The largest red-light district in the country, with three thousand establishments pushed into a Tokyo area barely five hundred yards wide and two hundred yards long, is called “Kabuki-cho.” Formerly the site of more official theatrical performances, it has a name that can be translated, rather perfectly, as “Playland.”
If Japan is becoming more “American,” the challenge lies not in the fact that the average height of a fourteen-year-old Japanese boy shot up by more than seven inches between 1948 and 1978 but in the fear that his ambitions and expectations may have risen accordingly.
We marvel at the tininess of devices and spaces in Japan; we fail to recognize the compactness of dreams. My friends in Japan are less inclined to try remaking the world than simply to redecorate its corners.
But one day I was browsing through Oscar Wilde and I found the line “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
Then I read something else: “It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue.” So much of my new home lay in that simple provocation.
“Consistency,” Wilde declared in an essay, “is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
There were, in 2016, ninety-two such mascots in Osaka prefecture alone, including two dogs to represent tax departments, and a caped, flying hot-water bottle.
Japanese cartoons are as popular across the globe as Japanese actors and leaders are not. Yet Japanese cartoons are based on strange caricatures of the West.
My neighbors think nothing of flocking to a station to wave to a train that’s being taken out of service, bringing flowers or presents for the carriages—or sending a teddy bear on a journey if they can’t make the trip themselves. A school of local thought holds that “mountains and rivers, grasses and flowers, can all become Buddhas.”
The people around you on a Japanese train are often strikingly poker-faced and self-erasing. Yet the cartoon figures in the books they’re carrying have bulging eyes and sport blaring colors, their ejaculations delivered in block capitals rife with exclamation points, the equivalent of “POW!” and “ZAP!!!” and “WOW!”
As I ride the elevator up in a crowded department-store, I notice that the machine itself is saying much more, announcing the floors, than anyone around me.
This belief in 2.5-dimensional characters, as the Japanese phrase has it—cartoon figures who seem alive, living people who present themselves as cartoon characters—sounds curious until you recall that in the Shinto universe every last piece of dust and vegetable is believed to have a spirit.
Anime is the natural expression of an animist world.
When one of his Western students was having trouble cleaning toilets, Suzuki suggested she speak to the toilets as if they were her friends, telling them how happy she was to get the chance to look after them. It worked.
There are more than 5.6 million vending machines in Japan—the highest number per capita on the planet—and there are more than fifty thousand convenience stores, including convenience stores that deliver, two-story convenience stores, convenience stores just for the elderly.
The ultimate convenience is, of course, uniformity. Every convenience store looks like every other; when I rent a car abroad, I always request a Japanese car, because a Nissan, a Honda, a Toyota all function in exactly the same way, their controls virtually indistinguishable.
Amazon Japan will send Buddhist priests to your door—the service is called “Obo-san bin” or “Mr. Monk Delivery”—to perform funeral chants and other postmortem services at a third the going rate. (They’ll also offer you a Buddhist name for the deceased at a fifth the usual price.)
The company Family Romance employs fourteen hundred actors to pretend to be family members for clients who are going through hard times. Its boss has acted as a husband to one hundred women, and as a young girl’s father for months on end; one of his workers played a wife to one man for seven years. Another such company, Support One, sends actors to offer apologies on a client’s behalf, to pretend to be a betrayed wife, to act as an inconsolable friend.
Japan has a sharp-edged sense of what can be perfected—gizmos, surfaces, manners—and of what cannot (morals, emotions, families). Thus it’s more nearly perfect on the surface than any country I’ve met, in part because it’s less afflicted by the sense that feelings, relationships or people can ever be made perfect.
In war, the Japanese readiness to follow every order to the last degree—and beyond—can make its people as brutal and inhuman as, in the 7-Eleven, they’re unendingly sweet and obliging.
But it was something deeper and more heartening that made West Point, the United States Military Academy, feel unexpectedly like home, a perfect translation of the life I know in Japan: the courtesy, the sense of order—held up by an unbudging sense of hierarchy—the devotion to tradition and, most of all, the everyday humanity. People weren’t spinning off in different directions here, lost in their own plans or orbits; they were brought together into a unit—a sense of fellowship and community—that spoke for a commitment to something larger than themselves.
But what struck me, in the wake of thirty years of traipsing around Yale and Stanford and Claremont and Brown, was that the kids I met at West Point were wide-awake, spirited and unjaded—un–full of themselves, in fact—in a way I hadn’t encountered anywhere except, perhaps, Japan. “I’ve never seen less-depressed kids,” wrote a reporter from Rolling Stone who had been keen not to write about West Point until he was given free rein by his hosts to see or say anything he wanted. I came upon his words after my first trip to the academy. Before a return trip, I read how David Lipsky, who had not found such happiness at Harvard or the University of Georgia or thirty-three other colleges he’d visited, had gone to West Point for a few weeks and been so disarmed that he’d ended up following cadets through all four years of their lives there. “It turns out that dressing like everyone else, sharing identical experiences, and being told you’re on a mission of importance to the whole country does wonders for the teenage soul,” he concluded.
And the absence of irony, the unembarrassed sincerity with which kids there speak of “selfless service,” the way that being part of a well-drilled team can liberate the self in certain ways: each time I returned to that serious, playful campus, I learned a little more about how to function, how not to feel foreign, in my home in Nara. “I realized,” Lipsky concluded, “that nobody at West Point was worried about sounding original or being entertaining…and I understood the immense freedom this gave them.”
In the gap between obedience and acquiescence, in fact—“Hai!” means “I’ll do it,” not “I agree with it”—lies much of the bewildering brutality of the Japanese in war, and the never-ending question of how much, for example, the wartime emperor was complicit in his country’s aggression, how much just unable to say no.
In much the same spirit, the Japanese aesthetic is less about accumulation than subtraction, so that whatever remains is everything.
Seventy percent of Japanese sentences, by one count, lack a subject, and 50 percent of all spoken sentences do, too.
You can tell a Japanese restaurant in the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris, my wife points out, by the fact that (unlike the places run by Koreans or Chinese) it never says “Japanese” at the entrance.
“No word,” wrote Japan’s Nobel Prize–winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, “can say as much as silence.”
In England, Japan’s Western cousin, I learned that the ultimate sign of intimacy is not all you can say to a friend, but all you don’t need to say.
In Japan, I never forget that a great conversationalist is one who listens. The visionary theater-director Peter Brook told me he’d bring all his productions to Japan because even in his nine-hour rendition of The Mahabharata, without subtitles, Japanese audiences sat rapt.
One sign that Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a Japanese movie is the fact that the audience never hears its last, and presumably most important, sentence.
More people live within thirty or so miles of Tokyo than on the entire continent of Australia.
A typical Japanese convenience store is one hundred square meters in size, and stocks twenty-five hundred items. A typical page in a Japanese magazine is often no less cluttered. Emptiness in Japan becomes the luxury that grandeur is in the West.
In Europe, a garden is something you enter, walk around in and leave behind; in Kyoto, a garden is more like something that enters you, inviting you to become as silent and well swept as everything around you.
The running water all around tells you that you step into a Japanese garden not just to open your eyes, but to close them.
In the English summer gardens of my youth, we exulted in a dozen brilliant colors; in Saihoji in Kyoto, there are one hundred and thirty shades of green, radiating from as many different kinds of moss.
When Francis Xavier came to Japan to try to carry the Gospel to its people, the Japanese he met became “the delight of my soul.” But he found they quickly, reflexively, translated the word “Deus” into “Dainichi,” converting the Christian God into a god of wind and rain.
Japan is the Land of Must, I decided as soon as I set foot in Tokyo, as surely as America is the Land of Can.
Even modest restaurants in Japan often present you with a prix fixe menu. Freedom doesn’t mean an abundance of choice so much as liberation from the burden of too much choice.
As soon as prostitution was banned in postwar Japan, the number of prostitutes (said to be roughly eighty thousand in Tokyo alone) rose sharply.
Soon after I came to know her, my wife-to-be said, “I can’t change you, so I have to change myself, since you’re in many ways not so easy.” I was so disarmed by this spirit of accommodation that I tried to do the same with her, changing myself to adapt to everything in her that was difficult. Thus the history of Japan.
The pressures of responsibility are what make the Japanese the strictest people I know, even as the constant attention the pressures encourage makes them the kindest. After the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, modern Japan’s proudest moment, one woman hurdler who didn’t win the medal she expected took her own life. A Japanese marathoner who was overtaken at the last moment and claimed only a bronze did the same.
When conflict arises in Japan, it’s often because one person wishes to give up her needs as much as another wishes to give up hers. Such duels of self-sacrifice leave everyone stranded in an agony of thwarted self-denial.
People in Japan are sometimes slow to intercede in an emergency, because they don’t want to impose a debt on those they help.
In England, I was taught never to take anything seriously, least of all myself. When I moved to America, I was encouraged to take everything seriously, especially myself. In Japan, the people I know don’t seem to take themselves very seriously—but only because they take their roles, the parts they have to play in the national pageant, very seriously indeed.
The United States sees ten times more murders every year than does Japan. Yet Japan has been home to sixteen times more professional gangsters than the States had when the Cosa Nostra was at its peak.
The conviction rate of suspects in Japan is 99.85 percent (as against around 80 percent in Britain and the United States).
That indecisiveness is fatal, because both husband and wife are unhappy in their marriage and both have taken on lovers. But neither will take responsibility for being the one to break their union, so they remain in sorrowful limbo forever.
Zen teachers in Japan are often invigorated by Western students, because they’ve chosen to engage in the practice and are not just, as are their Japanese counterparts, following family obligation. But Zen teachers in Japan are often frustrated by Western students for the same reason: they choose to move off again, as their Japanese counterparts seldom do.
To Englishmen, of course, this applies even more to Japanese, the people who flip their light switches up, not down, for off, who used to count the hours backwards, from twelve to four, and who say “Yes” where we would say “No.”
“Success and satisfaction could rarely be sought by way of public accomplishment,” writes Krista Tippett of East Germany in the 1980s. “In response, ordinary people defended and grew their inner lives defiantly.”
Pragmatic to the core, my Japanese pals are happy to take four-day trips around Europe, because they know that four days of novelty can furnish forty years of memories. Experience is less important than what we make of it.
No one married to a Japanese would ever call her “repressed.” She simply has a sharp and unwavering sense of where emotion is appropriate and where not; she lives in the gap the British classicist Jasper Griffin explained to his friend Ved Mehta between denying one’s emotions and choosing not to indulge them.
Read the classic poems of Kyoto and you see that a night of love is less important than the way one anticipates it or the words with which one commemorates it. What we do with our feelings lasts longer than the feelings themselves.
Japan’s streets are less threatening to women than those of almost any other country; but that is partly because pleasure is left to the domain of professional women, relegating their everyday sisters to the realm of duty and domestic obligation.
In traditional Japan, it was considered discourteous for a man to be too friendly to a woman, because that suggested, in the division of responsibilities, that she was a worker in the “pleasure quarters.”
As of 2019, fewer than 1 percent of management positions in Japan are held by women. And by 2016, the majority of women in Japan who did hold jobs were engaged in “nonregular work”—sometimes temporary, sometimes part-time. Their average salaries, as of 2014, fell well below poverty levels.
The year after I arrived in Japan, a Japan Times survey found that seven in ten Japanese men refused even to consider working for a woman.
In a survey conducted in 2014, nine in every ten young Japanese women said that remaining single was preferable to what they imagined marriage to be.
When I arrived in Kyoto in 1987, women were known as “Christmas cakes” if they were still unmarried at twenty-five (since, by December 25, a Christmas cake is too old to be of any use). Now—progress is slow—they are known as “New Year’s Eve gifts.”
No wonder, perhaps, that around Kyoto a woman often seems to choose her husband on the basis of the man’s mother as much as of the man himself. It’s the mother-in-law who’s going to be everywhere in the house, even as the husband may be seldom seen.
Yet today far more women are visible in Chinese boardrooms than in Japanese. Japan has taken the Confucian model and, as in so many other respects, pushed it to its farthest extreme.
Thus women in Japan have every reason to make contact with a foreign world—by going abroad, by learning another language, even by marrying a foreigner—and men in Japan have every incentive to remain in a system that flatters and protects them.
In response to all the opportunities denied them in the public sphere, Japanese women have traditionally made the most of the private.
I used to think that Hello Kitty, the cartoon character who’s cute, infantile and pretty in pink, was a model of how women are encouraged to be in Japan. Then I saw that being mouthless, as Hello Kitty is, is not the same as being toothless.
In 1965, four in every thousand Japanese marriages failed; forty years on, sixty did.
Couples on dates in Japan often prefer to sit side-by-side rather than face-to-face.
My cosmopolitan, fashionable wife startles friends everywhere from Colorado to Tibet by reflexively referring to them as “Little Sister.” They don’t know that Japan is still enough of a traditional society that people address strangers as “Grandpa,” “Father” or “Older Sister.”
In North Korea, I’m regularly startled to encounter a Hermit Kingdom where a leader is taken to be a god, everyone marches to the beat of a single drummer and mass chants and calisthenics are daily enforced to remind everyone of collective responsibility. My neighbors in what for more than two centuries was itself a Hermit Kingdom tend not to think of most of this as strange—when they were young, they saw Japanese policemen arrest citizens for going to the movies, drinking coffee or eating sweet potatoes in the street. It’s not North Korea’s unbending upholding of order that unsettles my friends in Japan; it’s their neighbor’s indifference to boundaries.
In terms of wealth distribution, Japan in 2017 was “the most equal” society on the planet; many CEOs in Japan earn less than some of their employees do. But in terms of the gulf in public status, Japan is much more unequal than the United States. There’s no overturning the hierarchy.
Japanese macaques are of interest to scientists, because, as one scientist says, they “are very status-conscious individuals. They’re very intimidated by power.” They will challenge only those lower in the pecking order. But they’ll generally do this only in the company of the powerful.
An American instructor was upbraided, Joseph Campbell heard in Kyoto, for flunking a class of young women who had written papers that were word-for-word the same. A Japanese professor, Campbell was told at the same dinner, offered quite openly that he had taken his entire paper from another scholar.
“Having to be different,” noted the artist Robert Rauschenberg, famous for his enigmatic all-white canvases, “is the same trap as having to be the same.”
The Happiness Paradox states that happiness increases in relation to income until a certain point, after which income becomes immaterial. The great exception is Japan. Incomes have gone up six times, adjusting for inflation, since the 1950s, yet people confess themselves less happy than before.
“Emotions,” writes the Zen philosopher D. T. Suzuki, “are just the play of light and shadow on the surface of the sea.”
In Victorian times, while the Grand Tour was flourishing, a Japanese man could be executed for trying to leave Japan, and a foreign vessel landing in Japan would be destroyed, and all its cargo and passengers slaughtered.
On English as a Foreign Language tests, the Japanese score lower in English proficiency than the North Koreans (and, as a two-time visitor to North Korea, I have not found English to be of Shakespearean levels in Pyongyang).
That same year, this country of one hundred and twenty-seven million accepted exactly twenty asylum-seekers, out of almost twenty thousand who were considered. In Canada and Germany, the rate of acceptance was 40,000 percent higher; a single Turkish town had taken in more than a hundred thousand refugees from Syria alone.
The computer company Apple Inc. has sometimes seemed to be almost Japanese, not just because of its sleekly minimalist designs, or because of Steve Jobs’s delight in the walled gardens of Kyoto, to which he took each of his children; but simply because it has maintained its perfection by operating within a tightly controlled closed system. It remakes the world by keeping most of the world out.
Japan is never going to flourish at the global game, says my savviest financier friend, who’s made billions off his intuitions; its only hope in the twenty-first century is to market its otherness, its foreignness, and sell itself as a tourist destination. Precisely what makes it so frustrating to foreigners trying to do business there makes it fascinating to foreigners wishing to explore a deeply foreign culture.
The result—unusual for Japan, but hardly unknown—was that Joji had almost no contact with mother or stepmother or father or half-sibling or step-siblings; for as long as I’ve known him, he’s been traveling—Myanmar, Iran, Maine, Australia, Nepal, Thailand, Afghanistan—and yet, like many a traveler, finding no home anywhere, even as he comes to see that the only home he has is the one that he is fleeing.
“What is the best thing about Japanese culture?” “Silence,” he says, as he closes the door, and rolls down the window. “It’s a silent world.”
On an ever-more-global planet, Japan can look like a seventy-year-old man who dons a brand-new “I ♥ NY” T-shirt, but remains no less old for his youthful gear, and no less himself.
Within a month of the end of World War II, the leading historian of the Occupation, John Dower, points out, around four hundred Japanese companies were manufacturing chewing gum. No one, however, was likely to mistake Osaka for Chicago.
Japan does not permit dual nationality.
On arrival in Japan, I recited all the standard guidebook proverbs—“The nail that sticks out must be hammered down.” After I’d been here a while, the only proverb that seemed to make sense was the Buddhist maxim “Even the reverse has a reverse.”
“Our ancestors lacked the word ‘individualism,’ ” Tocqueville wrote, “which we have created for our own use, because in their era there were, in fact, no individuals who did not belong to a group and who could consider themselves absolutely alone.”
“Just because we were lying,” writes the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, evoking the beloved Istanbul of his youth in A Strangeness in My Mind, “it didn’t mean we weren’t sincere. We understood one another’s private motivations, while making sure to keep up public appearances.”
In a country by every measure at least six times safer than the United States, an umpire from the States was prevented from working games in Japan, writes the leading American expert on Japanese baseball, Robert Whiting, on the grounds that it “was not safe to umpire in Japan.”
Even a foreigner can become part of the team in a place where private passions are given vent in public and the slogan in the souvenir shop says (in English), LET YOUR YOU OUT.
When I took my wife to a professional baseball game in Los Angeles, she could hardly believe that fans were strolling around the grounds, heading off at critical moments to get jumbo helmets filled with nachos and leaving early to beat the traffic. In Japan you come to the park to cheer your team to victory.
After the Tigers finished last, the year I came to live in Japan—they were thirty-seven and a half games out of first place—the demand for tickets was so intense that, as Whiting writes, “even the benches in the outfield were converted into reserved seats, sold by lottery months in advance.”
Though the fans all around me are desperate for victory, the players are mostly trying not to lose. The first time an American, Bobby Valentine, was brought over to manage a professional Japanese team, in 1995, he was fired after leading his hapless squad to a stunning second-place finish, because, a team spokesman announced, “of his emphasis on winning.”
In any case, winning is seen in a larger context in Japan. Sometimes foreign players will get walked with the bases loaded (so some cherished record can remain in Japanese hands).
There are no names on the white uniforms of the players on the forty-nine teams, and the teenagers are generally as shaven-headed as monks. When they’re awarded walks, they sprint to first base.
From the age of nine, Ichiro Suzuki admitted—he had been taken by his father to a batting cage every day, for four hours, from the age of seven—he had “five to six hours [in a year] to play with friends.”
When I arrived in Japan, the country was importing its stars from the Americas; now it exports its stars and more often imports its managers. The ability to lead is harder to find in the land of hesitation than the ability to follow.
“I suppose, if one’s job, one’s life is trying to live with the things one can’t understand, then Japan is the biggest prize. Because it’s the ultimate challenge.”
Sometimes Japan seems more than ready to change itself on the surface precisely so that it will never have to change deep down.
Japan in the postwar years—this is Murakami’s setting, his lament—has a door that’s permanently half open. “Are you coming in or going out?” one might ask the entire culture. To which the answer—in a land of American surfaces and non-American values—is a shrug.
Besides, a culture used to playing a part can open up to the West in 1853, remake itself on a foreign model in 1945 and still be what it always was, a culture adept at taking things from abroad and making them its own.
Japan’s unique contribution to the postmodern world, maintains the contemporary Japanese philosopher Takeshi Umehara, is to see that everything is eternal and ephemeral at the same time.
“I traveled around Japan these last three years,” says my friend the techno-visionary Kevin Kelly, “and I never saw a single broken roof tile. Not one. On the other hand, I didn’t see much new construction. Maintenance: that’s what Japan does.”
Sixty-four pages on, however—proving that he’s Japanese enough to contradict himself constantly as well as British enough to keep making categorical assertions—Chamberlain, an early professor of Japanese at Tokyo University, writes of how “illusory are the common European notions of ‘the unchanging East.’
“The contradictions the mind comes up against,” writes Simone Weil, “these are the only realities.”