Editorial: A Canadian Nikkei In Japan
As our family walked through the international arrivals terminal at YVR on our way home from Japan at the beginning of August, my daughter Kaya looked at me and said, “People are so rude in Canada!” As we’d only been back on Canadian soil for 20 minutes or less, the judgement seemed rather harsh, but I knew what she meant.
I remember arriving home after my first trip to Japan in 1982 and having that same feeling—of standing in the middle of a crowded downtown mall and feeling, not exactly frightened, but uneasy . . . unsafe somehow. Which was strange, considering that I was back on familiar ground. I came to realize that after spending some time in Japan, you become accustomed, if only subconsciously, to a certain way of interacting with others, even if they are only strangers on a crowded street. There is a respect for personal space that is perhaps born out of having to live in such close proximity to one another.
Travelling to Japan with my family and Chibi Taiko this summer gave me an opportunity to revisit my early impressions of the country. Because neither Amy nor the girls had been to Japan before, it afforded me a different perspective and I was also better able to sit back and observe the complexities of this fascinating country.
I was more acutely aware this time of the level of civility and politeness in even the most casual interaction, from shopping in a convenience store to renting a cell phone. There is a certain level of formality (you could call it stiffness) that goes along with the politeness that is a bit odd at first, coming from the west, but I soon got used to it. At the same time, I knew that there had to be a price to pay for the almost-excessive politeness that runs through all levels of society. After all, the Japanese are not robots, despite the way they were depicted in western wartime propaganda. More on that later.
Our daughters, who tend towards politeness themselves, found the social environment in Japan very much to their liking (not to mention the plethora of vending machines filled with strange and wonderful drinks, many with aloe in them. I think we figured out later that we spent over $200 on cold drinks). I tried to explain to them that the Japanese way of interacting with one another is built into their upbringing: whereas in the west, individuality and individual achievement is valued, in Japan, it is on how one operates within the group context that one is judged.
We did notice that along with the politeness comes a certain reticence, and that warmth is sometime lacking in interactions, although this is certainly a generalization, not a blanket statement. For instance, the girls developed a strong bond with their homestay family who treated them very warmly.
Another thing that struck us is how clean everything is in Japan. There is absolutely no garbage on the streets. There are also no garbage cans. And the ones that do exist, like in hotel bathrooms, are almost ridiculously tiny. After a while, I came to see this apparent paradox as symbolic of Japan’s distinct “otherness”. It’s not as if no garbage is generated—the Japanese are the masters of packaging, after all—it’s just that it’s not acceptable to leave one’s detritus on the streets or even to leave it in overflowing garbage cans. So where does it go?
Certainly, Japan is a country of contradictions. As a society, it has a set of strictly codified behaviours, yet it is not able to mandate, or even foster, human relationships, as evidenced by a plunging birth-rate. It is almost as if, by throwing all their eggs in one basket (the group over the individual, a premium on work over leisure) as a society they are unable to respond to a changing world, as if the guidelines that make the society work harmoniously are working against its very future. It’s certainly a troubling trend.
Shortly after returning home we had dinner with our friends Richard and Masami to hand out omiyage and catch up on news. Richard has spent some time living in Japan and Masami was brought up there (she told us before we left that the word “no” really has no place in the Japanese language, something I found to be utterly accurate; I never heard the word iie used once, in any situation). As we talked about the social interactions among the Japanese and the apparent cohesiveness of the society, they explained the concept of honne (a person’s true feelings and desires) and tatemae (a person’s public face). Having never heard of this concept before, it was mind-boggling on one hand, but made perfect sense on the other. It also explains the use of alcohol as not simply a social lubricant, but a safety-valve—a way to express one’s feelings without fear of repercussions (another strangely logical concept in a country full of them).
Comedian Russell Peters has a bit where he talks about feeling like he was the most Indian man to walk the earth, that is, until he stepped off the plane in India for the first time, at which time he became entirely Canadian. I have never professed to be the epitome of the Japanese male, but I know what he means—I have never felt so Canadian as when I was in Japan. And having travelled there, I am reminded that while my kids and I share a Japanese heritage through my mother’s side of the family, we are absolutely, indelibly Canadian.
As a side note, while writing this piece I looked up the concept of honne and tatemae on Wikipedia and found this appended to the article. It is a good reminder of the danger of generalizing or taking things at face value.
Danger of culturalism
These concepts of honne and tatemae should be analysed very carefully in order to not fall into the trap of a culturalist vision of Japan and Japanese people, which do not correspond to reality. Indeed, these concepts of tatemae (??)and honne (??) can be linked very easily with Nihonjinron, a point of view which considers Japanese society completely homogeneous, presupposing that the Japanese differ radically from all other known peoples, which is for example the opinion of the author Chie Nakane. A lot of Japanese researchers, for example Yoshihiko Amino or Eiji Oguma, showed that these nationalist visions were just an illusion and tried by their works to deconstruct this concept of homogeneous Nation or the idea that the rules of Japanese society could be understandable just for Japanese people and not for foreigners.