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Dec 7, 2023·edited Dec 7, 2023Liked by Ed West

Some notes after living in the country for a year and a half:

Xenophobia: There are three types: 1) rabid, against all non-Japanese (rare and irrelevant to my life so far); 2) mild, against other Asians (Chinese friends often report coldness in situations where I receive eager help); 3) against people who don't fit in, e.g. people with tattoos, facial piercings, loud disordered fashion sense... but Japanese people with the same appearance will be treated mostly the same way, so I don't think this really counts.

Immigration: It's almost all from other Asian countries; most of those countries have similarly low crime rates; and there's no un-vetted migration. So even if migration has picked up a lot in the past few years, I don't think Tokyo will ever look like major Western capitals.

Christianity: We have a small Orthodox community in the country as well, including a charming Russian-style cathedral in the heart of Tokyo. Christians are a very small minority here, but there's almost always a neutral to positive reaction when people find out about my faith (positive, I think, because Christians are seen as moral, respectable people). One reason I want to stay in Japan is that I feel I have a better chance of raising a Christian family here than anywhere in the West.

Final anecdote: I was sitting on a park bench at 4am in the morning eating melon-bread, and noticed some rats eying the food in my hands. Call me a delusional weeb, but they were impeccably clean (they could easily have been someone's pets), and it truly looked like they were trying to keep a polite and respectful distance. This felt completely right and natural.

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Japan is a complete refutation of just about every progressive nostrum since the 1960s. The tragedy is that in some alternate universe Britain followed the same pash. Returning to Britain after a visit is always incredibly demoralising. More so as the years go on.

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founding
Dec 7, 2023·edited Dec 7, 2023Liked by Ed West

You won't encounter xenophobia as a tourist unless you really go out of your way to find it. You'll get it if you try to stay there longer-term than on a tourist visa. I didn't really mind it; I hate the American "you must accept and celebrate me as I impose myself on you" mindset. I myself am quite xenophobic toward Somalis!

Also I love the random bars and restaurants on upper floors of highrises, lol. Thanks for mentioning those, very 懐かしい.

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The jingles in shops are great, aren't they. I had a friend who worked for one of the electronics outlets in Japan, and she told me that each branch around the country has a slightly different song - and employees have to learn it. I recommend Meiji Jingu, if you have time - the shrine itself and the beautiful forest setting.

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Dec 7, 2023·edited Dec 7, 2023

Can I share two Japanese adverts? One I consider a genuine mini-masterpiece. Unfortunately the person who subtitled it did a pretty horrible job but you get the idea. I defy anyone not to cry:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cISi-iuEdbg

The second shows how shy the Japanese are. A couple go on a date. They are having a good time but each feels they ought to catch the last train home. On the station the man regrets not having suggested they stay out longer. He might have blown his chance with her.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq345ny9tRM

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"There seems to be something in the Japanese character that whatever you do, you do it well, and take pride in it."

Indeed. I was once friendly with a girl from Kyoto who was working in a Japanese restaurant in Germany. Once we were arranging to meet, and she said she hoped her boss would give her the day off. I texted back: "Tell him that if he doesn't give you the day off, I'll give his restaurant a negative review on TripAdvisor!" She wasn't amused. "That was a bad joke," she replied coldly. "We are working with pride."

I thought she was overreacting a bit, and told the story to an Irish friend who had lived in Japan for a few years. To my surprise, he winced. "Yeah, they don't like jokes about their jobs," he remarked.

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Possibly a Substack no-no - in which case, apologies! - but Ed and others may be interested in a piece I wrote for UnHerd today on Westerners' relationship with Japan, including that sense of seeking (and sometimes finding) something there that has been lost back home: https://unherd.com/2023/12/in-defence-of-weebs-japan/

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Very nice piece. I especially liked:

'It felt like some people had tried to recreate a fallen civilisation from the random remnants they found.'

Funny.

And on the topic of the Japanese doing things as nicely as I can, in my classes I often give out picture cards of animals, famous people, food etc. When I ask for them back, one or two students spontaneously act as 'collector of cards' and try to make sure, as quickly as they can, that all the cards are facing the right way i.e. neither the wrong way round, nor upside down. They then often hand the cards back to me using two hands rather than one, like passing the crown to the Lion King, as this is more polite.

Pre-Covid, the lady cashiers in supermarkets would often hold a hand underneath yours when handing you your change in case you fumbled it and dropped it. I think they did this especially with older people. In doing so these ladies often pressed the underside of your hand with their palm, a kind gesture with real warmth to it. It made me feel like a human, not an outsider that they'd rather not come into contact with. Unfortunately Covid has changed all that and now one pays by machine or your change is issued directly from the till.

Also a shame is the Google Translate gadget. I have had some hilarious encounters in the past where a Japanese person was compelled to use their limited English because there was no other alternative (I speak no Japanese). We would often both end up laughing. Now they no longer chance their arm and instead speak into a machine or rely on their phone. Shame.

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One thing to remember is that historically in Japan, as in much of Asia, housing was often of the compound variety where relatively little focus is given to the exterior, and almost all of the focus is on the private/interior. Exceptions to this are public sites like religious temples and shrines, castles designed to project an image of power from afar, and so on. So culturally there is a tendency to place less value than Westerners do on the exteriors of common buildings and housing, and more on the interiors. It also has to be remembered that much of urban Japan was destroyed in WW2 and rebuilt after the war relatively quickly with an eye to efficiency rather than beauty, and even as that era was replaced the trend was more towards a hodge-podge of modern design rather than a very specific and consistent aesthetic like you might see in Paris or Moscow. Still, there are many modern architectural gems in Tokyo -- they're just scattered here and there among that hugger-mugger arrangement of otherwise largely unmemorable structures.

On politeness, some of this has to do more with historical practice, I think, than density, during which Japan was highly stratified, with formal politeness of attitude (bowing) and language (different degrees of formality of forms for verbs and adjectives etc) being employed depending on the social status of those interacting. That has relaxed, obviously, since the Samurai and Meiji eras for the most part, but the Japanese version of "relaxed" is markedly different from what Westerners consider typical for social interactions.

Overall one phrase I have often heard used to describe the strange amalgam that is Japanese culture is this: "adopt, adapt, adept". That is, the Japanese, isolated to a large degree for much of their history, nevertheless have periodically seen the value of ideas from other places, and have selectively adopted these -- pre-modern examples are the Chinese character system which is used in Japanese kanji characters, and Buddhism, but there are many others. The Japanese then tend to adapt these to Japanese particularities to fit their cultural paradigm more closely. So, Chinese characters, which have one sounding in Chinese usage, were given multiple soundings for use in Japanese, which has different sounds from Chinese, one of which was the Japanese interpretation of the Chinese sound when the characters were adopted, and another which is taken from one of the native Japanese linguistic sounds -- in this way the Chinese characters were adapted for Japanese use. In Buddhism, Ch'an, which was one of the main forms to be adopted in Japan, was "Japanized" into various forms of Zen Buddhism, among others, which in recent decades has provided the most common face of Buddhism in much of the West. Here again, the Japanese adopted and then adapted to Japanese sensibilities and cultural priors. And then once the adopted and adapted cultural borrowing has taken place, the Japanese become adept with their own version of the cultural artifact in question, often reaching surprising, uniquely Japanese, outcomes with it. One can think easily enough, for example, of the adoption of Western style manufacturing methods and practices for electronics and automobiles, and their adaptation to Japanese sensibilities of workplace organization and culture, which resulted in global behemoths like Toyota, Honda, Sony and so on -- all examples of adopt, adapt, adept in practice.

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Dec 7, 2023·edited Dec 7, 2023

Mr West's observations on the character of his hosts puts me in mind of the section of the Book of Common Prayer catechism of 1662 dealing with our social obligations.

Q: What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?

A; "My duty towards my Neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey the King, and all that are put in authority under him: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt nobody by word nor deed: To be true and just in all my dealing: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering: To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men's goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me."

What more needs to be said? Within this and our duty to God is contained the whole duty of man.

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founding

Did you know Japan has had at least 8 Christian Prime Ministers?

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> Even smaller metro stations can be gigantic

I think one reason for this is that many of them seem to be seemlessly integrated into the basements of the skyscrapers invariably placed over them. Where does the station end and the shopping mall food court begin? Who knows, who cares. But can you imagine the melt-down from the anti-commercial snobs in the UK if the moral purity of public transport was to be violated like that? (Yes, I know there are a few examples on the Tube, but it's definitely not the policy). I think this speaks to a much more relaxed attitutude to the role of the commercial spheres in Japan: They're not foreign bodies to be regulated and tolerated for taxation purposes, they're first-class members of society.

> ‘see it, say it, sorted’

They've clearly managed to not live in fear, even if they have a good enough reason (the sarin attack in 1995), but I did spot one poster in a station, clearly a homemade job stating something about "increased anti-terrorism activity" with word-art and a cartoon-bomb with a red cross over it. Sorted!

> no mention of Japanese war crimes

This grated especially at the Hiroshima "peace park". One museum display explained that the bomb affected people of all nationalities, including (quoting from memory, something to the effect of) "20,000 Korean guest workers". Yikes, as the young people say.

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>But I’d also see about fifty million Japanese people

Now a lot of these might be other East Asians (like Koreans, Chinese, or Taiwanese). There is a large population in JP and relationship is not always cordial...

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But I would not want to live in crowded conditions. When and where would one be able to be alone to unwind from the tumult?

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Lovely article.

Did you travel with your children, Ed? I'm keen to go but wonder if my 12 and 9 year old kids would enjoy it and /or if it would be ruinously expensive to take them? Thanks.

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I'm loving these!

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