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Saturday, Aug. 18, 2007


Some things never change

In the last edition of this column, I sewed together a few of the major changes I have seen in Japan since first arriving here close to 30 years ago.

Yet, some things never change. The Japan of yesteryear and the Japan of today may not resemble each other so much on the surface, but if you take out your shovel and dig, it doesn't take long to hit the very same bedrock.

And much of that stone is of gem quality.

To sing but a few lines on Japanese generosity and hospitality, or Japanese efficiency and precision, or Japanese eagerness and energy seems woefully inadequate. In similar fashion, to but briefly note the heady mix of past and present does no justice to the intoxicating high of Japanese culture, as potent now as it was 30 years ago. To fail to address Japan's beauty in all of its many forms — from Mt. Fuji to kimonos to manicured gardens and more — is to miss one of the more endearing parts of life here.

But it might be more interesting to sift through some of the rest of that rock.

Few societies, I imagine, are as neurotic as Japan's. The nation is so starved for attention that any step onto the international stage gets zoom-focused to the extent that all perspective is lost. Whether the focus be an astronaut on a space shuttle or a ballplayer in an interview, Japan reacts like a parent at a grade school pageant.

The nation only has eyes for its own, with every success magnified and every perceived failure met with a wince. The core event and other participants get regulated to background noise.

Craving recognition but at the same time remarkably introspective and provincial. . . One might trace this nature to Japan's period of isolation, put it down to island mentality or even summon up demons of racism. Whatever, the country has an inward slant that forever twists its outward sensibilities. More here than perhaps elsewhere.

Yet I would think that after decades of Japanese corporate achievement, after years of continued emphasis on English education, and after having raised an entire generation under the buzzword of "internationalism," things would have changed. I would think that Japan would have by now slung off its insecurities and taken the international spotlight for granted. I would think it would be more open to the outside world and less preoccupied with itself.

Perhaps such openness exists — on the surface. But the bedrock sediments are tightly packed and I feel the door to Japan's heart is still fairly closed to the world.

Related is the term "transparency," which has entered from abroad to become another national buzzword. Yet, I can think of few concepts more ill-fitting to this country than "transparency."

Japan is by nature a nontransparent culture. Here it is uchi and soto, us and them, inside and outside. There is the calm smile to the visitor and there is the inward earthquake of emotion. There is the tatemae and there is the honne.

I would not have expected this to change in 30 years and it hasn't. After all, it is a key concept of Japanese life. Yet, the term "transparency" gets passed around as if it were as easy to install as air conditioning.

"Next year," announces the CEO, "We're going to repave the parking lot, unveil a new company logo and, oh yes, be more transparent."

The continuing saga of government, corporate and educational scandals and the coverups that preceded them all show what nonsense this is. Japan was not transparent in 1977, is not transparent now and won't be transparent in 2037 either.

In my first year in Japan, I coached high-school basketball. The team captain called a meeting to clarify the club's No. 1 rule, which was that everyone should always exchange proper greetings.

Recently, I talked to a college coed about her tennis circle. Their No. 1 rule? That everyone should always exchange proper greetings.

Japan likes rules and I find, that too, has not changed over the years. Just like greetings, many rules are to uphold harmony and lend emotional distance. Individualism may be on the rise, but all the rules hold it in place. There is a formal rigidity to life that left a strong taste in my mouth when I first arrived here, a taste that is still alive now. An acquired taste, however, as I have learned to appreciate Japanese formality and protocol.

Throw in some slices of group harmony, a spoonful of consensus decision-making, and a pinch of obsession with form, and I sometimes feel Japan has changed hardly at all.

With the larger certainly being this:

In 30 years Japan has changed me much more than time has changed Japan.

For the better? Sigh. . . . At least I can hope so.

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