Out Of Japan: True love tales written in blood

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - The music is low, the wine is poured, two faces are lit by the light of a single candle. She leans closer, and murmurs an endearing question: 'What is your blood group?'

To a Westerner on a first date, such a question is likely to come as something of a shock, evoking images of accidents and emergency blood transfusions, infectious diseases and other unpleasant pathological visitations. But in Japan inquiries about blood types from a prospective boyfriend or girl-friend are an unremarkable part of the standard get-to-know-you process, on a par with 'Do you like garlic?', 'What do you think of Madonna?' and 'Have you ever had a bath in candlelight?'

Blood groups, according to Japanese lore, are not important primarily in the operating theatre, but rather in the realm of human relationships, where they help to decide who is likely to be compatible with whom. And with the crucial role group harmony plays in Japanese life, knowing someone's group can be as decisive as knowing their family background.

Each blood group supposedly has its own characteristics. Of the four main varieties, type O is the most outgoing, laid back person who instinctively aspires to leadership within a group but is not good at concentrating on details or trivial practicalities.

Type A, by far the most common in Japan, is a conservative, possibly even nervous person who takes an interest in details, is co-operative, seeks to promote harmony in a group and is a natural follower rather than a leader. Type A women are traditionally regarded (by men) as reliable wives and mothers.

Type B is individualistic, sometimes even eccentric, sticking to his or her own pace, caring little for others and concentrating on well-defined goals or targets. Type AB's are moody and stand-offish, torn by many conflicting personality traits - supposedly because of the AB mixture. They are hard to get to know, but deep down they are sincere and will keep their word.

According to the Independent's Tokyo office expert, who calmly reeled off the blood groups of everyone working in the other offices on our corridor, A is the best match for O, although O can also relate well to B. But A and B are antagonistic. AB can relate to either A or B, but is strongly repulsed by O. (No information was available on the difference between rhesus positive and rhesus negative, which does not, apparently, figure in the sanguinary schemework.)

By the time our lovebirds have worked out their potential blood-group matching, intimacy is either imminent or forever destroyed. Blood groups do not lie, it seems, nor are they consulted merely for matters of the heart.

Most standard Japanese curricula vitae include a space for filling in one's blood group. A female friend, university educated and now head of a department of 10 people in a news agency in Tokyo, admits that she consults blood types to work out her group's dynamics.

Several years ago, a Japanese employee in the personnel department of the Tokyo office of a US computer company was caught disobeying instructions on hiring policy. Despite several warnings, the man had repeatedly based recruitment decisions on the applicant's blood group. His justification was that since the company was hiring mostly Japanese workers, all of whom would find out about the others' blood groups in any case, he might as well head off potential personality conflicts by ensuring each department had the right mix of O, A, B and AB groups for office harmony.

The enlightened American management, who knew better than to allow such witch doctoring practices, fired the man. Employee harmony has reportedly gone downhill ever since.

The blood group fixation may rest on slightly questionable grounds: according to a recent issue of Aera magazine, personality analysis based on blood types took off in Japan in 1916 when a medical researcher published a supposedly scientific demonstration of how type A (the largest group in Japan) were meant to excel in academia and be particularly flexible.

This coincided with various spurious theories in the West that Caucasian blood types - mostly O and A - were superior to other blood types found in Africa and Asia, which therefore justified European colonialism.

But while such genetic theories of racial superiority would be quickly squashed by the PC establishment in the West, in Japan they have somehow be emptied of racial overtones over time, and blood group analysis is now on a par with horoscopes.

According to Akahito Onishi, who has written a book Labyrinth of Blood Types, the reason for the interest in blood types comes from the fact that Japan has a relatively homogenous population with almost identical physical characteristics living in a small area. With only four possible groups, everyone is both differentiated and included. 'Japanese people love to be patterned into personality types by blood. They don't want to be left out of broad frameworks.'