Thoughts on moving to Tokyo, 3.

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‘Back in my room, I thought hard. Although my spine was being eaten away by tuberculosis and I stumbled as I walked, we had been blind to its presence simply because it had not appeared on the X-ray. If this ignorance had continued, might not all my bones have been affected? I certainly would have died. And then I thought, “The same could be true of my soul.” Maybe I did not realize my heart was being eaten away or how infected I was, simply because I was unaware of my sin. I found this thought very frightening’ – Miura Ayako

I’ve been putting off sharing anything about moving to Japan for some time. This is a mix of procrastination and also the fear that what I would write would be spoilt by a bitter attitude. Moving to another country is not easy, and this is especially true of moving to Japan.

Prior to moving to Japan, I visited twice. I loved nearly every moment, even though I noticed imperfections. Not being of the typical Australian, Sydneysider temperament – that of outgoing, sport/beach temperament – I felt more ‘at home’ in the culture of Japan. What I discovered after spending some time here was that I was so very wrong.

Some, I think, have the timid and gentle personality well-suited to the overall temperament of the Japanese culture. Things are indirect (read: passive), avoidant and readily obedient. Therefore, if your personality is one that normally runs from conflict, it may fit compared to the impatient and arrogant Sydneysider. For myself, however, I came to find that I belonged somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I am meandering a fair bit here but this whole notion of personality plays deeply into what has largely shaped my Japanese experience.  In my previous job, I was managing a team and had a fair bit of say about what went on. Perhaps in that role, I grew a little bit too accustomed to having things my way because once I started to work in Japan, this all went out of the window. I also began to realise just how different the culture was to my expectations. On the outside, everything appeared to be similar enough (just more polite), the cultural differences run deep.

Australia is a nation based upon principles of individualism, meaning that we prize the choices that the individual makes for themselves in terms of ethics, work, and family. Such a philosophical/national achievement was born from the movement away from any kind of pre-determined or ‘fated’ destiny as found in traditional societies. By contrast, the Collectivist society prizes filial ties or national ties over the individual (most Asian nations are identified with this persuasion). This is fundamentally where I began to notice the difficulties of being one born of an individualistic mindset trying to navigate a traditional, Collectivist culture.

It is unpopular to give a cultural critique of other nations, especially if you’re a white, Western male but here I wish to offer a critique only in order to show how I needed God’s grace.

Japan is not a culture familiar with the idea of grace (unmerited favour in spite of one’s many transgressions). In an honour/shame culture that values saving face over disharmony, the idea of weakness is one of disgrace (side note: disgrace is actually important in many Christian notions of Christ bearing the disgrace of our sins on the cross). The radical notion that God would grant grace in the face of those that do disgraceful things is the heart of what makes Jesus Christ distinct amongst all philosophies and religious belief.

In my workplace, I witnessed an incredible amount of rules for the children: from lining up their shoes to lining up neatly, to not being loud, and to even how they put on their shoes from as early as 2. For an age group that barely knows their left from the right, I was impressed by how much the kids could do on their own and how much responsibility they bore at such an early age. There’s something to learn from this, however, I noticed also how they were berated for prolonged periods of crying (not attention-seeking) or showing any sign of moving outside of the ‘set path’ (not lining up properly, making noise, not being ‘neat’).

I also found myself being very passively molded into a version of myself that I was not. This began to be the case, especially at work. I noticed how other expats had appeared to be ‘flattened’. Now as I stated earlier, I’d become too used to having a say and freedom over my previous roles, and so this notion of being stripped of all say and even the ability to have some kind of autonomy over my work was extremely difficult. Here lies another difference between cultures: that of being able to do your work through your personality and reporting occasionally to your superior vs. being constantly supervised by your superior with little say over the material you’re delivering. This ‘micro-management’-style of work effectively robs the worker of any ability to put themselves into their work. (On this point, I have found Marx’s critique of Capitalists about the same thing regarding the worker’s alienation from their work in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 helpful to describe this feeling and sense. Equally helpful is the Marx-influenced philosopher, Michel Foucault, who built upon Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon: how surveillance (or the perceived feeling of it) maintains power. This is effectively what it felt like being in such a workplace).

お疲れ様です is the common greeting to people in the workplace which means something along the lines of ‘keep working hard’ or ‘you’re tired from working hard’. These are positive terms and derive their meaning from Buddhist thinking – that of struggle and toil. This is an important phrase for the work culture, but I think it contains a darker side: that of needing to have some kind of struggle in your work. There is some value in the idea of growth through struggle but this can easily be a means of exploiting people through the notion of ‘struggle’. Harmony is also highly prized, and therefore lying is a valid ethic in order to maintain it.

On the train I once witnessed an elderly woman being knocked over due to the frenzy of people piling out of the train. No one stopped to assist her until another elderly woman made her way across the platform to assist. I also found myself carried out by a sea of people on another occasion, unsuccessfully attempting to avoid crushing a small woman. I grew so frustrated I turned to the man behind me and said ‘Stop!’ He was stunned and probably wondered why on earth someone would highlight this as problematic. This is normal in Tokyo.

I have piled up these really negative aspects of Japan to show how graceless the culture is. This is an important observation simply because I look back on my homeland of Australia and am so amazed at just how Christian it is. We have labor unions that fought for worker’s rights. We have abuses of power, but it is not fixed into a system of traditional hierarchical patterns that allows for power and abuse to occur. But saying a culture like Japan’s (maybe more-so for Tokyo) culture is graceless is simply because it has never had any true movement of God’s grace through the nation that has shaped its politics and social structures. It is effectively like a sheep without a shepherd. It is legalistic. While Australia is seeking to de-Christianise itself, it becomes more irrational because the fabric of the Australian/western culture of today is pivoted upon ideas found in the Judeo-Christian God.

Where does all of this leave me?

Well, I’d had several years of various failures that prevented me from moving forward when I was in Sydney. Moving to Japan released me from the surroundings that had kept me back from moving on. Then the strangest things began to occur. I stopped biting my nails even though my Japanese managers had chewed theirs off. Just about everything in this culture is counter to my personality: the lack of justice, of truth, of grace, but I was growing more in these things, with added understanding. As I’ve hit the 6-month mark on my stay here – and a whole lot of uncertainty after quitting my job – I can see that I have been changed in many positive ways through some bad situations. Romans 8 sat in my intellect but it has now entered my heart.

I had to fight bitterness so often, especially with the stress of culture shock, a new (and chaotic) job, new language (which unfortunately I have not acquired as much as I might have liked to). As I have been told many times: in those trying times our sin is exposed – our hearts laid bare. It all emerges through what we say and our actions. This is horrifying in light of God’s judgement. I deserve to die yet God continues to love and has thrown the memory of my sins away. I am a mess and sin will always ruin what I attempt to control and predict. What I criticise so frequently in this culture, I am quite likely to find within myself: the desire for control and power.

Strangely in the most graceless of societies, I came to see God’s wonderful grace all over again.

(Pray for Japan)

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