Monday, August 06, 2007

Love and hatred in Japan

I wrote here Friday that I had a love/hate relationship with Japan while living there, and a friend asked me why.

Before going off to Japan, I knew precious little about the country or the culture and couldn't speak the language at all. And a lot of what I thought I knew was peppered with typical Western misconceptions about Asia in general and Japan in particular.

And so, upon arriving there 12 years ago last month, I was struck by the degree to which Japan had adopted so many elements of Western society and had vastly improved upon them. All the modern conveniences -- the gadgetry and the electronics and all the other trappings of modern life -- were there in versions not yet on sale or even dreamed of in America. Even in the small farming town in the middle of nowhere that I called home, technology reigned (except, curiously, when it came to Internet connections).

And the less-appealing elements of American culture also were abundant, such as the fast-food outlets and the 7-Elevens on every corner and some of the vapid TV dramas that were so laughably dubbed.

In many ways, it felt like being home -- or, more accurately, home away from home. And naively, I expected these similarities to translate into a high level of understanding between the Japanese and Westerners.
Hey, they have McDonald's and dig our music and sports heroes, I reasoned. Surely they must be able to understand where I'm coming from in terms of the many pieces of cultural baggage I dragged along with me.

I couldn't possibly have been more woefully mistaken.

The veneer of modernity was very misleading. I didn't realize at the time that Japan had been a feudal society up till about 130 years prior to my arrival (130 years is a drop in the bucket), and that the same distinctions and mores that regulated people's lives in the old days are still present today, albeit tempered by time and war and economics.

And then there were honne and tatemae.
Tatemae is the public face you present at school, at work, anywhere outside your small circle of family and intimate friends.
With tatemae, never is heard a discouraging word. You may hate a co-worker's guts, but tatemae dictates that these feelings be kept completely in check. You wouldn't give this person the steam off your piss, but to all outward appearances, things couldn't be better between you and her.
Honne is returning home to tell your family what an incompetent, self-absorbed, unreasonable bitch she is.
Honne represents a level of candor only a select few people in your life will ever see.

Of course, something akin to honne and tatemae exists here in the United States. But I think it's diluted and not nearly as intricate, systematic and, to the newcomer, as ostensibly deceptive as it is in Japan.
It knocked me for a loop, and I was never quite sure where I stood with my colleagues in the junior high where I taught or in society at large. I wasn't even sure at times if my friends were really my friends.
I always felt off-balance.
I felt like a vase perched precariously at the edge of a table.

In time, I believe I came to understand honne and tatemae much better. I learned to recognize some of the physical and verbal cues that distinguished one from the other. I learned some of the nuances of body language that hint at a person's true feelings, and how even sounds -- yes, sounds, such as the sucking of air through one's teeth -- drip with meaning.
But looking back on that first year or so, my naivete embarrasses me to this day.

Twelve years ago, I was more outspoken than I am today. I know my friends and family are having a good laugh as they read that.
I was more self-absorbed. I fought for what I wanted, strove to do things my own way.
After all, in the United States the squeaky wheel gets the oil.
But in Japan, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
In time, I learned that a personal agenda could be pursued to a degree if I played by certain rules. I learned that even though potentially troublesome circumstances could have been staring me in the face, there was much less of a problem as long as the existence of these circumstances was not recognized. If I don't acknowledge it and my colleagues don't acknowledge it, then we can do a little two-step around the truth.
Besides, I was a gaijin, and gaijin aren't thought to be sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of Japanese etiquette and protocol.

I taught English in a public junior high school where the students, many of them the children of farmers, fishermen and shopkeepers, couldn't have given a toss about English. It was a subject they were required to study but conditioned to forget as quickly as they could. Many of those going on to high school kept up their diligence until the crucial entrance exams were passed. Many of those going on to a trade or a craft or to freedom from education altogether at age 16 couldn't have cared less about English and I couldn't blame them.

I felt that my role as an assistant English teacher was fairly useless, and over time I came to do just the minimum of what was expected of me professionally while I pursued my photography and my studies of Japan's language, religions and culture.
At first, I pursued this agenda unabashedly. Over time, I pursued it more tactfully, using social cues I had learned to bow out gracefully from certain personal and professional obligations.
Did this strategy work? Maybe.
Or perhaps my former colleagues still talk about that arrogant, opinionated, ungrateful, bull-headed, boorish American who ran roughshod over their feelings, traditions and expectations.

Anyway, the passage of nine years since my return to America has mitigated many of my unpleasant experiences in Japan. I've deconstructed and reconstructed the culture in that span to create in my mind a Japan that hasn't existed in generations.
My Japan is what younger Japanese would derisively call furukusai -- literally, something that stinks of the old.
In some ways, I've built a movie set that looks three-dimensional and realistic from the front, but behind the facade things are held together by strips of plywood that would give way in a stiff breeze.
The Japan of my mind is more a musty old museum exhibit than a living, breathing, dynamic, constantly evolving place. (I wouldn't have it any other way, though. I also pine for the lost America, the America that the gang of criminals in elected office has turned into a mockery, a parody of itself.)

I like to think that I understand Japan far better now than I did more than a decade ago. I like to think that given the opportunity to move there today, I wouldn't repeat many of the questionable choices I made.

Maybe, maybe not.


Matt K. said...

That was a well-written and thought-provoking entry. Thanks for revealing that. I've considered on many an occasion what it would be like to visit Japan, possibly even live there for a while - it's good to have the perspective of someone who's actually done it before me.

Michael said...

Thank you.

Michael said...

P.S. -- The key word in your comment is "visit." As a visitor, the issues I mention most probably wouldn't be a factor for a short-term visitor to Japan. These issues are faced by long-term residents, for the most part.

Visitors often are blown away by Japanese hospitality, which is very warm and kind. It's usually expats and former expats who talk of battle scars.

YourFireAnt said...

Had you thought of living there permanently when you went? And did the time there subsequently prompt the decision to return to USA?


Michael said...

I went to Japan under a one-year teaching contract with the board of education in the former town of Nosaka, Chiba Prefecture. The town has since been consolidated with a small neighboring city to form the city of Sosa.

My contract was for a year, renewable twice by mutual agreement between me and the town. I went to Japan fully expecting to stay for a year, but open to the possibility of staying longer. I renewed my contract twice, which at that time was the maximum allowable.

With eight months left on my second and final contract renewal, I was offered a job in Tokyo as an editor at The Japan Times, the country's largest English-language daily.

I picked out a great apartment in a nice neighborhood of Tokyo, dirt cheap by Tokyo standards, and was all ready to sign on the dotted line with my new employer when I had second thoughts and decided to serve out my teaching contract and return home. The thing that ostensibly changed my mind was the fact that I would have had to buy my own apartment refrigerator, of all things. But clearly, my misgivings ran far deeper than that. I suppose I was looking for an excuse not to take the new job.

This turned out to be a blessing. Chances are that if I had chosen to live permanently in Japan, my cancer may never have been diagnosed or at least properly diagnosed, and I may not have lived to write this (even though I've since found out that the Japanese have done considerable research on parathyroid cancer, and developed the oral medication that I now take four times a day).

But whether my employer would have tolerated my absences for surgery and doctors' appointments is another story. Workers in japan do not have the same rights that they do in the U.S., though this is a matter I would have to do research on to answer with any kind of authority and accuracy.

Even as the seconds ticked away during my stay in Japan, I knew it was a magical time that I was blessed to have had the chance to experience. Sights, sounds, smells would elicit in me a reminder to myself to savor that moment, because I knew that I would never pass that way again, at least under those circumstances. And I felt this way even on the darkest, most turbulent of days during those three years.

YourFireAnt said...

Michael, that last paragraph is a gem. Substitute "Earth" for "Japan" and you've got one of the best rules of thumb for life I've seen.


Michael said...

Yes, indeed. And thank you!

mall said...

Sounds like you had a bad case of "cupful-itis" back then. :-)

Michael said...

It was a question of maturity and personal flexibility.

Patry Francis said...

Very interesting--especially the concepts of Tatemae and Honne. I've always wondered if the constrictions of Tatemae might not be liberating in a way...if mandatory politeness in the workplace might not free us up for greater productivity...Then again, I've never experienced it.

Michael said...

Hi Patry,

Interesting comment. There is a certain amount of freedom in strict rules and regulations. I find that to be one of the components of Zen, in fact.

A Japanese friend explained to me at the time that tatemae stemmed from the need for teamwork by an entire community in getting the rice planted and harvested and to ensure the overall smooth function of society. Makes sense. But thank goodness for honne.