I don’t know what your perception of Japanese people is but surprisingly many non-Japanese people seem to think that the Japanese are emotionless, cruel or downright evil. We noticed this when we told people back in England that we were moving to Japan for 3 years. We got comments like: ‘Really? Well, good luck! It’s a cruel nation!’ from people who had never even visited Japan. So, after having lived in Japan for 6 months I feel I need to get one thing straight: Japanese people as a nation are not emotionless, cruel or evil any more than your bog standard nation. In fact, unlike many nations, they are extremely friendly, helpful and caring, even to non-Japanese people like me and my family.
A couple of observations and stats can clarify what I mean.
Let’s start with the murder stats. If we compare murder rates between different countries, Japan tops the list in reversed order. That is, Japan is the country with the smallest number of murders per capita. Stumbling home after a night spent drinking sake and Asahi beer much more than what your mother or your husband would want you to, or going in the park after dark for a run (or in my husband’s case, going to do some pull ups, in his low budget attempt to get an upper body like Jean Claude van Damme 20 years ago) can be compared to the danger level similar to that of going for a walk in your grandmother’s living room, i.e. the chances are you won’t get attacked, other than possibly by a miniature dog, like a pug, wearing a tutu.
Before I am bombarded by emails and messages about murders carried out by a Japanese person in Japan (or elsewhere), I need to add that of course every country has their Tony Sopranos, Hannibal Lectors and Oscar Pistoriuses, and so, Japan is not completely murder-free either. But the punch line is that the chances that you get murdered over here is probably roughly comparable to being murdered at your friend’s Ann Summers party by an out of control suspender. Unless you are addicted to Ann Summers parties (a personal characteristic which increases your chances of being exposed to out of control suspenders much more frequently than the rest of the population) the chances are you don’t have to worry about a sudden death by a suspender at your friend’s house or a lunatic in the bushes in Japan.
Let’s then consider how different nationalities react to other people’s apparent difficulties and problems. The other day when my children and I were walking home from the park I noticed a bleeding mosquito bite on my son’s calf (there are surprisingly many mosquitoes over here even at this time of the year!). I stopped in the middle of a busy shopping street and started to look for some tissue in my handbag. But before I could even open my bag, a Japanese lady who had just walked past us, turns around, walks back and hands us a plaster. This happening to you in Helsinki, or London, let alone in Manchester or Birmingham is as likely as someone turning around and handing you a 500 EUR note. In fact, Finnish people’s indifference and reluctance to help others seems to be surprisingly widespread and has recently received a fair amount of media coverage. Yesterday I read about a Finnish tax office worker who had collapsed at work, and it took two days for his co-workers to even notice that the poor guy was dead at his desk. A couple of weeks ago I read a parent’s outraged post of Facebook. Her Type 1 diabetic daughter had passed out in a fast food restaurant queue due to dangerously low blood sugars, and that the cashier’s reaction to this was to instruct the rest of the queue to move along and completely ignore the unconscious teenager lying on the floor. Seriously? What the hell was going on in the mind of the cashier? And what about the people in the queue deciding not to go and help an unconscious child on the floor? Were they worried that they would lose their place in the queue? – and thus have a delay of a couple of minutes in biting into the ‘meat’ product probably imported from a factory in China in which meat that had expired its use-by-date by over seven months is sold to major fast food restaurant chains.
It seems that I am not a typical Finn (pretending not to notice unconscious people lying on the ground). Around 8am the other morning, when I am walking my son to school, we notice a 20-something Japanese man, lying on the pavement on the other side of the road. We were in a rush (mornings cannot exactly be described as chillaxing moments of tranquility in our household), but we went through the effort of going and making sure that the guy wasn’t dead or having a medical emergency. I touched the man’s chest and said ‘Sumimasen’ (Excuse me). Nothing. I repeated the same. Nothing. Eventually I am shouting in English ‘Excuse me! Are you ok?!’ and finally he murmurs ‘yes’ and starts giggling. He’s as drunk as Lindsay Lohan during one of her particularly wild episodes. That made my day: first, the guy on the floor was not dead and second, for once, it was someone other than me heading towards a hangover out of this World.
I might need to clarify, that Japanese people – men in particular – regularly drink more than they should. In that respect they are very similar to their Finnish and English counterparts. But to find a man sleeping on the pavement still drunk at 8am on a Tuesday morning in his work gear from the night before is not a common sight in Finland or England. I think the Finns and the Brits have a slightly better awareness of when they have had enough to drink than the Japanese. For many Japanese men this ‘I’ve had too much to drink limit’ lies somewhere between a half and one pint of lager, the same for an English man is between a half and one pint of vodka. Since a typical Finnish woman can drink an English man under the table it might be best not to speculate what the limit for a Finnish man is.
The kindness and helpful nature of random Japanese people is not only restricted to handing out plasters to strangers. For instance, the helpful nature of Japanese adults enables young Japanese children to travel between various places within the city on their own. My son’s school is somewhat surprised that he is not taking the tube on his own to school and back every day. I mean, hold on! We used to live in England where drop off and pick up are a must pretty much until the kids go to University. So, my husband and I would not dream of sending our 6-year-old child to school on his own. I would not have a problem with this if we lived somewhere in the sticks – like in my home town of Kotka, on the south coast of Finland, but Osaka is not a small town. There are about 5 million other people rushing to catch those commuter trains/tubes in the public transport systems of Osaka along with my son (see photo below). I think it’s less work to do the school run rather than not do it. If I knew that he was ploughing his way through the 100 people deep wall of commuters on the tube platform on his own, I would spend the duration of the school run at home or work biting my nails and eating everything I can get my hands on (this would be a disaster) and worrying whether my son will find himself at the school at 9am and home at 5pm or in Tokyo after mistaking the Shinkansen (bullet train) for his tube.
Even though our son gets escorted to school and back every day, most Japanese 6-year-olds make their way to school on their own. And one reason their parents let them make those journeys on public transport is because they know that the adult commuters will help the children on the train – and elsewhere. When children cross busy roads, they put their hand up to indicate the drivers and pedestrians that there is a child about to cross the road. Cars slow down, and other pedestrians hold the child’s hand and walk them across the road. I think this is amazing.
Helpful behavior takes place also on the trains. The other day I asked our new aupair to go and pick our son up from school. She got lost on the way. I think she took the correct train line, only in the opposite direction from our son’s school. Luckily, she got off the train at the next stop and asked for help. People didn’t speak English (and she doesn’t speak Japanese) but a Japanese person dropped what they were doing and took the train back with her to the station that she needed to go to. Would that ever happen in places like Finland, England or the US? I doubt it.
Given that all that we have experienced in Japan is extremely helpful and caring people – and not a single serial killer – where does the association with Japanese people being a cruel nation derive from?
Let’s start with the obvious: World War II. Most people have probably heard of the fearless Kamikaze pilots, horrific Japanese war camps and Japanese soldiers in cold blood killing anything and everything they encountered, including women, children and the elderly. I want to emphasize that I am not trying to argue here that suicide bombers, war camps or solders killing civilians (or other solders) are not cruel. Of course they are. In fact, these kinds of topics make me feel sick in the stomach. But what I am trying to point out here is that these characteristics of a nation during war time are not restricted to Japan. I mean, nations such as England, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Russia have anything but angelic pasts and so, all of those nations could equally well be called cruel! And let’s not forget about America. They may not have as blood stained hands as some of the European countries when it comes to pre- 20th century but God haven’t they made up for it since then!
Second, even if some of you were not aware of the Japanese solders’ cruelty during the War, the American Film industry has done their best to give viewers of American films this image of the Japanese. Although, the American film industry does not only portray the Japanese as the baddies but also the Russians and Germans, the French, Poles, and Romanians. And let’s not forget the Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans and Palestinians. And, the Mexicans, Cubans, Colombians, and Peruvians. And the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Indian, the Taiwanese, South-Africans, the Egyptian, Tunisian. Oh and the British, Scots and Irish and… – hold on. This is pretty much everyone other than themselves. Finnish people do not generally appear as baddies in American films. That’s not because the Americans wouldn’t think Finns would be cruel (after all, many Finns have a slightly Slavic English accent which firmly places them in the category of a ‘Baddy’) but because most Americans do no even know what or where Finland is. To most of them, it probably sounds like a fish themed amusement park.
Lastly, one additional reason why some Westerners may think that the Japanese are cruel derives from the fact that Japanese are quite straight faced in formal situations such as business meetings. They don’t give anything away. And worst of all, they don’t mind long stretches of silence. I asked my students what kind of a silence would make them feel uncomfortable on a first date. They said 15 minutes or even longer was fine. They must have been having a laugh! Even a 15 second silence would make me feel that I was on a date from hell, and promise myself that I would rather marry a tub of Häagen-dazs than go on another date with the 15-minutes-of-silence-guy. So, when a Japanese businessman sits in a deal-crunching meeting with an American or British businessman and remains silent for 15 minutes, the latter two beg for mercy and are ready to sign any deal as long as the Japanese agrees to produce at least one utterance on weather (British) or Superbowl (American). The Finns are of course immune to the Japanese businessmen’s silence-treatment. The Finns would, in fact, think the practically mute Japanese businessmen are a little too chatty for properly functioning business meetings. And the Japanese would be shocked to have found their match – that is, if they had not done their homework before the business meeting with the Finns and found out that there is a saying in Finnish which translates into: ‘Speaking is silver. Silence is gold’.
In any case, I hope the above has convinced you that the Japanese people are not any more cruel than the rest of the people on this planet. Note however, that this not mean that they are not bonkers. More on that in another blog post.