#2

It’s been a while.  However, a new semester just started this September, which feels like a new school year to me, and I’m re-motivated to get back to more diligent pursuits.

Sadly, I had actually written up all 5 “things to leave and take” blogs in my head with some notes on a piece of paper after my initial post.  That paper is long gone and I don’t remember precisely what I wanted to say.  Also, the fact that there are more than 5 things in each category means I’m a bit sad I waited so long.  Also, I debated long and hard whether I wanted to make the next 4 posts all revolve around “5 things I would both get rid of and change” for the sheer fact that so many things in Japan fall in both categories.  At times, they are wonderful, at other times they just make you pull your hair out.  Anyway….

Keep Please  –   A time for everything

Living in America makes one view life as a buffet.  “Oh, you want some more of that wonderful TV show you can’t live without?  Well just hop online and watch it. Now that’s a nice lad..”  Foods, TV shows, festivals, shopping, sports, anything and everything is basically accessible 365 days a year.  Want to play golf in January in Minnesota?  Go to a golf dome and play some.  Want to eat watermelon in the winter?  Just go to the store and buy some.  This all makes it feel like life is a never ending smorgaspord of indulgence

In Japan, things are quite a bit different.  Festivals are in the summer, primarily in August.  Swimming is from date x to date y, almost no exceptions.  Fruits and foods are seasonal.  Sure, it has changed enough to the point that you might find non seasonal fruits in the bigger chain grocery stores, but expect to pay a fortune.

This extends to life itself.  Anyone who has taught in Japan probably has a few nightmare stories about horribly behaved Japanese kids.  A large reason for this is because Japanese teachers and parents don’t engage in a lot of discipline as western countries might think of the term.  They have more of an attitude that kids are kids and do kid things.  That’s their place in life.  Wait until they are older to start expecting them to do adult-like things.  This doesn’t mean they aren’t instructed or encouraged to do proper things.  Simply, if they fail to do so no one is going to mind too much.

Sakura season is the premier example of the view of life that all things have a place and time.  Cherry blossoms are in bloom for about 2-3 weeks a year.  During this time the entire country turns into a giant sakura loving nation.  Outside of this small window of time sakura trees are thought of much as they are back in America – something to be admired due to its beauty but ultimately far out of reach.  When one stops to think about this, a giant part of the reason that sakura are so loved by Japanese is because they are only around for a short time.  If you lived in Antarctica, I imagine snow would start to lose its appeal after a while.  Its only in the ephemeral existence of all things that we can find true appreciation.

Discard please:  Reading the air

Now, you might be wondering what exactly “reading the air” could possibly mean.

Unnnhhhh.. Double negative all the way!! What does it mean!?

“Reading the air” is a ramification of the vagueness of the Japanese language plus the desire for Japanese people to avoid offending people as often as humanly possible.  Japanese is vague.  Sometimes very vague.  Therefore, people get really good at inferring meaning from what’s not said.  You can have complex, compound sentences in Japanese with multiple subjects yet never actually use a subject in the sentence.  Want an example?  Of course you do.

病人を一人だけ家において会社に行くわけにはいかないので,その日は会社を休むことにした。

byounin o hitori dake ie ni oite kaisha ni iku wake niwa ikanai no de, sono hi wa kaisha o yasumu koto ni shita.

Here are three translations of the sentence, going from very literal, literal but reordered to fit into English, and changed to make sense for us:

sick person (direct object marker) one person only the house (location marker) at company (direction marker) can’t go because, that day (topic marker) company (object/temporary location marker) rest thing (decision marker) did.

because sick person (direct object marker) only one person at the house (location marker) work (direction marker) can’t go, that day (topic marker) company (object marker) vacation thing (decision marker) did [decided].

Since only one person is at the house [to care] for the sick person, can’t go to work. As for that day, decided to take a break from the company.

———–

Do you see it?  See where the confusion is?  Look at that last sentence and try to distinguish who can’t go to work and who is taking a vacation day.  You can’t because there is no subject.  There is no indication whether or not the sick person or the caretaker/roomate/parent/etc. is not going to work.  Oh, and I haven’t even begun.  This sentence is especially confusing to an English speaker because the word おいて [oite] can mean either “left behind” or simply “at, be present”.  Hmm.. seems that one of those meanings would fit one person perfectly (leaving behind the sicky) with one meaning and another (the caretaker being present) with the other.  Oh but I’m not quite done.  Japanese verbs hold no person or number.  You use the same exact form of a verb for “I” as you would for “he” – so there is nothing in the sentence that would help distinguish exactly who is doing what.  Holy balls!

On a side note, it might be my level of Japanese or just another layer of “WTF!?” to this sentence but here’s one more thing:  The first part of the sentence has two peculiarities.  The sick person comes with a direct object marker attached, making you think the verb would hold him/her as the object (“Punch the sick person.”  Sick person is the object).  However, there is also no “to be” verb talking about the caretaker.  If, indeed, the verb おいて [oite] up there was talking about the sick person you’d expect another verb of existing to apply to the caretaker actually existing inside the house.  But there is no verb for that.  So, maybe you apply the おいて to the caretaker, but then what are you going to do with the direct object marker on the sicky?  It’s just sitting there unused.  Jimminy Crickett!!

I’m going to stop there.  The fact that the おいて also carries with it ambiguity only adds to the level of confusion here.

So what does all this mean?  Well, as I said Japanese people have developed superhuman skills at doing things like looking at the above sentence and figuring out exactly who is doing what and about whom the sentence is speaking.  It’s second nature to them.  Like anything with language, this manifests itself as second nature in behavior as well.

So, ultimately reading the air becomes something like this scenario familiar to all people around the world.  You’re in a meeting.  Everyone is talking amongst one another and being jovial.  Suddenly, the boss/teacher/group leader/whoever stands up and people slowly stop speaking and look at the soon to be speaker.  It takes you about 2-3 seconds to register what is going on and you shut up as well, turn to the speaker, and pay attention.  Congratulations, you’ve just successfully read the air!

Japanese people, however, take this to the extreme.  I’ve mentioned this previously but often times you might have a friend or co-worker approach you and ask if you like red shirts.  Sure you do, you own a few yourself.  “Thank you”, says the kind co-worker/friend.  The next day, dawning your best “I’m with stupid” shirt the same person approaches you and asks you the same question.  “Why of course I like red shirts my good man.  Why it was only yesterday that you asked me the same inquiry”, you reply in a friendly tone.  Same thing happens the next day, and so on.  Congratulations, you just failed miserably at reading the air!

See, your co-worker/friend couldn’t give a damn about your taste in shirts.  The actual question… er…. direction was “please wear a red shirt from now on”.  Next time your co-worker/ex-friend asks you if you like blue you punch him in the face for being a dick and not telling you to wear the damn red shirt before your boss yelled at you.

Oh, but it gets more murky.  Many times you are expected to conform to some unsaid, unwritten rule of society or the place at which you happen to find yourself based solely on being able to read the air.  Can you spot the potential problems here?  Imagine living in a country where everything is new and somehow you’re supposed to catch on to the most minute changes in behavior with no one saying anything about what to do.  It can be quite a burden.  It can be downright annoying when it interferes with your day to day life in some official capacity.  It’s frustrating when people won’t give you an answer or heads up on something because they assumed you already knew.  It can make life somewhat more difficult than it needs to be.  For that I’m not overly fond of it.

Also, the reply I generally receive when asked how I’m supposed to know this is bothersome: “it’s common sense”.

Whatever you say there, buddy.

The fact that Japanese people do this in itself is not completely what makes me want to do without it, although as stated it doesn’t help.  What gets me is the value judgement they place upon the skill of being able to do this.  空気を読めない人 [kuuki o yomenai hito] “A person who can’t read the air” is a big deal in Japan.  It’s something Japanese people frown upon and often results in you being labeled as “childish” or “immature”.   I could go without this.  English speakers completely lack this skill because we’ve never required it.  We have no need for it.  We only use the most simple of feeling the temperature of the room, as it were, and even that many people can’t do.  To be labeled childish on top of it is just adding a third person to the already murderously complex sentence of torture that can be navigating Japanese life.