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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2005

JAPAN LITE

Lesser of two evils: squat or tourist tush?


One common complaint I hear about Japanese youth these days is that "they sit anywhere." This statement refers to young people sitting on the ground. One reason for this phenomenon is that young people in Japan never used to loiter because they were in school six days a week and even spent Sundays participating in school events. Kids have more free time than ever now and as a result are "hanging out" in front of convenience stores, on street corners, etc. As these nascent loitering youth loiter longer hours, it's only natural that they want to do it sitting down.

So they take to sitting on the curb, the sidewalk or on the street itself. And sometimes you'll see them just squatting, a position Asians do instinctively when they want to rest but not sit on the "dirty" ground. Although you will sometimes see variations of the squat position, usually it is done by bending the knees all the way down, splaying the legs, and leaving just enough of the tush hanging down to balance the body over the heels. To Westerners, this position is very peculiar.

Yet all Japanese, at one time or another, have squatted in public. Construction people squat when taking a break, men in suits might squat when smoking a cigarette, even my neighbor does it if she thinks no one important is watching. Being that Japan is a bring-your-own-bench culture, I suppose it is not surprising that people have invented their own type of invisible chair. If we were to adopt the invisible chair in the U.S., we'd have a lot of people permanently stuck in the squat position. Perhaps that's the real reason we have benches in public areas.

But benches or not, this position looks extremely unattractive to Americans.

I think many people would say it's because it looks like you're, well, relieving yourself. But why would this image come to mind from people who don't even use Asian-style squat toilets? We use "thrones" instead. Perhaps seeing the squat position makes us uncomfortable because it brings back memories of primitive camping as a child and digging latrines. Or perhaps we remember that time we had to pull over on the highway because our bladder was so full, we couldn't wait any longer -- only to realize later we had squatted over poison ivy. Or, or -- what? Why does squatting have such a bad image for us?

It couldn't be that the position is "animalistic," because I know of no animal that squats like this to relieve itself. Dogs lift their legs, cats dig and bury, and birds don't change position at all. Perhaps monkeys squat, but the average person has never watched a monkey long enough to know. I prefer to think they use thrones. In the U.S., you can sit with your legs splayed way apart, taking up two seats in the train, you can sit on your desk or lean on the wall, but for God's sake, don't be caught squatting! On the other hand, sitting on the filthy ground is completely acceptable.

You could chalk up our antisquatting position to just plain "good taste," but if so, consider this. One time when my father was visiting Japan, we were walking around Kyoto when suddenly I noticed he was no longer walking beside me. I looked behind me and saw he had stopped to tie his shoe. How did he do this? By leaning over at the waist, sending the tush straight up in the air so it was the highest point on his body. I wondered what the Japanese (who bend down at the knees, not the waist), must have been thinking as they approached my father from behind:

Man: Hey, what's that ahead on the sidewalk?

Woman: I don't know. It's got two legs but a funny head.

Man: Oh my goodness, it's a tush!

Woman: A foreigner's tush!

Man: (Sighs). Another case of Tourist Tush.

So while Japanese youth are "sitting anywhere" and the tourists are raising their tushes, the streets of Japan seem more decadent than ever.

Anyone for a game of marbles?

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