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Saturday, Jan. 29, 2005


To do or not to do -- that is the decision

Westerners often find it takes Japanese a long time to make decisions. I believe the training for decision-making starts at an early age, when Japanese children are conditioned to be shy.

"Which do you like, Taro," you ask, "the red candy or the blue one?" Taro will not answer because children in Japan never have to make decisions. "Hazukashii desu!" ("He's so shy!") interjects Taro's mother with a smile, clearly praising the boy's behavior. And once will not be enough. She'll repeat "hazukashii" several times. When Japanese adults talk to children, they compliment the parents by saying, "Hazukashii desu ne?" (Just count the "hazukashiis" next time you are around a Japanese mother and her child. I bet sometimes it gets up into the hundreds. Then imagine twins!). It's no wonder Japanese kids are so shy -- they are constantly told to be. While the child smiles and buries his face behind his mother, we never find out which Taro likes, the red candy or the blue.

So I suppose it should be no wonder that by the time students get to my writing class at the women's university where I teach, it can take an entire 90-minute class just to decide on a topic for an essay. This is not to say the students are doing nothing in class; they are thinking, trying to decide on what to decide. It goes like this:

"Your next assignment is to write a 500-word essay."

The class looks up at me -- the students are horrified. I can see the question marks floating over their heads like in cartoon balloons.

"But I have nothing to write about," says one student. "Me neither," says another. "Me neither," "Me neither," "Me neither," they each answer around the table.

"How about your trip abroad or your part-time job?" I suggest.

"That's a good idea," says one student. Another student plays with her eraser while another looks at her Winnie-the-Pooh pencil, sighs and says to her friend, "Pooh-san kawaii ne?" ("Isn't Winnie-the-Pooh cute?")

"What is your topic?" I ask her.

"Pass!" she says, as if English class were a quiz show.

I go back to the student who was showing promise with her topic. She is deliberating. "Which should I write about, my trip abroad or my part-time job? Do shiyo ka na?"

Then suddenly, another students interjects and the question marks above her head change to exclamation points: "Muzukashii!" ("Difficult!"). I can see the word written in bold red letters in the cartoon balloon, accompanied by a lightening bolt. Exasperated, she crosses her arms in front of her on the desk and buries her face.

Another students chimes in "Muri!" ("Impossible!") while little muffins of steam pulse out of her head in her cartoon balloon.

It's almost as if I can read their horoscopes: Aquarius: You will have a difficult time making decisions today. Pisces: Postpone any decisions today, especially small ones. Libra: Beware of making decisions today that will affect your entire week. Capricorn: Ignore people who try to push you into making decisions.

I go back to the girl who was making progress. She has decided to write about her trip abroad and has even written the first paragraph of her essay.

Meanwhile, the girl with the Winnie-the-Pooh pencil is now adhering Disney stickers onto her electronic dictionary. "Kawaii ne?" she says to her friend. I wonder what this girl's "o-baa-chan" cart is going to look like when she's in her 80s.

Suddenly, the chime rings. Ninety minutes have passed, and not one decision has been made! Well, one has. I turn to the girl who has already written a paragraph, but now she is sitting with a blank sheet of paper in front of her.

"What happened?" I ask.

"I've changed my topic," she says.

This is when I realize that we have fully completed the process of decision-unmaking.

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