Sometimes what I like best about Japan is simply that it’s not the U.S. Not that I’m bagging on the land that invented deep-fried Snickers or anything. We all know it’s the greatest country on earth. Just ask any American.
Question those fine, flag-waving patriots about what they value most, and it won’t be long before someone belts out “freedom.” Because that’s the American way. Shouting. Loudness and freedom are baked into U.S. culture like apples to a pie. The Japanese response is necessarily softer, possessed as we are with the Spock-like ability to read each other’s minds. Here, that same question would be answered with “social responsibility,” or perhaps “the righteous thrill of blaming others.” Nyeh, same thing.
Social Responsibility in Japan
Social responsibility is essential and inescapable in Japan. Homes are tiny and workplaces cramped, due to the fact that Japanese folks love living on top of each other. Everything you do, from talking on the phone to throwing out your trash, affects those around you. A coworker of mine once described her childhood as sleeping on the floor in a single room with ten other family members. If that sounds like poverty and a rough trip to the toilet at midnight, well there’s that. It’s common for Japanese parents and children to sleep in the same room. Often there isn’t another room.
When I worked in Tokyo, my “desk” was a placemat-sized portion of a long table crowded with a dozen people, in a blank, humorless space among identical rows of tables staffed by faceless workers all sitting elbow to elbow. At exactly 8:30 a.m., we’d start work. At noon, we’d take out our bento boxes and eat silently. Then at exactly 5:30 we’d all punch out and return to our desks to continue unpaid overtime. Google for images of “Japanese office” and you’ll get the picture.
Getting Sick in Japan
In such situations, if one person gets sick, everybody gets sick. That’s where the blame comes in. If you’re the numbnuts who brings down the entire office, family, or neighborhood, you’ll be publicly criticized and possibly ostracized. It may even damage your career or your family’s ability to live within the community. In the case of an office, it’ll almost certainly harm the firm’s reputation and impact their ability to do business. Forgiveness may be a Christian virtue, but we ain’t trying to hear your foreign voodoo. In other words, fuck up in Japan and shit’s not gonna end well.
The Nail that Sticks Out
So we don’t have this idea that “It’s my choice, because, uh, freedom.” Do something that violates the community standard, such as playing your stereo too loudly, and you’ll find a nasty kanji note taped to your door the next morning, another on your car windshield, plus open your inbox to a threatening email from your landlord, then have your boss berate you in front of the entire office because the real estate company called your employer. Don’t ask me how I know this.
Now, I’m not arguing this is an entirely good or bad thing, but suffice to say, we don’t take social responsibility lightly. American society is governed by freedom; Japanese society by fear. America’s more fun, but Japan’s safer. Hey, nobody enjoys using a condom, I get that.
Fear and, well, Fear, in Japan
So while your precious Asian Studies class may paint Japan as a land of disciplined mathletes motivated by commitment to community, respect for elders, and samurai spirit, when it comes to explaining human behavior, I’ve always found fear to suffice.
Look, religion keeps people in line by threatening folks with the eternal flames of Hell, the military with forced marches and push-ups, Catholic school with nuns and rulers, and Japan with shame and blame. And rulers. You may catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but for herding cats, to hell with your carrots because nothing beats walking softly with a big stick. Or a sneaky cucumber behind them. Either way, I defy you to mix more metaphors than that.
Why Japan Works so Well
Fear is Tokyo City Mouse to Blame’s Chiba country cousin, and it’s the reason everything in Japan proceeds like clockwork. It explains why the trains run on time, why the restaurant staff shouts a welcome when you open the door, why the grocery store clerk runs for another can of tuna when yours is dented, and why the entire office is sitting at their desks 15 minutes before work starts.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments of lightness and frivolity in Japan. People screw off and joke around, go to karaoke, take off all their clothes, fall into bushes. But like dogs to a whistle, there’s a constant inner ear listening for the sound of that last train so we can take off sprinting for it. There’s a last train for a reason. So go ahead, pass out drunk in your suit in front of the station. Your coworkers will hurdle over you and leave you for dead on the sidewalk. But you’d better buy a fresh white shirt and a razor at 7-Eleven and be slumped in your swivel chair by 8:15 the next morning.
Social Distancing in Japan
So after dinner, I went for a walk in the dark, cool night, just to see what the town looked like. Most of the stores and restaurants were closed, with a few lost souls wandering the empty streets as masked ghosts. The drugstore was still open, so I stopped by for a couple tall cans of lemon chu-hi and some of those spicy hot potato snacks. The girl at the register gazed in terror from behind her mask and plastic screen. Her eyes widened. A foreigner! Maybe he’s got the American Virus. I tried to smile reassuringly beneath my surgical mask, but I’m pretty sure I just looked maniacal. I really need a haircut.
Then I took my haul to the park and held a private midnight picnic on a stone bench under a yellow light. And I realized I don’t understand freedom very well. I wasn’t marching on the capitol with my bullhorn, assault rifle, or a thousand placard-carrying protesters. I was just staring at the sky, surrounded by stray cats and mosquitoes, enjoying a drink and some decent potato snacks without killing anybody. And yet, strangely enough, I felt pretty free.