Wednesday, September 24, 2008

“Implicit, mild and honest” – Personified

My first impression about Japan was during my high school days, it started when I read a prose titled “Selected snobberies” by “Aldous Huxley” in which the author writes that the “Japanese style of snobbery” is to add honorific prefix to all nouns in a sentence, according to Huxley the Japanese would say “Keep the honorable umbrella in the honorable umbrella stand”. I read the above passage to the whole class, and as expected, all students laughed. My impression during those days was that the land of “Sony and bullet trains” is perhaps weird. Much later I would have confronted Huxley if only he was alive.

Selecting a topic for describing my views on the Japanese culture seemed difficult. I have a feeling that I had found some unique things in Japan that many foreigners living in Japan might overlook. The topic search can be difficult if you have no ideas, and also if you have many ideas. I was suffering from the “many ideas” syndrome.

The “words” we choose to express our thoughts might reflect our culture. So the first title that flashed my mind was “The Japanese language”. I think students of the Japanese language may pickup some aspects of the culture. Once puzzled during my high school days I was impressed with the idea of “honorific salutations” [丁寧語] after seeing its practical usage, partly because my mother tongue too is heavily influenced by honorific expressions for the elderly. I started jotting down a few points about the Japanese language, after jotting down all I can think of, I realized that my knowledge of Japanese language is limited to express my complete feeling about the Japanese culture. So I started thinking about some other topic …

Seasons in Japan! It was Jan, 2005 I had just landed in the Kansai airport wearing a T-shirt. The first impression was that Japan was very cold. In my home town I had witnessed only three seasons, “the hot, hotter and the hottest”. For a moment I started enjoying the cold weather, but I had to scamper for my sweater after sometime. On my first day I was in Kyoto, it was covered with snow; like a kid I played with the snow for sometime, much to the amazement of some passersby. On that day I would experience yet another season. Much colder than the coldest hill station I had ever been to. I have observed that food, clothes, color, moods, activities, vary based on season. But then seasons are universal, so I started looking for something that is unique to Japan.

It will not be a joke to say that “some Japanese men spend more time commuting in trains than they spend with their wives”. I thought of writing about Japanese trains and the Japanese society. Sometimes the symbol of Japan is the bullet train “Shinkansen”. I have seen super stores dedicating a section for selling toy train. Looking at the prices I was not astonished to learn that it was mostly used by adults. The trains had been in Japan for over a hundred years. Though it is unique to Japan and tempting and interesting to write an essay about trains, it may not reflect my feeling on the culture. My mind was looking for something more solid.

I am lucky in that my work has taken me places in Japan, one such place was Matsumoto. I was single and had enough time (and money) to check out some of the exotic Japanese foods. What started as an adventure since I was bored; will soon engulf me into the world of sushi, sashimi, udon, soba … the list will be endless if I start with basashi, fugu, hirezake, yamadanishiki. Yes, I love Japanese rice wine, nihonshu. Though the country is small, it still has many pockets famous for specific items, for example Akashi-yaki, Sanuki udon, Nagano Soba, Shizuoka eel (unagi), etc. But then I thought it might be “mean” to write about food when I am supposed to write about culture.

The list continued, so I wrote down all topics that came to my mind. After jotting them all, I though three English words can define the Japanese culture, they words are “implicit, mild and honest”. The meanings of these words are as deep as the Japanese culture.

In a Japanese sentence the subject is implicit. Initially I was confused, because Japanese language had pronouns too. But then after living in Japan for a longer time and learning more Japanese, I learnt this grammatical construct expresses an aspect of the Japanese culture. In many places there are un-said or un-written rules. After coming to Japan, the first time I went to a bus-stop everybody was standing in a queue though it was not explicitly written and people thought standing in a queue to board a bus was implied. I also learnt that many Japanese business contracts have no major written clauses, but are bound by implied commitments.

I had worked as a “haken employee” in Japanese companies. I never had a formal briefing on office timings, lunch hours or waste disposal. But still I have managed to do all those tasks perfectly. Their culture is to mingle in a group and this works perfectly when executing large projects. I started pondering over it. Back in India, we use to get a big manual and often undergo week long trainings on policy and procedures, but still I felt the Japanese system is more effective.

Some of the things that can be interesting to foreigners are, People waiting in signals even during midnight, litter free pavements, train coming on time, railway station staff sincerely apologizing for a minute train delay.

Whenever I asked my Japanese friends to translate some Japanese phrase, more often the answer was either, “it’s difficult to translate into English” or “it’s Japanese specific”. These answers from them made me curious and thus I started learning Japanese. Soon I was using phrases like “osaki-ni-shitsurei-shimasu”, “otsukaresama desu” without knowing the meaning. In the due course I “realized” the meaning. And now when I teach Japanese to my wife, I always tell her that meaning needs to be realized “kanjiru”. Culture often reflects the nature of a race as a whole. The meaning of the salutations like “Ojama shimashu”, “Shitsurei shimashita”, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, needs to be felt based on situations.

Recently I can read kanji characters and suddenly I felt like being blessed with a new eye. The first realization came when I read the Japanese translation of an English novel “The Alchemist”. The Japanese translation I thought was far better than the original version. The translation was[アルケミスト- 夢を旅した少年]. The phrase that caught my attention and one that I quickly memorized was 「何かを強く望めば宇宙の全てが協力して実現するように助けてくれる」. I got a chance to read both the English and Japanese version, and I felt that probably the Japanese version made me visualize more. I realized visualizing「想像」is an excellent means of understanding, and the Japanese often explain things pictorially. Is it because of the pictorial kanji? Anyway, the liking for cartoons and anime is a proof.

After pondering over the implicit things that I observed in Japan, I started wondering, after all, what is the meaning of the word “culture”, is it just the sum of all implicit things attributed to a particular race.

When learning the Japanese language, many times my teacher mentions that certain words are used to make the sentence mild [軽くする為の表現]. In learning this aspect I saw another realm that might be specific to Japan. In the Japanese language the expression are so mild that it may lack assertiveness. Does that mean the Japanese lack assertiveness? That is another question. But this mild way of expressing things works well in the Japanese society. They words like “may be”, “I think …” can be seen as prefix to sentences often. After living here for sometime I learnt that many times, when the Japanese say “may be”, it means they are mostly sure.

Japanese are good at finding out mild differences. I read that some Japanese people can find out even small difference in the thickness of paper just by feeling it. Unbelievable was my first impression, but later experiences made me believe this..

Once I started wondering why someone would eat raw fish, and raw meat. Japan was the only foreign country I have ever lived, so I could only compare this culture with mine. Back in India, we deep fry fish, soaked in a variety of spices or eat it as part of a fish curry. Both “fish fry” and “fish curry” is a delicacy in south India. I thought probably since Japan does not have spices, they consume it as sashimi or sushi. I asked a friend, “why do the Japanese eat raw fish”. His answer was “we eat it raw to feel the taste of the fish”. This answer made me thinking; actually Indians taste more spice than the fish in itself. Some more thinking into it, probably we amplify the taste of the fish with spices. The lesson learnt here was important that the “Japanese can enjoy and distinguish even mild taste differences”, and like things mild.

Praising the Japanese all times, I have concerns too. For example, about the way the Japanese copy western life style ending up being obese. The hamburger outlets seem to be popular among the youth. Obesity is compounding to the increasing NEET issue. I think the younger generation is able to afford many luxuries just because their forefathers did all the hard work to grow the economy in a resource starved country.

I was traveling from Tokyo to Shiojiri in the JR Azusa super fast express. I missed the single small bag that I was carrying which had all my valuables like passport, all my traveler’s cheques inside the train. After alighting I was totally frustrated once I learnt that I lost the passport and all my money. With much difficulty as I did not know a single word in Japanese I somehow explained to the station in-charge. I was more worried because the station in-charge was cool. For a moment I thought he did not understand. He called up the Matsumoto station (which is Azusa’s final stop) and traced my bag. Once I got the bag I was surprised that nothing in that bag was touched. It was my first experience of Japanese honesty.

I used to stay in a small village called Hirooka near Matsumoto and commute to my office by train. The JR Hirooka station was manned by a station master only from 8AM to 5 PM, and it did not have an automatic ticketing gate too. Sometimes late in the night I see some coins and tickets lying in front of the closed ticketing counter, much later I found out that it was the honest way of fare adjustment. Amazing, was also the fact that even the punks who roamed around the railway station in the night did not touch those coins.

I think the discipline in Japanese life style is because they are honest to themselves. The meticulous garbage separation even when no-body force you do not.

I had always thought that this country suits me. I wish I will sometimes dare to say that “this is my home away from my home”

1 comment:

  1. yes!every thing you told is opposite for india, especially for tamil nadu.
    But about food tamilnadu is the best.
    The worst thing about india is honesty most of the people are polluting the awful habits to others ,lets take example even for putting the wastages in the dustbin,they wont put in proper way.
    I dont no when the india going to change.Its my dream that My Country should be unique from other.
    About Mildness,Indian people also have more knowledge .
    The Only thing is they dont no how to implement their talents.some guieds are needed for their life carrier.