Japan is one of those places in the world that has a certain reputation; after all, in the land of the rising sun one can glide across rooftops, dodge bullets and take on 100 aggressors with nothing but a Samaria sword, all at the same time. Or, perhaps a little more realistically, get up at 5.30 a.m, have breakfast, have a quick shower, sprint walk towards the nearest train station, fight for a seat and then suffer the reality that you’re not getting one, read a paper or a Japanese comic whilst standing up for a good hour, and here’s the best bit, work till late at night (perhaps even up to 11pm) and then back on the train, standing up, reading a paper (or playing a game on your Vita), barge past people to get out of the train at your stop before its too late, and then, (hunched back) slow walk back home, maybe get something to eat on the way back and then when you get back in, fall face down on the bed. Oh, and don’t forget this process starts all over again the next day.
Sound familiar? It does to me, sounds like how a lot of people live their lives back over in the UK. Only, its not quite the same thing. Back in the UK, most people will work to live. They work in order to generate a stable income so they can live stable lives, have a family and so on. Its a little different here in Japan. Here, a lot of people live to work. As in, their work becomes their family away from family, their home away from home. If you’re planning on working here one day be prepared to put in the hours if you want to make a career out of it. Oh yea, before i forget, please dont be ill and take time of work, its not well thought off. Ive seen many an advertisement for jobs listing one of their requirements as ‘we are after someone who doesn’t get ill and take time off’…. im serious. Also, be prepared to work on some of those precious weekends and holidays, take up your nights with a monthly mandatory ‘office party’. The result? Well, people here are highly disciplined and efficient at what they do, generally anyway. Its not my place to say whether this whole routine is right or wrong. So far, you could say its worked rather well for Japan. After all, Japan is the technology capital of the world, no?
The point i am making is this, like any nation, any industry or company, you put out a certain image which represents the culture of that environment. But, don’t go thinking that this image represents the culture of that environment directly. The Japan you see in the movies is very much Japan, ive witnessed it first hand. But, Its more like, well, the Disney version of Japan. What i mean is, Japan overemphasises things which are there, but in the process the complete picture of Japan is subdued and recoloured, masking things which maybe aren’t so marketable. This is no different to say, creating a resume. You overemphasise your best traits and leave anything irrelevant or sub par out of it. Its also a means of escapism for people here. After a long days work, the last thing they want to see is ‘along days work’. Thats how life works, a lot of it is just smoke and mirrors.
The Japanese are often portrayed as being very polite people. They very much are. They take manners up a level. In many ways, they take kindness up a level too. But like anything, its not that simple.
I often find myself in need of assistance in some way or another here in Japan. Be it trying to understand how to say something in Japanese, or which line to take at a train station, its a hard place to go about your business when you’re not fluent in Japanese, or perhaps more importantly, when you’re not native to Japan. This whole process is made easier though by the fact that people generally are very helpful. Its quite amusing when you cant speak their language and they cant speak yours, yet somehow, there you are, both of you, going flat out trying to get your message across to the other. Its also admirable that so many people ive met here try so hard to help you.
Then you have the actual Japanese language itself, a very interestingly simple yet hard language to grasp. You have to be careful of what words you use with whom. Make sure to use formal phrases with those older than you, its a sign of respect that they are, in essence, older and therefore usually higher up than you in ‘society’. Yes, Japan, a little like China, places a lot of respect on a person who is older. The oldest member of a family is the head of the family.
Its considered rude to bow while keeping eye contact, its rude to walk and eat/drink on the streets, its rude to not finish a meal. But, its not too much of a problem to spit on the side walk whilst on a date with your girlfriend, apparently. Its also not rude to cough or sneeze without putting your hand in front of your mouth, leading many to wear face masks whilst going to work to keep the germs away. Oh yea, they also have a problem here with people not blowing their noses (long pause). This is such a big problem that they actually give out free packs of tissues on the streets, at train stations and even in your mail to encourage a change in habit!
One of the biggest elements of mysticism around Asia revolves around martial arts. Real life fighting involves a lot of punching off target, tugging and ungainly grabbing, throwing and wrestling. Just go watch MMA. What fighting does not involve however is flying/gliding between tree branches, flowery hands (in other words, movements that do not actually have any influence on the fight, we see this in movies all the time), and bone crushing blows with nothing but your index finger. Though, personally, i love the mysticism that revolves around martial arts in Asian movies, on posters i see here in Japan and old legends whose stories are passed down the generations. I also appreciate and admire the reality of martial arts. Without the ‘spirituality’ in martial arts, you’re left with fighting. In itself, fighting is a blood sport.
And now, to my favourite thing in all of Japan, mystic or otherwise, the great Mount Fuji. Its the tallest mountain in all of Japan, standing at 12,389 ft, and can be translated as ‘Goddess of Fire’. Seeing it in pictures and in art work in one thing, seeing it in person is another. Ill do a dedicated post on Mount Fuji in the near future but i feel its relevant to mention it here. Mount Fuji is an active volcano which is due to erupt again in the near future. However, its last known eruption was back in 1707-08. As one of Japan’s ‘Three Holy Mountains’, and a spiritual symbol of Japan, anticipating seeing the mountain with my own eyes for the first time it needed no build up. Oh yea, i didn’t have to worry about the volcano erupting when i was on it, they can anticipate it 3 days in advance….apparently lol. Anyway, the experience of seeing the mountain close up certainly didn’t disappoint. As a long time admirer of Mount Fuji as an artistic influence, seeing it in person was breathtaking. At the time, staring up at the mountain, it was like being in the presence of King Kong! Though, this is where the mystic part of this story ends. It didn’t take me long to take notice of the ‘realistic’ side to the story. I was at Mount Fuji’s fifth station, right up on the side of the mountain. There lay hundreds of tourists crowding round to get a good shot of this truly magnificent sight, in the background lay a temple, only this was no temple, it was just another tourist attraction, ‘pay to pray’. If that isn’t your thing then the shops that surrounded it surely would be, selling near anything and everything one can thin of with a picture of the great mountain slapped on it. The mountain was closer to King Kong than i had originally thought. You remember that scene (doesn’t really matter which version(s) of the film you have seen) where King Kong was strapped up in a large theatre for all to see? ‘The 8th Wonder of the World’. Thats what it felt like. It felt like man was abusing this great wonder of the world.
Western society is often thought to empower the individual. Whereas, Japan is a very social place. Asian society is often associated with the many over the few. What you do, what you achieve, you do not achieve it for yourself, but for land, in this case, for Japan. A great example of this would be a video that my girlfriend showed me recently of a class of children at a school near Tokyo. The children were playing a game in order to learn English. The game was simple. The teacher held up a picture of an animal to random kids at the front of the class. These children then had to act out as that animal so the rest of the class could guess what it is in English. The children were rather passive as far as kids go, they looked at each other constantly, trying to mimic one another as they tried to portray the movements of a lion. They all ended up doing the exact same thing, every single one of them. If you were to play a similar video from a school in the UK, learning say, German, it would be a whole different story. You can pretty much bet that more times than not, most, if not all of the children will portray the lion in a different way.
Its this same attitude that leads to one of Japan’s greatest contradictions, at least in my opinion. The life expectancy of people in Japan is higher than in any other country in the world. This is down to many things such as how well they eat, how fit they generally are (i will go into this in a future post), and so on. I think perhaps even the extent to which Japanese work helps them to live longer. As the saying goes, people tend to stick around longer when they’ve got a ‘job’ to do. Now, onto the contradiction. Japan has the 10th highest suicide rate in the world! Strange isnt it? The country which has the highest life expectancy in the world, also has the 10th highest suicide rate. Being here explains a little as to why this is. Some of the major factors in the high suicide rate include unemployment, depression and social pressure. Its easy to become ‘lost’ in Japan. By this i mean, its easy to become insignificant. I love Japan, its a very special place. But ive got to say, had i been born here i don’t know what would have happened. I’m a ‘free spirit’ kind of guy, i am very pro individualism. I believe people should control their own lives, not be ‘controlled’ by what they are ‘supposed’ to be doing with their lives. Its my nature. If this nature was still present inside me had i been brought up in this culture, well, as i said, i don’t know what would have happened.
Living in Japan is an amazing experience. Its the kind of experience that you just now you wont come out the end of it the same way that you came in. This has already proved to be the case. I highly recommend anyone to come to Japan at least once in their life, its just filled with ‘must see’ experiences. I just think that its important to be aware of the ‘realistic’ side of Japan, as well as the wonderfully mystic side of this great nation and its history.