Only In Japan

Friday, December 22, 2006


One of the common cliches regarding Japanese cities is how futuristic they look. A step into 2030 blah blah... Well we must not be seeing the same cities. While all Japanese cities have some very modern districts, mostly they're just a sprawl of ugly low-rise buildings covered in neon. And as far as I know, neon hasn't looked futuristic in at least 25 years.

But I digress. The really striking thing about Japanese cities is that, as in developing countries, electric wires are not buried but just hung up above the streets. So when you're walking the city, it's always with a mess of electric wires overhead. It takes some time getting used to but for Japanese people, it is such an habitual sight that when you ask them why they don't bury the wires, they just look at you with a blank stare that says, "but what for??".

It is quite paradoxical, considering how much Japanese people love and admire European cities, that they don't see the point in making their own cities beautiful. The Japanese approach to architecture seems to be mostly utilitarian: build fast, cheap, and functional. It used to puzzle me to no end: the Japanese are design addicts who love quality products with a perfect finish and have an obsession for detail, so why don't they mind living in ugly cities where electric wires loom over the streets?

That paradox has a name: it's the "uchi and soto" paradigm. "Uchi" means "my house", "at home", or sometimes "I". "Soto" is "outside, exterior". The Japanese feel uchi when they are with members of their group, in a familiar environment, or in places where they can relax; they feel soto in any other setting: with strangers, in open public places, or anytime they can't be themselves. According to this paradigm, being in a uchi or soto setting conditions the whole behaviour of Japanese people as well as how they feel about their surroundings. In an uchi setting, they are warm-hearted, relaxed, and enjoy life. In a soto setting, they "don the armor": they are distant and inexpressive, never let their guard down, and enjoying life is the furthest thing from their mind.

So for example, if a Japanese has lunch with a new business acquaintance, they will stay very formal, ask few questions, and barely enjoy the food. Talk about awkward! But on the other hand, friends having lunch together generally laugh and giggle with less reserve than you'd find in the West. They don't look inscrutable then!

So, next time the Japanese puzzle you, the uchi and soto paradigm might help you make sense of their behaviour. In the meantime, just a quick disclaimer: Japan has some amazing architects, and when the Japanese bother to try and make a part of the city look nice, it looks really great. Too bad it doesn't happen very often... The ugly wires are here to stay.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Squealing bicycles.

One favourite conversation topic among expats living in Japan is, you guessed it, Japan. Or to be more accurate, Japan bashing. Everything is fair game to relieve one's stress and frustrations: when will the Japanese ever learn English, and they must be really dumb to fork 10k Yen for a bleeding melon, and man can Japanese sararimen make fool of themselves when they're drunk, and if they're really such great engineers why can't they design bicycles that don't squeal like dying pigs when you brake, and so on, and so forth.

You quickly learn to ignore this twaddle - it gets fairly repetitive - but there's one point where the foreigners get it 100% wrong: that bicycle brakes story. It is a fact that the blood-curdling squeal of a braking bicycle is one of the most common sounds to be heard in the streets of Japan, and it's not one you get used to. So how come Japanese engineers can design the world's best robots, phones and cars, but not simple bicycle brakes?

And, Japan bashers add, you forget bicycle bells. Yes, they are also completely useless. I have never seen a Japanese bicycle bell work for more than a week after you buy a new bicycle. Actually, you NEVER hear one in Japan. So, you might ask, what do Japanese people do when they need to ask someone to clear the way?

This is where the argument gets tricky: since you cannot use your bicycle bell, when you need to clear the way you just brake abruptly and you can be sure the resulting squeal will get the message loud and clear to everyone around. Sounds rude and completely inefficient? Think again. Because in Japan, bicycle brakes and bells are poorly designed on purpose.

You see, ringing a bicycle bell makes Japanese people feel awkward, because it means "hey, you're in my way, move out!" and no self-respecting Japanese person would want to be so rude. Whereas if you are "forced to brake" at the last second because there are people in your way, and if said brakes unfortunately squeal very loud, well you didn't mean to be rude, so you don't need to feel awkward. And the people who were in your way get the message that they need to move, but they don't get the bad feeling that comes from clearly being told so by an annoyed bicycle ring. In other words, conflict was avoided, harmony was preserved, the group is at peace.

Thanks to the engineers who designed "bad" brakes and bicycle rings.

Only in Japan.

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