I’ve been out of Japan, my home for almost all of my adult life, for a year now. There are now some things I’d legitimately think of planning a vacation around to experience again. Some of these are of the nostalgic flavor variety, and others are more profound.
(If you had had the power to predict back in 1987 that one of the effects of a global information network would be that everything textual had to be organized as a list, would that have helped you to make any wise investments? What could you do with that information besides corner the market on scroll bars?)
Air conditioning. People tend to think of Japan as an ancient country. I disagree with the concept of “ancient countries” on philosophical and historical grounds (“ancient” being but one of many possible stances a modern person can take on the history of a current political entity), but in any case, you see no evidence of this claim living in an apartment in Japan. It’s quite rare to find any domicile more than 30 years old, and the facilities within any given residence are bound to be either brand new or from around the same time the domicile itself was built (again, not a very long time ago). Modularity is the philosophy of most interiors, leading to replaceable fluorescent ceiling fixtures, temporary flooring (often the rugs, tile, and the wafer-thin floor itself), and detachable wall AC/heating units. The philosophy of housing in Japan seems similar to the philosophy of food in the US – ultrarational and at the convenience of industry. My current residence in the US is older than any building I lived in in Japan, and its AC sounds like a fleet of Huey helicopters. The idea that American buildings are old and sturdy and Japanese buildings are new and full of ad hoc fixes clashes with stereotype, but more importantly, sometimes slapdashness has perks in easy upgrades. My AC in our school in Japan was practically silent in comparison. If only the walls had been made of material capable of keeping heat in.
Unsweetened food choice architecture. I still believe the point that I used to make, that the stereotype about everything in the US being incredibly sweet is false. However, the sweet things here are definitely more prominently placed and almost always the first thing you notice on any given supermarket shelf. There are croissants among the danishes and donuts, and plain yogurt next to the vanilla and strawberry yogurt, but the sweeter options are at least 2/3 of the options available and always hit the eye first. This doesn’t technically force you to buy sugar-coated or HFCS-filled products, but it does make them harder to ignore. Shopping here tends to nudge you towards cavities. At least the dentists wear gloves here.
Meiwaku. Interaction has a steep transaction cost in Japan. Initiating random conversation, asking an off-script question to someone whose job isn’t specifically answering questions, mingling, sharing, and basically doing anything that anyone else might conceivably see all come weighted with fees. Those fees come in the form of aversion to and fear of being called out for disturbing others (迷惑 meiwaku). I don’t remember if meiwaku was in that book on Cultural Code Words, but it definitely should be – if there’s any single word that explains public behavior in Japan, it’s meiwaku. Meiwaku, to me, is why people don’t usually talk on trains, get up to leave during the credits at the movies, or call out or loudly resist perverts on public transportation. I see the threat of being accused of causing meiwaku as an additional burden that one feels in every public action, encouraging fairly extreme adherence to rules because the threat looms so large. If it were a monetary cost, it would be a sales tax of 20% on all verbal transactions, pretty strongly disincentivizing public garrulousness. The thing is, the revenue raised by this tax also allows for quiet and well-maintained (or at least not willfully destroyed) public spaces and a priority placed on social order, and it is something you can begin to miss in its absence. Its near-complete lack in the US produces something also undesirable – reckless and risky behavior brought on by a lack of cost for disturbing other people – a recklessness subsidy, accompanied by a widely accepted cultural value on confidence and asserting onself. In public in the US, all options for public behavior are available to everyone at no cost in face or shame. As a result, people avoid boring, on-rails conversations but are much more likely to engage in all manner of misanthropic behavior because of how highly weighted self-expression is over public order or consideration of others.
The dream of a pretense of post-racial society. Japan’s mainstream concept of itself is explicitly racial. Not “we hate other races”, but “Japan’s story is the story of our race”. I’ve come to think that most countries are this way, and a legalistic, “our club is the best but anyone is welcome to join as long as they follow the rules” definition of citizenship is a distinct minority of countries. Now, if one squinted at US history and let the bloody details fade into the background, one could have said that this was the story Americans have always told themselves – that America is an idea that rises above race and class. In fact, it was true until recently that even the most conservative politicians publicly espoused a legalistic rather than blood-and-soil definition of citizenship. I worry that having had to defend this president will cause larger parts of conservative America to abandon even the rhetoric of equality. Cognitive dissonance and all that.
I knew there were elements in the US who envied the easy worldview offered by an explicitly racial view of their nation, and sought to tie Americanness to a mythic concept of “whiteness” just as Japan’s is to “Japaneseness”. I didn’t think these people would ever have a voice in polite society or have their chosen candidate win a national election.
Of course, it seems silly to say I miss the rose-colored view of my home country that I had while I was away from it, but that is the truth. I miss having the US as an example of a country that didn’t mythologize itself as the work of one uniquely virtuous race while I lived in one that did.
Shallow roots. The US is unique not in its newness (its government is actually very old compared to that of most countries) but in its inability to pretend to be ancient. Most people, when asked the age of a country like Japan, will inevitably answer in the thousands of years. If you consider a claim like this in practical terms, that means either that the denizens of these islands have imagined themselves to be part of a Japanese polity before they even grew rice or that a series of governments, even without continuity from one to another, have been able to exercise control over these islands since the bronze age without the benefit of any communication faster than a pony (or in the earliest days, any form of writing). Nonetheless, part of the current cultural software in some countries like Japan is a claim to continuous existence back into antiquity, made plausible by some historical facts (people really have lived here for a long time) and some guessing enabled by lack of evidence (nobody knows what these people did besides live in huts and make cord-inscribed pottery). The US, with all of the history of its current government being part of the written record, cannot feasibly claim any of this.
Belonging to an “ancient society” weaponizes many of the arguments conservatives tend to make in every society – that our way of life has been ever thus, distinctive and characteristic of our land and people, until vulgarians and foreigners infiltrated it and began its corrosion. Of course, you hear these arguments in the US too, but the difference is that in an “ancient society” everyone starts the discussion by ceding most of the conservatives’ points. Yes, our way of life has existed unperturbed for millenia, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to give women maternity leave. Yes, our culture is unique and distinctive, but a little labor flexibility would help our economy’s competitiveness. Progressives need to start with an acknowledgment of what they are breaking with or they will lose most people’s sympathy. As I said, the US has versions of these arguments, but people often have to outsource their roots (“Western” or “Judeo-Christian”, nothing on this continent) and the mists of time don’t seem to reach much further back than 1955. A loss of national or cultural identity can be quite freeing.
Of course, this is a list of the things I miss, and like in the last entry, moving here has certainly disillusioned me of my fellow citizens’ resilience in the face of appeals from antiquity. The president seems to come to his particular flavor of chauvinism simply by liking things the way he’s used to (white by default and free of the burden of empathy), but others, even progressives, have come to embrace the framing of conservative vs. liberal as traditional vs. non-traditional or continuity vs. interruption. I suppose I had hoped I would be coming back to a society that saw interruption as its tradition.
Let’s end on something light…
Natto maki. More sour beans than sour grapes.