An Island in the Rising Sun
February 10, 2011 6:57 AM   Subscribe

"... it seems to me that something of the Edo era shimmers just below the surface of modern Japan," Henry Tricks on Japan's return to an increasingly insular society. "Fewer young Japanese are travelling abroad, fewer are studying English (this year, the main English-language school went bust), and fewer are taking places at leading academic institutions overseas such as Harvard Business School. Bosses at Japan’s legendary export businesses complain they cannot find youngsters who are prepared to work abroad."
posted by geoff. (31 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Gaikoku is scary and I'll miss Miso soup!
posted by snwod at 7:08 AM on February 10, 2011

Indeed, it is exactly as he says. There are no factors involved other than latent xenophobia, certainly no economic ones, and it was only in January this year that Japanese people stopped being ashamed of the Edo period -- that's why, for example, there are no Japanese books or movies set earlier than 1900.
posted by No-sword at 7:30 AM on February 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'd kind of hoped better of the Economist (or at least their Tokyo bureau chief) than the "I've been in Japan for what I consider to be a significant amount of time, and here's what the country is like" kind of blog post. A year, and the mysteries of Japan are laid bare? Gaijin, please.

On the other hand, take a step back from extrapolating your bad manners (wearing a wet bathing suit into a cafe) into a culture clash and look at the basics of the situation. Yes, fewer young people travel abroad. This might coincide with record underemployment, with (about to go to bed, can't find numbers) absurd percentages of Japanese people under 30 unable to find full-time employment, and getting stuck with part-time or contract worker status (which carries all of the workload, none of the benefits of full-time, and you can be let go almost any time). Each year, the number of university students with jobs lined up before graduation hits new record lows. So, yeah, people aren't doing so well. Not a lot of money. Going overseas? It's expensive.

Fewer are studying English? Well, NOVA went under a couple years before GEOS, and both schools went under due to shoddy business practices (NOVA) and poorly considered expansions (GEOS), as well as the general shitty state of the economy. Not many people have a spare $2000 up front for English lessons these days. On the other hand, huge numbers of ex-NOVA, ex-GEOS teachers have opened their own schools, many of which are doing pretty well. For the most part, they're trying to avoid repeating the same mistakes of the larger companies.

As for being unable to find recruits willing to go overseas, it might also be that the people in Japan most willing to go overseas might also be the type that want to escape the wearing a suit every day until you die sort of people. I'd argue it's less a return to isolation than the general loss of hope amongst the young as the 'leadership buries its head further into the sand with each passing day.

And, sorry, one last thing: He points to the lack of foreign subtitles on DVDs in Tsutaya (or any other rental shop). Newsflash, buddy. Foreigners make up something like less than 3% of the population. There is no sizeable demand for subtitles on Japanese movies. I'd imagine someone working for a magazine called the Economist would pick up on subtle things like lack of demand for a product or service being behind the product or service not being available.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:35 AM on February 10, 2011 [31 favorites]

Island nation is insular?
posted by dhartung at 7:41 AM on February 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Aren't there fewer young people overall in Japan? I know their birthrates have dropped below replacement level and I've also heard that it's got one of the highest populations of elderly people in the world. Maybe there just aren't enough young people to go around.
posted by Copronymus at 7:46 AM on February 10, 2011

After swimming with dolphins on the island of Mikurajima this summer, my family and I went to a café to have lunch, still in our damp bathing costumes. Our hostess was so livid that at first I thought we must have set the place alight, not left a few damp seats where our bottoms had been.

This doesn't strike me as a Japanese thing, but rather an Everywhere-in-the-world-of-people-with-reasonable-manners thing. But then I haven't lived in Japan for a year, so what do I know.
posted by reformedjerk at 7:47 AM on February 10, 2011 [14 favorites]

Metafilter: What a pain he is, now that he has stopped drinking.
posted by Naberius at 8:36 AM on February 10, 2011

Single page printer-friendly version.
posted by djgh at 8:57 AM on February 10, 2011

I can't believe the Economist's bureau chief wrote this crap.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:36 AM on February 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Articles like this are why I don't bother to read Economist.
posted by polymodus at 10:37 AM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've lived in England, the home of the economist, for six years. The things I have learned is that the English are inscrutable (and in the Black Country incomprehensible) and they still live with Arthurian Building Standards.
posted by srboisvert at 10:42 AM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love this article - not only did it manage to hit every Japan cliche, but the ending, with all of the naked boobs and sailors, was a fiesta of unintentional perviness.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:46 AM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I thought this was a bit of general and gentle reflection; I didn't notice that the author was attempting to make declamations or posit positive proofs.

There are strange moments in Japan where one's outsider status as gaijin is readily noticed and frowned upon. In my all too brief visit of two months I came across many.

Once my brother, who is fluent in their language and teaches classes in Arkansas on how to not embarrass one's self in Japan, and I were on a train leaving the heart of Tokyo. We were staying at the home of a prominent Beatle's biographer whose parents had recently passed away. Near us a young man quietly squeezed the buttocks of his date while kissing her; no one on the train paid them any mind. Closer to us, a small group of mixed-sex held the hair of one of their companions while she loudly vomited on the floor.

My brother and I both scowled at the puddle as it ran close to us and one of us made a noise, a guttural noise, of some disgust. Many people looked at us with a raised eyebrow, but some definitely scowled. Strange, indeed.

Later a rather beautiful young lady got on the train and stood in front of us; that is, we turned to face her so that our 'front' was her 'back.' My brother (who'd had a few Campari and Blood Orange bottles from a vending machine) began to point out in English how she was my type. 'Note the tattoo of the hotrod driving rat; dude, fucking talk to this chick. I promise I won't tell your girl when we get back to Korea.'

I refrained and mildly mentioned that she might be an English speaker as well since her t-shirt had an image on it that screamed 'Brooklyn' to me: A U-lock wrapped around a bagel. My brother continued on this vein and at some point I confess that I did allow for her sexiness, but noted it was probably cultural. We'd been surrounded by nothing except Japanese for weeks now;how could we not be swept in by the claustrophobic allure of visual entrapment?

At the next stop the doors opened for departure and the young lady proceeded forth. A moment before exiting she turned and looked at us over her shoulder and said, 'Have a nice night boys; don't do anything stupid.' My brother exploded with a burst of, what was it? 'Ah-sooree-massins,' while I stared at the ground shamefaced.

One final anecdote to round out the the verification of the noted disdain that many Japanese hold for we foreigners. As I am an artist and travelling performer, I find that the class of people I meet abroad are generally of the so-called liberal class. Fine with me as the right-wing crowd exudes an exclusionary air that is stifling to personal growth and rife with cultural insensitivity.

While in Kyoto with a theater company I was shown around by our hosts and introduced to a young lady who was pointed out by many present to be a 'True Japanese' due to her facial features. Don't ask me to describe the mein that could produce such statements as she was as pretty as all the rest of the young ladies we met on our trip. It was also mentioned that she was able to tell fortunes and she asked for our hands.

To my brother she said, 'You have a honey voice; many Japanese women will take, but they will leave when they discover the voice is all there is.'

To my director, a Korean ex-pat, 'You are quiet and reserved and perhaps drink too much; many Japanese women will love you. Have a good time.'

When she took my hand I have to admit I was rather nervous; I'd been making all kinds of mistakes since I'd arrived and discovered that though many women had remarked on my beauty due to my carmel complexion, most of them had refrained from even allowing me to kiss their hands. I let her look at my lined grasp and this is what she said:

'You are funny. Or maybe I should say silly. Japanese women don't like silly. Korean women like silly. Go back to Korea and get a Korean wife.'

Then she smiled very nicely and walked off with my brother to get a drink at the bar.
posted by artof.mulata at 11:36 AM on February 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

I skimmed the article and then looked at the comments, certain that they'd be better than the linked article. I am not disappoint, MetaFilter!
posted by immlass at 11:37 AM on February 10, 2011

At the next stop the doors opened for departure and the young lady proceeded forth. A moment before exiting she turned and looked at us over her shoulder and said, 'Have a nice night boys; don't do anything stupid.' My brother exploded with a burst of, what was it? 'Ah-sooree-massins,' while I stared at the ground shamefaced.

So, what does this show other than you and your brother were acting like rude assholes and got a bit of what you deserved?

Or were you just drunk when you made that comment? I'm trying to figure it out.
posted by dubitable at 2:01 PM on February 10, 2011

Man...he doesn't even mention the loudspeaker trucks flying the navy flag! What kind of collection of Japanese stereotypes is this?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:28 PM on February 10, 2011

TheWhiteHat, um, those are real. Less common by the year, but they're real (though they actually hate Communists, specifically Asian ones, and love Americans for rebuilding Japan into a first-world nation instead of, to put it bluntly, an Asian country). The election campaign loudspeaker trucks are way more irritating, though. As is that Happiness Science cult, though they've largely gone by the wayside.
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:25 PM on February 10, 2011


I'm a vegetarian who doesn't eat ~/hamburger.
posted by artof.mulata at 3:52 PM on February 10, 2011


I know, I used to see them a lot in Osaka. As you say, the represent an increasingly small minority, but they nevertheless feature in a lot of "Japan is a land of contradictions" type stories.

The ones I used to see would complain more generally about foreign influence in Japan (although, I think, usually meaning Chinese or Korean). My response was always "Sorry, my hakama is in the wash."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:58 PM on February 10, 2011

Doctor Fedora, they're still around, and still have influence. Bear in mind that they are allowed to go anywhere they want, and nearly any time. Whenever they do, they always have decent sized police escort, and for the most part, the police aren't there to prevent the uyoku (the black van/loudspeaker assholes) from doing anything bad, they're there to prevent anyone else from starting anything. They are the assholes who send bullets in the mail, who try to silence any critics of the country, native or foreign.

After all, today is National Foundation Day or somesuch, and I imagine they'll be out in force, complete with police escort.

art of mulata, you said your brother teaches people how not to embarrass themselves? And he does the drunk gaijin talking loudly on the train bit?
posted by Ghidorah at 4:40 PM on February 10, 2011

Ghidorah, hi. The whole story's a piece of satire responding to earlier comments on the article's cluelessness. But yeah, he did have that gig at one point when he worked for Japan's U.S. ambassador. But that incident on the train is mostly fabricated. The puke? So very real... Also, you caught the point of the fulcrum upon which that particular joke was perched! Still hate the damn 'hamburger' tag.
posted by artof.mulata at 5:17 PM on February 10, 2011

Ghidorah, hi. The whole story's a piece of satire responding to earlier comments on the article's cluelessness.

artof.mulata, hi. The whole story was done really poorly then and just came off as clueless, as evidenced by folks' reactions, and your snarky patronizing responses made it worse. Better luck next time.

posted by dubitable at 5:22 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Snarky? Really? I didn't think I sounded snarky... I definitely wasn't intending to.

People are always expecting the worst from people. Well, not always. And obviously not everyone thought it was in poor taste; at least a couple of people got a kick out of it.

Sorry you read the story and the posts that way. You and anybody else.
posted by artof.mulata at 5:33 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

artof.mulata, rather than get further into a pointless argument, I thought maybe I could explain something you mentioned in part of your story, specifically the part about the puke on the train. I've been the puker (not a proud moment), I've taken care of the puker (not my friend's proudest moment), and I've been on trains in similar situations. The thing that's happening is everyone knows there's someone puking on the train. That's the reality. It literally can't be helped, it can't be stopped, it's already happened. The phrase shogani, or literally, "it can't be helped"* is in operation here. The person puking is horrible, horribly embarrassed, they wouldn't be doing it if they could help it. Most of the people on the train are trying to be polite, and not further embarrass the poor bastard, and are doing their own personal best to gaman, to endure, or to perservere through the inconvenience, which is honestly minor, at best (as long as they're not being puked on, of course), limited to temporarily unpleasant smells and sounds.

By calling attention to it, but making disapproving noises, you're embarrassing that person further, showing a pretty solid lack of sympathy. The people who aren't saying anything, doing anything, or reacting in any way are probably aware that at some point, they've done something just as embarrassing, and feel some kind of sympathy to the puker. You're breaking the veneer of politeness, the communal decision that, in essence, says the puker is already suffering for their transgression, both by feeling physically awful, and by being terribly ashamed for their actions. To put it bluntly, to scowl at them, to make disapproving sounds, you're breaking the social contract, you're being rude.

*as mentioned in other threads, by many other members, shoganai is possibly one of the worst things about the country, and possibly one of the root causes for its prolonged political and economic malaise. People assume that the current situation is too large, and cannot be changed, so people, especially young people, look at the whole mess and say shoganai.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:03 PM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ghidorah, I know, I know, I swear I do. The point of the whole story was to call attention to the protagonists inability to realize they were the interloper, fumbling, and making mistakes at every moment.

It was a piece of satire. Nothing more. Making people feel bad when they are already suffering is no fun. The story hangs on that bit of tension.

I too have been the puker and the hair holder and the cleaner. We all have. There's no harm done when your buddy's crack wise about it later and it helps to relieve the tension.

WhenI wrote above that it's a piece of satire I assumed it would then be apparent that it's a work of fiction.

This is not a pointless argument though; my apology to you obviously wasn't enough for some reason and that makes me sad. Truly. "Sorry you read the story and the posts that way. You and anybody else," I wrote. How much more do you want? If you feel a need to continue this please do write me at memail or christ, I'll set up skype and we can talk from there.
posted by artof.mulata at 6:19 PM on February 10, 2011

"Sorry you read the story and the posts that way. You and anybody else," I wrote.

posted by dubitable at 6:53 PM on February 10, 2011

Well, this Economist piece is still a whole lot better than Lost in Translation!
posted by KokuRyu at 7:10 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's what they say about Japan:

Those who've been there for a couple of days will write a book; those who've been there for a few months will write a magazine article; but those who've REALLY been there for a longer time will just shut the fuck up.
posted by sour cream at 5:31 AM on February 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

Not long afterwards Japan turned its back on China, and then (to the vexation of anyone learning Japanese since) it added the kana script to Chinese kanji. "

Wait, what? You think kana is the difficult part of learning to read?
posted by emmling at 7:35 AM on February 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wait, what? You think kana is the difficult part of learning to read?

Yeah, I mean, come on. The most difficult part of Japanese is obviously the handshake codes. Those took me at least two years to get right, during the course of which I lost all my friends because my thumb angle was one degree off.

posted by armage at 1:06 AM on February 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I believe you meant /モスバーガー
posted by Ghidorah at 5:46 AM on February 13, 2011

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