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Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Gadgets gnaw at polite society

It's not funny how we don't talk anymore


A funny thing happened to me on the train home the other day. I had a conversation with a total stranger.

News photo
Young Japanese are becoming more dependent on mobile technology to communicate.

The train, a local on the Odakyu Line, wasn't crowded. Having no high school girls nearby at which to ogle, I was perusing, as I am sometimes wont to do, a vernacular tabloid. An elderly gentleman, dressed in a gray business suit, sat on my left and when I looked up I saw he was watching me with a bemused smile

"Chosen hanto no jokyo ga hijo ni kimpaku shiteiru (the situation seems to be heating up on the Korean Peninsula)," I remarked matter of factly.

"Do you think the U.S. and North Korea are gonna fight it out again?" he asked.

"Well I guess you must have a pretty good memory of the last time around," I replied.

"Taihen na jidai deshita ne (those were terrible times)," he recalled.

For the next five minutes, we discussed the international situation like a couple of old friends. Judging from his relaxed manner and easy self confidence, I first thought he might have been a professor.

As it turned out, he happened to be a retired policeman. I guess that explained his curiosity about foreigners who read racy tabloids on trains.

We arrived at my stop, and, exchanging broad smiles and bows, waved sayonara.

In times past, I used to do this fairly often. Japanese are intensely curious people, and, given the chance, respond positively to stimulation, especially when they know you speak their language.

I can't begin to count the times back in the pre-shinkansen days when I made day-long rail journeys to the hinterlands, and a fellow passenger would produce a plastic cup and offer me a sip of sake or whiskey. This custom, I'm glad to report, continues.

A year ago this week, while in transit between Nakamura and Kochi cities, I encountered a group of several people coming from their old teacher's memorial ceremony. We pooled our cans of beer, rice crackers, dried fish and other assorted nibbles, and by the time the train pulled into Kochi the party was in full swing.

These encounters, unfortunately, have become increasingly rare. In Japan's cities, the whole social milieu appears structured towards mutual avoidance.

For one thing, it's hard to find a human being who isn't frantically working his or her thumb over the keypad on a mobile communications device. Once, I surreptitiously raised my digital camera and shot an entire seated row of six commuters, arms extended, all diddling their cell phones simultaneously.

In past times, shy people or those who didn't feel inclined to converse with a fellow passenger either read a newspaper or dozed. You were assured a modicum of privacy by the plain paper cover that bookstores wrapped around your purchase. Of course the cover also saves money on bags; but I've been told the real intention is to conceal whatever you're reading from the prying eyes of onlookers.

Now that's probably desirable, especially if you're reading stuff like "Safecracking for Beginners" or "The Unexpurgated Memoirs of the Marquis de Sade." I mean, think how embarrassed you might be if a fellow passenger approached you saying: "Say, I see you're into bondage and discipline. Would you like to drop by my place and look at my whip collection?"

Then the downhill momentum picked up when Sony introduced the Walkman, its personal stereo cassette player, in 1982. In its initial form, the Walkman came with two headphone jacks, so at least in theory you could listen to the tape together with a friend. It also featured a button to mute the sound so people could interrupt to tell you your fly was unzipped without your having to remove your headphones or reduce the volume. Those features were among the first to go among subsequent models.

Now, of course, there are players that reproduce music from Compact Discs, MiniDiscs and digital MP3 files. And in addition to cell phones, which incorporate e-mail, cameras and navigation functions, people can also play with their PDA (personal digital assistant), which requires pokes from a little stylus to coax data out of its memory. These gadgets let you read a book, write memos to be uploaded into your desktop computer, look at pictures of your kids and lots of other things you can do to let the people standing nearby know you are determined to ignore them.

Thanks to the wonders of modern electronics, the Japanese term jikochushin (self-centered) has come to take on a completely new meaning. And if electronics firms have their way, a whole new generation of products will soon be squeezing images, sounds and data into your pocket, your wristwatch, your eyeglasses and who knows where else, until absolutely nobody talks to anybody. Ever.

Of course, electronic gadgets and printed matter is not the only way to discourage conversation. You can send similar signals by noisily guzzling a beverage from a 500ml PET bottle. Or nibbling on fast food, rice balls, crackers or candy. Or even dig into a piping hot box lunch.

Some day I'm going to do the same, then lean over and say to a fellow diner: "Hey, that teriyaki chicken looks good. How about swapping some for a piece of my ?"

tonkatsu


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