There’s an element of elegy about this, perhaps lost…
After ten months, almost exactly, the sun is setting on my time in Japan. On Tuesday, the heavens permitting, I’ll be on a plane to Seoul and thence to London. The year has been cut short to ten months by my pressing need to enter a profession, but it was a very significant ten months and, despite many things, I am happy to have come.
It’s been a year of fun, zero-responsibility and high earnings. I’ve eaten some of the tastiest and most interesting food on the planet, and met some of the tastiest and most interesting people. I love the Japanese language. From the snow-lipped majesty of Mt Fuji to the tiring mania of matinal Tokyo, it has been my privilege to see places and things that I could not otherwise have experienced.
My praise for Japan is not unreserved. My affection for the country runs deep, in a kind of familial way: I feel a level of love familiarity that allows me to point out flaws, while defending it against others. I don't mean this to be critical of people I have no right to criticise, but rather I want to underline some of my observations and feelings about the time I spent there in the suteki-guni.
A word on that title: suteki (pronounced “steaky”) is a commonly used word to mean lovely, or fab. Kuni means country, but when it follows another word it sometimes becomes guni. There’s a classic book called “Yuki Guni” which means snowy country.
Now, as I leave, I feel the same feelings I felt before I came to Japan: excitement at the start of a new set of adventures, trepidation about what might and might not come of them. I land in London on the 19th June – my birthday – but will have job interviews, jet-lagged job interviews, on the 20th and 21st. I have been upright and thinking of England for ten months now: tasting custard and good curry in my dreams. I’ve created for myself a fantasy of temperate weather, decent sweet food, tolerance of difference and eavesdroppability, all of which are, in a certain measure, missing from Japan. I hope I won’t be disappointed.
My conception of life in Japan is drawn from experience of our two Japanese teachers, Ikehara-sensei and Nagayoshi-sensei. They’re both profoundly lovely people with, on the surface, distinct personalities.
Ikehara-sensei is a being of grace. She is unrufflable: always elegant, always calm, stoic in the face of embarrassing Japanese mistakes (like my tendency to refer to perverted pornography (hentai) when I mean to say ‘the opposite’ (hantai), or to talk about being gang-raped by English people again, when I mean to say surrounded by).
Nagayoshi-sensei, on the hantai hand, is a bundle of energy. She never stops, never calms down, giggles and exclamations without hand. My favourite was when she would repeat the tape we were supposed to be listening to, as it was playing, so that had no hope of possibly hearing, never mind understanding.
Japan, to me, is a balance of the Ike and the Naga; like a Japanese yin and yang. The silent and still onsen, where heat soothes the skin and snow falls around ones ears, the tea ceremony, the graceful, kimono-clad grandma: they are Ike. The flashing lights of Shinjuku, the roaring drunk salarymen, the dreadful, colourful pop-music: those are Naga. Smooth hiragana v sharp katakana: いけ v ナガ
But in Japan, Ike and Naga mix: the sumptuous banquet sat on tatami, with plum trees stroking at the windows, that descends into red-faced, early hangovers and, inevitably, karaoke; the geisha who knows more dirty jokes than an Irish submarine crew.
And this can be nothing but compelling. Life in Japan, whatever happens, is always interesting to outsiders. But we are always outsiders.
It is, of course, entirely true that Japanese people are, in the majority, extremely lovely, humane and welcoming. They throw you a great party, will be as polite as they can be and will look after you if you need it. I have received some extraordinary generosity and kindness in Japan. I would say, however, that this is true of all of the places I have been. Warm hospitality is the pride of ordinary, human people wherever you go. China, Luxembourg, France, America: in all of these places I have received excellent hospitality. Equally, I have met cold, rude and unpleasant people across the world and Japan, unfortunately, is no exception.
The Japanese are raised on a diet of half-truths about the outside world that few dispel through experience. There is a concerning naivety when one hears, on a number of occasions, that ‘Japanese people are all very welcoming’, and ‘Foreign people are not polite’. How do you know? I always wonder.
Sometimes this naïve acceptance of received wisdom can be endearing or, at worst, harmless. A lot of Japanese people I have met believe in fortune-telling or at least frequent fortune tellers. I have known superstition to be rife, and wrote in another post about “yaki-doshi”: years in which one is more vulnerable to bad luck and the machinations of misfortune. Another great one is the this-is-the-correct-and-only-correct-way-to-pour-beer lecture we received during a tour of the Kirin beer factory. What if I prefer it a different way? Incorrect.
Often, though, it is a bit more frustrating:
The chans have a long-running joke about how everything in Japan can be prefaced with ‘traditional Japanese…’ because every time a Japanese person explain something to us, he or she feels the need to underline the fact that Japan is somehow different from the rest of the world: my favourite was when I asked a child what he had done at school that day and was met with the response “Japanese maths” I laughed, thinking that he thought that maths was somehow different in Japan, but I’m being unfair because he meant that while most of his maths classes were taught in English, that was the day of the week where he had maths in the Japanese-language. Still, it wouldn’t have been surprising.
I have come to believe that the Japanese overestimate differences between Japan and the rest of the world and, in particular, between Japanese people and foreigners. This can be naïve, but is sometimes offensive, especially certain comments about Koreans and Chinese people that I have heard, or lawlessness and laziness in the West. Still, I am fully aware that this is not based on hate, but simple inexperience. It’s very easy indeed to make sweeping statements about people you know nothing about. The people in England who say that all gypsies are thieves rarely know any gypsies. The people who think the country is dangerously overrun with immigrants rarely see them.
The Japanese attitude to difference, however, must be slightly nuanced. Again, though, it is common to us all.
The Japanese view of the world, I feel, is informed very closely by the view that everything and everyone has a place, and naturally has a pattern of behavior dictated by that place (in a very classic, socially conservative way).
Certain comments I’ve heard are informative: ‘You’re tired? You’re supposed to be a man!’; ‘You don’t like tea? Are you really English?”. It is my feeling that, to Japanese society, all is right with the world so long as people live up to the behaviour expected of them by their place in the world.
For instance, to the extent that homosexuality is tolerated in Japan and is present in popular culture, gay people are expected to be flaming queens, making outrageous comments on talk shows, camp as you like. Lesbians do not feature.
I was at a dinner with lawyer that I know, the overwhelming majority of whom were male. I spoke to a female lawyer who told me that she would no longer be practising law because she was getting married. It was made quite clear to me when I challenged this that, at least in this situation, being a wife was not compatible with being a professional.
Indeed, certain patterns of behaviour are expected from people with white skin. White people do not speak Japanese, of course, so it’s fine to talk about them in Japanese from a few feet away, or to shout poorly pronounced English at them. White people do not use chopsticks, so bringing them a knife and fork to eat food that could not really be eaten with a knife and fork is fine.
This can be frustrating, but I do not think that we are entirely innocent of this ‘politics of position’ in the UK. We expect boys to eat lots, like sports and be promiscuous. I’m guilty too: I am perfectly happy when people assume that, given the thing hanging between my legs, I’ll eat the food they can’t eat. It entertains me when my French or Italian friends are more emotional or dramatic than I would be in a similar situation, or when my German friends are coldly logical.
In Japan, though, it is more evident. Perhaps this is simply because I have been a victim of it, though. In any case, I feel that I will be more sensitive to this kind of thing upon my return to the UK. As a white man who intends to work in the legal profession in London, I think this is an invaluable experience.
I have had a wonderful time in Japan and have an awful lot of affection for it and its people. And I think the future is bright, especially if Japan realises that it has more to gain from really opening up to the rest of the world. It’s a callous reality, but a huge chunk of the Japanese population will die in the next thirty or so years. Supporting the elderly costs the Japanese state dearly, and the size of the population keeps prices high .The drop in population will lead the Japanese to question whether they shouldn’t allow more immigration from Asia. And I think they’ll have to. If I’m right, the Japanese will have to become more comfortable with the outside world and that can only be a good thing I think.
Japan, Nippon, the Ike and the Naga; it’s beautiful. It is a fascinating, tiring, inspiring place. I came here open eyed, and am leaving awestruck, but wiser I think. I hope that my business with the land of rising suns is not finished for good.
For now at least, sayonara.