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Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010


Seeking exactitude can sometimes exact a high cultural price

I freely admit a prejudice. It is against the concept of "national character," or kokuminsei in Japanese. Is there really such a thing or is it merely a jumble of stereotypes, whichever is the country or culture in question?

There are, most certainly, unique features characterizing the people of every nation. Some are dictated by history; others, by linguistic conventions, mannerisms, and the decorum — or lack, thereof — of socialization. But all these can change with time. After all, a Japanese national characteristic of 1810 would hardly have been immutable in 1910, and even less so in 2010.

I recall a conversation I had in the mid-1980s with a producer in the dressing room of a TV talk show I was on. We were well into the season and had had quite a few pleasant personal discussions when I realized that I hadn't asked him where his hometown in Japan was.

"Oh, uh, let's see," he hemmed and hawed mysteriously, "Uh, it is, well, a smallish town, so . . . "

"So? What is its name?"

"Uh, you know, I'm not really sure if you've heard of it, so . . . "

"But, if you don't tell me its name, I won't know if I've heard of it or not."

"Well, it's Kyoto," he confessed.

"Kyoto?! That's not a smallish town. I've lived in Kyoto myself."

"Well, it's not really Kyoto."

"Eh?! It's Kyoto but not really Kyoto?"

"Yes, you got it," he said, smiling.

"Mr. Azuma (not his real name)," I said, "did I ask something wrong here?"

"Oh, no, no, no. It's fine. You see, it's, uh . . . "

Again he hesitated, with that sad and pensive "TV-producer look" usually preceding the shocking news that one is going to be "regretfully" dropped from a program.

"Right. So, is it near Kyoto, maybe?" I asked, trying to keep him as far off the subject of employment as possible.

"Oh yes, it is near Kyoto. You know so much!"

"Well, I really don't know anything about it. So, which town is it?"

"It's . . . uh, well, it's . . . Maizuru."

A conversation that in most countries would have lasted about four seconds ended up taking nearly two minutes, with both of us blushing out of embarrassment over seemingly nothing.

What was at work here? Why wouldn't Mr. Azuma just straightforwardly tell me the name of the lovely Sea of Japan coastal town where he was born?

The answer is that he was trying to spare me discomfort. He didn't want to embarrass me by telling me, a non-Japanese, the name of a town that I might not have heard of. It was a display of polite deference on his part.

To some non-Japanese people, this could appear as rather eccentric behavior. After all, Mr. Azuma had presumably invited me on the program because I could comment with some expertise on things Japanese. Wouldn't it have been more polite of him to assume, even incorrectly, that I would have heard of Maizuru? And if I hadn't, why did he feel I would be embarrassed if I had had to ask him where it was?

I appreciated his considerate response and said that I looked forward to someday going again to Maizuru, where I had spent several enchanting days in the past.

But a few years later, another display of "Japanese national characteristics" completely threw me.

In the early '90s my wife and I bought a parcel of land in the mountains outside Miyama, a village about halfway between Kyoto and Maizuru, and built a house there. The nearest train station was Wachi, on the Sanin Main Line.

One day, as I was returning there by train from a trip to Kyoto, I found myself sitting opposite a boy aged about 12 or 13. Across the aisle was an old couple in their seventies. The old man was picking at the tiny sansai (wild plant) morsels in a station-bought lunchbox; and the woman, her well-worn shoes neatly placed on the floor, was sitting on the seat with her legs tucked under her. The man was throwing the boy furtive glances, and it soon became obvious that he was irked by something the boy was doing.

"This is a no-smoking car," he said to his wife, dropping his chopsticks into the lunchbox. "Dammit!"

"It's all right, dear," said the old lady, who turned and smiled not only at the young boy but to me as well.

In fact, the boy had not been smoking at all. But he had, until a moment before, been chewing gum. Could the old man have found this objectionable?

The old man pointed at the boy.

"You shouldn't smoke in here!" he said, his head shaking with growing rage.

"It's all right, dear," his wife reassured him again, pulling her legs even more tightly under her frail body.

It finally dawned on me what was happening. The boy had put his gum in the ashtray under our window, and the old man had mistaken that action for him stubbing out a cigarette.

There was a pause of high intergenerational tension.

"The boy wasn't smoking," I said, breaking an awkward silence as the train chugged up to its stop at Sonobe Station. "He was chewing gum."

I had come to the boy's defense, to counter what I realized was an unjust accusation. This had the effect of embarrassing not only the old man, but also his wife and the young boy, too. The boy, who had been admirably unmiffed by the old man's gruff reproof, was thoroughly upset by my uncalled-for intervention. The wife gave me a look that clearly said, "Why did you have to enter into this?" And the old man was even more enraged that someone, and an "outsider" to boot, had proved him to be unreasonable and, what's worse, wrong.

Thankfully, the three of them alighted at Sonobe and I was left alone in the carriage to mull over the tense little confrontation on this country train line. It is in the mundane that the emblematic traits of human nature are often most clearly illuminated — not to say the essence of "national character."

I had, in the interests of "truth," stuck my foot in my mouth and my nose into something that was none of my business. The boy had shrugged off the old man's comment without the slightest concern; the old woman had smiled at him, letting him know that she did not approve of her husband's admonishments; and the old man had been utterly satisfied that he had taught a member of the younger generation a good lesson.

By forcing them all to confront the reality of the situation — that, in fact, the boy had not been smoking — I had managed to make the three of them feel distressed, uneasy and distinctly uncomfortable.

Is there a recognizable feature of Japanese kokuminsei to be divined from those two prosaic encounters — one in a TV dressing room, the other on a country train carriage? Despite my prejudices against recognizing the existence of "national" characteristics, I must admit there is.

Japanese will often go to great lengths, even at the expense of not revealing a truth, to avoid a confrontation that might prove embarrassing to those present. In contrast, many non-Japanese might opt for clarity and resolution over what could be termed the contrived harmony of the moment.

The most judicious thing to do may be to leave well enough alone. But in this society, it may not only be judicious: It may also be the better part of kindheartedness.

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