Friday, December 17, 2010


That's Japanese for "miscellany," or so Google tells me, and who would know better? I have quite a lot of odds and ends left to report from my trip to Japan, though I've been home for nearly two weeks and will be flying to Canada on Sunday (weather-gods willing).

Many of the oddities that one notices in Japan are social, differences in the way people move and behave within society. Social space and touch are prime examples of this. All humans (at least in large cities) project an "I am alone" field when they are forced into close proximity with strangers. It's what lets you share a park bench with somebody without having to hear their life's story (garrulous drunks and Forrest Gump not withstanding). These fields are different between Westerners (by which I principally mean Anglo-Saxons) and the Japanese. Our fields say "You are not really here, you cannot touch me. I am safe." Japanese fields say "I am not really here, I will not touch you. You are safe."

Body contact is another prime example. We all know from films that the Japanese bow constantly, instead of touching, and that is actually true. The Westerner in an interacting group of Japanese (at a store, for example) is reminded sometimes of a flock of pigeons all nodding and ducking at each other. The depth of the bow is significant and finely calibrated: whether from the head or shoulders or upper body or waist; whether a subtle nod or a full right-angled bend. When I saw what I presumed to be the first presentation of a new boyfriend to the girl's parents, they bent about 30° from the shoulders, but he bent stiffly from the waist, and went so far down that his head nearly bumped the table. The opposite is also surely true: that one can express a subtle but biting snub in giving a shallower bow than is appropriate. It strikes me that the Japanese have a far greater bodily facility for expressing social relations (for want of a word), there isn't nearly that much variety in handshakes even if you count the doublehanded or biceps-clasping options.

I was never on a subway train in central Tokyo in rush hour so I didn't experience the "pushers" who force people onto the trains, but buses and subway in Kyoto were dense enough. There too, social space is very different. The Japanese differentiate between intentional and accidental touching, in a way that we don't. The head-to-toe all-around full-body contact that you get when 50 extra people get on to a bus that was already overfull by my German standards, is perfectly acceptable in Japan. Because it's inevitable and in a way impersonal, it doesn't count as contact. As a consequence, it's acceptable to push your way quite forcefully between people to get on or off of a bus.

There would have been bloodshed on a New York city (or German) bus before it got to 80% of the density that I rode home from Ginkaku-Ji in, because we don't distinguish between somebody deliberately pressing against us and somebody who is forced against us by the people behind them: after a certain point, it's all offensive to us.

But intentional touching is taboo in Japan, whereas we allow it (depending on context and the bit that gets touched and what we infer to be the toucher's motives). I realized this on the bus, after it started to empty out. At one point we went around a corner at speed and hit a pothole. The bus rocked and a schoolgirl near me staggered and started to fall. I reached out to catch her, then stopped myself in time. She recovered, simply bumping into her friends who simply stood still and broke her fall. I'm sure that she would have been shocked and offended if I'd grabbed her arm, whereas a German or Canadian would not. They would understand that I acted to save them from harm, and would be pleased and grateful.

I'm afraid I mislead you when I stated that Japanese is read from right to left. That is not generally true. Normally Japanese is read from left to right, so the streaming-text signs in the Shinkansen were correct. The exception to this is fascinating. Single-horizontal-line Japanese is read right-to-left when it is a religious inscription in a temple or shrine! The reason for this is that the inscription is visualized as an entire page of text (which is read in top-to-bottom columns, from the right margin to the left), and the single line of characters represents the first character of each column of that conceptual page. So you read at the right margin a column of one character, then move left and read the next column, and so on.

Somebody commented on an earlier post (perhaps in the bowdlerized version under my real name on Faecesbook) that the Japanese are very ecologically-minded, and in regard to water usage that may be true; though paradoxically water is one of the few natural resources that are not scarce in Japan. They have a very different attitude to paper, wood and plastics. Take as an example the little moist hand-wiper towelettes that we typically know from airplanes. Almost all restaurants and cafes in Japan will give you one of those before your meal or snack. I gradually became very uncomfortable with this because of the huge amount of waste it generates. Consider: The wrapper weighs say one gramme, so each thousand people who use one generate a kilo of plastic waste. The population is 127 million, and let's say that on average every fourth person uses one a day; this is probably a low estimate since I was given up to five of them per day. That adds up to 32 tonnes of plastic waste every day, just from the wrapping around moist hand-wipers. Factor in the towelette itself, plus the meta-packaging that those packets are shipped in, plus the carbon cost of delivering the packages and collecting the waste … I don't see how that can be sustainable, or why this status quo should be maintained.

Disposable (wooden!) chopsticks are another example. I read that twenty-five billion pairs of them are used and thrown away every year, "enough wood to build 17,000 houses" it says in the Lonely Planet guide (which by the way I can recommend). How many trees per day does that equate to? I got sick of that almost instantly, and bought a rather nice pair of chopsticks and a carrying case, and earned amused and curious glances by producing them in restaurants for the rest of my stay.

It's getting too cold to type (the boiler/central heating unit is being replaced as I write) so I will post this and update it later on.

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Blogger Zhoen said...

Interesting observations. The "you are safe" vibe, plus the impersonal contact on a crowded train, doesn't completely jibe with the problem women there have with being groped and assaulted on subways.

Shoving on the subway on Game Days in Boston was also acceptable, with only clueless tourists taking it amiss.

I'd have trouble with the bowing, as bad backs make this an unhappy motion.

December 27, 2010 at 2:43:00 a.m. GMT+1  

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