Thursday, February 28, 2013

Will Miss #510 - torii

There was nothing in Japan that said, "hey, I'm in Japan," as much as the torii or gates that herald the entrances to sacred spaces (usually Shinto shrines). Despite having lived there for 23 years and having seen a lot of these gates everywhere, they never failed to catch my eye. In fact, one of the things which often caught my interest was how often you'd see a torii in the middle of a thriving business district or residential area at places that you would not expect them. In particular, running across them in areas like Shinjuku or Shibuya always felt like an oasis of spirituality or, at least, old Japanese culture in the midst of all of the modern hubbub.

I know the Japanese aren't especially religious people, but there sure are a lot of torii in their country anyway. I'll miss seeing these gates, and how they were frequent reminders of old Japanese culture. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Random Thoughts: Default assumptions

One of my former students works in the fashion industry. She had been working for an Italy-based maker of sophisticated and simple clothing and during much of the time I taught her, she made multiple trips to that country. For several years, my job mainly was to help her improve her English for those trips.

After quite a few years at the same company, and no small amount of difficulty with the management of the Japanese branch, she wanted to change her company and refocus her career from only doing wholesale to also doing retail. To that end, there was a French company at which she wanted to pursue a job. As part of the preparation I gave her for her interview, I wanted to orient her on the cultural aspects and operated from multiple sources (including an excellent resource for teachers called "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands") which asserted that the French, when in business situations, could come across as cold, abrupt, and unfriendly. I specifically told her not to lose heart or confidence if her interviewer seemed aloof and did not smile at her or engage in small talk or banter to warm things up. This was simply their way in business, particularly with total strangers. 

Though I warned her that this was going to be the case, she returned from her interview in an extremely pessimistic state of mind. She said she was sure that her French  interviewer intensely disliked her and that she would not get the job. I reminded her that I had told her before that the lack of smiles and friendly banter as well as the abrupt and officious way in which she was handled was quite normal for a French person in the setting in which she was interviewed and that I was sure he did not dislike her or necessarily judge her poorly. I'm certain that she received this as nothing more than well-intentioned reassurance (and it was), but I think she didn't really believe me at the time. Later, when she was offered the job, I think she accepted what I said as essentially correct. After all, if the president really disliked her, he wouldn't have hired her. 

My student had a lot of experience with foreign people, especially Americans and Italians. In both cases, she dealt with people from cultures who were generally warm, gregarious, and went out of their way to be friendly even when they were in a business setting. Her default assumption was that foreign folks were all like this if they liked you. The only reason for foreigners not to be treat you in that fashion was that they had taken a dislike to you. My rather emphatic attempts to inform her about the differences in French business culture could not override her default assumptions about foreign people in general. 

In Japan, I was constantly dealing with default assumptions made about me by the Japanese. Sometimes this annoyed me because I had to consistently remind people that they could not check off all of their neat little boxes on their "American" check list for me. The truth is that, like my student and my efforts to contextualize her experience with a French interviewer, they often simply could not reconcile their belief with the reality and rejected the truth in favor of their default assumptions. Unfortunately, I continue to see this here at home. In fact, I see it to a troubling extent. 

The truth is that I regard the exercises I had in challenging default assumptions in Japan as a valuable life lesson which serves me every bit as well, perhaps even better, in the U.S. as it did in Japan. The Japanese are not the only ones who operate in the world based on erroneous notions that get stuck in their heads and they aren't the only ones who won't allow reality to intrude upon them. Here in the U.S., I witness such behavior every bit as much as I did in Japan. The main difference is that it is less about foreigners, and more about life in general.

Recently, one of my friends was upset that she, in her opinion, was not being recognized by her peers for her academic performance and hard work while my husband was receiving such recognition. She ascribes this to male white privilege because the default assumption is that white men get everything women are overlooked (and particularly in her case since she is a member of a minority). While that may be the case for many people, that default assumption doesn't hold much water in this case. 

The truth is that the "recognition" my husband receives comes largely in the form of kidding from classmates. They'll make fake noises to indicate that they are impressed when he has done reading they have not or answers a question which no one else can about an arcane detail. Male classmates specifically often make fun of other men and are less sensitive in general to being made fun of. I believe one reason my husband is "recognized" is that people feel more comfortable ribbing him about being a diligent student. I think that comfort levels with mocking or making fun of women in general are much lower, and more specifically for this friend who is more sensitive and emotional than my husband. That is in now way an insult against her. Nearly everyone is more sensitive and emotional than he is, including me. 

Beyond this point is the fact that my husband is very active on social media and interacts with classmates on Facebook. Because he is so attentive to his studies, he sometimes uses Facebook to inform his classmates about mistakes that cost time and effort. Recently, the class was given two chapters to read, but the syllabus only instructed that one of them be read. He wasted his time reading both, but before others did the same, he let them all know about his error. He does this not to show off, but simply because he tends to notice these things first and wants to inform others who are in his class. Similarly, he would like others to inform him of such things, but they tend not to get to the material as early as he does. This is, in essence, leadership behavior that demonstrates his attentiveness to his studies. He also comments when other people post about homework concerns so they can see that he knows what is going on and can assist.

So, his "diligence" can be observed more overtly because of this type of social networking interaction. Our friend does not use Facebook with her cohort in this fashion and her diligence is mainly seen only in structured interactions within the classroom. However, since her default assumption is "male white privilege results in greater recognition", she is not aware of other factors which may be playing a part in the disparity in how they are recognized by their peers. Unless she first questions the default assumption, she will never know the real truth and find avenues to receive similar recognition should she truly desire it.

The reason I'm talking about this is that I believe that many default assumptions are made everyday in our lives. I had to think about this a lot while living in Japan and it was tiring, but I believe is useful in developing a perspective to guide you through your entire life, not only to help one understand other cultures and how to navigate them. 

One default assumption I made for many years was that all rude behavior directed at me as an extreme minority in Japan was because of prejudice and I believe my friend's sense that her being a minority female is the reason she is not recognized for academic dedication springs from a similar well. I realized, after some time, that my default assumption about the way I was treated was wrong. Sometimes people are jerks because they are not nice people, had a bad day, or hate their work, and sometimes it was because I was a foreigner. In some cases (such as hearing them mutter the word "gaijin" or overtly saying derogatory things), it was clearly prejudice. In others, it was unclear. I realized how important it was to question such things because I was bombarded by difficult to interpret experiences in Japan. It is my hope that, one day, my friend will also consider other possibilities when she interprets her experiences. 

What I have realized further here at home is that it is just as important to be open to multiple interpretations here as it was there. There is a tendency in people all over the world to explain the world in accord with the default assumptions of their current worldview. Sometimes, they are right, but sometimes, they are wrong. Often, we simply cannot know for sure, but there is value in at least opening the door to other possibilities and weighting their potential as an alternate explanation. 

This sort of reflection on alternative explanations applies to all sorts of situations and in both those in which we know much or a little about someone or something. It's a mental exercise you can do for experiences both large and small from wondering why a kid is having a tantrum in the market (tired? sick? ADHD? spoiled brat? hungry? bad day at school? frustration?) to thinking about why there are 10 flavors of powdered coffee creamer on the shelf (test marketing? consumer desire for variety? contains some chemical that can be used in illicit drug making?). The exercise itself is good for expanding your worldview and creativity as well as deepening your options, compassion and understanding. 

If I could get people to do anything in the furtherance of better understanding the world, it would be to actively start questioning their default assumptions and to at least entertain other possibilities. The value of this in terms of seeing the world for what it is rather than for what you believe or want it to be is immeasurable, no matter where you live. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Won't Miss #14 - maid fetishists (reflection)

I'm fully cognizant of the fact that my geographic circumstances strongly affect my experiences here in the U.S. as they did in Japan. Nonetheless, my subjective reality is as valid as any other. They may not be generalizable, but they are fair. When I discuss life in Japan for me as opposed to life in America for me, I speak anecdotally, but that doesn't mean it's not a reflection of a truth, at least as it applies to life in Tokyo and life in suburban California.

One thing about life in Tokyo was that fetishistic behavior was something I not infrequently witnessed. Whether it was men reading pornographic papers or manga on the train, panty fetish tokens, or women dressed in costumes in Akihabara to cater to the whims of men who wanted to fulfill certain fantasies, the way in which women were portrayed specifically to serve male idiosyncrasies was something I could not escape. I'm sure that this was, in large part, because I was living in a densely populated metropolis.

That being said, I've been to San Francisco several times and even taken public transportation in the U.S. (I know, the horror!), and I've never seen anyone portray their fetishistic behaviors (note: I did not go to Castro St., but I doubt I'd see women being objectified for the amusement of men there), let alone women on streets in costumes meant to happy up the menfolk. I'm sure there are places in which this happens in the U.S., perhaps outside of Hooters or some places in Las Vegas, but it's not something I see nearly so often here. 

While I don't have an ethical problem with it, I could not help but feel bad when I encountered women dressed as maids in Japan because they were rather clearly ashamed of being in that role on multiple occasions. Most of them turned away if someone tried to take a picture of them. If people persisted, they would walk away. I don't think any woman actively enjoys occupying a role which is about objectifying themselves to please strange men, but many do it because the money is good. Their presence wasn't a curiosity to me. It just made me sad. Before panties get knotted in a wad over this, I'd ask that people genuinely consider the question of how they'd feel if their wife or daughter had that sort of job, not because the job is shameful, but because it is steeped in women behaving in a servile manner while catering to a fantasy which often has sexual overtones. 

By virtue of circumstances, prudishness, or whatever, I'm glad that I don't encounter such things in the U.S. I don't miss seeing women dressed in maids or related costumes in Akihabara. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Will Miss #13 - Akihabara's mega stores (reflection)

Akihabara used to be a mecca for me back in the days when I was an Apple computer fan. I used to go there and drool over the latest hardware and even buy the occasional Japanese Mac Fan magazine and do my best to read through it as well as install some of the shareware and demos on the discs (which were often in English because they hadn't been translated into Japanese). By the time I left Japan, it was a mecca only for people who wanted to engage in maid cafe (or other hostess establishments for lonely nerds) or play video games. Sure, there were still some electronics shops, but the mega stores were where most of the action was concentrated. The little places that used to make up the majority of businesses there had been replaced by otaku (geek) establishments.

Still, since coming back to the U.S., I've found the electronics shops abysmal. Yes, buying online is great (and cheap), but it's fun to walk around eletronics shops when you're a tech geek, and I'd much rather buy my DVDs or small items from a real shop than buy online. I miss places like Yodobashi Camera or BIC Camera. Even if they were shadows of their former selves, they weren't the ghost towns I'm seeing here. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Random Thoughts - The Lost Horizon

You can just feel the peace and harmony.

There is a 1937 movie made by Frank Capra called "Lost Horizon" which has been on my mind lately. For those who are too young or non-trivia-minded to realize this, he's the man responsible for "It's a Wonderful Life." That fact may make you want to lay Christmas flowers on his grave or go and stomp on it while cursing wildly. It all depends on how you feel about one of the most over-played and well-known movies of all time in America.

Personally, I like Capra's vision and how it mixes hopefulness, high-minded ideals and unrealistic and appealing heroes and heroines with the grim facts of reality. There's a lot of saccharine in his movies, but there's also enough pain and bitterness in the mix to stop them from being too sweet to bear. The endings are usually good, but the road to what looks like "happily ever after" is paved with a lot of bumps. They are fantasies, but we all can use a little of such in our lives. As long as we know that they aren't real and can keep grounded in reality, there's no harm in a little indulgence while we allow a film to play before us for two hours or so.

 "Lost Horizon" is about a journey to a paradise hidden in the mountains called "Shangri-la". (If you want to watch this movie without being spoiled, then you may want to skip the rest of this post. This is your only warning.) Due to its secluded position, it cannot be detected by devices of the day, is hard to see in aerial flight, and experiences paradise-like weather conditions in the midst of brutal frozen rocky mountains. The people who live there are content in their isolation for the most part, and they claim to experience incredible longevity and good health due to the perfection of the atmosphere, food, and lifestyle that they enjoy. 

Unfortunately, the population is relatively stagnant except for the occasional unfortunate traveler who stumbles into their happy valley. Because of this, a British foreign secretary, Robert Conway, and his brother have their plane hijacked in order to bring them to Shangri-la. They chose the former because of his views and outlook and the latter was pulled along for the ride because he happened to be on the plane. Conway takes to the culture of this paradise well and is happy there while his brother feels restless and longs for the comfortable values and surroundings of his home culture in England. Conway's brother falls in love with a woman, Maria, who says she was stranded there and hates the restrictions placed on her by the high lama who runs Shangri-la. 

Maria says that the high lama is delusional and is lying about many of the points of living in Shangri-la including the longevity and perfect health people experience. She desperately wants to escape to civilization and convinces Conway's brother to leave with her and try to make their way through the freezing and treacherous mountain landscape. Conway reluctantly goes with them after his brother persuades him to go along.

I won't spoil the rest of the movie, but this is on my mind because I have concluded as of late that Japan represents a Shangri-la of sorts to many Western folks that I talk to about it. It's a place in which they believe people live in placid harmony with one another and have higher values and ideas than us squabbling, money-grubbing folks in the West. They eat a pure and perfect diet composed of soy bean curd, raw fish, rice, vegetables, and miso soup. That food is so nutritionally perfect that they live longer than any of us and experience better health.

The myth of "wa" pervades Western thinking. If you go to the Wikipedia link, it includes this line, "It implies a peaceful unity and conformity within a social group, in which members prefer the continuation of a harmonious community over their personal interests." This makes the Japanese sound like a homogeneous group that sets aside ego for a high-minded ideal society. The notion that the Japanese are like this is naive at best, and dehumanizing at worst. In an attempt to elevate them to a status of more actualized individuals, we deny them the emotional needs and complexity that we grant ourselves.

The truth is that "wa" is absolutely a part of Japanese culture, but it's not about a lot of happy people subscribing wholeheartedly to the value of peace and harmony and smiling while they set aside their own interests in the interests of the group. It's about struggling to silence ones ego and id in the interest of getting along with others. Its about judging status and deciding when one can act in ones own interest and when one should step back and defer to someone who is perceived to be of superior status. It's about being pissed off and struggling with whether to express your feelings or to suppress them. It's facing the same roiling boiling cauldron of emotion that every single human on this planet faces in their own individual way with a difference. And, you know what, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. 

The main difference is that Japanese are acculturated to land on a different side of this struggle than Western folks are. While an American person who is pissed off because she imagines you stole a parking space she was waiting for might unconsciously decide 8 times out of 10 to say something nasty to you because she can't resist making sure you know you've done something "wrong" in her opinion, a Japanese person in the same position won't say anything 8 times out of 10. This isn't because they both aren't upset, but because the Japanese person is much more likely to "know" that such an interaction may result in upsetting the public peace (by causing a scene) and therefore he will swallow his pride and just let it go.

Similarly, the notions that Japanese people are pious eaters is wrong. I can't tell you how many times people who don't have a lick of first-hand experience in Japan have told me how Japanese people eat, and it has never been anything like what I actually see. I'm told they don't eat sweets despite the fact that there are numerous confectioners and everybody seems to know about Pocky and weird KitKat flavors. I'm told they don't eat fried food yet people are very familiar with tempura (and anyone who has seen a deli in a Japanese market knows that it's a breaded, fried nightmare custom-built to supplement bento boxes). I'm told that they don't eat meat yet there are 3,598 McDonald's in Japan and numerous other fast food places (MOS burger, Lotteria, Burger King, DOM DOM, etc.) serving burgers. I guess the 2% of the population which is not Japanese is really putting the beef away everyday to keep them in business. But there is a need to believe that they eat pure and clean and therefore experience superior health and longevity.

The reason that "Lost Horizon" came to mind is that I realized that the book and movie reflected a need on the part of many people, particularly Westerners, to believe there is a place somewhere in which society is simply better. Somewhere in our unconscious minds, the hope that, under ideal conditions like those in Shangri-la, people will naturally accept an order to society which is conducive to harmony and peace, lurks. I think that there's an appealing notion that having your needs met in such a way makes people more capable of setting aside their greed, selfishness, and strong desires, even when their role might be a mundane and repetitive one like harvesting fruit or cleaning toilets. We need to feel that somewhere life is better and people can rise above their inherent pettiness. That's what fuels stories like "Lost Horizon". It's also what seems to fuel the fantasies about life in Japan.

I understand this need and I'm sure that somewhere in my cold, cynical heart, it lives within me, too. However, I'm concerned about the way in which this desire and the accompanying fantasies about Japanese people tend to set them apart from us as fundamentally different organisms. By projecting a fantasy personality onto them, we don't ascribe the same rich and complex psychological inner life to them that we all possess. This simplification diminishes them even as it seems to be elevating them to a status of being superior humans in a superior society. It dismisses the suffering people endure as a result of living in a society which expects them to set aside their own needs and the mental cost of subscribing to the notion of "wa". It's not about crediting them for the sacrifices they make, but rather about having compassion for them and what they endure. It's about recognizing that there are profound psychological costs to a society in which peace and harmony come at the expense of individuals and appreciating what that says about their culture as well as ours. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Won't Miss #510 - weak glasses prescriptions

Yes, this is an eyeglasses shop, and, in fact, was where I got my last pair of glasses before leaving Tokyo. It doesn't usually look like this. This was during a festival.

I didn't buy glasses terribly often in Japan, but when I did, I found that every time my visual clarity was not great. It seemed that the optometrists always gave me a prescription that was as weak as possible while still allowing me to see reasonably well. I wasn't sure about whether or not this was my imagination or something askew with the process was actually happening. Seeing an eye doctor in the U.S. confirmed that this wasn't simply my anecdotal experience.

The ophthalmologist who I saw recently, while discussing where I'd gotten my glasses, told me that eye doctors in Asia always give people the weakest prescriptions that the customer can manage to get by with. She said she didn't know for certain why they did this, but she speculated that it was because they felt stronger glasses would lead to progressively weaker eyesight. She hastened to add that this was not true, but they seemed to continue to believe this nonetheless.

For years while living in Tokyo, I got glasses that were so weak that a calendar across the room of the office I worked in looked blurry to me. I squinted my way through  mid-range visual challenges for years and figured my eyes were just deteriorating at a rapid pace, but it was actually the case that I was simply not being given glasses sufficient to establish adequate visual acuity. I don't miss getting weak prescriptions because of a superstition that stronger glasses will increase the rate at which my eyes worsen. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Will Miss #509 - neighborly behavior

Some qualities of an experience are so subtle and hard to describe that language, no matter how precise, will mislead the reader. I've found this to be the case many times while writing this blog, especially when it comes to titles. Brevity is a virtue, and I think many writers would do well to say less than they do, but it also increases the chance that one will be misunderstood. This topic is one of those in which I am walking a thin tightrope between conveying something that undermines the manner in which Americans are neighborly and overestimates the way in which Japanese are. 

In both Japan and the U.S., I have lived/am living in an apartment complex. That means that people who live in the building will occasionally pass by me. In Japan, with rare exceptions, most people would give a friendly greeting when we walked by or respond in kind when we offered a greeting first. This was in no way an indication of friendship, but a perfunctory act of civility. The fact that people always responded to "ohayo gozaimasu" (good morning) with a similar reply carried a certain feeling of balance and comfort.

In the U.S., my experience has been greatly less uniform in this regard. A handful of people are friendly and reply in kind, but some seem actually irritated or taken aback when I say, "good afternoon" to them. The sense I get is that, though we occupy the same apartment complex, they feel burdened by having to interact with me in a minimal fashion. They would rather we walked past one another with downcast eyes as if we were random strangers passing on a street. The inconsistency of response makes you feel some stress when you greet people, and lowers the chance that you'll do it at all which in turn creates a colder atmosphere in general.

I don't think it's asking too much that people who see each other around the same little patch of land on a regular basis exchange a few words in greeting, and certainly it seemed in Japan for the most part that they subscribed to this belief as well. I miss the way in which social propriety carried a sense of being neighborly. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Random Memories #25

Bukkurando (Book Land). Those who have lived in Japan may recognize the tiny logo in the upper left as the Tsutaya logo. I have no idea why a video shop was named this way, and I don't know when Tsutaya changed it's name/focus. And though it was called "Book Land", we were only renting videos there and I don't recall any books being there at all. 

When my grandparents or parents used to talk about how things were far more difficult for them back in their day, I always thought they were exaggerating about the extent of the inconvenience they suffered. Now that I'm older, and I can also talk about how life was less easy back in my day, I realize that they may not merely have been trying to tell me how "good" I had it. While they were clearly trying to tell me to go do the laundry in the machine and be grateful because I didn't have to go beat it against a rock, they were also telling the truth.

By the time I left Japan, entertainment was not limited to the odd T.V. show with bilingual broadcasting, but had expanded to multiple avenues of access to pop culture around the world. While a lot of current video was blocked, we had cable T.V. (e.g., e Fox networks that had crime and entertainment shows as well as movies, a "Mystery Channel" which had loads of British shows, the slop bucket of various shows of all genres, but especially sci-fi called the "Super Channel") and piracy was so easy that you could download T.V. from around the world without fear of prosecution. Keeping up with what was cool with the kids in media was pretty easy, but it wasn't so back in my day.

If you wanted to rent "Family Ties", this was your card of choice.

In the late 80's and throughout much of the early to mid 90's, we were pretty much reliant on rental shops and their boxes of video tapes with illegible spines. Since we couldn't read Japanese, the way in which we tended to select the tapes was based on whose picture was printed on the edge of the box. Most of what was on offer at that time was movies rather than television shows. What was worse was that most of the movies were on the older side and there was a heavy emphasis on certain actors or directors who had a higher level of recognition in Japan.

At that time, you could score pretty much any early Audrey Hepburn movie you wanted to lay your hands on, not that many people who were may age wanted them. There was also a pretty full complement of Hitchcock movies as well as a broad range of trashy horror (especially the slashy stuff). The range of foreign movies at that time tended to reflect the very old and the supremely popular, especially in the action genre. There's a reason Arnold Schwarzeneggar was sought for ridiculous commercials for Japanese products, and that's that Japanese people loved to watch him blow people away as much as 12-year-old boys with identity problems and bad skin loved it. 

Unfortunately for my husband and I, most of this sort of entertainment was not our cup of tea. And, of course, in that early time, understanding Japanese movies was impossible and they were not subtitled in English for our convenience. Back then, closed captioning in multiple languages was not an option. I remember that we were actually excited at one point to discover that one of the local video shops had begun to carry tapes of the banal Michael J. Fox comedy, "Family Ties". We were delighted to rent them, not because we were as enamored of Fox as the Japanese were (and they were gaga about him and the "Back to the Future" movies), but because it was American T.V. Hurray! We could get a taste of the idiot box from home. It didn't matter that it wasn't a particularly good show or that the tapes were on the expensive side to rent. There was something about the experience of watching T.V. from home that was a balm for the daily sense of being in a culture that felt incredibly alien.

It may sound stupid in an age when you take touching pop culture for granted since you can literally access it nearly anywhere any time, but there was something very comforting at that time about being able to sit in your apartment and watch T.V. shows that you could see back home. When we were bombarded constantly with stimuli which underscored that we didn't belong, the immersion in a story, a setting, and the sounds of home allowed you to forget for a half hour that you were in any place but home.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Won't Miss #13 - cell phone zombies (reflection)

Cherry blossom viewing is soooo boring that one needs to spice things up a bit with the excitement of texting.

When I originally posted this, in the early days of this blog, people told me that this problem existed everywhere in the world, not just Japan. People who mindlessly walked or stood around staring at their cell phones while tuning out the rest of the world weren't only a scourge in Tokyo, but everywhere that technology had made it's way into the greasy mitts of the population. When I returned, this was one of the points that I was particularly curious to observe. People are, after all, just as attached to being electronically tethered to one another here as they are in the land of the rising sun.

After coming home, what I discovered was that people gawk at their cell phones a fair bit here, but pedestrians who stand around in their own little world blocking others as they fully immerse themselves in poking at their cell phone screens are not much of a problem. In Tokyo, the maddening thing was people who were enmeshed with the tiny screen on their phones were omnipresent obstacles to movement because of the narrow spaces and crowds. Here, the problem is much more troubling and scary because the idiots who can't tear themselves away from their phones are often behind the wheels of cars. While it is illegal to use your cell phone with your hands in the U.S. while operating a vehicle, people do it all of the time. I've seen so many people weaving in traffic while using their phones that I'm shocked they're aren't more accidents than there already are and disappointed that the police aren't enforcing the law more vigorously.

I absolutely do not miss the cell phone zombies in Japan, but I'd gladly put up with hordes of them than  deal with the incredibly dangerous behavior I see among cell phone users in their cars in the U.S.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Will Miss #12 - the kitler at the local liquor store (reflection)

One of the things I infrequently mentioned about returning to life in the U.S. was that I would be looking forward to being in a situation in which we could, in good conscience, have a cat. Though we stayed in Japan for 23 years, we were never sure when we'd leave. Though, had we gotten a cat the minute we arrived, it would have died long before we left, we never planned to stay that long. Also, it would have violated our rental agreement and getting a place that accepted pets was not a trivial matter.

During our time in Japan, we enjoyed cats vicariously, and none so much as the kitler (a cat whose coloring makes it appear to have a mustache like Hitler's/Chaplan's) at the local liquor store. While many neighborhood cats were skittish, this one was docile and easy to access. It was also beautiful.

Now that we're in the U.S., we still don't have a cat even though our apartment permits it. We're still in an unstable situation and don't know where we will move or live in the future so, once more, being responsible means we don't have a pet. We are finding that cats are just as idiosyncratic here as they were in Japan and that it's hard to find a friendly cat that tolerates (let alone welcomes) attention from random strangers who are lonely for feline companionship.

Having a nice cat in one location that you could just go to and pet any time you wanted to was a small treat and something which I still can say I miss about life in Japan.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Randoms Thoughts: The Pitfalls of Interpretation

These were hanging from the roof of a Toyota exhibition in Odaiba. You may interpret their presence as you see fit. My guess was giant tribbles were taking over Japan, but they could just as easily be prototypes for a new Donald Trump hairpiece or steel wool pads for cleaning the pots of giants. 

Recently, I read an article about family therapy in Japan. It was published in an academic journal by someone who clearly had more than a few brain cells to rub together, was more than adequately educated, and had done some time exploring the topic at hand. It was also full of what I would say were dubious assertions and misinterpretations.

I am intimately acquainted with the short-comings of academics. In fact, I was educated to look for such things and to dissect the validity of research and to seek out biases. In essence, I was taught to exercise my critical thinking skills at every turn. Any time I hear about a study, I know that what I'm reading is almost certainly going to be flawed. One of the reasons is that people like to have their theories validated and will cherry pick those sources that are most likely to support their viewpoint and ignore or invalidate those which do not. The article I read relied heavily on a few academics, one from Japan, one from a mixed Asian background with experience in Japan, who did research which supported his contentions.

There are numerous other reasons to suspect the validity of anything you read which I will not bore the reader with. That is not to say that they are 100% "wrong", but quite often they are far from 100% "right". This particular article contained more than a few dubious translations of Japanese concepts (such as amae). They chose simplistic one-word translations in most cases which helped support their notions regarding independent vs. dependent cultural concepts. This article was talking about how family therapy had to be very different in Japan because of the old "individual" vs. "group" thing which we all know is the great divide between Western and Asian culture and something we must all meditate and fret upon, especially when attempting to shoe-horn our evil American concepts into the sheeple Japanese mind. After all, it's not like they have any choice to but choke down whatever we offer them.*

One of the things that was also used to support the idea of the collectivist culture was the fact that the Japanese had no word for "privacy" before the West came in and gave it to them. The fact that they use the katakana word "puraibashi" was held up in support of this. Before we came along, they didn't need such a concept because they were all one big, happy  humming beehive of a culture working collectively for their queen bee (aka, the emperor). This is the point at which my eyebrows shot up and my head started shaking. A smart person wrote the article, and a smart person almost certainly reached the conclusion he wanted to reach based on a lack of real world experience with the culture and a rush to the finish line on making his point rather than deeply reflecting on what was being postulated.

Interpreting cultural differences is a tricky business, especially when you're doing the vast majority of it from behind a desk or computer screen based on what you read in books, journals, or from single individuals who have a vested interest in supporting the same world-view as you. Think carefully about the word "privacy" and what it tends to apply to. It does not apply to notions of individuality. I am an individual whether I have privacy or not. I conceive of myself as a separate and independent entity with or without privacy. The notion of privacy applies to that which I keep to myself and will not display to others, not whether or not I am interconnected and dependent on others. What is private is perhaps kept so for various reasons, including, but not limited to, the idea that I should feel shame should I reveal such things.

While I cannot say for certain, I believe that the word "privacy" didn't exist in Japan as we conceive of it was more related to the fact that the women didn't wear underpants until we gave the idea to them than it has to do with an individualist vs. group-oriented culture. Panchera, or the obsession with girl's panties, is attributed to the West's interference in Japanese culture. Before we gave women underpants, their loins were not a subject of mystery. In old timey Japan, or so I've read, mixed gender nudity wasn't a big deal. We (and when I say "we", I don't mean "me", but rather all of the missionaries who gave Japan their ideas along with things like educational facilities and hospitals) brought them our prudishness and suggested loins should be girded. This, my friends, is where the concept of "privacy" more appropriately comes in. It's about what we need to hide from others, and they didn't need the word until we told them that they weren't living in Eden and that they now needed to be ashamed of their nakedness.

Am I sure that I am correct about this? No, I'm not. However, this is a far more nuanced and informed possibility than the old tossing of everything into the bucket of "individual" and "group" that people who consume culture second- or third-hand tend to offer. It also fits the logic of the word and it's true meaning better. The non-existence of the word "I" (watashi) and "person" (hito) would be better indications of a lack of individualism, but those words do exist.

I've found that most people all around the world are prone to such simplistic interpretation. They build a framework of how the world operates and slot information into the frames. They do not question the strength of the structures they are organizing experiences and perceptions into. When they encounter square pegs, they can find a way to contort them into round holes rather than question the shapes of those holes. I find that this happens far too often and easily when interpreting other cultures because it's a lot harder for someone to call you on your narrowness of thinking when they are not well-versed in the topic at hand. My point in this post is not to hold myself up as some paragon of broad-thinking. I have made and continue to make mistakes, too. I just offer that we all need to be open to the possibility that a shallow observation, what you read somewhere regardless of the legitimacy of the source, or what one person from a culture tells you is far from the "truth". This is something of which I am continually reminded as I continue my journey through life.

*Just to be absolutely clear, this is huge honking sarcasm, folks. Anyone who has been following this blog knows that I vociferously object to the "sheeple"  notion of the Japanese culture and feel that they, like every single culture's people on the planet, consume what they want to consume of their own free will. I find the idea that any country's people are somehow incapable of accepting or rejecting aspects of American culture racist and insulting. It reduces them to the status of children who cannot refuse their parents orders that they consume what they are told to consume. Let's give them the same credit we give ourselves to be in at least some amount of control of their own choices.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Won't Miss #509 - foreigners who don't want foreign friends

There's a knee jerk reaction that some (usually long-term) foreigners have toward other foreigners. They say that they don't want foreign friends and don't associate with other foreigners. Some of them have what sound like reasonable excuses, like they don't want to spend all of their time speaking English. Trust me when I say that no one spends so much time with a friend that opportunities to speak Japanese are seriously undermined. Others simply claim they don't like foreigners, as if we're all exactly the same and can be summarily dismissed. The bottom line is that this is a prejudice and a psychological problem that some foreigners have. I'm not suggesting that foreign folks instantly like or seek to become friends with other foreigners, but rather that they also should not instantly reject them based on being foreign either. If a person in America were to instantly dismiss an entire group based on some arbitrary characteristics, no one would see it as understandable or reasonable. They would see it for what it is, a form of prejudice.

I don't miss this bigotry that some foreign people adopted after coming to Japan.