The Heart of Japan

I tend to annoy my coworkers with discussions of Japanese and all things Japan.  Some of them find it interesting.  Some just recite “press 1 for English”.  But at the end of the day, the discussions can be interesting at times.

One of my coworkers made the statement that “the best representation of Japanese culture is anime”.  I vehemently disagreed.  He then asked me the very fair question, “okay, then, what is it?”  After some thought, I answered.

But before I tell you what that answer was, let me go down a bit of a rabbit hole.

I follow Sora News 24 (Sky News) from Japan, which tends to focus on otaku and pop culture, as many Japanese sites seem to, for whatever reason.  They had a very interesting link wherein a person found an American wartime propaganda film, and posted it to a social media site.  Many people responded “how have we changed in the past 80 years?”  Many Japanese folks couldn’t answer the question.  They had to admit that they really hadn’t.  An observation I’ve made here previously.

As wonderful as Japanese media is, there is this undercurrent of darkness that runs across Japanese culture, which is why you have the chronic problem of overwork, of suicides, of so many things that run under the surface of what is by all respects an ancient and proud culture.

I love the Japanese, don’t get me wrong.  Their contributions to culture and media are amazing.  Their contributions to technology are amazing.  I find their art to be more beautiful, their music to be more interesting, their written word to be more thoughtful and introspective, than I’ve ever found western pop culture.

And yet, something in their culture drives people to overwork, to a declining birth rate, to wartime atrocities that their neighbors still haven’t forgiven them for.  Just as there are some major things wrong with western culture, there are some major things wrong with Japanese culture as well.  And covering it with a layer of cute and funny doesn’t fix those problems, it only hides them.

I love kawaii!  Really I do!  When I’m looking for something to lift the seemingly never-ending depression, it’s really hard to stay depressed when seeing things like nyangostar, AKBingo girls going crazy (particularly that little cutie Ichikawa Miori), Gaki no Tsukai ya Arrahende…  and there are so many things they have to offer the world that I think we ignore at our peril.  Shintoism has some really interesting insights that we in the west should pay attention to – without romanticizing them like we do most Eastern religions.  I don’t say any of this because I hate the Japanese culture – I say these things because it’s so beautiful sometimes that the spots on it are almost unbearable.

My answer to the question above:  the best representation of Japanese culture right now is karoushi.  Death by overwork.

See, there’s no karoushi in America.  Do you know why?  It’s not because companies wouldn’t enforce that if they could.  I worked at a company in the LA area around 2008 when the economy crashed – they told us flat out that they were revoking some of the perks we’d grown used to, and the reasoning was “the economy’s worse now.  Where are you going to go?  You’re lucky you have a job!”, as they laid off half the company.  That’s not the reason.  The reason is that the workers would simply say “I’m not doing this” and walk out.  There is no karoushi in America because no one would stand for it.  Companies such as Amazon and some video game companies come pretty close in some cases, but they really can only go so far.

Yes, there are plenty of companies in Japan who treat their employees well, but there are plenty that don’t, and the point is, that people will not speak up, to the point where they kill themselves rather than say “you’re not treating me well, I quit”.

I know there are many social pressures in Japan that make this difficult, but that’s entirely the point.  Japan is a small and very densely populated country.  It doesn’t have the kind of wealth of natural resources that we have in America.  Its greatest treasure is its people.  And there are millions upon millions of people in Japan who will silently bear abuse, rather than speaking up and saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we have it right in the west.  We take that too far.  Everyone seems to think they’re entitled to everything.  There are times when we should kind of suck it up a bit and be okay with minor inconveniences for the greater good.  Right now we take any kind of offense whatsoever as a grievous slight, and that, too, must stop.  But being worked to death, being bullied by superiors, that kind of thing, could not be classed as “minor inconveniences!”.

So the thing that most represents Japanese culture is karoushi.  And that makes me tremendously sad.  I love Japan, I love Japanese media, I love Japanese people.  And right now, I really don’t ever want to visit.  The darkness would cripple me.

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