2012-02-24

Japan as a very fragile society

Last night I returned to Jerusalem from a two-week trip in Japan. This time I had only a minimal contact with the general society there as I squeezed as many things as possible into this rather short itinerary in five cities (Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka, Yurihonjo and Tokyo), including giving two talks, spending one entire Sabbath at the orthodox shul, meeting friends and colleagues, my parents, sister and her husband, and taking private lessons in Total Immersion Swimming. But even this minimal exposure to the general society was enough to get a strong impression for the first time that Japanese is actually a very fragile society.

This fragility takes a number of forms, whether physical or not. But before enumerating them, I would like to point out that the common denominator among various forms of the fragility of Japanese society is its approach to tackling possible problems. People try to protect themselves against these problems instead of developing immunity against them, which in my opinion is not healthy.

Probably the most conspicuous physical self-protection is the rampant use of masks in public. Nothing looks more weird and scary than this in the human "landscape" of Japan for those who are not used to its sight. People are also too sensitive to hygiene in public toilets and other public places.

Many companies in Japan try to protect themselves against possible claims from their clients and customers by inundating more and more places with officious warnings and precautions in speech (from loudspeakers) and in writing (on billboards); trains and buses are among the worst in this respect. When I still lived in Japan, I used to complain and fight against this audiovisual noise. Now that I do not live in Japan, I do not care much about its various sociocultural problems, but this noise still makes me angry both at those who make it and at those who do not complain against it. I still cannot help wondering why people have to be treated as small children who cannot be responsible for themselves and why they do not complain about such a treatment.

Another fear-based self-protection is the use of formulaic and too polite language. Many people seem to be in constant fear of being hurt verbally. Few people express in a straight manner what they really mean, hoping and believing that this way they will not be criticized and hence be hurt by others in turn. As a result what they say or write is seldom taken verbally as they are interpreted as hinting at something unsaid or unspoken. A typical Japanese conversation seems to me like that between two cowards. This alone is a good reason for me to prefer living in Israel, where you are allowed in principle to express freely what you mean. There is no wonder that true verbal interactions and dialogs do not and cannot exist in Japanese society. This also seems to explain why sophisticated humor has not developed there as it also serves as a kind of buffer against verbal aggressiveness.

Accumulation of these and other forms of fear-based self-protection leads to a society where many people are faceless and robot-like and do not look happy. During this short stay of mine in Japan I felt as if my positive energy were constantly drained with few opportunities to recharge myself except in the synagogue, which serves for me as a Jewish enclave in the Land of the Rising Yen. Paradoxically, I have learned a lesson of adopting this self-protection in Japanese society, not for fear of being hurt but in order to minimize the loss of my positive energy, by minimizing my contact with people emitting negative energy there. I can now appreciate more what I have here in Israel, at least in terms of interpersonal communication, in spite of my constant complaint against Israeli society.

PS: Although this may not be a form of self-protection, constant nodding of so many people there while they speak was so widespread that it distracted and prevented me from concentrating on the contents of conversations when I was spoken to. Being forced to see this repetitive vertical movement all the time was a torture for me even when I was not spoken to.

2012-02-03

In what respects (I feel) I have (not) been affected by Israeli culture

If I include the five years I spent as a PhD student at the Hebrew University, I have lived in Israel for almost 13 years. In spite of my increasing awareness that I should not and would not fully assimilate here culturally, I am sure that I have been influenced by Israeli culture for better or for worse. As I am going to enter Japan with my Israeli passport for the second time next week, I have asked myself in what respects I have (not) been affected by Israeli culture as a kind of "rite of passage" from Israel to Japan and then vice versa in two weeks.

Areas in which (I feel) I have been affected include (in random order):

  • Self-confidence: I am more confident of myself now, especially when I speak in front of strangers. This is not only because of Israeli culture but also thanks to some positive changes in my professional life, but I am sure that Israeli culture has an important share in making me more self-confident. Japanese culture, on the other hand, has several things that make many people have little or no self-confident. At the same time, however, I am careful not to be too self-confident and become conceited as many people are here.
  • Laughter: I laugh and make others laugh much more frequently. Joy of life is in my opinion one of the greatest commandments in Judaism. Laughing or making others laugh is one of the most efficient ways to attain it. I also tell spontaneous jokes all the time, though not everyone, even here in Israel, notices the very fact that I am joking.
  • Direct speech: My speech is far more direct now. I do not hint at anything except humorously or ironically. I am quite sure that my speech sounds quite aggressive to many native speakers of Japanese.
  • Sociability: I am more sociable now, mainly after I Hebraized my name. Before that I always hesitated to present myself in social gatherings as few people could catch my Japanese given name and I had to repeat it a number of times, and even then few people were successful in pronouncing it correctly.
  • Hospitality: I have come to host friends etc. at my apartment. Hospitality is mainly a feature of the religious people here. Although I live alone and my cooking skills and facilities are limited, I enjoy having people here, especially when I am successful in making my guests feel at home and enjoy the time we spend together.

Areas in which (I feel) I have not been affected (so much) include (in random order):

  • Eating: I still maintain a healthy diet, refraining from eating what I consider junk foods, including cake and other sweet things. And eating has not become my only physical activity (or even state) as is the case with many people here.
  • Drinking: Although I had to stop drinking beer (for fear of gout), I have switched to red wine and still continue drinking quite a lot, at least in Israeli terms (I drink one bottle almost every day). This is probably the only dietary "sin" I make. As a kind of excuse for this "sin", I can say that red wine made in Israel is simply too good not to enjoy.
  • Physical exercises: I continue to do physical exercises regularly - I run and swim five times a week. The majority of the regular members at my swimming club are Anglophones. I wonder how many native Israelis do any physical exercise regularly except for eating.
  • Not promising what I cannot keep: I have been very careful not to promise what I cannot keep. But even in spite of this caution there are times, though very rarely, in which I cannot keep my words due to external circumstances that are beyond my control; then I always apologize to the person I promised something. I am extremely bothered by people, including those I thought were my friends, who neither keep promises nor apologize to me later for that; unfortunately, this is a very rampant behavior here.
  • Punctuality: I still come to personal meetings and social gatherings on time, even if I know in advance that many others will not show up on time and will be late. I have an impression that quite a few people think illusionally that being late and making others wait for them make them more important socially. I cannot trust people who cannot come on time, either, as they steal my time. More people in Israel should be aware of this severe sin called theft of time.