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Saturday, Feb. 16, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

In the land of the statistically speaking


Numbers don't lie. Not in Japan anyway. Here, they tend rather to flatter. Or "fibulate." Or nourish.

Yes, forget rice cakes, noodles and even raw fish. For Japan is a land of number lovers. And here nothing hits the spot more than a plate of yummy statistics. Hungry? Munch on some these tidbits.

Forty percent of Japanese men find their own faces embarrassing. Forty-three percent of Japanese brides fart audibly within their first year of marriage. Some 73.4 percent of Japanese hate to see someone lick their chopsticks. I mean, lick "their own" chopsticks, not those of the people watching. I'd hate that too.

Facts are more fun than fiction and these are too good to be made up. I gleaned these honeys off the wonderful statistic/survey blog, "What Japan Thinks" ( whatjapanthinks.com/ ).

And I think Japan thinks numbers are somehow holy. Or at least leak-proof. For if not, why the somber mood with which announcers, teachers, and so on intone such figures. And the even more somber mood with which listeners receive them. Some 93.11 percent of all Japanese drool over statistics. Or so I have heard — um, somewhere.

And the reason?

Well, maybe it's due to the homogenous society, with everyone being so alike that every razor-thin difference is worth a whoop and holler.

Or maybe it's the intensity of the education system, in which youth are made to study so hard that their brains start to gobble up numbers the way some people put away peanuts.

Or maybe it's the mad consumer rush, in which every trend has to be bisected and trisected so as to slice off even the tiniest morsels of profit.

Or maybe it's the drive for precision that comes out in paper-folding, flower-arranging, karaoke-warbling and a million and one other Japanese arts.

Or maybe it's pure coincidence. Statistically, I suppose that's possible.

Nah. Japanese love number crunching so much that they have crunched them into their souls. How many times has so-and-so sung on "Kohaku?" How many years since this baseball team last appeared in Koshien? How old is the man being interviewed? The Japanese just have to know these things.

My first job here was as a high-school teacher. Back then, the first full day of school was called "Measurement Day," on which students were cataloged as to weight, height, strength, speed, throwing arm, pencil-twirling, you name it.

Fair enough. Even in my green-to-the-gills youth, I could see that such studies had value and might even give some flunky in the Education Ministry reason to live.

But it didn't stop there. Within a week we had a faculty meeting. All the data had been collated, graphed, and printed on enough paper to wipe out 0.07 forests.

The teachers pored over the information like adolescent boys with dirty pictures. New records were cited, like the average school weight reaching a record high and a girl setting a brand new mark for shoe size. Then the head of the PE Department stood to explain why the average distance in the softball throw was down by 0.3 meters. We discussed and re-discussed this for an hour until at last everyone seemed sated and content.

The only true disappointment? We had to wait a full year until we could do it all again.

Of course, this same thing goes on everywhere — schools, companies, government and the media. Statistics float through the Japanese air like pollen.

"Ichiro has now hit safely for five consecutive games," says the TV anchor, his face twitching in a stat-induced grin.

I laugh and start to say, "Who gives a . . ." when I glance at my lunch partner. He is mesmerized.

"Five consecutive games. Wow. That means . . . if only he can get a hit tomorrow . . . it will be. . ."

And then there are the ultimate stars of the Japanese number world — weather announcers.

"Today's high was 0.14 degrees below the average for this day and 8.26 degrees below the record. Now, with my magic weather baton and corny cloud graphics, I will attempt to explain why."

The famous quote here is that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Some claim Mark Twain said this and others say Benjamin Disraeli. (Actually, Twain 60.2 percent, Disraeli 36.4 percent, and 3.4 percent various others).

But in Japan statistics and numbers are never damned. They are exalted.

My wife argues back that it is not just the Japanese that love statistics but everyone, a human lust for trivia that burns indistinct of cultural background. She is adamant about this.

So much that I can only make her smile by telling her she is so cute when she pouts and throws things.

"Hmm. I bet you used to tell that to all the girls," she says.

No, no, I admit. Only 96.6 percent. According to my data.



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