A couple of days back I took part in a fascinating seminar on Japanese society, as a part of a module I’m taking at Rikkyo University. We’d been looking at Freud’s ideas on civilised society, which demands the suppression of our innate desire for immediate gratification; we must learn to live with delayed gratification if civilisation is not to fail. (See this extract from Eros and civilization by Herbert Marcuse.

Having not studied anything but the very basics of Freudian theory (What do you mean I can’t poo right now?! Oh, look at that cucumber!) I found this all rather depressing, as it offered an explanation that fitted in only too well with what I see around me every day in Japan.

“You know when you get on the train in the morning, it’s absolutely packed, but no-one’s making a sound. Everyone is silent, there’s no interaction. Everyone might as well be dead”. The rest of the group agreed with my classmate’s comment. Indeed, it is quite remarkable what happens when someone does break the silence. Yesterday, riding home on the Tobu Tojo line, the carriage was (as usual), silent. Then suddenly, an elderly person at the other end of the carriage spoke to the stranger next to them. “Excuse me, what’s the next stop?”

The reaction was worthy of being filmed. Every head turned in unison towards the transgressor. Not out of disapproval – more shock. I must admit I was no different to anyone else. I’m so used to the Japanese way that I find it difficult to deal with such ripples (I feel especially uncomfortable when with other people who haven’t been in Japan long, and are yet to plug in to the unspoken rules that are strictly abided by).

When the silent train opens its doors, the unspoken rules that fill its carriages escape like a gas into the atmosphere. They spread, eventually covering every corner of the city. Every nook and cranny. Public places, private places, nowhere can be sealed against their influence. We breathe them in unconsciously; they make their way from our lungs into our bloodstream, and eventually into our thinking. It’s only a matter of time before we are fundamentally altered. That part of us that was capable of free thought is muffled by a cloak of rules by which we are to abide if we are not to be the one who is made to feel the outcast by daring to ask if we can get off at the next stop.

And so it is in Japan. The cloak of conformity is first introduced in Kindergarten, and as the child grows up, so it becomes denser, making expressions of free will difficult to exercise. By the time the child graduates, they no longer mourn the loss of their individuality. This is just the way things are. Were they to deviate from the norm they would be harshly chastised – it’s just easier to conform.

I see this everyday around me. Meet someone for the first time, you know exactly what they’re going to say, and they know exactly what you’re going to say. The language then adopted for the ensuing conversation is that of respect; using casual speech involves too may dangers, one might cause offence. Just stick to the norm. Only with time may one adopt casual speech, and only when permission is given.

Enter a shop and you are greeted by a thousand “Irrashaimase“‘s (‘Welcome’). It’s an automatic response on the part of the store attendants. They see a moving body, they say “Irrasahimase” (occasionally they accidentally say it to one another too, such is the unconscious nature of the action). This welcome is the opening line for the familiar scene at the supermarket. You wander the ailes being lambasted with irrashaimase‘s, not just by the humans that work there, but also by the numerous cheap radio-cassette players that repeat a prerecorded message telling you about the week’s special offer, or singing a song about fish. There’s the mini-DVD players too, positioned in the fridge (of all places) featuring an alien of questionable origin that has just discovered the latest Yakult diet drink.

You reach the checkout, and no matter how many times in the past you have been served by that particular member of staff, they do not break the code in favour of interpersonal communication. It remains a pre-determined encounter. They read out the prices as they scan the items (to avoid the risk of the image of the perfect store clerk being shattered by any personal information that may be revealed through genuine conversation), they tell you how much it is, ask you if you have a store card, take your money and give you your change. The robotic service concludes with a thank you, and if it’s in the company manual, a “Please call again”.

I sometimes wonder whether my accent is resulting in my words being twisted so they come out as “About your pet elephant, how many years have you been grooming it?

Many supermarket checkout staff find serving me something of a shocking experience, as at the point where they reach for a carrier bag (the Japanese have a deep love of packaging) I say to them, “sono mama de ii desu” (“it’s OK just like that, thanks”), pointing out that I have my trustworthy Beanies linen shopping bag with me. That always throws them, and I sometimes wonder whether my accent is resulting in my words being twisted so they come out as “about your pet elephant, how many years have you been grooming it?

The idea that one can survive without a plastic carrier bag is, it would seem, something of a novelty. This notion that one needs constant help, like the gas that muffles our individuality, eeks into every corner of society. Look at the newspaper article I studied with my tutor last week:

The Sunday edition of the Nikkei Shimbun (Japanese equivalent of the Financial Times) has a special lifestyle section, which includes a “reader’s problems” page. Being a serious newspaper, you won’t find letters from Tracy, age 15, wondering if there’s a risk of her getting pregnant by kissing her boyfriend, but you will find letters from the likes of the 35-year-old salary man, Mr. Tanazawa, who is concerned about withdrawing money from the ATM in the local convenience store. In recent years there has been a gradual increase in ATM-related crime, with people being robbed just after they’ve withdrawn a wadge of cash.

His short letter is answered by the ‘Anzen Seikatsu Adobaiza‘ (literally ‘Safe Living Adviser’), Dr. Nakamura. Dr. Nakamura agrees that indeed crime is on the increase, and one must indeed be careful. He goes on to offer the following advice, regarding using ATM in convenience stores (n.b. in Japan, you won’t find ATMs on the street, and those in banks often close at night):

  1. Do not use ATMs after dark
  2. If one has to use an ATM at night, walk right around the shop first to make sure there are no suspicious people in cars there
  3. Go into the shop. Walk up and down all the ailes to check that there are no suspicious people in there.
  4. If the ATM is positioned by a window and therefore visible from outside, it’s best not to use it.
  5. If the ATM is not by a window, wait until there is no-one else near it, and then approach it.
  6. Enter your card and pin, being careful to check that there is no-one around you, and using your right shoulder and arm to shield the buttons from anyone’s view.
  7. Having taken out your money, put it in your wallet straight away.
  8. Before leaving the shop, look out of the window to check that there are no suspicious people in the car park.
  9. Avoid walking down unlit streets on your way home.

My tutor and I agreed that if one was to follow the steps outlined above, one would probably be arrested for behaving suspiciously (casing out the joint etc).

Of course, this kind of nanny state can be found all around the world – the UK being just one example. However, what I argue here is that Japan has taken it to extremes. The loss of individual freedom is marked. Something that simply can’t be ignored.

I was initially quite taken aback by the patronising nature of this piece. Can you imagine finding this in the FT?! It would surely be taken as a joke. The advice offered to this 35-year-old is more suited for a 7-year-old: yet here we have it in one of Japan’s most ‘adult’ newspapers. What’s even more depressing is that this article is actually a pretty good indication of just how much of a nanny state Japan is. This kind of advice is found everywhere; think of the recorded messages on all escalators telling you how to ride them (stand on the left behind the yellow line, hold onto the hand rail), the driver of a bus I took last week, who talked non-stop throughout the entire journey through his microphone.

“We’re approaching some traffic lights, so the bus is going to stop. Please take care.”
“The bus is going to start, please take care”
“The bus is going to turn right, please take care”.

There is little room left for one to think for oneself. Everything is prescribed.

The effect upon Japanese men has been somewhat remarkable too. They have been castrated by the nanny state. They no longer need their masculinity, it’s simply redundant in such a safe world where everything is done for you. Look around you at Japanese men. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not they actually are men. The face, the hair, the clothes, the behaviour, nothing gives you any clues. This has the unfortunate side effect upon women too – they lose their femininity: without light, there is no dark.

Of course, this kind of nanny state can be found all around the world – the UK being just one example. However, what I argue here is that Japan has taken it to extremes. The loss of individual freedom is marked. Something that simply can’t be ignored.

The benefits

The Kanto plain, that area of south-eastern Japan that is home to Tokyo and its many satellite cities, houses over 25% of the Japanese population of 127 million. If one thinks about that, and then thinks about the incredibly low crime rate in Japan, one has to conclude that the Japanese have achieved something quite remarkable. Here we have a city with one of the highest population densities in the developed world, with one of the lowest crime rates of any city in the developed world! I seem to recall that the murder rate is half that of the UK’s. An incredible achievement that can’t be scoffed at.

It was not that many years back that in response to a survey by the Prime Minister’s Office, 90% of the population stated that they saw themselves as ‘middle class’. Another benefit of silence and sterility is relative wealth. Yes, the gap between the rich and poor is starting to widen, but still, the majority of Japanese people do enjoy a relatively high standard of living. They eat well, their personal safety is ensured, they have disposable incomes that enable them to play hard at weekends.

Is it these positive factors then that have brought me back to Japan? I am inclined to think that yes, it is. Initially, I put the appeal of living in Japan down to the ‘gaijin bubble’ – as a foreigner relatively unaware of what was going on around me I could pick and choose those bits of culture that I liked, and simply discard the rest as something that I couldn’t understand and didn’t really concern me in any case. It was a happy bubble. Not a problem in sight.

Of course, that has changed over the past few years. My university education has sapped the Fairly Liquid from the bubble’s walls. It has become extremely thin. I can hear and understand what people are saying on the other side. Indeed, there are times when it is so translucent that it may as well not be there. Yet, I am still content to live here, despite the lack of the bliss of ignorance. So what is it that keeps me here.

Humans do not like change. They do all they can to avoid it. Thus, a society which comes with a handbook, which if followed does away with the need for change, is fundamentally attractive. Perhaps this is why I love living here.

I am inclined to believe that it is the safety, the sterility, the silence that appeals to me. Life in Japan is fundamentally easy in that sense. Everything is a given, there are no unknowns. You learn about an element of Japanese society or culture once, and you are set up to deal with that situation whenever it arises for life. There is little variation, and what variation is only in the detail; the beginning and the end, the overall pattern, does not change. There are no daily struggles, one can go to the supermarket safe in the knowledge that the experience will be as you expect it to be.

Humans do not like change. They do all they can to avoid it. Thus, a society which comes with a handbook, which if followed does away with the need for change, is fundamentally attractive. Perhaps this is why I love living here.

Oh but the irony! A website with such a title as Tame Goes Wild, penned by someone who chooses to live in Japan for reasons of comfort associated with familiarity! Can this really be true?! Well, all I can do is examine my feelings towards Japan, examine the society in which I live, and see where the two interact. At this moment in time, I am inclined to believe that I have ultimately chosen to surrender my personal freedom, in favour of a ‘good life’.

I do of course find this conclusion somewhat disturbing. After all, I have surrendered to a system that 12 years ago I swore I would never capitulate to. It does of course explain however why I write the Daily Mumble. Why I wear my patchwork jeans.

At the end of our class, we all agreed that Japan was in great need of a revolution. Thus, we marched out of uni, back to the station, and boarded the busiest (silent) train we could find. Once happily arranged in a group surrounded by the masses, our conductor counted us in, and we burst into song, with a rousing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Aside from the initial turning of heads, there was no reaction. The salary men and office ladies returned to their lands of snooze, whilst in the distance a protesting 34-year-old Mr. Tanazawa was seen being dragged away from a convenience store ATM, having been arrested for suspicious behaviour.

One Response

  1. This is an interesting piece. When we visited Tokyo, the boy and I were AMAZED at the silence on the trains. We loved the “Please turn your phone to the silent mode” signs”. Perhaps that’s because we are Singaporeans and love all sorts of signs 😉 But I digress.

    If you were to take the train (MRT) in Singapore today, your senses will be attacked by everyone trying to out-talk each other AND some young punk playing some random piece of (horrible) music out loud from his mobile phone. I was seriously horrified and thought back about those wonderful quiet moments on the train in Japan.

    I guess the grass is always greener on the other side?