Japan is complicated.

Almost every Japanese person I’ve met tells me that going abroad changed them, becoming critical of the societal traditions that seem to rule over them with an iron fist.

During my first few visits to Japan, this wasn’t so obvious. All I noticed was how polite most people were, and how delicious the food was. Turns out there’s more than meets the eye. While some of them might be genuinely nice, often they are just too afraid of what you’ll think of them if they speak their mind. It hurts to overgeneralize, but these patterns are commonplace in Japan. It became painfully clear to me after living there for three months, during autumn last year. 

Simple things like deference to authority, the way the language is constructed, and even gender roles, all reinforce a mindless obedience, driving emotional opacity, fear, and even a lack of respect and understanding. I have heard many stories of office workers staying late simply because they’re afraid that others might think they’re not working hard enough. People don’t negotiate raises or ask for better working conditions simply because they’re far too afraid of negative consequences, and bosses take advantage of their authority.

While going abroad helps Japanese people realize that there are other ways to live, it doesn’t encourage them to try to change things in their society. It made me wonder why there was no strong feminist movement in Japan. It made me wonder if there was ever a workers’ rights movement. It made me wonder what would happen if I had a critical idea of society. Apparently, the standard response to criticism is an “are you crazy?”. The youth also don’t see any possibility for change through the political process. Every year apparently is the same disillusioning BS. 

It was frustrating to see this in Japan, but I eventually realized that people everywhere have the same problem. I don’t think many of us know why we do all that we do, or how to deal with the rules that constrict our lives. I know that I’ve done things blindly without thinking, and sometimes I’m just too scared to do something, even if I know that I should do it. Maybe I’m only a tad braver than the average Japanese person. 

Months after coming back from Japan, there were two stories that particularly struck me, and helped contextualize what I had experienced. One was the story of Hiroo Onada, one of the last surviving holdouts from the Japanese WW2 army. While stationed in Lubang, Phillippines, he never knew that Japan had lost the war. In spite of all the leaflets that were dropped on the island, he and his three men never believed in any of them. Eventually, the others died, and he was left to his own devices after spending 20 years on the island terrorizing the locals. It would take a hippie looking for the abominable snowman to eventually find him and bring him back to Japan. Unfortunately for Onada, the Japan he returned to had forsaken its traditional values and from his perspective had transformed into a shallower version of itself.

The other story, told by a famous clown, revealed a bit of the values that had been lost. This clown had just arrived to Japan for the first time. While sitting in hotel, he found himself staring at a cup that had started moving by itself. He wondered if he was still high, but he couldn’t have been since it had been a whole three days since he last had those mushrooms. He made a call to the front desk to inform them about the moving cup, and the desk informed him, very calmly, that there was a very minor earthquake happening. Nothing to worry about! The clown was shocked to hear such nonchalance in the face of impending doom. His next stop was Kyushu, and a driver was arranged to take him there from Tokyo. As they were driving, he noticed that they were going 140km/hr, then he noticed the trees were bending towards the road, then he noticed objects flying across the road. Turns out there was a typhoon going on. With the same nonchalance he had heard earlier at the hotel, the driver proclaimed, “Don’t worry! Kyushu, 4pm tomorrow!” One his co-passengers started screaming, “Stop the car!” He went on for about thirty minutes before losing his voice, utterly exhausted. Then everyone just started laughing hysterically, until they all fell asleep. Morning came, the clown woke up, and the first thing he sees is a smoking volcano. Eventually they make it Kyushu, at 4pm, and enter a lovely traditional Japanese home. They seat themselves on the tatami, around the table, quietly as they can’t quite fathom how they’re still alive. As they sit there, a butterfly of a woman enters with a tray of tea. She takes off her sandals before stepping on the tatami, and seemingly floats across to the table. The clown is in awe of her radiance. She pours him a cup of tea. He sees the steam wafting out of the cup. He sips, and it’s like he’s drinking tea for the first time. He reaches to get a cigarette, but she gets one for him instead. She strikes the bottom of the packet and out pops a single cigarette, and with as much grace lights it for him. The clown takes the cigarette, and it’s like he’s smoking for the first time. It’s at that moment that he realizes what Japan is all about. When death is just around the corner, they act accordingly. They take the time to do things with beauty and appreciation, because every moment is precious. 

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