In a boorish world, the Japanese uphold style

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By Sol W. Sanders

TOKYO — Myron Macht, my diminutive friend, deceased alas! gourmet, bibliophile, raconteur – and unfortunately victim of post-traumatic syndrome as a veteran gunner in U.S. bombers during World War II, had a theory.

Mike said, only half in jest, that the troubles of the contemporary world were all the result of the erosion of style. According to Mike, the way European and American societies conducted their daily lives had deteriorated from la belle époque, that brief period just before World War II when progress and the good life seemed the inevitable future.

Japanese woman with traditional garb and modern makeup.
Japanese woman with traditional garb and modern makeup.

All this came to mind during a brief return to Japan early this year. I returned to a Japan I have known fairly intimately during two extended residences there and subsequent visits. And as always there was a fundamental question: how has a society that has borrowed so much, perhaps more than any society since the Romans from the Greeks, nevertheless created a strong identity that any foreigner, a veteran or a new arrival, could not deny. When Sam Huntington picked out Japan among China’s neighbours as one of the fundamental forces in his prediction of a coming “clash of civilizations”, I believe he was correct in acknowledging not only its peculiarities but its strength.

In the routine of meeting old friends and interviewing some old and new sources for news of what was going on, Mike’s old theorem came to mind. Was the unique quality of Japan today not a sense of style long vanished from decaying Western Europe, Central Europe recovering from the desert of Soviet Communist domination and a U.S. abandoning cultural values such as classical music for the noise of the primitive if loud the contemporary cacophony?

I watched that most pervasive of Japanese customs, the bow. Bending at the waist to an interlocutor was a greeting, hello or goodbye, a signal of gratitude or acceptance of a gesture of gratitude or acceptance from your communicant or simply a way of acknowledging a mutual recognition in a busy world. The Japanese had adopted their bow from the Chinese kowtow, that miserable, grovelling, guilt ridden and politically charged acceptance of dominations. What had he Japanese done to it? They had added “style”.

In our own time, when Texas Instrument invented a micro electronic chip, they for all their scientific prowess, didn’t know what to do with it, The Japanese took it, and granted for relatively trivial purposes adapted it to small instruments of gratification, whether a Sony Walkman or a tiny radio. That was an application of style! But perhaps more important, the Japanese created the ancestors of the many and proliferating handheld instruments which permits us to hold the world in our hands.

When an impoverished, wretched, dirty society – look at some of the few photographs taken at the beginning of the Meiji Era of Japan’s modernization only in the middle of the 19th century – the Japanese returned the bath to its proper place in Greek and Roman times as a societal event, a wonderful way in the fiery hot water they love, to shed the woes and the cares of the day as well as some of its aches and pains, psychological as well as physical. It was not the necessary sanitary effort as viewed in the Anglo-American world in the same period. [If cleanliness is next to godliness as the Western proverb holds, the Japanese have long since all become avatars.] It was, of course, the application of style!

Tokyo may now have more French restaurants than Paris. And many of them are what French food used to be before the fast food outlets took over the Champs-Elysées. But more interesting for our argument here is the tenpanyaki, that marvellous grill with a near acrobat performing cook. Few know that it arose when in impoverished, burned out post-WWI Tokyo, some Japanese set up temporary kitchens on the Ginza using the abandoned oil barrels of U.S. Occupation troops for a grill stoking them with charcoal. Now that is an application of style!

Pre-industrial Japan knew nothing of the passage of time, or at least monitoring it, as did most agricultural and hunting societies. But when it adopted the clock, it did so with a vengeance. The Japanese day – if not always the night – is governed by this strict adherence. Coming late to an appointment in Japan is very close to a criminal act. I know of at least one huge business deal which foundered when the Western partner chose to change the date of a culmination of negotiations, attempting to amend what had been earlier negotiated to a determined schedule. Despite their heritage of Buddhism – also borrowed from the Chinese and the Koreans with very distinctive Japanese innovation – Japanese do not believe in the anonymity of the individual and his chunk of time. Life is seen as worth living and it is critical to harness every minute of it. Another application of style?

It’s easy enough to caricature these Japanese customs and many others. That is always the case with high style – the parodies of Russian and French and now American ballet, that culmination of Western music, the plastic arts and celebration of the beauty of the human body is archetypical.

The spectacle of two individuals or a group saying farewell in a welter of bowing can turn very humours to the foreigner [the outside person as the Chinese character used by the Japanese literally means]. They continue the bowing until some unknown clock somewhere intervenes. There is also the problem of bowing lower [or higher] than your interlocutor, indicating that hierarchical sense that dominates all Japanese personal relationships. Played out at the entrance to an underground railway station or on a train platform, it almost risks body and limb.

Ah! My reader says but what about those terrible atrocities of the Japanese. Frankly, I neither excuse them nor can I explain them in my Japanese exposure in all these years. I do know that whatever happened in Nanking in 1937 was not that different from the “normal” three days of rape and pillage that had ”normally” been “permitted” after a military victory during the breakdown of Chinese society during the Ch’ing dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries. Another old friend — also long deceased — Theodore Cohen, author of one of the best books on the U.S. Occupation, a seasoned Occupation bureaucrat, and a very successful merchant in his later years, had an explanation; when the Japanese are off the tatami [the traditional grass floor mats] there are no rules in a highly ordered [stylized] society.

But then I have no explanation how the Germans, in many ways the soul of Western civilization, organized with Teutonic determination and attention to detail the attempted destruction of a community who from Heine to Mendelssohn had contributed so much to their own culture as well as Europe and the world. That, I put it to you, was the epitome of unstyle.

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