Friday 27 September 2013

There It Is

1.    Only to be with you.

I think I may have finally found one. Or at least had one found for me.

By now you’ll hopefully be familiar with my Peacocks and Stags view of cultural relativity – the idea that underlying cultural practices in Japan are basically the same as they are in the rest of the world, they’ve just been extended to the point where they appear to be something completely different. In much the same way that you may first think that peacocks and peahens are different species of bird, based purely on the more obvious external differences, but underneath it they’re essentially the same.

It doesn’t help the unwary visitor that these differences are played up by the Japanese themselves. You know the drill –

“Japanese love peace and harmony.” (Unlike all those societies who adore violence and discord).

“Japanese are very concerned with not losing face” (Unlike all those societies where people love being humiliated and made to look stupid).

“Japanese are very concerned about the group” (Unlike all those societies… wait, what’s the definition of ‘society’ again?)

“Japan has four seasons” (…)

In fairness, and in keeping with the spirit of this thing, other cultures are fairly good at playing up to their own national stereotypes. I’m not saying that these things aren’t true, merely that they aren’t quite as exceptional as many would have you believe. England, for example, is obsessed with class. But then so are many other countries, and Americans may be surprised to learn that Freedom is also generally considered something worth having by people througout the world.

Even Scotland.

I’ve also previously mentioned the general dislike of ambiguity in Japan. One of the clearer manifestations of this is the explicit labelling of attitudes and actions that we would tend to leave more implicit in the West. This is both good and bad. Much as I loathe the senpai/kohai tradition, I’m not sure that the way we do it back home – the polite fiction that leads bosses and their subordinates to call each other by their first names, for instance – is always better. There is at least an honesty inherent in the ridiculous levels of formality encoded in the Japanese language that’s absent in many Anglophone societies. The more the 99% can be convinced the 1% are just like them, the less likely they are to do anything about it.

Likewise, the tatemae/honne distinction (what is said/what is meant) is similar to our concept of white lies, but goes further in acknowledging the truth that there’s often nothing pure about the untruths we choose to share and the truths we don’t. And on a less serious note the use of straight-up cash gifts for major celebrations always seems to lack a certain personal involvement – ‘This is exactly how much I care for you, to the last yen,’ – but then when I was a kid my favourite present was always the fiver in the birthday card from my slightly dissolute uncle.

I’m not saying that the things being labelled are good, but that’s the point: it’s all very well to acknowledge nice stuff, but there’s a certain honesty about recognizing those less pleasant truths about human nature enough to give them names.

For years I’ve been searching for the reverse – a truth universally acknowledged outside of Japan, but not inside. The peahen within, if you will. And now I think I’ve found it.

We live in a fairly new development. Lots of newish houses and youngish, professional families. There’s a nice little supermarket by the station that’s not all that cheap, but is convenient when you need a few bits and bobs on the way home. A little further away, by the ‘old’ town this development is an extension of, there’s an older, bigger, supermarket of the ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ school. Not so great for fresh fruit and veg, but much easier on the wallet than the closer one. The difference between the two is like that between M&S and Morrisons, for those of you from the UK.

Last time we went to the cheaper place, my wife observed that there were more people there in flip-flops than the other place, and that the mothers were far harsher when they were yelling at their kids. This is a code, as was my use of the word ‘professional’ in the last paragraph. I’m sure you can work it out. Answers, such as they are, next week.

End of Part 1

Credit where it's due.


  1. "In fairness..."

    With an ongoing project like a blog, a spate of posts that convey a certain attitude toward or feeling about something are often followed up by the "let's be a little more balanced here" post or stream of them. It's a human tendency usually brought on by reflection and often times by a change in mood. I do this myself and it ends up eating at me, but other than trying to prove in the short term that one truly is fair, the only thing there is to do is hope that people will look at the project as a whole and not just as 3 months worth of posts. Unfortunately with the glut of blogs out there and the short attention span of your average individual, most readers won't take the time necessary to really understand the person behind the posts, which is pretty much why I've given up on trying to prove that I can think about things fairly and just hope that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to the crap I throw up on my blog...

    1. Fair point, well made. When I started this whole little project I wrote the Disclaimer with an eye to just that, but pleasingly I've not had a need to direct anyone to it yet. Fortunately most people who visit seem to 'get' it without much need for explanation.

      That said, I'm reiterating stuff here for two reasons (I think...). The first is that my recent trip home has thrown much of this into slightly sharper relief and it's been rattling around and needed an outlet. The second is that part two is going to cover some stuff that people could easily choose to misinterpret, and I think a restating of some key points might guard against that. Maybe.

    2. Fair enough ;)
      Yeah, I hope I didn't come off as wannabe know-it-all; I struggle with the cognitive dissonance in so many aspects of daily life here and each trip home reminds me of just how skewed my thinking can get.