A few years ago I found myself in conversation with a visiting American. A visiting liberal American. A visiting liberal American geek who had found himself locked up with his Japanese colleagues for the previous three days and was showing signs of mental fatigue.
We were standing outside a church in Roppongi, an entertainment district notorious for foreigners behaving badly. We were sober. He looked me straight in the eye and gushed, “I’m so glad to find another American! Someone who understands individuality! Independence! Freedom!”
By this time I had been living in Japan for more than a decade. I’d had 28 years of American individuality and one day decided to spend the rest of my life conspicuous as a sore thumb in the capital of conformity, so I sold all my stuff and moved to Tokyo.
Over the years the inscrutable became scrutable, which means “capable of being understood through study and observation; comprehensible” and is derived from the Latin word scrutabilis (searchable). I searched by means of immersing myself in Japanese society — learning the language, marrying a native and being a productive and participating member of various groups (family, company, neighborhood).
And reading. Kerr, Van Wolferen, Clarke, Holland … Bull, Marx, Loco, Abiko.
But mostly talking, shooting the shit with colleagues and neighbors. Conversations like “Hey, how do you Americans deal with such and such an issue?” I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I do this and that. “Eh?! I do something similar.”
My philosophy is a form of anonymity. By this I mean that I place priority on the most common denominator — our humanness — and seek to attract passively rather than actively promote myself. The search is for common ground and not for the differences that can divide. I adopted this philosophy while living in the USA! USA! USA! To date it has served me well in Japan because it forces me to look beyond the branding, to scrutinize.
I work in media. I edited a newspaper for a dozen years, and know the value of a good headline. I now work in PR, and craft some eye-catching headlines for client press releases. Media is a commodity to be sold and the headlines must entice an increasingly overwhelmed consumer. We know what works, which well has the sweetest water. So we go back to that well frequently. Well water is sweet to the undiscriminating reader, bitter to those of us who have tasted mountain springs.
Our Man in Abiko nails most of my pet peeves about foreign media coverage of Japan in his new ebook, How to Write About Japan. Buckets of brackish well water that stink of conformity (nails to be hammered down) and queerness (panty vending machines). A burqa is an illegal is a salaryman.
He does not touch on the role played by the Japanese national marketing collective in perpetuating certain stereotypes, which is unfortunate because that’s a topic deserving of scrutiny. Using four dozen nubile schoolgirls to promote Cool Japan isn’t the most progressive approach to national branding.
Nor do I completely agree with his comparing coverage of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident to a Hollywood Western, but that’s a minor issue. In the main, he … erm … strikes the nail squarely on the head. To quote a frat brother, “Scrutiny, people! Scrutiny!”
[Mea culpa: After publishing this post, I had an exchange on Facebook with a Japan-based journalist whom I have known professionally for several years, and who asked if the foreign media is treated as a monolith in Our Man's book. My answer was "Our Man does not distinguish between reporters who get it and those who don't - and arguably makes the mistake of practicing that which he rails against."]
As for the American in Roppongi … I knew not how to make him see the light, so I left him in the dark. And he was content.
Read more about Our Man in Abiko here: http://www.ourmaninabiko.com/
Or follow his hijinks on Twitter: @ourmaninabiko
Boy Named “Who?”
Baba Suzuki: Hello, dear. Where you off to today?
Baba Nuki: Heading to the bank again, you know.
Baba Suzuki: He’s not in trouble AGAIN?!
Baba Nuki: Well (sigh) boys will be boys.
Baba Suzuki: But so soon after the last time! I hate to be a busybody, dear, but if he were my son I’d lay down the law.
Baba Nuki: I know, I know. But, you know how it is – I’m alone in the house, no family to speak of . . . whatever his faults at least he calls.
Baba Suzuki: Yes, yes . . . can’t recall the last time my Taro rang me up, let alone brought the family over for a visit. With my husband gone, I’d go crazy if I didn’t have the bridge club, the flower arrangement classes, the tea ceremony society, the garbage pickers collective, the titanium tea cozy knitting circle, the neighborhood gossip website, the coupon counterfeiter’s confab, the . . .
Baba Nuki: Yes, dear, you’re quite right. We risk dementia if we spend the twilight years puttering about the house muttering to the dust bunnies.
Baba Suzuki: That’s right.
Baba Nuki: Which is why I don’t begrudge him his cornucopia of faults.
Baba Suzuki: And he has many, from what you’ve told me: He’s unemployable, addicted to gambling, a womanizer, a terrible driver . . .
Baba Nuki: Yes. Yes. Mm-hmm. Yes.
Baba Suzuki: What is it this time?
Baba Nuki: Another accident.
Baba Suzuki: Oh dear! Was anyone hurt? You know he’s maimed . . . how many has he maimed?
Baba Nuki: 73 I think . . . of course, that’s not including the 36 from today.
Baba Suzuki: Thirty-six!! And you’re so calm!
Baba Nuki: It was a hen house, you see.
Baba Suzuki: Oh, thank GOD! I was . . . you know . . . 36! That’s quite a number!
Baba Nuki: And then, of course, there are the eggs . . . all 144,000 of them.
Baba Suzuki: Well, at least he’s got a good lawyer. He’s never set foot in prison, has he?
Baba Nuki: Not one single day, dear.
Baba Suzuki: The next time you see him, you should really lay down the law.
Baba Nuki: See him? Oh, I’ve never even met him. In fact, I can’t remember giving birth to him, but . . .
Baba Suzuki: YOU WHAT?!
Baba Nuki: I’ve racked my brain, but I just don’t recall that. Truth be told, I don’t even know his name!
Baba Suzuki: YOU WHAT?!
Baba Nuki: He just called me up one day out of the blue: “Mama, it’s me. I’m in trouble. If I don’t get a million yen they’ll throw me in jail!” And I figured a no good, deadbeat son is better than nothing at all . . .
SK: He’s the one, officer … that’s the offender!
PO: Uh, excuse me.
PO: Sorry to bother you …
TP: That’s alright. I’ve got a few measures of rest ahead of me. How can I help you?
PO: Well, Shiroi Kutsushita-san here says you’ve been interfering with his campaigning.
TP: I can’t imagine how, officer.
SK: Ooh, that’s rich! Playing dumb, eh?
TP: Actually, it’s Beethoven.
SK: You’ve been hounding me daily, you … you …
PO: Now, now, sir. Settle down, please.
SK: … you tedious percussionist!
TP: Excuse me for a second. Ting-ting-ta-ting-g-g …
SK: Every day this week, I’ve come to this station to campaign. And every single day, I’ve turned on my megaphone only to find this … this tempestuous tin-eared twit trying to drown me out. And that’s not the worst of it, you know …
PO: Hold on, now. Is that true, sir?
SK: … he’s subtly subversive!
TP: In so far as I’ve shown up to play at the station every day, yes, it is. But, it’s a free world, isn’t it? I’ve as much right to play Beethoven’s Pastoral as he does to harangue us with his megaphone, do I not?
SK: Beethoven my bum! It’s Morse Code! He’s encoding his insults, tapping them out on that triangle!
PO: To answer your question, sir, I believe Shiroi Kutsushita-san has License to Harangue. Isn’t that right, sir?
SK: … but I was a Boy Scout, you know. I can … I’m sorry, officer, what was that?
PO: Sir, you’ve got a license, do you not?
SK: Oh, yes. From police headquarters … umm … ah … here it is: License to Harangue-Political. Now then …
PO: See what I’m saying, sir? He’s got the right to assault our ears with banal political theorizing and empty promises, whereas you’ve got nothing that allows you, for whatever reason, to play Beethoven in a public place.
TP: Ting-ting-ting-ting-ta-ting-g-g-g …
PO: I’ll have to ask you to put down that triangle.
SK: Did you hear that?! He’s insulting my socks!
TP: Officer, couldn’t I … couldn’t you give me a special dispensation or something? I mean … well … the Morse Code allegation aside, it’s true I’ve been using Beethoven to make a political statement …
SK: White socks and dark suits, on the other hand, are a fashion statement: I’m no elitist! I’m common!
PO: Why didn’t you say so? I’ve got a spare license right here. Hold on a sec. Scritch scritch-scritch. If you’d just sign it there …
SK: What the hell are you doing!?
TP: Scritch scritch. How’s that?
PO: Splendid. Zwiiit! Here you go. Have fun.
TP: Right. Thank you.
SK: You can’t be serious!
TP: Hoo-hooo, I’ve never been more serious.
SK: I think I’ll quit the race just to spite you.
TP: Ooh, do your worst, buddy! Hit me where it really hurts!
He Ain’t Heavy. He’s Your Problem
“Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly” — Thomas Jefferson
“This is Japan.” — Motto, Ministry of Arbitrary Democracy
(Silence … )
Is this the Ministry of Arbitrary Democracy’s Troublesomeness Clarification Center?
Uh … I … uh … I have a question.
Uh … you see … I’m with the Uetake Police Department … uhh … and we seem to have misplaced some evidence … uhh … and I was wondering: Is it worth the trouble to try and track it down?
Pro or Per?
Uh … Excuse me?
Harumph! PRO-fessional opinion or PER-sonal opinion? Which?
Uh … uh, gosh, I … Professional … I mean “Pro.” The Pro would be …
What about the Per …
Chutzpah! “Too troublesome.”
Could you explain the reasoning behind your …
That’s Explanations. Hold.
(Silence. After 20 minutes, a recorded voice: “Apparently you don’t get it. Press 1.”)
(Silence … )
Is this the Ministry of Arbitrary Democracy’s Troublesomeness Clarification Center’s Explanation Line?
Well, could you explain the replies I received from the first consultant I spoke with. He said …
He said: “Too troublesome.”
Yes … yes, that’s right. What did he mean by that?
Pro or Per?
(Deep breath) Professionally speaking inability to recover lost evidence means lost face so best to doctor books or blame lab technician or whatever you come up with since we’re not in business of explaining obvious to every nincompoop who can’t think for himself now go away and never call us again.
I didn’t quite get that. Could you … Click!
They’ve erected a memorial to unfortunate moderns who’ve met their makers through their mobiles. The Cenotaph for Cellular Casualties is located on a tiny bit of parkland in the shade of the expressway running through Akihabara – Tokyo’s shrine to high technology. It’s made of some composite material or another, and shaped like an open cell phone in the palm of a large hand. The vertical, three-foot-high LCD display meets the equally large cantilevered keypad at an angle of 135 degrees. So very ergonomic.
It’s a morally precise memorial. If you died by your own hand and took no one else with you, then you can be transformed into bits of data and committed to memory. No chatting drivers or preoccupied pilots, thank you.
It’s also an interactive memorial. The touchpad allows you to scroll through the ever-swelling list of names. Make your selection, and a digital rendering of the dearly departed is displayed. You are allowed to offer virtual incense and a personal message. Now clutch your cell phone and bow three times.
Before you go, why not request a requiem from iTunes? Or perhaps a bouquet of CG carnations? These will have to suffice for the time being, since Nirvana’s outside the service area.
Responsibility for the memorial rests with the Society for Promoting Proper Mobile Phone Manners, which was established to assuage the guilt of the mobile communications industry. The grant from the cell phone sector is supplemented by a condolence charge assessed on every c-mail sent. It’s a very small charge. They say it’ll be phased out in a year or two.
The day I visited the cenotaph, several society members were updating the Dearly Departed Database. Here are a few examples:
Noriko S. (1985-2011) – She walked off Yokohama Station’s Platform 2 and into the path of an express train while reading her c-mail. The fateful message from a friend: “I think I’m constipated again.”
Ai T. (1982-2011) – Trampled at the Boston Marathon after wandering in front of the starting line while talking to her mother in Kawasaki. The costly conversation: “Can you hear me? You can? I can’t believe the clarity . . . BANG! . . . RUSH! . . . Ahhhh . . . beeeeeeeeep!”
Teruo R. (1986-2011) – Construction worker who walked off a beam into eternity while engrossed in a riveting c-mail exchange with his buddy. Highlights: “Really?” “Really.” “You mean it?” “Really!” “I don’t believe it!” “Really! It’s true!” “Really??” . . .
So young. So absorbed. So long!
If you’re ever in Akihabara, why not pay your respects to those submerged by modernity’s neap tide? Meantime, mind your manners.
Art of Noise
Police commander: Item No. 25 — Mrs. Yamamoto phoned again this morning. Apparently that foreigner over in Jindai-ji 1-chome still hasn’t replaced the battery in his bicycle lamp. Saito, Ohta — that’s your turf, isn’t it?
Officer Saito: Sir!
Officer Ohta: Yes sir! We’re on it, sir!
PC: Mrs. Yamamoto’s phoned three times now — I don’t want to have to mention it again.
Officers Saito & Ohta: Sir! Yes, sir!
PC: Which brings us to our final item — the new Law Against Excessive Noise from Motorcycle Exhaust Pipes. Any questions?
Officers: … … …
PC: None? C’mon, now … someone must …
Officer Saito: Sir!
Officer Saito: Sir! This is … umm … well, it could be construed as being … uh, a Zen koan, sir, but … umm, exactly how loud is “loud?”
PC: That’s spelled out in detail in the law.
Officer Saito: Well, umm, you see, sir … uh, I think you’d agree that as far as maintenance of public order and respect for the police is concerned, strict adherence to the letter of the law can often be, umm, counterproductive.
PC: What are you getting at?
Officer Ohta: Sir! I believe Officer Saito is trying to say that certain, umm, “radical elements” among the general public may misinterpret our intentions if we were to be overexuberant in our implementation of the new law.
PC: Spit it out, dammit!
Officer Saito: Sir! Ohta means … you know …
Officer Ohta: Sir! The motorcycle gangs. I … umm … I believe they’re known as “speed tribes.”
Officer Saito: They appear at night, impeding the flow of traffic as they crawl down the road, revving their engines, swerving in front of cars, swinging pipes, chains, and other weapons …
PC: I know what the hell they are!
Officer Saito: Sir! Forgive the impudence, sir!
PC: I also know that sometimes a free society has to take action that may be distasteful to some members. Such action is taken with a higher purpose in mind.
Officers Saito & Ohta: Sir!
PC: In this case, the higher purpose is avoiding a bone-crushing battle royale.
Officers Saito & Ohta: Sir?!
PC: You see, one man’s violent, drug-fueled street gang is another man’s troupe of performance artists. Personally, I’d say … Let … Them … Be.
Everyone: Hurrah! (Pandemonium ad infinitum)
Officer Saito: (Reinvigorated) C’mon, Ohta — we’ve got a lampless bicycle to track down …
This post is slightly dated (Morning Musume instead of AKB48), but aside from the names the situation remains unchanged.
DJ: … everybody out there in Radioland! Subarashii tenki desu neeeee … Fantastic weather! So c’mon, people — issho ken mei … Let’s celebrate radio life! Tsugi wa kyou no Big No. 1 Hit: Morning Musume’s “Identikit Idiots” …
Radio: “Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, tra-la-la ka-ching/Tra-la-la la-la-la-la tra-la-la ka-ching”
DJ: (pururu … pururu …) Yo! You’ve reached DJ Johnny Roppongi! What’s up, baybeee?
Listener: Umm … yeah … uhh …
DJ: Hakkiri itte kudasai! Hey man, no time. Spit it out, baybee!
Radio: “Some people say we’re ubiquitous, obnoxious, and obtuse/But we keep raking in the cash, all because of youse”
Listener: Can you play “What’s It All About” by The Alfee?
DJ: Eh? Nan no uta? That song: What is it?
Listener: The Alfee’s “What’s It All About.”
DJ: Gomen! I’m sorry — it’s not on the Top 40 list!
Radio: “Our cookie-cutter concept yields hit after hit song/Add overexposure on TV — how can we go wrong”
Listener: But it was No. 6 last week!
DJ: Eh? Senshuu tte? You’re talking about the Cretaceous Period, baybee …
Listener: I’ve called every station in Tokyo — nobody’s got it any longer.
DJ: Tokyo dewa … Welcome to Top 40 paradise!
Radio: “You’d think we’d get fed up with our manager’s marketing ploys/He’s pulling in the millions while for us it’s wierdo boys”
Listener: But … but … last week, you know?
DJ: Hey — the times, they are a changeling! Here today, ashita wa gone, baybee. Hayame ni … Hurry up let’s embrace Top 40 reality!
Listener: But it was an instant classic!
DJ: (regular voice) Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Come now … you know there’s no such thing as “classic pop,” and pop’s all you get in Japan.
Listener: The Carpenters! Abba!
DJ: The Japanese obsession with those groups is a completely different issue. In fact, it’s a disease. What we’re talking about is marketing! You want The Alfee? Go buy the single!
Listener: Sigh …
Radio: “Tra la la, tra-la-la, tra-la-la ka-ching/Tra-la-la la-la-la-la tra-la-la ka-ching/Tra-la-la … “
DJ: (back in character) Sorry baybee … tsugi no uta … time for the next song (click!) Riiight everybody! Morning Musume no big new smash! Okaaay … coming up it’s hot new boy group, News. Kono uta wa subarashii … a funky hit: “No! News Is Good News!”
Radio: “Fun-fun-funky! Fun-fun-funky! Fun-fun-funky! Ka-ching! … “
From: H. Soranai, Minister, Boundless Enthusiasm
To: P. Fuusen-Bana, Prime Minister
Re: Japanese Yen for Bowing
Hoping that the recent week-long spell of drizzly, overcast skies hasn’t dampened your enthusiasm for reform, I’d like to report the development of a new program that, amazingly enough, will disperse several threatening thunderheads at one time. It is the silver lining to the clouds on the horizon, a silver lining that may very well turn into a gold mine.
A number of critically important issues are presently confronting the nation, including a prolonged recession, rapidly aging society, struggling health care system, expanding ranks of unemployed and temporary workers, and shrinking consumption. We at the MBE believe, in all seriousness, that a concerted effort to stamp out bowing among the aged is the answer.
Informal research has revealed that the typical pensioner bows 47 times when greeting an acquaintance on the street; this figure balloons to 72 times when the same pensioner is dealing with an authority figure (doctor, local bureaucrat, etc.). Recognizing that old folks tend to have a greater number of acquaintances, make more visits to hospitals/clinics/municipal facilities, and are generally more polite than younger people, and understanding that the population is graying at an inexorable pace, it is safe to conclude that we have a major crisis on our hands. The impact on the health care system of the coming epidemic in slipped disks and other related ailments will be staggering.
Rather than forcing the older members of society to isolate at home – a politically untenable proposal – we at the MBE propose the introduction of designated bowers. These young people would be gleaned from the ranks of the unemployed/underemployed, receive training at world-famous brand-name boutiques, and then auctioned off to the highest bidder, who will pay in advance for a set period of service.
The pensioners will benefit 1) by preserving their fragile hips and backbones and 2) from the prestige gained by having a Louis Vuitton Garcon at their beck and call. And do you think the neighbors will be happy with WalMart Bart? That’s right: “Tear open the mattress, Michiko, we’re goin’ down to Tiffany’s!”
As for the designated bowers, what better way to prepare for adulthood and its responsibilities than by learning at an early age the value of proper behavior, personal hygiene and the spirit of volunteerism? A simple amendment to the constitution requiring two years of “gratitude service” would effectively eliminate any resistance.
Eagerly awaiting your reply in the affirmative!
This post was inspired by the rush of bank M&As a few years back and the paltry returns on a standard savings account in Japan.
Clerk: Customer number 2024 . . . customer 2024 . . .
Customer No. 2025: He’s passed away.
Clerk: Excuse me?
2025: The old fellow’s died. The medics’ve just wheeled his corpse out.
Clerk: Well, that’s unfortunate. He’d become a familiar face over the last week, waiting patiently for his turn. At this rate, we’ll shortly run out of incense. Oh, well . . . Customer number 2025 . . . cust . . .
2025: That’s me.
Clerk: Welcome to Bishi-Bishi Bori-Bori Bank Corp.’s customer service desk. How can I help you?
2025: What happened to Giri-Giri Bank Corp.?
Clerk: It has now become part of Bishi-Bishi Bori-Bori Bank’s growing family of acquisitions! Welcome to the family!
2025: Where’s my gift?
Clerk: Our gift to you . . . are you ready? Our gift to you is allowing you to maintain your savings account at the same interest rate you enjoyed under Giri-Giri Bank!
2025: A staggering 0.75 percent annually, compounded every three years! I’m dizzy with glee.
Clerk: Then you’d better sit down. Easy now . . . I don’t want two fatalities in the same day . . .
2025: It’s just a figure of speech, you idiot.
Clerk: Sarcasm? I’m shocked; we’re shocked . . . Your resentment is palpable, smothering.
2025: Look here, young fellow – with the processing and ATM charges figured in, I’m actually LOSING money by keeping it in this bank. I want to close the account.
Clerk: What – you mean you haven’t heard about our Debtor Detective program?
2025: Uhh . . . no.
Clerk: Look . . . as the result of our acquisition drive, we’ve acquired a great deal of near useless debt, while our cost-cutting effort has pared our ranks of expensive salaried employees. However, we’ve been able to counter this by mobilizing our greatest asset – old folks such as yourself with plenty of time on their hands and the ability to shame – to track down these deadbeats and collect a percentage of the full amount owed. For every 10 percent increment collected, you stand to earn an extra 0.01 percent annually!
2025: What’s to keep me from simply making off with the moolah?
Clerk: Your sense of personal integrity?
2025: I may have misplaced it.
Clerk: Yet more sarcasm? If you’re not interested . . .
2025: Ease up, now. Just venting a little frustration.
Clerk: Heh-heh. Right. Okay. Just wanted to make sure, you know . . .
2025: Heh-heh. Of course. Heh. Got that list handy?
This post was inspired by the money wasted on useless civic projects and the knuckleheads who design them. Especially those goddamn glockenspiels.
Garrote Ascot here … so it must be … time for … Misunderstood Modernists! Howya doin’, folks? Gee, that’s swell. Got a live one for you today, direct from Shuugu Shuugi Prefecture, where we’ll be talking with Jiseki Jinzou, Civic Beautification Czar for Japan’s most maligned prefecture. Jiseki!
Jiseki! So … Civic Beautification Czar, eh? With a name like Shuugu Shuugi, I suspect worldly modernists such as yourself have a helluva time convincing local yokels that art – did I say “art? — Well, I meant “ART!” — is a many splendored thing?
Not in the least. What I profess, what I propose … these I believe from the bottom of my heart. The Japanese appreciate sincerity. Even more, they have a thirst for things modern, progressive. They empathize with the artist — not only his travails, but also the vision of civic advancement that motivates him …
Hmm, that may be true, but couldn’t the same be said of any advanced culture? What makes Japan so special?
So desu neee … Well, I suppose one could say we Japanese understand the value of “butchers for butchering.”
Inscrutable, indeed! Could you explain that, please?
When you’re ready to slaughter your nice fatted calf, you don’t do it yourself — you go to the butcher. And you don’t deign to offer advice, either: the man’s a professional! Ordinary folks know their place in Japan, but come out with a civic beautification project in the West, and everyone’s got an opinion …
Is this perhaps a veiled reference to your ill-fated “Soybean Selebration Senter” in Springfield, Ill.?
Yes … and what a pity that was. There I was, in the soybean capital of the world, and they couldn’t spare a few dollars to pay homage to the queen bean. We humans can be so petty. It’s shameful, this failure to express gratitude to such an epochal plant.
Apparently, 99 percent of the local population opposed the project …
Well, they thought it best to build a trauma center, outfit the schools with computers …
But, hey — all was not lost!
That’s right. Some visionaries in the prefectural bureaucracy heard about the project, and appointed me Beautification Czar, allowing me to fulfill my dream right here in Shuugu Shuugi …
What better way to reward hardworking taxpayers!
Actually, it’s nothing as impermanent as a reward; rather, it’s a prelude to a long-term educational program aimed at enhancing the link between humans and the environment. We’ll be teaching them what dirt is, how to plant seeds, count beans, slice tofu, dispense soy sauce … and the centerpiece, of course, will be the Soybean Selebration Serenade: a 20-meter-tall, soybean-shaped steel pylon topped with a glockenspiel that sounds whenever a soy product is purchased within Asia.
Gosh, that’s a lot of education! I suppose the locals are head-over-heels enthusiastic …
Well, they really have no idea. You see, they trust us — we’re the professionals, the butchers, so to speak. One sunny morning in the not-too-distant future, though, they’ll wake up to what we’ve done … and won’t they have something to say then!