Episode 12: The
I've been raving about (and raving in) Japan for the last 11
episodes, so it's time to take a peek under the rock that is
Japan, Inc. and see what ugly little creepy-crawlies we can find.
Please do bear in mind that these are all just my opinions and
that I am making generalizations about 125 million people.
Japan is an extremely ethnocentric country. Deciding on the
appropriate adjective took me a while: Japan is certainly not
xenophobic, quite the opposite, and while it certainly is racist
it's not racist in the traditional, Ku-Klux-Klan sense of the
word. Briefly put, Japanese people are firmly convinced that
Japan, its people and its culture are both fundamentally different
from and superior to all the other "ocean-outside" (kaigai) cultures
and their "outside-people" (gaijin).
That may seem like a brash statement, and it is. Doesn't Japan
excel at importing technology, culture and customs from other,
far-off lands? It definitely does, but there's a catch: everything
imported must first be adjusted to fit into Japanese society.
Japanese western food is different from "real" western food,
Japanese English is at times barely recognizable as English, and
even Japanese cellular phones must confirm to a strict set of
regulations, official and cultural, so they will fit in. Foreign
imports are trendy and sexy, but the foreignness should limit itself
to a visible expensive brand name on the product. Truly foreign
products may be amusing, and the Japanese certainly aren't averse
to, say, ethnic cuisine -- as long as it doesn't get too strange.
But the idea of eating non-Japanese food or, shock horror, moving
outside the country for an extended period of time as opposed to
a vacation is unthinkable; it would like asking a Westerner to
move into a cave and eat raw horsemeat for several years.
Most people from elsewhere tend to be amazed by how uninformed
Americans are about the rest of the world; in the United States,
it is taken for granted that everything revolves around the U.S.
and consequently other countries are just banana republics.
The Japanese do not share the first part of the illusion, in
fact its relations with neighboring giants like Russia, China and
the U.S. are a frequently discussed issue, but for the second
part they have developed their own distorted view. Perhaps the
best way of putting it is that to them, the rest of the world is
sort of a giant zoo, a large place full of amusing creatures doing
strange things, fun to visit every now and then, but a dangerous
place to be at night or to explore without a group to protect you.
I had heard every word I've written here before I came, but I
assumed it was just the whinings of a bunch of gaijin who didn't
want to adapt. Maybe so, but it doesn't make it any less true,
and you don't have to stay here for long to find out why. One
quick way is turn on your TV. For example, one program, broadcast
weekly, consists solely and entirely of footage of vehicles exploding,
buildings collapsing, people getting beat up, murdered, blown up,
etc, for one hour non-stop with complete with people in the studio
frowning and looking concerned. Every single clip is captioned
with the location, and not a single one ever takes place in Japan.
And indeed, after a bunch of clips they swap to the studio, where
the hosts of the show say what they thought was the most shocking or
wackiest part and then state, "Gee, I'm glad that Japan and/or the
Japanese aren't like that!"
Another program is the traditional old cop show, which shows brave
and heroic Japanese police officers chasing down criminals, who
are almost invariably Koreans, illegal immigrants or similar
non-Japanese undesirables. One night, I happened to catch a
talk show program, featuring the inimitable "Beat" Takeshi Kitano
argueing with a room full of gaijin (the actual title of the program
was "Gaikokujin vs Takeshi"). All the gaijin had lived in Japan
for a very long time, many were probably born here, and they all
spoke perfect Japanese. But surprise surprise: whenever a gaijin
spoke, the text for their words appeared at the bottom of the screen
(after all, Japanese is too hard for gaijin to learn, neh?), whereas
the speech of the Japanese hosts, laden with slang, puns and witty
repartee, was never transcribed. Why should it be?
However, if you come to Japan for a short time, all of this will
be entirely invisible to you. Like people feeding bananas to a
monkey at the zoo, Japanese people are invariably polite, helpful
and -- if you give them a chance -- very curious about you and
your funny ways. Overt discrimination is rare, and only people
settling here for a long time will discover that finding an
apartment or getting a credit card is very difficult because,
although few people will admit it, in many places "gaijin dame!".
There's a subtle difference between this and the "whites only"
signs of the pre-1960s U.S.: whereas in the US blacks were (and are)
considered inferior and despised for it, in Japan there is absolutely
no hatred or loathing of gaijin. Sure, they're different, but
that's OK, as long as they don't try to act like they're not
different (after all, they are inferior). The landlords, hotels
and bank tellers who refuse entry to gaijin tend to do so because
they're afraid of communication problems and the strange ways of
the gaijin. Or so they say if pressed: one can only wonder how
they justify their equivalent discrimination of Japanese Koreans
(imported as slaves during WWII but still not granted citizenship)
and untouchable-caste minorities like the burakumin.
But enough whining. As one wise person on the Internet said, it's
only healthy for a blond-haired and blue-eyed white boy to go to the
only place on earth where he'll be discriminated against.
While I may be enough of a chauvinistic pig to appreciate all the
5-cm miniskirts, I've been indoctrinated with enough Nordic feminist
propaganda to make me wonder how on earth Japanese women put up
with their situation. In Japanese society, the sole function of
women between the ages of 5 and 25 is to act as sex objects. After 25
they get married (if they can -- the ones who can't are considered
failures in life and end up sweeping floors), become homemakers,
and eventually die. Every office has its pretty girls acting as
receptionists and tea makers, and the prestige of a company is
measured by the prettiness of its female staff; every serious (male)
talk show host has a pretty young female shadow who says "soo desu" a lot
and giggles; every advertising campaign and TV game show features girls
in miniskirts, bikinis or less holding product X and smiling. One
typical ad, for some brand of flavored mineral water (which are very
popular right now), consists solely of a girl in a negligee rolling
around in a big bed jiggling her beloved tubular object. All the
porn video rental companies, which regularly shower their ads into
my mailbox along with the flyers for "special body massage only 20,000
yen/hour", have large selection for the reipu and rorikon
(= Lolita complex) fans, carefully noting ages (8, 6, 8, 10...),
locations and lurid details. And if the football team just isn't
enough, just drop by the neighborhood convinience store to pick up
an Exciting Comic For Men featuring variations on the theme "monsters
with too many tentacles sodomizing high school girls".
Not that this is all negative. I find manga/anime a useful window
into Japanese society, and while Urotsukidoji (the famed monster
who'd put Kanamara-sama himself to shame) may showcase one side of
the Japanese psyche, the kids' programs broadcast on TV show another.
One cartoon stars an obnoxious kid best known for pulling down his
pants and mooning the audience to solve problems; while I'm sure
that this would be considered obscenity by the Christian Coalition --
especially since our hero is anatomically correct on both sides --
the show is not only hilarious but refreshing after years of
"Gee, Planetman, we must save the Earth's delicate ecosystems from
the evil Dr. Pollution!". Or consider another show, starring an
affable mad scientist who has built an android designed to look like
a little girl. The scientist has a crush on the girl's elementary
school teacher, so in one episode he installs a camera in the
robot's head so he can take a peek under the teacher's skirt.
I can already hear the NOW camp complaining about exploitation,
but fundamentally, while the settings are often entirely whimsical,
the characters and their feelings are, simply put, so much more
human than in the mass-produced trash force-fed to America's
kids. It may not be PC, but people are interested in what's
under that teacher's miniskirt and they do find mooning funny.
And while this behavior is taken as natural, which it is, it's not
exactly glorified; the robot engineer is such a hilarious character
precisely because he's so obsessed. In the end, regardless of what
the TV and comic books may contain, violent crime remains practically
nonexistent in Japan. They must be doing something right.
When I first came here, I was outright freaked by the concept of
earthquakes, and I still find thinking about them too much a
highly unnerving experience. There is just something very unpleasant
about the idea that at any time, no matter where you are, the earth
may start shaking and reduce the whole city into ruins within seconds.
And if you survive that, you'll have fires, floods, food shortages
and everything else to face while the Tokyo Metropolitan Govn't,
having lost all its managers in the implosion of their colossal
Shinjuku office, runs about like a headless chicken for a few weeks,
and then Godzilla... oh, wait, wrong movie. And there's nothing
you can do to adequately prepare, because odds are that even if
you have your Official Earthquake Preparation Kit at home containing
crucial items like rice crackers, you'll be ten miles away and one
mile underground in the Ginza-sen or equivalent when the Big One
hits. But I suppose I should look at the bright side -- it's a more
interesting way to die than being hit by a drunk driver or having
a heart attack.
In the immortal words of Butthead, "I don't like things that suck",
so here's a list of things that REALLY annoy me in Japan.
It seems that by imperial decree, benches have been made illegal
in Japan. Subway stations usually have a token bench somewhere
serving the 4 million a day who pass through the station, but in
most parks, even the big ones, there are none whatsoever. And so
people end up sitting on fences, roadside curbs, fountain edges,
anywhere they can. But why can't they just add some benches!?
Another thing missing here is trashcans. The concept of "public
trashcan" simply does not exist, and that's why everybody just
throws their junk on the street or out the window and forgets about
it. Now, thanks to the hordes of sanitation workers who insure
everything is spic and span it all disappears overnight, but wouldn't
it make everyone's life easier to have trashcans?
And don't get me started on shopping! Unsweetened yogurt, real bread
(not toast), sausage that doesn't contain fish, cheese that doesn't
non-taste like tofu, non-fat milk... all dame. Sure, you can get
those too if you pay an arm and a leg at a specialty store, as opposed
to merely hocking your kidneys to pay for the normal grocery bill.
(Yesterday's was 4500 yen, and my only concession to Western tastes
was a can of peanut butter.)
Ah well. Just the same, I am absolutely sure that the list of
things I will miss back in Finland will be about ten times longer
than this one...
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