Had a bit of an odd encounter today. Driving home from Go-chu, I passed a couple of cars stopped in the other lane, waiting for me to go by, because their lane was blocked by a car stopped at the curb, its turn signal flashing. Looking in as I passed the car, I saw a woman with her head slumped toward the window, her eyes closed, and her mouth wide open. Of course, I turned around, parked behind her, and checked whether she needed help. When I came up to the window, I saw that she had neatly folded her hands in her lap, so I thought for a moment that she was merely napping, but then I reflected that no one would be so foolish and inconsiderate as to stop at a random spot on a narrow road to nap, blocking a lane of traffic, creating both a nuisance and a hazard to other drivers as well as to the school children traveling home by bike on that stretch of road, especially when there was a safe place to pull her car off the road just five meters ahead of her. Of course, I'd forgotten where I was. I knocked on the window, and when after a moment she showed signs of consciousness, I asked if she were all right. Needless to say, waking up to a towering foreigner knocking on your window in the middle of a rice field can be disconcerting, but she didn't react strongly, and just said that she had been napping. I apologized for disturbing her, bowing several times and repeating my apologies as I backed toward my own car. I suppose I shouldn't have stopped, for the only thing that wasn't completely typical of human behavior out here was that her mouth was hanging open, but I have yet to shed my instinctive foreign assumption that people think about what they are doing.
That people think about what they are doing--or that they should--does indeed seem to be a foreign assumption. I'm sure I've made it clear in my letters how much I respect the intelligence of the people--students as well as teachers--I work with and of some of the people I've met outside of work. However, there's a dirty little secret I suspect most foreigners here keep. We're ashamed to say it aloud, for fear of seeming racist--even to ourselves. However, the truth is that what has surprised me the most about Japan is the rampant incompetence all around me. The general level of incompetence is far higher than back home; given the Japanese reputation for hard work and quality products, I didn't expect this at all. What I've observed is that people engaged in their professions or in their official hobby (most people devote themselves to one hobby) are usually supremely competent--they work hard and they know everything about their jobs (except at the Post Office, of course). However, in other things, people simply don't give a damn. They don't try to be good at things, and they aren't bothered by being terrible at things. They simply try less hard at everything they do (other than the job and the all-important hobby) than any other people I've ever met. Of course, in most people this attitude doesn't rise to the level of out and out incompetence, but the proportion of people in whom it does far exceeds that back home.
The example I notice most often is in how people move. Someone blocking a road or sidewalk won't get out of the way of an approaching car or pedestrian until he is explicitly asked to--it just doesn't occur to him that a car bearing down on him might be a sign that he'd be better off counting his change somewhere other than the middle of a lane of traffic. I often see cars that have been parked in the middle of a lane of traffic--not even pulled over to the side--and cars blocking a lane within feet of where they might have easily pulled off the road. People darting into busy streets--on bike, on foot, and in cars--without looking is much more common here than back home. Just yesterday I almost hit a woman who sprinted into the street without looking; she was running so fast she wasn't able to stop without falling over, and when I got out of my car to help her up, I yelled at her. It doesn't occur to people that, when going around a curve sharp enough that they can't see the oncoming traffic, they should not drive in the opposing lane of traffic, or that if they see a car coming at them in the opposite lane, they should not drive half in the opposite lane themselves (two cars have so far hit me because they were driving in the middle of the road instead of on the left, but they were only mirror slaps and did no damage to my car). Watching people park here is usually more amusing than the evening sitcoms. I've often had old ladies say "hello" to me, ask my where I was from, was I sightseeing, etc. as I've been getting into my car at the supermarket, then pull their bikes out in front of my car and leisurely rearrange their groceries until I ask them to move. Women put babies in bike baskets with holes cut out for the legs but no straps and no helmets and then ride out of narrow alleys and driveways across busy streets without looking (I've almost killed the same mother and baby twice on one stretch of road, and the second time I yelled at her to be careful, since she seemed to need to be told that doing that was dangerous; my favorite was the high school girl two towns over who, while talking on the phone, rode her bike into a bear). Generally, about 40% of the people on the road drive, ride, or walk as if they were drunk.
The worst of it is the attitude behind it, because these people acting like complete idiots (it is not by any means most of the people, just a far higher percentage of them than in other countries I've seen) are likely to prove to be quite bright in conversation or at work. When riding with a colleague I know to be quite intelligent, I was terrified as she rounded a series of sharp bends near a local elementary school squarely in the middle of the narrow road at high speed; I was so scared I had to say something, for fear of the possibilities she clearly didn't believe in, that there might be someone coming the other way or children in the road. "I thought that people drive on the left in Japan," I said. She just laughed and said, "Oh, yes, I know I am a very bad driver." For her being an inattentive driver was a joke--it wasn't her job, so why should she pay any attention to what she was doing? She paid so little attention that even what is completely obvious to us--that you can get hurt or hurt someone else very badly while driving, so that paying attention is indeed very important--had never occurred to her. Again, it wasn't supposed to be her area of expertise, so why should she care if she's not doing it well? I've talked to her and to several other Japanese about this, and this was exactly their reaction. It's a natural part of Japanese culture, I suppose. Japanese culture looks at everything in terms of the distinction between "inside" and "outside." Keep the home spotless, litter like a Vandal at the beach. Be conscientious in one's area of expertise, turn the brain completely off outside it. Be scrupulously polite to people you know, and even extravagantly kind to people with whom you have some interaction, but don't even consider how much your behavior inconveniences the unknown people around you (the Japanese, who impress everyone with their politeness and occasionally shock the visitor with their kindness, give more the impression of being astoundingly inconsiderate in daily life--if they notice you particularly, they are wonderful, but unless some contact has been made then you don't even exist for them).
In a sense, this compartmentalization explains why all the stereotypes about Japan are true in places and at times but so are their opposites: we believe Japanese are especially clean, but this country is scandalously filthy; we believe they pay great attention to aesthetics, but much of what is built and decorated is hideously ugly (the expensively decorated houses clad in rusty corrugated tin siding, the rape of entire mountain ranges, the "Hello Kitty" living room sets); we believe the Japanese are polite, but they will push you aside and step on you in a crowd; we believe they are fitness enthusiasts, but almost all the men smoke like chimneys; we believe they are diligent students, but almost all of them will go through their entire school career without once being asked to analyze an idea or write anything longer than a short paragraph. And yet it's also true that most of them are especially clean, concerned about aesthetics, polite, and good students.
From my previous letters, you know I think quite highly of the Japanese. When you get "inside," even if only for a minute, you will find that people are marvelous to you. Moreover, in relationships with people, you'll find that they are interesting and boring, smart and stupid, and kind and unkind in the same proportion as in any other people--perhaps even the good qualities exist in somewhat higher proportions than back home. My observations above are only about one superficial aspect of the culture--and in one perhaps atypical backwater--but it is the superficial aspect that one notices first. It doesn't take long to notice that a huge number of people drive like idiots; that public places, especially natural places, are filthy; and that the famous beauty of the country has been spoiled in so many places by electrical towers, logging, and ugly public works projects.
True story--in the next prefecture over is one of the officially-recognized best views in Japan, of a barrier island along the coast. The preferred viewing posture is to stand with your back to the island, then to bend over and look at it upside down from between your legs. Japanese gardens are constructed to be seen from certain viewpoints--everything is perfect when you stand on the X, but the view from 10 feet on either side doesn't matter so much (in many, plumbing fixtures and loose piles of cleaning supplies, trash bags, etc. are placed so that they are plainly visible from most places in the garden, but not from the X. The better gardens have a lot of X's, so the views are generally good from anywhere, but the philosophy still holds. The proportions are only perfect from the X's. The interesting thing about the Japanese is that so many of them are content to look only from the X's.
O genki de
By the way, this letter doesn't spring from a cranky mood, just from yesterday's near vehicular homicide. I've been thinking about this idea and discussing it with people here for months. I had a great morning at school today, then spent the afternoon at a beautiful and pristine area on a mountainside overlooking the sea. Much of the country is still beautiful; I am constantly stunned by how lucky I am to be living in such a place.