TGJA – Chapter Eleven – When in doubt, shout

Forgive me friends. For those of you who like reading these updates on my life in Japan, I know I have made you wait longer than usual. It is not that Tokyo, Japan, or even the Japanese have stopped amazing me on a daily basis, it is that life has a way of intervening with even the most well-intentioned plans. On a serious note, which I know is a departure from what I usually write, my studies of the language itself are going well. The first semester has come to an end and I have learned much. For my efforts I have been ‘rewarded’ with placement into an intermediate level class where, among other things, we will begin studying Kanji – the Japanese versions of the Chinese characters – of which there are some thousands, each one more difficult than the last.  I feel as though a novice climber staring up at the peak of Mt.Everest from the valley, some six kilometers below; considering the climb that will either take all my life, or take my life. Please, wish me well.

Those of you who have been regularly reading these updates will know that all is not well with my life in Tokyo. The mystery cough which has plagued me for months now turned out to be Pertussis (Whooping Cough) and to make matters worse I have contracted a strain of the disease which is immune to antibiotics due to the over-prescription of such drugs in Japan. Worse than the cough is my host mother, who is a strange and irrational relic of a bygone age with whom I often clash. Most recently our disagreement was about using the air-conditioner in my room, the remote control for which she had confiscated when I moved in three months ago knowing full well the day would come I would want to turn it on. To better understand her unique rationale you must be made aware of the staggering prices for things in Tokyo. Electricity, gas, water, and indeed all amenities are provided at a premium as the local authorities have long ago learned that in a metropolis such as this people will pay through the nose for things that elsewhere would cost next to nothing. In that manner a loaf of bread costs around six or seven dollars at a proper bakery, and a can of soda costs about a dollar fifty. Without wanting to bore any of you with the subtleties of a dynamic economy, I will simply say this: I understand that the electricity for my air conditioner costs money. My host mother then, in an effort to pocket as much money as possible from having us around, spares every expense. Thus most of the food we eat comes from the Japanese equivalent of the dollar store (the 100 Yen store) and obviously use of the air conditioner is forbidden on penalty of death. Unfortunately, the Japanese summer is characteristic of sub-tropical jungles, where there is no wind, endless heat, and oppressive humidity. Two weeks ago, with temperatures well in the 30’s (that’s Celsius for all of you who enjoyed the warm bosom of the American Educational System) I sat in my small, dark room wearing not much at all, doing nothing but trying not to pass out from heat stroke, as my eyes eyed the air conditioner hanging above my head. Armed with conviction and desperation I set out to change the rules of the house in light of the temperature in my room being frankly unbearable. In my best Japanese, which admittedly is not quite fluent, I explained to her that I was quite hot (also evident from the beads of sweat on my forehead which were forming small rivers) and that I would really appreciate it if I were to be allowed to use the air conditioner. Upon hearing my request her face contorted, her eyes burned with wanton hate for all things foreign, and her lips formed these words: “when it is hot you should open up a window.” Clearly, we two did not see eye to eye. When the temperature outside is exactly equal to the ones inside, opening a window has about as much effect as drying off with a soaking wet towel. My host mother, immune to the crushing grip of reason, would not easily be swayed. My assurances that the air conditioner would be used in a manner consistent with her strict rules seemed to appeal to her, and eventually she  succumbed to the sheer undeniable obviousness with which I confronted her.

One of the reasons I tell of this here and now is to lead into another topic which is more closely related to my usual writings; the differences between western and eastern philosophies. In this particular case, a problem presented itself and required resolution. The western philosophy of problem solving is a direct one. We identify the problem, formulate a plan to solve the problem, we implement our plan and assuming we are successful declare ourselves victorious. In essence, we like to win. Problems exist so that we may conquer them – our feelings of self worth, and self righteousness bolstered and fed by each such victory – our existence validated, as if each such incident were tallied so as to quantify our reason for being.

The Japanese in turn have their way of solving problems which, in many ways, is uniquely distinct from ‘ours.’ In so far as I have been able to personally experience and observe, the Japanese solve problems much like mathematicians solve equations. Indeed the stereotype that all asians are true at math is compounded here, where Japanese students continue to study math as a required subject even in college, regardless of their intended direction of study. Whether all Japanese people have a knack for mathematics, or dare I say, have hyper-active left brain halves, I do not pretend to know. What I do know is that even in non-exact subjects such as language, arts, and even music, there is a overwhelming emphasis on form, technique, and formulaic analysis. Grammar for instance is learned through repetition and memorization – not through oral practice or creative writing. We were presented with rules of a complex grammatical system at school for instance in a manner which can only be described as oblique and backwards. Our teachers would have us believe that memorizing a particular form in grammar is conducive to speaking the language when at the same time, after 12 years of mandatory English lessons, very few Japanese people can speak the language. The simple truth is that memorizing the forms is a useless gesture unless that knowledge is interwoven with speaking, listening, and (creative) writing. Given this as truth as it has been in my experience, imagine the terror in the faces of my teachers when I ask them to explain not just the rule but the reasons for its being. The simple question of a novice student: why is it the way it is? It is evident to me now that countless Japanese people go their entire long lives without asking this question even once. To know the reason for a rule, whether it be one of grammar, one of society, or even the laws of a nation is to understand at once the consequence of breaking these rules, as well as breeding understanding with respect to the necessity for the rules. Understanding it seems is not a requirement in study here in Japan. Our ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ tests often include words we have not previously learned simply to test our ability to apply grammar rules based on recognizing the structure of a particular sentence. Knowing the sentence’s meaning is irrelevant and at best considered a nice bonus. It is frankly infuriating. I have gone on a tangent however. What does this have to do with air conditioners, problem solving and the western notion of winning?

Simply put, Japanese people seem reluctant to take responsibility, act creatively, and adapt to changes to the established status quo. In the case of my host mother, it may simply be that she had not considered the use of the air conditioner as her default reaction to the weather being hot is opening a window. Think of this as a programmed response, regardless of the effectiveness of applying the formula: it is hot therefore the window must be opened. As I have said, if it is hot inside the house and the outside temperature is less than the one inside the house this formula is in parallel with the logic that led to us adopting it in the first place. When the outside temperature and the inside temperature do not differ however (or worse, if the outside temperature is warmer than the one inside) then opening the window because you are hot is at best useless, and possible utterly counter productive. Such an oversight of simple logic and observation is the result of thoughtlessly regurgitating a rule without understanding its subtleties and reason for being.

As the Japanese en-masse prefer the latter of these two problem solving techniques, theirs is not so much a sense of victory but a sense of relief, elation even, when once again their tedious and methodical study of the rules has in its application saved them from having to come up with a creative solution to a problem for which they may have to take responsibility if they get it wrong. Following rules blindly is both safe and unremarkable, keeping in tact the many layers of social prudence to which every Japanese person lawfully abides. At times this is admirable and highly efficient, at other times it is incomprehensible and shockingly inadequate. In the case of my host mother and the matter of my air-conditioner, only after providing parameters for acceptable use of the unit did she once more find herself in familiar territory where she could formulate her perception of the world through rules and regulations. Being Japanese, she was relieved. Being a westerner, and unendingly stubborn, I won. Thus is the nature of the chasm between east and west. The language barrier and customs are but a mask for the root of the issue: understanding, and the way we two hemispheres go about attaining it.

Being particularly cross, and not at all popular with respect to my opinions, I take exception to both styles of problem solving in favor of allowing the problem solving technique to be used depend on the problem itself. That needle in the side of all who I meet is a discussion for another time however.

One of the things I enjoy tremendously in Japan is how you are treated when you assume the role of the patron. Merchants, no matter what the establishment or service provided, always greet you courteously and attend your every whim with humility and utmost speed. Japanese shop keepers are many and vary a great deal, but they have those two things in common across the spectrum. From the man precariously perched atop a ladder destroying ear drums with a megaphone and promises of sales to gentle old ladies who, hunched over to impossible angles, shuffle at speeds previously consigned to fiction to fetch what you request, the customer is King. Though this position on the part of the merchant seems logical in a capitalist society ask yourself in earnest how often you find yourself being helped by a less than enthusiastic, less than professional, and less than agreeable salesperson, service provider, or supposed professional staff member. I understand of course the courtesy of the sales manager at the local BMW dealer has a lot to do with the amount of money you will be leaving in his care, but are you given the same courtesy when frequenting a lowly fast food restaurant? In Japan, the roles of these two people could be reversed and their courtesy would not diminish in the slightest. Humility is key, hammered into every child at early age, as the basis for smooth relations and, once again, the desire to avoid problems. I mention this because as I have said though western and eastern philosophies differ in almost every aspect of life, each has its own benefits. Shopping, as a result, is an experience here that is stress free and dare I say enjoyable, even if you are only popping into the shops for a pack of gum.

In an unusual move on my part I recently found myself seated in a lounge usually reserved for yuppies, nouveau riche, and Ferrari-driving Yakuza. Allow me to explain. The nicest movie theatre in Tokyo (or so proclaimed by reviews) is the Toho cinema complex in Mori Tower in Roppongi. Despite having to wait a few months for new releases to appear on the screens here sporting Japanese subtitles, the Toho cinemas are well worth going to. They are, like most places in Japan, clean, efficient, and safe allowing patrons to focus more on the experience itself and less on the things that are wrong around it. However, though the staff is courteous and generally has some idea of how to speak God’s language (a joke I enjoy cultivating here), I enjoy practicing my Japanese and as such I refuse to answer them when the take me for yet another Gaijin and address me in English. Stalwartly I attempt to convey my wishes and questions in Japanese and usually succeed in getting responses in Japanese. Not surprisingly then, some things are lost in translation while other things are understood not at all. Such was the case this weekend at the Toho cinemas. A friend from school whose name I will not mention here for fear of misspelling it and myself set out to watch “Terminator 4” and after a short spiel by the lady behind the ticket counter we were given tickets and set about the business of waiting for it to start. When we walked into the appointed screening room however it turned out the movie was already well under way despite the two of us being courteously early. Confused we peered down at our tickets only to find we had been given the wrong ones for an earlier showing. This problem I brought to the attention of the steward who in turn, fearing having to solve the problem himself, wasted no time climbing the ladder of authority by fetching his manager. The manager rattled off some machine-gun speed Japanese to which we listened closely but neither of us could make heads of tails of. In my characteristic stubborn manner I refused to switch to English asked her kindly to repeat herself more slowly. Usually this helps little, as it is extremely difficult to alter your speech pattern for starters, and saying words you simply do not know slowly does not help to understand them any better. This time however, I got the general gist of it and understood that the showing we had originally requested was the ‘premier’ showing which costs quite significantly more money. Undaunted by this and deciding on a whim to make this inconvenience into an adventure we agreed to supplement our original ticket prices for the ‘premier’ showing and soon found ourselves in a bar/lounge area which included a full-length waterfall, a grand piano, and a Champagne bar for which we were issued free drink vouchers. Clearly, we had left most of the other movie-going public behind at this point as incredulous eyes stared back at me. They were my friend’s eyes. She was clearly not quite on the same wavelength as I was, and was still freaking out that her carefully laid plan had been destroyed in the same instance I took over the decision making process. She calmed down considerably once she had a glass of wine however, and unsurprisingly the ‘premier’ movie experience grew on her quickly. Enormous leather-clad lay-Z-boy-style seating, backlit marble drink tables, a Bose sound system, and of course a screen with a higher resolution (of course it’s digital – it’s Japanese) – what’s not to like? Even the bathrooms looked as though they had never been used and were made from exotic materials usually reserved for the foyers of expensive hotels, and the homes of such illustrious people as Her Royal Majesty the Queen of all England and Hugh Heffner – two people who until this time had not been mentioned in the same sentence… ever… by anyone. I availed myself of the gentleman’s facilities at movie’s end, having consumed a gin and tonic as well as a bucket-sized soda courtesy of my movie buddy. All in all, thirty dollars well spent, albeit in the future a regular movie and a regular sized soda will do fine.

Lines painted on just about every surface with which a Japanese person could ever come into contact denote where to stand, wait, which way to proceed, and a myriad of other obvious instructions. Such lines come in a variety of colors, widths, and are even textured to provide that extra stimulus for those who care to touch them. Religiously heeded by some and casually, if not deliberately, ignored by others these lines serve one simple purpose: to guide the million hordes who swarm through Tokyo to pre-designated points of human interaction. The obsessive compulsiveness with which the Tokyo city council has taken to painting these lines borders on the psychotic, but  I am a fan. The simple truth is people are hopelessly lost without being told what to do ninety percent of the time, and in a city as densely populated as this one the lines are a necessity without which every communal space would be a permanent pedestrian gridlock. The lines provide unspoken clarity in a society not fond of speaking. In reverence to this fact the lines seem to carry more weight here than in other countries, and are heeded by most as the word of law, or at the very least respected in light of their obvious usefullnes. I find great comfort in this fact as it almost socialistic in nature – the idea of which I am quite fond of. (sidebar: I do not subscribe to socialism as a viable political system in today’s world, but I am in favor of us all becomming a little more in tune with general civility.) The lines then do their part to guide people from A to B and make a fine symbol for the organized people who ensure their abundance – the Japanese. Straight, quiet, and numerous. I find them both to be very reassuring.

Recently I spent a long weekend on the road with some Japanese people who I had never before met. Through a coincidence, and in a rather convoluted way, I was provided with an E-mail address of a young man named Takumi by a friend of mine I have not seen in eight years. Armed with nothing but an E-mail address I did what countless people do these days and made friends with someone I had never met, for mutual benefit, by virtue of the world wide web. Thus it came to be that on one faithful day I found an invitation in my inbox to come to Kyoto with this person whom I’d never met, two of his friends, and his mother. I could not conjure up any reasons why I should refuse.

Japan, unlike tokyo, is a green place. Its many sloping hills and mountains, all of which seem to have been smoothed and blunted by some great unseen hand, are entirely grown over with endless forests of bamboo, ferns, and fur trees. Driving through Japan’s magnificent landscape, the endless green blanket draped across the hills and the fog and morning dew draped across that, you quickly come to realize why the mystic legends of old prevail even to this day. It becomes immediately obvious why ronin and monks roamed Japan in search of enlightenment, and why Shoguns fought for the land on which they lived. Japan, is a beautiful place, and for all its modernity is still capable of awing its guests and citizens alike with scenery which has endured the ages.

Please forgive me that this is not at all humorous, but I am still reeling from what I have seen. I invite you all to visit – Japan is unlike any other place, and well worth the trip.

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