Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Japan's 3G's

Sorry for all you technophiles - this isn't a post about internets or cellular networking or how many more G's America has than Japan or vice versa. I considered including this in my "Words I Dis/Like" series, but decided that this goes beyond mere "words" and into more conceptual and philosophical territory.

Now as I've stated before, I'm no Japan expert. I don't have a major in Asian or Japanese Cultural Studies, I don't have a Japanese spouse, and I haven't been living in Japan for as long as some other J Bloggers. Still, I think I have enough experience to give my opinions some degree of credibility. More, say, that many foreign journalists who write crappy articles about Japan as an exotic land of mystique where cars (and ninja) run on water and samurai-like sushi chefs can be found tending rustic restaurants on every major street corner.

Of course Japanese society, like any, is what it is because of any number of historical and cultural factors and influences. Generalizing can be dangerous, and I readily acknowledge this fact before someone points it out to me in the comments. However, there are three major social trends of modern Japan that I feel have played an important role in both its successes and its failings (and deterioration) as a country. I think of them as the three G's. Those of you who familiar with the language may see where I'm going with this. They are:

1. Genki
2. Gaman
3. Ganbaru

First, one of the first words that Japanese language neophytes learn - Genki (元気). Genki can be a little difficult to nail down precisely, but for our purposes genki means "energy," "drive," or "enthusiasm." From the time they're little, Japanese are encouraged to be genki. When my classes are too subdued, they are sometimes exhorted with the expression 「元気出して!」, literally something like "turn on the energy!" This genki is one of the main reasons Japan is so often lauded for its service and kindness. Genki isn't just an attitude, it's a policy. I saw a TV show once about how train station attendants must start off their day with 20 minutes of looking into a mirror and practicing ("exercising") their smile before beginning work. I'm not sure whether this was company wide or just one station's policy. But the longer you live here, it becomes more and more easy to believe this could be a widespread thing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - there have been studies that show that smiling or frowning can influence how you feel. So perhaps this forced smiling actually makes Japanese people happier! If that's the case, it doesn't sound so bad. The trouble comes when genki becomes a standard. Japan has one of the world's highest suicide rates, and in recent years depression has been the determined number one cause. This is in part because depression in Japan is less often acknowledged and treated than in the West. When one is supposed to be genki, depression becomes a social stigma to be largely ignored or hidden.

Second is Gaman (我慢), which means "tolerance" or "endurance." For all practical purposes, though, it means "shut up and deal with it." When it's about 40 degrees F in the classroom and there's no heat, the students (and teachers) are expected to practice a little gaman. Likewise, salarymen in the sweltering summer heat are allowed minimal reprieve with Cool Biz attire, and otherwise must sweat out the summer with gaman. Gaman can sometimes be a very positive quality, like when one needs to just buckle down and get something done, or hold one's tongue in a situation where losing one's cool would only exacerbate a situation. However too much gaman leads to resentment and/or fatigue. One example in my mind is how many people here will work later than they're supposed to, for free. Of course on occasion I'll stay later than usual to get some work done, but for some people it's a regular thing. At my girlfriend's work, everyone is supposed to finish at 12:30. But when they're done, they need to clean and lock up, so everyone stays an extra 30 or 45 minutes. She can't leave because everyone stays. But no one gets paid for it. I think this is also related to the fact that in Japan, work more often seems to spill over into one's personal life and time. I was talking to one of the English teachers at my part time school about this. I always enjoy talking to the English teachers about this kind of thing, because many of them are more...internationally minded? Their way of thinking often differs from what you might expect. Anyway, he told me "When I go home, I try to forget about work. My personal time is for me. I don't belong to the board of education, or to the principal, or to the school. I have a contract and that's it. I also take longer vacations than most Japanese. I think it's a problem here." He then told me that most Japanese people use less than half of their allowed vacation time. What a waste. Although an admirable quality when applied appropriated,  I think too much gaman is detrimental to the overall health of Japan.

Update: 11/10/10: Gaman makes a guest appearance in this article about the injustice of the Japanese government's refusal to deal with the problem of parental child abduction.

The last G is Ganbaru (頑張る). Ganbaru can be difficult to translate, as the nuance is lost in English, but it's often translated as "fight" or "do your best." There's an element of struggling to it, as in fighting against hardship. This one can be heard all the time, as it's used to encourage people to do their best. Sports, studying, love life, work - anything that requires effort can be ganbaru'ed. This G can also be pretty positive - after all, struggling against adversity is the foundation of a hardworking society. But again, when taken to excess, it leads to a people who focus too much on work and effort and ignore the other aspects of life. This could be why Japanese people seem to burn out younger these days. This one has gotten particularly irritating to me, because you hear it everywhere. And when I hear it, I can't help but think of the literal meaning - that call to try hard to the point of struggling. 

Because I think this was a bit more negative than positive, I just want to finish by saying that it's more easy (for most people, not those J-sycophants) to be overly critical of a foreign culture than one's own. I try to be mindful of that, and I realize that the "Japanese way" does have its merits. I just happen to think that Japan is running itself into the ground because some of its most prized attributes have been taken to the extreme and need to be adjusted. Hopefully the youth of Japan will try to affect a change before it's too late. 

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