Thursday, May 1, 2008

"differently different"

Back in February my husband handed me the Life & Arts section of the Financial Times and told me to check out the lead story. Well, today I finally got around to reading it (I can't be the only one with a foot-high stack of dated reading material) and it was so good I had to link to it here (go to "...and now for somewhere completely different.") It's FT's Tokyo bureau chief David Pilling trying to figure out just how truly bizarre Japan really is -- whether its society, its culture, is really so unique, so "differently different" as some experts, and natives, believe. "Nobody bangs the drum of Japanese uniqueness more than the Japanese themselves," Pilling writes. (Japanese word of the day: Nihonjinron, or "meditations on Japaneseness.")

Some highlights:

"In a hundred tiny gestures and assumptions, Japan can seem just slightly out of kilter," Pilling writes. "When Japanese people refer to themselves, they point to their nose, not their heart. Many restaurants have no chairs. The Japanese count in units of ten thousand, making the population of Japan one-thousand-two-hundred-and-fifty ten thousands, not 125 million as you might have thought. The calendar is different, too. Circular not linear, time tracks each imperial reign – I am sending this dispatch, not from the year 2008, but from Heisei 20."

When he first arrived in Tokyo in 2002, Pilling says he "grappled with a language that, in every way, seemed back to front and set with social land mines." (I can see that.) He says he also "wondered at people's obsessive punctuality, cleanliness and the absolute seriousness with which they conducted every activity." (Yup.)

Pilling mentions a slew of books, such as The Shell-less Egg, which describes the Japanese as "uniquely group-oriented," and "unable to conceive of themselves other than in relation to family, village, workplace, superiors and inferiors, insiders and outsiders." Ian Buruma's A Japanese Mirror is a "compendium of Japan's sex-and-violence-drenched comics and films, so seemingly at odds with an otherwise prim and peaceful society."

He talks to an American academic, Earl H Kinmonth, who "finds the eccentricities of Britain's class system every bit as puzzling as Japan's supposed oddities. If the British were a different color and spoke a difficult-to-learn language, he is convinced every American would find them utterly bizarre." Kinmonth also says that "if you go to a Korean and a Japanese funeral, the Japanese are all stiff upper lip and the Koreans are wailing and gnashing their teeth. But that's only like the difference between an English funeral and an Irish wake."

Go ahead, read the whole thing.

No comments: