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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sharing A Laugh Breaks Cultural Boundaries

Before landing upon the hot and melting tarmac of Tokyo's Narita Airport in Tokyo, which isn't in Tokyo and is in fact in a different province from Tokyo (Chiba-ken), I had always thought that the Japanese were a stiff bunch of wankers who enjoyed Godzilla movies and animated porn and still dressed their women up in kimono and that geisha still were plentiful and that Japan was an odd mix of ancient and modern, if not futuristic architecture and culture.

Yes they are and no they aren't.

That's the brilliance of having had the chance to see Japan up close and personal. If you haven't been to Japan - and even if you have... that's what I'm here for.

Even living one's whole life in a country, you will never see all of it or discover all of its nuances. Try living in Canada or the US, China, Australia or India—fricking huge countries with a plethora of things to see and do and there's no way in heck you can do it all in a single vacation. I've driven across Canada - coast-to-coast, and only barely scratched the surface of my own home country because most of the people I talked to were also tourists... including a few Japanese in Banff, Alberta, whom I helped purchase some clothing because I spoke enough Japanese and some English to help everyone out. 

Now Japan... it's a lot smaller... but it's so bloody spread out, and travel costs can be a tad expensive - so how do you see all of the sights? You would need years and years.

And what about their culture? What makes the Japanese tick?

No big surprise there, when you stop and think about it. What does every culture have in common? The ability to laugh, cry, get angry, etc.

Because I couldn't figure out why people were angry or crying (always remove your shoes when entering someone's house - and make sure you wear socks - and make sure your feet don't stink), I looked at comedy as a way to bridge the cultural gap I felt.

I'm not a comedian but I do play one in my head. I have always figured that people are the same all over the world - that it's just religion and government that screws everything up, as it isn't all things to all people.

But I do think that people like to laugh. The trick is to figure out what it takes to make people laugh: Men versus women; Old versus young; class versus class; country versus country. Whatever.

In Japan, if you judge a culture by its non-sports TV watching habits, you would conclude that they like samurai drama (soap operas); slapstick comedy variety shows; animated cartoons; shows about food; and shows involving all or parts of all of the above.

Seems weird, doesn't it? Careful... 

Often when people arrive in Japan, they spend their time pointing out the differences between Japanese culture and their own, regardless of where they are from.

I admit I did, too. But I think I was wise enough not to think that was all there was to Japan - cultural differences.

In fact... when I created my monthly column: It's A Wonderful Rife (the original title of this blog, too, for about a month in 2009) back in 1990, I wrote about my adventures in Japan, and poked fun at the Japanese, but was always careful to also poke fun at myself at the same time.

Cultural differences? Who cares! Cultural indifference done right by comedy helped me survive.

I'll let you in on a little secret that came out accidentally. My bosses at the OBOE (Ohtawara Board of Education) office—Kanemaru-san and Hanazaki-san—once let it slip that they were proud of me for writing about Japan in the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme newsletter.

I was shocked for a second, until I recalled that I had told them I was doing something like that... but then they said they enjoyed reading about my life in Japan, and how I seemed to treat everyone the same in my stories by poking fun at the Japanese and then at myself.

Hanazaki-san can speak English, and can read a little, but Kanemaru-san can do neither - at least it's my opinion that his English is far worse than my Japanese, but he tries. Still, how are you able to read a JET newsletter? Are you on the subscription list? Apparently not.

However, others in the prefectural board of education were... and would have the newsletter translated to Japanese... and then passed around to the various school boards. Now... this may not be done anymore, and it's possible they stopped after I learned of this...but still...

Apparently my words of futility were well received by the Japanese, as they got to see the frustration and triumph of both myself and the Japanese themselves via my writings. They saw what bugged me, and they saw how I overcame it. They were amused by me never having seen Mt. Fuji and chuckled that I didn't believe it existed.

They loved that I loved eating natto (fermented soy beans) and inago (grasshopper), and could understand why I hated cold squid guts (shiokara).

Were the Japanese keeping an eye on a troublemaker? Sort of.

Were they learning something about gaijin in Japan by reading my stuff? Hopefully.

Were they getting a laugh at the stupid situations I kept stumbling into? You betcha!

That was what Hanazaki-san said he enjoyed about my stories. I made him laugh. Even without the sex, life and strife and rife and no wife, Hanazaki-san saying he liked my stories meant the world to me.

That made my three years in Japan into a wonderful life.

That's Hanazaki-san sharing a drink with me at an OBOE office party in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan in 1990. We lost touch after I left Japan. My fault. I sure wish I knew what happened to him.... 

Somewhere with a Coke and a smile,
Andrew Joseph  

1 comment:

  1. I often regret losing touch with some of my former co-workers and friends. You should look him up if you're ever fortunate enough to go back.