Search form

Encounter With Japan Part 2

As I reflected in my previous blog, Japanese are true perfectionists, in all they do. Thus, when it comes to political correctness, over centuries, and elected isolation from the external world, they turned it into an art form, a nature, but at what cost? Bowing projects a wonderfully charming sense of politeness and respect, but it does not end on just one bow, it goes on, and on. It is very carefully and skillfully choreographed and, as such, not spontaneous.

As I reflected in my previous blog, Japanese are true perfectionists, in all they do. Thus, when it comes to political correctness, over centuries, and elected isolation from the external world, they turned it into an art form, a nature, but at what cost?

Bowing projects a wonderfully charming sense of politeness and respect, but it does not end on just one bow, it goes on, and on. It is very carefully and skillfully choreographed and, as such, not spontaneous. It is the repetitious aspect of this custom, at least to a “greenhorn” that feels over the top, too stringent, too restrictive and, after some time, even seemingly forced. Then, such a mutual need to project this respect appears programed and artificial. It feels like it could be restrictive to any spontaneous yet meaningful substance or observation resulting in deeper interaction and more intellectual, dare I say, intercourse? And having seen some striking, incredibly sensuous and very delicate Kamasutra, while upholding delicacy and refinement, Japanese people can be very explicit.

But, without becoming too destructed by the above images of intense delight, back to the social rituals topic, sorry folks, I know it hurts and know exactly where. If one is expected to perform such a ritual, and once again, I am not anymore talking about the sex, and project this prescribed respect, than how can one be natural, open to, or eager for intellectual spontaneity or, “God forbid” (that is because I am an atheist), to a proper, intellectual discourse? Clearly, in other words, world, and life on it, is full of challenging contradictions, making it exciting.

How can people focused on “respecting” each other then engage in a discourse? I have tried to trigger an insightful exchange that will offer some comprehension into who and how those I approach might feel and think. I even resorted to provoking one. Most of the time, I failed, and, those who know me claim that I can be a determined individual. Their deep socio-cultural façade is impermeable.

In other words, their society is governed by centuries old, well defined, strictly enforced and then reinforced through generation, centuries and millenniums, and clearly prescribed orderly division between the external and internal persona. Prior is designed to project attitudes of etiquette expected of one, whether educated, cultured or less so. The latter, the emotional one, is for the most, well hidden, private and strictly guarded. Strangely, or maybe I should rather say, no wander that the two do not appear to clash or crash, at least to a perception of an outsider, even an acutely observer. Thus such customs make for a very neat, cushy and innocuous social interaction and a very courteous and well-mannered society at large, this is definitely so on the exterior. And yet, throughout their long history, there are endless instances of acute, malicious, some who experienced the Second War, or others whom I conversed with during my trips to Korea, would even call it brutal treatment, or mistreatment, aggression and oppression they still continue to associate Japanese people and nation with. That is a mind twister for you. I would welcome commentary from those with an insight into this?

To further convolute this paradox, I shall now additionally contradict myself by honestly admitting that while I find Japanese etiquette and proprieties artificial and seemingly insincere, they are also uplifting and, at least to this New Yorker, surprisingly soothing, relaxing and appealing. Yet to every rule there is at least one, if not many omissions. Every structure has a hidden fracture or a feeble link.

A Japanese professor, who now lives in Singapore, where he and I initially met while I was living and working there, explained to me, in one of the most rare and open exchanges I was able to instigate over my months there, that Japanese people are happy with the way they are. It’s safe. When the balance is tilted, he continued to elaborate for me, the separation between inner and outer is bridged, the rules are broken, and the people become confused and unbalanced.  Then they misbehave, become disrespectful, even violent. Such societies face eminent decline, he stated forcefully. From several of his presentations, which I saw, I know well that in this allusion he was referring to the Western civilizations, to us.

While powerfully disturbing, partially tragic but also tragicomic, I found the old, lost, homeless, most likely drunk, and yet clearly full of hope, fairy, depicted below, powerfully contradictory to the genuinely believed, pretentious, bursting with superiority, statement made by my highly educated, academic erudite friend.

And yet, and here I shall contradict myself yet again, on the other hand, and this time it is I, Edward talking, what images come to your mind when reflecting on the Western society? Clearly NYC represents an acutely extreme magnification. Some would go as far as calling it a gross exaggeration of degeneration. Yet it projects trends that the rest of the USA, and others around the world, are secretly aspiring to. Once upon a time, back in the “old “ country, we did too. Now, most of the time we either have grown to or elect to or have become accustomed to ignoring each other. Instead we ram into others without even acknowledging them, or just ignore others, tuning them out all together. Forget respect, consideration or politeness. What are those? Thus, and this makes sense, we do not expect any better from the others and, maybe by default, not from ourselves?

Such a highly twisted (I am being polite here) attitude progressively shapes our social behavior and interactions. And given the ways the cellular, and other portable communication and entertainment technologies further split our processing ability, things “ain’t gone get no better, “you know”. For where would our English civilized world be without the “you know”, in fact, an endless avalanche of it? Can you imagine it? How could those who overuse and abuse it to such an insane extend survive without it? Its what we breathe and draw nourishment from. My gosh, we would actually have to speak a proper English, the way it was meant to be practiced by our learned forefathers! Just the very idea of having to conform to such a high standard hurts down below. But then what do I, an emigrant from the “old world” know? I just had to learn the language the old fashion way, by study of it. And did it hurt…? This is a rhetorical question.

But back to the topic of a clear division between external and internal persona of a Japanese. In an alike intricate manner, Shintoism and Buddhism further mirror, as well as intensify and solidify this barrier between the external and the internal needs and wants of a Japanese. Shintoism seems to be chosen for the more earthly and pragmatic needs and wants, while Buddhism is sought after for the more nonphysical, spiritual, mystical, transcendent reinforcement and fulfillments.

And, believe it or not, each of the numerous reincarnations or interpretations of the sublime and ever peaceful and serene Buddha’s is further associated with a multitude of various deities. Each of these has been consigned, and to these very days continues to be associated with varied powers and domain of responsibility. Within one of the temples, believe it or not, 1.000 deities surround a goliath Buddha sitting in their midst, and within the parting petals of a lotus. This is not a misprint; I mean literarily, one thousand deities! What’s more, each of them is dissimilar from all of the others. Two generations of craftsmen families dedicated their entire existence to a successful completion of their task of truly skillfully crafting all of these statues. Imagine, if I may ask you to, what does it say about the Japanese, their passion, commitment, perseverance, beliefs and character? The millennia long love for what they believe or they do, seems unquestionable and even unparalleled, maybe even unmatched by any other cultures or people?

However hard it might be for some to believe it, for some of the already revealed reasons, and those still to be reflected upon in the forthcoming segments, finding oneself in Japan can be a cultural and an esthetic shock. Courtesy, consideration or respect can be wonderfully refreshing, relaxing, soothing and even infectious, oddly hard to adapt to for someone from NYC. But do not worry, upon return that infection is cured fast, but that too is a topic for a later blog. Prior to it, anticipate further reflections on the various facets of my encounter with Japan. These shall reflect on the impact of Fukushima’s 3/11 on the Japanese society, its mysterious geisha, art, ceremonies, rituals, flowers, other life’s faces plus Manga and Anime. For better or worse, with this thought, I wish you all farewell till the next reflecton.

Meanwhile, may you all have beautifully metamorphic animated holidays as well as truly pixilated New Year, preferably not in the highly overused, overblown and headache infusing “glorious” 3D and without the crude, cheap, coated by greasy layers of fingerprints generously donated by their previous users, plastic glasses.