Fri Aug 25 12:54:37 2000
To: chris, dad, yoko
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Japanese culture
I'm still sticking with this Japan thing, but not doing enough in my last week of freedom. I had gotten excited when I received some of my mail from home and found my boots, and then found out I could still join the Fukui JETs' trip to climb Mt. Fuji over the weekend, but then I remembered I had promised to go to my visiting school on Saturday. It won't be at all useful or productive, but Sugimoto-sensei and the staff were very nice to my at my kangeikai. I went to another summer camp this week, this time three days (one just a pointless staff meeting all day) high on a mountain for junior high school kids. The spot was beautiful, and much cooler (even air-conditioned inside!), but the kids' English was quite limited, and they were at first quite shy about using it. I did continue to learn about customs in rural Japan, though.
I asked at one point if women in Japan changed their names when they got married, and one girl answered that she was the oldest daughter so she was going to stay with her parents to take care of them instead of getting married (!), and the teacher said, "me, too" (!). Cultural lesson. One girl asked if I didn't like rice when I didn't finish my big bowl of rice at our third meal together (most of the calories at every meal were in a big bowl of rice), and I explained I liked rice but did not like to eat the same thing at every meal. I asked about her meals: rice, egg, seaweed, and fish for breakfast; rice, fish, and vegetable or curry rice for lunch; rice, vegetable, and fish or (rarely) meat for dinner. Rice for between-meal snacking as well, I bet. The next morning, I was stunned that breakfast did not feature rice-I almost reminded one of the kids to get rice for us before I realized there was none. Another custom I can't imagine among American junior high school teachers on a retreat with students: our second evening "staff meeting" (Japanese for "beer blast") went until 3 (we had to get up at 6). Kobayaka-sensei ("Kobi"--not his real name) said he was surprised by our lack of modesty in the bathing area. Japanese carry small towels in front of their genitals when they walk around the baths, but the baths seem so much like locker rooms (at least for me) that none of us even thought about it. He was especially shocked by our "big penis," and singled one of us out as particularly frightening. "We Japanese carry towels to hide our small penis." The women had retired at this point, but the guys-and these guys aren't prudes-were amazed at Kobi. I laughed so hard I almost spilled my beer into the tatami. Later he went into Japanese idioms for breasts and asked about ours. Three hours later, the wake-up music began, and though it took us a while to get going, the ALTs were all OK, but some of the Japanese guys looked a bit pale-I saw Tsuji-sensei walking down the hall with his head in his hands about 7. I was fine, but didn't have it in me to make a real attempt on the horrifying breakfast sausage, egg, and soggy fish cake. A Japanese institutional breakfast is tough enough to face on the best mornings.
The biggest cultural differences these camps brought out, though, were in decision making and instruction on self-evident things. These folks love to organize and lose themselves in detail. We spent hours the first day planning entertainment and activities in what to us was absurd detail. At one point, the Japanese teachers spent 20 minutes deciding who would turn on a small stereo--almost all of them would be free at that time, and I would presume that any of them was capable of hitting the switch, yet the issue had to be discussed extensively. When splitting up tasks, such as getting food for the table, cleaning the table, and taking roles in a skit we had to perform, none of my students wanted to suggest (even when this was taking place in Japanese) a plan or independently take action. No matter how inconsequential, every action had to be discussed extensively beforehand, and the decision had to be made with absolutely no individual initiative. I think it shocked them to see how quickly the ALTs (us Westerners) planned our activities--people made suggestions, they were discussed briefly and either adopted or shelved, and we didn't even regard tiny mechanical issues as worthy of discussion--someone just turned on the stereo when it was time, or said "I'll do it" when some other task had to be done. The level of instruction at these places (and throughout Japan, I would imagine) is stultifying--before bath time, we were instructed to stack the bath stools into a pyramid before we left the bath area--and, just in case we didn't get it, Tsuji-sensei drew a stack of stools on the blackboard. We were told again at the end of the meeting to do so, and once more when someone told us the bathing area was finally free. It was as if we were five years old; it was so surreal that Nikki actually broke out laughing the last time we were told. Everything was like that--how to make the beds, how to fold the sheets, and in the first camp, an illustrated lecture on how to unfold the futons (think about how much instruction an adult should need on how to unfold a small mattress and put it on the floor). The Japanese kids are constantly lectured on how to do things they've been doing since before they were toilet trained, and recorded instructions and warnings play all over the place (some have been translated for me as "please step off the escalator," "please do not fall on the escalator," "please do not cross the tracks if a train is coming"). I have read, and Yamada-sensei has told me, that this is more to reinforce the social order than concern that people are too stupid to avoid stepping under trains, that people are more comfortable when they are told what to do and how to do it with complete uniformity.
On the other hand, we JETs have been exchanging stories on the amazingly stupid things people here do, especially with kids, so one wonders if this constant instruction from the group renders individuals less capable of making intelligent decisions. At the Mikuni fireworks festival--one of the biggest events in the prefecture--my friend Allison found a dead child in a tide pool at an overcrowded beach. The kid was within feet of two different families, but no one noticed her floating face down (or acknowledged noticing her), and no one responded to my friend's shouting for help and obviously doing CPR a few feet away from them until more than three minutes after she started (I am sure there were at least a dozen cell phones within twenty feet of all this activity and shouting). The girl was about three, and she had been left in the care of her five-year old brother. I often see small children running in and out of the street or playing in dangerous areas either ignored by nearby parents or unsupervised, and big local news a while ago was of a three-year old crushed to death by a truck while playing in a pile of cardboard behind a pachinko parlor loading dock (mom was inside, gambling away the afternoon). My friend Mitsuko tells me this sort of thing is common. Children in cars are never restrained, often climbing half out of windows, fighting and climbing over the tops of the seats, and I always see infants and toddlers riding on their mothers' bikes sitting unrestrained in wire baskets. Children and adults walk into narrow streets without looking, people routinely back cars into traffic without looking, and I see people every day coming within an inch of meeting their maker.
I hope this doesn't sound too negative--I'm enjoying Japan and the Japanese and I admire many aspects of their culture. So far, the only area I really can't help judging harshly is the casual approach so many people here seem to take toward the safety of their children. I think sometimes in America we go too far the other way, that people get ridiculous and end up damaging children more by being overprotective, but the mix of complete coddling of children and adults and complete abandon of common sense about children's safety has me perplexed--there seems to be no middle ground. I imagine a lot of this is becasue of my own ignorance and that I'll eventually see everything much more clearly and accurately than I do now.
Hope all is well.