It is late October 2019; the trees along either bank of the Motoyasu are starting to turn pale orange and yellow and drop leaves into the river, and I am closing bank accounts and notifying authorities and getting ready to fly home via Manila. I shall be reading this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence. Whether it’s a sigh of regret or sweet natsukashii1 remains to be told.
I came here sixteen months ago. At that point, I’d never truly lived abroad before, a few weeks volunteering in Zambia notwithstanding. Consequently, I followed a relatively well-worn path, jumping off the Shinkansen into a paint-by-numbers teaching job. It’s an open question whether that was the best path for me, but I think it’s the only path I would ever have realistically taken. In certain ways, I’ve grown in personal and professional confidence, but you can’t transplant that confidence back in time. You can only use it for the future.
Sometimes, it feels like sixteen months is just a taster course. In a country where the language is undeniably tough to learn and people make friends slowly and cautiously, integration takes consistent effort, and I’m nothing if not inconsistent in my efforts. But despite my partial immersion, I’ve learnt things. A friend of mine who works as a barber once told me that being a barber gives you a good perspective on society, as people of different ages and backgrounds sit down, relax and chat to you about their lives. To some extent, I felt the same about English teaching. You sit down in a swivel chair and chat with high-schoolers and grandparents, engineers and carers, Conservative campaigners and overseas volunteers. I may not always have loved my job, but it was a good window into the workings of Japan.
Edamame in the Ashtray: Notes on Japanese Society
If there’s one message that you’re beaten over the head with again and again, it’s that Japan is a formal society. True, there’s a proliferation of social rules covering everything from how to hold a bowl while eating noodles, to how to walk while wearing a kimono or hand over a thousand-yen note. All societies have unwritten rules, but Japan is a world leader in ritual and etiquette. This is a place where middle school uniforms can resemble freshly-pressed military gear.
As somebody who struggles with formality at the best of times, I clashed with this side of Japan often. I’ve been criticised for leaving work thirty seconds early after finishing all useful chores, and for crossing an deserted street at a red light in the middle of the night. It’s the same mentality that makes people sit in the office after hours, doing pointless, unproductive work because their boss is on overtime too. At its worst, ritual can be a substitute for thought, and I never sank into a deeper abyss frustration than when I asked the question ‘why do you do this?’ and got the answer ‘because it’s our culture’. That’s not an answer and it never was.
The formality itself undoubtedly has its roots in a certain kind of group mentality. The love of uniform is a symptom of a society where group identities are relatively powerful, from the nation itself down to the company and the school basketball team. The conformism in Japanese society is sometimes exaggerated, but compared to your average Brit or Canadian, say, there’s no question that Japanese people give more weight to what their peers think before making a decision. British people shopping, eating or enjoying their leisure time in Japan will inevitably have some story of having asked to do something slightly differently than is expected, and being met with the panicked silence of a shop staff/waiter/steward/civil servant. Some of them will disparagingly say that Japanese society discourages independent thought, but I don’t really think that’s true. It’s more that, in a society where group decisions bear more weight, asking someone to modify the rules (even if it makes total sense) is asking them to go against a respected group consensus. People think independently, but have trouble acting in a way that the wider group might disapprove of.
Happily, this image of Japan is half of a story at best. If you dig deeper, there’s a whole world of raucous informality that lives under the skin of the country. The underground music scene is small here, but what it lacks in scale it makes up for on vigour and creative energy. I love finding smoky little bars stacked to the rafters with old records, every bit of remaining space artfully filled with barstools and pamphlets. Maybe these places will be jazz bars stocked with some old collector’s lifelong hoard. Alternatively, they might host DJs who switch between hip hop, funk, garage and soul with wild abandon. Compared to similar scenes in the U.K., there are fewer boundaries erected between genres, and arguably less gatekeeping. I want musicians to get a fair wage for their work, but there’s no denying that the lack of financial incentives can encourage free-thinking.
I wonder if Japan is not so much a formal society, as a society where the division between formal and informal is starkly drawn2. The space outside that formal zone is smaller than it is in most societies, perhaps, and for me that’s difficult to accept. It’s hard to accept for Japanese people, too- I’ve met more than one person who is planning to move abroad to taste freer air. However, this isn’t the whole story either. During my long summer I met people who challenged this notion, like Shunji, who was biking around the four islands looking for a new place to call home. Or consider the elderly activists I met in Hiroshima, who were building connections with Iraq and battling to globalise opposition to the use of chemical and nuclear weapons, against the stony silence of government officials. In the end, to channel Marco Polo, I didn’t write half of what I’ve seen (or who I’ve met) here.
The World I’m Leaving
I was sitting on a bench earlier today outside a motorway service station, eating ice cream in the afternoon sunshine3. It was a very typical Japanese service station, with a small udon cafe and a faintly whimsical map of local tourist attractions painted on a flat-faced boulder. It suddenly hit me that I’d be leaving all these little things behind.
And I will miss it. I’ll miss any number of things. For example, I’ve never known such a balance of superabundance and minimalism as a Japanese garden. Often, the whole thing feels stripped of colour, with grey slate and pebbles. The aim is to make something astringent, like a puckering of the lips for your aesthetic sensibility. But the mossy stones are bursting at the seams with life, and there’s those incredible maple trees which turn scarlet in autumn. I particularly love the lakes criss-crossed by water lilies, perhaps thousands of fragile islands stretching out across the water. This part of the country always seems impossibly green to me, overflowing with verdant energy. Sometimes I wonder if gardeners try to trap, prune and limit nature because they’re scared of its true power.
Turning on a dime, I love the typically high quality of fast food. This country more than most knows that just because it’s quick to the table, it doesn’t mean your standards can get sloppy. Crispy fried katsudon with rice and miso soup doesn’t seem to suffer from a ten-minute preparation time, while sushi or udon can be prepared in front of you in seconds flat, without sacrificing on flavour. Some of those flavours will be sorely missed, like tangy, sour yuzu and umeboshi, or rich okonomiyaki sauce (more than one friend has called this stuff the crack cocaine of condiments). There’s no substitute for the great sharing culture of communal eating, such as the small-plate spreads at izakaya. The epitome of this culture is the shabu-shabu hotpot, where everybody simmers their meat in the same bubbling pot, stocked with mushrooms, tofu, cabbage and whatever else you care to throw in.
I’ll miss the playful amiability of football crowds here- those guys might have ultras banners, but they ain’t starting any riots. That kind of peaceful rivalry speaks to a society which doesn’t seem to produce tribal tensions like others I’ve known. Likewise the extreme care given to small details, like the intricate personal stamps (inkan) which people use for official documents, or the chains of a thousand paper cranes (senbazuru) folded intricately by hand to make a wish for peace4. I’ll certainly mourn the incense-heady darkened rooms of temples, where gilded statues and gloom come together and fulfil a spiritual unity. I’ve seen some incredible Buddhist artworks, some of them hundreds of years old; some of them imbued with profound, lasting human emotions, others grotesque or frankly, a bit camp. I’ll miss the whirring of the coin laundry and the shocking red torii gates and the relaxation of the onsen and the ridiculous chorus of arigatoooou-gozaimasu! every time you leave a restaurant. I’ll miss the people I’ve met along the way too, friends, fellow teachers, students, summer camp colleagues and others along for the ride.
I haven’t fully come to terms with what I’ll miss, and what I’m glad to leave behind, yet. It’s all too sudden. I’m not closing any doors just yet, as my Visa will remain valid for a year. Beyond that, I’m absolutely certain I’ll return someday, in some capacity. I just don’t know what life will look like then. In the meantime, I’m kind of looking forward to watching Japan from afar, as it mutates and changes through the 21st century. But then again, will it ever feel so far away?
The world is smaller now. It’s indisputable. At its birth, the Internet made it easier to communicate with people far away- and then Web 2.0 arrived and gave us a window into everybody’s living room, through FaceTime and vlogs and the like. The world keeps working to advance the ‘elimination of distance’, making the faraway periodically close and the sporadic events of the world seem interconnected. It also makes homecoming feel like a smaller deal than it once might have done- the streets still fresh in my memory, and news of friends and family fresh in my Facebook feed. I might be wrong, but I don’t think it’ll feel earth-shattering like my arrival here was. In a sense, my world has shrunk a little.
On a personal level, I can’t imagine how different my time in Japan would have been without the Internet. As I found the job online in the first place, who knows if It would even have happened. But let’s say it did. I wouldn’t have been writing a blog for anyone, of course. Beyond that, I would have felt much further from home, much more lonely at the start. Right now, I’m probably as well abreast of friend and family happenings as I would’ve been if I’d been staying in Aberdeen or Aberystwyth. Then there’s all the information you absorb from the Internet when you arrive in a new city. Before the nineties, I would’ve been walking in the footsteps of a small circle of friends, and perhaps an author or two. Now, I’m following a horde of thousands, sifting through their impressions and choices and mistakes. That’s not to mention all the last minute hostels I located and booked when I was travelling, so I could change my itinerary on the fly. Then there’s the kanji learning app and the constant, portable dictionary and a Tinder date or two, and a never ending set of other little alterations, each one moving our reality further from the alternate timeline.
I know six trillion thinkpieces are written about it every week, but I think we still underestimate the extent to which the Internet has changed human societies in a generation. We focus on the contingent changes and ignore the big sweeping patterns: in thirty years, this sprawling alien being has changed the way we work, go shopping, date, do politics, adjust to new places, absorb culture and evaluate opinions. Without a full acknowledgment of this transformation, we’re not equipped to evaluate it, weigh up the good and the bad, and be the agents of change.
I wish I could confidently say that the internet has brought us all closer together, but I’m not so sure. Twenty-year-old me confidently told my dad that the Arab Spring proved that the internet would destroy authoritarians by spreading information. Instead, authoritarian regimes from Russia to the one in the White House proved that an endless torrent of unverifiable information could be turned to their advantage. I’m dreading returning to the depressing crucible of Brexit, which I’d argue was both caused5 and exacerbated by the internet. First, the steady march of online shopping and entertainment left small-town centres often empty and depressing. Then, the internet dehumanised our enemies, reducing them to text on a screen, and encouraged us to be abusive and uncompromising. But on the other hand, I do get to write a blog.
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So much more to say, of course6. I can’t find an easy way to channel or contain my thoughts into paragraphs today, and I think it shows. I’m looking forward to seeing how the blog develops in the future, and I hope you’ll all keep reading. I’ll leave you with a very famous swansong in enka style.
For (maybe) the last time,
From Your Correspondent in Japan.
1- technically, this is an adjective, not a noun. It means ‘nostalgic’, although like many words signifying emotion, it’s complex, and this isn’t a perfect translation. It can also be used as a one-word interjection when seeing or hearing something from long ago.
2- then again, some thinkers will argue that Japanese culture is defined by a lack of sharp boundaries between activities: sumo is both sport and religious practice, the tea ceremony is both a ritual and a social gathering, and so on.
3- it’s almost November, but it’s still in the low twenties here. I am not ready for England.
4- this tradition was made famous by Sadako Sasaki, a child atomic bomb survivor who later died from leukaemia.
5- well, partly.
6- I went to the final resting place of Oda Nobunaga this September, and didn’t even mention it. The times have changed me.