Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Don't ambulate in front of the ambulance!

There are many people who believe Japan to be a deeply polite society. I tend to agree that Japanese people tend to observe etiquette and courtesy to an extent that many Westerners don't. However I also think it's incredibly inaccurate to make such a categorical statement.

On one side, there are many green ex-pats who come over here with stars in their eyes and believe Japan can do no wrong. For some of these people, Japan remains a hidden paradise in a world of otherwise rude, uncultured, (barbaric?) people. They would tell you that in Japan, shop clerks are extremely polite and helpful; that Japanese government offices are way more efficient and friendly; and that bowing beats shaking hands any day!

On the other side, you have the jaded, reminding you that as soon as you get on the train, it's every man, woman, and child for himself; that Japanese people walk with their heads down so you have to move; that some Japanese are so insulated that they are surprised to learn that many foreigners not only can eat Japanese food but quite enjoy it.

What's important is to realize that both sides are right, and both sides are portraying just a part of the big picture. No matter where you go, people are people. Stereotypes are often based on shards of truth, and generalizations exist because in many cases they prove true. These days I find myself wrestling to control my urge to (mostly negatively) generalize, and I think it helps to remind myself of this.

What prompted this reflection?

Source: Wikipedia

Ambulances. Or most specifically, the behavior of people around them. It seems to me that many pedestrians in Japan feel that they exist inside a bubble. Not once, but twice this week I noticed an ambulance coming to an intersection with lights on and sirens blaring, only to have to slow down or stop at the crosswalk because someone was crossing at their own pace, paying no mind to the life-saving vehicle that may have been trying to bring an injured or dying person to the hospital. As soon as I hear an ambulance, it's almost reflex to stop and look around to see where it's coming from so that I don't accidentally saunter into its path. I haven't observed that kind of behavior in Japanese pedestrians.


  1. I have a friend how got sick the other day (really a friend, this isn't one of those stories where I'm actually talking about myself). She's an ALT in Japan and when she caught a cold and told her class that she probably got sick from the drastic temperature change from the hot place she vacationed to coming back to winter in Japan. The Japanese teacher she works with disagreed. He said, in front of the whole class, that he heard from another teacher that it was because she "drinks too much." Of course she was greatly insulted and embarrassed that this was said in front of the class where they could all hear and most could understand. In her defense, I don't think I've ever seen her drink more than three beers in a day. Later upon reflection she decided this must be a cultural thing. In our western mentality being told you drink to much is a very serious accusation which attacks a person's character and their self control. If you tell someone they drink too much, it better during an intervention. So, is being told "you drink too much" not insulting in Japan? Is it equal to being told "You got fat" which anyone who put on a couple kilos in Japan knows is like mentioning someone's new haircut.

    Anyone know? What's the deal?

  2. Wow, I've never heard or seen that one before. Sounds more like that teacher is just an ass, to me. I once had a teacher complain about something I did in front of our class. I got pissed at had some words with her after class, and the other teachers were all surprised and sympathetic of me when they heard.

    But yeah, you're spot on about the weight thing. Reminds me a little bit of: http://www.locoinyokohama.com/2010/02/08/conversation-20610-are-you-100-japanese/

    Seems like there are less taboo things to say in these parts.

  3. I talked this over with my close personal Japanese friend who says that because alcoholism is so rare in Japan that joking about it is more accepted. I guess this explains why people always point out when someone gains weight too. It still seems super rude though...

  4. Alcoholism is rare in Japan? Right, just like depression is. Apparently refusing to acknowledge it makes it go away.


  5. Hm, interesting read. I guess I bought into the myth as well. But either way, since public perception is that alcoholism isn't a real problem, people feel they can joke about it. I'm not passing any judgments on this. Apparently the public perception needs to change but I don't know how that could happen.

  6. Update:
    My friend confronted this teacher about it, explaining that in her home country saying someone drinks too much = alcoholic = very, very bad. The guy laughed and said "but that's what I meant!" She then walked away in tears while he continued to laugh.

    Upon closer inspection this might be more about this guy being a jerk than about something culturally Japanese.

  7. If that were me, I'd bring it up to the head of the English department or the VP. It's one thing to be an asshole - it's another to embarrass you in front of your students.

  8. The ambulance situaton is certainly true, a similar thing happened the other day when I was waiting at a crossroads to walk across; it was clear that the approaching ambulance would reach the crossing around the time "our" lights would turn green, so when they did I waited, but a couple of other people went across as normal, and had to be politely reminded by the ambulance crew (and boy are emergency vehicle crews in Japan polite) that they were kind of in the way and if it wasn't too much inconvenience they might like to get themselves off the crossing as quickly as possible.

  9. Yeah...Joe and I were talking the other day, and we think it's a matter of many Japanese pedestrians just being oblivious.

  10. There are jerks in every country; I am confident of that.

    > it's another [thing]
    > to embarrass you
    > in front of your
    > students.

    While I agree with that, I don't agree that going to the guy's superior is a good idea. IMO, that just makes you come across like an overly sensitive whiner. Even if the boss backs you up, it's still unnecessary and petty. People aren't always nice and don't always behave professionally. What else is new? Let it go.

    IMO the ideal response when somebody accuses you of something completely ridiculous in public is to roll your eyes and say something like, "Oh, yeah, that must be it" in the most unflustered, dismissive tone you can manage, as if you are disappointed that they couldn't at least come up with an *interesting* joke to tell at your expense. This has to be done on the spot, though; it's completely ineffective if you come back with it ten minutes later, much less the next day.

    Another option is to come to the offender a week or so later and say you've been doing a lot of thinking about what they said, thank them for bringing it to your attention, tell them it's made you take a good hard look at your life, and ask if they'd be willing to work with you as an "accountability partner" to help you in your quest to improve yourself.

  11. I've seen this with ambulances as well. I'm also shocked that cars don't pull over quite often. I know the streets are crowded, and it's difficult, but the ambulances are doing urgent business.

    Regarding the alcoholism discussion here. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that alcoholism in Japan is defined strictly as a medical condition, not a psychological one. A person is not an alcoholic in Japan unless he or she has a sickness related to excess alcohol consumption (such as liver disease). If someone drinks to cope, relax, or simply is emotionally dependent on it, that is not alcoholism in this country.

    So, when we use the term, it means something very different to us than the Japanese. We see it as psychological dependence. They see it as someone who has developed a physical consequence. That's why the man joked that the woman was an "alcoholic". It's because she became physically sick. That doesn't make what he did okay (as it was rude and inappropriate), but it explains the context perhaps a bit more clearly.

  12. Ahh, good to know. That would explain a lot. I wonder what it is about Japanese psychology or society that compels their medical community to largely ignore so many psychological disorders. I mean, if all of a sudden all the doctors proclaimed that depression or alcoholism were serious problems, I bet at least some people would listen.