Going back to some Japan Thoughts

Ok, so I’ve been lazy about the Blog. Here I am climbing back into the saddle.

So I waxed rather rhapsodic about Japan while I was there so here are some things that SUCK about Japan:

• Relative rarity of free WiFi networks (Australia, or at least Melbourne, also SUCKs on this count)

• Rarity of AC outlets in Airports, trains, train stations. There are coin operated cell-phone charging stations which are cool, and I understand that free plugs aren’t ubiquitous in the States either, but if you look, you can usually find power to snitch in the US. This leads to another thing: I understand that the power needs are different, but if every little calculator can have the little photo-voltaic cell on it, why can’t my iPhone have a flip top that provides a trickle charge. I don’t expect it to be able to run it, but it would slow the battery drain. Wouldn’t it? (I’m setting this up for my bother Joel to comment on it).

• Shu-den. The last train. For all the glory of Japanese mass transit, it doesn’t run all night. On the way back to the hotel one night in Tokyo, Akiko and I were on the last train on the Sobu line into Shinjuku. We were changing there to the Yamanote, but the Yamanote line was delayed. Because the Sobu train was the last one of the night, they waited for the Yamanote line to arrive. When we got off the train, it was already full. As we stood there across the platform from it, it filled up to the point that people were hanging out of the doors. When our train finally showed up, it was full and MOST of the people got off and tried to get onto the now completely full Sobu train. The scene on the platform as our train pulled away was something out of a high-concept disaster movie. The number of people trying to get on was at least two and a half times the packed capacity of the train.

I don’t know the numbers on this but if the MTA here in NYC can run trains all night, why can’t there be some service late night in Japan? Is there a downside? Sound? Wear and tear? Capsule hotels will go bankrupt?

Speaking of sound: • Sound trucks. Japanese politics features a very vocal radical right-wing, called the Uyoku. As opposed to the radical left Sayoku, Both of these are boarder-line terrorist organizations, and whereas when I was young the Sayoku were the ones demonstrating against Narita airport and the constitution, by the time I was living here in the 80s and 90s it was the Uyoku that was making all the noise. To over-simplify completely, the Uyoku are Neo-Nazis. They’re intensely nationalist. They don’t like foreigners. And they would like us to operate on the basis that the 2nd World War is still on, and that Japan should be much more aggressive towards the Russians in terms of certain islands which are in northern Japan or southern Sakhalin, depending on who’s telling the story.

The MO of these guys is to drive around in black panel vans with white and red slogans written all over them and late 1930′s Messerschmidt loud speakers on the roof. The guy in the passenger seat then proceeds to shout into a hand held CB style microphone and what you can hear through the distortion of the tortured amps is a stream of Mussolini style tirade. They often have a posse which consists of a small parade of men marching behind them in military fatigues, helmets and white gloves, holding various banners and flags.

I was eating my lunch in the court-yard of the theatre in Mito many years ago when one of these parades went by. One of the marchers came over and stood over me, watching me eat my rice-ball. After awhile he asked if I liked Japanese food. I told him that I did, and he walked away as if I had validated something about his life. I was a bit confused by the encounter, but I don’t think I was as confused as he was.

Akiko and I ran into such a parade in Shibuya on our way to see Kayoko’s play and the sound bouncing off the glass sides of the valley of high-fashion retail was mind melting. I didn’t make out ONE SINGLE WORD of what this knucklehead was saying. I don’t know what the issue was, or what he was trying to convince me of. I suspect this has ceased to be the point of these trucks. They’re a form of right wing punk rock. I don’t know their politics enough to know if I agree or disagree with them anymore. But I don’t like their punk rock.

• Misogyny. There’s a lot of it in Japan. It’s everywhere. You see it in the behavior of both men and women. Almost everything I say about liking the basic state of being in Japan is predicated on my being male. I often wonder if Akiko would like Japan if she hadn’t been somewhat inoculated to the misogyny by growing up here.

• Racism. There is a truism that I hold to about living in the United States that states that, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t benefit from being a white person. This is mostly because I’m treated in with a modicum of respect and normality. I assume in an emergency, that I’ll be able to communicate reasonably with members of the Police. for example. In Japan this gets complicated because there is a kind of positive racism in that I’m actually held in some weird form of respect just cause I’m white. This has dissipated over the years just because it’s not the rarity it used to be, but when I was a kid it was SO easy to take advantage of being European that a lot of us didn’t really notice the extent of the effect. I remember that the first few black people I had contact with in Japan, had radically different experiences as “Gaijin”. Some of it was novelty but there was an ugly edge to it. Hip-Hop culture’s hold on vogue has changed this considerably, but there’s a generational issue. The official bureaucracy is not hip to Hip-Hop. The historical situation concerning Koreans and Chinese is an absolute horror story. One has to be careful. To say that Japanese people are racist… is racist. I know many Japanese people who are very sophisticated about these issues. I’m talking about general social tenancies here, which I acknowledge is dangerous.

The upside to the Japanese attitude towards gender and racial equality is that there is a relative absence of political correctness. People are more likely to indicate their attitude, and you know where people stand, but the underlying ambient level of discrimination is undeniable, and unacceptable. It’s not that this isn’t also true of most other countries, including the States but I believe Japan is shamefully behind, in terms of equal pay and other tangible issues.

• Localized technology. I don’t know exactly how to talk about this yet. It’s something that I really noticed on this last trip and I’m not sure I can be clear here but it has to do with Japanese society’s tendency to create a great deal of innovation that is fundamentally self-involved. It’s like the Americans making cars that only appeal to Americans and then expecting everyone to buy them.

There is this canard about Japan not being able to innovate. I think this is bunk. This is a society that can come up with five, distinct, cost-effective ways to package a rice ball without the seaweed touching the rice, that can be unwrapped without touching the rice directly. The six years I was gone saw a transformation in the way hot cans of coffee get sold out of vending machines. The new trains have these very user-friendly data screens that let you know where you are and how long it’s going to take to get you where you’re going. The thing that gets me is that the layout is reversed depending on which side of the train you’re on. In other words, the whole layout is reversed to make sure that the map is oriented the way the train is actually moving. The next station on the map is in the same direction as the train is moving. This is a small thing, but it’s the kind of thing that makes a difference between technology that’s adjusting to humans or the other way around. The iPhone (which I love) has a flaw in this regard: When it’s in Landscape mode, the volume rocker is reversed relative to the volume indicator on screen, and Apple is the master of this game.

Think for a moment about the latest development in toilet technology that has an actual impact on your life (not in the area of cleaning the toilet). No really. Think about it. It’s probably the development of cheap, readily available toilet paper. I’m willing to bet thats what it is, and I don’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. This means, that I’ve NEVER seen forward movement (excuse the pun) in the technology of routine bowel evacuation. This is not true in Japan. When I was a kid, the throne style “western” toilet was a relative rarity. Now a toilet that doesn’t have a built in bidet, and automated washing set-up with air-drying and seat warming is a relative rarity. I’ve seen these things introduced in little news items in the States as an example of “those nutty Japanese”. I have never seen such a clear example of “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

Mocking these things makes us look like the filthy ignorant Neanderthals we probably are, but the broader point here is that the innovation that has lead to things things is not permeating world culture. This is the thing I can’t put my finger on, but there’s something self involved about making something that only a Japanese person would find useful. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that of course, but somehow I get the feeling in Japan that it’s not coming from a passion towards the Japanese way of life, but a fear of going out and playing in the bigger playground. It is the old Japanese insularity, and it feeds the conflicted sense of superiority (look at our cool stuff)/inferiority (oh you wouldn’t be interested) that lies at the heart of so much in Japan.

Ok. Thats it for now.

Gotta go do some stuff.

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5 Responses to “Going back to some Japan Thoughts”

  1. Jen Taher says:

    Hmmm, but misogyny is a rarity in the States? Perhaps you are inoculated by it here? I think we have just become more deceptive about our biases but have you seen the press on Hillary Clinton and Britney Spears lately? Walked around the meat-packing district on a Friday night or turned on a television? Granted, I cannot comment or really compare between sexism here in the homeland and that in Japan (having never been) but I’d be hard-pressed to think of a country I’ve been to where misogyny wasn’t a healthy part of the cultural identity.

    Sounds like for a mac-head, Japan had it’s drawbacks. Maybe Halliburton could fix that.

    Aren’t you glad I am reading your blog?

  2. Administrator says:

    No I don’t think that misogyny is a rarity ANYWHERE. I tend to agree with people like Leonard Shlain, who point to evolutionary forces that led to the species-wide ubiquity of misogyny. All the more reason why it has to be dealt with institutionally and culturally. All I’m saying is that on the sliding scale of these things Japan is behind the US. Its a hard thing to measure with any kind of rationality because in some ways Japanese women say that they prefer the situation in Japan, but most of the widely accepted metrics like wage disparity, put Japan behind. Attempts were made, during the occupation to write gender-equality into the Japanese constitution, but it was the Americans who failed to do this. I hope I’m not inoculated by it here, but it’s almost impossible for white men to claim otherwise without pushing buttons. Supposedly, we are not gender-equipped to really see it, but a lot of what gets called sexism and misogyny in the media is simply bad taste. This doesn’t justify it, but it can clarify the terms.

    I AM glad you’re reading the blog!

  3. Jen Taher says:

    C’est domage! Paris te manque, Leon. Yes, most cultures can claim misogyny in common so can, practically, all religions (higher or not) save, I dunno, Wicca.

    You must now read my blog and then we can communicate via Facebook and by the time we see each other in person the human-to-human contact will be so traumatizing it will render me speechless.

    You must watch “The Wire” if you have time in your hand. Like a Dickens novel by way of the inner city writ large. The smartest portrayal of American inner cities after the loss of manufacturing jobs bar none.

  4. matthew chapman says:

    Apparently manners are starting to suck as well – at least that what the newspapers tell me: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/mar/25/japan

  5. Gaijinass says:

    Innovation? The things you mentioned sounded much like the old addage- Japan just improves on things that are already available. Anyway…

    I agree with much of the post.

    Love to toilets. Love them.

    And yes, Neanderthals were from Europe so….

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