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Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012

JUST BE CAUSE

These are a few of my favorite things about Japan


The Just Be Cause column has been running now for four years (thanks for reading!), and I've noticed something peculiar: how commentators are pressured to say "nice" stuff about Japan.

If you don't, you get criticized for an apparent "lack of balance" — as if one has to pay homage to the gods of cultural relativism (as an outsider) or tribal commonalities (as an insider).

This pressure isn't found in every society. Britain, for example, has a media tradition (as far back as Jonathan Swift, William Hogarth and George Cruikshank) where critics can be unapologetically critical, even savage, towards authority (check out Private Eye magazine).

But in Japan, where satire is shallow and sarcasm isn't a means of social analysis, we are compelled to blunt our critique with pat niceties. Our media spends more time reporting nice, safe things (like how to cook and eat) than encouraging critical thinking.

Likewise, Just Be Cause gets comments of the "If Debito hates Japan so much, why does the JT keep publishing him?" ilk — as if nobody ever criticizes Japan out of love (if we critics didn't care about this place, we wouldn't bother).

Moreover, why must we say something nice about a place that hasn't been all that nice to its residents over the past, oh, two stagnant decades (even more so since the Fukushima nuclear disaster)? Japan, like everywhere else, has problems that warrant attention, and this column is trying to address some of them.

Still, as thanks to the readership (and my editor, constantly put off his beer defending me in bars), I'll succumb and say something nice about Japan for a change. In fact, I'll give not one, but 10 reasons why I like Japan — enough to have learned the language, married, had children, bought property, taken citizenship and lived here nearly a quarter-century.

Leaving out things like cars, semiconductors, consumer electronics, steel, etc. (which have been written about to death), Japan is peerless at:

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10. Public transport

Overseas, I've often found myself saying, "Curses! I can't get there without a car!" but even in Hokkaido I could find a way (train, bus, taxi if necessary) to get practically anywhere, including the outback, given a reasonable amount of time.

How many cities the size of Tokyo can move millions around daily on infrastructure that is, even if overcrowded at times, relatively clean, safe and cheap? Not many.

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9. Seafood

Japan's irradiated food chain notwithstanding (sorry, this has to be caveated), dining in Japan is high quality. It's actually difficult to have a bad meal — even school cafeterias are decent.

World-class cuisine is not unique to Japan (what with Chinese, Italian, Thai, Indian, French, etc.), but Japan does seafood best. No wonder: With a longer history of fishing than of animal husbandry, Japan has discovered how to make even algae delicious! Japanese eat more seafood than anyone else. Justifiably.

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8. Onomatopeia

I am a Japanese kanji nerd, but that's only the bureaucratic side of our language. Now try gitaigo and giseigo/giongo — Japanese onomatopoeic expressions. We all know gussuri and gakkari. But I have a tin ear for pori pori when scratching the inside of my nose, or rero rero when licking something, or gabiin when agape.

Japanese as a language is highly contextualized (say the wrong word and mandarins just sit on their hands) and full of confusing homophones, but the universe of expressiveness found in just a couple of repeated kana is something I doubt I will ever master. My loss.

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7. Packaging

Stores like Mitsukoshi cocoon your purchase in more paper and plastic than necessary. But when you really need that cocoon, such as when transporting stuff, you're mollycoddled. Japanese post offices offer boxes and tape for cheap or free. Or try the private-sector truckers, like Yamato or Pelican, whom I would even trust with bubble-wrapping and shipping a chandelier (and for a reasonable price, too).

If you don't know how to pack, leave it to the experts — it's part of the service. As Mitsukoshi demonstrates, if it's not packaged properly, it's not presentable in Japan.

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6. Calligraphic goods

I'm used to crappy Bic ballpoint pens that seize up in the same groove (and inexplicably only in that groove, no matter how many times you retrace), which you then summarily discard like used toothbrushes. But in Japan, writing implements are keepers, combining quality with punctiliousness.

People prowl stationery stores for new models (with special buttons to advance the pencil lead, twirl cartridges for multiple colors, or multicolored ink that comes out like Aquafresh toothpaste) spotted in specialty stationery magazines (seriously!). Maybe this is not so mysterious considering how precisely one has to write kanji — but I know of only two countries that put this fine a point on pens: Germany (whose companies have a huge market here) and Japan.

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5. Group projects

Yes, working in groups can make situations inflexible and slow. But when things work here, they really work, especially when a project calls for an automatic division of labor.

For example, when I was politically active in a small Hokkaido town, we would rent a room for a public meeting. Beforehand, without ever being asked, people would come early to set things up. Afterward, attendees would put everything back before going home.

I've done presentations overseas and the attitude is more, "Hey, you take care of the chairs — what are we paying you for?" Sucks.

It's nice to be here, where pitching in often goes without saying, and everyone has a stake in keeping things clean and orderly.

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4. Public toilets

Sure, public conveniences exist overseas, but they are frequently hard to track down (shoppers overseas must have enormous bladders) and when found, they can resemble a war zone.

Japan, however, generally keeps its toilets clean and unstinky. Comfortable, too. Sure, I hate it when I'm turtle-heading and can only find Japan's squatter types, but I also hate being trapped overseas in a stall where strangers can see my ankles under the door.

Besides, whenever I need a public time-out, I head for the nearest handicapped toilet and bivouac. Ah, a room to myself; it's a love hotel for my tuchus. And that's before mentioning the washlets, bidets, warmed toilet seats . . .

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3. Anime

I've been reading comic books since I was 2 years old, and have long admired Japanese animation and comic art. I can't resist anime's clean lines, sense of space and forcefulness, and storyboard style of narrative.

Once underrated overseas, Japan's comics are now one of our coolest cultural exports. Resistance is futile — watch the knockoffs on Cartoon Network (love "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Samurai Jack")!

Consider one knock-on benefit of a society so consumed by comic art: Japan's average standards for drawing are very high. I came from a society with an enormous standard deviation in artistic talent: You either get stick figures or Pat Oliphants. In Japan, however, contrast with the following example.

I once tested my university students on spatial vocabulary. I drew a room on the answer sheet and said, "Under the table, draw Doraemon." Amazingly, 98 of 100 students could draw a Doraemon that would infringe copyright — complete with propeller, collar bell, philtrum and whiskers.

Try getting people overseas to draw a recognizable Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat or even just Snoopy and you'll see how comparatively under-practiced drawing skills tend to be outside Japan.

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2. Silly cute

Nobody combines these two quite like Japan does — simultaneously campy, tacky and kitschy. Some pundits lament how the culture of cute has paved over genuine time-tested Japanese iconography. But if you avoid being a curmudgeon, you'll wind up giggling despite yourself.

Where else are you going to get Marimokkori (algae balls with superhero capes and inguinal endowments)? Try resisting Hello Kitty when she's affecting regional dining habits or clothes (I love Pirika Kitty and supertacky Susukino Kitty, both homages to Hokkaido). And all those cellphone mascots! And there's plenty more crap out there, some finding markets overseas.

What's the appeal? My theory is that the Occident just can't do cute or silly without sarcasm seeping in (even Disney resorts to wise-cracking). Shooting for it include France's Barbapapa (which comes off as "easy to draw," not cute), Finland's weird Moomins (with that evil-looking Little My character) and Britain's even weirder Teletubbies (arguing its cuteness will give you a hernia; watch while stoned). They all could do with a cute J-makeover and a firm J-marketing push.

Look, campy, tacky and kitschy eventually become ironic, cheap and tiresome. But Japan's brand of straight-faced silly manages to (thanks to that intrinsic lack of sarcasm) remain tirelessly unironic. As long as you keep developing new and unexpected permutations, you never quite get sick of it. Instead you just giggle.

People need that. Silly-cute makes life in Japan and elsewhere more bearable.

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1. Onsens

Of course. If you can get in. Ahem.

Illustrations by Chris Mackenzie. A version of this essay appeared in the now-defunct Sapporo Source magazine in December 2009; an expanded version can be found at www.debito.org/?p=2099. Debito Arudou's latest book is "In Appropriate" (www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


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