A Word on the Weirdness From Japan

I was a college student in 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.) Later that fall, 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. When he arrived, 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. News is a catalog of exceptions. Intentionally so. No one is interested to hear that today, all across Japan, things were completely, totally normal.

By now, all of us have seen at least one of the “weird Japan” posts that make their way around the internet. And yes, subcultures there are diverse. 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 Japanese cultural aesthetic and how, for example, a household or shop may keep as decoration a single vase holding one carefully pruned orchid. Beauty in simplicity. One thing elevated to mastery.

Generally speaking, that’s how the Japanese measure their pursuits: not by enjoyment but by mastery. All you Whovians think you’re rabid fans. But you’re weak by Japanese standards! I’ve seen otaku on television who don’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. The reason I saw that on TV (in Japan) is because they think that’s weird also.

Naturally, then, when a dozen 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.

Meanwhile, there’s now a cottage industry of Western Japan-watchers who make ad revenue by finding these odd obsessions and by writing clickbait articles about them.

By comparison, 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. The Japanese think we’re very strange, insane even, to live with that kind of violence.

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 a “Hold my beer” moment in Florida, or some weirdo in LA who decorated his house in sequins, 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 recently — I think it was a couple years old — where some people somewhere in the US were making X-rated sand art on a nude beach. “Hentai,” she said, which just means “perverted.” Nude sand art is not exactly a national pastime. The difference is that it’s a known oddity, nude beaches and the like, whereas a museum dedicated to defecation is not.

Both species of weird make a certain kind of sense, if you take the time to understand them in context.

There are indeed museum exhibits on bowel movements in Tokyo. 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.

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. (Keep in mind that Japanese society is highly communal, and the state organizes society in ways that would make us very uncomfortable.) 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 understand what you’re laughing at.