Some Reflections on Japan

(the following is an excerpt from an email dated June 15, 2011. It was sent from Elliot – Johnny’s brother – to close friends and family)

Japan has always been a place that people love to get, and intellectual pissing contests to prove who really gets Japan are a time-honored tradition among expatriates. Yet for all its seductive charm it remains a society extraordinarily difficult for foreigners to grasp, particularly after its economy fell from the good graces of business analysts back in the early 1990’s. The few Western journalists who haven’t been transferred to China now do little more than pontificate on the causes and implications of the country’s all-too-rarely-challenged “lost decades,” barely able to conceal their schadenfreude.

It was no surprise then that after the triple-tragedy of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown decimated a chunk of the country’s northeastern coast, foreign journalists swarmed to Japan and began churning out inflammatory and ill-informed coverage that would scarcely pass the muster of a college newspaper editor. Some more well-known and widely ridiculed examples include claims that Tokyo residents were donning face masks to protect against radiation when it was actually just hay fever season, and then of course there was Fox News’ singularly embarrassing inclusion of “Shibuya Eggman Nuclear Power Plant” on a map of the country’s nuclear facilities (Shibuya Eggman is a live music venue located in one of Tokyo’s nightlife districts). Tokyo-based writer and financial analyst Eamonn Fingleton summed up the situation aptly: “It took an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster to reveal how little the West understands the land of the rising sun.”

Amidst the achingly shallow media portrayals of the country’s background, there was one event that struck me as particularly poignant and revealing. In the days following the escalation of the crisis in Fukushima and the mandatory evacuation of everyone residing within a 20-km radius of the stricken power plant, images circulated online of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) executives visiting evacuees and getting down on their knees to apologize for the disconsolate living conditions forced upon Fukushima residents. The national broadcasting network NHK showed impassioned residents demanding that the TEPCO executives dogeza, or get down on their knees and bow their heads deeply to the ground. They complied wordlessly and a tad reluctantly amidst a storm of camera shutters that punctuated the crowd’s anger.

The Japan represented in that scene is the Japan that I have come to know through a life-long love/hate relationship; a society of odd juxtapositions that somehow manages to both confirm and repudiate popular stereotypes. In the eyes of many foreign observers, Japan is a nation governed by respect, honor, and rigid traditional values that leave little room for individual expression. But in that room in Fukushima, evacuees cast off any and all tendencies toward courtesy and decorum and displayed a level of outrage that, while certainly justified, was nonetheless jarring for its naked intensity. The response to this uninhibited verbal abuse was a physical gesture meant to show extreme reverence or remorse, with courtly historical roots that stretch back over a thousand years.

Vibrant contradictions such as this are not just exceptions birthed by adverse circumstances- they abound in Japanese culture: borderline-preposterous TV comedy/variety shows share studios with some of the most stone-faced newscasters on earth; traditional cuisine emphasizing harmony with nature coexists with hugely successful global fast-food franchises; and tremendously popular boy/girl bands (which seem to get progressively larger and younger with time) evolved alongside punk, jazz, avant-garde, and experimental music scenes. The Japanese are stoic but also silly, subdued but also passionate, hard-working but also lackadaisical, traditional but also forward-thinking (those of you who’ve lived in Japan, feel free to insert your own here).

During a series of lectures on the limitations of human perception, William James offered the following maxim for making sense of external phenomena: “The meanings are there for the others, but they are not there for us.” In the case of Japan as in many others, a part of me believes the meanings could be there for us if only we shed the monochromatic lenses obscuring our views. Unfortunately, this ideal is nothing more than a fitful dream, transient and replete with potentially dangerous ramifications. The idea that we enter this world and pass into the next partially blinded the entire way is inescapably fatalistic, but equally inescapable is the arrogance in presuming otherwise. Perhaps ultimately the best we can strive for is not increased understanding, but rather a sensitivity guided by increased awareness of our own ignorance.

Elliot grew up in Japan but came to the US where he received his bachelors degree from George Washington University. He has resided in Viet Nam for the last 2 years where, most recently, he was working for a Dutch non-profit organization in Hue province. Elliot is currently preparing to attend graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS) in DC. He occasionally writes about music over on his blog.


  1. Elliot, This is such a touching and honest article. Bravo. Nice to know there are some of us out there that feel the same about japan.

  2. As a fan of S&T but also an expat living in Japan, I thank you for this great article and incredibly accurate analysis! You really nailed it…..

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