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.