Sunday, March 3, 2013

This cozy country

So Esquire columnist Bob Greene comes to Tokyo and freaks out - all this bowing, people so energetic, naked ladies and Miami Vice in Japanese on TV - and goes home exhausted, suffering from cultural concussion.

It works the other way too, of course. A Japanese engineer I know, a sophisticated guy who has figured out a way to record the entire Library of Congress on a single compact disc, comes to me and says he has been invited to give a ten-minute presentation of his work at Bell Labs in New Jersey and he wants to know how to greet them.

Ours has to be the last generation which clutches when it  travels to the other side of the world.

It must be less traumatic for foreigners to come to Japan, though, than for Japanese to venture abroad. Japan is so cozy, and abroad is so, well, brusque.
Think of it this way: Japanese go to New York and immediately get yelled at for not closing the taxi door, then they get looked at strangely for waiting for the green light before crossing the street. They conclude that New York is the frontier.

All sorts of functionaries make it plain that they expect to be tipped (even for opening the door of a taxi - in Japan the taxi driver pulls a lever to open and close the door for you, an indulgence it's easy for Japanese to take for granted when traveling abroad), but nobody seems grateful for the amount they are given. (There is in Japan no custom of tipping.) Purchases are hardly wrapped, if at all, and nobody seems much concerned about being polite.

Japanese travelers leafing through magazines at a New York newsstand quickly learn they are not encouraged to do so although in Japan it is perfectly OK. They discover that American cars have names like Matador and Cobra and the advertisements for them snarl about horsepower and brakes. They recall wistfully that Japanese cars have names like "Parsley" and "Ballade" and that advertisements for them show young people holding hands.

In New York, buildings are monstrous, closing out the sky, while the open spaces of America extend to an empty horizon. Japanese think of the landscape of both urban and rural America as bleak, lonely, uncomfortably majestic. In Japan, there is no "Marlboro Country" which demands to be lived up to ("Golden Bat" country, maybe), and in Tokyo there are no boulevards scaled to make the stroller feel insignificant. All Tokyo is a jumble, like the family living room on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Japanese go to the States and see television news featuring anchor people (tough, rugged nomenclature, that) who speak with enormous confidence and tremendous vigor. In Tokyo, TV is more low key, as if it were put on by the neighborhood amateur dramatic society or a bunch of friends in a silly mood.

American sports on TV seem to celebrate aggression - the slow-motion playbacks seldom analyze form, but focus on people getting hammered. Favorite sports on Japanese TV are high-school baseball tournaments, marathons through the middle of large cities while the citizenry waves little paper flags as encouragement, and sumo, which although certainly violent (for several seconds at a time) is so drenched in ritual and weighed down by the roly-poly physiques of its participants that it only serves to underline the singularity of an act of violence.

In America, few people seem to have a hometown to return to. Everybody has to pump their own gas. Drunks are hauled off to jail. Children are scolded in public. People write angry things on the sides of buildings. Handshakes are wrestling matches. It is difficult to spell people's names and they never give you their visiting card. A party means standing holding a strong drink while trying to make conversation with people you have never met. People are surprised when a train is on time.

Japan, on the other hand, is a country where infants are carried  warm and snug on their mother's back or nestled in a pouch on their front, pampered with cute little toys (the Japanese cute toy industry is big business), and sung the sweetest nursery songs in the world. When they reach kindergarten, Japan Railways, like a proud father, hangs their watercolors in the stations.

The Japanese grow up accustomed to being fussed over and as adults the habit lingers. In Japan, as evening approaches the shoji shutters of the house are pulled closed and after a hot bath drawn up to the chin and a dinner prepared by the loving lady of the house, the family arranges itself around the kotatsu, a warm blanket over a low table under which an electric fire glows) to sip sweet juices or warm sake. (Japan must be the only country whose national drink is coddled.) After an hour or two of easy conversation - rapier witticisms and thundering arguments are not encouraged - the family finishes off with bowls of ochazuke, rice pablum, a dish which puts few demands on the digestive system, then rolls into beds laid out on the tatami inches away from each other which cannot be fallen out of. Rabbit hutches, by definition, are cozy. 

In the morning, the Japanese are swept off to work on a tide of fellow commuters. The train is crowded, as the womb is crowded, but there is no cause for anxiety because each stop is carefully announced in dulcet tones and everyone is told to hang on tight as the train approaches a curve and reminded not to forget their umbrellas. It is like being taken to school by mother.

In Japan, the whole country is one great commune. Almost everyone describes themselves as "middle class," and there is little of the gnawing pressure to improve oneself that drives Americans. There's a single time zone and a single language. The country's schoolchildren all study the same textbooks to the same schedule. To venture forth from Japan is for a Japanese like leaving the bed for a blizzard.

The Japanese police are avuncular to the point of being prepared to lend carfare. They take kids aside for walking sloppily or riding their bike in a reckless manner, and they  make it their business to know when a baby is born on their beat. The Tokyo subways put up artful posters reminding people not to get their fingers caught in the closing doors and to surrender their seats to their elders.

At stoplights Japanese drivers switch off their high beams so as not to dazzle the driver in front. A phone call brings bowls of noodles to any house any time, even in a downpour. A child crossing the street holding up one of the yellow flags obtainable from a box at the crossing could stop an army. Visitors to the house, even the paperboy on a collection run, bring a little gift. When you join a Japanese organization, you can expect a welcoming party in your honor. The whole country saves old newspapers.

Youngsters who want to be thought of as malcontents cut their hair bebop style and wear black nylon jackets which say something like BAD SOLDIER TEAM WORLD WAR ESTABLISHED 1987 across the back. Japanese painters of a romantic inclination have to move to Paris because in Tokyo there is no Sturm or Drang.  

When American students from the American School who have grown up in Japan go abroad to experience what their parents insist is their homeland, they come back reeling. Life in Tokyo is a snuggle; life abroad is a hockey game.

Can foreigners resident in Japan partake of this coziness? Absolutely, but they should be wary. It is addictive.

- Rick Kennedy 

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