Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

Going back to some Japan Thoughts

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

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.

The pollyanna tour of Japan continues…

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Let me just say, cause it really can’t be said enough: Japan has HUGE problems. There are many angles from which you can just take this society apart.

Akiko and I went to “Jusco” to do some shopping today. Much of the expeirience is pretty straight forward but at a certain point, I notice that the music that is playing at the normal, almost ignorable, muzak level is all hard-rock versions of Christmas carols. I leave it to others to decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Here’s something I think is pretty great: NHK, Japan’s national broadcast company has a lot of the kind of educational programing that one would expect from what is essentially Japan’s BBC. However, I’m noticing that there are a lot of contests and other shows in which, for example, people are asked to send in photos they’ve taken with an accompanying haiku or other short poem. There is no prize. They just show selections on a future broadcast. I saw a show in which people had sent in videos that they had shot. These were not “Japan’s Funniest home Videos” or “Jackass” episodes. It’s painfully tasteful shots of waterfalls and mountains in the mist. There are also little shows about how to use your cell phone, aimed at the middle aged, and an in depth tutorial on taking pictures with your phone. As we’re approaching the end of the year people are beginning to make plans for their “nengajo” (a new year greeting post card). These cards are based on an image rather than information, so creativity is a key thing and the need to make cool ones has always been an important driver of desktop publishing and home printing technology. People send out literally hundreds of these thing. Anyway I must have seen at least four different shows on NHK that touched on ideas for making this year’s card. There are of course, cooking shows, but on NHK they take the time to tell you how to tell the difference between an egg that is fresh enough to eat raw (no salmonella in Japan) and which ones you need to cook. None of this happens with reference to brand names or in a way that promotes any corporation. The rules that require brand anonymity on NHK lead to all kinds of hilarious pieces of masking covering up the makers name on camera’s, phones and cars.

What I think is interesting about all of this is that NHK clearly has as it’s purpose the enriching of people’s lives. Giving people a place to send their videos and haiku-photos, while simultaneously offering advice on how to use the technology concerned, gets people out and active. Yes, of course there’s an aspect of this that is saying “Go buy a camera” but the emphasis is on the availability of aesthetic participation. Much of the advise for the nengajo cards was to make them by hand (a traditional calligrapher gave the advise: “Don’t bother taking a calligraphy class. You’re not going to get good at it before the end of the year. Just explore what you can do within the skill level you already have.”)

The word “Bunka” in Japanese translates to “Culture”. But it is used in the broadest sense of the word culture. In the states when we say that PBS celebrates “culture” we tend to mean that it deals with art, literature, performance and so-called “high” culture. But when NHK deals with culture it deals with that which we would refer to as “life-style”. We are quick to say things like “In Japanese culture people take their shoes off when they enter a house.” but we’re not likely to have a sense of participation in our own culture in this sense. We do tend to identify with things like holidays as forms of cultural participation, but not the way we eat, bathe or sleep. In Japan there is a palpable sense of participation in these things. It is perhaps the result of the culture’s roots, or the people’s awareness of those roots, or it could be the synthesis of Buddhism, Confucianism and Animism. But there is a deep sense in Japan that the fabric of daly life itself is a subject worthy of attention. And NHK is the broadcast forum for this attention.

Can you tell that I’ve been watching TV? Akiko’s mother’s house is a very traditional Japanese house that sprawls all over the place with long hallways connecting cozy little rooms. During the rather cold winters here in Akita, only one room in the house is heated. This becomes dining room and living room depending on the time of day. I’ve spent most of my time here, watching TV and working on my computer. There’s a mysterious WiFi network that I can catch from time to time. Resulting in odd moments like when I was video-chatting with my brother in Tokyo and my Mother in Minnesota at the same time.

I remember one time, a long time ago in Toga. We were up there working on something in the winter and I complained about the fact that we didn’t heat the dorm more aggressively. One of the company members looked right at me and said, it’s that kind of attitude that keeps getting you guys into wars. Geeze! No kidding! I think about that every time I have to step outside this warm little room. Our place in NY is steam heated with an oil furnace. We’re on the 5th floor of 6. During the winter, we have to open window cause it gets too hot. Like many homes in Japan, and that dorm in Toga, this place doesn’t have running hot water. If you want hot water you have to heat it. Yet, it has a bath that heats and reheats it’s own water. It is impossible to not participate in the season here. It is winter. You taste it in the food and you feel it on your skin. And not that there aren’t places in the States where this is all true, I would argue that it is more prevalent here.

This sense of participation in daily life leads to some interesting things. For example: when I was growing up, people would often ask me if I ate bread or rice for breakfast. This was a clear marker at the time of whether or not you lived a Japanese life-style or not. The fact that I usually had corn-flakes tended to skew the equation, but the idea was that this behavior was tied to cultural identity. People were, to some degree, willing to confer on me, Japanese status if I ate a Japanese breakfast. Even now, the fact that I eat, and actually like, natto is taken as one of the most significant facts in support of my being an inner Japanese. And there’s something going on here that is actually deeply comforting. Japanese society tends to breed attitudes that are racist and xenophobic. This is a huge problem and I don’t want to imply for one second that this is not a horrible, ugly part of people’s attitudes that must be educated out of existence. But there is some kind of mechanism that is put into play when someone looks at me differently because I eat natto. Tolerance for fermented beans is not, to my knowledge, genetic. So when someone has to question their assumption that only Japanese people can stand to eat natto they also have to question other assumptions that are related to that one about the nature of their identity as “Japanese”. They have to begin to look at “Japanese” as something that anybody can participate in. And if these barbarians can be Japanese, maybe…

Told you it was pollyanna.

In other news: It looks like, with the help of Joel, the comments functionality on this blog is up and running again, so post comments and talk amongst yourselves.