T Different in Many Ways by YAMAGISHI, K.


Encroaching on Privacy?

   One day an American woman from Oregon said angrily that Japanese men were very rude, because they asked her many personal questions such as "How old are you?" "Are you married?" I can understand her anger. Many foreigners must have experienced the same thing after coming to Japan. However, without background information such as what part of Japan a person comes from, what social group he or she belongs to, what his or her social status is, what religion he or she is, etc., Japanese often find it difficult to continue a conversation with foreigners.
   Until recently, for example, when people sat in the same train seat or seats facing each other and started a conversation by asking questions of the sort mentioned above, they never dreamed that they were invading someone else's privacy or they were hurting their feelings; they just believed that it was a good way to make friends with other people. By trying to find as many common points as possible (e.g. they came from the same part of a prefecture), Japanese were able to feel a sense of closeness and relax.
   There is a Japanese saying (once very popular and now obsolescent): Sode huriaumo tashoono en. The literal translation is: Even brushing sleeves with others is due to the karma from your previous life. Another version is: Even chance meetings are the result of karma. (Karma is the sum of someone's lifetime's actions, seen as governing their fate in the next life.) Old Japanese liked this saying and believed in it.
  Unfortunately, however, few Japanese today think in that way and too many Japanese began to think that asking "personal" questions is encroaching on privacy. This change of way of thinking or attitudes has begun to create many young Japanese who are quite indifferent to others: they don't seem to be interested in the people around them. They might be best called "a none-of-my-business generation."
   The saddest thing is that today's Japanese, young and old, seem to confuse "privacy" with "secretiveness." They tend to clam up even when people's questions have nothing to do with "privacy." Such being the case, people like me, who often ride on Shinkansen trains on lecture tours, can seldom enjoy conversations with people sitting near me. In many cases I see people's faces showing that they are being annoyed by my speaking to them and I'm making a nuisance of myself. So I end up remaining silent. Forty two years ago, when I came to Tokyo, this type of Japanese was unthinkable; those days strangers in the same train seat or seats facing each other pretty soon began to introduce themselves, talk to each other, chatter away, and tried to find out common points.

Public nuisance?

   Another American woman once said to me: it's really disgusting to see Japanese men urinating in the street. One summer night she went to Shibuya with her American friend and saw two Japanese men, standing side by side, urinating against a building wall. Later she learned from one of her Japanese friends that there was even such a Japanese word as tsure-shon (a vulgar word used exclusively by men to refer to "urinating side by side with someone else"). Here, also, I can perfectly understand how that American woman felt about that.
   She may have to know, however, that this sort of "public nuisance" has something to do with conduct that was commonly observed among agricultural Japanese. She doesn't need to go back so far in the Japanese agricultural history; in my childhood (from the mid-40's to the late 50's), for example, men urinating in the street (especially in rural areas) was a very common sight; they also urinated against fences, in paddy fields, etc. Women (old women particularly) urinated outdoors as well, pointing their bottoms toward fences, paddy fields, etc. It was then I knew that women could urinate bending forward, pointing their bottoms toward fences, walls, paddy fields, etc. Small girls of my age urinated in a squatting position.
   In agricultural Japan, this sort of "public nuisance" was always regarded with tolerance (no need of patience). In those days human manure was the only fertilizer. When I was small, my parents who were born in farm houses used to tell me that if I "peed" on earthworms, my "thing" would get swollen; as a child I believed it and whenever I had to answer the "nature call" on my way to and from school, for example, I always tried to relieve myself with scrupulous care so as not to "hurt" them.
   In my days, earthworms were believed to be very useful small animals that made fields well-ventilated; they made soil airy and kept it from decomposing or rotting. Snakes were believed to do similar work.
   As time has changed and Japanese roads have been paved, people have begun to see this "public nuisance" from a different angle.

The Japanese smile

   Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-born English writer who adopted Japanese citizenship and lived in Japan from 1890 until his death in 1904, was shocked when, not long after his arrival in Japan, he saw a Japanese woman tell him of her husband's death while smiling slightly. He was surprised then, but many years later wrote an essay titled "The Japanese Smile." In it he said:

   A Japanese can smile in the face of death, and usually does… There is neither defiance nor hypocrisy in the smile; nor is it to be confounded with that smile of sickly resignation which we are apt to associate with weakness of character. It is an elaborate and long cultivated etiquette. It is also a silent language. But any effort to interpret it according to Western notions of physiognomical expression would not be successful.

   Hearn refers to the Japanese smile as a form of self-control rooted in the culture of the Japanese. Smiles to indicate affection, agreement, sympathy, etc. are the same wherever you go; but this smile of self-control is something that on occasion seems to puzzle people from other countries. The passage of time and people's change of life style also change their way of seeing things and ethical standards; actually, as time changes, what was once good or common is often considered bad, strange or indecent. One of the most important things for human beings in the 21st century seems to be flexibility to cope with racial and cultural differences.