Is Japan a Small Step Away from Becoming a Utopia?

This post is inspired by a lesson I had last week. I was explaining the phrase “peer pressure” to my students. One of my students said that she experiences peer pressure when she goes out to a cafe with her girlfriends.

“I don’t want to eat cake, but if my friends all get some, I have to get some too.”

I was a little taken aback, I didn’t quite understand.

“Do you mean it makes you want to eat cake too? That would be my problem, but that’s not quite peer pressure.”

“No, no, if I don’t get cake they will all think, ‘why doesn’t she get cake too?’ It’s like…sisterhood.”

“…ooooh so you mean you all have to get fat together, lol”

“Haha yes, something like that…”

At first, this conversation made me depressed. I immediately thought of that Japanese proverb people like to quote: the nail that sticks up will be hammered back down. I though of the salary man who just wants to go home, but has to sit through drinks with coworkers after work for fear of not being a team player.  Jesus, I thought  people don’t even have the social freedom to choose what they want to eat in this country?

But, that’s not entirely true. I don’t want to position Japan as a place where there is zero individuality, and people can’t think for themselves. I had to remind myself the “just be yourself” message we get in after school specials all the time in the West just isn’t pushed here. Instead, it seems more important for people to work as a unit. So instead I focused on the word she used: Sisterhood. Camaraderie. Fellowship. These are good things, are they not? The very core of the concept of world peace. Everyone doing everything together, supporting one another –  it sounds pretty good to me. Majority rules and no trouble makers allowed. Perhaps it’s this attitude that is responsible for the aura of safety here in Japan. I’m not as worried about having things stolen here, or leaving my door unlocked, or walking around late at night. There is something to learn here. I sometimes think about what the world could accomplish if we set our collective will in action. Look at the amazing contributions that have sprung from the minds of just a few people: the airplane, the internet and the mapping of our solar system to name a few. If we could all get our act together the results would be nothing short of magical.

And yet…

I caught the other half of her sentence, after the ellipses. Of course, this is simply a translation of the unformed vibrations hanging in the air above her head at the time, but they felt something like, “but sometimes I just don’t want to eat any #&^% cake!”

NOT sisterhood: For one, where are the travelling pants?

This sadly led me to believe that this is not true “sisterhood” after all. When consensus comes at the cost of free will, I call that peer pressure, and pressure is usually not a good thing. That kind of consensus seems to me to be on the other end of the spectrum: the consensus that is the mother of apathy. After all, why try when you’ll simply be bowled over in favour of the majority? I hear this attitude in the Japanese word shogannai (roughly translated, “it can’t be helped”). I know this attitude is by no means exclusive to Japan, but back where I come from, peer pressure is…almost something to be ashamed of — it doesn’t mesh with the “be yourself” indoctrination. Here in Japan though, peer pressure, it seems to me, is just a fact of life.

Nevertheless, I think Japan is on to something. It’s like I can see the ingredients for a delicious utopia cake, where everyone’s got each other’s back,  but it’s like the recipe is wrong and the cake comes out too sweet.

Maybe that’s why sometimes my student just doesn’t want any.


Gearing up for Golden Week

So last year I ended up farting around for Golden Week for some reason. I think I went out a couple nights, and made a half-assed trip to Ueno zoo because it was free on children’s day.  I went to see the pandas, but I didn’t get to see the pandas because the wait was something ridiculous like four hours. So I had to make due with the other, less pandarific animals like monkeys and tigers and that, the ones I coulda seen in a box of animal crackers

I digress.

This year I refuse to be so lame. I’ve planned and booked a stupendous Golden Week Extravaganza to Hiroshima and Kyoto — two of the places I’ve really wanted to go since moving here.  I’ll finally get to knock number two off my list of the 7 things I wanted to do in Japan.

Geisha in Kyoto

See the Maiko-san!

And from Hiroshima I plan to go to Miyajjima, and see the big red floating Torii.


Miyajima Floating Torii

This Guy

And I want to do a whole bunch of other stuff too, but I don’t know what yet. Any suggestions???


Life is Puzzling

The other day I went to what is probably my favourite store in all of Japan: Tokyu Hands. It’s a splenderifous place of wonder, filled with all kinds of fantastical things for creating anything your imagination can imaginate. I love to go there and browse for a couple hours, just looking at all the arts and crafts stuff and thinking about what I could make. I bought some things to decorate my apartment — some tiles to stick on the walls and a puzzle of Tokyo Tower.

If you are ever having a rough day, may I suggest taking 10 minutes to work on a puzzle? It will completely tune your brain out to anything else. All that matters is finding that missing piece.

The puzzle really reminded me of life in general. For example:

Sometimes you find a piece that looks like it’s perfect, and it should fit. It matches the pattern you’re looking for, and it even looks like the right size and shape, but when you go to put it down, it doesn’t quiiiite fit. It’s just a little off. It’s tempting to leave it there, because oh man it you were so excited when you found it! Yes, this is the piece, you thought. But you know that if you leave it there it’s just gonna screw up the rest of the puzzle. Besides, there is another piece somewhere in that daunting pile that fits perfectly.

Sometimes you find a piece and think, nah, this can’t be it and you throw it back and keep looking. But it nags you, and after numerous failed attempts you go back to it thinking oh what the hell, none of the other pieces are working might as well try and well I’ll be damned, it fits! I never would have guessed.

Sometimes you have an instinct about a piece. You haven’t really examined the pattern or the shape, but it kind of looks like it should fit in with the other pieces, so you give it a try and it slides satisfyingly into place.

Sometimes you get a piece that looks like “the piece”. It has the right pattern and shape, but when you try to stick in in place it’s all wrong. Huh? But this has gotta be it you think. You stare at it and stare at it, willing it to become the piece you need, you believe in this piece! Then it hits you: What if I just… You turn the piece around, and it slides snugly into its rightful spot.

Sometimes a piece just refuses to be found. In these cases it’s best to move on to some other area in the puzzle, an easier area where the pieces form a distinctive pattern, and eliminate some of the pieces. Before you know it that other piece, the piece the couldn’t be found, will be in your fingers.

And speaking of distinctive patterns, it’s the areas of the puzzle that are the most busy, that have the most contrast that are the easiest to put together. You ever try to make a puzzle of a cloudless blue sky? It’s a pain.