Starved for Irony

Picture shows a notice posted in a college restroom in Japan. Translation runs as follows:

  • Thanks to you, the toilet is always maintained in a clean condition.
  • Let's continue to use the toilet in such a way that the next person can feel good about using it.
  • Let's avoid wasting toilet paper and water.
  • Smoking is prohibited in the toilet.
We request everyone's cooperation.

[In the lower-left corner, next to the drawing of the toilet, surrounded by little stars, is one of those peculiarly Japanese expressions which serves as a sound effect for something that doesn't really have a sound: pika-pika, or in other words, "sparkle sparkle."]

The only thing that could make this any more Japanese would be a cute cartoon animal pointing to the text.

Now consider hypothetically a similar notice (but in English, of course) posted in a restroom on an American college campus. What would be the effect? For the assorted reading audience, standing at the urinal, surely reactions ranging from befuddlement to raucous laughter. Is this for real? Within a matter of hours, defacement by some sort of crude graffiti. Within a matter of days, the notice is flung to the ground and trampled upon, and most likely soiled with a selection of bodily fluids.

So here we see an interesting aspect of Japanese society (or perhaps it is an interesting aspect of non-American society): the incredible sincerity. Japan is a place where you can actually say things like "It's a shame that a few bad apples have to spoil a good time for everyone by breaking the rules" and no one will snicker.

As an American of the sarcasm-prone variety, I am acutely conscious when in Japan of the need to watch what I say. Sarcasm is still possible, but must be carefully calibrated. Otherwise leads to befuddlement on the part of others, or in the worst cases, offense.

The advantages of the sincere society are pretty much what you would expect. The restrooms are in fact remarkably clean. As are the streets—all the more remarkable when you consider there is hardly a trash can to be found. Properly disposing of a plastic soda bottle entails separating it into three components—the bottle, the cap, and the label—and putting them in three separate locations.

I can't help but feel, however, that sarcasm and cynicism have their advantages as well. Life in Japan has provoked a lot of introspection. Why do I feel a frequent urge (by no means always indulged in) to play the devil's advocate, particularly if I can flavor my cynicism with a little humor? There are two obvious justifications:

1: I get to show off my sparkling wit.

2: I get to brighten the day of those around me.

But I think the real basis for American cynicism is something more philosophical. We recognize that no one is perfect, that even the most virtuous among us have a guilty secret or too. And therefore, when we hear someone or something praised extravagantly our automatic reaction is oh yeah? Well, what about....
Japanese people, if pressed, will admit that everything has its dark side. But they don't share our compulsion to point it out constantly.

Lest anyone misunderstand, my intent here is not to claim that America is better than Japan, or vice-versa. I think of different societies as representing different strategies for social organization, and am rather fascinated by the many different possible approaches to solving the same problems. Somewhat in the spirit of Arrow's Theorem, I rather think every approach is going to have serious drawbacks some of the time.

Hello, Kitty!

I got off of writing for awhile...been on the road—still on the road, actually—in Japan, that is. It's been seven years since I was here last The place has changed a lot, and I myself have changed even more. I find myself little interested in going to the "Japanese" places that I used to put on my list and am far more interested in seeking out the little Japanese things (without the quote marks) that open at least a small window into what is going on.

I was rather stunned to see the obvious difference in atmosphere between Tokyo and Osaka, and marvel at my own obtuseness in not noticing it on earlier visits. In Tokyo, a goodly proportion of the women seem to have taken the inspiration for their dress from the pages of a manga book (quite enjoyable for the onlooker) and everyone walks extremely fast—though I've heard there is a strong correlation between city population and walking speed. Tokyo is at the extreme end of the spectrum by both measures.

There is also something of a fad for wearing surgical masks. So you get the incongruous sight of a young woman dressed to the nines in a frilly microskirt and seven-inch heels, elaborately applied make-up and hair ribbons, and then gilding the lily with a surgical mask. I myself would die a premature death rather than wear one of those things.

In Osaka, on the other hand, about half the people on the street dress like refugees from a homeless shelter. The difference was obvious the instant I hit the sidewalk. And the taxi, was by no means meticulously clean like those in Tokyo. The trunk was half filled with the driver's own weird crap.
There was a thought-provoking scene in Osaka. A girl, obviously profoundly hard of hearing, was trying to get service in a shop and the guy behind the counter was wearing one of those damn masks. You're really screwed in this country if you rely on reading lips to get around.

The lights are out in the big cities—at least the big neon advertising signs—reflecting the ongoing power crisis in Fukushima. But the cities are still far sparklier than any place I ever lived.