You don’t get Japan.

Just, take a breath. Okay, now let me repeat that: YOU. DON’T. GET. JAPAN.

You don’t get it and I don’t get it.  They don’t get it either.

You don’t get the country and your don’t get the people. You don’t really understand jack-shit about anything despite the essays you’ve written in the comments someplace about tatemae and honne. Reading 3,000 kanji hasn’t helped, and neither has all that anime you gorged on before the JET program flew you over here to be a Hello -Song monkey for a year.

You don’t freakin’ get it, at all, and that’s just how it is.

There’s hope though; a little ray cutting through the clouds and leaking down into the grey abyss which is your expat life. That hope, that ray of light, is this blog and particularly this post.

So, like you, I know nothing and spent ten of my thirteen years here bumbling around with my head up my butt; so dark; so warm.

I devoured books and completely missed the point of most of them.  Over the last few years though, I’ve gone back, re-read many of those and have re-examined the ideas with some distance between myself now and myself back then.  So, in short, I learned some lessons.  I picked up some gems amongst the carnage and destruction.

This doesn’t mean I beat the game, but if you read the following recommendations carefully, you might be able to extract what amounts to a cheat code.

So, you can basically be this guy.

Here’s the list…

3. Kata

Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese! (yes, an exclamation point) was given to be by a friend, possibly 12 years ago, and I read it, nodding my head and jotting down some notes, but then ultimately moving on without really “buying it”.  I’ve since read it again and changed my tune.

The premise behind Kata, is that in Japanese society and culture, everything is strictly codified having a shikata, or way of doing it.  If one understands this, navigating the various situations you’ll inevitably find yourself in becomes much easier. Also, it becomes a bit less nerve-wracking when dealing with the Japanese and they do something which seems counter intuitive to your own sensibilities.

The first question author Boye Lafayette De Mente (Name! Powerful!) asks in the introduction is “What makes the Japanese Japanese?” And that is the million yen query.  He then proceeds to explain, convincingly, that we can find the kata system throughout all walks of life in Japan.

An excerpt addressing “Kata for dealing with foreigners.”

…Japanese attitudes toward foreign tourists and their treatment of them. As short-term visitors who are in Japan to enjoy the beauty of the islands and indulge in some of the attractions of the culture, travelers present neither a threat nor a challenge to the Japanese.  This so-called “guest culture” incorporates an elaborate body of kata for the care and feeding of guests that keeps them impressed and happy, for the most part, but also has the effect of isolating them from the realities of Japan.

…Interestingly, many foreigners are so eager to impress and please the Japanese, for one reason or another, that they go overboard in their praise and actions even when it isn’t expected or necessary. That latter type of behavior is likely to come off as insincere…

I think he’s talking to you, JET teachers.

But regardless if you are a fresh off the boat newbie or a salty old Tokyo gaijin, Kata offers plenty for everyone.

2.The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword has been a polarizing work ever since it’s inception in 1946.  I’ve read it three times, and although it is obviously dated, it also addresses core elements of Japan, and the Japanese, which still exist in those behemoths such as government, corporate culture and education.  What’s more, it was given to me by a Japanese friend who I took very seriously at the time, and still do. Her own quest for knowledge and obsession with a Japan she saw as fading away, gave her remarkable insights into various aspects of the culture I otherwise might not have been exposed to.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was written by Ruth Benedict, based on an ask from the US Office of War Information to help America understand it’s enemy in World War 2.  After the war, the country of Japan was in turmoil, and struggling to redefine itself.  This book was translated and widely read in Japan and had an impact, not only on the Japanese but also on choices made during the restructuring of Japan post war.  For example, the decision to allow the Emperor to remain a figure-head in Japan, was achieved via this book.

Benedict attempts to address a hyper-Japanese concept, which has flummoxed many a foreigner determined to “fit in” with the Japanese, when addressing at length the Japanese concept of “Giri“.

Japanese Obligations and Reciprocals.

Giri. These debts are regarded as having to be repaid with mathematical equivalence to the favor received and there are time limits.

…The great traditional Giri relationship which most Japanese think of, even before the relation with in-laws (Giri-father/father-inlaw; Giri-Okasan/mother-inlaw) is that of a retainer to his liege lord and to his comrades at arms.  It is the loyalty a man of honor owes to his superior and to his fellows at his own class.

And this is the cultural aspect which has frustrated and dazzled me the most in Japan.  This obsession with Giri.  People working themselves to death in the office? Think Giri.  Son a complete train wreck and in debt, all of his own making, and the parents bail him out yet again?  Think Giri.  “Worker bee” trapped in a dead-end job with a huge company which actively hates him, but he refuses to quit? Think Giri.

It’s a heavy burden Japanese carry and for them it’s nearly a tangible weight they can feel.  Foreigners often don’t even notice it going on.  Benedict’s writings about it are for me, the most important part of the book as it’s so widely ignored by foreigners dealing with Japan.  Many of us mistake actions taken due to Giri for some kind of love/caring, then later become confused and angry as the nature of the relationship has changed and the support or attention very suddenly vanishes; They were taking care of you out a sense of duty, not love, and now that commitment has concluded.

Understand Giri and understand the Japanese and their behavior, much more.

1.Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan

Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan by Alex Kerr, is such an invaluable book for those attempting to understand the contemporary Japanese situation.  This book is Kerr’s scream into the ether; he obviously loves Japan and is enraged by the problems he sees as fixable, yet remain unfixed.  I get that sentiment, big time.

Published in 2001 most of the issues Kerr tackles are still problems today, just in a worse off state than in 2001.  He attacks the bloated and over developed “Construction State” with ferocity and detailed knowledge, then moving onto the environment, “The Bubble“, Bureaucracy and later education and the expatriate community.

Personally, the best chapters are regarding education as by chance, this is the field I’ve had the most personal experience in.  He adeptly address juku, or after school “cram schools” almost all students in Japan attend in the evenings.

The juku, students are learning another important lesson: the hard work, the sacrifice, the exhaustion, the resigning of one’s interests and personality to the demands of impersonal rules- this is what juku is really teaching…

…The children do not learn what they need to know to pass the exams for university in public schools.

…Well, what are they doing in school then?

…They are learning to be Japanese.

In 2004 when I read this it shocked and mildly disgusted me.  Today, with the state of American society, and Western civilization as a whole, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps Japan has been onto something this entire time.

Kerr is passionate and uses a fair amount of anecdotal evidence in some areas of the book, and it can be quite pessimistic.  But read in conjunction with the other titles on this list, one begins to paint a realistic picture of what Japan is, and who the Japanese are.  There are little gems sprinkled throughout that I’m certain, anyone can learn from.


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