22 July 2004


Antoun points me at the fascinating essay Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver, which talks about Japanese culture from an alienated Western perspective.
Westerners in Japan often find the things they see spectral, uncanny, plastic. This is because there's a constant sense that, despite similarities to (or simulacra of) western forms, the social organization of Japan is radically different from what we know in the west. On a superficial level, Japanese cities look like western cities, their parks like our parks, their trains like our trains, and so on. Nevertheless, this 'likeness' is an illusion. 'A train' is a western invention adopted by the Japanese in the 19th century. But when we look at, board, and ride a train in Japan it would be foolish to see it as anything like a western train. It's a set of Japanese etiquettes and assumptions travelling through space. It only looks like a train. Soon, explaining the deep otherness of the superficially familiar things he sees around him, the visitor finds himself saying things like this:

That x only looks like an x, something I know well. In fact it is a manifestation of y, something I don't.

I have no idea how wise the essay really is about Japanese culture; I only know that it's consistent with what I saw in just a few short days there. And it's a good read.


Erik said...

I've seen this confusion in a lot of foreigners in Japan. It seems to stem from the inability to recongnize elements of Japanese culture in one's own culture; the mantra of "Japanese are so different," so often repeated by the Japanese themselves, occludes the vision necessary to recognize the basic similiarities.

What this writer has taken to be "Superlegitimacy" is, in fact, a deeply ingrained sense of professionalism that existed in many parts of this country up until the 1960s and which still exists in some parts of the UK. Why does the train driver intone the various announcements even when he's behind nearly soundproof glass? Because that's his job, and those are the motions of his job; to do less would be unprofessional.

An American example: Yoko and I went to have dinner at Mezzé, a somewhat expensive Mediterranean fusion restaurant on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland. The food was fine, but the real treat was the wait-staff. They had the art of unobtrusive hovering down to a science. When we finished our drinks, they appeared at our elbows to offer us more. When we finished our soups/salads, they were immediately at hand with our entrées. Our meal was a joy because of their utter professionalism.

What's truly sad is that we were amazed to see this sort of grace and professionalism in America. In Japan, we would have simply expected it, and we would have been disturbed if we hadn't gotten it.

When Mr. Traindriver goes home at night, he does not turn on an electric train set. His wife does not call him Mr. Conductor. His kids do not ask him when the next train for Akihabara is leaving. Like so many of us, the last thing he'll want to talk about is the work he's been doing day in and day out for lo these many years. He recognizes that being a train driver is a job. Unlike so many modern Westerners, however, he takes a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that he has done his job, no matter how lowly that job is, well.

Jonathan Korman said...

Yah, that's exactly the kind of slightly-off I suspected the piece might be.

But I think, Erik, that both you and the essay are hinting at a similar point about how a rigid social order makes possible a deeply satisfying professionalism in jobs that we think of as unprestigious. In the US, with its myth of strong social mobility --- unwholesomely linked to virtue --- that satisfaction from doing a dull job well becomes impossible, and it's a sacrifice we experience both as workers and as people receiving services.