Monday 14 May 2012

Perseverance, or, The Impossibility of Perfection

On my more confident days I tell myself that these posts are all part of one congruous whole. Each one is a single shining facet of an individual diamond – the diamond of a unified world view, the most precious stone of all. 

More Art

On the other days I tell myself to stop spouting fanciful horseshit and overblown metaphors (‘unified diamond of my worldview’. Jesus wept) and accept the less lofty fact that these are merely individual steps on an endless imperfectable journey towards the unattainable goal of better understanding. Then I remind myself of the ‘fanciful horseshit’ thing again and just get on with it. Because it’s the journey, not the destination, y’know? No human endeavour is ever truly perfect, which means the manner in which you achieve imperfection is important. And that, apparently, is an oxymoron.
Practice makes perfect, they say. They’re wrong, of course (and not for the first time. More often than not they’re fucking idiots). Perfect practice makes perfect. If you practice the wrong things then all you’ll get better at is doing the wrong things. Whenever my brother and I wanted to play golf with my uncle he’d insist we went to a course instead of a driving range. His logic was that we were pretty crap and it was better for us to get a feel for the whole game instead of just drilling the same mistakes over and over. I think the real reason was that driving ranges bored him to tears, but he still made a valid point.

Golf was something of a passing fad for me (and the course fees in Japan killed any enthusiasm that may have remained), but I play rugby. Though honestly even for this ‘played’ is probably more accurate. I took a break after my son’s birth which has drifted somewhat. Still, I play in the tight-five so if I can get enough sleep to get my fitness up by this summer, I’ve probably got a good two or three seasons left. Loss of speed isn’t too much of a handicap when your job is basically strolling about the park hitting people. If my knees hold out. And my shoulder. And my back.

I'm not quite this old, though

Anyway, I played to a pretty decent standard when I was younger and, during my first stint in Japan, was pleasantly surprised to find that one of my high schools had a rugby team. The standard wasn’t great, but they’d got the basics and there were a few obvious things which would have yielded improvements pretty quickly. I naively thought I’d whip them into shape in no time. I remember having a total of three hours practice a week when I was at school, and sometimes these students had that much every evening. That should have been the first warning sign, to be honest.

In most sports where the movement is fairly fluid the major difficulties come from the opposition. In sports like baseball, cricket, and golf it’s fundamentally the same situation every time and it comes down to how successfully you can apply technique while fighting the pressure in your own head. In football (all codes), hockey, basketball, and the like it doesn’t matter how good your technique is if you can’t do it with your marker half a second away from putting you on your arse. Decision making under direct external pressure. Once you’ve got the basics, you need to be able to perform them in an actual game.

So the current thinking is to try to recreate game situtions as closely as possible in training. Short sharp drills at maximum intensity, while fatigued. That’s what you’ll have to do in a game. No point practicing stuff if you can’t do it under match conditions.

Match Conditions

Rugby matches last 80 minutes, not three hours. Hopefully by now you’ll be recognizing why three hour practice sessions should have been a warning sign. You can’t go full out for that long; you should never have to. By practicing the same skills at medium intensity for hours on end these students were getting very good and doing the same skills at medium intensity for hours on end. That doesn’t transfer so well to an actual match. They were training for a sprint by running marathons. But I was still new so didn’t kick up much of a fuss with the teacher in charge (thank god I got that much right).

The teacher had a few contacts, and on occasion would get a Japanese coach who’d trained in New Zealand (at the time one of only three, I believe) to visit and offer his advice. This guy’s English was pretty good – even if he had caught the kiwi affliction of only being able to use one vowel sound – and I made the above observation/complaint to him.

‘Yih,’ he sighed (which I took to mean, ‘Yeah’), 'bit his nit rilli tri-ing ti tich thim hi ti pli rigby, his tri-ing ti tich thim hi ti bi Jipinis.

But he’s not really trying to teach them how to play rugby, he’s trying to teach them how to be Japanese.

This was one of those statements that is so obvious that you don’t realize it until it’s been pointed out to you, and as such was my first real epiphany about Japan. In Britain school sports are supposed to be character building; famously the battle of Waterloo was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’. But exactly how they are meant to build character has always been left fairly vague. The explicit aim of training for a sport is still to get better at that sport; the inevitable discomfort and tedium of practice are the price you pay in pursuit of a greater goal.

Not so here. The means and ends have been inverted. Not even that, the process is the outcome. The greater goal of all that tedium and mindless repetition is to get better at dealing with tedium and mindless repetition. The discomfort is to be endured because you need to get better at enduring discomfort.

Just a scratch

‘To endure’ is one of many ways of translating the word ‘ganbaru’ and its variants, as is 'to persevere'. I have a real love/hate relationship with the word, or at least the concept as it’s experienced in Japan. It’s notoriously difficult to translate directly. Before tests or other important events, participants will be told to ‘ganbatte’, in the same way we would use ‘good luck’ in English, but here it translates more as ‘try your best’.

I love that. None of this faffing about with fate or providence or divine will. It’s all you. You succeed or fail based on what you do, on the effort you expend. That’s a very mature view of the world; take responsibility for your goals and don’t try to shift blame if you screw up. I can admire that outlook on life, and I think that many of the problems our own societies are experiencing would be lessened if more people took more responsibility for the outcomes of their actions (cough bankers cough cough).

But sometimes fate does intervene, or at least factors beyond your control get involved. Even some of our most basic physical laws are essentially probabilistic in nature. Throw a glass full of red wine in a swimming pool and it’s basically just chance which dictates the wine will never get back in the glass, and from that we get entropy and the inevitable physical decay of everything we know and experience. Which puts losing a speech contest into perspective, at least.

Taking responsibility for everything is just as unrealistic as taking responsibility for nothing; sometimes the outcomes are farcical, and sometimes they’re tragic. And as everywhere, not everyone buys into it. You don’t need me to list all the incidents of Japanese people cravenly trying to shift blame, there are enough examples just from the last year or so to fill a small library of shame (cough TEPCO cough cough).

But they're bowing deeply, so they must be reeeally sorry.

So if the process is the outcome, where does that leave us? It leaves us with a society that can seem to value form over function, to rate the superficial over the substantial. If you’ve read anything I’ve written here you’ll know that I’m not claiming that this is particularly Japanese, just that it’s an amplified version of what we have in the West. Form is important, and the ends do not always justify the means, but we do appear to draw the distinction between the two more clearly than in Japan.

From this stems that oft commented on Japanese obsession with doing things correctly. The rigid adherence to a binary division between the right and the wrong way to do things. You have to write the strokes in this order or the kanji is wrong, even if the end product looks the same. This is the correct spelling of your own name. No no no, skin the cat like this.

In sumo your win/loss record is only one factor in promotion to higher ranks. How you perform is just as important. Konishiki was famously denied promotion to Yokozuna because of issues with his style (supposedly). In Kyudo (Japanese Archery) you get points for your form as well as hitting the target. It’s hard to think of a more literal metaphor for the relative importance placed on methods, targets, and results.

You can fill this one in yourself

A willingness to do things the right way is good. Too often back home I’d see half-arsed effort waved through because ‘it’ll do’, while ignoring any obvious deeper defects. But equally, sometimes ‘good enough’ is, well, good enough. Completing one stage is important because it lets you move to the next. No-one cares what GCSE results I got at sixteen now I’ve got a few letters after my name, let alone what exam revision methods I used. If you dick around on level one trying to collect all the power-ups then your mum will be calling you down for dinner just as the real fun is getting started.

This conflation of process and result has actually served Japan pretty well in the past. Ignoring those times when it was a fucking disaster, of course. But for a few decades in the latter half of the 20th century it served Japan phenomenally well. So it can’t be all bad. Of course it’s not all bad. Few things truly are. How could you explain Japan’s massive technological and economic surge in the 80’s if they laboured under such a handicap?

They got lucky. A perfect storm of global circumstances meant that those ‘Japanese’ values were, for a brief period, incredibly valuable. Starting with the Korean War, there were a few decades when it didn’t matter if you could create new things – if you could reach new goals – only that you could do existing stuff better than anyone else. The stars aligned and that obsession with doing the same old things, but doing them right, was exactly what the rest of the world wanted.

But the world turns and the stars are in different positions now. For a while Japanese practice was the envy of the world, but the cruel irony is that the obsession with doing things perfectly now means they’re just practicing making the same mistakes. Again, and again, and again, and again…


  1. "They got lucky. A perfect storm of global circumstances meant that those ‘Japanese’ values were, for a brief period, incredibly valuable."

    Head of Nail meet Hammer!!

    The level of denial or intentional ignoring of developments globally have assured a long hard road back to a place that will never be as good as where they once were. not even considered by the average University student.

    Reality hurts the most when you ignore it until it's sitting on you or smashing into your life.

    1. It's everywhere. "Well, it worked before. Why isn't it working now?"

      Blindly repeating what used to work is no way to move forward. Many places are stuck in this pattern, but it's really, really bad here.

  2. I've met more Japanese who are resigned to going gently into that good night than those I've met who are proud and believe Japan will return to glory days, unlike the States where way too many people believe we'll get our groove back.

    It ain't gonna happen...

    1. In some ways resignation is worse than misplaced pride. Blind hope is at least hope or sorts.

  3. Just read through a bit of the reappraisals from the 'fucking disaster' link. From what I gather, the system was prepared to do anything to preserve itself and never has cared about the people. Which isn't such a secret, it's just not polite to talk about. He may not be wearing anything, but he's still the e*per*r.

    From my experience, not living in the more 'sophisticated' regions, I have seen very little in the way of perfection. But what I have seen again, and again, and again, is the conditioning where attitudes get hammered into people. The hierarchy persists throughout, almost like the form is the function.

    And still, there are cracks...

    Now excuse me while I click through a few more of the links.

    1. That's just it. It's not perfection in outcomes, but it process. Do it like you should, and somehow it doesn't matter if that result isn't what it should be.

      Hard to stomach the fact that the cracks are the biggest causes for hope, sometimes.

  4. "But he’s not really trying to teach them how to play rugby, he’s trying to teach them how to be Japanese."

    In two and a half weeks I have already told this story three times. Brilliant.

    1. Thanks. It's not a coincidence that quote comes from someone who'd spent a significant amount of time living abroad, I think...