January 09, 2004 Features & Images » Feature Story

Feature - A land of paradoxes and reminders 

A Whistler writer discovers the people and the customs in the land of the rising sun

I have been living in Fukui for six weeks, not long, but long enough to have learned a few things about my new country of residence. Before I left Canada I heard various reports from some travellers who stated that Japan is a paradox. As a foreigner, a gaijin, you’ll never be truly welcomed. Yet Western influences can be witnessed everywhere: baseball, soccer, Disney Tokyo and Western weddings.

My first impression was a nation of suit-wearing conformists whose blind loyalty upheld the Japanese traditions of pleasantries that permeates daily life. Politeness supersedes sincerity, which is lovely, but it is difficult to know where you stand on any issue.

An American colleague of mine remarked that skiing and snowboarding, in comparison to Europe and North America, is much more pleasant because everyone is so polite on the mountain. He stated that the concept of "rude boarders" is virtually non-existent on the ski slopes of Japan.

Japan is an island (or more accurately, a series of islands), its culture influenced by its isolation. It is also a nation where one’s academic record determines one’s future. It is completely normal to put your child into day care by the age of three. It is a fiercely competitive system and the intensity follows students home every evening while they study late into the night.

I have one Grade 11 student who I tutor once a week. We spent one unit discussing world culture and societies; one of her homework assignments was to create the principles for a perfect society. The following week she read a loud to me that, "…the perfect society, is one where parents are rich and children study hard."

The stress on achievement, at all costs, prevails in Japanese society.

Last year approximately 30,000 executives committed suicide.

Traditionally, when the top guy cannot perform for those on the bottom, he does the honourable thing – he commits seppuku, a ritual method of suicide by disembowelment. Ironically, suicide insurance is big business here in Japan.

I walk past two homeless fellows every time I go to the gym. They live in cardboard boxes under one Fukui’s many bridges. If they’re ‘home’ when I’m strolling by, they always wave and call out, "kon nichi wa – hello."

Japan does not like to admit it has homeless people, or orphanages, or old people’s homes; or anything that deviates from the norm. Homes for society’s misfits are kept on the outskirts of town, where they are kept out of sight.

The president of my new place of employment is an American. In his youth he was a street kid in the United States. He has lived in Fukui for 18 years and has chosen to give something back to his community. After months of appeals to the local government, he was granted visitation rights to a small orphanage. Every second Sunday teachers from our school are allowed to visit and teach English lessons. We celebrated Christmas with those children and it was one spiritual experience I’ll remember for a long time.

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