s cold, she uses the equipment she brought with her. Japanese love gear, kit, completeness, full dress, covers, tights and hose, socks, buckles, but they will never use a kleenex to blow their nose.
The Japanese are crazy about bags. A man gets on a train to go home after work, and he’s hungry. He has a paper bag. Inside that is a plastic bag. Inside that is a sandwich inside a plastic bag, inside cellophane or plastic wrap. When he frees it from its covers enough to get at with his mouth, he eats it right next to his face, crackling all the wrappings the whole way down the sandwich. Then the plastic bags go back into the paper bag.
They love tape, we love twist ties. They are the Japanese, and nobody has more tape, ties, clips, string, and bags than the Japanese.
To be Japanese is to own a pair of slippers, a lap blanket, a handkerchief, and a neck pillow dedicated to air travel. And a pair of brown shoes to go with your black suit.
Nothing the Japanese do annoys me more than their blocking sunlight from entering the windows of buses, trains, planes, and rooms. They won’t let it be coming in.
John Stuart Mill wrote, as if of Japan, or of the nuclear family: “Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.” “This is a timeless claim, to be sure,” says Cass Sunstein in quoting it, noting that is also “intensely autobiographical.” All timeless claims are intensely autobiographical: this was Emerson’s position.
Why do I hate the alacrity with which Japanese men take their shoes off and put their slippers on? Why do I hate un-shoed feet in all public places except on beaches and near swimming pools? Why do I think there’s something lax, dirty, and undignified in slippers, in on-ing and off-ing footwear?
What can you do about the way people are, to change them to the way you are? A whole nation, like Japan, floods me with contempt. Each of us is an only child, an only abandoned little child. How little must a child be always? We nod our self-approval in little boxes.
Japanese girls of 17 wear the same hose Japanese women of 70 wear, and you wouldn’t often know the difference.
Ask a Japanese student writing her senior thesis if she’ll be finishing college and graduating at the end of the coming semester, and she says, “Maybe.” Which isn’t the same as saying “Probably,” or “I hope so,” or “That’s the plan,” or “If everything goes according to plan,” etc. The Japanese don’t live in probability. They live in maybeility, which is just a way of saying “yes, without question.”
“Mr. Children,” the name of a Japanese band, sums up the culture for me, a culture in which everyone agrees to be told what’s obvious, known, implicit, assumed, in words accompanied with in-your-face hand gestures, as at a restaurant table, when you are also told what to do with sauces, i.e., use them (you must use them, not may, and in this order, and this one in this but never in that), and must often attend meetings, as parents for their children’s college entrance exams, six or more, stretched over months, information that could easily be sent in the excellent mail of Japan, as printed matter, or by email, to phones or computers—but a culture in which the most important, difficult, complex things are never said, just as the simplest things are never said or expressed in the simplest of gestures, a hello or a wave; or, as when cars pass each other on very narrow old roads, you are given a gesture and a honk of the horn where it will be loudest and late, because here a wave of the hand or nod of the head is to specify once what needs the double-emphasis only noise can be guaranteed to give. Thus in Japan every child is a Mr. or Mrs., and every adult is happy to treat every other adult as a child, not once, but repeatedly, as if each person is born yesterday or, indeed, every minute or hour, and so needs to be told that the food on their plates is food and that food is for eating.
Another summary of the trap or cell that Japanese culture is is the cellophane band they put around pill packets, those, what are they called? Bullet packs—no, blister packs. Pills by prescription, and over-the-counter pills, are not dispensed in bottles, but in blister packs, stacked on each other to a certain number, which are then banded. These bands are diabolical: just tight enough, just loose enough, to be neither easy to remove one blister pack from, nor easy to move the blister packs around in, so that you could slip one down or up to remove the two or four pills you need from the rest, and leave it in the pile.
Japanese men know nothing about their hair or their shoes.
Again today I saw the results of an expensive operation to defeat time and chance. Japan is full of them. Japan and self-reliance have little to do with each other—and yet the Japanese are, minutely and daily, much more self-reliant than Americans. Two 50-foot-long arms of steel, anchored in concrete, reached up and braced two branches. Even the tree was to be double-checked against breaking down in a storm. The cashier at the train station double-checks himself before returning your change. The young women at the cash registers in the konbini have to double-check each other before returning your change. The bus drivers check their eyes with their hands before pulling out from a stop into traffic. Along the tracks in the train stations too men and women look, gesture where they look, and then proceed. Change is immaculately checked in Japan. It is trained. It is tracked. In three years, I have seen only one mistake made in Japan.
“The psychologist is always a sophist,” Hugo Ball says (37). William James had elevated the idea into a fallacy twenty-five years earlier, doing his part to keep the birth-rate steady in that teeming category: “the psychologist’s fallacy par excellence”: “The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ par excellence.” I like all the words with stand in them. Understand, Ecstasy, Circumstance, Stasis. Dance is nothing more than standing in motion. I ought to get up now, so that I don’t sit for too long. Static, stasis, nunc stans, status quo ante rem. Walking, Emerson says, sophistically, is a kind of falling. He didn’t say what kind, but I can say it for him: the correct kind. “The psychologist is always a sophist.” But Ball has something more interesting in mind. You could translate the sentence as “The person is always a sophist.” Ball goes on to say: “I realized this very early in my childhood whenever I related an experience. I knew in advance what impression I would make in this or that case, with this or that nuance: pity, astonishment, curiosity, or abhorrence, as the case might be. I played this instrument with great pleasure. Strangely enough, the result was that my audience became contemptible to me” (37). (We are all Prince Hal, in other words, leading a low life we know we are above, and just about ready to impress everyone with our reformation—with being better than our promise, better than our word, better than our reputation.) I’ve seen three or four Japanese infants so know and behave (I happen to be living in Japan). This, then, is the fallacy of human being. It is what later in the century came to be called “folk psychology” or “mind reading,” here seen by Ball from within and without. Each of us is the perfect psychologist. We write, read, and perform ourselves right along with reading, writing, and being the audience for others. The boy holds its parents in contempt too. It launches its voice and cuts it off like circuitry, wailing and stopping, reddening and choking, until it gets the effect it has desired in advance. James is talking like a scientist, a psychologist in the more modern sense. Ball speaks of “the psychologist” as Nietzsche does, before the profession got hold of the name and the office. “I play this instrument with great pleasure”: yes, but we have no greater pleasure, and no other instrument to play. Sybille Bedford made reporting this natural sophistry of ours the trick of her books on trials. She emphasizes the tones of voice of everyone who speaks in court. Ball has the classical dramatists demanding “that each character must be right in the end.” Goethe made the same point in a talk with Eckermann, only he named his emphasis “the dramatic in general.” To define that he turns to eloquence. There is a divine dramatist in each of us, and we are always severally justified, whether we are Brutus, Prince Hal, Hamlet, Rosalind, or Cleopatra.
“Does a crow ever wipe its beak on a scarecrow?” (Ball 40). I have seen them do it in Japan. The crows here are as large as the apples here are large. The apples are frightening. One Japanese apple can feed a small family, and all Japanese families are small. In contemporary China, until recently, it could be safely assumed that all families are likely to have no more than one child. In Japan, where that assumption can’t be safely made, every Japanese strikes you as an only child. Japan is actually only one Japanese, as, according to Richard Feynman, the universe is only one electron. A more unaffiliated population than Japan’s I am unaware of; and though I’m unaware of most populations on the globe, I go ahead and extrapolate from my tiny N like anyone else. But the absence of variation between any two members of this set of Japanese, or should I say the uniform quality and the thoroughness of its diffusion across the whole set, is the most impressive thing about the Japanese. Compared to them, Koreans are eccentrics and Chinese are hooligans.
I don’t write this for you to assess my condition with. You may do that, and you probably will. But I don’t think I write in order to be assessed. I could be wrong. I have never stopped to ask myself why I write. I have tried several times to stop writing, for lack of a reason to keep writing. But then I realize I’ve never had a reason to, and having no audience—I’ve never had no audience—is not better than any other reason to keep writing or to stop. Many people talk of doing something, or having something, that “they can’t take away from me.” Obsessed, rejected, maniacal writers seem to say, “they can’t give that to me,” and write so as to cut themselves off from paranoids afraid of being taken from and sentimentalists out to change things for the better.
Speaking of people who get tattoos, they almost always strike me as prone to be revenge artists. They simply don’t give a fuck for anyone who doesn’t think of them, for anyone they don’t make think twice about them. Ball has an idea for keeping the production of poems to a minimum: make poets have to ink their poems into their skin. Ball seems to think that tattoos are “cut into” “flesh.” But they’re only skin-deep. People with a lot of ink think they have skin in the game, but it seems to me a way of staying out of the game and dressing up in a private language. Ball also thinks that the original idea of publication was “a form of self-exposure” (41). Precisely not the case with tattoos, however that may be. Tattoos are not publication, but further privatization, as now, 100 years later, when tattoo parlors are hip, profitable, and everywhere. Here again the Japanese are instructive: people with tattoos are criminals; their ink is not to be seen in public. Tattooed men and women advertise that they are not to be known, that they are invulnerable. I saw one of them in Denver the other day. He was walking his tattoos and he had pit bulls all over him. I gave him a wide berth.
As I read about Dadaism in Ball, who made the name from the Rumanian “yes-ye” and the French “hobbyhorse,” I think of the Japanese with their love, not of “the extraordinary and the absurd,” but of the girlish, the cute, the neat, the contained; of the performed surprise (an extended Oooohh) and the mechanical head-gesture of consideration; of their “hai-hai-hai”; of their fascination with dolls and bags and tape and receipts.
The differences between a Noh play and a faculty meeting are not many. The former is much slower, the latter being already intolerably slow. The Reveal Codes function is always on, a film running before all their eyes. The hiant uptake of the Japanese strikes me daily. I can wait twenty seconds for a student not to say “I didn’t read it” or “I didn’t do it” or “I don’t know.” I am still waiting for one of them—it’s been three years—to say, “I don’t understand.” Oh, because they all understand. Everything is understood, in the way “understood” is used by grammarians to mean that a part of speech or a phrase has been elided because it will be understood to have been read into the utterance.
“Men like to hold their own as they have held,” Bacon told King James—or, as he says elsewhere, “These old shoes are easy to the feet.” In Japan, shoes that are too big are easy to get on and off, but English is a language that doesn’t fit into tatami rooms.
Yuuka said, “He lives with four people, his wife and two children.” In counting, the Japanese don’t say, he lives with three others. When I ask the students how many siblings they have, they count themselves. “I have three siblings” means, “my brother, my sister, and me.” You have to live with yourself and three others, in Yuuka’s count. You are one of the people you live with.
My friend Han told me he learned about sex from Japanese and American porn movies. His pirated collection of them numbered over 100. And then there was Junko, my Japanese friend in Shanghai. Junko told me she learned about sex from her brother’s porn collection. Though she had dated a man for seven years in Japan, she was a virgin still at 31. She came from a strict Shinto family. She was kindness itself. I saw my selfishness foiled in her generous, almost ceremonial solicitousness. Her teacher was an expert in Japanese terms of respect, in “honorific” Japanese. Junko’s parents shot the bow and arrow every day. Junko wanted to get married. Her English prevented me from being other than blunt.
A Japanese woman over 40, maybe even over 30, layers. Socklettes, tights, stockings, girdle, panties, padded bra come off.
When we look at things, there they are. They aren’t transparent. When we talk, most of the time, we hardly realize we are. Nothing’s there. When I ask students what their favorite words are, they say “love,” “soft,” “pink,” “dog,” because they thought I asked what their favorite things are. That’s how quickly words get translated as things. It’s impressive. You should see the Japanese. They take their cameras everywhere. You should hear them. Their speech is reticent, formal, inhibited, formulaic. They keep their distance when they speak, but they’ll put their lens almost on a clump of moss or a cherry blossom. A room full of administrators in a university or a city office is painfully quiet. Talk isn’t cheap in Japan.
Sleep laughs at snot is, I’m told, a Japanese proverb.
Japan is full of nuns, their median age 70. The Catholic Church could be considered Japan, if it were only nuns.