Friday, July 23, 2021

Rethinking Japan

We have always admired Japanese culture, without thinking about it too much.  Maybe it is time to re-think this.

Americans are fascinated with Japan, and the feeling is mutual, for opposite reasons.  We marvel at their efficiency, their engineering prowess, their ancient traditions, and their national spirit and sense of team play.  They, in turn, are fascinated by our wild recklessness, our rock-n-roll, our lack of discipline, and our free spirit.  There is something to be said about both approaches to life.

But recent events with regard to the Tokyo Olympics cause one to re-think Japan.  One of the organizers was discovered to have made holocaust jokes in poor taste.  Perhaps something to apologize for and to be contrite about.  But far worse, was that the composer of one of the opening theme songs admitted - while laughing - to abusing disabled students when he was in school.  And by abusing, we don't mean name-calling, but physically abusing those less powerful than he was - forcing them to eat excrement, in one instance.

What makes the whole thing worse is that everyone in Japan knew about it, as he confessed (laughingly) to these crimes - and they were crimes - back in the 1990's and he still went on to be a popular rock star, some comparing him to Beck or Brian Wilson - both of whom I am sure are horrified by the prospect.

Funny thing, he was called a "Japanese [fill-in-the-blank American rock star]" but you never hear about an American being called an "American [fill-in-the-blank Japanese famous person]".  Funny how that works.  Funny also that no one in America ever heard about this jerk until now.  Big in Japan just isn't big, even if you can fill stadiums there.

But the problems with Japan go far deeper and further than just the malfeasance of two people.  Bullying isn't some isolated situation, but is institutionalized.   Bullying is Japanese culture - going back to World War II, the Rape of Nanjing, the invasion of Korea, comfort women, the Bataan death march, just to name a few.  But today, of course, Japan admits that none of that ever happened and that is a second disturbing aspect of Japanese culture - denial.

It is bad that this kid bullied and physically assaulted disabled kids - that is the mark of an utter coward.  It is bad that he admitted to it while laughing about it.  But what was worse was the Japanese tendency to sweep things under the rug - to preserve "face" by pretending things don't happen when they do.   For example, the idea that racism and crime in Japan don't exist - because they are never talked about.

For example, crime.  Japan is famously crime-free and its policemen don't even carry guns!  Right?  Well, not exactly.  When I was in Osaka, I had two experiences which seem to negate this.  First of all, reading the English-language local paper, I read two stories about local crime.  In one, an owner of a small chain of video rental shops (this was back in the 1990's) was found dead, bullet in the head, floating face-down in a canal - no doubt the work of the Yakusa - the Japanese Mafia.  More about them shortly.

In another story, a youth was shot and killed by those unarmed police, after he went on a rampage. Apparently, he was sniffing glue and doing other drugs and went berserk.   Another myth shattered - the orderly, hard-working, hard-studying Japanese youth.   But of course, such things exist in every culture - we just have more of it, I guess.

But tellingly, these stories did not appear in the Japanese-language newspapers - and hence the locals are lead to believe that crime is almost non-existent because no one talks about it.  In America, we'll talk your head off about these things - until you beg us to stop.

But it is true that the average Japanese is painfully honest.  Drop your wallet and not only will no one steal it, no one will touch it until the Police come and retrieve it. The average America is far less virtuous.

The second thing was a run-in I had with a Yakuza member.  I was trying to make a reservation on the JR Rail line, and was in their local office.  Two young people were manning the desk and they looked to be about 14 years old.  The young girl was so excited to try out her English on me - and the Japanese speak very good English - and helped me with train and hotel reservations.

Then a burly man in a purple, shiny, pinstripe suite came in.  He had oily curled hair and a dark complexion, and was missing his pinky finger.  Yakuza.  He talked with the boy at the next desk and became more and more angry.  He finally started shouting and knocking over the displays of vacation brochures.   I thought it was over, but then he started bitch-slapping the boy, again and again.  The boy just stood there an took it, apologizing repeatedly as he was slapped again and again.

I thought about intervening, but realized I was in a foreign country and the guy was with the mob.  I could end up face-down in a canal somewhere.  I asked the girl what was going on, and she said, "Going on?  Nothing is going on!"  Denial - the Japanese way of life!

I gave the Yakuza guy an angry glare and that snapped him out of it.  He realized his error - he had caused Japan to lose face in front of a foreigner!  A dirty Gaijin!   He quickly picked up the scattered displays and the very nervous boy started fixing whatever was wrong with his reservations.  Meanwhile, the girl landed us a hotel suited in Kanazawa that we certainly couldn't afford on our budget - for $99 a night!  Perhaps she was trying to help sweep things under the rug.

Crime, like everything else in Japan, is highly organized.  And until recently, the Japanese found this entertaining. They had Yakuza movies, much as we had Martin Scorsese and The Godfather movies - movies that celebrated Mob life and had you rooting for the bad guys, much as we did with The Sopranos.   But over the years, it stopped being funny.  Yakuza would infiltrate banks and force bank managers to offer them "loans" which would never be paid back.  Entire businesses were infiltrated and taken over.  It is one reason the Japanese economy has stagnated over the last few decades, even as their businesses have taken off all over the world.

But let's not talk about it, right?  Sweep it all under the rug.  Must preserve face!

Crime is a problem in Japan, but the criminal justice system in Japan is something of a bad joke.  Not as bad as in Italy, but bad.  The recent arrest and escape of Carlos Ghosn is a case in point.  You can't blame the guy for trying to escape a justice system with a 99.9% conviction rate.  You don't get a fair day in court in Japan, nor is there much of a presumption of innocence-until-proven-guilty.  Maybe we let too many criminals get away with murder in America, but in Japan, once you are arrested, it's all over for you.

And again, I have a small experience with this.  We were in Tokyo District Court many years back, trying to obtain testimony from a manufacturer of cable television boxes.  The deal was, the company that was suing us was having these things made in Japan and selling them in the US more than one year before they applied for a Patent, and if so, well, their US Patent was invalid under the laws back then (in most countries, there is no such grace period).  We had documents suggesting this was the case, and testimony (and documents) from one of the US co-inventors.  But it wasn't an airtight case.  If only we could obtain testimony from the Japanese Engineers!

Well, good luck with that.  As a foreigner in a Japanese court, you will not be treated well.  The Judge in the case struck down each one of our requests, over-ruled our objections, and bent over backwards to see things in the light of the Japanese defendant.  Even our own local lawyer seemed ill-inclined to lose any goodwill with the court by risking argument in our favor.  The deck was stacked against us, and against anyone trying to seek justice in a foreign court.

Granted, the same is true here, to a lesser extant.  Another attorney I worked for defended an anti-dumping case involving DRAM chips.  This was at the height of the "Japan is taking over!" furor, when the Japanese were buying up golf courses and whatnot all across America in the 1990's.  Of course, they ended up selling them back to us for pennies-on-the-dollar later on, and Japan today looks much less a threat than China. 

Nevertheless, the paranoia was high back then, and the Plaintiff's exhibit #1 was a map of the world, centered over the Pacific Ocean showing "The Path of Importation of Infringing Chips" with a giant red arrow arcing over the Pacific from Japan to the US.  It looked like Admiral Yamamoto's invasion plans and this irrelevant piece of "evidence" was placed on an easel all throughout the trial, facing the jury, who was easily swayed by patriotic sentiment and easily confused by technical arguments.

So it is pretty much true in every country to some extent.  The difference, I think, is that in Japan, native prejudice is more institutionalized.

Many of my Japanese friends and clients expressed fears about coming to America.  "There is so much crime!" they said, "My wife thinks I will get shot!" - this after a Japanese exchange student, in Halloween costume, was indeed shot and killed by a Texas homeowner who claimed he was fearing home invasion.  And yes, our reported crime rates in America are much higher in Japan, which is amplified by the fact we tend to report crime more here and don't sweep it under the rug.

My Japanese friends also rake us over the coals over racism.  "So much racial strife in your country!" they tell me.  Yes, because we have races - plural.  In a mono-cultural society, there isn't so much talk about racism, particularly when, once again, it isn't talked about.   Americans are like the uncomfortably honest friend who tells you about their sexual problems with their husband.  Too much information!  Similarly, we are very open and honest about our problems in America - or at least more open and honest than many other countries, who put patriotism and public image ahead of introspection.

There is no talk of racism in Japan because there are no races, for the most part.  But racism does exist.  Japan has deep ties with Peru, as there is an ex-pat colony of Japanese who settled there ages ago.  Some Peruvians have managed to illegally immigrate into Japan - we saw some on the subway - but they are not treated well, and certainly stick out more than even I did.   People who are "different" and have darker colored skin tend to be shunted away from life - Hokkaido people, some call them, as many are from that northern island.

So racism exists, it just isn't talked about - like World War II, the Yakuza, crime, and anything else that might put Japan in a bad light.  Sweeping things under the rug is the norm. And people who speak up are squelched.  "The nail that sticks up is hammered down" so goes (allegedly) an old Japanese saying.  This is great for cohesiveness, but not so much for innovation and creativity, which may explain the stereotype of Japan as being a great nation of copiers, but not innovators.

There are many other things disturbing about Japanese culture, even as we admire it.  For example, vending machines.  Vending machines are everywhere in Japan and they always work.  "Out of Order" is not a sign that exists in Japan.  We got off a train in rural Japan - high in the mountains, and there was a vending machine selling hot coffee in cans (it's a thing) leaning up against a barn. It was advertising "Playboy Drink!" with the Playboy logo.  I went to get a can of coffee, and Mark said, "No way that machine actually works!" to which I replied, "Mark, this is Japan, everything works!"

And we admire that.  We are all tired of the half-assed way things work in America - how customer service is non-existent and companies just don't give a shit whether you got what your ordered or not (never in Japan!  Loss of face!).  We are also tired of the way American workers do everything half-heartedly, even as we ourselves do the same.  But Japan - everything is freaking perfect, the way it should be.  And that creates a lot of pressure on people.

You can buy anything in a vending machine there, even pornography.  Even child porn.  And people read porno comic books in the Subway without embarrassment.  We never bought any - we didn't have to, as people would throw them away and you would find porn comics laying on the street.   But it is disturbing, how Japan was one the last "Western" countries to make child porn illegal, but even then, only the photographic type.  Child porn comic books still thrive, and the stereotype of the "Hentai" Japanese school girl porn comic still exists and is freely available to just about anyone in Japan.  It is somewhat disturbing, thinking that your Dad enjoys reading comic books about raping school girls.

Yea, there is something deeply wrong about that.

Some say it is a way of blowing off steam, of relieving pressure, and perhaps that is true - making everything "perfect" as a tea ceremony does result in a lot of stress, which is another thing that is disturbing about Japanese culture.  Childhood as we know it doesn't really exist.   From a very early age, children as exhorted to succeed.  A series of grueling exams take place during their formative years - exams that may determine their fate for life.  Education is often measured by how many Kanji symbols you can memorize, so rote memorization takes precedence over problem-solving or native intelligence.  And if you fail the exams?  You're screwed for the rest of your life.

No pressure now!  Gee, and you thought American High School was fun - all you had to do there was be "popular" and the dumber you were, the better you were at that.

All of this has lead to a disturbing trend in "stay at home" young adults.  Yes, here in America, we have adult children living at home in their parents' basement, playing video games all day long, waiting for life to start.  In Japan, we have kids who refuse to leave their rooms, forever.  They are so overwhelmed by the pressures of society that they just decide to stay in their bedroom, for months at a time.   In some respects, you can't blame them, particularly if they never did well on their exams!

This sort of thing compounds another problem - Japan is aging.  The cost of raising children and the cost of living in general has dissuaded many from having more than one child, if any, and as a result, the population is becoming geriatric and there is a lack of young people to take the place of their seniors.  It is a very odd scenario, to be sure.  But again, let's not talk about it.  Sweep it all under the rug, like the Nuclear power plant fiasco.

By the way, the press breathlessly reported that the "Daiichi" nuclear power plant melted down, as if it was the name of the plant or something.  But as any American school child knows that "ichi" is Japanese for "one" and "Daiichi" means "number one" - it is just a numbering, not a name.  But Americans love anything that sounds Japanese-y, and will get tattoos of Japanese Kanji characters that mean nonsense, just as Japanese love English words.  We saw, in Kyoto, a vendor selling t-shirts, one of which said, "T-shirt with English words on it" - apparently the manufacturer took the vendor's order request quite literally.   And kids wore them, too.  They want to be like us, we want to be like them.  It is an interesting conundrum, to be sure.

I took a Japanese client to a baseball (basobaru) game at Camden Yards in Baltimore.  They were appalled that not only did we not all sing the team cheer in unison (the "wave" was as close as we could get to doing anything orchestrated) but that some "fans" were screaming obscenities at the players.   A better contrast of Japan and the US, I cannot imagine.  It is like the Japanese Engineer I met, who after a few beers, went on about buying a bottle of Maker's Mark and how he was fascinated by the "wax" dripping off the top.  "You just let it run down!" he said, which mystified me, until I realized that in Japan, such randomness would not be tolerated.  A bottle of Suntory whiskey, if it had wax on the cork, would have some Geisha make a delicate butterfly imprint on it, using a feather or something.  Letting the wax just drip down!  Never!

They are fascinated with our relaxed attitudes, and mimic them, but never successfully.  In a park in Tokyo, young "garage" bands play at designated bandstands, all rebellious and youthful, but in an organized way.  Their fans all dress alike, dance alike, and after each song or set, all applaud in unison.  Even mayhem is organized.  Like with basebaru, it is the same, but not the same at all.

But what about the vaunted Japanese culture?  Sumo wrestling - two morbidly obese people trying to push each other out of the way, while some old man in a bathrobe shouts at them.  I can see this anytime I want to, as two tubbies fight over the last chicken wing at the Ole Time Country Buffet.   Funny thing, Japanese baseball players sometimes move to America to play in the major leagues.  You'd think we'd export our legion of morbidly obese to Japan and overwhelm their Sumo business.

But what about the arts?  Tea ceremony?   If you think about it, what is so special about a Geisha in white makeup making a pot of tea?  I mean, after you've seen that a dozen times.... Samurai swords? Kabuki theater?   Anime? Are we over-romanticizing Japanese culture?  And in doing so, are we just as guilty in helping them "save face"?

This latest incident with the Tokyo Olympics made me think about these things.  Bullying is a way of life in Japan, not some isolated incident.  And rather than confront this, the Japanese instinct is to try to suppress discussion about it.  Forget it, or failing that, re-invent history.

While in Tokyo, a flatbed truck, festooned with banners, rolled by, with a huge P.A. speaker blaring.  A man was screaming at the top of his lungs, and the volume was turned all the way up. It was deafening.  Bullying, once again. My hosts were clearly embarrassed.  "What was that all about?"  I asked.  "Oh, nothing," they characteristically replied.  Denial rears its ugly head.

Turns out there is a small but vocal minority in Japan (that may be growing) that thinks that they won World War II, and in fact, that militarization was a good thing and the Chinese and Koreans need to be subjugated.  These are ultra-nationalists and they still believe the Emperor is a God.

Oh, right, the Emperor.  In this day and age, having a king or a queen or emperor or other monarch is sort of embarrassing - like masturbating in public.  It is anti-democratic to have some person who comes into office based solely on inheritance, even if that office is largely ceremonial.  And yea, I am looking at you United Kingdom, or Great Britain, or England, or whatever (The Incredible Shrinking Empire?).  The problem with monarchs, is that once you have them, it is darn hard to get rid of them.  Look at the Brits - they killed theirs off, and then changed their mind and went shopping for a new one - and bought one, secondhand, from Germany.  The house of Windsor, indeed!

But I digress.

Yea, we have problems here in America.  And we talk about them, ad nauseum, which sort of pisses the rest of the world off.   Imagine some starving kid in India listening to us. "Let me get this straight, your number one problem is you eat too much food, and your second problem is you have too many over-sized gas-guzzling cars - and your third problem is cheap gas?  I weep for you!"   That's why they call us at all hours trying to sell us worthless extended warranties - clearly we have too much money!  But we are an open society and as bad as things are here, at least we talk about them, rather than try to present a "good face" to the world by pretending these problems don't exist.

And yes, bullying is a problem in our schools, but we are talking about it - and not laughing.  And as bad as bullying is here, I don't recall any children, particularly disabled children, being forced to eat shit.  Nor do I recall anyone bragging about such exploits (not even on Howard Stern!), or people willing to overlook them.  Maybe our culture of shaming has gone overboard, but... geez.

I am not against Japan, nor do I hate the Japanese.  But I think we need to stop romanticizing Japanese culture so much.   I, for one, am sick and tired of Japanese comic books and cartoons, with their big-eyed children and their cheap low-frame-rate animation.  This isn't high art, it was throwaway crap children's entertainment.  Yet a whole generation of fedora-wearing computer nerds think otherwise.  I think they are embracing a false sense of what Japan is all about - a cartoon Japan, not the real thing.  The real thing isn't like the comic books (although, granted, the Japanese school girls pretty much look like that in real life).

There is something wrong with the culture of bullying and the culture of denial. And yea, we have that here in the USA, too - but at least we talk about these things and try to shout them down.  Americanism, at least in theory, if not practice, has always been about helping those less fortunate than ourselves - the better angels of our nature.  But then again, talking about problems and being empathetic is sometimes seen as weakness - when in fact, it is strength.  The strong-men of the world are not strong, but blustering bullies, hoping we don't see through their charade.

Once reason Trump was so popular with certain types of folks is that he made them feel good about being American.  We talk so much about our problems that people feel bad about their country and want to "Make America Great Again!" - mostly by not talking about our problems, the Japanese way. And bullying?  It was his modus operandi - threaten to sue, scream and shout, and hope no one notices that he was in fact, a failure at almost everything he did in life, even the Presidency.

Maybe that is what appalls me about these certain aspects of Japanese culture.  I see them in our own country as well.