Why the traditions and hierarchies of Japan are not as strange as they seem

Japan remains far more formal than any country in the West. But these gestures are simply part of the grammar of Japanese life and not its substance.

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In the late 1980s, a couple of years before the end of the Showa imperial era, a group of Japanese war veterans gathered for a reunion. The international military tribunal for the Far East, Tokyo in ruins, the black clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki – these were men who had lived through miseries that to baby boomers and their children must have seemed so long ago, so remote, as if they were the nightmare history of another country. At least, they did to me. After all, by the time the US TV broadcaster PBS filmed these old soldiers for its 1988 documentary series Japan, the country had reinvented itself: it was no longer a cash-strapped loser of a global war but a winner of the peace that followed.

The documentary’s most striking moment captures the veterans as they greet each other. “The bows they give… are carefully controlled, so as not to give offence,” says the narrator, as two men lower their heads. Footage of the exchange, which lasts a couple of seconds, is immediately repeated in slow motion. “The more junior of the two [in rank] bows first and then bows again, checking by a quick glance that his bow is the lower of the two.”

For all its Maglev trains and holographic pop idols, Japan remains more traditional, and far more formal, than any country in the West. This formality is built into the language. Anyone who has made a serious attempt to learn Japanese will have struggled with the honorific system, in which different registers of speech are deemed appropriate depending on the status of the speaker. For example, the verb “to know” will appear first in the dictionary as shiru, and you’d use this among “equals” – close friends, family members. But if you’re addressing, say, your company’s CEO, use go-zonji, or immediately start calling around to see if anyone’s willing to cut off your head after your obligatory seppuku.

This formality is ever present, yet it’s so automatic that it’s hardly felt. The mundane reality is that these gestures, these modulations, are simply part of the grammar of Japanese life and not its substance. More often than not, they have little meaning beyond a superficial acknowledgement of social role or status. Formality is so ingrained that adjustments in behaviour are made without the need for agonised consideration.

What is obvious to the Japanese, however, may not be so apparent to many of their Western observers. These conventions are often just packaging: all Japanese communication comes wrapped in this stuff. A literal translation won’t necessarily convey the intended meaning, often making too much of the sense of social segmentation, the distances between people of different stations in life. Though it’s true that the culture is far more alert to hierarchy than, say, America’s, it’s far from a perpetual obsession.

In his memoir Autumn Light, the British-American journalist Pico Iyer penetrates this imposing front of Japanese formality at the ping-pong table. Iyer is an admirable example of a citizen of the world – an erudite, open-minded cosmopolitan who was born to Indian parents and schooled in England, established his career in the US and is married to a Japanese woman called Hiroko. Having made a home of Japan decades ago with the intention of learning “how best to dissolve a sense of self within something larger”, he settles into a late middle age mostly consisting of attending to family matters and playing table tennis with OAPs at a health club in the city of Nara.

Here, he is embedded in a cross-section of ordinary Japanese people, ranging from retired business executives to a professional gangster, all of whom have been liberated by old age and a shared passion for their hobby to interact on more or less equal terms.

Around the ping-pong table is an easy comradeship, one in which “everyone knows just enough about everyone else, but not too much”. There’s Noguchi-san, a bronzed dude with tousled hair who speaks to Iyer in broken Spanish; the club chair who consistently loses track of the scores; Mr Joy, with his “looping forehand topspins”; and Mayumi-san, who would dance “with the abandon of a drunken bear” whenever she won a game.

They’re pleasingly unremarkable – in the sense that Iyer doesn’t abstract them into symbols that neatly illustrate an aspect of the nation’s psyche, or anything so grandiose. We glimpse them and that’s enough. We read that Noguchi-san owns a golden retriever that he named Silvia after “a beautiful girl he’d seen, 30 years ago, in a village in the Philippines”. Mr Joy gifts Iyer an exhibition catalogue; we learn later that he was “doing his final edit on his life”, as he prepared to see out his remaining days in a nursing home. At another point, Iyer calculates that many of his table tennis partners were “in their formative years when up to eighty thousand civilians were killed in two and a half hours during the firebombing of Tokyo”. Such stories speak for themselves.

These fragments are supplied to the reader in bits and pieces, which makes sense: as important as they are, they at most inform the central narrative without commandeering it. Iyer’s story is about autumn. The season, he writes, “poses the question we all have to live with: how to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying”. It’s an explicitly personal interrogation, taking in the death of his father-in-law, the ending of his daughter’s relationship with a possibly gay man and, most importantly, his accommodations with the fact of life’s impermanence.

Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto traditions – revealed to us through Hiroko’s reliance on local gods and rituals – offer consolation, as does the Dalai Lama, who crops up in a weird cameo. Crucially, it’s an honest sort of consolation, offering only solace that is mixed with suffering. No easy fix, no short cut into the perfection of heaven here. “We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last,” writes Iyer. “It’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty.”

I think of those war veterans on that PBS documentary, bowing and smiling and probably drinking copious amounts of sake off camera; I think of my own grandparents and their generation, who lived through war, then the growth years when Japan seemed like the future, then died or disappeared to distant care homes. Did they “see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth”, as Iyer suggests such a cultural philosophy would help them to do? Or was pain just pain, and joy just joy, and death as terrifying to them as it is in Britain? I wonder, too, whether there’s anything particularly Japanese about the idea that behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain (as Bob Dylan once put it). It just seems like wisdom to me – universal, outside the specificities of culture. But if Iyer arrived at this through his interactions with his adopted home, good for him. And good for the readers of his excellent book.

Anna Sherman is another writer wandering Japan in search of illumination. In her case, she visits – or attempts to visit – all of Tokyo’s “bells of time”, which sounded the hours for the city’s inhabitants in the shogunate era (1192–1867) before the widespread adoption of Western clocks. It’s as good an entryway into the deep history and modern culture of the place as any, and her perambulations around the bells yield fascinating, frequently moving narratives: the legend of the crone of Asakusa, who killed 999 men by luring them into her home by prostituting her daughter; a survivor’s first-hand account of the Tokyo firebombing; the bloody jostling for power that preceded Meiji Japan.

Sherman writes in a poetic style that occasionally overwhelms the sense of what she is trying to articulate, ending paragraphs with gnomic sentences that say less than they seem to. “Shinjuku is a fragmented mirror,” she observes of Tokyo’s commercial district. “What it reflects, looks back outward.”

Yet this straining for significance is not without purpose, and it mostly succeeds. In a park, Sherman sees a groundskeeper sweeping the floor and the swirls he makes in the dirt remind her of “Zen enso, those almost-complete circles that represent the emptiness of all things”. In Tokyo’s every nook and cranny, she finds the possibility of something profound, something elevating. Which is no bad thing, even if at times she takes too literally the spiritual-seeming character of Japanese culture that, like the rules of formality, is just the furniture on which ordinary human experience rests. As Sherman herself might write, perhaps these two books don’t give us a real Japan so much as a true one. And I suppose the truth is out there, if you look hard enough. 

Yo Zushi’s latest album is “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records)

Autumn Light: Japan’s Season of Fire and Farewells 
Pico Iyer
Bloomsbury Circus, 256pp, £14.99

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time 
Anna Sherman
Picador, 352pp, £14.99

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

This article appears in the 30 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler