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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks on Japan

Samurai Blues.
(The Truth Behind Stereotypes of Japan)

Sam Barnes

Before I ventured overseas four years ago, I had certain preconceptions about Japan, and the Japanese people. The first was that it is a Hi-tech, industrialised country. The second, that the people lack individuality like a kind of "ant-hive" mentality. There is a degree of truth in both of these assumptions. Yet closer scrutiny has revealed a more complex picture.

There is undoubtedly a lot of new technology emerging from Japan. Hi-tech industries such as robotics are the cornerstone of the economy. On a domestic level, household appliances are usually quite hi-tech. For example, it is common to have toilets with control panels. Sometimes the toilet even has a handy built-in pregnancy detector. (No need to splash out on expensive home testing kits). Despite gadgets such as these making the place look quite modern, the psyche of the people is distinctly old-fashioned.

In a wealthy country with cold winters, you would expect most people to have centrally heated homes. The Japanese use kerosene heaters which, apart from emitting toxic fumes, do a poor job of evenly heating a room. (The heaters are, however, computerised with control panels.) Every so often they have to be turned off, and a window opened to let out the harmful fumes. Of course, letting out the fumes also lets out the heat. But this is OK, the philosophy being that it is good to feel the seasons throughout the year. Thus in winter, one should feel the cold. While this seems poetic, in practice it can be rather uncomfortable.

The summer is hot and humid, with a mini rainy season from mid-June to mid-July. Temperatures are commonly over thirty degrees. While many homes have air-conditioning, almost all state schools have none. Students and teachers have small towels which they use to mop the sweat trickling down their faces while in class. Studying in this intense heat and humidity is almost like a slow torture for students. In many schools there is also a rule that prohibits students from drinking water in class, thus the students dehydrate in addition to overheating. Again, an old way of thinking still prevails: Just as it is good to feel the biting cold in winter, it’s good to sweat in summer; especially for the young who need to be toughened up. Japan is a country in which old values such as these underpin every aspect of day-to-day life.

Tokyo is a seemingly endless jungle of faceless concrete apartment blocks, futurist glass and steel buildings, fizzing neon signs. Large advertising screens adorn the sides of buildings, escalators connect to walkways, and elevators announce the current floor in a sexy female voice. It is a city that wants to be modern. Old buildings are knocked down and replaced without hesitation. Shiny new shopping complexes spring up overnight. The face of Tokyo is having a constant lift, but a modern looking city doesn’t mean modern thinking people. One only has to look at the female residents of Tokyo to see this. Most women embrace a very feminine look; high-heels, designer brands skirts. In-turn, images of airbrushed females are used to advertise almost every kind of product. (The question is which came first, the chick or the egg?)

Feminism doesn’t seem to have manifested in Japanese society as it has in Britain. For example, the concept of sexual harassment at work is relatively new. The bullet train is famous world over for speed and efficiency, but a less publicised fact about Japan’s rail system is that some of Tokyo’s subway lines have women only carriages late at night to stop women from being harassed by drunken business men. Statistically, it is one of the safest cities in the world…unless you are a woman on a Friday night.

Another illustration of traditional values is that of the family. Japanese children are often looked after by their grandparents who live in the same house as the parents. Thus the mother has a source of free child care. The down side of this is, (obviously), having to live in the same house as your parents. (The couple normally lives with the man’s parents.) Moreover, the wife may have to wait on her mother and father-in-law in return for the child care. However, this old style living arrangement does incorporate the elderly into society, and gives them a functional role in the family. Also, as they grow older they have family around to care for them. Recently though, this enlarged family unit is becoming less popular, as younger couples choose to live together alone. Although attitudes to women and the family are changing, Japan remains a very conservative country.

The second of my assumptions was that the Japanese have an ant-hive like mentality, i.e. all doing and thinking alike. This is true, in that expressing the same opinion and agreeing with others is a kind of social etiquette. Boldly stating one’s own opinion as different from others is generally frowned upon. The idea is that agreeing with one another fosters social harmony in the office or group. However, when in private, people are happy to voice idiosyncratic opinions. Equality is another important value in group situations. If a worker goes on holiday, for example, she is expected to bring back a small present for everyone in the office. Failing to give someone a gift, or giving a more valuable gift to closer colleagues creates problems. The concept of equality is another way of trying to create harmony in group situations. Of course, there is favouritism between colleagues, it just remains out of the working environment.

Society frowns upon the assertion of individuality, and this means people can also appear very homogenous. Primary school children march to school each morning with identical yellow school bags, (the design stipulated by the school.) Fashion trends sweep across the country like wild fire, and fizzle out in the blink of an eye. The national penchant for fads is unfathomable. Take Para-Para dancing for example: It entails groups of young people dancing in unison to club music. Needless to say it was only popular for a very short space of time, although a few mavericks still indulge.

Though great value is placed upon unity of appearance and opinions, there is in reality a lot of independent thought going on, it is just difficult to see. People with unorthodox beliefs or practices tend to hide them away from public view. A good example of this is the gay community. There are very few openly gay men and women in Japan, compared with Western countries. Yet the few that I have met assured me that there are many more, albeit, in the closet. Though gay people in our own country don’t have it easy, the social taboo in Japan is even greater, due to the value placed on being the same as others. Many people perceive America and the UK as having unusually large gay populations, when in reality they are simply unaware of all those in hiding in their own country.

Tokyo’s music and fashion scene is another example of the growth of individuality in a supposedly unified culture. Hip-hop, reggae, trance, and many other styles of music are very popular, as are the fashions that accompany them. American films and music especially, have had a tremendous impact on Japan’s youth culture. Yet there are some unique styles originating from Tokyo’s underground scene. In the hip fashion district of Harajuku young people walk around in frilly lace, knee length PVC boots, powdered white faces with black crosses on their cheeks. Goth, fetish and anime influences contribute to the look.

Though there are seeds of individual expression struggling to flourish, they are scattered sparsely. As soon as an original idea emerges it is latched on to and becomes commercialised, tamed and marketed. The same could be said of our own pop culture with movements such as punk and rave that start out with incredible creativity, stagnate, and become staple fodder for the masses. The advantage of the West’s emphasis on individualism, however, is that that people feel less inhibited to try something different, thus new musical styles come about. The Japanese tend to stick to established trends, or latch onto imported ones. The result is "J-Pop", which is by and large, banal high speed rock which isn’t even catchy. Despite J-Pop there are some good smaller bands in the Japanese music scene which never seem to make it big.

Japan is a country striving to establish a new national identity. Many people really do want change, but they find it difficult to personally initiate. The difficulty is rooted in the social taboo against speaking one’s mind. It is for this reason that old ways have remained for so long. Group pressure prevents business men, made to work twelve hours a day, from speaking out. It is the same taboo against airing a problem in public that prevents many women from speaking out about incidents of harassment.

The mass import of foreign culture can be seen as evidence of the peoples’ desire for change. Modern Hi-tech industries have nurtured the economy and provided great material wealth, but have failed to propagate spiritual development in people. Last year some 34,000 people took their own lives.
In my view, the suppression of individualism by the need to sustain group harmony is detrimental to the nation’s mental health. I am sure many Japanese would agree with me…individually.
© Sam Barnes Ocotber 2004

Pic: Battle Royale 11 Cast

A crash course in Japanese culture? Watch Battle Royale 1 and 2 on DVD now

See also the Zen of Japanese Interiors

More Places and Cultures in Hacktreks


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