A Word on the Weirdness From Japan

I was a college student at the University of Oklahoma when the Murrah Federal building was bombed in the spring of 1994. (I was in organic chemistry lab, in the second basement of a very large building, and didn’t hear it.) In the fall of that year, I took a class on the modern Middle East taught by a professor of archaeology, who had made a research trip to Lebanon over the summer. Upon arriving, a Lebanese colleague, who knew he was from Oklahoma, grasped him tightly and said with teary eyes, “my friend, I’m so glad you made it out alive.” All that man knew about Oklahoma was that that was where his American friend lived and that it was the kind of place where big bombs went off and killed lots of people.

What you see on the news — or these days, on the internet — teaches you almost nothing about real life, even in your own community. News is a catalog of exceptions. Intentionally so. No one is interested to hear that today, all across Japan, things were completely, totally normal.

In the last ten days or so, I’ve seen at least six posts (all from different people) that pointed and laughed at something “Japan” was doing — where really it was the hobby of less than a dozen of her 127 million inhabitants. Yes, subcultures here are diverse. Yes, they may actually be more diverse (per capita) than anywhere else in the world. But most of them are also very small. What’s important to know about the Japanese, more than the strangeness, is how much they dedicate themselves to their pursuits. I’ve written before on the cultural aesthetic here and how, for example, a household or shop may keep as decoration a single vase holding one carefully pruned orchid. And that’s it. Beauty in simplicity. One thing elevated to mastery.

Generally speaking, at least compared to the US, that’s how the Japanese measure their pursuits: not by enjoyment but by mastery. All you Whovians think you’re rabid fans. But by Japanese standards, you’re weak! I’ve seen where otaku won’t just dedicate themselves to one anime, but to a specific character from it, and then decorate their entire apartment with images of that character: posters, blankets, towels, cups, t-shirts, notepads, and of course the definitive collection of books and DVDs.

I say again. Your fandom is WEAK.

Naturally, then, when seven people (out of 127 million) with the same strange obsession find each other via the internet, they will invariably start some big project dedicated to that obsession. They’ll make something out of it. They’ll turn it productive. They’ll make costumes. They’ll put a video on YouTube. Whatever. And all in the limited free time they have after working so much.

And here you won’t even get up off the couch on Saturday, despite that you only work 70% of what they do.

On top of this, there’s now a cottage industry of Western Japan watchers who make money by finding these odd obsessions and bringing them to us, where they know we’ll click and laugh and bring them ad revenue.

On the other hand, many Japanese solidly believe — seriously — that if they visit the US, there is very high chance they will get shot, much higher, for example, than that they would get into a car accident, because car accidents aren’t reported on the news, and shootings are. In fact, I think American shootings — and not even multiple shootings — are covered more here than at home (which says something about what we consider exceptional and worth reporting). The Japanese think we’re insane that we just live with that kind of violence.

What we laugh at is just weird. The shit we do that they laugh at actually kills people. Which is more insane?

And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of weird American subcultures. With 320 million people, we have quite a few. Orine will routinely show me something one of her friends sent about something stupid someone did in rural Alabama, or some weirdo in LA, and say “Honto?” (Really?) As in, is that really what America is like? I, of course, will have never heard of such a thing. She showed me something yesterday — I think it was a couple years old — where some people somewhere were making X-rated sand art on a nude beach. “Hentai,” she said, which just means “perverted.”

I’m not saying no one should post the weird stuff from Japan. Please! I have. Some of it is generally odd. But some of it that seems odd actually makes a lot of sense, if you take the time to understand it in context.

There was a museum exhibit here in Tokyo awhile back on bowel movements. Poop. How it’s made in the intestines. Where it goes. Thing is, the Japanese are generally obsessed with cleanliness. And shame. The Tokyo/Yokohama metroplex is the largest in the world, the largest geographic collection of people in history, but it’s all clean. It’s shameful if your storefront, for example, has trash in the gutter. So everyone chips in and keeps the whole place neat and tidy. The whole damned city. And it’s safe, too. Ladies, you really can walk home at three in the morning by yourself and be totally fine. Orine and her friends do it all the time.

But as a result of that cultural obsession with cleanliness, there’s a general unease about moving your bowels at a public toilet, for example, and some folks here have actually developed health problems because of it (albeit that’s a small minority). Many public toilets have little jingle-makers to cover the sound of your farts. Folks here are that bothered. (Thing is, no one I’ve talked to is any more bothered by hearing it than we are, but they’re all worried someone else will be.)

The museum exhibit, then, was organized as a kind of public service. It was for kids and it was to teach them that bowel movements are natural and you shouldn’t feel ashamed — a communal potty training exercise. The need for that, which seems so strange to us, is a different expression of the same phenomenon that keeps this giant, massive, sprawling, never-ending city so relentlessly clean and safe.

So while it’s fine to laugh — I did — just recognize that your laughter is evidence that, like the Lebanese man, you probably don’t actually understand what you’re laughing at.