Saturday, March 13, 2010

A good thing about Japan - it's not religious!

Yes, Japan has many good points and I've just remembered one of them!

Japan is not a religious country.

Well, that's not entirely true. A vague but deep sense of superstition pervades the culture. Many people believe in ghosts, spirits, and good luck charms. They will go to a shrine to pray for health, or assistance is passing university exams, or help in getting pregnant.

But their beliefs are not dogmatic. A typical person will cheerfully go to Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple in the same month without seeing a contradiction. Nor is there one. Indeed there is a kind of informal overlap between major religions here...Shinto looks after birth and childhood; you get married in a church with a (usually fake) Christian priest, and your funeral is a Buddhist ceremony. Nobody gets angry. And then, if asked, people will say 'there's probably no God anyway.' I have even read that most Buddhist and Shinto priests don't actually believe in God or an afterlife - it's just a job.

Nobody really takes religious belief seriously here. The conflicts of the Middle East and the ravings of the American Bible Belt are viewed with bemusement or dismay. And best of all, religion has not forced its hypocritical slimy tentacles into government, or education, or morality. Sex doesn't come with the religious guilt it does in the West. You will not go to hell for sleeping with the soccer team - you will just get gossiped about.

The lack of strong religious belief in Japan is one of its best points. Probably contributes to low levels of violence and a general feeling of physical safey.

And I think this is funny:

Friday, March 05, 2010

Japanese Unsatisfactory Answers to Simple Questions


This happens a lot, and is very frustrating. Something comes up, arouses curiousity. You ask why something is the way it is, but the answer you receive...never fails to unimpress, and is so seemingly unconnected with what the real explanation must be that you are left bewildered that such an answer could be given. You gradually begin to realise one important aspect of the bigger picture: Japanese don't ask questions, and if they do, they don't question the answers. They just accept them.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

"Why are there so many vending machines?"

"Because they are very convenient."

Ten for every block? Three selling cigarettes and drinks...outside a 24-hour convenience store?

"Tokyo has 20 million people. Whey don't the trains run 24 hours? It would stimulate the economy."

"They need to do maintenance."

I suspect the limited train hours have more to do with the influence of the taxi industry than maintenace schedules.

"Why does the beach close at the end of August? It's 36 degrees celsius."

"Because it's cold."

Maybe cold has a different meaning in Japanese.

"Why can't I swim at the beach at the bottom of my street?"

"Deep water."

This was the answer I got on my second day of JET. It took 20 minutes of 4 office people looking through dictionaries to come up with it.

"Why can't I teach this class English?"

"Because they are studying for their English test."

The saddest thing is, once you understand the system, this makes perfect sense.

"Why does the principal spend all his time doing the gardening?"

"Because he is very busy."

"Why can't the kids bring food from home?"

"Because they can't bring food from home"

"Why do I have to carry this gaijin card around with me?"

"Because many foreigners are criminals."

That makes me feel great

"Why do Japanese people spend so much time at the office?"

"Yes, it's difficult."

And my favourite:

"Why did Japan attack America duing the war?"

"There was a war with America?"

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Japanese Hobbies #4: Sleeping


"What did you do on the weekend?"
"I slept."

If I had a dollar for every time I have had this conversation, I would have enough money to sleep every day for the rest of my life myself.

I am not sure why the Japanese sleep so much and do other things so little. Perhaps it's because so many things were organised for them when they were growing up that they never had a chance to find out what they really like to do. Or maybe it's because there isn't much else to do (pachinko anyone?). Or maybe what they claim is correct, that they are so tired from studying or working that any free chance they get is spent sleeping.

But I am skeptical of this claim. Partly because housewives and students (who hardly lack free time) also confess that sleeping is a hobby. And partly because a lot of the time they are not really working, just pretending. Indeed, workers often combine sleeping and working. The head of the Board of Education in my old town Nejime would sleep the afternoon away, his soft snores drifting through the partition from his office. At 4.30 I would head out the door, asking if he was going to go home soon himself.

"I'm sorry. I have to do overtime."

As an aside, it is truly extraordinary, a genuine Wonder of the World, that the Japanese can sleep so easily. Not only do they sleep on trains coming home at night, dozens in a carriage, head lying against shoulder in a cute and slovenly row, they also sleep on trains at 1 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. They sleep on trains standing up, one hand holding the strap, swinging around 360 degrees and back again as the train goes around corners.

My adult students tell me they sleep through business meetings.

"Why?" "How?"

"Because it's warm and I'm tired"

My lover will sleep one metre from the TV blaring full blast. Her mouth lies open and I take photos and put them on my screensaver. She gets angry, but she laughs as well.

My students are so good at sleeping through my class that they can do it while holding a pen the whole time, thus diverting suspicion. I swear to God that I have seen several of them do this and take notes at the same time.

I have seen my friend in Kagoshima hold a conversation while sleeping. No words, just murmurings, but the intonation is spot on and he responds to questions. He even repeats his murmur if he receives no reply.

All this talk of sleep has led me to believe that I will go to bed. I leave you with a quote from D.H. Lawrence:

"And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created."

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

No Tsunami in Japan this week

Well, on Sunday the approaching tsunami from the Chilean earthquake unleashed... a tsunami of media panic. At the very least emergency broadcasts dominated half the screeen of the program you were watching on TV; and most stations were devoted entirely to tsunami reports.
The broadcasts repeated again and again the list of prefectures expected to be hit as well as the expected time of arrival and height of the tsunami. I kept missing the details for Yokohama (if they were given) but the height estimates ranged from 3 metres to 1 metre. But all reports stressed one thing in common: noone, under any circumstances, was to go near the water; you were to 'seek shelter' until told otherwise. Even the prime minister was brought on to tell everybody to stay away from the sea.

So of course I go down there to have a look. Not only is there nothing to see, the beach the seaside park are buzzing with the usual fishermen, joggers, and walkers.

Japan disappoints once again. When I get home I find all the size estimates have been downgraded to '60 centimetres', even a life-threatening '20 centimetres'.

Meanwhile there was no mention, in the midst of this paranoid media panic disaster meltdown, of...Chile, where upwards of 700 people were killed and hundreds are trapped under the rubble. But hey, who cares about them?