by Barry Edelson
Become a Patron


Images of Unknown Japan


The Virtue of the Crowd

A large crowd gathers at the gate in the early morning at the airport in Osaka, waiting to board a plane for the short flight to Tokyo. The 40-minute route is so heavily traveled that the aircraft, which we expect to be the size of a 737, is actually a 787 with nine seats across, a plane commonly deployed on intercontinental routes. More than 200 people are in the gate area, and there are only 15 minutes left until the scheduled push-back. How is it possible that all of these people will be able to board in such a short time? We have a connecting flight in Tokyo, and start getting a little concerned.

The announcement is made that boarding is about to begin, and two neat lines form at the entrance to the jetway. People barely break stride as they slip their boarding passes through the two electronic turnstiles, no different from the way they insert their tickets and rush ahead when entering the subway. With our carry-on luggage and extra jackets, we feel slow and awkward in comparison to the rest of the passengers, most of whom are business people carrying only briefcases or laptop bags. The two orderly rows of passengers enter the two open doors of the plane and slide down the aisles in perfect tandem as though on a factory assembly line. In little more than five minutes the entire plane is seated and ready for take-off. Nearly every seat is taken. We push back from the gate on the dot, and make it to Tokyo in more than enough time to make our connection.

After a week and a half in Japan, we ought to have known better than to worry. The Japanese would be mortified to cause an inconvenience to anyone.

Sacred Water

First things first: best plumbing anywhere. If civilizations were judged solely on sanitation, then Japan is by far the most advanced and enlightened civilization in the history of the world. By comparison, one thinks of the disreputable state of public restrooms at home, the sight and stench of which regularly convince countless millions to hold it in rather than expose any part of themselves to the filthy apparatus that passes for a toilet. Or of the waterworks in Venice, where one feels fortunate if anything comes out of the faucet at all, and even when it does it is accompanied by an infernal chorus of bangs and booms, as if the innards of the Earth were disgorging some indigestible demon. In Japan, water is treated as something almost sacred, and cleanliness as fundamentally and inextricably human.

The Japanese act as though life could not go on if they lapsed even for a moment from the strict standards of hygiene that govern daily existence. Hence the distribution of warm wet towels at every dinner table, or towelettes packaged in plastic nearly everywhere else — sometimes where food is not even on the agenda. (Those dirty foreigners can't wash their hands often enough.) Hence the common placement of showers and bathtubs side by side, the former for cleaning and the latter only for soaking (that is, relaxing). Hence the ubiquity of the high-tech heated toilet seat with built-in bidet, even in public restrooms at the most overrun tourist sites, or at roadside gas stations and convenience stores, each fixture so pristinely maintained that you could believe you were the first person ever to use it. From the most humble rustic facility to a five-star hotel, this immaculate contraption is the bare minimum standard, and the Japanese themselves clearly would not deign to use a toilet if it didn't meet a certain expectation of cleanliness. One would hesitate to direct a Japanese guest even to the well-decorated amenities in our own homes, for fear of stern judgment. There is a very strong temptation to re-invent the master bath in order create the oasis that is the essence of Japanese bathing.

This obsession with cleanliness abides with an embedded disdain for disorder and inefficiency. Whereas the compulsion towards sanitation may seem like a fetish, one bordering on paranoia, the compulsion to run everything like a well-oiled machine is so deeply ingrained as to appear inseparable from the Japanese DNA. It would be impossible to organize a society this way by decree; acculturation from within is demanded to sustain such high levels of order. It requires a commitment from nearly everyone at every level of society. Perhaps 'commitment' isn't the right way to look at it, as it implies conscious choice. This is more like an instinct evolved over generations, an array of habits and inclinations that are not thought about but merely lived. Perhaps because Japan is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, with little influence from the outside in the realm of personal habits and family customs, and with no sectarian divides or ethnic conflicts to disturb the common understanding of what it means to be Japanese, it has evidently been able to sustain a relatively unchanging attitude about how the nation should organize itself. This does not necessarily extend to politics or commerce, arenas in which Japan has indeed changed dramatically since the 19th century, but in the domestic spheres of personal hygiene, interpersonal relationships and social cohesion, the country appears remarkably unified, harmonious and unchanging.

Still, societies, like individuals, are easy to caricature, and given the proposition that there is a modicum of truth in most stereotypes, some societies lend themselves to caricature more readily than others. Japan's national character is so easy to describe, so pervasively exhibited, and so ardently defended by the Japanese themselves, that it is perhaps the world's most outstanding example of a major nation that is universally reduced by outsiders to a set of types. The Japanese are exceptionally clean and orderly. They are polite to a fault. They are friendly but not demonstrative. They work hard and follow the rules.

Of course, in most ways Japan is a country like any other, with its share of conflicts and tragedies and national embarrassments. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, to use a recent example, shook the Japanese faith in their own capability. But compared to most other nations, they stand apart as a single people, unchanging across the generations. In little more than a century and a half, Japan progressed from being an inward, feudal, and agrarian society, to a very aggressive industrial and military power, and now a vibrant democracy, an economic heavyweight and a dependable world citizen. Along the way, a new society has been grafted upon the old, an ultra-modern, technological, commercial, metropolitan universe drowned by kitsch and bathed in garish neon light. From dinner in a restaurant on a narrow lane, where one sits on the floor in a room enveloped in paper screens, as one might have done at the turn of a previous century, and where a woman in a kimono cooks and serves your meal like a private servant, you can walk a few short blocks to a teeming, brightly lit modern shopping district where tens of thousands of young people crowd the streets, making their way among stores and bars and restaurants, illuminated everywhere by colorful shop windows and the blinding, omnipresent glare of electronic billboards.

Every culture is many cultures in one, and even this obvious divide between tradition and modernity must conceal other layers of complexity. Japanese literature and film certainly portray a society far more afflicted with disorder and anxiety than we would guess from observing the salaryman in his daily routine. Moreover, some of those enduring traits which the world identifies as uniquely Japanese may strike us as no less superficial than the garish advertising displays that light up the night: the wearing of masks to contain a cold or ward off an allergy; politeness bordering on servility (how many times did our flight crew have to apologize for a mere 30-minute delay on a 14-hour flight to Tokyo, a delay well within the American margin of error); bowing and other constant gestures of solicitude; nervous laughter to elide moments of awkwardness; near total non-use of car horns; a ban on booing at the ballpark; the strict avoidance of talking on a mobile phone when there is the remotest chance of disturbing anyone.

What do all of these mere habits truly say about a people? If the Japanese character appears largely unchanged over time, then are these not the very same Japanese who, in our parents' and grandparents' generation, launched a brutal war of conquest across the western Pacific, hardening with daily beatings their own soldiers, who in turn meted out the cruelest imaginable punishments on prisoners and occupied populations, and ultimately invited hideous devastation upon their own land? So what of their beautiful, tranquil gardens, one might ask, and their exquisitely arranged flowers and compulsively clean interiors? So what of their litter-free streets and perfectly organized airports and train stations and timetables? So what if the generals had a lovely, peaceful haven to return to after a hard day of death and destruction? Does this not mean that the outward of appearance of civilization, even one of a very high order and advancement, is masking the real Japan, in which strict obedience, ritual suicide and other forms of self-abnegation reveal the true historical nature of a violent and unforgiving culture? Is there not today a conservative faction, small but vocal and very much alive, that still worships the emperor as a god, reveres war criminals as heroes, and keeps the country as a whole from reckoning with its military past in the frank and open way that Germany has?

This view would seem rather too simplistic, and is at odds with the country's pacifist post-war history. The period of rapid industrialization and militarization, which may be marked from the restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868 until the end of World War II in 1945, lasted barely as long as the current period of democratic self-rule. Today's system of government may have been imposed by the victors of the war, but has been thoroughly embraced by succeeding generations of politicians and citizens alike. Perhaps it is correct to say that the traits that have survived from the rule of the shoguns through the present day represent the true character of Japan, and are capable of assuming many guises. Over a long history, the country has experienced periods of relative calm and strife, like any other, but perhaps those characteristics which remain largely unaltered by war and politics, and by the startling transformation of an inward-looking society, forcibly isolated from its neighbors, into an open, extremely successful and highly technological economic power, is the country's essential self. What is perhaps most notable about the Japanese character is its very longevity and pervasiveness. If every meal in every kind of restaurant is meticulously presented like a work of art, from the humble noodle shop and local yakitori kitchen, to the gourmet Nobu with its delectable beef or the eight-course banquet at the traditional inn (ryokan), then such attention to detail is not merely widespread across the population but deeply rooted as well. This degree of concern for the fine art of living does not happen by accident. To build a society in which one doesn't see so much as a cigarette butt on the street, and where the floor of a garage is as clean as the floor of a bathroom, one needs virtually every one of its members, implicitly and unhesitatingly, to be vested in the greater good.

The Japanese are not entirely alone in this regard. The Swiss also boast a similar aversion to dirt and a love of both fine engineering and on-time efficiency, though they can merely dream of Japan's ethnic homogeneity. And Japan's extreme degree of refinement in all things related to food and design is surely unique. The Japanese and the Swiss have this in common, though, apart from a fixation with unerring timepieces: all this meticulous attention to detail is very time-consuming, and very expensive. It is also employs a lot of people. Where else in the world do hotels have young women stand around all day just to guide guests to the automatic elevators, or young men stand out in the rain from dawn to dusk to guide traffic from the curb to the hotel's entrance? Granted, we stayed in very fine hotels, but this level of service and attention to detail would be considered excessive and unnecessary in even the most elegant establishments in the West. One might find similar attitudes about service in other Asian countries — the bowing and scraping does get a bit on our democratic nerves after a while — but it is hard to imagine it being applied with the same style and devotion and, most important, with the same unquestioning loyalty to their own sense of what is right and proper, than is common practice in Japan.

The Old Japan
How did THIS Japan …
The New Japan
… turn into THIS Japan?


The Nail That Sticks Up Gets Hammered Down

An article appeared in an English-language daily during our visit describing the demographic crisis that Japan faces in the next few decades. The population, which peaked at 128 million a few years ago, is expected to decline to a mere 88 million long before this century is out. A quarter of the population is over 65, and the birth rate is very low. In a country without immigration, there just aren't enough young people to take care of the elderly, let along replace them. Few non-Japanese are allowed to live in Japan, apart from diplomats and those who work for Japanese companies. Japan has been enormously successful at keeping itself ethnically pure, but it may come at the cost of a relentlessly shrinking nation. In a culture in which standing out from the crowd is assiduously avoided, quietly not getting married or having children count as major forms of rebellion.

By coincidence, the Economist ran a chilling story immediately after we returned home about bullying in Japanese schools. It appears that the practice is rife, and that teachers often encourage it. A Japanese child who relocates from one part of the country to another is often ostracized as an outsider, and made to feel friendless. This is the dark underside of social harmony: the price of unity is that someone must be labeled as the "other". In a society as diverse as ours, it's easy to find scapegoats, but the difference between "us" and "them" in Japan is so subtle as to escape the notice of foreigners entirely. It would seem altogether artificial, as well, and therefore doubly cruel, as though a child is mercilessly picked on merely to enable everyone else to feel unified. This may not sound terribly different from the social bullying that goes on daily in the typical North American middle school, but in concert with the famed Asian pressure on students to perform well on school exams, and with the added ugliness of teachers not only failing to step in to protect bullied students but actually egging the majority on, the results can be fatal. The leading cause of death among Japanese teenagers and pre-teens is suicide.

Some Japanese creative artists illuminate the shadows cast by an apparently effortless conformity, and reveal the sometimes painful emotional consequences of living inside a social order that is organized to an uncommonly fine degree of protocol. The novels of Haruki Murakami, among others, reveal a deep well of loneliness within the densely populated country, and a surprising degree of personal dysfunction within extraordinarily efficient systems of every imaginable kind. One of his characters is literally imprisoned for a time at the bottom of a deep well, where the sun shines on him for only a few seconds every day — as apt a metaphor for personal isolation as one could imagine.

The Japanese also have their fringe elements, which occasionally erupt in acts of domestic terrorism. And there is an enduring organized crime tradition, in the form of the famously tattooed yakuza. When asked about them, however, our guide tellingly focused entirely on the antisocial aspect of their actions. Criminality didn't enter into the conversation. The trouble with the yakuza or the various cults that infrequently raise their heads is not the violence they threaten to do but the threat they pose, however small, to the social order. This is apparently far more disquieting than a few mere crimes.

However much we read about the Japanese and observe their culture, however rich and nuanced our understanding of their history and society, certain singular traits remain fixed in our imaginations. Moreover, the disparity between the ancient and the modern is difficult to fathom. One wonders what the Japanese who work in "regular" businesses must think of the people who make their living in the ryokans, or of the geishas in their archaic hair styles, make-up and costumes. In the West, they would almost certainly be viewed by some as anti-feminist, anti-democratic throwbacks to an unmourned feudalism, in which women in particular were granted something rather less than equal status. But one gets the distinct impression that they are respected and admired by many for helping to keep the ancient culture alive. At every Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine near heavily visited cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, masses of Japanese from all parts of the country flock as though on a pilgrimage, many dressed for a day out in brightly colored kimonos. There were wedding ceremonies at the shrines, and the blessing of babies, all in traditional garb. People bowed and prayed in the temples, lighting incense and pouring water for purification. It is clearly not for the tourists alone that ancient Japan is kept alive. A great deal of money is spent on preserving these thousands of sites, which, given their wood construction and the prevalence of earthquakes, is surely a constant and costly undertaking. The modern Japanese may love their neon lights and bright cities, but they also seem bound to the lost, quiet, rural world that spawned them.

How they got from there to here is another question entirely. Perhaps spending hours arranging flowers and keeping a spotless kitchen and bath are the vestiges of ritual, a way of living that connects them to their legendary past. Whatever it is, there is something both fundamental and elusive about what it means to be Japanese, a sense of identity that binds them powerfully to their past, and to one another.

A Piece of Lint

Four of us were walking through the crowds in the Dotombori district of Osaka on a Saturday evening when I felt something poke me in the back, gently, as though someone were trying to get my attention. The streets were so crowded that we couldn't all walk side by side, so the two men were a few steps ahead of the women. I turned but didn't see who or what it was that had poked me, though I did notice a young man, about 30, in a business suit and with the requisite briefcase in his hand, pass me on my right side. He stood out among the casually dressed crowd, probably having come from a late day at the office. When the women caught up to us, they said that the man had picked a piece of lint from the back of my sweater and flicked it away. If they hadn't seen it happen, I would never have known, because the young man just kept walking past us, without so much as a glance in my direction.

It was a grooming instinct so keenly felt that he just had to act upon it without even thinking, just like the macaques on Monkey Mountain in Kyoto, which we visited a couple of days later. No one at home would have dreamed of doing such a thing for a perfect stranger, certainly not without asking first, most likely not at all. That he felt free to do so without fear of consequences, knowing that his gesture would be accepted and understood without fuss, lay at the heart of his culture. It was the national imperative of feng shui writ very, very small: he saw something amiss in the world and simply had to correct it. It had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with that piece of lint and its standing in the way of a more orderly universe. The essence of Japan: no detail too small to be overlooked.

April 30, 2017


Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.
Become a Patron