Nihongo is the word for Japanese Language, and since moving into my own apartment, I find I’ve been much more motivated to study Japanese (see my “Why Living in Tokyo is Hard” post), so I’ve stepped up my learning by — no kidding — like 300%. Where before I would study “when I had time,” or “when I felt like it”, I now study for at least half an hour a day.
TIP: Listening to podcasts on the train is a great way to take advantage of down time and learn something new. For me it’s Nihongo, for you it could be Italian, Spanish, how to start a business, the rules to extreme Pavlackian chicken toss…anything!
As I study I’m learning more about how the language works, especially the levels of politeness. This is all well and good, but the other day I went to the convenience store, and I realized that when the clerk gave me my receipt I needed to say thanks. After listening to a recent lesson about all the different ways to say “thank you” in Japanese I found myself worrying about the best way to do it.
Should I give a polite “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you)? She’s about my age, that should be OK. Ah, but she’s just a convenience store clerk, just a short “domo” (thanks) is all she should get…
Hmmm… Just a clerk? All she should get? I didn’t like where this train of thought was going, so I gave her the usual “arigato gozaimasu” I always did, and took my booze and went on my way.
But it did make me think: how often am I judging how much respect people should get based on trivial things like age and occupation? Probably no more than people are judging me. This episode took me back to a comment from one of my students a week before. I was teaching him the word “connoisseur”, and we somehow got to talking about the fact that I speak a minuscule amount of french, having grown up learning it in Canada. For example, I can count to 1000 and do things like say the year, which I suppose is slightly more than the average English speaking person in the west, but by no means can I have a meaningful conversation.
Still, he was mighty impressed: “Wow, you speak French? I have to be honest, before, I just think of you as an English teacher, but now I feel you are…eeto…someone I must respect.”
I’ve come to learn that hierarchy is a staple of Japanese culture. It’s built into the language, and drives the workforce. My students have told me that it’s very rare for someone to switch jobs, because at a certain age, someone should be at a certain position, so to leave and start over is very difficult. No one wants to hire someone over a certain age for an entry level or even mid level position. It will throw off the whole balance of the corporation. Now coworkers have worry about referring to their new colleague as Tanaka-sama, because he’s older than them or Tanaka-san, because their all junior programmers. No, we can’t have that.
But what I also learned is that this classicism was also there inside me all along, it just took a brush with Japan’s more overt system for me to realize it. And maybe it’s in you too. What goes through your head when you see someone over the age of sixteen working the drive through at McDonald’s? What do you think when you see a hobo?
But so what? Who cares? We’re all entitled to our own beliefs, and if you want to rank people in the privacy of your own mind there’s nothing wrong with that right?
Wrong, because to live in the hierarchy you need to place yourself somewhere in this hierarchy as well. Do you really want to live under that kind of limitation? I certainly don’t. I believe this strict hierarchy is the driving force behind the suicide problem in Japan. According to the World Health Organization the majority of people committing suicide in Japan is men between the ages of 45-64. Perhaps men who have lost their jobs, and faced with the daunting, almost impossible task of starting over decide to give up. Or maybe men who are forced to work 70 hour weeks to maintain profits and an image of success as the big man on top, and are tired of running, running, running every day like their on a treadmill that can’t be stopped.
While there are many things I enjoy about Japan, I think this is one of the things that need to change. And I know I’ll be doing my damnedest to be aware of my thoughts, because thoughts form reality, and I want to break free of the hierarchy.