Asian Journal

FOUND IN TRANSLATION

Despite its oddities, Japan is much more than caricatures, says STEVE BURGESS

April 26 2004
Asian Journal

FOUND IN TRANSLATION

Despite its oddities, Japan is much more than caricatures, says STEVE BURGESS

April 26 2004

FOUND IN TRANSLATION

Asian Journal

Despite its oddities, Japan is much more than caricatures, says STEVE BURGESS

GADGETRY, THY NAME IS JAPAN. It starts at the airport where the passenger conveyor not only carries you along but talks to you as well, informing you in a pleasant tone that the end is near and you should prepare to move your legs again. It seems self-evident, but perhaps the Japanese know what they’re up to—during my Tokyo visit there was a horrible accident at the Roppongi Hills apartment complex when a six-yearold boy was crushed to death in a revolving door. The idea that machines will turn on us seems somehow quintessentiallyjapanese.

A HOSPITAL in Canada would probably be thrilled to have the staffing level of a typical Japanese gas station

I hardly expect trouble from the umbrella laminator, though. This may be my favourite Japanese convenience—a little machine that stands near the shop door on a rainy day. Patrons plunge their umbrellas into the device, coating them in a plastic sheath that prevents dripping. Afterwards the plastic sheaths are discarded in a large useless pile. God forbid there should be an umbrella bucket beside the door. Not when we’ve got the umbrella laminator.

Oddities catch the eye here—the taxi doors that open automatically, the rotary car parks that swing vehicles up on Ferris wheel-like trays, the feature-packed toilets that almost require a special licence. On the streets, everybody from the security guard to the maintenance man hosing down the sidewalk boasts the kind of uniform that Mussolini would have saved for special occasions.

Then there’s the fact that any Canadian hospital would be thrilled to enjoy the staffing levels of a typical Japanese gas station. Two guys to scrub the windshield, one to pump gas, one to direct you back into traffic, one or two just to stand around and make you feel important. With all those semi-useless employees, it’s what Liberal patronage might look like if they ever run out of room in the Senate.

Such unusual touches and jarring cultural snapshots have caused westerners to put Japan under a microscope for years. Here you will see familiar elements of western culture fed through a Japanese blender; here too you may encounter hypersensitivity on certain matters, contrasting with what looks like appalling insensitivity on others, for example the Nazi fashions hanging in a trendy store on popular Takeshita Street. True, Japanese are used to seeing the swastika as a Buddhist symbol, thus making it less threatening. But still.

The initial strangeness ofjapan inevitably inspires responses like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, that nasty piece of Oscarwinning tripe about two cranky Yanks in Tokyo. (One of the pleasures of this Asian excursion was meeting Chris Doyle in Hong Kong. Doyle was the cinematographer on Chinese director Wong Kar-wai’s gorgeous In the Mood for Love, which some say Coppola borrowed heavily from. Doyle launched into a drunken rant when I mentioned Lost in Translation, proving himself perhaps the only person who dislikes Coppola’s film more than I do. “It’s a George W. Bush tourist movie,” he fumed.)

Coppola did capture genuine aspects of Japanese culture, such as the hotel’s automatic curtain opener that combines a bizarre timesaving device with a subtle suggestion you’ve stayed in bed too long. The neon looked great, too. But Coppola’s characters were mere caricatures. If you made the same movie about America it would feature a guntoting TV evangelist who ropes steers all day and rides with the Klan all night. Lost in Translation is a compendium of unpleasant stereotypes as viewed by a couple of grumps who distrust anything un-American. (Plus, there’s only one interesting character in the whole movie. Did Coppola get an Oscar for inventing Bill Murray?)

Still, Lost in Translation is indicative of the way visitors and foreign workers often viewjapan. And it would be naive to dismiss all our cultural differences as irrelevant. Many observers have noted Japan’s ingrained xenophobia, that lingering distrust of outsiders that is the legacy of island life. One letter printed in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper during my visit pleaded with Japanese citizens to view foreigners as individuals. “[A] few foreigners are committing unlawful acts. We Japanese people should not view foreigners as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people by looking at their appearance or nationalities.”

THE JAPANESE most reminded me of Canadians: affable and polite on the surface, but with a certain reserve

Perhaps you can’t blame Japanese for their suspicions—after all, some foreigners make movies like Lost in Translation and others award them Oscars. And Canadians get the same xenophobic message in reverse from the likes of Diane Francis. But Japan may be the only society that has this sense of us-vs.-them enshrined in its very alphabet— or rather, alphabets.

Japanese writing features three different sets of characters. One of them is reserved exclusively for spelling out things that are not Japanese, such as the signs of foreignowned restaurants. Imagine the NHL under this system—a Toronto-Carolina game would be listed with Roman letters on one side and Greek on the other (and Carolina fans would be about as clueless as ever). Quebec language laws are nothing compared to the bred-in-the-bone protective instincts of theJapanese.

Nonetheless, having bounced around Asia a bit this month, I thought the Japanese most reminded me of Canadians. There is the surface affability, the pains taken to be polite, but behind it all a certain reserve that does not always give way to genuine warmth. We also share with the Japanese a certain insecurity about our place in the world. “Who is the most famous Japanese person in the West?” one man asked me, reflecting a not-untypical concern with Japan’s foreign image, similar to the Canadian obsession with who’s making it big in the States.

It may be that insecurity that makes so many Japanese appreciate small gestures from visitors. On my first visit to Tokyo three years ago I was in the habit of visiting a coffee shop in the Shimbashi district. The staff came to know me and greeted me with a smile every day. At the end of a week I presented them with small Canadian tokens— pins, or keychains with thermometers. They seemed almost overwhelmed.

On my final day in Tokyo this time around, I decided to drop by that coffee shop. A young man named Hiroyoshi came out of the backroom and greeted me warmly. Three years and a constant flood of customers had passed but he remembered me well, describing perfectly my gift to him. “I still have it!” he said.

Sofia Coppola can have her Japan. I’m glad I have mine. ÍS1