Tokyo Damage Report

nakajima’s JAPANESE ARE HALF FALLEN PART 3

CHAPTER THREE: THE FLOOD OF STANDARDIZED SPEECH.

SLOGAN  NEUROSIS

Again I have a syndrome to report to you: I suffer from “slogan neurosis.”

For a long time, the whole length and breadth of my country has been blanketed in these DON’T DO THIS! DO IT LIKE THAT! slogans – what I’d like to call ‘Behavior Management Broadcasts’.  I’ve managed to tolerate them until recently, but now they cause me mental suffering! It’s not just that they turn our streets into ugly places.  

Warning slogans like  PLEASE DON’T THROW YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS ON THE GROUND and  LET’S NOT PICK THE FLOWERS and PLEASE STOP PARKING CARS WHERE THEY WILL BE A NUISANCE TO OTHERS, to say nothing of ‘road-manners’ slogans like  LET’S GREET PEOPLE CHEERFULLY TODAY and LET’S WATCH OUT FOR THE CHILDREN ON THEIR WAY TO AND FROM SCHOOL . . .they cause spiritual harm to us all.

Everyone has individuality. Grown-ups should have the mental capacity to make their own judgments and take responsibility for their own actions. But these slogans are trying to destroy that. Our culture is packed to the brim with every possible slogan, but the powers-that-be don’t expect us to read each one, think about it, and accept its message. That isn’t the point. It’s just like promotional signs for businesses: the signs and slogans work subliminally on the passers-by, precisely because we don’t take time to look and judge them objectively. Their messages hover between conscious and unconscious thought, guiding us. That’s the point. That’s why the powers that be don’t want Japanese to develop a sense of self-responsibility and critical thinking: those things are totally opposed to the process I just described.

Allow me to take this explanation a bit further:  TV commercials attempt to persuade us to buy certain things without us realizing it. In the same way, DON’T LITTER banners attempt, through sheer repetition rather than logic or instilling a sense of responsibility for one’s actions, to get us to obey. They try to stop the thought of “I’ll drop my cigarette here” from even occurring in our minds, without us even noticing that our behavior has changed or asking why. Surely that is the goal of the behavior management slogans!  The same way with the LET’S GREET EVERYONE CHEERFULLY slogans on the street . .. if you see the same slogan every day for years, you’ll start to find the phrase “Hello sir!” coming from your throat as if it was a natural reflex. That’s what the city officials are hoping will happen.

If you think about it this way, they’re taking away our ability to consent. The message is supposed to sink into your body through repetition and be absorbed. That seems to be a central principle of Japanese culture: without exception, Japanese training in everything from tea ceremony to kendo is conducted in this way.

And that’s why we have this magma-like flood of behavior management slogan posters. Back when this type of training was limited to things like kendo and tea ceremony, I think it had beneficial effects. But the dam broke, spilling slogans and posters over the entire surface of Japan! It’s a crisis, because, as I said, the behavior management slogans are designed to operate subliminally. Our bodies cry out in protest, though we know not why. Our critical thinking and individual-responsibility faculties are being suppressed. We’re living in a time of spiritual violence!  Instead of strict mental training, from now on we’ll only get simplistic advice. We’re turning into a nation of “body-ism,” where the mind doesn’t matter anymore.  

And let me add something else, a little icing on the cake for my more astute readers: my biggest reason for hating these slogans is NOT that they are turning the MASSES stupid by inhibiting their faculties for self-determination, critical thinking, and self-responsibility. I’m not that philosophical. My #1 beef is this:  I can’t tune them out!

Unlike most Japanese, I have to stop at each one and ponder if I agree with its message, and weigh it critically to see if it’s logical. I’ve tried to stop doing this, as there are millions of these things and I’m busy, but it’s impossible for me!  I can’t stand it anymore! I can’t walk down a simple street without having a mental argument with every flag, poster, banner, sign, and flyer! On the streets, in the trains, at the amusement parks, my place of work. . .the signs are everywhere, there is no escaping them, they assault my body from all sides, leaving me both physically and mentally exhausted.

DON’T FORCE OPEN THE ELEVATOR DOORS, PLEASE

I’m sure you’re sick of me always complaining about my employer, Dentsu University, but fucking West Hall Four was just built and already it’s full of dreadful behavior management slogans: PLEASE DON’T THROW YOUR TRASH ON THE FLOOR, LAST PERSON IN THE ROOM PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS WHEN YOU LEAVE, and so on. The most absurd of them all is: PEOPLE WHO DO NOT PROMISE TO FOLLOW ALL THE ABOVE SLOGANS ARE FORBIDDEN TO ENTER THE CLASSROOM.

No one is reading these things! Nobody asked for them, either. But, nobody minds them either. Nobody says a word in protest. Sometimes in the middle of class (especially big classes with a hundred students), I will suddenly ask the kids, “Does anybody know what is written up there?” The kids turn to look, but so far not a one has been able to say, “Yes.”

The elevator in the main administration building has warnings posted :  CHILDREN, PLEASE DON’T RIDE ON ME WITHOUT AN ADULT and DON’T LEAN ON MY DOORS! But the most ridiculous one has got to be: PLEASE DON’T FORCE MY DOORS OPEN.  Perhaps I’m the only person in the whole campus to read this warning! But, it’s better to evaluate them consciously (as pesky as they are) than to be controlled by them unconsciously.

At Narita airport, the  immigration station, there’s a hilariously oversized banner reading: INTERNATIONAL PEOPLE, FOLLOW THE RULES!!! (in Japanese, of course). Some hero must have thought this would stop people from trying to bring in drugs or guns.

I could go on forever with these sorts of examples. It seems like in the time it takes to read one of these ridiculous signs, someone installs ten more signs in a row!

In Choufu city, there’s a paved road running along the banks of the Tama river. One day in summer, around sundown, I was walking with some of my friends. Many other people were also out for a stroll. A man and a woman were jogging. We could see endless rows of hills in the distance. I felt freed from my worries, freed from the weight of my anxieties at last.

But even here, there were signs, in letters over a meter high, saying, DON’T RUN FAST HERE, BE CAREFUL OF PEOPLE AROUND YOU. Can’t we call an end to this nonsense? Of course one should be careful about people around one! But as I’ve said before, the signs aren’t meant to be read, or taken literally. . .they exist to make us want more signs! They exist to replace critical thought and self-responsibility, and, little by little, instill a deep craving in our bodies for signs and slogans to tell us what to do at all times.

At the Chofu station coin lockers, there’s a sign reading PLEASE CHECK YOUR BELONGINGS ONE MORE TIME.  What does that even mean?!? Oh – I get it: Maybe people put their stuff in one locker but take the key from the adjoining locker. Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Hm. Well, maybe. . . . maybe they have so much stuff that they have to use two lockers? And then they take the key for one locker, and leave, while leaving the other locker unlocked?  That’s probably it.

At the newly-renovated Sangawa station men’s bathroom, there’s a sign by each urinal: TAKE ONE STEP CLOSER, PLEASE. Well, that’s easy to understand: that’s to stop urine from splattering on the floor. It’s the OTHER sign that’s ALSO pasted above each urinal that I don’t get: LET’S USE THE RESTROOM CLEANLY TO EACH OTHER.  “To each other”?!?  Maybe it means to consider the next person to use the urinal when you’re using it? Or does ‘to each other’ include the person before you, who used the urinal improperly?  If so, that’s quite a strong message!

At the JR Bakurochou station, there’s a long escalator, and on both sides, there are signs posted at regular intervals, reading BETWEEN THE ESCALATOR HANDRAIL  AND THE WALL, THERE IS A SMALL GAP. PLEASE DON’T DROP YOUR TICKET IN THIS GAP.

Just by reading this sign, I am forced to imagine the entire absurd useless sequence of events:  I have to imagine customers (how many? One? Three? Half a dozen?) with no common sense, dropping their tickets in the tiny gap. Then I have to imagine the train-station employees stopping the escalator, putting up safety cones, and searching under the escalator until they find it. Then I have to imagine them finally getting fed up and complaining to the station chief, and thus the creation of these signs. How exhausting to even imagine it. . . It’s no wonder no one reads them!

One time I made the mistake of leaving the house with my glasses on, which allowed me to accidentally notice many far-away slogans, forcing me to imagine even more and more of these ridiculous chains of events! I got sucked into them, staring vacantly into the distance. . . I almost was unable to reach my destination!  

My own fault, I suppose.

THE JAPANESE-VIENNESE SCHOOL FLOODED WITH SLOGANS

But the fact is, we people with “slogan neurosis” are even more of a minority in this country than people with “cultural noise neurosis.”  In a world where we’re all surrounded and suffocated by slogans such as FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS or DONATE BLOOD PLEASE or THIS BLOCK IS WATCHED BY THE NEIGHBORHOOD ANTI-CRIME PATROL or LET’S NOT FORGET TO LEND A HAND or LET’S MAKE THIS A KIND, INTIMATE NEIGHBORHOOD, almost no one questions it, let alone suffers from the overwhelming amounts of it.

The situation is particularly bad in schools. There’s almost no teachers left who can even imagine doubting the slogan-based teaching methods. They line the children up and bombard them with loudspeaker announcement after announcement with a single-minded fierceness. They pickle the children with their slogans!  By the time the children are “educated”, they turn into adults who feel very anxious or uneasy if they’re NOT surrounded by signs: warnings, be careful’s, advice, prohibitions, etc.

My son went to the experimental Meisei school here in Japan, then to Vienna for a year to study (four months at a Japanese-Viennese school, and a further eight months at an American English International School). I confess I was very curious about what effect these various educational environments would have on him!

The Meisei school was dedicated to encouraging freedom of thought and individuality in the children. So, there are none of the usual behavior management slogans that crawl on most school walls, bathrooms, halls, and gardens like so many cockroaches. No “PLEASE OBEY THE XXXX” or “PLEASE STOP DOING YYY.”

Somehow, just by removing these nuisances, the atmosphere of the place seems very un-Japanese. . . .is that really what “Japanese-ness” has been reduced to?

 On the other hand, when I went to visit the Japanese-Viennese school, I was taken aback: they had EVEN MORE of the management slogan posters than in Japan! The irony!  As if they were trying to protect the children from the foreign European cultures, they tried to cram every single slogan into one tiny room. The room was called, of course, The Japanese Culture Center! You couldn’t set one foot inside the halls without seeing some vertical banners saying something like this:

JUST BY HOLDING HANDS, WE CAN BRING SMILES TO THE WHOLE WORLD

And these three, written in huge letters:

THIS WEEK’S GOAL: GREET OTHERS PLEASANTLY WITHOUT SHYNESS!
LET’S ALL TRY TO BE ON TIME!
LET’S BALANCE OUR STUDY WITH PHYSICAL EXERCISE!

And another example: on the blackboard of my junior-high-aged son’s classroom:

OUR SLOGAN: EDUCATION TO DEVELOP OUR DREAMS!
THIS SCHOOL MAKES LEARNING FUN!
A SPUNKY SCHOOL FOR US!
OUR FUNDAMENTAL MISSION:
ONE: CONSIDERATE CHILDREN
TWO: STRONG HEALTHY CHILDREN
THREE: THOUGHTFUL CHILDREN
FOUR:  CHILDREN THAT WON’T LEAVE A TASK HALF-DONE
FIVE: CHILDREN WITH THEIR EYES ON THE WORLD

Of course, the blackboard already had a lot of other slogans crammed in the corners : FREEDOM, COOPERATION, LIVELINESS and mysteriously, in English, PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.

It was as if there was a bit of “concentrated Japan” floating in the absolutely non-Japanese atmosphere of Vienna.

One day, my son – already 14 years old – brought home the following SAFETY FIRST! Pamphlet from school.

SAFETY FIRST!

SAFETY WHEN WALKING ON THE STREET:
 Make sure to stay on the sidewalk!
Make sure to check both ways before crossing!
Don’t go in parking lots!
Please be safe when riding your bicycle!
If you see someone you know, greet them cheerfully!
If you don’t know them, don’t stop!

SAFETY WHEN RIDING CARS OR BUSES
Don’t stand up or yell!
Don’t annoy those around you!
Don’t play with the doors!

SAFETY WHEN RIDING THE SCHOOLBUS
Say hello to the driver cheerfully!
Fasten your seat-belts!
Don’t stand or yell!
Don’t eat or drink on the bus!
Remember where your stop is!
Don’t do anything else bad!

The pamphlet then went into even greater detail:

Only cross in the crosswalks!
Check both ways before crossing!
Greet people cheerfully!
Don’t do anything that people might think is dangerous!
Treat the bus seats and items carefully! And so on.

A whole page of these stock phrases, fluttering by like zero gravity.

I think the purpose is not bus safety – the purpose is creating the type of children that find this level of BS normal or even trustworthy. Well, there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s what people demand of schools nowadays! That’s how we make Japanese people Japanese. By the time they grow up, they won’t find anything absurd, or petty, or infantalizing about “grown up” signs like THROW YOUR TRASH IN THE TRASH BIN or OBEY THE TRAFFIC SIGNALS or  DON’T BRING DANGEROUS THINGS IN THE PARK.

WE GRATEFULLY THANK YOU FOR USING THE KICHIJOJI BRANCH ONCE AGAIN!

 It’s not merely that I hate slogans. What really causes problems is that I hate the Japanese-y way that people use the Japanese language. Especially the standardized, robotic politeness – it causes me actual bodily pain!  

When I’m working from home, I sometimes get a call. I know it’s not from anybody I want to talk to, because I’ve already told all my friends not to call me at home (I consider it a violation of my private space). But there it was, ringing, so I had to answer it.

“This is Mizuho Bank, Kichijoji branch respectfully calling. Thank you for honorably using our branch for your banking needs! Is this the honorable Nakajima residence?”

“Yes.”

“Honorable Mr. Nakajima, I’m sorry to bother you, but are you the head of the household?”

“No.”

“Are you the honorable husband of the household? Once again, thank you for honorably using Kichijoji branch for all your banking needs. Today, I humbly would like to present a proposal, which is why I have humbly telephoned your honorable residence.”

“Huh.”

“The fact of the matter is, I’d humbly like to make you aware of a new form of high-interest account which . . .”

Irritated, I cut him off by saying, “I have no interest in this!” and hung up. Partially because of the cumulative rage built up by who-knows-how-many of these phone calls, but mostly because, as I just mentioned, the insufferable, robotic politeness which runs in direct contradiction to the rudeness of the actual content of the message.

It doesn’t matter who calls me, it’s always the same phrases: “Once again, thank you for honorably using Kichijoji branch for all your banking needs.” I suppose that’s part of their training.

In the time it takes for me to use the ticket machine for the shinkansen, the machine yells at me at least ten fucking times, THANK YOU FOR HONORABLY USING OUR HUMBLE SHINKANSEN SERVICE WE ARE GRATEFUL HONORED CUSTOMER!  I absolutely have had it up to here with this phenomenon! It’s a stereotyped politeness with no informational content whatsoever. In department stores and restaurants too, it’s bad enough that they play tapes, but every meaningful sentence has to be accompanied by a stereotyped formal phrase of equal or greater length:  THANK YOU FOR HONORABLY USING OUR HUMBLE XXXXX STORE!

And what’s more, many of these announcements are recorded in a cloying, too-sweet voice, like someone trying to coax a cat. More and more, it seems as if the politeness and the anxiety are forming an alliance against me!

My wise readers might by now have realized that it is the very machine-like, rote nature of our business-related language that makes it easy to adjust to actual pre-recorded tapes and announcements. But that doesn’t make the phenomenon natural or forgivable!  If anything, my “Mechanical-noise neurosis” stems from the fact that we flesh-and-blood humans are nowadays being raised to imitate the speaking style of the tape machines!!

And this insidious problem is not limited to words, either.  The whole “extreme politeness” phenomenon makes a mockery of the individuality of the speaker at the same time that it totally ignores the individuality of the listener. As far as I can tell, far from being ‘tradition’, it’s the most UN-natural thing in the world!  The young women working in department stores and banks . . . when they are on their lunch break , they sound absolutely different!  When talking to their co-workers, they use a way of speaking and a tone of voice which is natural for them.  (when I was a student, one time I worked part-time in a department store, and that’s how I know this). The metamorphosis is so complete, it’s a gut-wrenching thing to watch.

In the West, the manners of sales-girls and bank tellers is less affected.  Even  at Macdonald’s, the staff don’t have to be as rigid and long-winded as their Japanese counterparts, who say  HONORABLE WELCOME! WHEN YOU DECIDE, PLEASE BE SO KIND AS TO LET US KNOW. PLEASE WAIT A MOMENT!

As for Japanese bank tellers, it doesn’t matter what unreasonable demands the customer makes, or how rude he is – they have to respond to any and all treatment with the same wan smile and deferential attitude, to the last drop of their endurance. Their Western counterparts are free to adjust their own attitude in response to the customer’s: they can be as blunt or curt as the situation demands. It’s an altogether more human policy. And when a regular customer comes in, they can greet him or her with informal friendliness, and even make small talk!!

As you can see, I prefer the Western attitude towards customer service, but it’s not merely an issue of personal taste. In Western countries, you absolutely won’t find this nationwide blanket of loudspeaker announcements, and that’s not personal taste, that’s a fact.

In my country, customer-service people are expected to lose their capacity to show emotion. If anything, they’re expected to transform into deferential robots.  If you go to any bank, you can hear for yourself that the young woman at the counter talks exactly like the pre-recorded tape at the self-service ATM machine.  This “the more mechanical the better” ideal of customer service is probably one of the main culprits of the whole CULTURAL NOISE phenomenon:  If we didn’t expect our clerks to talk like machines, then we wouldn’t demand machines that talk in the first place!  

Japanese people who have been born and raised in such an environment grow up to expect and even demand this. The mechanical language and the over-politeness, functions just like the slogans, the SOUNDS, and the obsessive signage: we feel anxious and even uneasy without them. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the following section.

STANDARDIZED AND MACHINELIKE, UN-EMOTIONAL SPEECH

The following incident occurred when I gave a lecture at Kyoto’s Bukyou University.

A few days after I returned to Tokyo, I received this letter from Bukyou:

DEAR AND HONORED PROFESSOR,

Please allow us to humbly state that it was our honor to have the honorable opportunity to hear your honorable lecture.  Every time you honor our humble educational center with your unforgettable words, you bring us honor and more honor.  Allow us to humbly state that  the contents of your honorable lecture were sublime and we humbly owe you a huge debt of gratitude. Anytime you honorably wish to honorably return and impart more of your honorable wisdom, please don’t hesitate to honorably let us know. Please allow us to humbly state that we have humbly presented your honorarium fee to your honorable bank account.  We wish you the best of luck in your future honorable endeavors, and anxiously await further guidance, should you wish to honorably bestow it upon us.  Please look favorably upon our humble educational center.

Please accept our humble and most sincere wishes for good luck in your honorable and great career, as well as our humble and most sincere wishes for your continued good health.

The respectful language aside, I get this exact same letter every time I go there. As does everyone else who guest-lectures there.  I don’t know if it gets on their nerves as much as it gets on mine. But to me, it’s a form letter, all the worse for pretending to not be one.

But the majority of Japanese don’t react like I do to this kind of pre-formatted polite language. They prefer their thank-you letters to be superficial and devoid of content. It’s just the same as the loudspeaker announcements that blare THANK YOU VERY MUCH : they understand the sentiments without really thinking about the content. Just like the PLEASE DON’T CROWD ONTO THE TRAINS, AS IT IS DANGEROUS warnings which play all day on the station platforms. People are bathed in these announcements every morning but don’t think about it one way or the other.

Now, let me return to my story about the annoying phone call from Mizuho bank, Kichijoji branch. Seeing as how I was too wound-up to return to work, I decided to use the time to call the branch manager directly.  I said, “I’d like to complain about the attitude of the staffer who called me.”

“What’s the matter? Was he rude, sir?”

(Oh, that’s right: in this country, only insufficient politeness is considered grounds for complaint)

“No, he was a nuisance to me because his choice of words was TOO polite.”

“Whaaaa?”

“See, I work from home. If he’s going to interrupt my labor, he should come right to the point rather than waste time with phrases like WE GRATEFULLY THANK YOU FOR USING THE KICHIJOJI BRANCH ONCE AGAIN! And other such clichés, again and again and again. Won’t you please make him stop? Can you explain to me how that is supposed to make it more sincere? If anything it strikes me as inginburei ( 慇懃無礼:polite on the surface but actually contemptuous; offensively obsequious)”

“*sighs* I’m very sorry we interrupted your work.”

And that was about the end of the call! The branch manager didn’t understand – make that didn’t WANT to understand –  what I was talking about. Perhaps I should have apologized for speaking so rashly. I merely meant to indicate that if they  really want to show respect for me, personally, as a customer, then they should  show this by taking my personal preferences into account. Of course there’s many different kinds of regular customers, and they all have their own ways of talking. Perhaps some of them like the excessive politeness.  Perhaps for some of them it doesn’t cause unease and resentment.

So I’m not asking you to change your whole speech for everybody. Just, if you call me, get to the point like so: THIS IS MIZUHO BANK, KICHIJOJI BARNCH. IS NAKAJIMA HOME? I WOULD LIKE TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT A NEW HIGH-INTEREST ACCOUNT.  

Real respect means actually taking the time to learn the individual speaking styles individual customers prefer.

However, I was not able to actually tell him that on the phone. As a Japanese, I know how extreme – how violent – such a demand would sound. Most Japanese have been raised with pre-formatted speech to the extent that it’s soaked clear down to their bones. To them, having to deal with the individual speaking style of each customer would be the most difficult thing in the world.

That’s why the current rule exists: “be so polite that none of the many personality types could possibly find anything to object to.” In other words, ‘idiotic politeness.” The ultimate aim is not to actually respect the customer – if anything, it’s just self-defense measure.  That’s why I find it so discomforting.

Another example: the asinine messages one gets when the phone lines are down:  For instance, NHK (telephone company’s) message:  THIS IS NHK. WE HUMBLY THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION EVERY DAY. YOU ARE NOW USING OUR HUMBLE TELEPHONE, HOWEVER AT THIS TIME WE CAN NOT ACCOMMODATE YOUR WISHES TO BE CONNECTED TO THE HONORABLE PERSON ON THE OTHER END. WE ARE TERRIBLY SORRY ABOUT THIS. WE HUMBLY BEG YOU TO HONORABLY TRY YOUR CALL  AGAIN SOMETIME BETWEEN NINE AND TEN O’CLOCK.

All I wanted to know is, what time will the phones be on again! But instead, because of the politeness-speak, I have to wait a full thirty seconds to hear a two second message!

WHAT, HE’S OBJECTING TO GREETINGS TOO, NOW?!?

I’m aware that my hyper-sensitivity to the clichés of politeness is, out of all my hyper-sensitivities, the one least likely to elicit any sympathy in Japan!!  The majority of people like to be thanked for anything and everything, over and over again, even if it’s just a tape. But if they don’t get an arigatou gozaimasu, they are hopping mad. If the conductor makes an announcement of the train’s schedule but omits such formalities as THANK YOU ONCE AGAIN FOR CHOOSING SUCH-AND-SUCH TRAIN LINES, people will feel disrespected.  To the average Japanese,  service-industry people are expected to behave like slaves: in their choice of words, they should humble themselves as low as possible and exalt the customer as much as possible. That is what “service” means. People take this at face value: that they are valued, that they can feel safe and relax at this store.

According to a Western economist,  Japanese consumers are treated badly by Japan’s economic policies. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s also true that Japanese consumers have entirely different expectations than their Western counterparts. Japanese place less emphasis on things like “whether the goods are overpriced” or “are they good quality?”  . . .instead we mainly care about “Is the service attitude correct and sincere?”  We constantly complain to each other, saying things like, “That train-station worker’s choice of words was wrong!” or “That bank teller lacks proper knowledge of politeness-speak!” So rather than concentrating on more choices for consumers or lower prices, the stores exhaust all their energy on raising their politeness levels to the point where no one can possibly find anything to object to.

A particularly unbearable example is when the train stops due to some sort of accident. Instead of explaining the cause of the accident, they say WE ARE DREADFULLY SORRY TO CAUSE A NUISANCE FOR THE HONORABLE CUSTOMERS ESPECIALLY AT THIS BUSY TIME. PLEASE FORGIVE US. ACCEPT OUR SINCERE APOLOGIES!!  On top of being stuck, we are now assaulted on all sides by these ceaseless announcements, buffeting our heads as they whirl through the air above us. Well, I’m sure my fellow passengers are perfectly satisfied!

It’s the same way with the ceaseless signage that we all must swim through when we leave our houses. Most people have come to need the signs – without them they don’t feel comfortable.  The examples are too numerous to mention. So I’ll just do this one:

At the Mita station, when a train pulls to a stop, the loudspeaker blares, A TRAIN BOUND FOR WEST NAKAJIMA HAS ARRIVED AT NUMBER THREE PLATOFORM. PLEASE WAIT FOR THE TRAIN DOORS TO OPEN. PLEASE BE CAREFUL OF THE GAP BETWEEN THE PLATFORM AAND THE TRAIN DOORS.  And other such too-obvious warnings are broadcast one after the other. One day I stood watch and this is what I found:  This tape is played once every two minutes all day. The people entering the train show not the slightest concern for the gap between the platform and the doors. Perhaps because they’ve been so reassured by the tape? In any case, people have heard this tape so many times that it is regarded like a gust of wind, a cloud in the sky, a drop of rain: a natural sign, which has nothing to do with them and yet constitutes their entire world. Something about which they can’t do anything.

This is true of all stations, especially the Narita Airport Express stations. When it’s time for the train to leave, AFTER everyone is on board, they play the following announcement:  HONORABLE RIDERS, PLEASE WAIT ANOTHER FEW SECONDS FOR THE TRAIN TO START MOVING.  This drives me up the wall!!!

In the Keio Train stations, their ticket machines play this tape: PLEASE WAIT, YOUR TICKET WILL COME OUT SHORTLY. Japanese people, having put money in the machine, can’t wait even the three seconds for their ticket! They need some kind of official sign to reassure them, or they get nervous!

In the cash machines at banks, too, there is a continuously-looping tape which says WELCOME! THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING WITH US AGAIN TODAY!   WELCOME! THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING WITH US AGAIN TODAY!   WELCOME! THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING WITH US AGAIN TODAY!   WELCOME! THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING WITH US AGAIN TODAY!   

Again, people have come to need this to feel safe. If they didn’t hear it, they would think, “Oh, the machine must be broken!” and break out in a sweat. (Viennese bank machines, on the other hand, are dreadfully slow to use, but they have no taped announcements whatsoever).  

A few years ago, banks and post offices started using a “take-a-number” system, complete with automated loudspeakers that would say, COULD THE OWNER OF NUMBER SUCH-AND-SUCH PLEASE PROCEED TO THE FRONT WINDOW NOW?  Apparently just displaying the current number on the LCD display was not enough to satisfy the neurotic and insecure Japanese customers’ obsessive desire for announcements.  (in Vienna, the take-a-number systems only used LCDs, not tapes).

Even our language-instruction tapes have announcements! When the tape runs out, a voice tells us to turn the tape over.  And the voice on the tape is invariably a grating, un-naturally shrill, “cute” voice which goes poorly with the actual contents of the textbook. A little cuteness never hurt anyone, of course, but with a textbook, one has to replay the same voice over and over, lord-knows-how-many-times as one studies, so even a small irritation can grow and grow until you are at the brink of violence! (as far as I know, there are no Western tapes-accompanying-a-textbook which have this problem)

But I suppose that’s what we Japanese crave and long for: to be bathed in limitless signs and warnings from cradle ‘til grave. I guess you must understand this by now. And the whole service industry, and the people in it, are accomplices in this conspiracy.  It’s so omnipresent that it seems natural.

WHY CAN’T WE ONLY HAVE WARNINGS ABOUT APPROPRIATE THINGS?

This  next example has a very deep flavor to it! One time I was drinking a bar near the University.

There was a drunk young couple next to me, and I could hear their loud conversation. The young woman was complaining: “That time, it was majorly snowing, and yet the fire department kept saying ‘THIS WEEK IS SUMMER FIRE PREVENTION WEEK’. What’s up with that? It was snowing right in front of their eyes! They should have been saying, ‘IT’S SNOWING, PLEASE WATCH OUT SO YOU DON’T FALL DOWN!’ I mean, what were they thinking? It was so totally snowing! And yet they kept saying. . . .”

At first, I thought, “Well! This is exactly what I’ve been all along hoping that someone would say!” But upon further consideration, I realized that the young lady was saying the OPPOSITE of what I’d hoped:  She would never object to the warnings on escalators. Her only objection was that the constant fire department announcements were the WRONG KIND OF announcements. She still wants to be bathed in announcements.

Aha! I thought, feeling like Earnest Satow or Erwin von Balz – or one of the other foreigners who first “discovered“ Japan at the beginning of the Meiji period.  “Wow! I’ve discovered some really interesting people! Their logic is so unusual! I can’t wait to tell people in my home country about this!“

I WORRY ABOUT HOW TO TEACH JAPANESE WHAT “APPROPRIATE” MEANS

Recently, I was sent a copy of  the magazine Japanese Language Monthly, which contained an interview I did with respected teacher  Haruhara Kenichirou. This interview was on a topic I am very interested in: teaching Japanese to foreigners.  Mr. Haruhara said that he wanted to try to teach his students natural Japanese, but this of course was a catch-22: the more natural it was, the more ambiguous and elusive it became for the students.  

He had to teach them never to speak anything but ritualistic clichés to strangers. To erase their desire to make lively or individualistic conversation. To only ask the most clichéd questions, and to give only the proper answers, even if they were not the truth. The more “natural”, the more “Japanese” his lessons became, the less the students could comprehend.

The students would complain that, outside of class, they would get the same ritualized questions again and again: “Where are you studying Japanese?” “Why are you interested in Japan?”  and other such safe but harmless questions. And they would never get asked anything else!  And after the clichés had run dry, the conversation would stop altogether.  In other words, the cliché questions ultimately took the place of anything that could be considered communication.

Haruhara said that Japanese, who have very little direct contact with other cultures, often ask him: “I’m going to such-and-such a country. What should I avoid talking about ?” or “I’m dating a person from such-and-such country – what subjects should I be careful of?”  They saw language primarily as a means of self-defense. They wanted to talk like the boring speeches of Japanese overseas diplomats!

Allow me to supplement Haruhara’s commentary in my own way: Learning “proper” Japanese is another way of saying, learning “public discourse.”  Colorless, invisible, ritualized phrases devoid of individuality. The ultimate aim is to speak at all times in a manner guaranteed not to surprise or offend anyone, even a total stranger.  Language which hides your true self even as it prevents you from asking your partner about his or hers. This is the “true” essence of Japanese language, regardless of what is written in textbooks.

Grammar is not the issue. . . Even such questions as “What school did you go to?” or “What company do you work for?” – spoken with perfect grammar –  mark the asker as a novice of Japanese. Because for many people these questions are too personal for a stranger to ask. Of course, it depends on who you’re talking to!

But for some Japanese, even questions like “What city do you live in?” are “outside the cliché zone” and thus cause surprise and discomfort.  And of course if the foreigner is asked, “What do you think of life in Japan?”, answering at length is not “correct Japanese.” The “correct” answer  has nothing to do with grammar. Once again, the “correct” answer is to reply to the cliché with another cliché, hopefully a short one. The true ‘master’ of Japanese would reply simply: “I get along somehow!”  

Even if the foreigner is asked a provocative question such as, “When you were young, did you fight with your parents a lot?” the “correct” answer is not “Yes” or “No”, but “I really don’t remember.”

The trick is to neither ask nor answer in a direct fashion.  Even if you are in the right, you should say “Excuse me!” and assume an apologetic stance. And even if the other person is wrong, you should not blame them.  If the other person’s explanations are too ambiguous, it’s not “correct” to keep asking them “Why? Why?” and trying to pin down their meaning.

Of course I’m not saying that these rules are always true at all times! Like anywhere else, correct behavior depends on the person and the situation. But if you don’t know, you’d better err on the side of caution. Going over “the cliché line” will mark you as a gaijin!  In other words, “correct” or “native-level” Japanese is not just a matter of grammar or listening comprehension. A crucial skill is being able to read the vibes of a given situation and intuitively understand how far one can go beyond clichés into the realm of conversation, without causing surprise or discomfort.
 

3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. gingersoll October 21st, 2011 1:54 am

    At first when I was reading these I thought, Oh how interesting to hear a Japanese person complaining about these things…
    But as I finished this chapter I felt less amused and more disturbed.  Living in Japan I had taken so much of these things as given, annoying or strange though they may be… I am not sure I ever really thought how people would feel if such announcements and signs and slogan speech were to suddenly cease.   

  2. cm October 21st, 2011 12:11 pm

    Oh… my.
    The last 10 paragraphs.  I just re-lived the frustration of my first year in Japan in living color.  A year's worth of utterly failed attempts at personal relationships. This man truly understands it.  I didn't think I'd ever hear a Japanese person saying these things.  I can remember bitterly complaining about these exact issues, and in more or less the same exact words, and being regarded as some kind of alien from another dimension.
    What I find ironic in retrospect is that by learning to cope with the typical mode of communication in Japan, and gaining friends and women, I may have had to become that which I despised so intensely.
    I have to buy this book now.

  3. jake October 23rd, 2011 5:15 pm

    my question as someone who's never been is that to what extent does this 'really' describe japanese culture? like if you were to stereotype american culture and its deficiencies, you'd really maybe only be speaking about a plurality of people at any given time. maybe a maximum of 50-60% of americans are really 'american' in any sort of stereotypical sense. the rest are made up of many varying subcultures and ethnic groups and whatever else. is japan really more homogenous than that? if one travels in more undergroud circles, in academia or art or whatever else, is it still like this there?

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