Sunday, October 27, 2013

Conformity in Japan: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Part 3: The Ugly)

Resistance is futile.

It has taken me longer than expected to write this article mainly for two reasons. First, I've been extremely overwhelmed this year. This year has been non-stop trial and tribulation and has been one of the hardest years for me that I've ever experienced. 

I started a new job that paid less than half my old job, and to make things worse, I was lied to about the salary and the quality of the school. On top of suffering financial strain due to the aforementioned lackluster job deal, I've been extremely busy. My daughter started preschool and I've been driving an extra hour out of my already overly busy, overly long, commute everyday; raising my daily commute to ***three hours instead of one and a half, and that has given me stress--both mentally and physically. Rush hour traffic and the time spent in the car is realling beginning to take its toll on my lower back, and I'm this close to tearing out the car seats.

I have had so many challenges this year that's it's not even funny. In fact, it's worse than not funny. Earlier this year my father took his own life, unexpectedly. Nobody even saw it coming, because there was nothing particularly wrong--at least that any of us were aware of. We're still at a loss to explain it. So that's been tough. 

The second reason that I've taken my sweet time getting to finishing up this series is that I truly love Japan--more than I can express in words--and in my mind it feels something like a betrayal to criticize and badmouth a country that has come to be like a second home to me. 

But that said, I have to be realistic and honest about it. Japan is great, but she isn't perfect.

As I mentioned in my previous essays, conformity is the real binding strength of Japanese society, but at the same time, it is also what causes Japan her greatest hardships.

I've talked about both the good and the bad, but now it's time to talk about the ugly.


The Pacific Conflict was a great example of this. Japan thought Imperialism was the way to go, and everyone went along with it. Japan was the first Asian nation to grow as powerful as any Western imperialism, and they were able to rival all of Europe and the United States in terms of economic strength. What they lacked, however, was diplomacy.

You see, in Japan they were under the rule of an emperor, and his cabinet of advisers, half of whom were military affiliated. That means, those who had the emperor's ear were all about deploying a command and conquer type plan to ensure Japan maintain her new-found economic greatness.

In a land of conformity, where the majority rules, there is no disagreeing. They simply do not allow for the difference of opinion.

This lead to wars with Russia, Korea, China, Australia, and eventually escalated into the bombing of Pearl Harbor--and war with the United States and the Allied Forces.

Here's the thing though--the Japanese Emperor was AGAINST the war!

But even he, a veritable god (in his time), could not persuade the majority--especially when they are all power greedy cabinet members with one track minds about how to maintain Japan's might in the global economy.

In today's Japan, things are much better. But at the same time, things are still far from perfect. Or, for that matter, even ideal.

Japan is a nation divided by generational barriers.

On the one hand, young Japanese people in their twenties and thirties have access to technology, the Internet, smartphones, and are interested in other cultures beyond simply that of Japan's.

But the older generation, for the most part, is not.

I have experienced extremely shocking incidents of racism in Japan. Being singled out as a minority, being profiled, stopped at the train station and have my things searched through by the police, more than once, for no other reason than I look different--is always a drag.

But this attitude stems from the older generation. No millennial or gen X Japanese person would ever dream of stopping all foreign looking people simply because they're foreign. Profiling would never enter their mind. After all, looking suspicious has nothing to do with the color of your skin. But the policy makers of an aging Japan would certainly think profiling works. This stems, in my opinion, from a hangover from the war era and the way they were probably raised (racism begets racism, after all).

This unwitting racism takes many forms. Consider the 60 year old principle at my old school, for example. He was raised to think the foreign invaders were evil intruders wanting to steal their land and rape their women. They were instructed to throw rocks at the American soldiers. And they were taught to hate the foreigners. So imagine the heads of state, all men from this generation, and the top officials in the police, all from this generation, unable to shake the fear lingering in the back of their mind that foreigners may be evil and are therefore likely suspect?

That kind of brainwashing is hard to get over. So a lot of the racism I experience comes mainly from these types of people... from one very specific generation.

I've never been singled out by a young Japanese person in the decade I have lived in Japan. But I have been punched, standing in the customs line at the airport, by a random drunk 60 year old Japanese man, for no apparent reason. If a Japanese young person gets drunk, they usually just want to try using English with me. But that's the extent of it. But I have often been harassed by old Japanese men--for no reason--other than I was in their direct line of sight.


In Japan you often can find Japanese people praising Japan to high heaven. Entire television shows are dedicated to talking about how great and wonderful Japan is on a weekly basis (never mind nobody running these shows has likely ever been to a foreign country). And what's more, they want everyone in Japan to be reminded of how great Japan is every damn day.

If a show talks about a foreign culture, the celebrity guests puzzle over what oddities other countries are, and then talk about how in Japan they do it a different way--but express it in such as to insinuate that in Japan they do it in a better way.

Such one sided praise feeds into an underlying nationalism, and conservative worldview, which is at odds of what Japan needs to become in order to adapt to today's multi-cultural global society. It's ancient Japan competing with modern Japan--and the generational rift re-emerges.

It also leads to bad policy making due to a limited, or lacking foresight.


Instead of outsourcing and hiring more foreigners to come take care of their elderly, Japan spends billions of dollars in robotics research. Not entirely a bad thing mind you, but it won't be enough to fix the rapidly aging population. With so many of Japan's farmers retiring, and so many young people moving to the cities, their agriculture infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. Instead of bringing in foreigners to help stabilize the farming industry, Japanese farmers simply keep working into old age--with no one to replace them.

By 2016 there will be approximately six elderly people in retirement homes for every single thirty year old working in Japan. That's just too many old people for Japan's current economy to sustain.

But knowing this problem, why the continued reluctance to change?

Truthfully, I can't help but feel that part of the problem might be because of their reluctance to bring in foreign assistance. Bringing an influx of foreign nationals would force Japan to be less nationalistic in its stance with regard to foreign policy. Japan currently exists under the paradigm of "do what's best for the Japanese" not "do what's best for Japan."

It's paradoxical, because the Japanese make up Japan, but instead of doing what's best for everyone, they seem to abide by more selfish goals--at least as far as policy making goes. Whereas my home country in America has think tanks specially designed to address very specific American concerns, like how to improve education, how to deal with global warming, and so on, Japan has none of these. It seems the Japanese mindset is akin to--Japan works--if it's not broke, don't fix it. But after living her for practically a decade, it's very apparent, that Japan barely works. There is room for much improvement.

So instead of dealing with the issues that challenge Japan head on, and doing things like making new laws to accommodate foreign workers, well, this is Japan! No need for that. Why bother bringing in foreign aid, passing laws, and having to adjust your society to accommodate something explicitly non-Japanese when you could just build more robots?

These are just some of the biggest problems facing Japan today.

But worse than all these combined is the penetrating apathy that conformity breeds when conformity proves to be counter productive.

Think of it like this, conformity is a double edged sword. It's great for slicing through your problems, but if you fall on it, you'll be cut in two too.

If a group of Japanese do not grasp a concept, or cannot seem to adequately address or assess a real potential threat, then the rest suddenly begin to reflect this attitude. It exists at all levels in Japan. Elementary school first graders will play a bingo game, and the ones who never get a bingo, cry miserably--because they failed. Japanese politics is the same way. When it succeeds, it goes above and beyond, but when it fails, everyone falls down on their swords.

Japan seems to be a country destined to either succeed together or give up together. And that's why conformity is so ugly in Japan.

English education doesn't work? Well, let's scrap all funding for English education then! Never mind that it's been taught completely wrong for over three decades.

That's how Japan fails together!


Understandably, however, I can't blame all of Japan's failings on a misguided socialistic conformity which occasionally backfires. All I am saying is that this misguided conformity seems to always resurface wherever a genuine problem arises.

It's never just one thing, but it is always something plus the conformity issue. As I mentioned in the previous essay, tattoos are viewed as taboo here in Japan. But only because it's a conformity issue and nobody questions it. Nobody says, hey, wait, maybe tattoos aren't bad? Maybe I'll let you work at my establishment or join the city gym or come to the bathhouse because you're a genuinely good person. Nope. Tattoos are bad. If you have one. You're bad. So conform already, because hell, it's not about you. It's about everybody else.

Of course, this sort of thinking impacts all areas of Japanese life. It is impossible to ever walk away from the pressure to conform to society's norms. It's not like America, where standing out and being yourself is applauded.

Standing out, like having a tattoo, is seen as taboo. In fact, what is having a tattoo other than an attempt to stand out? That's the thinking anyway.

Instead, in Japan, it's about holding hands and not rocking the boat--together. Sing kumbaya and that kind of shit. That head banging, tattooed, metal head type person who stands up and rocks the boat too much is pounded down, like a pesky obtuse nail. And they will keep pounding you down until you stay down.


Much of Japan's legal system is predicated on this type of unquestioning, socialistic, attitude as well. It's not so much whether or not you follow the laws, per se. It's that you follow the laws the same way society follows the laws as a whole.

Which is kind of shooting yourself in the foot, when you stop to think about it.

It's basically like ignoring the speed limit simply because everyone speeds anyway. And then the police not enforcing the speed limit because they know everyone speeds anyway. So what good is the law to begin with?

But if everyone follows some unspoken rule, then by god, everyone will do that thing--because it's Japan. To keep with the driving analogies, there is a strange thing Japanese people do that is NOT a law, but you would be forgiven thinking it was one.

At a red traffic light, at night, everyone who comes to a stop turns OFF their headlights.

Suddenly the only thing illuminating the street is the red glow of the traffic light. If it sounds horrifyingly dangerous, it is. I see more cars start up on a green who forget to turn back on their headlights than any where else I've been to in my entire life. Why even do this strange thing?

Well, because it's something most Japanese people just do.

Who knows why they started it? Maybe they're being polite. Maybe it's a type of Japanese respect being paid to the other driver. Is it safer? Not in the least. But everyone does it none the less.

The saying when in Rome, do as the Romans do is a good rule of thumb when visiting a foreign land for the first time. But having lived in that foreign land for a decade, sometimes there comes a day when you have to say, wait a minute, this is wrong. This does us no good. Let's stop with this and try something else.

But in Japan, such a notion is sacrilege. And that's the ugly.

But hey, they have nice castles. So it's not all bad.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Bento She Needs

It's not the bento she deserves, but it's the one she needs right now.