Interesting Japanese People and Where to Find Them
Japan offers a wide range of experiences and sights to see, from robot restaurants to sushi bars, from anime festivals to zen monasteries. The people express themselves in a wide range of activities, from traditional ceremonies to cyberpunk cinematography. But every now and then, I hear from long-term residents that Japan does not offer much in the way of interesting people. You meet the regular corporate drones and drab school teachers, and the conversation tends to replay mindless television programs. It seems difficult to sustain a meaningful conversation.
And yet, Japan is a diverse society full of interesting ideas. Just the words that do not exist in Western languages compose a vast vocabulary. The political ideas span from Marxists to reactionaries and everything in between. People vary in their religious beliefs and level of piety. The Japanese are avid consumers of culture. Books from every part of the world are translated into Japanese; music and movies are imported from around the world; not to mention the torrents of books, comics, music, and video produced domestically. Just the depth and breadth of print media alone available in Japan should hint at the diversity of ideas.
Japanese Business card exchange. Texas State Library and Archives Commission on Wikimedia Commons
Like polite people everywhere, Japanese tend not to be open about their political beliefs and personal interests. They much prefer to talk about the weather, or baseball; neutral topics that are safe and uncontroversial. That does not mean that they do not have opinions. They just keep it to themselves.
So if interesting people are everywhere, and the people keep it to themselves, how do you get them to break out of their shells? One thing you should definitely not do is to pigeonhole people into your preconceived stereotypes. For example, Japan was a matriarchal society in the Shinto era which, after the introduction of Confucian values, incompletely adapted to patriarchy, which later adopted Western feminism but modified it to fit local needs. So, Japanese feminism went through a completely different train of fits and starts as Western feminism. A feminisuto, in Japanese, is a man who holds doors open for the ladies. But time and again, I have seen Western feminists attempt to shoehorn their observations of Japanese society into their preconceived Western notions of patriarchy. Inevitably, they get only polite nods from Japanese women.
Expatriates in Japan have a tendency to attribute the lack of currency of their mental equipment to the backwardness of the Japanese. They insist that it is the Japanese who do not “get it” and not themselves who are applying inappropriate frameworks. A mental framework is a tool for thought. The more tools you have, the better you can think. But when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like nails. And even when you have a box full of tools, it does not help if none of them fit the job at hand. I see many people hammering away at a Phillips screw and blaming the screw for the lack of progress. This attitude does not encourage intellectual engagement, especially when you are talking to people who prefer to discuss the weather than expend energy in fruitless debate.
How the Japanese mind differs from the Western mind has been studied and written about extensively by both Japanese and Western scholars. I will not elaborate on it here. The topic has produced libraries full of scholarship. Suffice it to say that there is a big enough difference to produce a different perspective on almost any area of thought. Every frame of reference you have may be incongruous or ill fitting. Intellectual discourse is the art of throwing prefabricated idea components at each other, rearranging them like Lego blocks, and constructing a new structure. The amount of modular components you have in common helps you exchange complex ideas. If you lack common components, you must acquire them.
This is a drag because the pleasure of intellectual conversation is in finding new structures through reworking the common building blocks of ideas. That is the fun part. Installing new software is hard work. But if you can familiarize yourself with a new set of thinking tools, a whole world will open up for you. All the sights and experiences from anime festivals to zen monasteries represent only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Japan of ideas is a huge universe. It is not a matter of which ideas are superior or inferior, right or wrong, agreeable or disagreeable. It is that there is a vast array of tools that will enrich and expand your mental world. They will act as your secret pair of glasses that will allow you to see a new population of interesting people coming out of the woodwork like so many fantastic beasts.