Only In Japan

Friday, April 27, 2007


"I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien..."
Some friends invited me to a karaoke party last week-end, and as usual I sang my favourite Sting song, "An Englishman in New York". I think that song is particularly funny when sung by a foreigner in Japan, but apparently the irony was lost on my friends; still they waited patiently for me to finish so that they could go back to the Morning Musume.

If "manners maketh man" as someone said, then the Japanese are the heroes of the day.

Or are they?

While it is true that the Japanese are probably the most polite and best mannered people on Earth, their attitude towards etiquette is certainly a bit different from Westerners'.
In the West, manners are quite equalitarian: everyone expects more or less the same level of politeness from everyone. Sure, senior citizens and pregnant women get a bit more attention, but basically everyone else has the same rights and duties.
In Japan and other Confucean countries like Korea and China, society is fundamentally unequalitarian. Confucianism is the social doctrine upon which East Asia was built; it is a school of thought that clearly defines each individual's place in society and his/her rights and duties based on age, gender, rank in society, order of birth among siblings... All these clearly define who is "junior" and who is "senior" in any relationship, as well as what behaviour and manner level are appropriate.

In concrete terms, this means that the level of properness you can expect in Japan varies much more considerably than in the West. For example in a public place, a woman in her early 20's has to have impeccable manners to almost everyone; but a male executive in his 40's will think nothing of leisurly picking up his nose in a crowded train (a common and thoroughly disgusting feature of commuting in Japan, unfortunately). But a lot also depends on context: if a punk teenage girl goes shopping to a department store (also a common occurence), she is a customer and behaves as such: she isn't required to show any deference to the sales attendants, whereas all said store attendants have to show her the utmost respect - even men who could be her grandfather. That always cracks me up!

Another important factor determining how politely a Japanese person will behave is how close he/she is to the other person. The uchi/soto paradigm has the Japanese behave very formally with people from outside their circle or in public settings (soto), but with little restraint when with people from their group (uchi). Since most foreigners only see the Japanese in soto situations, the cliche of the Japanese as always polite has become deeply ingrained in the West; but actually, the Japanese can be very harsh and rude to each other when no "outsider" is watching.

If you are a foreigner travelling in Japan though, fear none; unless you do something really stupid, everyone will be exceedingly polite to you; and there is even a good chance that someone will behave warmly to you eventhough you're soto, just because they're glad to see a foreigner showing interest in their country.

There is also a good chance that at some point during your trip, you will get to know the feeling of being a "legal alien"...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Island Country

"Why are the Japanese so bad at English? After all the time they spend studying it at school..."
"Why does Japan keep slaughtering whales to eat them? No-one even thinks they taste good!"
"Why are immigrants to Japan for 3 or 4 generations still considered foreigners by the Japanese?"

There are many such questions, baffling newcomers to Japan and embarrassing the Japanese. They are also difficult questions with no objective answer; and the Japanese hate potentially controversial topics, so in that kind of situation they generally try to dodge the question with some general comment. Notably, when the question is about Japan, they will often answer with "Well you know, we're an island country, so our culture is different..."

That answer always cracks me up. I know many island countries - Madagascar, Indonesia, the UK and Ireland, Sri Lanka, Iceland, to name a few - and I can't really think of any where island status would be used so widely to justify any and everything considered strange by foreigners. But here in Japan, conventional wisdom has it that the sea has always shielded the Japanese from the rest of the world, and that as a result they are a perfectly homogeneous and distinct people. Yes, they would tell you, Japan has received a lot of its culture and technology from other countries, but these are eventually always adapted in a way that makes them uniquely Japanese.

These arguments makes sense, and fit well with reality, but I think they are slightly flawed. Because Korea has exactly the same mindset: pride in its homogeneity and independance, and an awareness that despite all the influences from more powerful countries, the Koreans have their own unique mentality, culture, and way of doing things.
And as far as I know, Korea is not an island.

But Korea and Japan have one thing in common: a long period of isolationism under authoritarian leaders from the early 17th Century to the second half of the 19th Century. In both cases, communication with the outside world became limited to some commerce with China and the West, but was accompanied by almost no exchange of ideas or technology. The result was that both countries acquired a very strong sense of self, developped a more personal culture, and came to unconsciously divide everything into "local" or "imported" categories.

This last point is, at least in Japan, at the root of the widespread tendency to fiddle with and tweak any new import to make it more "Japanese". This sometimes results in better products, especially in the technology field; but quite often, "japanizing" an idea or concept makes it completely lose its soul and turns it into an empty shell. The legal system is a good example: theoretically, it works as in the West, but the Japanese police have the right to detain and interrogate suspects for long periods. This very generally results in the suspects "confessing" their crime, and at the end of the day the conviction rate is a very impressive 99%. Up there with Belarus and Zimbabwe!

Still, the question remains: why do the Japanese explain everything by their island status, and not their history? Well, because it is more convenient, of course! The Japanese don't like to talk about history as it can be a very contentious topic, the kind of talk that might lead to quarrel and disharmony in the group. On the other hand, geography is not something people can disagree on, so invoking it is a perfect way to dodge potential trouble...

So the right thing to do next time a Japanese person serves you that "island country" half-truth to answer your curiosity? Smile politely, say "Thank you for that wonderful explanation!" and ask Wikipedia, of course!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Six years

Japan is well known as a land of faddists, a country where people are as quick to adopt new fashions en masse - as to discard them. There are many reasons for this: strong social pressure to conform to one's group's trends, massive and constant media bombardment, and a general lack of self-confidence among Japanese people. At least that is the theory; but I thought it would be funny to show some of the fads that have swept Japan in the six years I've been here. Enjoy...

-FOOD: the Japanese are notoriously obsessed with food, and 85% of all TV programmes are devoted to the topic, so it should come as no surprise to hear that following food fads is a major part of life in Japan. When I arrived in 2000, Korean food was all the rage: simple, cheap, healthy, it was a welcome change from the French and Italian trends that had fattened the Japanese (and flattened their wallets) for years previously. Nowadays, there is no dominant trend, but many "mini-booms" have come and gone during the last few years. Roll cakes are on the way out (finally!), the mango boom last year went bust very quickly, Spanish raw ham has kicked Italian raw ham out of the shelves and seems here to stay. Shochu (a Japanese spirit) has seen an incredible renaissance some 3 years ago, but has now stabilised. Happoshu, a cheap ersatz of beer that (supposedly) tastes like the real thing and has a lower alcohol content, also seems to have become a staple. "Galettes", those buckwheat pancakes from Brittany, seem like they might be the next big thing, but it is too early to say.

Anyway, the real good news is... Bitter chocolate seems to be winning the war against Hershey's! The Japanese learned chocolate from the Americans after WW2, and that is very unfortunate considering how low-level chocolate in America is. But the Japanese have finally realized that Belgium and Switzerland are the real references when it comes to chocolate, and as a result more of the good European stuff is invading the market. Which is why you can now find 80% cocoa chocolate anywhere at reasonable prices... Let's pray it lasts!

-ENTERTAINMENT: you want the good news first? The Morning Musume are on the way out! Music lovers rejoice!
Hamasaki Ayumi has also been taking a back step; and I think it was high time she did. After years of seeing her huge frog eyes glaring at me from every magazine cover and advertising space in Japan, I'm glad she is taking a break. Actually, I'm especially glad considering NAKAMA YUKIE has replaced her as the most popular model in the archipelago, and I am really a huge fan! Big thanks to AU (a cell phone company) and JR (the main train company) for covering the city with posters of her lovely smile.

Japanese children seem to have got fed up with Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Crayon Shin Chan, and Beyblade. These were all very popular anime, but it looks like they're gone. I have no idea what is replacing them though.

In other news, the Korean Wave has also finally receded. For a few years Korean food, singers, TV series, movies, and models were all the rage; I felt those years coincided with a short period of time when the Japanese felt more Asian than usual (many Japanese don't really consider themselves Asian, just "Japanese"), and felt more kinship with their neighbours in Korea and China. At least younger people did... But the Japanese population has the oldest average age in the world, and the political and economic rise of China is felt as deeply threatening; these two factors have translated into more and more political success for nationalist politicians, which in turn translated in recent years into a much more aggressive and strident attitude towards China and Korea. Relations deteriorated quickly, and interest for Korea and China also went down. And now Japan is back to its schizophrenic attitude of ignoring its Asian-ness and looking for its identity in the West... Thus "24" has replaced "Winter Sonata", Cameron Diaz has shown Zhang Zi Yi the door, and New York-style yoga and Pilates have kicked Feng Shui back to obscurity.

This latter development is quite interesting: through yoga, a lot of interest for India has arisen in Japan recently. India is seen as a land of great spirituality and culture, and the fact that Buddhism originated there also creates a link between the two countries. I have a feeling India will be the "next big thing" here in Japan, but I doubt it will last very long. The Japanese will come to realize how fundamentally different the two countries are, and how hard it is to glamourise India. Pretty much as happened in the West 30 years ago...

MISCELLANEOUS: the "French maids" have finally got their letters of recognition.
The Nintendo DS is everywhere. I guess you're not too surprised...
"IQ Training Games" have also been very popular for the last few years, as senior citizens started panicking about losing their marbles unless they exercised their brains 14 hours a day. Interest for such games then trickled down to the general population and combined with the worldwide Sudoku craze to create a widespread addiction to math games, logical puzzles, and obscure kanji (Chinese characters) tests. I still prefer reading a good book, but that's just me!
The one really big thing to have come out in the last few years, though, is Mixi. The Japanese equivalent of MySpace, it has picked more than 8 million members in 3 years; it's only a small part of the total Japanese population (128 million) but 80% of Mixi members are in their 20's or 30's, which makes them a sizable chunk of the young population. Sadly, it's yet another trend that encourages people to live in virtual reality... Encouragement the Japanese didn't really need, but anyway.

And finally a short "wishes" section: there are a few things I always wish would become fashionable in Japan. Praline and pistachio cakes, ice-creams and desserts are delicious, and a staple in France and Italy; and considering how much the Japanese love these 2 countries, I am very surprised no-one has tried to convert Japan yet. Pistachio ice-cream yum yum...

Real pizza: you know, the ones from Italy with a thin crust? They are still largely unknown in Japan, since the country unfortunately got its pizza culture from America. What a shame.

But of course, the one thing I really hope will someday be fashionable again is kimono... There was a micro-revival 2 years ago, but it didn't hold up. When will Japanese women finally realise how good they look in kimono?

Well, I guess I'll have to make do with mini-skirts.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


QUESTION: What do the Japanese mean when they compare women to Christmas cakes?
ANSWER: After the 25th, no-one wants to buy them anymore.
It is an old joke so the figures have changed, but the basic idea remains: women have to get married when they're still young (traditionally before they turn 25), otherwise they'll be impossible to "sell".
And why do you think Japanese men work so hard? Why, in order to be able to "buy" a good partner, of course!

OK, so things might not be that extreme anymore, but the basic idea is as strong as ever. Founding a stable family in which to bring up a few kids is the raison d'etre of most Japanese; well actually of most humans, I guess. But in Japan, the emphasis on "stable" is especially strong. Whereas in the West love is considered the only healthy basis for a couple and a family, in Japan such feeling-based relationships are traditionally viewed with a lot of suspicion. Feelings come and go, older Japanese would say, and do you really want to build a family on such a fleeting thing as love? Surely it's better to choose a partner who shares your values regarding family, whom you can rely on to make the kids interests come first, and who seems stable enough not to change their mind midway. In other words, mutual respect is safer than love in a couple.

Does that make a couple happy? Probably not, but then again happiness isn't what most people get married for. Breeding healthy and succesful children is what it's all about, and a "reasonable" marriage is the best way to create a conducive environment. Also note that most "love marriages" quickly devolve into very homely relationships: in Japan, older couples still based on love or affection are considered slightly weird, something like "childish cute". I remember a group of my friends coming back from holidays in Dubai, and talking about an older Western couple they had seen holding hands. One of the girls said "That's so great!" but all the others said things like "That's too weird!" or "How can they not feel embarrassed?" Actually, I think many Japanese (especially women) secretly envy that kind of relationship, but they don't know how to foster it or they just think it's impossible. But more on that later.

Which doesn't mean there is no romance after marriage in Japan; it's just that it rarely happens inside the couple...

For the reasonably attractive Japanese businessman especially, affairs are not too hard to organize: the abundance of unmarried junior female staff in Japanese companies and frequent absences for business reasons give them plenty of opportunities for extra-marital fun. Company drinking parties are also very common, and the free-flowing booze always helps break down the inhibitions of both men and women; it's not pretty, but it often works. Note, however, that drunk and horny Japanese businessmen who can't find a date tend to be quite repulsive. Take the train around 11 PM in Japan and you will see what I mean... But the really sad thing is, I don't think having affairs with the temp staff at the office makes men happy. It just offers them a glimpse of what they have missed, but in the end it's just rubbing salt on the wound.

Married women, on the other hand, rarely have many chances to find romance (even short ones), especially the ones with children and/or who don't work. A bit of fun with the mailman can never be written off, of course; but in general married women have lots of free time on their hands, that they spend bitterly reflecting on the affective wasteland their life is. The response to this distressful situation is usually a combination of the following: shopping addiction, domestic alcoholism, grumbling sessions with other married women, the occasional affair, and the transfer of all their frustrated affection on their sons. The latter is, I think, one of the major problems in Japan: the mother / son relationship is way too strong, which stunts the emotional development of boys, and later makes it much harder for them to relate normally to women. So when (and if) they get married, they won't know how to make their wives happy... Lather, rinse and repeat: this vicious circle has been perpetuating itself for at least 50 years, and I personally don't see what can break it.

As to life between the sheets, it is easy to guess how miserable it is.
Combine long working hours and commute, the fact that many couples are not based on mutual attraction, and a big lack of communication (talking about sex is traditionally considered vulgar in Japan), and you get The Sexless Problem. Alarming numbers of Japanese couples never or almost never have sex, and this has come to be recognized as a national issue, especially considering Japan has one of the lowest natality rates in the world. So plenty of TV programmes, magazine articles, and websites get devoted to the issue, with little to no result. The problem is much too deep...

Because, let's face it, the Japanese model doesn't work anymore. The divorce rate is in the average for developped countries (one divorce every two minutes in Japan...), so all this "stability over happiness" talk makes no sense. It might have worked in a society where personal happiness was not a factor and where women didn't expect equality in the couple, for example Japan before WW2. But those days are over. No one want to sacrifice their dreams and happiness for the group anymore, and most people realise a couple needs to be based on communication and real attraction. Unfortunately, communicating their feelings and expressing their real personality is what the Japanese are the weakest at; and making the efforts necessary to keep oneself attractive to one's spouse is also something that feels too awkward for most Japanese.

The sad thing is, eventhough everyone knows their couple life doesn't work, it only makes them more frustrated to realise the problem and be unable to solve it. The default attitude, of course, is to bite the bullet and live the same life as their parents...

What a waste.