Behind a mask of difference: After judging Japan from afar, this gaijin experiences a reality that confuses the West

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - Japan-anxiety is a malign Western affliction compounded of xenophobia, hatred of the conqueror and terror of the loss of self. It is a chronic complaint suffered through three decades of Japanese economic success. Lately, however, it has become acute because of the fear that this success might be more than merely economic.

Now we have the nagging, haunting suspicion that these people might not just be doing something right, they might be doing everything right. And, of course, that means we might be doing everything wrong. The purposefulness and discipline we nervously detect in Japanese society might signify that theirs is a better way of life than our own.

Some weeks ago in this column I defined Japan-anxiety from the Western perspective - I had, after all, never been to the place. Now here I am in teeming, humid, insanely expensive Tokyo testing the fantasies in the mind of the gaijin (meaning foreigner, with derogatory overtones) against the reality. This is work in progress. More follows.

At the heart of the problem is incomprehension. This may seem like the most banal observation that could be made about any foreign country, but in Japan it is fundamental. Experienced Westerners who have been here for years still speak humbly of their failure to acquire an overall feel for the culture or the language. One said simply that the language was impossible, and almost every Western book on the country, however fiercely researched, insists that there is some irreducible Japanese core which will lie forever beyond our reach.

But this becomes less alarming once you realise that the feeling is mutual. I watched one daytime television show in which an American was trying to teach old Japanese ladies a few basic phrases of English.

'Where,' he tried to drum into them, 'is the restroom?'

One giggling lady struggled and choked, finally producing: 'Weru ida weresrum?' The audience fell about, applauding wildly. But, beyond the joke, was the underlying, popular acceptance of an unreachable foreignness, difference. These language differences run far deeper than we realise: no significant word can be cleanly translated, and I spent two hours strolling through the glorious temples of Eastern Kyoto learning from a brilliant Japanese philosopher the infinitely subtle differences between the Japanese hai and ie and the English yes and no. More significantly, we also discussed the rarity of the word 'truth' in Japanese discourse.

All this is hardly surprising. After 300 years of self-imposed isolation, Japan only reopened itself to the rest of the world 100 years ago. And it did so with the specific policy of acquiring the secrets of Western success. By 1905 it had defeated Russia in war. The Second World War provided a tragic, madly suicidal hiatus and one that causes even the most cultivated Japanese to shake their heads in bitter incomprehension.

But then the process of learning from the West was restarted with a new and furious, though now peaceful, intensity. By the mid- Eighties this process was, in effect, complete. Complete, that is, in terms of material success. But what Japan had not done - and still has not, though the omens may not be good - was sell its soul.

And this is where the deep roots of the incomprehension emerge. For though, from one perspective, the life of Japan may look Western, the effect is always superficial. Youth cults, for example, are limitless - punk, hippie, biker, there is even a thriving French chanson cult in Tokyo - but the cult is no more than a matter of dress and a place to hang out; there is no ideological commitment. A Japanese punk will be clean, friendly and, almost certainly, bound for the respectable life of a white-shirted salary-man marching between office and noodle shop in Marunouchi and bowing to an alarmingly acute angle even when talking on the phone to a superior. He and most of his friends will always, finally, answer the call of duty, the call of Japan.

This is not a trivial matter. A disconcerting gulf between appearance and meaning is the most basic fact of life in Japan that the Westerner must learn to accept. There is, for example, the fully institutionalised distinction between tatemae and honne. The first is best defined as how things should be, and the second is how things are.

I have now listened to several hours of tatemae from government officials about education, law and order and cultural policy. It is fascinating, but it is an expression of an ideal rather than a reality, often an ideal that politely embodies a Western view of Japan. Try to draw them into the real world and they will refer to the attitudes of other ministries - clearly seen as rivals and obstacles - or, most commonly, they will produce statistics from earnest but perfectly unconvincing opinion polls.

But this is not to say that anything is really being concealed. They are expected to talk like that and they think that is expected of them. And there is plenty of cold, bracing honne to be had in the demented, drunken crush of a yakitori bar or in the discreet silence

of a private room in an expensive restaurant.

Honne tells of the corrupt incompetence of politicians, the self- serving manipulations of the bureaucrats, the tough, regimented inhumanity of the big companies and, if you are hearing it from a woman, of the ruthless, brutal and frequently obscene sexism of male- dominated Japanese culture. This is more thrilling, but it is best to realise that it may not be quite true either. The excitement of expounding honne to a gaijin quickly leads to exaggeration. Indeed, exaggeration is as much part of the yakitori chatter as po-faced do-gooding is part of the official tatemae. Many times I have quoted one man's grotesque anecdote of Japanese life only to be told by another that this is quite false.

The important thing is not to get too carried away by either. Or, rather, to see them both as aspects of reality. The Japanese world is full of aspects, ways of seeing. When you visit the Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto, you are led around a sinuous footpath so that you can see this exquisitely calm and timeless building though trees, from a hillside, across a sand and stone Zen garden. There is not one way to see it, there are many. More profoundly there is not really one object, one truth, there are many.

It is easy to be infuriated by the apparently pointless complexity this generates. Why, runs the most common Western question, can't they just say what they mean? And this anger can easily rise to a kind of hatred. I experienced a wave of Japan-loathing when I heard of a journalist being sacked from a big newspaper because he referred to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Officially, this can be seen only as an 'unfortunate incident'. I have seen 'massacre' used in the Japanese English-language press but, apparently, for home consumption, the great, brutal and unruly neighbour must not be offended.

At low, jet-lagged, hangover moments such details accumulate in the mind. One remembers the stories of the sad and quietly brutal way that some people grow old as 'window men', bound to companies by lifetime employment but discreetly set aside as useless to look out of a window for the rest of their working days.

Then there is the instinctive, unquestioning racism of the Japanese. The overwhelming racial homogeneity of their country makes them quick to condemn and mistrust others, especially blacks and Koreans, and, at government level, their political incorrectness even gives me pause. A police spokesman blandly and proudly said that racial consistency was one of the main reasons for low crime levels, a view that would have got him disembowelled at Harvard or Berkeley. Perhaps worst of all, because it is the most pervasive vice, is the sexism. Women are badly paid and oppressed; they are trapped far more profoundly than anything the campaigning sisters back home can possibly imagine. Stories of big company treatment from my interpreters made me want to dismantle a Zen garden and chuck the rocks through the glass curtain walls of Sumitomo or Mitsubishi.

And so, in the dark hours, a six-word column formed in my mind. It ran: 'Japan: ageist, racist, sexist and drunk.' It had a satisfying haiku-like purity, returning Zen purity with vicious topspin.

But I knew I didn't mean it because, in the daytime, it was possible to see as the Japanese see - by accepting a multiplicity of aspects. Certainly, they can be seen to be ageist, racist and sexist, and certainly they are very often and very tiresomely drunk ('They sing,' said one English resident, 'they've got to sing. I've tried to stop them, but you can't') But also they are beautifully mannered, exquisitely kind and hospitable, immensely thoughtful and, sometimes, they get gloriously drunk and don't sing. (They are also funny, though I have not yet found anybody who knows a Japanese joke that will translate into English.)

Finally, of course, the place works. Everything is clean and maintained, the trains run and crowds of flawlessly uniformed schoolchildren politely bow, smile and make way for you in the street. These are not small things, for they are evidence of a big thing that we may be losing - it may be called civilisation, national will, cultivation or manners. It has aspects, it can be viewed from many angles. But we in the West know that it is one thing and the Japanese have it and we do not. Are they, too, about to lose it? More, as I say, follows.