Tokyo Damage Report




So far I’ve talked about how I feel that I’ve entirely slipped off the path of “normal Japanese society” because of my sensitivity. But more and more I’m convinced that my problem is not a ‘normal’ case of hyper-sensitivity (such as those whose eyes or ears cause them pain because of nervous system defects) . . .if anything, I’m realizing that my sensitivity lies within my entire body. My body looks exactly the same as that of the average Japanese, but somehow, something inside is steadily slipping away, sliding away from what a normal body possesses. If I enter the “cultural spaces” that we Japanese have created for ourselves (amusement parks, cities, farm villages, etc), I immediately feel in my body a sense of self-consciousness, of not belonging. These cultural spaces reflect what the majority demands, so therefore they must be healthy for the bodies of average Japanese.

Just because people don’t care about things like the ozone layer and global warming, it’s wrong to say they don’t care about the environment in which they are living. Actually, they care very much, if one defines “environment” as “the place where one leads one’s daily life”. If we limit ourselves to this “lifestyle environment,” suddenly we find that everyone is very sensitive to, and unforgiving of, changes in some things, but everyone is very insensitive to changes in other things. So if we were to make a chart of “things which people are sensitive to ” (foreground) and “things which people don’t notice” (background), this chart would show us the “cultural space” that Japanese people inhabit.

Allow me to explain in more concrete terms:

For example, the behavior management announcements and official warning announcements which I’ve been writing about. They go in our ears and eyes, but, no one thinks about them consciously – just like how we’re not conscious of our own bodies when we stand, sit, bend, walk, and so forth. Therefore I stipulate that culture lives inside our bodies. It occupies space in our bodies.

When I’m on the train, I go to grab the strap which hangs from the roof, I don’t consciously think, “OK, my hand is here and the strap is there, so if approach the loop at such-and-such and angle . ..”. I simply wish it and my hand is holding the strap. The hand has been “erased” from conscious analysis, as has the strap. Just like all everyday physical activity – and just like the cultural milieu in which we live – all the signs, slogans, behavior management techniques, and messages are hidden in the background.

Sounds go in our ears, but we don’t hear them. Sights go in our eyes but we don’t see them. That’s how we go through life in the big outside world.  By omitting the many reports from our sense organs, we can avoid being distracted by unpleasant stimuli, and avoid agitating our bodies.

To put it another way, if you’re walking around your neighborhood, you don’t have to think about how to get to your destination. Without consciously deciding “Turn left here, turn right there,” your feet take you where you want to go. In this way, the border between your individual body and the surrounding community/space becomes ambiguous.

In the same way, Japanese people’s “cultural space” exists simultaneously in our bodies and in the real world. That’s what I’m trying to get at here.


My wise readers, you’ve probably figured out where all this is going: for the majority of Japanese, the cultural “space” in their bodies is aligned perfectly with the physical , communal “spaces” of Japan: cities, villages, malls, etc. So they don’t mind the many announcements and signs and SOUNDS. But my own body has not developed an “instinct” to subliminally grasp the “hanging strap” of culture, and that’s why I can’t tune out anything. That’s why I have to actually read all the signs and listen to all the announcements, and that’s what is producing my neuroses.

To me, there IS no background, it’s all foreground.

Imagine if you had to think consciously every time you sat down, took a bite of food, moved your head, etc. . . it would drive you to distraction! The same way, the “cultural noise” doesn’t enter my brain automatically, I have to concentrate on it even if I don’t want to. A case in point: cell phones! To most people, the SOUNDS of cell phones are part of the foreground. That’s why they become self-conscious if their phone rings on the train, and they get angry at others whose phones are ringing. However, on that same train, the fearsome din of the conductor’s interminable announcements is considered the background, so people don’t consider it loud, even though it is louder in physical terms. That’s what I meant last chapter, when I said that we can see the shape of the “cultural space” by looking at what people can and can’t tune out. 

It’s no coincidence that everyone has the same reaction to cell-phones; the lines between “tolerate” and “can’t tolerate” are social rules. Although they are so deep in our bones that they feel automatic and therefore instinctive. 

For example, to Westerners, the sound of slurping soup is foreground – they can’t tune it out, so they find it annoying and will soon hush the slurper. It’s not that they can’t tune it out because it’s rude. . . it’s seen as rude because they can’t tune it out!  It forces itself into their consciousness again and again and again. SLURP! SLURP! SLURP!

I’m well aware that this particular instance is just a matter of different cultures having different table manners. But the main point, the point I wish to emphasize is this: to someone who has been raised in the West, with no experience of other cultures, the angry reaction to the SLURP! SLURP! sound can never be un-learned, it can never change. It’s become instinctual. Of course, to Japanese at a soba restaurant, the slurping from the other customers all around one is expected, it blends into the background, therefore we can tune it out. Because we can tune it out, it causes us no irritation, and therefore we label it “not rude, but natural.”

If one substitutes dog-eating for slurping, the same thing applies to English people and Koreans.

And to most people, transvestites are a huge eyesore, and we get very angry when we see one, because we can’t take our eyes off of him.  These rules (of which we are unconscious) pertain to food, clothing, and housing. Social leeway is especially small for matters of sex and food, since these two drives are seen as the most ‘natural.’ The ‘background’ of food and sex is the most ‘dark’, so even the slightest deviation stands out like a light spot! People can’t have rational, calm discussion about these things. It seems as if the instinct of the body itself is demanding an emotional reaction!  

In order to have a logical discussion of the social construction of these ‘basic’ customs (such as slurping and dog-eating and transvestism) . . . in order to get past the basic “aesthetic objections,” one has to really travel a long way, delving deep to the roots of the mind. Deviations are thought of as “wrong”, rather than a matter of individual preference. Transvestites are thought of as defective humans. 

Anyone out of step with the “this is comfortable, but that is uncomfortable” code of the collectivity is judged to be “too sensitive” and dismissed out of hand. English people who don’t mind dog-eating are thought of as logically flawed people, just as much as Koreans who DO mind dog-eating.


Once again I’d like to return to the discussion of Japanese people’s bodies. No matter how fierce is the torrent of management signs and announcements which pours into our eyes and ears, the majority can absorb it complacently, because to them it’s the background. Our ears no longer hear the recordings which blare: BE CAREFUL WHEN EXITING THE BUS, AS THERE WILL BE TRAFFIC IN THE STREETS. Our eyes no longer see the signs affixed to each and every hand-strap dangling from the bus’ ceiling: PLEASE PRESS THE BUZZER WHEN YOU WANT TO GET OFF THE BUS. 

Not that these things don’t enter our bodies via our sense organs, but that we perceive them as background. Not only do they not bother us, but they seem as natural and inevitable as nature itself: the sound of the wind, the light of the sun. At the same time, they become internalized, part of our bodies: we no more perceive these signs and announcements than we notice our hands dangling at our sides when we walk, or the glasses upon our faces, or the feeling of our tongue in our mouth.

And it’s not just the announcements and signs: it’s the concrete which surrounds us on all sides, the ugly telephone poles and their thousands of wires over our heads, the store signs and advertisements everywhere . . . I call these eyesores CULTURAL STRUCTURES. Which is to say, natural-seeming by-products of a culture. Like the white and misty clouds of the summer sky, or the deep purple of a fall sky,   these cultural structures surround us, forming the background of our lives, pickling us until we can’t see that they are artificial, until we actually need them around in order to feel normal. It’s not that we actively take enjoyment in the sound and visual pollution, but that we passively take comfort from their all-encompassing embrace: DON’T PARK YOUR CAR ILLEGALLY! DON’T STICK YOUR HANDS OUTSIDE THE BUS WINDOW! The bright lights and flashy store signs. . . . they make us feel at home, welcome, wanted. To us Japanese, anyplace devoid of these things feels barren, lifeless, stark and forbidding.

We want our shopping centers and sightseeing spots to be as artificial, overdone, and synthetic as possible. That’s the meaning of the city planners’ slogans: A LIVELY CITY! A KINDLY AND WELCOMING SHOPPING COMPLEX!  Just as we want our small streets to be lined with pots of morning glories, we want there to be a poster above each pot saying LET’S HELP PROTECT OUR YOUTH FROM DELINQUENT WAYS! This gives us a feeling of communal rapport. The loudspeakers blaring PLEASE BE CAREFUL OF SMOKING IN BED! And NOW IT’S TIME FOR ALL GOOD CHILDREN TO GO HOME FOR DINNER! Are seen as acts of benevolence.

One of the members of The Society To Think About Those Damn Megaphones is an architect named Mr. Yamada. For a long time, he’s been trying to convince the city administrators in his hometown that “minimalism is beauty.” Right now, Japanese streets are a nonstop jumble of store signs, utility poles, power lines, and so on. Mr. Yamada has been proposing a plan to do extensive city-wide renovations to get rid of the clutter. Some administrators agree with him, but it’s simply impossible to undertake such large-scale plans in today’s circumstances, they say.

Mr. Yamada will take offense to this, but I agree with those administrators. Japanese people like the jumble and clutter. Because the clutter has always been composed of very small things, added one layer at a time, and each layer has been accompanied by loud slogans of LET’S BUILD A LIVELY CITY! A KINDLY AND WELCOMING SHOPPING COMPLEX! By framing the debate this way, Japanese people’s bodies have come to demand cramped, artificial, plastic spaces . . .we see them as friendly, lively, and even welcoming. Mr. Yamada’s plan flies in the face of this, so it’s impossible to carry it out in today’s society.

These bodies of ours have evolved over thousands of years of such conditioning, so it’s not possible to change them quickly. I don’t think it’s a matter of Japanese being illogical or aesthetically crippled. I think that our aesthetic consciousness and norms have been shaped, tempered, and trained by a thousand years of management slogans, and this has seeped into our Japanese bodies, to the point where we can sit in a 28 degree coffee-house in our layers of winter clothes, and show no signs of discomfort. Over history, our individuality and sensitivity has been broken down to the lowest level, and replaced with a one-size-fits-all “normal” sensitivity level, which has been pounded into our bodies since forever.


I hate seasonal greetings so much, and I never use them in letters! But they’re the best example I can find for clichés of correspondence: Like at the end of February, everyone writes, “Can’t you feel how spring is practically around the corner? Doesn’t it just make your heart dance?!?”
 And at the end of August, you’re practically required to write, “The early morning and evening winds are finally starting to cool down, aren’t they? It’s like they’re delivering us a preview of autumn, isn’t it?”

People who write this crap: It’s not that I have a “hyper-sensitivity” to good manners, but I get mad at how only “socially encouraged” phrases are allowed in private correspondence. Come on, now! Your heart isn’t really fucking dancing. You don’t feel that the evening breeze is wafting Autumn tidings directly to you. So why write that stuff? Because you feel that you ought to. You don’t for a minute contemplate writing things which you’re actually feeling!  

You’d never write, “It’s the end of February and boy am I glad it’s still cold!!!” You’d never write, “It’s the end of August but boy is my heart dancing from the continued heat!” Even if you happened to be the kind of person who honestly preferred winter and summer. But seasonal greetings in praise of winter and summer simply won’t do. If you express a unique or individual preference, YOU are the one considered “close-minded”. (Japan is really mysterious sometimes!)

We Japanese take great pride in our delicate sensitivity and subtle appreciation of the seasons. But in fact, our only faculty is a very delicate sensitivity to which seasonal clichés are appropriate at any given time. Zing!!!

 If anything, we’d have to kill off all the clichés and social expectations in order to re-connect to the seasons and appreciate them directly. Our bodies are not directly connected to the surrounding atmosphere anymore. If you hear “oborodzuki” (poetic word for a hazy moon) or “shiwasu” (poetic word for December), you automatically feel a connection to the winter season. But instead of the words containing all the splendor and subtle majesty of the seasons, the seasons’ splendor and subtle majesty has been stripped down and reduced to these clichés! Of course, to a certain extent this goes for any language. But nowhere more than Japan do people raise their children to be more cliché-prone. Only here are we trained from birth with such passionate single-mindedness to use exactly the right pre-selected combination of clichés for every conceivable situation.

Waka (a form of poetry typically done during the first week of the new year) is positively bursting with the feeling of medieval Japanese celebrating the new year around Kyoto. Hearing the word “Haiku” makes one think instinctively of the late-Edo-period poet Basho’s classic seasonal poems. After the capital moved to Tokyo in the Meiji period, elementary school-children were all taught shouka (European-style songs), so much so that shouka make one instinctively think of that era. As part of the centralization and standardization of government under Meiji, the same songs were drummed into children all throughout the colonies: Hokkaido, Okinawa, even Manchuria. If it was April, every child had to sing “Sakura, sakura”. In October, everyone had to sing “Momiji” (the fall moon song) And so on.

Throughout our history, the emotions or atmosphere of the seasons have been thought of as a communal affair, something which belongs to society, and something that having one’s individual opinion/feelings about is tantamount to being un-Japanese.

This “communal” idea of what the proper associations and feelings of the seasons are lives in our bones, in our blood, in our bodies. It’s so deep that it feels as natural as the seasons themselves. But in fact it’s a matter of power: the power of the majority to “allow” only certain types of feelings. It’s a peculiar Japanese sensitivity: one could say that we treat people who don’t have the “correct” feelings about a season the same way we’d treat someone who denies the factual existence of the season itself! (That is to say, we mix up the phenomenon with the “correct thoughts” about the phenomenon).

Thus Okinawans have to associate April with cherry blossoms, though there are almost none there. Likewise, Hokkaido people have to associate June with the rainy season and hydrangea blossoms, though they don’t have a rainy season that far north! In Manchuria, they were raised to associate mid-August with the beginning of fall winds and the sound of insects, as though they were living on mainland Japan, and so forth. In December, one has to whistle “Kogarashi” (the “nipping biting wind” song), and so on.

At the Viennese-Japanese school, even when the temperatures were below zero, the students had to sing “The Flowers Starting To Bloom Song” and “The Carp Are Jumping” song, as if spring in Japan meant that it ought to be spring in Austria! That’s how desperate the Japanese are to commingle seasonal ambience with national identity! However huge the gap between their mental “feeling” of the season and the actual weather outside, it doesn’t trouble them –that’s not the point. The point is to educate the children that there is only one “correct” feeling, to the point where the “correct” feeling seems as natural as the seasons themselves.


Through fierce and unending training, we Japanese have had a “sensitivity to anything but the one appropriate cliché which matches the situation” pounded into our heads. Thus, we adapt to our environment, an environment constructed by those above us, as if it was all natural and had always been so. Where we were once sensitive to nature itself, now we are sensitive to an “artificial nature” which consists of seasonal clichés. We only pay attention to whether the clichés are appropriate or not: “The cherry blossoms of April,” “The hydrangeas of June,” and so on. It is not allowed to doubt such things, regardless of what is actually blooming.

Some examples of this “socially-constructed nature” are: the official announcements of the beginning of cherry blossom season, plum blossom season, and the rainy season, and the “official” time to change our clothes for the new season.

When the sakura begin to bloom at the grave of Somei Yoshino in Yasukuni Shrine, the official announcements declare SAKURA SEASON throughout all of Tokyo. Though it might be the hottest time of summer, the Weather Bureau announces that it is the rainy season as per its schedule. No one is allowed to comment on any of this. The whole nation, as one, changes from spring to summer clothing, and from fall to winter clothing, at pre-arranged times that have nothing to do with the actual temperature. Man-made arrangements and nature have become fused to the point where the confusion itself seems natural. This is the “social construction” of nature. We are constantly looking for the many man-made social signs to tell us what the weather is! Without them we feel great anxiety!

The constant warnings, mechanized greetings, cautions, scoldings and automated announcements of the coffee shops, trains, and department stores (to say nothing of the flood of muzak) (and the heaters set to 28 degrees) . . . we think nothing of them, because they are the NEW NATURE!

Official authorities (such as the Traffic Safety Association, Young People’s Guidance Association, Small Business Administration, and so on) are in charge of deciding the official “first day of spring” and “first day of autumn” . . . because our own bodies are numbed, unable to feel the passing of the seasons on our own. Under the onslaught of clichés, ritualistic speech, and slogans, our own individual sensitivity to what is comfortable and what is offensive have been numbed. No, it has been stupefied! Grown women and men allow themselves to be told by conductors: THE DOORS OPEN AUTOMATICALLY, PLEASE DON’T FORCE THEM WITH YOUR HANDS, PLEASE WALK AND DON’T RUN WHEN YOU DISEMBARK, PLEASE FORM AN ORDERLY LINE, PLEASE DON’T CROWD ONTO FULL TRAIN CARS, PLEASE REFRAIN FROM RUNNING INTO TRAINS WHEN THE DOORS ARE CLOSING, and so on. We think nothing of this. This is how our bodies have been transformed.

Thus, I have to dispute the following popular wisdom: “In ancient times, Japanese have loved peace and tranquility. But as we developed our civilization , especially in the postwar period with its massive economic growth, we have forgotten the traditional virtue of quiet serenity in our daily lives.” 

This is a conceptual, abstract view which totally ignores the factual evidence of Japanese people’s lives.Yes, it’s true that in feudal times, most Japanese were rice farmers who relied on good weather conditions for their livelihood. So they were very sensitive to changes in the seasons and environment. They kept their metaphorical “ears” constantly pricked up, alert for any “sounds” of seasonal change. The poets often spoke of “hearing” insects molting or flower stalks growing. Nakagawa Makoto being a good example. Or take the following example (from Higuchi Ichiyo’s VOICE OF THE INSECTS), and see how exquisitely sensitive the ‘ears’ of the poet were:

 The morning glories bloom, lined up like a miniature fence.
Yesterday and today’s leaves begin to go slack, the flowers begin to wane, as the crickets start to chirp.
The transient voice of the morning cricket.
At the edge of the ditch, inside the wall and all round, their miniature lives multiply, become stricken, and then fade away.
There’s nothing to which this can be compared. 
As the first snows approach and the year finishes, the insects are at their nadir . . . their voices grow dim and dimmer. . .where can they be?
 Even the sturdy kutsuwa beetle, someday his time will come to wither, just like we humans.
We come in many varieties, like the bell crickets, and we flourish for a brief period and then we age, our old heads nodding down on our chests as if in agreement with the natural order. . .


In ancient times, commoners and nobles alike treasured seijaku (a tranquil atmosphere), but seijaku is not the same thing as silence!!
In contrast to today’s life, we were once surrounded by many rich natural sounds. And our human sounds were in harmony with the sounds of other animals. The “old-timey nature” so beloved by we Japanese was tidy and well-maintained: mowed fields, the well-trimmed trees surrounding the village shrines. It was a nature where you could feel a human warmth to it. A nature where people could hear the sounds of insects and birds, the babbling brook, and the wind in the trees. In the same way, one could hear the human sounds such as the temple bell and the people passing by clapping their wooden clappers as they called “Be on the lookout for fires!” The clickity-clack of geta and the barking of local dogs, and the playing of children. These sounds blended in to the already rich tapestry of nature sounds. Both types of sounds were integral to our lifestyle.

Perhaps it was the same in early Europe as well. But some things were definitely different: first, the amount of nature noise in Europe was always quite small to begin with. I’ve heard it said that in central Europe, to say nothing of the north, that it’s silent for fully half the year! Secondly, Europeans are not a rice-farming-centric culture, so their bodies never developed the sensitivity to seasonal change characteristic of Japanese bodies. Third, their houses were constructed of rocks and possessed thick walls which prevented natural sounds from penetrating inside.

The third point is the most important.  We Japanese co-existed with nature: our environment did not have a border between nature and man-made activity. With no discomfort and no protest, this is how we lived. Our house were wood and paper, so outside sounds permeated easily, and vice versa. People would leave their windows open and peer leisurely into their yards, at the moon, at the snow, at the cherry blossoms: they saw nature as their companion.

As I mentioned before, sometimes I guest-lecture at Osaka Music University. Once, I heard an amazing report there: One of our traditional Buddhist musics, called Shoumyou, was composed by transcribing the environmental sounds coming in from outside the monastery! One time, when performing in a European church, cut off from the outside, a troupe of Shoumyou monks was very distressed!

But of course, those monks were experts. But in olden days, even average Japanese, the overwhelming majority of which were farmers, lived in the same conditions, the same type of houses, and had the same sensibilities as the monks!

But – it hardly bears saying – most of us now live an urban, artificial lifestyle. Our apartments are stacked one on top of the other , and built of cheap materials. So sounds still come in from outside, but now those sounds are more like yelling running brats and crying babies, shrieking wives, bellowing barbaric dogs, idiots with loudspeakers on their trucks trying to sell us things, and the begging of priests! It’s really a human stench of sound! As the amount of human noise has developed together with urban congestion, the power to make noise has become a symbol of authority.

Instead the old class system of “gentry, farmers, artisans, merchants” has given way to a new class system. The upper classes are those with the power to tell the rest of us what is a proper “seasonal feeling”! Kadomatsu (New years), setsubun (the final day of winter), tuskimi (full-moon-viewing parties),  and so on . . . throughout the year, our individual experiences of real nature are mediated by and systematized into these man-made “cultural events”.

In the same way, as we’ve become a more “civilized” nation, we’ve come to expect our cues to come from the loudspeakers in schools and city halls. The bells of the administrative offices, the organ music from the schools, the official fireworks parties’ sounds, the radio music that accompanies the PE classes, to say nothing of the ritualized chants of the coaches on the PA, the slogans spewing from the politicians’ sound-trucks (THIS WEEK IS TRAFFIC AWARENESS WEEK!), the other slogans spewing from the fire-department trucks (THIS WEEK IS FIRE AWARENESS WEEK!), these are the sounds that now define the passing of the seasons for us.

These sounds are accepted as if they were as natural as the seasons and weather, but in fact they’re deliberately constructed and forced on us by the elite of society.  People would no sooner protest the SOUNDS than they would protest the shortening of the days in winter or protest a typhoon. The power is too overwhelming, too omnipresent. This man-made “nature” has penetrated our bodies to the point where we can’t imagine that our own interests and its interests diverge.

So I suppose it could be said that Japanese are still co-existing with “nature”!!!


If you look at it that way, you can get a hint of how to answer one of the difficult questions posed by contemporary life : “Why do we Japanese, who value nature so much, bulldoze entire mountains, pave entire beaches in concrete, and deface our fields with vulgar billboards?” The usual facile answer is “Because our sensitivity to the environment and seasons has changed rapidly.” But, the truth is this reply is no real answer at all! Although we have changed, we haven’t killed off our seasonal sensitivity altogether!

We send the customary New Years’ cards, and put the decorations out by our doors, we go in great numbers to hanami (sakura viewing parties), and in fall, the hotels in Nikko and Hakkone always sell out. From the “mamemaki” ( a game where beans are thrown to keep demons away) of the pre-schools to the year’s-end parties of grown-ups, we still spend our whole year doing seasonal events. In department stores, shopping districts, train stations ,etc, a huge amount of money goes to season-themed advertisements. We love cherry blossoms as much as we ever did. We sit under them, drinking ourselves silly and talking loudly just as in medieval times. But the scale and the nature of these holidays has changed. Just like pleats, the secret lies in the hidden way that everything changes or stretches while seeming to stay the same!

Here, I dare to introduce a hypothesis . . .and challenge other writers and theorists to refute it (incidentally, of the many, many, many writers on this subject, their explanations never amount to more than “Japanese don’t respect nature anymore. . . BECAUSE WE ARE STUPID AND DUMB.”) I know, I have a presumptuous attitude! My hypothesis explains the facts better than any other hypothesis! If you find a more persuasive hypothesis, please let me know about it, because I certainly couldn’t find one!!

First, let’s look at the facts impartially: during the decades of Japan’s rapid post-war growth, we suddenly and totally lost our traditional sense of aesthetics . . NOT!! Even today’s Japanese, who don’t mind the “cultural noise”; they still love cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, hot girls in yukata, and handsome guys in happi coats. We still love the insect sounds on summer evenings, the red dragonflies flitting in front of the setting sun. If anything, we still love the IDEA of nature as much as ever.

We love the idea of nature, while damaging the real nature, and we don’t notice the contradiction. We keep the idea of nature inside ourselves, where it is safe no matter what happens to real nature. For instance, in the middle of the most squalid, hideous shopping district, if we can find a single red dragonfly perching on one pathetic dandelion growing out of a crack next to a utility pole, we can feel the “spirit of summer and fall” in our hearts.  

In our huge apartment complexes, we have a tiny goldfish in a bowl on the windowsill, a tiny wind-chime, a little teruteru bozu (a sort of dangling ghost which is supposed to ward off bad weather), and some ceremonial bamboo sticks . . .In the midst of the gray concrete canyons of the projects, these tiny things alone are enough to guarantee that we can feel the idea of nature.

Our bodies catch and hold onto the symbols of natural beauty from the external world. The “Japan” depicted in traditional paintings is just a symbol, an idea of Japan – in other words, Japan as it’s supposed to be.  We Japanese have a strong tendency to “read” the external world with our eyes and ears, turning it into a concept which we store inside us. We don’t view passively (taking in what we see as it is) but we view actively (only noticing things that fit into stereotyped, idealized models). That’s why the same people who fail to notice the gaudy billboards and hideous shopping districts will tell you, “Japanese love simplicity. There is nothing more important to us,” without noticing the contradiction.


This “idea of nature” is not something in opposition to the man-made world. If anything, it pacifies the people, who, content with merely the idea, go blindly along with the continuing uglification of their environment. The lack of protest or even thought has itself become “natural”. If you think about it like that, it’ll give you a hint of how to unravel the mysteries of this chapter!

Fields of crops are nothing if not man-made. And they’re beautiful: the beauty is also man-made. But they were everywhere, so they were natural to us. But then the authorities started putting up utility poles, cutting the sky in half. This was for the social good, to bring power to the villages, so no one could protest. And now the “new” fields, in all their utility-pole-blighted ugliness, are now natural too, because that’s what they all look like nowadays.

Next the authorities put in train tracks, so the trains could belch exhaust onto the fields. And that’s also become natural. Same way with the iron bridges, the factories, with their smokestacks, and the billboards that began to appear in the fields. It’s all part of the “new nature.”

So when I’m riding the train and see some beautiful rice fields ruined by gigantic ridiculous billboards, that’s not “real nature ruined by modern times” that I’m seeing, it’s “legitimate new nature that’s demanded by Japanese.” The same way, when I take the train from Sanjima to Shinfuji station, and can’t even see Mt. Fuji because the entire time it’s hidden behind a forest of smokestacks, that’s because smokestacks are the very archetype of the “new nature”. That’s the “landscape” we deserve in these times.

The icing on the cake: this “new nature” is not something forced on us by a handful of elites. We all demanded this. We are all accomplices to the elites. We’ve all been thoroughly trained. Our compliant attitudes are also part of the “new nature.” Going shopping in a skeezy mall with plastic flowers and speakers blaring “The Cherry Blossom Song” at top volume. . .this doesn’t feel at all un-natural to us. If anything it feels comforting – the “new nature” atmosphere suits our “new nature” bodies.

Katsurarikyuu was made in harmony with nature. In the best tradition of old Japan, the man-made structures worked with the land in an artful way, because that was what people demanded at that time. By the exact same principle, today we get the vulgar un-natural chaotic noisy jumble of Akihabara because that is what people demand nowadays. But although they couldn’t look more different, both places are equally “in harmony” with people’s idea of what is natural (at the time). As our civilization has developed, we now demand places like Akihabara.

For those of you who are cocking your heads in disbelief, let me add a little more explanation:  Picture a festival, with its rows of booths selling goldfish and candy-floss, its tents, and so on. To this nostalgic scene, add the sound of flutes and tyko drums. In fact, for good measure, let’s make it the Autumn Festival, and set it next to a medieval castle! 

Now, zoom the camera out to reveal that the festival is in the middle of a very dense and wide city neighborhood, packed full of pachinko parlors and game centers. That’s Akihabara. 

Or Shimokitazawa, Harajuku’s Takeshita street, Shibuya’s Center-gai, or any other place where young people gather to celebrate Autumn Festival. That’s where they feel comfortable.

Now if we were to take these young people and teleport them to Katsurarikyuu, they would feel really uncomfortable. Because of all the peace and tranquility!   Harmony does not automatically equal silence, in other words. People only feel in harmony with their environment when the environment has the same amount of “noise” that is in their heads all the time.

Our “tea ceremony masters” don’t need to live in a place that’s as quiet as a traditional tea-house: they can live and shop in the same crowded gaudy streets as everyone else. I’ve never seen a tea-master sigh in dismay at a cheesy shopping mall. I’ve never seen a tea-master who was too “pure” to drink in a back-alley “standing bar” where the patrons lean on utility poles in the street in lieu of chairs. The “refined” tea-house and the vulgar mall have different “sensitivity levels”, but (and this is my main point) the latter is the true center of modern-day Japan.

The former is just the pure, clear layer floating on top of a bowl of soup! In common society, it’s the latter that is clearly visible everywhere – the actual soup itself.

Finally, some of the more superficial writers like to point to the Heian period and say things like, “Japanese have lost our sense of tranquility and delicate things.” But in fact the noisiest days in modern life are festivals – the most traditional days of the year! In this they are no different from modern things like amusement parks. And these writers ought to know this.


Well, I’ve talked enough about Japanese cities, haven’t I? So I’ll only mention one more thing.

In the past, whether in the streets or in our homes, we could hear human sounds: the cries of gold-fish sellers and tofu-merchants, bells from a nearby temple, the fireworks that announced the early-morning athletics, and the radio music which accompanied the neighborhood exercise sessions. But during the era of rapid economic development (particularly the ‘60s) speaker-, tape-, and machine -noises increased at an incredible pace. 

Instead of the traditional hoarse-voiced masculine call of the tofu- and gold-fish-sellers, we got curtain-rod-sellers, roast-potato-sellers and ice-cream-vendors (to say nothing of green-grocers, hot-oil-salesmen, and scrap-iron-buyers) cruising in their loudspeaker trucks, invading our neighborhoods with their inhuman volume levels!  THERE’S MORE WHERE THIS CAME FROM! WE HAVE BIG BARGAINS ON THIS AND THAT! 2 FOR FIVE HUNDRED YEN OR 4 FOR EIGHT HUNDRED YEN!! And so on, glibly droning on and on.

At the same time, the old festivals with their flutes and drums got turned into “loudspeaker festivals” overrun with pre-recorded music and fools yelling into megaphones. Bus drivers got in on the action too, with PA systems built into the bus itself, which allowed the drivers to harangue us nonstop with cautions, warnings, and then (later) announcements of stores, malls and places of interest around the various bus stops. Not to mention the abuse of the utility-pole-mounted Emergency Disaster Announcement Systems, which concern such emergencies as tardy children: IT’S NOW TIME FOR ALL GOOD CHILDREN TO GO HOME FOR DINNER!

The combined noise is now so much that one can no longer hear the temple bells.

This modern sound environment is no more dense and vast than the old-timey Akihabara festival sound environment I discussed earlier, or the old-timey man-made village sounds I mentioned at the beginning of this section. That’s why Japanese did not find it uncomfortable to adapt to the present sound environment. And that’s why it is so difficult to persuade people to change the situation. It’s enough to make one lose hope.


But, if we look at the origin of the present-day infestation of man-made noise and “management announcements”, and add to it this concept of “new nature” I discussed, then we can begin to see why Japanese talk and act the way we do.

 In the previous chapter I explained my theory of why we crave constant exposure to signage. This is one of the main components of our Japanese bodies, so one can’t afford to ignore it.

We Japanese hate “individual communication” (i.e. talking using non-stereotypical phrases, conversation outside established patterns –ed.) because it means we have to try to guess the other person’s intentions and expectations. We’ve done our best to stamp out “individual language” and replace it with “public language” (i.e. speaking formally as one would to a stranger, speech guaranteed not to give offense or surprise -ed.).

We don’t like confronting one another, so we rely on train conductors to lay down the rules: IT’S GOTTEN HOT, SO PLEASE CLOSE THE WINDOWS. THERE IS ONLY ROOM FOR SEVEN PEOPLE ON A BENCH, SO ANY EXTRA PEOPLE MUST STAND UP. CELLPHONES CAN CAUSE ANNOYANCE SO PLEASE TURN THEM OFF FOR THE TIME BEING. The conductor has to say every possible warning.

 We Japanese are kind at heart, so even if the person next to us is smoking and it’s really hot inside, we wouldn’t think to open a window. We would prefer to endure silently. Nor could we possibly ask our neighbor if he/she’d mind if we opened a window. To say nothing of asking someone if they could move over and make room for us. We leave all this “social management” to the authorities!

My main point is: this mentality is deep in our bodies, in our bones. There’s no changing it. What’s more, this mentality affects our sense of aesthetics. The most beautiful object is one which does not cause others worry or distress. To ask one’s neighbor, “Could you please scoot over so I could sit, too?” means flying in the face of aesthetics, and not many have the sort of raw animal courage required to withstand the cold stare that they’d receive from the person who was scootching their butt over. We lose our courage and bitterly regret having asked in the first place. It’s easier to remain standing, trapped with other riders like octopi in an octopus trap.

The roots of this phenomenon are deep, frighteningly deep.  

Here is a true story which I read: an American couple were living in an apartment, when one day suddenly the neighbors turned cold.  They had no idea what the reason was. The wife tried to ask but nobody would tell her. Then people started leaving trash by their doorway. Nobody would say hello to them, let alone tell them the reason for the cruel treatment. Finally, the wife cornered a neighbor before the neighbor could run away and forced her to explain.

As it turns out, the cause was this: the Americans had left their washer/dryer in a communal alleyway, where it was really hard for people to get around. Not only did the Americans not know what a nuisance their washer/dryer was, they also failed to understand all the hints that the kindly neighbors had been giving them.

I’ve accumulated a great deal of anecdotes of this nature. We Japanese prefer to communicate sensitive things by glances or gestures, not words, and it’s up to the other person to decipher us. What’s more, learning how to decipher hints is not a skill that anyone is taught. You have to do your utmost to learn it all on your own. This talent is of the utmost importance to Japanese. As for those who lack the talent to understand hints, nobody is going to explain this to them in plain language! Explaining clearly is considered the mark of a simple-minded, even immoral, person.

Every nook and cranny of this country is the same way. We are constantly on high alert, for fear of missing a hint or a sign. Oh no, I missed one, and it’s already too late! The neighbors point at me and whisper. My classmates ridicule and bully me! This is what makes Japanese so nervous and insecure in uncluttered, quiet places. We are like ancient villagers who are constantly alert for signs of storms : there is no way to explain ourselves to the storm, no way to argue back at it. The same way, the “storm” of punishment awaiting those who fail to see “signs” is regarded as natural, as their own fault.


That’s why we demand signs in every nook and cranny. They’re like the social hints I described above. Signs take the place of people directly confronting each other about public manners. We can’t discuss manners openly, much less decide for ourselves what is the right thing to do in a given circumstance. So we have to rely on signs to tell us. We never had to develop self-confidence, but we don’t realize this until we find ourselves in a place devoid of signs, at which point we become anxious and uncomfortable.  

The ticket machines that tell you PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO TAKE YOUR TICKET OUT OF ME are not just “signs”, but also they’re viewed as evidence of the benevolence of the train company. As are the warnings: PLEASE CHECK THE NUMBER OF TICKETS YOU RECEIVED IS CORRECT and DON’T FORGET YOUR CHANGE. The fact that nobody is going to forget their change is immaterial. The important thing is being surrounded with signs at all times.

At construction sites, signs like SAFETY IS NUMBER ONE or CHECK FOR DANGER! Together with the usual behavior management slogans, they combine to form a sort of encircling curtain of signage. And of course, the more danger, the more signs.

It’s often said that Japanese people supply their conversation partners with an endless stream of “Really?”s and “Is that so?”s and “Uh-huh!”s. And our encouragement is not limited to words: we widen our eyes, nod our heads, furrow our brows, laugh, and gesture – a veritable waterfall of signs. We demand that our conversations all be pickled in signs. Anything less signals that we don’t enjoy the conversation (whether that’s the case or not!) and causes distress to the speaker.

As for myself, having long since slipped off the main path of society, the habit of “conversational over-signing” causes ME distress! I don’t bother with it myself, which causes problems on the phone: even a silence of one or two seconds causes the other person to start frantically calling, “Hello? Hello? Are you there?”

It seems that every conversational sign requires the other party to give a polite counter-sign, which in turn requires a further counter-sign, which sets in motion a vicious circle. As the flood of signs increases, each individual sign loses its potency, requiring ever more signs – a sort of inflation. More stimulating and newfangled signs are required for conversation; the same as in advertising, architecture, and business. As for the people in the path of this flood of signs, we have to consciously tune out signs which are not important to us. Our bodies soon learn how to “choose the right altitude”.

We’re evolving to reject or deny most of the signs. Consequently, the signs multiply even further, to force us to pay attention. And the announcements begin to be repeated more and more times.

When the out-of-service train pulls up to the platform, the conductor calls at a deafening volume: NUMBER (WHATEVER) TRAIN IS NOT IN SERVICE. PLEASE DO NOT TRY TO BOARD THIS TRAIN. PLEASE DO NOT TRY TO BOARD THIS TRAIN.

. . . and yet still people are walking towards it!

It’s not that they don’t hear these messages. It’s that we’ve been so thoroughly trained to respond to certain stereotyped announcements and slogans that our bodies no longer respond to new, ad-hoc announcements. This is an important point that I will discuss at length later.


Japanese have been so well trained that certain actions come automatically. These “accepted actions” are so deeply ingrained that even when the “powers that be” decide to change them, they have to resort to huge, fierce numbers of announcements to over-ride the previous habits.

For instance, years ago, when one went to the train station, one gave the ticket to the staff-person at the turnstile, and boarded. But when they replaced the staff-person with an automatic ticket-reading machine, they had to put a loudspeaker : PLEASE INSERT THE TICKET DARK SIDE DOWN, PLEASE INSERT THE TICKET DARK SIDE DOWN, PLEASE INSERT THE TICKET DARK SIDE DOWN, PLEASE INSERT THE TICKET DARK SIDE DOWN, PLEASE INSERT THE TICKET DARK SIDE DOWN, on an infinite loop. Even today, the ticket-reading machine in Shinjuku’s Odakyu station still has a tape telling us I DON’T SELL TICKETS – IF YOU DON’T HAVE A TICKET, YOU HAVE TO GO BACK TO THE OTHER MACHINE AND BUY ONE. I DON’T SELL TICKETS – IF YOU DON’T HAVE A TICKET, YOU HAVE TO GO BACK TO THE OTHER MACHINE AND BUY ONE. I DON’T SELL TICKETS – IF YOU DON’T HAVE A TICKET, YOU HAVE TO GO BACK TO THE OTHER MACHINE AND BUY ONE.

I’ve protested this who-knows-how-many times, but the station staff only say, “Some people still make mistakes”, as if that explains anything. I was about to retort that “Surely everyone knows you need a ticket to get on a damn train! Surely everyone knows where to buy tickets!” but then again, these days, maybe people really are just that stupid. In confusion, I retreated from the argument.

In this society pickled in signs, we are becoming unable to adapt to new circumstances, to say nothing of individual circumstances! We can’t do anything without signs – instead of “homo sapiens,” our society is cranking out “homo wait-for-instructions” in record numbers. No one notices or complains about this. Instead they complain, “Young people these days don’t know what to do with their lives! They need more instructions!”

Let me give you one example of the absurd lengths to which we go to train our citizens: the freshman orientation meeting (not just at my University, but at most Universities these days). I reluctantly attended the ceremony two years ago, and was totally unprepared for such a hideous spectacle!

Several dozen buses were hired to transport everyone to a hotel, so the ceremony could last overnight. The intention of the whole thing was to let the students and faculty line up and greet each other, to make everyone comfortable and friendly. It was a good plan, but the way it was implemented, at every stage, was polluted with Japanese body odor!!!

Before we could go to the hotel, we had to attend an “explanation meeting”, where the only activity that occurred was to collect payment for the hotel in advance. Nothing was explained at all! At any rate, the busses arrived on campus, but I had a bad feeling about this. . .

In fact, we were still there at 9PM, all lined up, with speakers yelling at us at high volume, instructing late arrivals where to go, and telling people what we were supposed to have packed, repeating over and over. 

Finally when we get to the hotel, and line up. The teacher in charge instructs each person exactly what to do, as if we were all (students and faculty alike) pre-schoolers: Student A, go to teacher B. Now present your business card to him. Now teacher B, take the card and introduce yourself. Now, Student A, proceed to the next teacher! This level of detailed guidance was to continue throughout the evening.

The following morning, we had to wait, lined up, for over an hour. . . waiting for tardy people to come from the hotel. No one seemed at all irritated by this. We got on board the busses, our breast pockets full of everyone’s business cards. And we couldn’t board any old bus: we had been assigned “bus groups”, and even seat assignments, and we had to “check in” with the “group leader”, to make sure we weren’t cheating! It was the same with the four-person hotel rooms: each room only had one key, given to the “room leader”, who was responsible for everyone in the room. And who knows how many “room leaders” left the hotel with the keys still in their pockets!

As for the orientation itself, it was utterly valueless. Each teacher was assigned thirty students, and all we did was recite lines off of mimeographed papers, to students who paid no attention and were loudly talking amongst themselves, for hours.  The students would grab the microphone periodically to ask questions like “Will this place help me get a job?” and “Could you make the letter on the orientation packet bigger?” and “Whose courses are the easiest to pass?”

After that, we were all given a high-quality meal and got to use the excellent public baths, but the students merely kept on babbling and behaving poorly, taking the luxuries for granted.

After classes had started, I was surprised to hear the students talking about the orientation: “That was rad! That ruled!” Huh? Not a one said, “They treated us like children! Are they fucking with us?” Almost 100 percent of the students had attended the horrible orientation, and the one or two who didn’t said “I wish I had gone, too!”


We teachers – from orientation onwards – spare no effort to create “waiting-for-orders-sapiens”. And then we complain, “Children nowadays are so immature”, “They are incapable of judgment,” “They don’t think for themselves” and so on. It’s laughable! No one realizes the contradiction at all – I should say it would be laughable if it weren’t so scary.

As for me, I think we should immediately stop stunting students’ capacity for judgment, freedom of thought. It’s barbaric. Let’s just for the sake of argument, see what an orientation would be like if it treated students as responsible free-thinking adults:

We’d arrange for the busses, collect the money, but that would be it. No meetings, no lectures. Anyone even one minute late – too bad! At the hotel, there would be no formal “orientation.” Instead – unstructured informal conversation which would actually promote friendship. And on the way back, anyone who is late – left at the hotel! Welcome to adulthood! Anyone who took the key accidentally, they have to go back to the hotel on their own dollar and return it. Or mail it. Or at least defend their actions using logic and courage. I think these are important things to teach students. Of course, nobody at all would show up for the following year’s orientation!  Everyone wants to be alternately spoiled rotten and lectured to. They want their failures to be forgiven. They don’t want to use their head – they want the guidance poured into their bodies until it becomes instinctual.

Even if I were put in charge of orientations, nothing would change in the unforgiving larger world.  What I really can’t forgive is the companies that fear any disagreements at meetings would result in instant bankruptcy, so they train their employees to only say the most safest, empty phrases. The employees must speak with one single voice, take the corporate oath, sing the corporate anthem, even learn to imitate the speech cadence of their boss! Their every utterance is, little by little, forced into the corporate mold until not a trace of individuality remains. It seeps into their blood and bones, until there is no changing them back to their former self. Why is that? Because most Japanese demand that it be that way!


2 Comments so far

  1. François January 2nd, 2012 9:37 am

    "Perhaps it was the same in early Europe as well. But some things were definitely different:

    first, the amount of nature noise in Europe was always quite small to begin with. I’ve heard it

    said that in central Europe, to say nothing of the north, that it’s silent for fully half the

    year! Secondly, Europeans are not a rice-farming-centric culture, so their bodies never developed

    the sensitivity to seasonal change characteristic of Japanese bodies. Third, their houses were

    constructed of rocks and possessed thick walls which prevented natural sounds from penetrating

    The third point is the most important.  We Japanese co-existed with nature"

    I generally agree with his points, but he's totally off here ! Like Europe wasn't, as all human societies, an agrarian society. Seasons were as important in Europe as in Asia, Africa, America, etc., be it for rice, wheat or whatever else.
    "We Japanese co-existed with nature", damn, talk about nihonjinron. Like there was/is no festivals elsewhere for solstices and equinoxes.

  2. admin January 3rd, 2012 3:44 pm

    @francois: just the sort of thing a “thick-waller” would say!

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