Japan spent more than two centuries shut off from the rest of the world—and it still shows. Henry Tricks, The Economist's Tokyo bureau chief, finds the Edo period still shimmering just under the surface ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010
It is mid-September, the heat is just leaking out of the end of summer, and Japan is enjoying a rare public holiday. A holiday, that is, in the uniquely Japanese sense of the word, which means the GPS hardwired into every citizen is sending thousands upon thousands to the same fashionable boutiques near my home in Tokyo to shop. It is more crowded than a commuter train at rush hour. Policemen shepherd the multitude along the streets with flashing orange batons. Yet there is something peaceful about the way the Japanese drift together in a crowd; they carry a tiny aura of personal space with them, no bigger than one of their Louis Vuitton handbags, and every bit as precious. They hardly touch, like those shoals of translucent fish that dart from one direction to another without colliding. The policemen use their batons like conductors, keeping everything harmonious. But if you try to defy them, those batons will block your way faster than they can say “Dame desu”—which is about as final as “Not on your life.”
Such are the means by which order and harmony are maintained in Japan. There is a deep-rooted respect for others, so ingrained that ground staff at Narita airport bow to departing planes as they taxi to the runway. And there is a subtle coercion, like an invisible hand on society’s collar, based on centuries of ancestor worship that has made many customs immutable. The attitudes have been shaped partly by the physical landscape of Japan, which packs one of the most crowded populations on earth onto narrow plains, bounded by sea and inhospitable mountains. For centuries the main activity has been rice farming, which requires communal planting, weeding, watering and harvesting, rather than the rugged individualism of American and European agriculture.
I have been mesmerised by life here since I arrived a year ago, floating on a wave of adoration of most things Japanese, yet getting in everyone’s way and doing everything wrong. I would jog around the Imperial Palace in a clockwise direction, only to find everyone else running anti-clockwise, bearing down on me as if I didn’t exist. I wore short sleeves in early autumn, and couldn’t work out why, when it was still blazing hot outside, everyone had put on their jackets and ties again. After swimming with dolphins on the island of Mikurajima this summer, my family and I went to a café to have lunch, still in our damp bathing costumes. Our hostess was so livid that at first I thought we must have set the place alight, not left a few damp seats where our bottoms had been. Living as a foreigner in Japan, for all its attractions, has many such small humiliations. You may be on a noble quest to plumb the depths of the Japanese soul, but you will take so many wrong turns you end up wondering whether you are indeed too brutish to make sense of it.
You may also be struck by how few of the locals have a matching interest in you and your culture. That is because it increasingly seems as if the outside world—with its sharper elbows, fattier food and shoddy dress sense—is kept at arm’s length. Fewer young Japanese are travelling abroad, fewer are studying English (this year, the main English-language school went bust), and fewer are taking places at leading academic institutions overseas such as Harvard Business School. Bosses at Japan’s legendary export businesses complain they cannot find youngsters who are prepared to work abroad. Two clever young Japanese friends, just posted to excellent jobs in America, told me that Japan is so comfortable they find it hard to leave.
Yet as those friends are the first to admit, it is a cotton-wool comfort that keeps out alien germs–like the surgical facemasks that many Japanese wear, so at odds with the rest of their perfect attire. To the outsider, it can lend the society an air of feeble vulnerability. At times it is downright maddening. Foreign ATM cards don’t work in most Japanese banks, Japanese movies—even the classics—rented at the ubiquitous Tsutaya video store don’t offer the option of foreign-language subtitles. Japanese mobile-phone technology is so idiosyncratic that analysts talk of “the Galapagos effect”, because it has grown up in a unique eco-system that makes it unsuitable for use anywhere else.
At times it feels as if the outside world does not exist. That can be liberating for an affluent expatriate—outsiders are not held to the same standards of conduct as their Japanese counterparts. Japan is so safe that my children can walk to school alone, and if I lose my wallet I know someone will find it and give it back. Life can be chillingly harsh, though, at the bottom of the social pile. Many Chinese immigrants, known euphemistically as interns, toil in sweatshop conditions in factories. Some have died through overwork. Illegal immigrants, including those with Japanese families, are regularly locked up in jail and deported.