Ask what’s good about life in Japan and answers always vary.
One foreign resident’s passion is often another’s poison and you can count on similar divergence with what makes Japan difficult. Language, commuter trains, high costs, big bugs — everyone has their own particular bur stuck somewhere in the seat of his or her pants.
“So what’s yours?” And — bang! Like that, my lunch mate responds. He’s a man who knows what he hates.
“Self-introductions! Telling where I’m from, what I do, what I think and so on. It drives me nuts.”
Japan, he says, has been misnamed as the “Land of the Rising Sun.” And you can pass on all the samurai, wabi-sabi and other flower-arranged imagery as well.
“For Japan,” he claims, “is the Land of the Self-introduction. It’s a group society and you cannot interact inside any group without having to identify yourself. Again and again.”
“So,” he goes on, “when you leave home in the morning, you take your wallet, your keys, your name cards and your self-introduction. You carry it with you like a wrap. ‘Cause sooner rather than later, believe me, you’re going to need it.”
The Japanese word for this — a word he pushes from his lips like a hair found in a rice ball — is jiko shokai.
“You sit at a table and, in turn, each person tells about themselves. Most keep it brief, some talk for maybe a minute, and others go on forever.”
“And this annoys you because . . . ?”
“Because the circle is vicious. One that goes round and round and never stops. Like a reoccurring nightmare.”
A nightmare he now shares.
“I used to attend this Japanese church with about 15 people and we’d all have lunch together after the service. Almost every week we’d have someone new show up. And do you know what we did? Every single time? For that one new person?”
“Little did it matter we all knew what each other would say, word-for-word. We sat there and listened to the same stories and even laughed at the same dead jokes, as if none of us had ever met before. Déjà vu, introduction-style. And the next week? The next week we did it again.”
“Did you ever suggest trying something different?”
“Are you kidding? I suggested we sing our intros in a round. That we act out Genesis in pantomime. That we clean the stained glass with our tongues. Any of which, I might add, would have brought in even more visitors the week after.”
“But we still ended up doing jiko shokai. In the end, I had to choose between my faith and my sanity. I may have little of either, yet I felt pushed to the brink.”
All of this made harder because he was having the same experience at work. Every meeting in which someone new appeared, the entire room would do jiko shokai.
Something had to give. He decided to invest some Sundays in an ultimate Frisbee group instead. Until he found they began each week with — yes — jiko shokai.
At this point I decide not to tell him how I start my English classes.
“And,” he adds, “of course I am always first.”
Ah. Now it comes. It’s not just the self-introduction; it’s the gaijin spotlight.
“Well, yeah. Everyone else has followed the same life pattern. I am the oddball, the person on display. People want to size me up: my language skills, my education, and so on. It’s a sort of test. One I figured I would someday pass and that would be it. But jiko shokai doesn’t work that way. Relationships have to be realigned with each and every fresh shake of the group.”
Why not just memorize some simple spiel and be done with it?
So he asks what I want. His 10-second no frills introduction dart? His one-minute resume with selected highlights? Or the eight-minute director’s cut version, in which he elaborates on Japanese food, business practices, dating habits, and . . . “How much I hate jiko shokai!”
He says he has any intro I want practiced to perfection. Yet this makes only his portion go faster, not the entire process.
He sighs. “I wonder how many hours of my life I have lost to senseless group jiko shokai. Enough to make me anti-social.”
So what keeps him here? “What else? A girl. I’ve thought of getting married, but I’m afraid she’d start each new morning with . . . ‘Hi. Let’s introduce ourselves. My name is . . .’ “
I assure him it doesn’t work that way.
“Chances are you’d encounter the opposite. She would soon ignore you completely.”
“If only I could be sure . . .”
“And then before you know it you’ll have kids, a mortgage, college debts and a cranky prostate. Jiko shokai won’t matter then at all.”
“You make it sound so wonderful.”
And there you have it, a little passion, a little poison, all tied together.
That’s life in Japan. Or at least a fair introduction.