That “Mattari” Feeling…
Why Today’s Japanese Don’t Want to Go Overseas
It’s been ages since young people filled with desire to succeed left Japan’s shores seeking a happy life overseas. Having spent over two-thirds of my life so far outside Japan working in journalism and the print media, I clearly sense — via information on the web and as a gut feeling.– that the Japanese populace is firmly ensconced in an “introvert mode” as the 21st century “global age” unfolds. Leaving statistical and sociological studies of Japanese immigration trends vis-a-vis Canada to the academic experts, what would be the best way to describe that pervasive “this is the most comfortable place to be” smugness one can sense even on brief visits to Japan?
Recently, popular author Mariko Kobayashi touched on the reason why the Japanese these days don’t want to travel abroad much in her weekly column (Sh?kan Bunshun, 12/11/09). According to a “well-known critic” she quotes, those Japanese who go overseas these days are accosted by locals who call out “ni hao,” recalling that they used to call out “konnichiwa” in the old days. Orientals out walking the city streets on foreign shores today are mostly Chinese and Koreans. Not only are today’s Japanese unwilling to travel as tourists, they don’t want to go overseas to study either. The above-mentioned critic used to write letters of recommendation for students going to universities overseas, but he hasn’t written a single one “for several years now.”
Ms Kobayashi notes that overseas trips by young Japanese have decreased by as much as 35% over the last decade, and that magazines targeting young readers nowadays feature hot spring resorts and great dining spots in Japan, rather than overseas destinations. While editing an in-flight magazine for a Singapore airline company in the early 90s, I remember observing Japanese travel magazines and tourist guidebooks flooding the market fold up one after the other.
Why don’t young Japanese these days want to venture out? Some say it’s because of the economic downturn but then, the Japanese were generally poorer in the old days. The columnist concludes that people would rather go to a hot-spring resort inside Japan where they can relax feeling “mattari.” Having apparently entered general usage about five years ago, the word “mattari” is nowadays even used by elementary school kids. It was originally a mimetic word in the Kyoto dialect meaning “mellow (maroyaka) to the palate, languidly spreading throughout one’s mouth.” (translated from Japanese Wikipedia). Through association, it has evolved into an adverb “expressing a state or feeling of calm relaxation.” How quintessentially Japanese it is! It certainly does describe the current Japanese zeitgeist to a T.
Having entered general usage due to the popularity of the “gourmet manga” series “Oishinbo” back in 1983, ‘mattari” came to be used as an expression of a person’s mood or attitude in the popular animation series “Ojarumaru” that started in ’98. As “Ojarumaru,” the central character who time-travels back to the elegant life of the Heian period nobility used “mattari” to describe their relaxed lifestyle, children picked it up. It is arguably the forerunner of such contemporary trends as the “slow life” lifestyle and “iyashikei (things that give comfort).”
When I asked Ms R, a Japanese university student who’s staying with us to take a short-term English proficiency course, she said students nowadays “don’t want to do anything risky” including going overseas. It’s better to take a leisurely bath or something and enjoy that “mattari” feeling, they would say to each other. But when they see someone who’s motivated and pro-active, they would remark “I wish I was more like her/him.”
In the case of Ms R, her language course in Canada is a compulsory part of her curriculum, so she cannot claim to have come here “on her own initiative.” She said she admired those of her classmates who had come to study English in Canada on their own. And Japanese students generally share a sense of being outdone by the Chinese and Korean students who seem much more pro-active and outgoing.
Given the prevalent trend in Japan today, those who venture overseas to try and realize their “dreams,” or goals they’ve set for themselves, make for a rare and potentially valuable breed. I met one such young man at a recent Kiy?kai business lunch. We didn’t have much time to talk, but I learned that he came here recently to try and spread knowledge about alternative energy sources like solar batteries and fuel cells and eventually launch a business importing such items. One of his impressive credentials is that several years ago, he flew a small solar powered airplane across the North American continent from California to North Carolina. Mr B said he planned to bring over his wife and kids, whom he left behind in Japan, as soon as possible. Although I’ve only just made his acquaintance, I have to wish the good-natured Mr B. success.
Although my personal contacts with members of the Nikkei/ij?sha community are rather limited due to other commitments, I occasionally come across when surfing the net moving accounts of fellow Japanese immigrants who have come over with their “dreams” and steadily worked to achieve the life they were seeking in various fields of endeavour.
Be that as it may, do Japanese people have to live within the borders of Japan in order to feel “mattari”? I looked for some corresponding word that would aptly sum up the expansive, laid-back Canadian ethos, and came up with “yuttari (unhurried, calm, comfortable, etc.).” Feeling-wise, an episode which gave me the biggest thrill of my 12 years of life in Vancouver so far comes to my mind. As I was driving southward across Burrard Bridge one summer evening, I noticed that the sunset in the wide open sky before me was particularly beautiful Captivated by the sight, I unwittingly slowed down to about 40 k.p.h. from my usual speed of about 60 over the bridge. So I quickly checked other cars to my right and left, and found that they had also slowed down. Everyone seemed to be going “wow!” at the spectacle of clouds near and far in multi-shades of pink and orange. In Tokyo, Hong Kong or Singapore, any driver looking up entranced at a beautiful sky would likely cause an accident.
Come over and feel “yuttari” in Canada, then create your own “mattari” space to your liking. Then you can enjoy both “yuttari” and “mattari” at the same time. I wonder if such a pitch would entice more people to come over?
As we celebrate this season of festivities from Christmas/Hannukah to O-Sh?gatsu with its fair share of socializing, it would be nice if we could have an occasion or two, however modest, to entertain language students and other Japanese who have just come to Canada.
Many thanks to all you readers for visiting this column this year. Have a Happy New Year (whether with or without ozoni)!