Did I ever mention to you guys that I went to Japan? It was the summer of 2001 and I had been studying Japanese for a year. My professor, Morisensei, convinced me that the only way to learn the language was to enroll in a two-month summer program in a school on the northernmost island in a town called Hakodate.
"Great!" I thought, "I've always liked to go to other countries and I've been fascinated with Japanese culture since I was a little kid. It'll be awsome!"
It wasn't awesome. It wasn't awesome at all. I came back after three and a half weeks. In fact, it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. Ye gods, what a hell-hole.
Everything in Japan talks to you except the people. The sreetcar talks, the stove talks, the refigerator talks. Remember those talking cars in the 80's? "Lights are on!", "Key is in the ignition!" Remember how much you hated that? Japanese people didn't hate it at all. They invented that shit and they looooove it.
Even the toilet talks.
Of course, I couldn't understand a goddamn word, so what did I care? Except that it was a constant reminder that I had no fucking idea what was going on at any given time.
I did understand some things, but it was generally enough to make me think I didn't want to know any more. For instance, many times when something (some lamp-post or bicycle rack or disembodied Train Voice) tells you a piece of information, they tag on a little aphorism, "GANBATTE, KUDASAI!!" ("Work hard today!") or "Good girls don't smoke!" or the one that sent a chill up my spine every time I heard it, "The nail that sticks out GETS HAMMERED IN!" Have a nice day!
A quote from this essay sums up what that means, exactly:
Japan is unthinkable without groups. Perhaps they developed from the co-operative labour needed in the scattered villages of a rice-growing culture. To this day the threat of Mura Hachibu ('rejection from the village' or ostracism) by family, university alumnus league, company or even golf club would be enough to bring the most determined social deviant to heel. It can sometimes seem as if the only escape from the demands of the group lies in madness.
The group is everything there. There is no room for the maverick rebel, the determined non-conformist, the rugged individual. Here in the west, we cherish that quality. To us, the individual is sacred. To them? Anathema. There's just no space for that in their society. And the social sanctioning is fierce and swift.
This is why Japan has no significant women's movement. In fact, the word for an unmarried woman over 30 in Japanese who keeps her money and doesn't have kids? "Parasite" woman. Not because she counts on anyone for a living or a meal ticket, but because she's not using her womb for the good of the nation, not contributing to the economy by buying refrigerators or diapers or a mini-van.
This story, which I heard on "All Things Considered" today as I was driving back from my mom's place in South Georgia brought it all crashing back.
All Things Considered, November 24, 2006 · Many young people in Japan have become hermits — retreating into worlds that consist of little more than their rooms. And that's difficult for families. Michele Norris talks with Michael Zielenziger, author of Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation.
Zielenziger profiles a caste of Japanese youth called hikikomori, mostly young men who lock themselves away in their bedrooms, fearful of society's expectations. He also talks about Japan's aging working class and the tendency of young women to shun motherhood.
It's a riveting (though disturbing) story and I would love to read the book (I've added it to my Amazon Wish List.)(HINT!!), but the thing it got me thinking today is how grateful I am to live in this culture, this paradigm that rewards individuality and makes room for the oddball. We think the US can be a stifling, conformist culture, but in the west, we're lucky in ways that we don't even begin to understand. And I'm not just talking about America here. We didn't invent that, contrary to what Pox News might insist. Let's not forget Beethoven, Michelangelo, Copernicus, or any of those guys. We come from a few thousand years of respect for the iconoclast.
I was playing my friend Daiji some of my old music one day and he said, "You are very, very creative, Ferguson-san!"
I shrugged it off like I do most compliments, "Thank you," I said, "That and three bucks will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks." Or something to that effect.
Daiji shook his head, "Japanese people, we are not creative. We can copy, but we don't create."
"Don't be silly!" I said, "What about Sei Shonagon? Or Murasaki's The Tale of Genji?"
"That was a thousand years ago," he said, "It's not like that now."
I wanted to say, "Well, then maybe you guys shouldn't kill all your weirdos. That's who thinks creatively, the freaks who aren't like everybody else." But I was too polite to ever say such a thing, especially to someone as open and kind as Daijisan.
But this Thanksgiving weekend, that's what I am really, really thankful for, that I live in a society that equates uniqueness with greatness rather than considering it a moral failing. I thank god that I was raised in a family who taught me to be true to myself, to fight for what I believe in, and to strive to be the best person I can be. (Thanks Mom and Dad!! I'm sorry I was such a pain in the ass!)
What about you guys?