（日本人） (Japanese People)
My thoughts on a book I read about the Japanese.
（日本人） (Japanese People) by 橘 玲 (Akira Tachibana)
First a disclaimer...
- I'm not Japanese.
- I'm not that good at Japanese.
- I'm not good at reading in general.
"Why read a book in Japanese and then write about it English?"
The author presents this book as a new theory on what makes Japanese people unique and why. Previous books have attempted to answer the same question, however, the author explains that these are unduly influenced by orientalist (prejudiced outsider-interpretations of the Eastern world) thought.
This is not a review!!! It is just some musings on things I found interesting while reading this book...
The book starts off with a chapter on how in 2011, some power plant technicians appeared to be smiling as they delivered some very bad news to the people of Japan. This news being that there was a triple nuclear reactor meltdown happening at Fukushima. Of course they were not smiles of happiness but smiles of a more complex nature (nervousness/guilt/dread...). The book explains how this is not a behaviour unique to Japan but found in lots of Asian countries, most notably in Thailand where there are 13 different categories of smile! This idea is further expanded to show that a lot of what is thought to be typical Japanese behaviour is actually common to many Asian countries with Japan usually being the most watered down version. Somehow, Japan has been convinced (probably due to western influence) that "Japanese" attributes such as 空気を読む (Reading the air) are unique, not to be found anywhere else in the world. But how could this happen...
Time for some trivia!
What is the national sport of Japan?
- Is it Sumo?
- Is it Karate?
- Is it Pokémon cards?
The current national sport of Japan is to compare Japan to the west (specifically America) and lament at how Japan will never catch up to it.
Why does it compare itself to the west and not its neighbours? It might be because until very recently Japan was pretty much the only modern developed economy in Asia and having no worthy adversary in its home court, it naturally looked to the west as a benchmark. During the period I lived in Japan, when meeting someone for the first time I was often asked "Why did you come to Japan?" and then I would give the same old cringe response "Erm... I like Anime and stuff..." and then they would sort of ask in a much more roundabout way than this: "The future is bleak here. Will you be moving back one day?". After a while I sort of interpreted this as Japanese people not realising that the west is in reality very flawed and Japan does a lot of things way way way better than anywhere else. I hope that as Japan inevitably compares its pandemic response with that of the west's it can feel proud of itself for once.
Don't tell me how to live my life!
The book mentions that a family unit quite often can be under the same roof but living very separate lives. It is not unusual for members of a family to eat separately and at different times without the sort of group communication that western families would consider normal. There is also the phenomenon of the ワンルームマンション (studio flat). This is the default choice for anyone single without kids. Even university students tend not to share a flat. In general, when you are poor and single in the west you economise by sharing rent with housemates. In Japan you just get a smaller studio flat. Personally this suited me just fine, but it does make me wonder if the average foreigner is much more susceptible to loneliness than the average Japanese...?
Facebook never really made the kind of impact in Japan as it did on the west during the late-naughties. Upon registering, Facebook encouraged you to submit your photo, real name, workplace, university, and even political persuasion in order to connect online with your friends. We have gotten a lot more squeamish about privacy these days and the general use case of Facebook has since changed, but at the time a lot of people in the west were more than happy to publicise all this juicy personal information without any coercion. The Japanese (probably wisely) seem to have much more of a natural aversion to making their personal lives public, and, as a consequence Facebook never enjoyed widespread adoption. That is not to say they don't use social media, Twitter in particular is pretty popular, however, the vast majority of its users register with a pseudonym. The author makes the case that in the west, the reward of social credit, whether that be reviews on Amazon, retweets, Instagram followers etc. outweighs the risks involved with participating on the internet with one's real name. The reverse is true in Japan. The (perceived) risk of humiliation, stalking, or some kind of harassment is too great and so using a nickname became the default.
The author ended the book by saying that Japan is often at the forefront of societal changes that other countries will eventually have to catch up to (aging population, loneliness, slowing economy...), and while this obviously presents massive challenges, it does also mean that Japan has the unique potential to create a new future, one nothing like anything that has come before it.