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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

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THE ZEIT GIST

These are a few of my favorite things — about the Japanese


Debito Arudou's Feb. 7 Just Be Cause column describing the 10 things he likes about Japan both inspired and depressed me. As a frequent critic of the country's legal system (among other things), his piece made me stop and think of some of the things I like about Japan that are all too easy to take for granted. At the same time, most of the things on Debito's list were just that — things. Seafood, toilets and onomatopoeia are nice, but hardly constitute a ringing endorsement of the country where I have chosen to live.

I don't think he intended it that way, but his article came across as a theatrical review that talked about nothing but the set and the props while ignoring the actors — the Japanese people.

So here is my own effort to describe five things I like and admire about the Japanese. I am keeping it at five (well, six) not because the list is that short, but because given the space allowed, trying to cover more could easily degenerate into patronizing caricature.

Since this list is based on my own experiences with Japanese people, it is quite personal, and readers may of course have different views based on their different experiences.

1. Literacy

Have you been to a decent Japanese bookstore recently? The amount of books that Japanese people buy is phenomenal. Not only that, but the breadth and depth of subject matter you can read about in Japanese is astounding.

Japanese people are deeply interested in what is happening in their society as well as the rest of the world, an interest that has spawned a huge, vibrant market for nonfiction books on all manner of subjects — a level of inquisitiveness that is certainly not reflected in most Western bookstores.

It is popular to criticize the Japanese education system, but whatever flaws it may have, it seems to result in a citizenry that is both curious and highly literate, a feat that other supposedly advanced nations still seem to find challenging.

At the same time, while letters and articles decrying the level of English and quality of English-language education have been a staple in the JT for decades, the truth may be that they do not need English since so much effort goes into conveying information about the world to Japanese people in their native language. Perhaps this is as it should be.

2. Humor

Many Japanese people I know have wonderful senses of humor. However, since most humor is at someone's expense, jokes and wise-cracking are often kept in check in many social situations.

Humor translates poorly, so the ability of Japanese people to make others laugh may not be readily apparent if you (or they) are interacting in a second language. Popular culture too provides a rich variety of humor: Some of the funniest, darkest, subtlest, most outrageous and insightful humor I have ever laughed at has been in Japanese.

For those of you who have ever sat grimly trying to understand why anyone watches, let alone even smiles at, the never-ending parade of unfunny tarento programs that are inflicted on prime-time TV watchers, you are probably looking in the wrong place. Comics and their byproducts are often where the best of Japanese humor seems to thrive, perhaps because it is the genre most freed from the creativity-strangling group-think imposed upon artistic endeavors by more mainstream entertainment institutions.

That said, I think the cartoon series "Gintama" has to be the funniest thing I have ever seen on television. Derived from a popular comic book, it is set in an Edo much like modern-day Tokyo but populated by samurai, ninja and space aliens who have forced Japan to open up to the rest of the universe. This premise is genius because it allows the characters to participate in stories from any genre, whether science fiction, modern romance, battling samurai, or even bizarre one-off episodes like a recent one involving a magical kotatsu heated by a black hole that traps everyone in its warm embrace (and turns them into barcode-headed ojisan bereft of ambition in the bargain).

All of this is interlaced with a constant stream of toilet humor, puns, sexual innuendo, offensive stereotypes, pop culture references, swipes at famous people, dark situational humor, and incessant jibes about the tired cliches and conventions of the comic book genre itself. The comic is available in English and perhaps the show is too, but I am not sure how much of the humor will translate . . .

3. Openness to criticism

I am often asked to speak at various events, usually about the Japanese legal system. Often the mandate from those making the request is quite clear: Please be critical, please identify what you think the problems are. I am happy to oblige, of course, but I often find myself wondering whether there are any other countries in the world where I would get such requests.

While Japan does have its share of nationalists who immediately bristle at negative comments, particularly from foreigners, for the most part I have always found Japanese people to be quite open to criticism. They may not always agree with it (and why should they — I could be wrong), and I realize that in some situations we foreigners serve as a useful proxy for voicing complaints that Japanese people agree with but are constrained from expressing themselves.

In any case, the ability to listen to, evaluate and sometimes accept criticism is a sign of maturity and healthy introspection. And so long as the process goes both ways, I like to think it is also a sign of friendship. Maturity, introspection and friendship are, I think, qualities that have come to be sadly lacking in certain Western countries, where criticism seems to be in danger of being equated with terrorism.

4. Omoiyari

I don't actually like the term omoiyari (kindness, consideration of others) because in Japanese it tends to be horribly overused in hackneyed platitudes and treacly ad copy. It is, however, a concept which reflects the fact that most Japanese people tend to be cognizant of the people around them and give at least some thought to the effect their actions and words might have on others.

Omoiyari is also a manifestation of the ability of most Japanese people to keep their egos in check, something which in turn indicates a healthy acceptance of the fact that none of us is the center of the universe. That there is no Japanese equivalent of phrases like "drama queen" is, I think, a reflection of the fact that in most situations the average Japanese person likely appreciates that their current emotional state is not the most important thing happening in the room.

Thus, while Japanese-style meetings can be tedious for any number of reasons, at least it is rare (in my experience) to have to tiptoe around a particular issue because it might trigger a self-indulgent outburst by one of the participants. Omoiyari, I think, is ultimately rooted in self-control, and most Japanese are generally very good at both.

5. Mellow officialdom

Many years ago I forgot to renew my student visa — for over a month. I went to the local immigration office, filled in some forms, probably apologized in some way, and all was forgiven. More recently, someone at a national institution has invited me to participate in what would essentially have been minor document forgery, and an immigration official has encouraged me to fill in a form using untrue information. All for a good cause, mind you.

If you think Japanese rules and regulations are silly, chances are the people who have to administer them do too. Small wonder then that low-level officials probably often have the same goal as you: getting things done with a minimum amount of fuss (so long as you stay on their good side, of course).

I think it is a testament to the basic humanity of many such bureaucrats that they often use what precious little discretion they do have, and maybe even turn a blind eye to procedural defects, in order to help people, rather than lording their petty authority over them.

This is actually a hard thing for me to write because, on a different level, I think it is the same live-and-let-live attitude to regulation that leads to shoddy compliance and, um, nuclear meltdowns. But on a day-to-day basis, the fact that most of Japanese officialdom does not follow the Nazi (or Department of Homeland Security) school of exercising public authority helps make Japan a congenial place to live.

And, of course

The Japanese populace has blessed me with some very dear friends and a wonderful wife, my best friend in the world. My two daughters are also Japanese and will be at least until they reach the age when Japanese law may require them to choose not to be.

But that is a subject for my next column, in which (rest assured) I will be back to critical mode again.

Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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