We hope you had a wonderful Christmas holiday, wherever you are in the world. We had a great day, complete with turkey, lots of champagne and authentic Yorkshire Pudding.
It’s interesting, being in the U.S. with my Japanese family and observing how my kids are taken over by their “American personalities” the longer they stay here. The Japanese have a saying to the effect that boys will take after their mother and girls will be like their father, an idea which I’d poo-poo’ed as a superstition until our kids were born. Our son is very Japanese, and although he has a lot of knowledge of English to draw on, he’s often so shy about making mistakes that he’ll refuse to open his mouth at all, a lot like his Japanese mother. My daughter takes after me, though: she seems very American in all that she does, and she’s never shy about opening her mouth to speak English. While my son gets along quite well in Japan, my daughter’s “American-ness” sometimes causes minor problems for her in her school, with the many meaningless rules she has to follow getting her down at times. All of these problems go out the window here in America, where (as seen from our Japanese life, at least), anything goes — a person can do anything and be anything they want, and our daughter is positively glowing here in the States. One of the biggest rules in Japan is “act your age” (ii toshi shite), and generally speaking, people do what’s expected of them according to their age group, which usually doesn’t involve collecting Star Wars toys into their thirties. When my mother bought me a cool remote controlled R2-D2 toy for Christmas, my wife commented that it’d be very rare to find a Japanese man my age receiving a gift like that.
One aspect of living in Japan every foreigner must come to terms with is sitting on the floor. The Japanese do a lot of floor sitting, and even the most modern Western-style house will probably have at least one traditional Japanese-style room with tatami mats. One of my favorite things in Japan is the kotatsu, a low table with a heater inside and a blanket between the frame and the tabletop, which lets you get warm by sticking your legs inside. Since Japanese homes lack central heating, and it’d be far too expensive to heat the whole house anyway, kotatsu are very economical, as you’re only heating a small space used by several people at once. They’re also great for improving family life, since everyone will jam their legs inside and have a conversation rather than scattering around the house to do their own thing. The only negative to kotatsu? When Jiichan (grandfather) has flatulence inside the blanket part, causing a huge problem for everyone.
Each country in the world has what the Japanese call kokumin-sei, a kind of “national personality” or a list of traits that most people from that country tend to share. For example, Americans are seen by the Japanese as being optimistic almost to fault, believing that virtually any problem can be solved. We’re also extremely friendly, even with people we don’t know well, which can be hard for them to understand. The Japanese kokumin-sei is quite unique, too. In general, Japanese tend to be very peaceful, and go out of their way to avoid conflict with others. They’re concerned with the image Japan presents to the world, and some major construction projects such as Japan’s first bullet trains were done partially to make foreigners oo and ah when they came for the 1968 Tokyo Olympics. Also, most Japanese tend to be extremely modest, and it can be surprising when Westerners compliment a Japanese on their English ability, only to have them vehemently deny the remark. In my single days, I traveled all around Japan, hitchhiking or riding trains (there’s a cool ticket called “Youth 18” which lets you ride as far as you want for $24, a bargain as long as you don’t mind riding the slow local trains for 16 hours a day). Once, I encountered a boy and his mother while traveling near Hiroshima, and as we talked, the boy was going on and on about how baka (stupid) he was, so stupid that he’d never amount to anything at all. It surprised me to hear anyone talk like this about himself, much less an educated youth from one of the world’s richest countries, but I realized later it was a kind of polite self-effacing that didn’t mean much.