Saturday, June 23, 2007

Homogenius Obligation to Wa, Japanese Women's Battle for greater Equality, and Tako balls!

The Japanese have a saying, “Deru kui wa utareru.”


It literally translates to “the nail which gets pounded down.” But the saying stands for, “People who don’t conform to society will be pounded down and pressured into doing so.”

Japan’s harmony largely depends on how they all get along. Friction causes great distress in a nation that is as small as my home State of Montana but has half of the population of the entire U.S.! This makes Japan crowded shoulder to shoulder with people –mostly Japanese.

An example of getting pounded down is in how the local communities have ‘set ways’ or ‘rules’ which they expect everybody to follow without exception. Even though I’m a foreigner and can escape many high-pressure situations, oddly because the Japanese place more emphasis on other Japanese being peaceful & complacent (as if they automatically assume I’m a disreputable gaijin), there are still some unavoidable ones which spring to mind.

My own experience in this area is with the horribly complicated and complex recycling of my waste and garbage. Unlike the big cities which have a business empire of private recycling centers which thrive on people’s trash, small rural areas in Japan such as my town, which only has one recycle center (city run), requires everyone to follow any number of tricky rules to get rid of your trash.

Here’s how my garbage system works step by step. I have to go buy plastic garbage bags, but not any black trash bag, but specifically the bags which have the town’s name on them. Moreover, I have to buy the clear plastic kind because the sanitation men have to be able to see what’s in the bag to make sure it’s the right category of rubbish. Once I have the bags I have to separate my home garbage into 1) food/organic waste, 2) burnable papers, 3) cardboard, 4) milk cartons (which must be washed out and unfolded), 5) glass, 6) aluminum, 7) steel, 8) batteries, 9) Styrofoam, 10) and finally plastic. Needless to say, it’s a major hassle.

For the first two months here I couldn’t get my stuff taken out due to not following the proper rules exactly. They also require us to write our names on our bags with black markers so that they can leave a note on our door to tell us that we have ‘mixed our garbage’ together or otherwise executed an improper procedure. I once put milk cartons in the burnable papers, but they gutted my plastic bags and left the rest for me to clean up. Finally one of my neighbors helped explain to me that the days they pick up the ‘type of garbage’ are different for each item. Burnables are picked up every Wednesday and Friday of each week. Recycle items are picked up on the first and third Monday of each new month, and bulk items are every second Friday of each month.

So initially I felt a great pressure to my recycling duties… because the city rules required me to conform. In this case it made sense, because I didn’t want my house to fill up with garbage. I devote an entire futon closet to various bags of plastic bottles and cans which only get picked up once a month. But the pressure to fit in or be hammered into place also affects the individual on a peer pressure level too.

For example: In everyday regular discussion the Japanese often affirm and re-affirm what each other has already said. You’ll have a conversation which runs as such, “Did you know that Toda-san just broke up with his girlfriend?”

“Oh yes, I heard they just broke up.”

“That’s too bad that they broke up,” a third party chimes in.

“Break ups are always hard,” says the original speaker. To which everyone in unison replies, “Yes, they are.”

What’s often strange to me is that everyone already knew Mr. Toda broke up in the first place. So nobody has brought anything new to the table, but in fear of saying something ‘harmful about Mr. Toda’ (who may or may not be within earshot), the Japanese keep a strictly generic conversation going by only re-stating what everyone else has already said. And this is the style of all conversations here. So whenever somebody changes the topic and leaves the subject out, which happens a lot, as you can probably imagine it sometimes causes a great deal of confusion to the non-native speaker.

However, none of the people talking about Toda-san would ever say, “I think that son-of-a-bitch deserved to get dumped with the way he treated her.” Nobody wants to disturb the Japanese Wa (or harmony) and so the fact that Toda-san is a scumbag for breaking up with his girlfriend is implied by an otherwise seemingly polite conversation. It took me two years to figure out how to listen and understand the layers of what was going on in a Japanese discussion.

Debate is a foreign word in Japan –they are incapable of doing it. Arguments just don’t happen as we know it to. Actually, it’s kind of funny in its own way, but this can cause a lot of dead ends when you want to do something (as an independent free-thinking foreigner) and they say you can’t –when in fact you know you very well can. Yet for some reason Japanese can’t explain it to you convincingly enough to appease your urge to argue your truth because they can’t argue their point of why ‘they don’t think you can’. They just freeze up, look at you blankly for a few moments, and then reply with an often predictable answer.

Inevitably they resort to the, “I have to check with my boss” excuse to leave the conversation, because making an independent decision is all but impossible. To put this in perspective for you, I once asked a girl at a McDonalds if I could have three extra ketchup packets instead of one. Her first reply was, sure, but then she hesitated as she thought, then retracted her statement, and ended by having to ask her manager; who luckily allowed the ketchup thirsty foreigner to have his tomato sauce in abundance. But it’s surprising how often these types of social glitches occur here.

Having to defend your point is a non-existent tactic for the Japanese, mainly because the consequences of doing so disrupt the harmony so much that a person who doesn’t check with their boss first is going to get fired for ‘going above the bosses head and making the decision themselves’. As such, expressing yourself and your ‘individual’ opinion is only allowed if you are at the top of the ‘social ladder’ of leadership and respect. People who hold high ranks (or titles) are allowed to express their opinions more freely than people of lower social status.

About a month back the Matsuka Phonics institute came to our town and gave a presentation. Matsuka-san herself came and wanted to meet Sayaka, since she had heard lots of great things about my fiancés English ability. Well, the Superintendent of the school system in my district, basically my employer/boss, had asked Sayaka in front of an entire meeting hall if she was a ‘nurturing person’ and asked if ‘she washed the dishes and treated Vick-sensei (Me) like a woman should treat a man.”

To which Sayaka came back with,

“I treat him good when he treats me good.”

This answer confused my boss prompting him to rephrase his question. Sayaka then gave the example, “If he does the dishes by the time I get home then I’ll cook something for him. But if he doesn’t help me, then I won’t help him.”

Of course, in her mind the fact that we help each other fifty/fifty was implied. But my boss, still with a confused look on his face, replied, “You’re a selfish type of person aren’t you?”

This is the generation gap. Not to mention battle of the sexes. The old man talking to the young woman as if she is and always will be below him.

Granted 20 years ago a woman wouldn’t have even been allowed at this high level meeting. But I think what is at work here is the fear of letting radical ideas such as equality and shared responsibilities no matter what gender you are endanger an otherwise ‘perfectly stable man’s paradise’. And because Japanese men have it so good, and don’t even know it, Japanese women have been being educated abroad picking up the newfound ability to distinguish themselves as strong women equal to a man. In their search for independence Japanese women have been arming themselves with intelligent minds and kowtowing their way into status. They are dainty vipers in disguise, some of them. Others prefer the old way, but regardless, women in Japan have taken their sides.

This often causes a lot of squabbling in contemporary Japanese relationships. When a woman marries a man she is expected to be trained by the mother-in-law to learn the proper catering techniques to keep the man happy. Some modern women who refuse to cook or serve their husbands get into bickering cat fights with their mothers making it the man’s duty to be the final say –always siding with his mother and his desire to be pampered. I’ve seen this happen before. But more than this, a strong willed woman confronting a stubborn man can even affect Japan’s society so much as to upset Japan’s politics.

Several times this year the Japanese Prime minister, Abe and his cabinet ministers, have been critiqued for their derogatory and sexist comments against women. One cabinet member stating that, “Women were only good for being baby-making-machines” stopped important political issues for a whole two weeks as women politicians attacked his position and demanded his resignation. First off who even says something like that in a 21st century Democracy? When Abe defended him it caused even more outcries. Secondly, what leader of a free Democratic nation defends an idiot who says something like that? The Prime Minister of Japan of course. Then the following month Abe denied the War Brothels which the Japanese military kept during WWII, right after the military made the log books public, sponsoring a Asian Women’s march in Washington D.C. including the ex-sex slaves themselves… all Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Pilipino women demanding Japan make a formal apology, or at least Abe, who they accused of misogynistic and gender bias attitudes as he blatantly denied the lack of their existence. Japan has yet to formally apologize for sex slavery.

But my point isn’t the inequality of women in Japan, which is a separate issue entirely, but that when a man in Japan challenges a woman, the women have to find new subtle ways to combat this stigma of inequality. When my boss insulted Sayaka by calling her ‘selfish’ she wasn’t allowed to defend herself. This is the greater social peer pressure I’m talking about. If she had stood up to talk back then she would have been sticking out, disgracing the superintendent in front of a powerful corporate woman (none-the-less), and they’d have been obligated to hammer her down. Thus, in a worst case scenario, Sayaka might have been fired for saying anything back in her defense. Instead, she kept to the code of Wa, and looked across the room at me and smiled a queer smirk which silently spoke to me, “Can you believe this asshole?” I thought, “Wow, there is a smart and powerful woman. I think I’ll marry her.” And you know what? I will.

One last thing before I head off to enjoy my lazy Saturday afternoon.

Tako-yaki balls are awesome! That's a chunk of octopus fried in a 'corn-dog-esque' type batter and then seasoned and sauced up with some traditional tasting Japanese stuff. Yum!


cf said...

Social Latter?
Throwing out your Waist?

The Social Former could be the opposite of the Social Latter, but more likely, it is a misspelling of Ladder.

Similarly, throwing my arms around your waist would be the opposite of throwing a waist out.

But you were talking about Waste here, not your paunch.

An otherwise fascinating article for understanding our dialogues with the Japanese.

Tristan Vick said...

Yes, but you missed my 'pier' pressure instead of peer pressure.

One of the interesting things that happens when taking up a second language as your predominantly used language is that you begin to lose your skills with your native language.

This happens at roughly the year mark, when you really begin to notice it, but continues gradually to worsen (it's a common linguistic effect).

I think even more so in a bi-lingual society which changes many of the English rules and applies its own linguistic standard to your language -thus hybrid languages form.

Eventually, from becoming bi-lingual you use the adopted societies language base of rules and when you try to jump back into your own native tongue you find it static and that things have fallen out along the way.

I guess that's what editing is for. But we don't always have the luxury to edit everything. And I tend to write lots so without an editor I inevitably miss a few things anyway.

Please, feel free to drop by again sometime.

Marco Polo said...

Great post, thanks!

Using your initiative is frowned on because it cuts out the group: Japanese can (of course, and of course, do) make quick decisions on their own without consulting, but society frowns on it. You must first consult with the group. They will probably give you the go-ahead, but if you don't consult them first, even if your idea is the best thing since sashimi, you will get into a shit-load of trouble. Not consulting with the group is like saying "I don't need you" and giving them the finger. Groups tend to get upset about that.

Tristan Vick said...

marco polo-

Thanks for reading! I agree, Japan is all about the whole homogeneous group thing.

I think it has its rewards. For example, two heads are better than one. Six, seven, and twelve are better still. They tend to be very organized. It's all about harmony.

What they are not good at is efficiency. Sometimes the Japanese spend way too much time worrying about getting everything just right, and everyone suited so well, that they take insurmountable amounts of time -which to an extent make them inefficient in their great capacity to be regiment. Almost a self-contradiction... but if you have the patients... everything moves forward at snail pace. That's the price of being a perfectionist I suppose.

But minus the begrudging amounts of wasted time waiting around for decisions to be hashed around until everyone unanimously agrees... its over all pleasant. Plus the food is amazing here!