Thursday, September 27, 2007

Broken societies?

This diatribe is the result of some rather scary conversations I (jules) have been having with Japanese friends recently... James is off, "probably" in the UK, so .. hee hee I kidnapped the blog! You won't like it...

The most recent sound-bite that seems to be catching on on BBC Radio Five is the "broken society". Most recent I heard about was the Arch.Bish. of Canterbury. Apart from the sound-bite I found a report in the Guardian. Of course faith is not actually mentioned, but what it seems to boil down to is that the Christian tenets of an un-broken society, namely faith, hope and love, have, in the UK, been exchanged for reality TV, celebrity and gang warfare.

Now the Japanese society is not broken. It is just as it should be, as it is meant to be. Tiny kiddies walk to school on their own, and when they get into a little trouble - maybe they tease a friend too openly - then the nice lady walking her dog will straighten them out and make sure they walk directly and quietly to school. Should a youth fail to close a door between railway carriages someone down the carriage will wordlessly signal to him to go and close the door and he will obey without hesitation. Everyone walks home late at night in the dark and, while they do fear, I think few believe they will be attacked. When the Japanese are unhappy they do not attack their neighbours (at least not violently), instead, so as not to cause too much trouble, they kill themselves. People are always kind to foreigners, and help them find their way around, and they always compliment them with much admiration on their chop-stick use. Almost everyone is always kind and patient and tolerant, service in shops is perfection, motorists take great care around cyclists. People look after and honour their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. And at work, if you tell your secretary that a florescent high ceiling light is flickering and it is very slightly annoying, then a man in a blue jump suit will have fixed it 14 minutes later.

But within this idyllic society it is really hard to find the faith, hope, and love. Instead there is,

Fear: Before your exams you go to the shrine and put money in the coffers and write a prayer asking to pass your exams. The more money then the more likely you will pass. When at work it is decided that everyone must work certain hours you tell others that the guards on the gate are writing down when everyone comes in, even though, of course nothing of the sort is happening. You don't go into the tunnels (lots of tunnels in this hilly country!) at night because your friend told you that they saw a ghost in one.

Hopelessness: Even if you go to the top university (Todai), you do not consider politics as a career. Instead you believe you are powerless. You know that only the very rich can enter politics. Of course they are corrupt. It is best if we don't dwell on the bad things. There us nothing that can be done after all.

Obedience: When you grow up, you don't expect to fall in love. Indeed such a concept is very new and not very Japanese. Instead you hope your husband will be agreeable. Sounds to me like the much pitied Charlotte from Pride and Prejudice, too plain to hope to fall in love she marries for purely material peace of mind. An obedient woman is a beautiful woman. Women learn a slightly different language to men in schools and it leaves them unable to express anything very clearly, unless they use English. No worker, male or female, can disagree with their boss. All you can do is sit and wait to see what they might ask you to do. Although, if you have a British colleague you might go with them to talk to your boss, and then you can say (in English of course) "Julia thinks that...".

I feel a bit guilty, living with faith, hope and love within me and yet also able to enjoy all the nice things about Japanese society. Sometimes I feel like I am the only moderately happy person I know. Perhaps everyone else is just hiding their joy of living behind their reserve. I don't know. People coming to Japan have hoped for generations that some of the faith, hope and love may rub off but while the trapping of Western society have been adopted there has been quite incredible resilience to other fanciful notions. About 2% of Japanese are Christian. Just like the UK then, I used to think. However, I have far more faith and hope that British society can fix it's broken ways than I have that Japan can change. Although I cannot deny I still do have hope that some little of the "Western science way" will rub-off. I even see small progress, but the thing that worries me is it will not stick - as soon as we go home it will all be forgotten... hey anyone want to come and take over a very difficult mission? :-)

Probably this will make most readers of this blog all tetchy but I also think that it would be nice if atheists in the UK realised quite how much of the good stuff in their society they owe to Christian tradition.

When I first read it I though it was appalling and horrible but the longer I stay the more I admire the incredible insight of A.A.Gill's Mad in Japan.

A climatey tidbit for those who made it to the end - can you believe this!!! I can't! What about the actual actual poor? And where has she been to see the effects of climate change? The only place I have seen it is in London where people now eat outside on the pavement to better breathe the fumes. Oh - and I can also see it if I add "CO2" to my climate models. Then I see it really really well...


Tony Lee said...

A A Gills' "insight" appears to consist of going someplace foreign, and listing all the ways it fails to measure up to the smashingly great things about Western society. Now, I used to work in Tokyo amongst Japanese, and there are plenty of things to complain about, believe you me. And I know good a rant can make you feel. (Japanese attitudes towards gays & women? Don't get me started.)

However, I also try to see the good. As an atheist, I appreciate that Japan's lack of spirituality is an ongoing experiment and deeply tied to its ambivalence towards modernism. And what definition of "spirituality" is Gills using in any case? Colonialism by travel writing is what he provides.

I could go on, but I just want to say: when I was pissed off with Japan I would have a drink with a Japanese co-worker (or a good friend who had mastered the language and been reporting there for 12 years), and almost always discovered that what pissed me off about Japan was what pissed them off about Japan. That doesn't mean that Japan is a fixed and unyielding society, as it often seems to gaijin. It just means that every society has its own way of changing.

James Annan said...

Oh, well, plum-san - I'm not sure what to add.

Yes, AA Gill's is a sarcastic article (presumably to make you laugh..?) but it has taken me years to even recognise most of the things he talks about, which he found presumably a result of a fairly short trip here and a bit of reading. That is why I think it is insightful. In order to draw the contrast so fast he obviously understands British culture better than me too.

You wrote that when you were pissed off in Japan you went to have a good bitch with your mates, but first of all I'm not pissed off - that's the whole point! A happy person living in Japan with no weight of obedience upon their shoulders can have a wonderful life here. Secondly the things I wrote _are_ a result of conversations with people - mostly over coffee not beer I admit...

As for a lack of spirituality, maybe it feels different in Tokyo, but living in Kamakura my impression in that everyone has some religious belief! Buddhism is fine (in fact I think Western culture could do with a regular dose of it) but the sting in its tail is that it strengthens the lack of willingness to try to effect any change - it has a big element of accepting the world as it is. Shinto, however, is pagan superstition, and it is rife.