“OK, you got me, why do they make things so difficult?” —St Germain
As a not-so-casual observer of Japanese girls, something I’ve always wondered was: Why are they so sad? They weave through crowds staring dejectedly at their platform shoes, or scrunch over their phones on the train, trying desperately to tune out the world. So I consulted Seina, since she’s got an answer for everything.
“Why,” I asked, “are Japanese girls so sad? That’s something I’ve always wondered.”
“Because they’re not happy,” Seina replied. I don’t know why I’m consistently surprised by the obvious.
“Well, why aren’t they happy?” I pressed.
“Probably they don’t want to be.”
“Who doesn’t want to be happy?”
“People who are sad.”
I could find no flaw in that geometry. You gotta appreciate a perfect circle.
Life May be Good, But There’s No Reason We Shouldn’t Make it Worse
The thinking in Japan is if something’s hard, hey, let’s make it harder. This is antithetical to the U.S. value system, the society of hedonists, where folks are all about fun, entertainment, and pizza.
The Japanese approach to making life unnecessarily difficult is deeply rooted in culture and Japanese values, best understood through a few simple examples.
#1 in Japanese Values: Excessive Housework
Every girlfriend I’ve had in this country washed her sheets, blankets, and pillowcases at least twice a week, then proceeded to vacuum like it was a hobby. So they’re valuing cleanliness, which is great. No one appreciates gleaming floors and crisp linens more than Ken Seeroi. But in my apartment, I can get by just fine doing the wash once a month and vacuuming never. I have an impressively high tolerance for filth. It’s not that I don’t like the whole cleanliness thing, It’s just that I value other things more—such as exercise, booze, womanizing, Netflix, or practically just about anything other than the damn laundry.
#2 in Japanese Values: Cooking Whatever Takes the Longest
I know countless Japanese folks (okay, all women, but trying not to sound sexist here) who spend hours searching for recipes, shopping for groceries, whipping up a variety of small dishes, then washing a major mountain of plates and bowls, every day. Me, I just grab a 500-yen bento and boom, dinner’s done. So they’re valuing health and money, whereas I’m valuing time, which is better spent doing other things including, importantly, absolutely butt nothing. Okay, so I’m just lazy. But at least I’m consistent.
#3 in Japanese Values: Fussing, and More Fussing
I clicked Print and nothing happened. So I got up and checked the office Epson. “Add A4 paper” it said. Ms. Takamiya leaped up from her desk.
“Probably the ink cartridge,” she said. “You shouldn’t print in color.”
“I was printing in black and whi…” I began.
“Try clearing the buffer,” said Mr. Uchihara, hurrying over.
“I’m pretty sure it just needs pa…” I started, as the office manager leaned over my shoulder and started randomly pushing buttons. I don’t finish a lot of sentences in Japan.
So I added paper, Ms. Takamiya replaced the red and blue inks, while Uchihara-san and the manager wiggled cables and played an amusing duet on the printer buttons. Finally a single sheet emerged and everyone cheered. Their solution worked! I went back to my desk and resolved never to print again.
No problem’s so simple that increasing the number of people can’t fuck it up entirely. Yet something lives deep within the Japanese psyche that makes it impossible to just let other folks do things themselves. There’s an incessant fussing, a collective one-upmanship born out of fear of appearing unhelpful. Uh oh, Ken’s trying to get himself a small cup of black coffee—can’t let that happen. Better jump in and add some milk and sugar—he’ll like that. Milk and sugar? Oh, then he’s gonna want whipped cream on top. Wonderful, let’s make it seasonal pink then add sprinkles and chocolate chips. Look Ken, we’ve upgraded your lowly cup of Joe to a Venti Sakura Frappuccino! See how considerate Japanese people are?
#4 in Japanese Values: Superfluous Work
My workplace employs a clone army whose sole mission is to construct an all-encompassing schedule of monthly tasks and deliverables in Excel, printed in gloriously unreadable six-point font and an array of colors just to frustrate Ms. Takamiya, which gets distributed to all staff members. Then they make the same schedule again, in weekly format, once more printed in full color and distributed. Then the same schedule a third time, a fabulous daily version, which is also printed and distributed. Of course, by this time the whole schedule has changed, so they’ve gotta work overtime revising, reprinting, and redistributing all three versions, a process that repeats throughout the month.
Here, the value is on looking busy, emptying ink cartridges, and killing as many trees as possible. This is a Japanese work strategy, because in modern companies, downsizing is the mantra and it’s devil take the hindmost. If you work longer than your coworkers, succeed in passing the buck, and deflect as much blame as possible, hey, you win. The company may be a model of 1960’s fax machine efficiency, but at least you can avoid being yelled at and publicly humiliated, plus possibly keep your job.
It’s important to note that in Japan, it’s common for those at the top of the social hierarchy (managers, elders, wives) to be strict, directive, and judgmental. Giving orders, even to the point of power harassment and bullying, is built into the culture, whereas being casual, understanding and, heaven forbid, forgiving are seen as <em>amai</em>—lenient and indulgent.
This from a Japanese leadership training course:
A boss should not be afraid of confronting subordinates; strict relationships are good.
Sounds like a real fun place to work. Well, even if you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, it’s still way more satisfying to whack the hell out of ’em with a big stick.
Japanese Cultural Values
Here, it’s probably worth remembering that culture isn’t something individually determined. We’re all shaped by the values of the society we’re immersed in. When you walk into your home, you either take off your shoes or you don’t, but it’s probably in line with what everybody else does. Even if it happens unconsciously, there’s a choice made between ease and cleanliness.
It’s funny how commonly another culture’s values are viewed as superior. Westerners gush over Japan’s timeliness, order, and attention to detail, while ironically, millions of Japanese folks long for a carefree life overseas, in countries less rigid, where every day looks like spring break at Fort Lauderdale. So where is best? Apparently, whatever country you’re not in.
Why Don’t Japanese People Want to be Happy?
It seems like an easy question, as though happiness were something everyone would aspire to. But somehow, people the world over find ways to make their lives difficult. They join the military. Or if that’s not hard enough, they volunteer for the Special Forces. They spend hundreds of dollars to suffer in marathons, then make that worse by entering triathlons. They participate in religions that encourage them to forgo sex, alcohol, and even food. Hell, some even go so far as to get married and have children. What the . . . Why? But apparently, it’s not that people don’t value ease, fun, and freedom. It’s that they value other things more.
And so it happens in Japan too. Japanese values place work over relaxation, thrift and cleanliness above convenience, and—most importantly—conformity over individuality. As social animals, humans can’t afford to be separated from the herd for long, especially if the herd’s gonna stomp you to death for nonconformity.
Of course, this happens the world over. If your peers vape and drink Smirnoff Ice, so probably do you. Or if your tribe’s a bunch of hacky-sacking vegans, then you are too. And if they work in suits till midnight then ride the train home to a sleeping family they never see, then yeah, you do that. Everyone wants to believe they’re the exception, free thinkers not bound by the mundane conventions of society. Sure, it’s great to be Thoreau, living in a woodsy log cabin, for a while. But when you start growing that Unabomber beard, maybe it’s time to rejoin the human race.
Are You Aligned With Japanese Values?
Hey, everything’s important. I like cold beer and crunchy potato chips, but I also like fitting into my trousers and not being a massive embarrassment on the beach. So the secret to—if not happiness, then at least sanity—is figuring out how to rank what you value. Sure, cleanliness, good food, fussiness, and hard work, yeah, that’s all admirable stuff. But I wouldn’t put any of it above enjoyment of life, lack of stress, or human connection. So if Step 1 is sorting out one’s own values, then Step 2 is surely picking a place to live that lines up with those priorities. And after all these years in Japan, I gotta say, Jamaica’s looking mighty attractive.