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Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Usual conformist cliches about the Japanese


NEW YORK — So Roger Cohen, a relatively new columnist with The New York Times, concluded after a brief stay in Tokyo earlier this month that Japan is a society laid low by "a tremendous conformity" and trivialized by "otaku" ("Japanese Obsessions," Dec. 14).

I don't remember when American transients in Japan started taking delight in characterizing Japanese society as conformist, but it certainly is not recent. I wrote a piece on this topic more than two decades ago. The surprise is that there remain people who resort to that mantra.

Still, one thing in Cohen's report struck me — an example he gave as a sign of Japanese conformity. "On Sundays, when traffic is closed around the Imperial Palace," he wrote, "I saw lines of people waiting for pedestrian lights to change even though there were no cars." Really?

Cohen, originally from London where he was born of an immigrant father from South Africa, has lived in New York for some time, and New York is famous for jaywalkers. As I witness every day, New York residents behave as if no traffic signs exist. This does not seem to be the case with most of the swarms of tourists — both from other parts of the country and from other countries. Does that make New Yorkers nonconformists?

Cohen's example reminded me of a story following the Great Kansai Earthquake of 1995. In the midst of the deserted rabble a few days later, a single traffic signal was working and a man was spotted waiting for the lights to turn, even though, of course, there was little chance for any car barreling down the street and hitting him.

At the time the story made me chuckle. But now that Cohen has told a story not too dissimilar, I wondered. Was the quake story a clever concoction to illustrate the risible conformism of the Japanese? Or did Cohen miss something because of his preconception just acquired? He makes it clear that one book he read for his visit to Tokyo was Patrick Smith's "Japan: A Reinterpretation" (1998).

So I asked several Japanese friends, some new to this city, some in Japan, about what Cohen thought he observed near the Imperial Palace.

One friend immediately pulled from the Internet a Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department map to show that, yes, just about 1.5 km of Uchiboridori is closed to cars from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays but, no, it is not to create a pedestrians' paradise (hokosha tengoku) as in Ginza and Shinjuku; it is to open the relatively large street to bicyclists. So it would be safe to follow the traffic signals, added the young friend, who is stationed in New York temporarily.

Another friend chimed in that the space around the Imperial Palace is also popular with insouciant joggers, their ears plugged into iPods, American style.

Well, Cohen surely knows how dangerous it is to step onto the bike path in Central Park or along the Hudson River. Self-absorbed joggers, who abound in New York, can also pose a hazard to pedestrians.

Yes, Uchiboridori is spacious, by Japanese standards. If no onrushing vehicles are sighted, why should anyone, let alone "lines of people," wait for the lights to turn? That sure flummoxed my Japanese respondents who did not know that the street is temporarily turned into a bike path.

Was Cohen talking about a pedestrians' paradise? a few wondered. Tokyo was ahead in creating car-free zones comparable to what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has set up this year near Times Square. In the event, some Japanese may still follow the traffic lights, a respondent suggested. They are either unaware that they, out-of-towers most likely, have stumbled onto a "paradise" or because they always tell their children to be extra careful in crossing a road, instructing them to raise their hands when they do.

When it comes to Japanese conformism, a friend in northern Japan said, yes, it's true that she, a spunky girl, is stared at when she ignores the traffic signal because there aren't cars around, but if Cohen is talking about what he observed near the Imperial Palace, he must have misunderstood something.

Possibilities are many. In fact, it happens that I had just taken another informal poll — this one on the subject of how the samurai spirit survives, if at all, in Japanese society today.

One Internet response, from a woman, caught my eye because, yes, it referred to the traffic signal. If many Japanese still do not cross the street when the sign is red, she wrote, it must be because of the samurai ideal of not doing in private what you wouldn't do in public.

My wife, who is from the Midwest, thinks that characterizing another society as conformist — or as anything else, for that matter — is bunk.

Of course, it partly depends on how you define "conformism." Take physical exercise. One unusually gleaming building in our neighborhood, Greenwich Village, houses on its second floor a fitness center studded with heavy machinery. Like jogging, seeking fitness using indoor machinery became a thing to do a couple of decades ago. The desire to follow the prevailing fad has taken the upper hand in this residential area as well.

And, yes, Cohen starts his column describing himself on a treadmill, apparently in one of those hotels in Tokyo that slavishly follow whatever is the fad in hotels in America. Does not that make Cohen a species of conformist?

Many readers have responded to Cohen's Tokyo column, some with suggestions. Taking their lead, here's a book I would recommend to someone going to Japan for the first time: Jake Adelstein's "Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan" (2009). Anyone who reads this book will never say anything like what Roger Cohen has said: "Smiling deference can seem so uniform as to constitute a gleaming wall."

A translator and essayist in New York, Hiroaki Sato has published, among others, "Legends of the Samurai."


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