Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 22, 2011
WHILE LOOKING for something else, I rediscovered the clippings of a two-part article Rick Kennedy wrote for his Tokyo Toe column in the Japan Times circa 1991/2. (Tokyo Toe is a pun on Tokyo-to, the Japanese name for the sub-national government entity known as the Tokyo Metro District.)
He wrote the articles during the golden age of yellow journalism about Japan. People in the United States had worked themselves into such a paranoiac crescendo American periodicals were filled with rants written by people frothing at the mind about what they saw as the emerging Nipponese economic superiority.
Many of the “Japan is down and out” stories of today are the contemporary obverse of that coin. It is a form of gloating.
Nonetheless, the attitudes Mr. Kennedy addressed still inform much of what passes for commentary about Japan. He could have been writing yesterday.
The articles predate the widespread use of the Web and so are not on line. Note that the word otaku in its present sense had not yet entered the general awareness. The italics are those of the author.
Nerd Gap (I)
American undergraduates call people they deem not with it nerds. Nerd is a term of high derision. It is understood that nerds and non-nerds can never communicate in a meaningful way.
Some examples may help to define the term more precisely.
Nerds wait for the light to change and never jaywalk. Nerds have protective mothers, who buy them encyclopedias. Nerds are shy, awkward with the opposite sex, and eschew confrontation. They wear white shirts and often white socks, too, and are given to keeping their neckties from flapping with a clip. They may very well wear a company pin in their lapel. In winter, they wear long underwear.
Nerds carry a pocket diary in the back of which they inscribe the local bus schedule. There is an atlas of the country in the glove compartment of their automobile.
Nerds tend to have esoteric hobbies like butterfly collecting, star gazing, or building model locomotives out of toothpicks. If not, they have an obscure passion, like beating computer games, which they are very good at.
Nerds have a giggly sense of humor. They do not seem to sense the world’s sharp edges. Nerds are dedicated to their work and put in long hours without complaint. Nerds are very polite to their bosses and plan their vacations far ahead. They are not naturally spontaneous and are very precise when called on to fill out a form. They respond earnestly to requests for directions from passersby and pride themselves on their ability to draw accurate maps. Nerds listen each morning to the weather report for advice on whether or not to carry an umbrella.
No one in Japan makes fun of what Americans call a nerd. It is nerds who, lying on their backs on their roofs of a summer evening, discover new stars. Teams of nerds design machines of unparalleled complexity. Nerds are not embarrassed to work 15 hours a day and admit they don’t mind at all. Nerds, comfortable with detail and discipline, are the engine of Japan.
It would appear that Americans must learn to communicate with nerds.
Nerd Gap (II)
I suggested last time that Americans have a problem communicating with Japanese because in American eyes a large percentage of Japanese males appear to be “nerds”. In the American frame of reference, anyone who is proficient at mathematics, makes a habit of securing his tie with a clip, and is diffident about making friends outside his circle falls into the social category of nerd, a species beyond the social pale. (The British equivalent is swot.).
Americans are captives of this Mad Magazine-inspired, subtly anti-intellectual image, and it inhibits their ability to sympathize with people who do not feel comfortable with the American social style of rowdy openness, in which there is a heady component of Mexican banditry.
Americans should not be surprised if Japanese, confronted with their style of social intercourse, draw a blank. In Japan there is no word for nerd. The closest we can come is a combination of doji, someone who performs an action awkwardly (compare bumbler and klutz); majime ningen, someone who takes life too seriously; and dasai, a bumpkin indifferent to the prevailing fashion.
Here we have a clear-cut conflict of styles. While Japanese tend to see themselves as Clark Kent, Americans like to think that given the right circumstances, they would come off as Superman. In the United States, the heroic assumes many forms, but it does not include a facility with calculus.
Stylish cynicism does not come easily to very many Japanese. In the American universe, a slavish attention to detail is not encouraged. There is in Japan a certain fascination with swashbuckling, but swashbuckling is recognized as the stuff of late-night samurai movies, and is in the end a behavior model only for bosozoku, young motorcycle edge-riders who have opted out.
It is clear, is it not, that a very large percentage of the male population of Japan falls into the category the Americans have labeled “nerd”. In Japan, to be a nerd is entirely acceptable—in fact, it is a behavioral model. In the U.S., nerds are despised as being without cool, as being too serious, as having no (acceptable) individual style.
We should not be surprised that Americans and Japanese have trouble communicating.
A related aspect of the Japanese personality that Mr. Kennedy did not discuss is described with the untranslatable word sunao. Some dictionary definitions include gentle, mild, meek, and “in a teachable spirit”, but it also includes the nuances of honest, frank, and guileless. It is a sort of straightforward innocence without naïveté when dealing with the affairs of daily life. It is the utter absence of ‘tude.
When I started teaching two classes a week during the spring semester for second-year students at the local university four years ago, I was happy to discover that young people here are still sunao, despite the many changes in society that have occurred over the past quarter-century. The parents of those students would disagree and object that their children are not as sunao as their own generation. They are surely correct. Yet the attitudes of the Western counterparts of those Japanese students lie in a direction 180º from the true north of sunao.
Mr. Kennedy gave us a hint: “Stylish cynicism does not come easily to very many Japanese.” People with an interest in spending time in Japan should be aware that hip irony will usually be met with blank, uncomprehending stares. Those Japanese who do catch on are unlikely to be impressed.
One of the reasons I enjoy living in Japan is that the people are sunao.
Mr. Kennedy also gave us a hint about one of the reasons for the popularity of Weird Japan stories in the Western media, their authors’ almost perverse aversion to a sense of proportion, and the anti-Nipponistic websites of the self-righteous kvetchers. The authors and their audience clutch at their perception of the nerdiness of the Japanese as if it were an emotional life raft. They have at last found someone they can belittle to relieve years of frustration at being belittled as nerds themselves.
This entry was posted on Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 11:21 am and is filed under Foreigners in Japan, Popular culture, Social trends. Tagged: Anti-Nipponism, Japan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.