My latest Japan Times column JBC 97: “Enjoy your life in Japan, for the moments” (May 2, 2016)


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Hi Blog.  Here’s my latest column, which is a departure from my usual writing.  Enjoy.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito


Enjoy your life in Japan, for the moments

After more than 30 years of studying Japan, I’ve learned to appreciate one thing people here do well: living in the moment.

By that I mean there seems to be a common understanding that moments are temporary and bounded — that the feelings one has now may never happen again, so they should be enjoyed to the fullest right here, right now, without regard to the future.

I can think of several examples. Consider the stereotypical honeymooning couple in Hawaii. They famously capture every moment in photographs — from humdrum hotel rooms to food on the plate. They even camcord as much as they can to miss as few moments as possible.

Why? Safekeeping. For who knows when said couple will ever get back to Hawaii (or, for that matter, be allowed to have an extended vacation anywhere, including Japan)? Soon they’ll have kids, demanding jobs, meticulous budgets, and busywork until retirement. No chance in the foreseeable future to enjoy moments like these.

So they frame a beachside photo atop the TV, preserve a keepsake in a drawer, store a dress or aloha shirt far too colorful to ever wear in public — anything to take them back to that precious time and place in their mind’s eye. (Emperor Hirohito reputedly treasured his Paris Metro ticket as a lifetime memento, and was buried with his Disneyland souvenir Mickey Mouse watch.)

Another example: extramarital love affairs. Sleeping around is practically a national sport in Japan (hence the elaborate love hotel industry), and for a good reason: the wonderful moments lovers can surreptitiously capture. It’s a vacation from real life. For chances are their tryst is temporary; it fills a void. But how pleasant their time is in their secret world! […]

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27 comments on “My latest Japan Times column JBC 97: “Enjoy your life in Japan, for the moments” (May 2, 2016)

  • “Sleeping around is practically a national sport in Japan ” Is that really true? Are there any accurate stats of things like extramarital affairs?

  • This article was spot on. It defines very difficult things to process or express about Japanese character. Japanese do live in a shigata nai moment, sort of floating in a dreamy world, can be confusing for outsiders to understand. Its not really a bad thing though.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Halo #2

    With respect, I disagree with you. I don’t think that the Japanese really do consciously live in some kind of dreamy, temporary, floating world, but rather (as I have said before), they want to believe that they do.

    It’s the ‘dreamy day’ fantasy, the consensual hallucination that permits them to dodge any kind of responsibility for the reality around them. Case in point; who wants to accept the huge stress of having any social responsibility for Japan’s demographic, fiscal, or nuclear disaster, since it gets in the way of the pretense that they are a ‘DJ’ or a ‘surfer’ or living the life of a debutante swanning around designer clothes stores and eating over-priced ‘foreign’ food.

    Perhaps the difference is Japanese society’s willingness to uphold this suspense of disbelief, rather than forcing them to face reality? And whose fault would that be? Primarily the media. The media’s failure to force the masses out of their daydream serves who? The J-elites passing round the brown paper envelopes, devaluing savings, restarting nuclear power stations on active fault lines, and ignoring the law of the land at will (the constitution).

    It serves THEM for the Japanese to be in a constant state of semi-conscious fantasy, it serves the masses to abdicate their responsibility absolutely, and they will be happy to continue until external forces shake them from their coma (be it black ships, fire-bombing, earthquake-tsunami-meltdown).

    Until then, the ‘shigata ga nai’ is literally the placebo lie inversion of truth; they have chosen to opt out.

    The J-gov, J-media, or us telling them that this is some ‘unique Japanese cultural trait’ is a mistake; it makes us complicit in the subversion of the Japanese people, and reinforces ‘we Japanese’ myths that oppress them (and us!).

  • Interesting article, quite different than your usual ones. Yet, while different, equally deep. Thanks for approaching this subject in such a way.

  • @Jim,

    sort of follow what your saying, but I also follow what Dr Debito posted at JT as well. Something to experience but to describe its difficult to do. The excuse of ancient rice farming group centric dependence on one another, cultural necessity is getting old, at least for me anyway; it seems everybody has that excuse, or japan is crowded, thus the need for these behaviors. Im starting to think it just an excuse to keep it all going. The romantic, now is the moment, understand and read the “airs” well I guess we have all been through that, and I dont think its totally a bad thing. It can, however, make Japanese women a hard read, if you dont understand it. Dr. Debito has touched on a more advanced topic with this. One of the more difficult things to understand about Japanese is understanding what they mean or thinking. They can tell, for example, at a job interview, by all of the reactions to the very invasive questions they ask, if youll be ok. Then there is the usual 3 month gaman, and your in for life. Its a bit dated, perhaps ancient way of thinking and acting, but seems to be at odds with the modern world.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    There’s not much insinuation from cyber audience, which usually happens every time JBC article is out. Overall comments on Facebook are positive. I didn’t see usual suspects making insinuation on the author in JT forum as many. Seems like the moderator team made a quick decision to close the thread(with just 18 comments) before it would be bombarded with troll.

  • Theres not much they could do to disqualify it, as its a very good piece that most can relate to.Perhaps he could use it to transition to more advanced but related difficult topics like conformity and the disdain for individuality in Japan, where that comes from.

  • baudrillard says:

    Jim, “they are a ‘DJ’ or a ‘surfer’ or living the life of a debutante swanning around designer clothes stores and eating over-priced ‘foreign’ food.”

    I have been using the exact same examples since the 90s, especially the “Kakoii sportsman” (he played sports at university, now he is a salaryman but a bit beefy), “surfer” (oka surfer- a Japanese put down on this type as an “Oka” is a slope, i.e. not a real surfer so at least they are aware of this fake themselves see,

    and “DJ” (he wears a baseball cap, possibly reversed-severe glut of these types mid 90s onwards but oddly few people exposed it for the cliche it was).

    Everyone’s a wannabe. And why not? Its a great place to reinvent yourself too as “NJ star” but beware, newbies, as namecards and the images projected are misleading.

    Which is why that “Movie Producer” you met is now not returning your calls to cast you, as it was all a pose, an uso mo houben to get along or look cool to the gaijin, or he/she is busy at work at the car company. The Tatemae was He would LIKE to make a movie, the Honne is he is a salaryman who has just bought a camera.

    You are ironically not experiencing “traditional Japanese culture”, rather this is the final form of consumerism, to quote Guy Debord:

    The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities … “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord writes, “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”.

    As for the obsession with moments and experiencing as many relationships as possible (sic, above) I would put that down to the feeling of paranoia generated by 1. the underlying fear that a big earthquake is coming 2. the media and 3. a temporary (safe) escape from the Weberian Rationalization and Macdonaldization; a “life that holds no surprises”.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Halo #5

    Appreciate the reply.
    What I posted isn’t necessarily contrary to Dr. Debito’s article, after all, perhaps Dr. Debito is positing that since the Japanese like to believe in all the ‘beauty of impermanence’ floating world guff, Japan attracts a lot of NJ who have bought into that, and therefore see themselves as transients with no roots or stake in Japan, and therefore (drumroll please) are impossible to motivate into joining the fight into protecting human rights in Japan, since this (discriminatory ‘unique Japanese culture’ myth) is exactly what they came for?

  • Baudrillard says:

    Postmodern Tokyo memories “the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never-ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history, one that can be overturned through revolution.[8][9]wiki

    Sounds pretty much like these “moments”. And Japan definitely obfuscates the (embarrassing) past, and Tokyo is always seen as “futuristic” (though it is backward in so many ways),Tokyo seems less Japanese as a postwar artificial construct, driven by consumerism (of course, as the Japanese were no longer allowed to be nationalists).

    Its uncanny that Debord was not even writing about Japan, but Japan fits his definitions so exactly.

    Debord’s aim and proposal is “to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images,” “through radical action in the form of the construction of situations,” “situations that bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art”.

    I think that is why you can see some really weird events or extreme “happenings”, or crazy fashion in Tokyo- these are individuals attempts to assert their identities (of course) and get the attention of the masses.

    Sadly 90% of the populace are so hypnotized by their own inward looking identity creation, or their acquisition of goods to facilitate their “becoming” they may hardly notice these “Situations” as they walk past on the way to Shibuya 109…..

  • Just a couple of days in..and the thread is closed!
    Is this the new JT flexing its muscles on unwanted comments?

  • I would also add…the transience noted in the article is true of anywhere.
    Several times I have travelled around the world, backpacking..and those “moments” noted in the article I have experienced time and time again…because that is the nature of life of those travelling. Ephemeral moments captured in time. Thus it is not specific to Japan at all, far from it. I would suggest the Japanese rationalise their feeling of impotence into the ‘nowt we can do about it’ as a cause celebres so they don’t have to consider their feelings of being helpless in a society that does not yield.

    Also there seems to be an assumption of the nationality of foreigners and permanent residence holders. Americans behave and think very differently from British, who in turn think/behave very differently to French and to German and Malay and Thai etc etc. I would be careful not to roll “everyone else” into one box for the sake of a narrative, just as the Japanese do of foreigners. I find it very tiresome upon meeting a Japanese person for the first time where their immediate assumption is I am American. Poles apart…

  • Baudrillard says:

    Jim, an addition to “floating world guff, Japan attracts a lot of NJ who have bought into that, and therefore see themselves as transients with no roots or stake in Japan”

    And so, Japan reaps what they have sown. Japan Inc has no right to expect “loyalty” when NJs wake up to poor wages, broken promises, and a nuclear disaster. They wanted a revolving door, they got one. They cannot have it both ways.

    With no stake in society, and few or rights, it is every NJ’s right to just bugger off or do a flyjin at a moment’s notice.

    I really do not get why anyone would take offence at the term “flyjin”- I see it more as a term of proof of the exclusion of any meaningful inclusion of “gaijin’ in Japanese society.

  • flyjin just meant you were breaking the mold and the unspeakable,leaving mother japan to herself and running away. Flyjin mentality surrounds us. The gaijin is othered to exhaustion then laughed at, but when he/she is serious about leaving, suddenly the jokes over. Its another one of those very bizarre things to experience and even more difficult to explain.

  • Jeff Smith says:

    One of your most insightful commentaries yet: very good understanding of this place we call home now: if we take a deep breath and see it for what it really is, it can be liberating in that way; but never ignoring what needs to be better.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Baudrillard #13


    I just wanted to say that the term ‘Flyjin’ was in and of itself (as I’M sure you know) started by insecure NJ who were unable to leave Japan during the Fukushima crisis, or were afraid to take responsibility for themselves and make their own decision during that crisis, thus projecting their fear onto those who could literally ‘take or leave’ Japan (and they left). I’m sure you know all this, but I just want to be careful about labels and terms (a white horse is not a horse, and all that).

    They were too afraid to take responsibility for themselves, so they bought into the ‘there is no meltdown’ lie that the J-gov was spouting, and by denigrating the NJ that left, sought to establish extra credibility and elevate themselves within their little social bubbles as ‘the loyal NJ’ hat stayed. Not that anyone cares. In fact, I’m sure that within the first 5 mins of meeting anyone new, they all manage to work into the conversation ‘when I was here during the Tohoku disaster’, because they need the perceived approval and social elevation that they think it gives them. In fact, I’m surprised they haven’t just started knocking out T-shirts with that written on it, so that they can save themselves the bother of having to repeat themselves over and over, and so that the rest of them can avoid them at Starbucks (N.B., the T-shirt was my idea!).

    So, yes, as has demonstrated, independent of imaginative NJ deluding themselves that denigrating NJ who took off increases the value of their own stock, there was indeed a J-media meme that ‘disloyal gaijin have let Japan down after all Japan has done for them!’.

    And this just goes to show how oblivious these people are to reality, and the wider world/human experience, and the choices it offers (this IS ‘the frog in the pond’ that Japanese kotowaza tells us of, except that in this case, the Japanese themselves are too myopic to see it); the Japanese seem to honestly believe that the poor conditions and discrimination they foist upon NJ who were keen enough on Japan to drag themselves all the way here really is just rewards, and are honestly baffled that there might be some dissatisfaction. In true inability to understand something outside of their own conceptual framework style, the Japanese can’t understand why an NJ would leave their own country to live in Japan; they think that their level of nationalism and xenophobia is the global norm. Of course, they can understand that NJ would want to visit Japan, because Japan is (of course!) superior to EVERY country! So yes, tourists should be given the omotenashi treatment. But NJ who live in Japan? Well, they must be NJ who love Japan so much, they love it more than their home-country. In fact, they must be the NJ who love EVERYTHING about Japan so much, including all the discrimination and abuse, after all, if they don’t like it, they should ‘go home’, shouldn’t they?

    For many (most?) Japanese, it’s a totally binary, black and white, zero-sum game, in which they can’t countenance the concept that their world-view is not the one shared by the rest of the world.

  • Hi Jim,

    I have never liked the term flyjin and agree with you on a lot of what you are saying with respect to the undeserved criticism of those who chose to leave, but I think you’re selling short the NJ population somewhat in your implication that the only logical choice was to leave (or at least that’s how I read your message). There were many of us who chose to stay because we better understood the relative risks–many of us with technical, engineering or science backgrounds. For example, I was lucky enough to already have a book on nuclear waste on my bookshelf on 3.11. At the time, I thought those who were leaving Tokyo were over-reacting, and was ultimately vindicated in this belief, but I never faulted any of them for leaving. It was a scary situation, and if you had no background in any of this–how many of these people had ever even heard of a Sievert or a Bequerel before?–I can certainly understand the urge to leave.

    For me, this dichotomy between those NJ with technical backgrounds and those without was of particular interest. The number of technically trained NJ in Japan is already quite low (to my knowledge), and the number of those who understand Japanese well enough to follow technical discussions is even lower. This led to a deep asymmetry in sophistication among the NJ community that was compounded by the vastly different reporting in the foreign and domestic news sources. I remember when CNN brought out as “experts” (no kidding) Bill Nye (who I do adore otherwise), Arnie Gundersen and others who no one would call a legitimate expert on the topic at hand (Arnie still won’t stop embarrassing himself when it comes to Fukushima). Compare that to NHK, who had top guys from Todai and other national universities on nightly with real expertise and who discussed the issues in a sophisticated way, but were nothing if not engineers (i.e., boring and not particularly persuasive in their approach). I found the latter to be much more informative given my technical bent, but most of my friends in the NJ community either didn’t understand the Japanese or went with the more dynamic foreign sources who generally took a more alarmist tone, often due to the fact that they lacked the language ability to review primary sources. And this is not to mention some of the absolutely asinine websites that promptly arrived on the seen like enenews or fukushima diary. I don’t even know how many NJ I have helped get over their enenews/fukushima diary addiction since 3.11–the list is too long. (This is not to say, by the way, that I think the government handled the situation well during the early days; they earned much of the criticism that has been heaped upon them. As for TEPCO, my contempt runs deep.)

    Anyway, all of this is to say that there were those NJ who could have left and chose to stay not because they were afraid to take responsibility or were deluding themselves, but because they believed they had a firm enough understanding of the situation and that the risks did not warrant evacuation. However, for any in that group or otherwise that chose to criticize those who did leave, I’m right there with you in condemning such behavior.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ Dosanko, it also depended on area. Parts of Chiba and Saitama adjacent to Tokyo had Caesium irradiated water for a full month- all we got was a local government flier saying “gambatte Nippon, dont drink the tap water”.

    Fortunately I had previously filled the bath tub with water before the dust cloud settled over Tokyo from Fukushima, but as trying to buy bottled water became more difficult, and drinking water from the bath tub more, shall we say, ridiculous, the decision to just leave became much easier.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Dosanko #17

    Thanks for you opinion.
    I was meant only that the NJ who jumped on the ‘flyjin’ shaming bandwagon in an extremely vocal and derogatory manner were expressing their own frustration at not being able to do so. Nothing more. There were many NJ like me who stayed in Japan throughout but didn’t feel the need to go whining and bleating all over the Internet about ‘crazy stupid flyjin’ and attempt to elevate themselves by comparison.

    However, I take extreme issue with the snobby attitude that ‘those of us with engineering/scientific backgrounds had a more realistic grasp of the situation’. This is a straw man since we now know that the information that these people were basing their decisions on was false; there were 3 meltdowns occurring precisely when the government said there wasn’t, and SPEEDI radiation detection system information was deliberately withheld because it actually was showing airborne radiation dispersal.

    The J-gov and TEPCO concealed information and lied throughout, so I’m not sure that NJ with an engineering background or science background have got much credibility on this issue; they were misinformed. They were the ‘stopped clock that is right twice a day’ by total coincidence.

    On the other hand, many of my NJ friends that decided to leave had, like me, majored in Japan at university, and are well-versed in Japanese government scandals and cover-ups; Minamata mercury poisoning, Agent Orange leaks in Okinawa, Ita-Ita Byou, the Japanese government allowing the US to keep nuclear weapons in Japan throughout the Cold War in contradiction of the constitution, the government human rights abuses re: the Ainu, the Okinawans, the Hibakusha, the zainichi….the list goes on.

    Those of us with a humanities background and a knowledge of Japanese history knew the the Japanese government has a record of being untrustworthy, and not respecting the human rights of its own citizens, literally lying about industrial contamination in other cases for decades and stalling resolution in court for victims.

    So, yeah, you scientists and engineers really lucked out that time, don’t get carried away.

  • Hi Baudrillard,

    I hear you. Yes, you are right that location is important. However, I don’t believe that drinking water restrictions were ever in place for Cesium. It is true that drinking water restrictions were briefly put in place in certain areas of Kanto, but that was only for infants due to Iodine (not Cesium) contamination and only lasted a couple days. Can I ask what you are referring to (maybe I’m missing something)?

    Anyway, I agree that drinking bathtub water is no fun, but at least you were smart enough to fill it!

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Dosanko #17

    I forgot to mention it, but you’re also making the straw man claim that only those with poor or no Japanese language skills left Japan during the disaster because they were totally reliant on over-hyped foreign reporting.

    Again, the snobbery here is overwhelming and speaks of a hidden agenda; pro-nuclear, or pro-Abe’s ‘correcting foreigners misunderstanding of Japan’ -I don’t know which.

    I know many people with degrees in Japanese who left. I know many people who were fluent without a qualification who left. I also remember BBC saying that there was a melt-down live on TV while Edano was live on NHK at the same moment saying ‘There is no meltdown’.

    The government and TEPCO lied. People like you believed the lie. You were all just plain lucky.

    I look forward to seeing your non-humanities based background commenting on non-nuclear threads here at

  • Baudrillard says:

    Yes “drinking water restrictions WERE in place for Cesium. I was there, I lived it.
    Various cities in Saitama, e,g, Kawaguchi and Matsudo in Chiba.

  • Sorry, Jim. Didn’t mean to hit a nerve there. I think we are both on the same page in that blaming “flyjin” or otherwise criticizing them for leaving was and is unwarranted.

    Anyway, I’m not sure why you are assuming that I must have “believed the lie”. If anything, my point was exactly the opposite. Having a technical background was most useful in sorting out what made sense and what didn’t. Did Edano’s assertion that there was no meltdown make any sense? No. Hell, even Tepco admitted as early as March 14 that there had been core damage. Did the government’s assertion that incinerating waste in Tokyo was safe make any sense? Yes. If the incinerators weren’t equipped to handle alkali metals, the radioactive Cesium would have been the least of our worries. And so on and so forth.

    Now, if you want to get together and talk about all the things that Tepco and the government did wrong, especially in those early days, I’m happy to join you in that. It was a textbook display of how not to handle a disaster and simultaneously lose the trust of your public. Withholding the SPEEDI data, as you say, was particularly egregious. And Tepco, especially at the beginning, was horrible at releasing information in a meaningful and timely fashion.

    As for the Japanese government’s lamentable history with Minamata, Itai-itai, etc., I also agree with you. However, there are some key differences here, the most significant of which, in my opinion anyway, are geographic scope, speed of development and accessibility. As for the first two, contamination covered much of eastern Honshu in a matter of days, which means that if the government wanted to hide the extent of this, they would have had to contact every water department, environmental health department, and other government agency in the area that normally checks for this and tell them to keep quiet (and have no one spill the beans). I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the Japanese government is anywhere near that competent, even on a good day, and here they were already dealing with tsunami response. As for accessibility, what I mean there–and this is probably the most important point–is that radiation is extraordinarily easy to measure as compared to other pollutants. Any idiot with a geiger counter can get a rough idea of the contamination around him. Compare this to the mercury or cadmium poisoning incidents you mentioned, which were localized, slow to develop, and difficult to test for. In other words, radioactive contamination is incredibly difficult to conceal or to lie about.

    Finally, a minor quibble, but a “straw man” argument, according to Wikipedia anyway, is an “informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent”. So, for example, when you said that I made a claim that “only those with poor or no Japanese language skills left Japan”, that’s a straw man argument because I didn’t make that assertion. What you’ve called “straw man claims” on my part were not, in fact, straw man claims, because they were not restatements of your argument. That, of course, doesn’t make my claims any more correct however, so I’m happy to hear additional criticisms that you may have.

  • Baudrillard, Maybe we are talking about different things? According to Wikipedia, “Caesium-137 was detected in 6 prefectures but always below 10 Bq/kg,” which isn’t close to the limit for Cesium. The Wikipedia segment on drinking water is actually quite good, with several charts showing Iodine readings in affected prefectures over time.

    Wikipedia isn’t perfect however, so I also went back through the real-time MHLW releases on water quality and while they mention Iodine restrictions for infants, they don’t mention any Cesium restrictions, at least that I saw.

  • @Jim #24

    Yet another thing we can agree on. Every time I hear someone try to justify some objectionable behavior or treatment because “it’s Japan” or “the same thing happens in [insert country of choice]”, it hits a nerve with me, too. Just because it happens to be Japan or some other country faces similar difficulties is not an excuse to give the offending behavior a pass here.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Dosanko #26

    You’re right there!
    I apologize for the tone of my earlier posts here, I’m just a grumpy old man this week.


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