Friday, March 7, 2008

life is boring here

In a training seminar before we left home, they warned us that halfway through the first year in Japan you might feel like ranting about all the stuff that is wrong, all the stuff that is different from home. They advised keeping these rants to a minimum, and trying to shift focus. Naaa. Here's the rant.

Life for people here is entirely work, which I’m not thrilled about. Working overtime is expected, or assumed. People identify themselves by who they work for. Everybody talks about work like it is the only important thing in life. People ‘sneak’ short holidays in, talking the rest of the time about how they are too busy to take real holidays. Even if there is little work to be done, or it would be possible to do the work more efficiently, existing tasks are spread out or new tasks created to take more time and effort to give an excuse to stay at work, not leave on time and not take holidays, and to have more work to work on. Not that this burden is placed on me, only it’s sad to be surrounded by it all the same. I feel like I am inconveniencing people when I ask them to do something fun, like see a movie, because they are so consumed by and tired from work. Simple events like that, or a dinner, are planned a month in advance, with humming and hawing. From the sounds of it, such events (ie NOT work) only take place perhaps once a month!
It’s hard to say if the work ethic is actually so extreme that people only take one half day off every week (ie Saturday morning) to rest, and do nothing else the rest of the time but work… or if the ethic of talking about work is simply so extreme as to make it sound that way. Either way, there is no comfortable struggle against the reality that work takes up most of our lives. It might be a flimsy and illusory struggle anyway, but I miss the eagerness to get home at the end of the day, to split early for the weekend, to talk about all the stuff besides work that is going on, so we can all pretend we don’t only live to work. (HUGE bias, I know. But is there not some fundamental distinction between individuals and institutions that suggests space for a fulfilling identity outside the institution?)

It’s a sexist place. Statistically speaking, wages and status are still hugely askew in favour of men. Leadership, politics, authority: man’s duty. Though female participation has increased in many industries, that fact hasn’t changed. Women have gained some freedom to focus on work, and many marry and have children later (or don’t at all). Yet, there still seems a comfortable acceptance of women’s subservience, and her domestic duties to clean the house and feed the family, etc. I did meet one female principal, but the percentage of female office assistants (ie Tea Ladies) is far higher than that of female principals. The banks, too, seem to assume the wife is still free at home and in charge of household finances, capable of getting to the bank before 3pm, by which time nobody is finished work.
It’s more than just unequal wages. Female friends (sorry to steal so many of your observations) tell me they feel the pressure to be meek and subservient (which none of them are, by Japanese standards). There is an informal hierarchy that places old people and oldish men in suits at the top and women and handicapped people at the bottom, though foreigners mostly confuse and surprise everybody. Again, this is based upon my friend’s noting of those whom older men in suits feel the least hesitation in (literally) shoving out of their way.

Worse, the sexism plays into the hypersexualization of women. Besides hostesses and prostitutes, and besides the endless pornography in magazines and manga, there are the actual women who stand next to you on the subway. At the very least, most of these women are intensely made up, every inch of skin smeared with some product, their hair coiffed at exorbitant prices with exorbitant amounts of cream or spray or gel or mouse holding the hair frozen in unnatural perfection. Then there are the outfits. Most look like mannequins from magazines, carefully tailored to the perfect image of feminine business women (emphasis on the feminine) meets life-size doll. Many others actually look like prostitutes. Of course there are the familiar fishnets and knee-highs, and other ridiculous shoes that nobody can walk in. It is painful to watch the women walking here. The shoes are shaped wrong or their bones are shaped wrong or the heels are simply too high, but there is a terrible ankle-wrenching gait that makes one hate the fact that women could do that to themselves just to look good, to look taller. Winter’s snow and ice exacerbates perambulator difficulty, but I assure you there is no reduction in the number of heels on the road.
Likewise, -10 weather did nothing to change the number of women (and girls) wearing skirts. It’s a skirt culture. Starting in Junior Highschools all girls wear skirts, which they learn to roll and hike higher and higher, perhaps taking their cue from their mirror images in manga and other media. I’m not saying I wish women wouldn’t wear skirts, especially in summer, and even short skirts, if the occasion calls for it. However there is something disturbing about seeing completely fake looking, uncomfortable, over-sexualized women heading to work in all sorts of jobs, day after day. It seems appropriate that teachers, at least, wear pants that don’t show that enticing little bit of ass cheek below the bottom hem.

To mention schoolgirls in short skirts is to segue into a wider characteristic of the culture: it’s love for the infantile. Young is sexy - true everywhere, I know, but exaggerated here. There’s a certain look that many girls seem to go for, that makes it hard to differentiate between the ages of 13 and 30. Media is full of grown women dressed like young girls, acting like children, speaking in childish voices, which is quite disturbing when tied to the sexual. The dolled up schoolgirl with the hiked up skirt is the icon of sexuality, leading many a grown man to buy the corresponding manga, leading some men and at least one principal to start stealing and collecting girls' underwear.
I don’t believe most people here think about the extent of this blend of infantilizing and hypersexualizing. I mentioned going to Satoland during the Snow festival. Satoland was the children’s area of the festival, with slides and mascots and thousands of kids. On the pamphlet and map was a picture of a 6-12 year old cartoonish, half-doll girl in a short skirt with her knee turned in, looking coy. This was a pamphlet for kids and their parents.

Even divorced slightly from its sexual component, the focus on the infantile is worth its own comment. Media is full of cartoony adds and actors that seem targeted at 8 year olds (but they’re not). In daily interactions you immediately notice the high-pitched, childish voice that is associated with politeness (used in much conversation), as well as facial expressions, over-acting, huge emphasis on things cute and comic that can make any one seem like an overgrown child. Cartoon figures and diagrams adorn every wall. Cartoons and a recorded voice inform you that you are riding an escalator and that doors open and subway trains tend to stop and start. I have the sneaking suspicion that as long as everyone is over-enthusiastic in response to a few key simple or cute things, nobody will notice the lack of genuine intellectual challenge or stimulation. Everything is safe, rather uninteresting. It’s just an escalator. (Someone did die on one, despite the warnings.)
More than simply avoiding conflict, what the politeness and infantile mean is that nobody has to let down their fronts and actually engage with the people around them. The extreme politeness is intended to formalize, depersonalize without disrespecting. It is very nice to be treated politely, definitely. However, it grows tiresome to have countless interactions day after day and never feel like your are butting up against real people. The infantilizing and over-enthusiasm work to the same effect, allowing everyone to meet on this hyper-polite, cutesy and bubbly plain where nobody actually has any personality. [I’d like to stop and say that this paragraph sounds way harsher than I mean it too. Japanese people most definitely have personalities, only this certain way of acting – especially in short exchanges with work acquaintances or strangers, even in beginning friendships – works to avoid acknowledging that fact.]
I tend to lean toward the over-polite, which back home lead me to feel more like an old man than the teenager I recently was. When I worked at a coffee shop, I held up the ‘polite-employee’ front far longer than coworkers, even after developing fairly casual friendships with some customers. I like polite. I like acting ‘professional’ when it is called for. I even like enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, there is such a thing as being too careful and too forcibly enthusiastic. I know: it takes learning and patience to wade through the politeness and distancing techniques that people use here, and I know I simply don’t understand how to connect with people very well. That’s my own fault. But I still feel like people shouting “CUUUUUTEEEEE” as if it were a substantial divulgence of personal import impinges rather than furthers the development of a relationship, especially when the cuteness of a given object is the subject of definitive import for the entire conversation. True, I can’t understand what people talk to each other about, because my Japanese is so limited. Yet, from me at least, few people seek anything more than superficial conversation. In journalism and sociology it is constantly reiterated that Japanese people seek to avoid tension or conflict and are less analytical, all of which are components of what I consider interesting and challenging conversation. In so many [but by no means all] interactions, the cutesy pretence is the substance of the interaction.

I can’t think of a good segue, but food doesn’t really need one, does it. Food. I like sushi, I like nabe (boiling some veggies in a pot on the table, with friends gathered round), I like tempura; hell, I even like rice and seaweed. I like most Japanese food. All the same, the food situation here is kind of lacking. First problem: fruit is expensive in the stores, and that SUCKS. Fruit is not a major focus of the diet here. Perhaps it ties into the fact that limited parts of Japan are suitable for growing a small variety of fruits, and the country has a strong history of emphasizing local food-production rather than importation. Each region eats its own products first and foremost (traditionally, and somewhat still true), which means vegetables, meat or fish, and (of course) rice: that’s the stuff. As I said, I like all those things, but I do miss quality and affordable fruit, and being surrounded by people who like fruit. I realized the other day that I felt awkward because I was sitting on a bench eating an apple. I felt awkward because I wasn’t eating something wrapped in plastic, purchased from the nearest conbini (like everybody around me). That’s messed up.
Further, even the common foods – hell, even the exquisite foods – are characterized by simplicity and uniformity. Sashimi, admittedly delicious, is a lack of cooking and adornment. There is a limited selection of sauces and spices, mostly just some salty soy sauce or spicy wasabe, and then variations and combinations of similar. Rice, which is everywhere and always, is rarely seasoned in interesting ways. Pretty much everything is either not cooked at all or boiled slightly, without much flavour. Otherwise, everything is fried, whether in tempura batter or just drenched in oil. I have watched friends eat some disgusting looking fried chicken from what I thought were pretty classy places.
As for restaurants, there is an assortment in a big city like Sapporo. However, the vast majority of restaurants produce exactly the same food. A million ramen signs adorn the street, because Sapporo is famous for that formerly Chinese, noodle-soup. It’s always the same ramen. All other genres of Japanese food are repeated with exactitude in the multitude of venues strewn about the streets and endless floors and basements of labyrinthine department stores. As with Starbucks’ ubiquity back home, it’s nice to be able to expect consistency and uniformity with what you order, no matter where you are. Sometimes though, a little variety would be nice. Sometimes, it’s boring as hell.
There are some international options, perhaps even ‘lots’ compared to many places in Japan. Yet, the food is not always high quality, even if the prices are high. Funny things happen to adopted foods…omelet gets misidentified as a rice dish, pasta gets slimy and lacking in vegetables and flavour, pizza gets cheap cheese and who knows what put on it, and bread…
Better not get started on bread. A thousand identical bakeries with different names all sell the same endlessly, sickeningly buttery, sugary, bleached bread with no nutritional value whatsoever, with no whole wheat bread available practically anywhere…
…that’s not to say there are no good restaurants. We’ve found a couple of Indian and Thai restaurants that continually satisfy (more than satisfy). Umm, the gaijin bar TK6 has fish ‘n chips and a good quesadilla... You can go Chinese, but usually those restaurants are suspiciously Japanese seeming. Let’s see… well, yeah, curry has become quite popular, so it’s not to difficult to get tasty curry. But if you want to broaden your horizons beyond that, you really have to dig. Yea, I’ve been spoiled by the endless variety of restaurants at arm’s reach in Vancouver. We’re going to try a Turkish place tonight for the first time… maybe I’m being too hard on Sapporo’s options. I definitely have to search more.

Oh, did I mention that restaurants and bars and coffee shops all leave you stinking like smoke? I know most places in the world don't have the smoking ban from back home, but it would be nice if the restaurants at least had ventilation. Sometimes for kicks they have a separate, sealed room with high tech air modifiers; but usually the air is thick with smoke.

That’s the thing, if the Japanese decide to do something, they will do it precisely, and with baubles. Rituals formalize every interaction. Food aesthetics are incredible. Cell phone technology is amazing. The department stores are vast and boggling. People are all made up to look like people in pictures.
However, the problem is that once something is done a certain way, things are very slow to change. [I know, change is hard for everybody, hence QWERTY keyboards.] Japan was slow to take broadband internet, even though it is supposed to lead the world in technology. Offices still don’t use email, because of the importance of hand-stamping every document. Banks close at 3pm, ATM’s close in the evening, there’s no interact or POS debit, there’s no online banking. As for food, there has been little fusion. Foreign and Japanese foods have not created new ways of cooking or new delights; old ways of cooking stand side by side. And it is enough to offer mediocre foreign food, because it is the option of foreign food that counts, not the quality of that food.
Furthermore, if something is not officially labeled as important, it doesn’t exist. I’m thinking especially of the awful aesthetics of the cities here, which I’ve mentioned before. Cities are admirably free of litter (especially considering the dearth of trashbins and the amount of disposable packaging from all food products), but trashy all the same. Since the depression, government-led construction has placed no importance whatsoever on aesthetics. Brutalist, megalithic apartment buildings marr ever city. Hodgepodge houses that seem to lack even individual coherence fill the residential areas. Hideous pachinko parlors are far more frequent than those beautiful temples you see in magazines. It has been decided that temples should be clean and beautiful. It has not been decreed that cities should be nice to look at, therefore, they’re ugly (-I hyperbolize, but not without some basis).
Oh, another example would be domestic violence and spousal abuse. Until very recently no thought was given to the topic whatsoever. It wasn’t reported, it didn’t exist. If anything, a degree of abuse was expected. With their penchant for focusing on catchy engrish borrowings, the term ‘D, V’ eventually crept into public discourse. So, now, even though some people might not know what D, V stands for in English, awareness of domestic violence is slowly increasing. It is now something that people are officially allowed to talk about, so it exists. From the sounds of it, though, police still often refuse to intervene in households that report abuse. Old ways are best…
Unbelievable amounts of polluting energy and materials are created in packaging food and all products. Millions of disposable chopsticks are used everyday. These areas haven’t been taken into consideration in widespread conservation rhetoric. Nobody thinks about it. They haven't been told to consider these things wasteful.
Then there’s that whole whaling thing…

Close mindedness is reinforced in a lot of ways.
Japanese spend a lot of time reading (highly literate population) and learning about the outside world. From what I can tell, though, the focus is the outside world’s wars and turmoil. The world is painted as an unsure and unsafe place. Perhaps that is why people only sneak quick getaways, or rather excursions. Few people travel extensively, few people live abroad. Few people consider the possibility of living elsewhere. It is better only to borrow from abroad, and stay at home.
Only Japan is safe and consistent. Furthermore, Japan is… enough. It already does things properly and has everything you could want. Why go any where else?
Above all, Japan is ‘different.’ I constantly hear people speaking of things that are only done in Japan, or are characteristically Japanese, even if neither is true. Evolutionary theory struggled to gain footing here – surely Japanese people are different? Common sense once dictated that AIDS couldn’t be contracted by a Japanese person, because it wasn’t a ‘Japanese disease.’
The same thinking (and coincidental legislation) continues to make it impossible for immigrants to feel like true citizens. No matter how long you’ve lived here, you still have to get your fingerprints checked at customs. Because you’re not Japanese (pretty sure… should probably double check that factoid).
The same thinking allows the government to keep spending money to bring in foreign ALT’s, who are essentially fancy, expensive baubles of foreigness to be safely monitored, touched and gaped at by students, and then sent home. ALT’s rarely acquire the respect of an equal, because we are rarely given responsibility and full trust. We are here partly to teach, mostly to simply be specimens of difference.

Music consists of mass-produced, thoughtless J-Pop, which inserts non-sense snippets of English at random. Alternative music is more J-Pop. People will speak with a twinkle-in-eye about the group with the most staying power (money, records, products, appearances everywhere) over the last decade, SMAP, a fabricated pretty-boy group with no distinctive talent. SMAP, indeed.

TV, despite the cool hair styles in anime, is cheap in the low-quality way. For kicks, people watch cheap Korean dramas instead. News is high-pitched and vacuous (you can tell just by looking at it) with video-journalism that mimics the cheap dramas.

Sapporo is really cold (Now I am just whining.) in the winter and humid in the summer. The city crews continually turn the streets into a deathtrap by not clearing away enough snow, or clearing too much and instead packing down razor thin or foot-thick sheets of ice all over the roads.

Homogeneity. There are few variations in hair, eyes, build, dress and life backstory. Yes, despite this Japanese people do all look different, and have completely distinct faces and identities. And they are beautiful people (and ugly, etc.) However, the people don’t look as different and interesting as different people from different races all put together in the same place. I’m not saying I miss being surrounded by white people, or people of my heritage, because I don’t particularly. I miss being surrounded by a variety of people with different faces and backgrounds, different stories to tell.

I have no summary to bring all these things together into one cohesive comment on Japan. I wouldn’t want to. Again, this is an incomplete list of things I don’t enjoy about this place, I could probably add more. It is extremely subjective, limited in evidence, culturally ignorant, at times exaggerated. Nonetheless, I didn’t write any of this out of the blue just for complaint’s sake. All of it has some experiential basis, however flawed.

It is most of all incomplete in the sense that this post lacks the “Pros” column. For the most part, I am positive about my surroundings. For the most part, I take blame for any dissatisfaction with my situation, while I am thankful to my situation when it brings me happiness – and that negative self-criticism and positive diffusion of credit is very Japanese of me. There are heaps of reasons why this is a good place, and I continue to discover these reasons.

1 comment:

Helen said...

Thanks for the honesty of this post. Glad to hear that I'm not the only one who dislikes the superficial "cuteness" of Asian, particularly Japanese, culture. It's best exemplified by the annoying peace sign, head tilt, and fake smile often seen in pictures. But also the endless perfect plastic packaging of things such as food that is so characteristic of Japanese products. And I also appreciated the thoughtful discussion of the absurdity of a backward sexist culture in a wealthy, first-world country. I'm a big proponent of old-fashioned etiquette. However, politeness should be a sign of respect for other people and oneself and manners should be a way of making people feel comfortable in common situations, not a way of hiding behind meaningful relationships and true intimacy.

I need to read your blog more often! Good luck with everything!