Japan Wonders 2
Seven Wonders of Japan
By William Wetherall
A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 29 September 1991, page 9
One of the many bunka of one of the many Nippon is defined by people who invoke wa, resort to hansei, and seek rikai, when joshiki leads to konran. It's not quite a story, but it goes like this.
The Nipponese name for Nippon, at least on stamps and Olympic uniforms. Foreigners in Nippon, at least those who live and work with Nipponese, are always being exhorted to "do in Nippon as the Nipponese do." The problem, of course, is which Nipponese, in which Nippon? The large territorial country, the smaller mythical nation, or the still smaller political state? All citizens, or only Yamatoites who imagine themselves to be the members of a single race who share a common language, culture, and historical experience? Or the elected and self-appointed brokers of power, especially those who have enough joshiki not to let honesty and truth stand in the way of local tradition?
Local tradition, or a particular combination of universal attitudes and behaviors acquired through a process that anthropologists call culture. In Nipponese, this word came to be translated bunka. Traditionally, though, if not literally, bunka means indoctrination that results in literacy and loyalty. Some Nipponese are apparently the products of very high levels of traditional bunka.
Harmony, or a near relative, in Confucian texts. When Shotoku Taishi made this the centerpiece of his 17-article plea for political order, his royal and lesser late-6th and early-7th century contemporaries were assassinating each other for a chance to control as much of the country as they could. Similar calls for wa are made today, as by prime ministers trying to hold their parties together, or in corporate identity slogans aimed at preventing friction in the ranks. The frequency at which they are made is a barometer of discontent with the status quo.
In theory, a self-consideration of the rights and wrongs of one's own past words and deeds. But apparently one is not obliged to fundamentally correct one's erroneous ways. Since getting caught is proof of being careless rather than wrong, hansei may involve little more than a pretense of repentance. A weekly magazine cartoon features Finance Minister Hashimoto as a monkey trainer putting the four big security company chimps through their motions. "All you gotta do is act that way," he says, after ordering them to hansei.
In a similar vein, Aug. 15 could be dubbed National Hansei Day. The front page of the evening edition of a major daily paper shows some elderly people humping up the stairs to attend the official memorial service witnessing the anniversary of V-A (Vanquished by America) Day. Running across the bottom of the page is a familiar pharmaceutical company ad built around the two Chinese characters for hansei. The ad, reminiscent of the cartoon, features an innocent-looking simian, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and short pants, gazing down at a box of stomach medicine while leaning one-handed on its top. "Ahhh, I drank too much, ahhh, I ate too much," the monkey moans. "When I hansei, (I take this) gastrointestinal medicine. The gastrointestinal (tract) is important, so I want to gently protect it."
Usually translated understanding, but it often implies an acceptance of orthodox or official views, rather than a search for truth that might entail criticism and change. Seeking rikai without scrutiny and evaluation is not, of course, peculiar to Nippon. But in few countries have so many intellectuals tried so hard to obtain diplomatic immunity for their bunka, taking advantage of notions of cultural relativism which encourage the kind of rikai that thrives on a suspension of moral judgment.
19th-century translationese for common sense, whatever this English phrase meant then or means now. In some contexts it refers to the kind of general knowledge that ordinary people are thought to have, and the powers of observation, understanding, and judgment that they are expected to have. In mainstream Nippon, joshiki requires that serious men wear suits and ties while serious women wear pantyhose, year round, despite the ecological costs of air-conditioning, and despite the psychological and social costs of lock-step dress policies. To do something that is not joshiki may call your Nipponeseness into question.
A state of confusion--such as the utter disorder that would ensue in Nippon were Nipponese taught to read Chinese and Korean names more or less like their owners would. To try to pronounce names the way their owners do is a common courtesy practiced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but not encouraged by the Ministry of Education - or, until recently, by NHK. Preventing external konran means mastering the rituals that give others the impression that you respect them. Internal konran is minimized by discouraging diversity and by cultivating subjects who are reluctant to tell even their best friends that they've got dandruff or bad breath.