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The Japanese

‘The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness.’ (Paul Theroux)

One of the most disconcerting things about the Japanese is you’re never really sure what they think of you. They learn from an early age to suppress and hide their true feelings. It’s considered much more important to respond to a situation in a way that is socially appropriate.

The world of the Japanese is sharply defined and few dare to question it. Authority is absolute and they are almost allergic to confrontation. No one wants to cause ‘loss of face’ and so the accepted way to handle a difficult situation is to smile awkwardly make a discreet exit, bowing as you go.

Yet as authoritarian and conformist as the Japanese are, it has done little to stunt their powerful imagination. In their art, their music and film, it’s clear they’re a people of great tact and subtlety. Granted, that may not be apparent in the 35 year-old woman going crazy over a stuffed Pooh Bear key-ring – however the Japanese take very seriously whatever they undertake and especially excel in the fields of art and music.

The Japanese at times seem a little foolish overseas and this comes down to a rather sweet, national naivety. They love anything that is kawaii or cute and go ape-shit over little plastic strawberry ear rings or pink fluffy things to attach to their cell phones. There is rumour of a new cable channel “Kawaii TV” which will feature only puppies, kittens and fluffy pom-poms.

Japanese teenagers seem to choose a fashion as a substitute for an identity. Many girls will lie under a sun ed until they go orange, dye their hair bright blonde and walk around in thigh-high boots, mini skirts and fishnet tights. The guys, meanwhile, may don hooded tops, baggy trousers and gold chains in their attempts to resemble the Japanese hip-hop stars.

You get this sense in Japan of a people in deep, unexpressed angst that they keep to themselves right up to the grave. The latent national masochism can perhaps be seen in the game shows where the object is to humiliate each contestant in as painful a way as possible. Or perhaps in the old custom of hiring a beautiful woman to lie naked next to the client all night – but he’s not allowed to touch her. Such exquisite torture!

Again, Paul Theroux said it best:

Is there a Japanese smile that does not seem like an expression of pain?’

This deep sense of shame and embarrassment that comes so easily to the Japanese can be seen in the behavior of the homeless. Despite the riches of the country there isn’t much of a safety net for those who hit the bottom. They sleep each night in the Metro stations and never will you see them ask for spare change.

There is a correct social form for doing everything in Japan. It’s not that the culture is inhibited, just very rigid and rule-bound. It’s considered perfectly normal for instance for a salary man to be reading pornographic comics on the Metro, as long as he does it quietly.

Go into 7-11 and every time the same obsequious litany of greetings, salutations and corporate gratitude will be showered on you by the staff who keep up their catatonic monologue without once making eye contact. Find yourself short of two cents to pay for your shopping though and they’ll stare at you in fixated confusion. Spontaneity is not so hot in Japan.

The depth to which the Japanese bow marks their respect for that person. They must always bow deeper to their boss than he does to them. Babies are carried on their mother’s backs in Japan and learn these subtleties automatically. Sometimes you’ll see people parting in a bowing contest where both want to be the last person to bow – they’ll keep it up at 50 metres.

It’s very rare to be invited to the home of a Japanese friend and even lovers often prefer to meet in love hotels. The house is a venerated sanctum that is simply too private to expose to strangers like your friends.

Japanese families also hardly ever touch one another for the embarrassment that might ensue from physical contact. Even when friends meet in the street they’ll run up to each other enthusiastically and then stop dead two paces away and wave at each other. A colder culture is hard to imagine.

Women are still second class citizens in Japan and it’s hard for them to overcome the gender roles laid down for them as brainless dolls. Any unmarried woman over the age of 25 risks being called ‘Christmas cake’ – as in the leftovers that no one wants. Feminists have pressured for this prejudice to be extended to 31 instead – New Year’s.