20 March, 2012

Polite Lies

I've been meaning to write about this fascinating book that I read by a Japanese-American. Now the book is overdue to be sent back to the library, so I'd better get to it!

Polite Lies is written by a lady who grew up in Japan and moved to America when she was 20. The book was written when Kyoko Mori had lived about the same number of years in both countries. It was published 15 years ago (this becomes important to know).

The sub heading is "On being a woman caught between cultures." It comprises of musings on various topics related particularly to Japan, rather than America. She speaks of Japan as an outside, but someone who grew up there. So her understanding of the culture is far better than mine, yet her English is wonderful.

Her childhood story is rather disfunctional. Her mother committed suicide when Kyoko was 12 and her father married his girlfriend months after his wife's death. Kyoko's step-mother was hostile to Kyoko her entire life and her father was a mystery to her, "a man whose behavior seemed only bizarre and annoying, never loving or fatherly". 

She talks about how veiled language is in Japan. How what is truly meant to be communicated is rarely spoken of clearly. 

Here's a slightly shocking statement about speaking to strangers: 
"In Japan, whether you are a child or an adult, ninety-five percent of the people you talk to are your family, relatives, old friends, neihgbors, and people you work or go to school with every day. The only new people you meet are connected to thses people you already know—friends of friends, new spouses of your relatives—and you are introduced to them formally . . . My friends and I were taught that no "nice" girl would talk to strangers on trains or at public places . . . We had no language in which we could address a stranger even if we had wanted to . . . In Japan, you can't stop strangers and ask for simple directions when you are lost. If you get lost, you look for a policeman, who will help you because that is part of his job."
Well that explains all the silence! And how hard it is to make new friends here!

And then there is the issue of trust. How much is kept secret in this country. She writes,
"In Japan, it is easy to travel from one city to another on a different island, or from a far suburb to the heart of Tokyo . . . And yet, once I get off the train, I can't travel the last few miles or blocks to my destination on my own [because few streets have names]. I will not be able to locate a particular house or apartment building from the address . . . In Japan, public knowledge is like public transportation: accessible, uniform, and convenient. Even in the remotest, smallest village on the southern island, you can get a newspaper that reports major world and national events on its front page rather than whether the high school baseball team won or lost. What you can't find out, no matter where you live in the country, concerns your own heath, money, or legal rights."
She shares the mystery of the Japanese mindset that tends not to inform patients that they are terminally ill, it is often known to close relatives, but kept a secret from the patient themselves. I don't know how much that has changed since the years Kyoko writes of, but I suspect it lingers. In Japan is it not expected that you ask the doctor questions or that you challenge his decisions (to do so indicates that you don't trust them), he is revered and you follow his advice. 

As a foreigner you need to trust so much, often you don't know what exactly is going on, but you trust yourself into the hands of whoever you're dealing with. Obviously that isn't just because we struggle with the language, that is the way the system works! It can be pretty scary and you feel quite helpless when you get stuck "in the system". I remember when my middle son struggled with asthma and respiratory infections in his early years. We ended up in hospital a few times and I wondered if we'd ever get out!

She talks of how she had to act after her father's death, and sign away her inheritance to her stepmother:
"In Japan . . . individuals don't leave wills; they express their wishes in vague and polite terms, but nothing is written down. The property laws specify how the estate should be divided among the family, strictly proportioned according to their relationship to the deceased—fifty percent for the spouse, ten percent for each child, and so forth. The law is used only when families have disputes. Otherwise, all the property goes to the one person chose by family consensus—everyone else signs forms to give up his or her legal claims."
She also talks about the different views of bodies that the two cultures have, also about differences in education styles and that Japanese cannot just go back to university later in life. Japanese women's She writes about tears, and how in Japan it is acceptable to cry in public, but not in private between family or close friends.

I could go on and on quoting this author, she has some great insights into her birth-country. Here's one last quote:
"For me, crowded trains are the ultimate metaphor for Japanese society. Standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder, people sleep together, and yet they won't make eye contact or start casual conversations. There is a forced closeness that doesn't lead to true intimacy, communication, or even contact. Trains are also models of punctuality and orderliness—the high standard of Japanese discipline I was taught in grade school . . ."
For me — while Japan is where I spent more than 1/4 of my adult life, and I'm happy here, living the life God has called me to — I know that I cannot ever understand this culture enough to call it my own. 

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