This is not something you see every day

One day I was walking along a path dedicated to philosophers in Kyoto, Japan, with my friend Hitomi. It was interesting that there even was a path dedicated to philosophers. It made me think deeply about paths, which at the time was the subject of my PhD Thesis. Suddenly, earning a Doctorate of Philosophy with a specialization in Paths made sense. But that feeling wore off quickly enough when we something rather unusual unexpectedly appeared in the sky.

First, we heard it. A thump thump thump sound. Then we noticed other people looking up and in one direction, so we looked too. We watched as dozens of helicopters ... maybe fifty or sixty ... forming a ragged, sinuous line passed overhead. There were blue ones in the color of the Japan Self Defense Force and green ones that looked like US military. They were going slowly enough that it took a few minutes for them to pass over, as everyone watched.

Over the previous several days, I had been encountering one new thing after another as Hitomi showed me around Inuyama and Kyoto (and later Osaka), and in each case as I would be taking in the novel sight Hitomi would quietly interject, at just the appropriate moment, a caption that perfectly fit the scene. So, as I watched the choppers go buy, I thought about what we were witnessing. It was, as I recall, some sort of local holiday, and New Years was just around the corner. Perhaps this was the annual areal parade. It could have been some sort of regular maneuvers designed to keep the JDF and the US military on the same page. Perhaps it was the monthly flight of some important dignitaries who liked to keep an eye on the philosophers path. In any event, I assumed this was normal and run of the mill, for Japan, for this city, for Hitomi, as was the case with everything else I had seen so far.

So when the choppers were out of sight but still audible, I assumed there would be a caption. We continued walking along the path. I waited for the caption. There was no caption. Finally, I said to Hitomi, "What the heck was that?" Her reply: "I have no idea. I've never seen that before."

Yet another example of not being able to tell what is normal in an unfamiliar environment unless you either ask or hang around for a while. Central to the ethnographer's methodological conundrum.

But today, I imagine that there are millions of Japanese People experiencing the a sense of uncanniness and unrooted discomfort every moment of the day as they observe things that just should not be there. A lack of home, missing members of their families, pets gone (and unfamiliar strays wandering hopelessly by), boats on roads, aircraft in junk heaps, cars piled haphazardly on public gardens, dead fish in bird baths, and the smell. The smell probably evolves, being different every day, with new kinds of rancidness as an unholy mulch breaks down between, beneath, on top of, everything pushed aside by the ocean acting very large next to an island that is actually very small.
I just glanced through this, which is one of the more interesting and poignant collections of images from the Tsunami area. It is not what Japan normally looks like, and it is not what Japan looks like in most places today, but it is what Japan looks like to the rest of the world, for now. Very sad.

One of the novel things I saw in Japan was at Hitomi's family home. Her home had been badly damaged by a typhoon (though I'm not sure which one) and she, like many others in Osaka, rebuilt their abodes to be typhoon proof. The unique feature that caught my eye (though admittedly not as interesting as this item, found in the bathroom.) were the window coverings. Each window had an external 'shade' made of metal roll-up sheets. Resembling the wood of a roll-top desk, or the metal covering one might use to seal up a storefront in a bad neighborhood, these covers made the windows of the very sturdily built house impervious to storm level winds. I'm pretty sure that these would even protect against a tornado, up to F-2 or F3, though the coverings themselves might sustain damage.

That is not something you would see in the US. Go find homes rebuilt after a tornado or hurricane. They'll be built pretty much in the same way they were built before, plus or minus this or that change in building practice or zoning code. In coastal New England, there are two kinds of post-hurricane or post-nor'easter homes: The kinds that were built about the same as the ones that were destroyed, and the kinds that were never rebuilt because of laws prohibiting rebuilding of homes that fell into the sea. ("That was a bad idea to begin with" laws.)

I don't put much stock in comments people make about how the information coming out of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants can cause future nukes to be built more safely. In the US. But in Japan, that just might happen. Japan seems to be a society that is capable of introspection and evolution, very much unlike American society. When I was a kid, my parent's peers scoffed regularly at the Japanese, in their feeble, even child-like efforts to replicate American products. Some of the grownups had been in Japan in the occupation forces. They scoffed in particular at the clones of the use Jeeps that were brought there by the military. They scoffed at the cheap, low quality consumer products coming into the US market.

I remember that pretty well but I also remember the day one of our neighbors, who's livlihood was the repair of complicated business machines such as cash registers and all-key calculators, coming over to our family's stoep where we were hanging in the shade of the maples out trying to stay cool one hot August afternoon. He had a white and black plastic squarish thingie with him. It said "Canon" on it, and had buttons.

"Look at this," he said. "This is going to put me out of business." It was a desktop Canon electronic calculator. His machine shop, he explained, did not have a single tool that would ever be used to fix something like this if it broke. And, it was cheap enough that one might not bother fixing it. The damn Japanese. They had produced something that was actually pretty nice. How dare they.

Several years later I worked on a contract to survey for archaeological sites in a 1960s period suburb, during a time (in the late 1970s) when the US Auto Industry was feeling it's first heat from Japan. The "energy crisis" had made it clear that small and fuel efficient cars were good. The Japanese were, rumor had it, selling cars at below cost (I have no idea if this is true) and more and more Americans were buying them. Toyota, that company that was cloning the jeeps back in the day, was leading the pack and making cars that were better than the American cars. Better, cheaper, more fuel efficient.

And in this neighborhood, a group of what I imagine to have been angry white men of a certain age ... former cash register repair men and the like ... had gone from house to house and identified every home that had a Japanese car. They took large chunks of children's' sidewalk chalk and written racist and insulting phrases, sometimes threatening in nature, at the entrance way of each driveway known to serve a Japanese vehicle. The parents, they were, of the next generation of Teabaggers, I have no doubt.

All that brought back memories of my childhood, when my over the fence neighbors were a two person Japanese Family. The mom had married a US occupation soldier during the war. They had one kid, and then the father died. So it was just mom and son, both identified as ethnic Japanese even though the kid's father was not Japanese. In those days, boys played "war" and since everyone's dad had been in World War II (or, disgracefully, not) it was the Americans against the Jerries or the Japs. Interestingly, the kids who were German were not required to be the bad guys. But Billy, my over the fence neighbor was. He and I played together and alone quite a bit. We were friends, and we did things together. But when the kids played as a group, he was only occasionally recruited, and was always, eventually, denigrated by the handful of kids who were always that way, who always had the racist remark or the racist joke, and who were, by the way, always the first to strike out with punch or challenge someone to a fight. Teabaggers of the future, I have no doubt.

The Japanese don't really need America's Love. They are fine the way they are and are quite independent and in many ways, above or at least way to the side of Western culture and economy. But American attitudes towards the Japanese have historically been embarrassingly immature and stupid. Shameful. There is a lot of hatred and distrust, disdain and racism. Interestingly, most Americans who have had actual interaction with actual Japanese people and who have spent actual time in the country come away with respect and love for the people, their land, and their culture. That has to tell you something.

The earthquake-tsunami-nuclear catastrophe in Japan is not something you see every day. But the way the Japanese will eventually deal with it is. It is something you see every day in Japan, and something we can learn from if we allow ourselves as a nation and a culture to see something good and smart rather than sinister or childish when we gaze to the east.

For more information and essays about the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Reactor problems in Japan CLICK HERE.


More like this

"Japan seems to be a society that is capable of introspection and evolution, very much unlike American society."

"Interestingly, most Americans who have had actual interaction with actual Japanese people and who have spent actual time in the country come away with respect and love for the people, their land, and their culture."


The hubs & I were wondering when we could make a trip back. The last time we were in Kyoto, we stayed at a ryokan just up the street from Nanzen-ji & the Philosopher's Path. It was beautiful, and I am glad that circumstances in my life have enabled me to consider myself a Japanophile.

Ignorance beckons disaster and grief. It's not an if but a when. Our time will come and if we are not ready for it, we only have ourselves to blame.

By Richard Chapman (not verified) on 19 Mar 2011 #permalink

People in general often react with fear and hatred to anyone sufficiently "different" from them. This may be partly genetically coded in us. The question is how can individuals within cultures discourage (or, unfortunately, encourage) this tendency? Leaders have traditionally used this seeming universal tendency to direct attention away from real problems while unifying a political base. This is common for right-wingers (the evil Mexicans are taking away your jobs) as well as left-wingers (the evil Japanese are taking away your jobs).

Traditionally the Japanese culture used to be considered one of the more xenophobic around. This supposedly has driven even their recent immigration policies. Are the Japanese as a culture truly more tolerant of others while Americans are truly less tolerant? Could it be that you can just as easily find Japanese people who bear a hatred of Americans?

I do know that Japanese culture used to be more concerned with outward appearance than Americans. For example, while there has been some looting in Japan during this crisis (which seems to be another universal trait), the news reports about that are almost never passed along to international media for rebroadcast. Could it be that the Japanese are just as bad as Americans (on average), but simply keep it better hidden? I suppose itâs time to hit the journals and see about studies done along these lines.

As for metal roll-up storm shutters, they are somewhat common in the US in Florida at least. Newer models are hidden so well itâs often difficult to see which homes have them and which donât. They are, however, expensive. In a nation where wood is cheap, itâs often far more economical to board up your windows before a big storm.

Are the Japanese as a culture truly more tolerant of others while Americans are truly less tolerant?

I did not suggest they were, by the way. All of my Japanese friends, and I have a number and have been quite close to some, are progressive liberal academics. But the culture/society is at some levels fairly xenophobic and unwelcoming, on other levels quite welcoming.

As for metal roll-up storm shutters, they are somewhat common in the US in Florida at least.

Good to hear. I'll bet their made in Japan!

Woof: I did not know that. That is funny at many levels. OK, let's just say I did that on purpose and I'm really smart and stuff.

Good to hear. I'll bet their made in Japan!

I'll bet they are made in China. But then again, does that matter?

I did not suggest they were, by the way.

Sorry. I guess I got confused when every example given was of Americans being jerks in an article contrasting the two cultures.

Everybody's a jerk. We're just trying to overlook that in our friends who are getting hammered at the moment.

Thank you for this article. I've never commented before, but this entry spoke to me personally in more than one way. First, my mother's situation growing up was likely similar to that of your neighbor, Billy. I am too young to have seen the historically intolerant attitudes of Americans toward the Japanese that you described, and it is not something my family talks about. However, I am certain that what you describe is a lot of the reason my generation (in my own family and the few people I have met who share a similar family history) tends to have a complicated relationship with that part of our heritage. Fortunately for me, my branch of the family has embraced it.

Second, because of my connections to the country (including some time spent living there), I have felt very deeply affected by the events in Japan, even after confirming that my friends & family there were safe & relatively unaffected. It has therefore been strange to see my friends here in the US, while sympathetic, finding it so easy to put it out of their minds.

But with your point that many seeing the images out of Japan do not have a "normal" reference point to compare it to, this makes a little more sense. No matter how horrible the pictures, understanding what has been lost, what those places should look like and the daily life that has been interrupted, perhaps makes the images cut more deeply. To many, as you pointed out, this is just what Japan looks like right now.

Japan is a fascinating story. They rose from a dynastic monarchy to a republic in a very short time.

Not only that, they embraced western culture and made it their own. In fact they probably made it better, not worse.

And you're right, used to be a day that "Made in Japan" was a symbol of lack of quality. But I hold in my hand right now a radio made by Vertex Standard a Yaesu VX-7R made in Japan and it's one hell of a radio and well worth the price I paid for it.

And I'm sitting on a leather chaise that was made in China.

So yes, Asia can build high quality goods.

But I wish we still built some of it in the United States.

Tony P, they are still not a republic. A democracy, yes, but not a republic. Like Britain.

All Japanese people hate stereotypes.

The adults whom you knew in your childhood lived through WW2, and through the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. They read the stories and may have known someone who lived through the Bataan Death March - I am 63, and in my childhood I knew 2 adults who did so. Both were badly disfigured and crippled by torture.

Traditional Japanese culture was, and is, one of the most uncompromisingly xenophobic in the world. When I lived there for a couple of years in the Sixties, it was commonplace for gaijin to be spat upon in public.

These truths are not justifications for racism or cultural bias; there are NO justifications for those attitudes. But they are truths. Westerners have no monopoly on xenophobia.

By nancy brownlee (not verified) on 20 Mar 2011 #permalink

Nemo, you say "Tony P, they are still not a republic. A democracy, yes, but not a republic. Like Britain."

But I disagree, I don't think they're a democracy either. After all they had the same party in power for the 54 years following the end of the II world war. It seems to me they're much more hierarchical. On the other hand they've a high opinion of consensus, so most opinions are taken in their reckoning before the decisions arrive.

By Antoni Jaume (not verified) on 20 Mar 2011 #permalink

Quite agree with almost everything about the Japanese, except, it is not the Japanese as such, but certain cultural characteristics that the east Asians around that area share, e.g. not having to suffer the remnants of Judeo-Christian culture as much as Westerners.
The Chinese are now catching up, jeeps and all, and we should indeed welcome them taking over the world, which they do soon without a doubt:…

The adults whom you knew in your childhood lived through WW2, and through the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. They read the stories and may have known someone who lived through the Bataan Death March - I am 63, and in my childhood I knew 2 adults who did so. Both were badly disfigured and crippled by torture.

Japan is very much a democracy, although I can understand how it could appear otherwise. The key is that while the LDP was in power for most of the post-war era, it was not a monolithic or ideologically rigid party. Japanese politics is based much more on individual personalities than party identity, and different personalities & sects within the LDP regularly emerged throughout this period, embracing different ideas and rising or falling in prominence in response to the voters. It was not uncommon for politicians to change parties without changing ideologies, or change policy positions without changing parties. Had the LDP been inflexible and refused to accommodate the demands of voters at any point in this period they would have ceased to be the ruling party. In fact, in 1993 they did become the minority and there was a short-lived non-LDP coalition government, although this had more to do with a party realignment than an actual change in voting patterns. It is also worth noting that the rule of the LDP ended in 2009, and the ruling party since the 2009 elections has been the DPJ.

This is not to say that the Japanese system is without problems- it has plenty. But it is inaccurate to say that it is not a democracy. Also, the factors behind the long single-party rule are extremely complex and do not boil down to simple cultural values such as hierarchy.