Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Society of Repressed Emotions

The Japanese value courtesy as a social norm. They have evolved a remarkable litany of formalities for public encounters and social interaction, all of which are based on respect for the other. Individuals do not like to bring attention to themselves. They present pleasantly and humbly. As individuals they tend to be extremely kind to strangers, and when faced with foreigners they repress their curiosity. To a point.

Many simply cannot help themselves and will approach a foreigner tentatively speaking a polyglot English in the hopes of briefly engaging the stranger, for the purpose of polishing up their own slender grasp of the language. But for the most part, the delicacy of public demeanor is likely a result of the Buddhist tradition. And in a practical sense, an unspoken societal more which ensures that these three small crowded mountainous isles hosting a multitude of people are sufficient unto the task.

When we lived in Tokyo it was rare to hear car horns blaring in heavy traffic as is done elsewhere when impatient drivers let those ahead of them know they're driving too slowly. Mind, in the press of vehicular traffic in Tokyo it's not all that possible to drive too quickly, despite which many Japanese practise pretty tricky and pretty irritating bypasses to get ahead. Irritating as this may be, no one raises their voice in protest, no car horns shred the air. One does not make a public show of oneself.

There is a distinct distaste for public shame. Which is odd, given the proclivity for many salarymen to put off facing rush-hour traffic from the business areas of Tokyo to the outlying residential areas, and instead visit bars with their colleagues until they're stinking drunk and help one another manoeuvre carefully along the street, throwing up on street corners, under the kindly cover of darkness. And of course, there is the famous karaoke bars where would-be crooners try out their talents to the applause of all. Bringing a different kind of attention to oneself.

But loss of face, shame, public censure for deeds ill done has a truly devastating effect on the Japanese psyche. The shame is not to be lived down. Mea culpas accompanied by dignified and codified apologies, followed by burning shame the order of the day. Sufficient to encourage the ultimate atonement for ill-doing: seppuku. Which has a long and honoured tradition in the country, as a manner of apology and also of protest.

In the case of Toshikatsu Matsuoka, the agriculture minister under the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it was public anger and the shame of being accused of mishandling public funds that led him to commit himself to eternity. That is so like the Japanese, and that is so dreadfully sad. Indeed, Japan has the dubious reputation of being a relatively high-suicide country. A Japanese publication,
The Complete Suicide Manual, published in 1993 is a runaway best seller in the country.

It does seem such a terrible waste.

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