Asia, Travel

The Art of Dissociation

Some reflections on my month in Japan. 

I’m somehow on my last day here in Japan, and it feels strange. As I’ve mentioned before, I first seriously considered coming here 4 years ago, and now I’ve finally done it. One of my primary reasons for travel this season is changes in perspective. The first change would be that, if one can make the financial investment, trips like this aren’t such a big deal–you just gotta go.

The second I have in mind goes a little deeper. This is my first time truly traveling alone–as well as my longest time out of the U.S.–and it’s taken a while to come to grips with the idea that it’s no one’s agenda but my own. Not my family’s agenda, or work’s, or the tour company’s as it was in China last year, or even my friends’. That has meant doing all too much in a single day and regretting it and doing practically nothing in a single day and regretting it. The hard part for me is to regret nothing and just exist.

It comes into even great tension when I consider how I’m supposed to exist, specifically in relation with other people. For me, life is constantly about my individual wants at odds with what everyone is telling me to do, both verbally and through example. It flies in the face of something characteristically Japanese: the idea of social harmony. We all know Japanese society as a largely low-crime, hard-working and homogeneous one. Again and again I’ve seen signs with some given instruction (usually take off your damn shoes) followed by “Thank you for your cooperation.”

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Well, you get the idea.

The ubiquity of this phrase is beyond what I thought imaginable. It seems like a simple enough phrase, leveled at anyone considered a guest, but I don’t think we understand the meaning behind it (at least the American dude screaming while being escorted out of a bar in Tokyo didn’t). We like to do things our own way. Rules are made to be broken, etc.

In the late 19th century, officials responsible for the Meiji Restoration (Japan’s modernization), “influenced by German thought, viewed the nation as a body or organism.” And rooted in Confucianism, these same thinkers viewed people “not just as individualistic creatures, as Western liberalism suggested, but rather as a highly social species, one in which group evolutionary success outweighed that of individuals.” Some of this sentiment even presented itself in the Captain America movie I saw today. Vision urges the Captain to quit fighting the state and half the team for “the collective good.”

Lately I’ve been trying to find my own “social harmony,” though it’s proven elusive. I couldn’t stay at work. I couldn’t hold onto a relationship or even start a new one. I haven’t been too impressed with my friends lately, and even now I’m in a rather immature silence with one of them. I’ve had to shut off Facebook before China’s firewall even got to it. And per usual, I’ve avoided being with my parents.

I’ve fortunately made up for it in some part by making many new friends. And moreover, maybe “social harmony” is overrated. For example, while I’ve been considerably impressed with Japan, somehow my country, full of rude assholes and informally represented by this guy, is not the one whose name is synonymous with stagnation. Japan is so nice in a number of ways, and they have bullet trains. What gives? Please bear with me for an economics aside…

People generally point to a number of “structural factors” for Japan’s economic situation: restrictions on overtime work (which previously helped drive growth), an aging population, competition from other Asian countries, a fall in investment and techonological growth, problems with women in the workforce, and low immigration, among others. That said, some say that the claim that Japan is uniquely stagnant is exaggerated.

When adjusted for the growth of the working-age population, Japan’s annual growth rate over the last twenty-five years is 1.6 percent, in line with that of Germany, actually higher than that of the United States, and twice that of Italy. So if there is a Japanese disease, it is one that also infects many of the other advanced countries…

The perception among internal and external observers that Japan is in decline persists in part because the country is located in a region of the world where economic history unfolds at about three or four times the speed that it does in the West.

There’s actually a bit of very subtle racism at work here: You’re a country in Asia–you can’t be stagnant or something is wrong with you. (In the case of the West, of course, it’s natural to be stagnant.)

I don’t doubt that Japan needs reforms, such as getting more women into managerial positions and increasing immigration. But Japan has drastically reformed before. It can do it again. I suppose the idea here is that the way forward is in pushing the new and unfamiliar. The way that is commonly done in the United States, thinking of our Mark Zuckerbergs and our Beyonces, is at the individual level. It’s what our president, Clinton, Bernie, or Trump, is going to have to hope for to get good economic numbers. It’s when Captain America says fuck this to impositions of the United Nations and other institutions he finds unacceptable.

“I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way.”
― Robert Frost

But I’m not dissociating with people so much as I’m dissociating with the old. It’s the way I’m trying to do things now, striking it out on my own and looking for something new, unfamiliar, and hopefully amazing.

If not, at least I got to see dolphins.

"Those #dolphins are pretty cool huh" – some idiot tourist They're not cool they're awesome

A post shared by Richard S (@globary) on

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5 thoughts on “The Art of Dissociation”

  1. I was following your train of thought but I got lost in the end a little . . .probably.my fault. You are constantly adapting; Japan can (as it has in the past) and needs to? I am not sure Japan has adapted much beyond trying to save and protect its interests. Believe me I have hopes for Japan, but the country is way too introverted.

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    1. The idea here is that we ought to dislodge ourselves from what is comfortable but not working, and Japan has a few fairly entrenched customs that it could do better without (as many countries do). I don’t have the space here to go into whether how Japanese could overcome the political and cultural hurdles to major change, but it may have to, if only in the long run in a piecemeal approach.

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  2. We are on the same page then. Japan is way too caught up in itself. If we look at the spectrum of guilt vs. shame cultures Japan is very much on the guilt side of things. This is also true of many Middle Eastern cultures. It does not fit with what we know about how humans respond positively to each other and the world. It is causing them to be woefully behind in areas such as social services and child welfare. It is also holding their economy back to a degree.

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    1. I think I agree, though I’m still amazed by the transformation Japan went through with the Meiji Restoration, technologically and socially, as a pure act of will (on the part of the authorities, anyway). Perhaps that came out of shame for being behind, but astounding all the same. It might be helpful to remember for the future.

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