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Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

My sense of meiwaku


It's the morning rush and the only train that can get you where you need to go on time will be hissing to the track in two minutes. Meanwhile you have to buy a ticket.

But the guy ahead of you at the ticket machine has stopped cold. Instead of plinking in his coins, he hops back and forth with his neck craned at the rail map on the wall, searching for his destination and the price that he has to pay.

And you, with your money in hand and your watch ticking, bite your frustration and in your mind steam . . . "Meiwaku!''

You hustle to the platform and wait for the next train -- one that will now get you where you need to go 10 minutes late -- when suddenly a sound from the nearby stairs jars your senses worse than fingernails digging into a blackboard.

Slap! Slap! Slap! A college girl in hard soles is zipping down the steps after a train of her own. With each stride her shoes assault both the concrete and eardrums of every person on the platform, many of whom, no doubt, would like to help her meet her train. Head on.

The girl herself is oblivious. She never notices the dark clouds that rise from people's heads, clouds that spell . . . "Meiwaku!"

On the train, you hang on your commuter strap and do what every other overworked passenger does. You attempt to turn off your brain and rest. But today, heads do not droop and shoulders do not sag. They can't.

For in the doorway two boys are gabbing about school. There are 200 people in the car, most of them jammed shoulder to shoulder, and not a sound comes from any of them . . . except from those two boys, whose mindless banter irks every other passenger. So much that the man latched to the strap next to you finally speaks, an irritated growl that perhaps only you and he can hear: "Urusai." . . . meaning "noisy." Communicating the man's sense of . . . meiwaku, which means to annoy, to trouble, to cause problems for. It's the same meiwaku featured in "meiwaku mail," the Japanese term for spam.

Meiwaku is an important word in overcrowded, group-centered, harmony-obsessed Japan, and a concept that is pounded into children from an early age, along with a related term, wagamama, which means "self-centeredness." If you are wagamama, you will no doubt be meiwaku. The lesson from pre-school on is this: Being wagamama and meiwaku are bad. Not being so is good.

Of course, much of this is a simple show of proper manners. Yet the motto of Group Japan seems not to be, "all for one and one for all." Rather it's "all for all." All of the time.

Except some people say the younger generation no longer gives a hoot. Society is not falling apart at the seams, mind you, but individuals are now pushing up through those seams more than ever before. Many today consider modern Japan a wagamama brigade of meiwaku to the right, meiwaku to the left and meiwaku behind you. While some feel this charge of individualism is positive, others, particularly the older generation, wonder whether hell is approaching in a hand basket.

I know how they feel. After almost three decades here my meiwaku senses are finely tuned. As a foreigner, I understand I will never blend in. Yet, I try like mad not to stick out.

Cross my legs on the train? Nope. Might bump the fellow next to me. Meiwaku.

Drop a plastic bag in the trash? Are you nuts? That's unburnable. Someone has to separate it. Meiwaku.

Raise my voice on the train, on the street, or even in my shower? Absolutely not! Other people are too close. And if I can hear my neighbor croon away in his shower, then he can surely hear me in mine. Especially when I scream back, "Urusai!"

So I too am a tad uncomfortable with the wave of newer, brasher Japanese. Why, some are almost as rude as foreigners! Er, ah . . . Who said that?

"How's my sense of meiwaku?" I ask my wife.

She shakes her head. "Your Western nature," she says. "Slips out like an untucked shirt."

An old saw comes to mind: The wife that sticks up soon gets hammered down. She sloughs it off.

"Foreigners, including a graybeard like you, can't help being different and shouldn't worry about it. People should just be themselves. Natural politeness aside, variety is a pretty nice spice."

Graybeard? I raise my cane and . . . ask her sense of meiwaku.

"To me, meiwaku means being a burden. I don't want to be meiwaku because I don't want to inconvenience others. The way to live is not to complain, but rather to focus on my own contributions."

I have heard this from many Japanese and here find one of the ringing contradictions of Japanese life. We hear group, group, group, but basically people live alone, alone, alone. The emphasis tends to fall on what the individual must do for the whole.

"C'mon," I tell her. "In the end, it's OK, isn't it? To be a little meiwaku? Everyone has to be indulged sometime and putting up with the others means they should put up with you too, right? You know, sort of like tit for tat."

"Or like all for one, one for all?"

Oops. There's that pesky motto again.

Whatever, the national character is changing, becoming ever more Western and ever less traditional Japanese. The result being . . .

The charge of the wagamama brigade is upon us. And, like it or not, Japan will never ever be the same.



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