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Plan A: Live long and inconspicuously

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Among other things, being Japanese means embracing a distinct and particular weirdness. The Japanese are well aware of this fact, and generations of Nipponjin (日本人, Japanese) have pondered on how hen (変, strange) we are since the country opened its doors to outsiders some 150 years ago. Encountering the outside world for the first time, and then hearing what the rest of the planet had to say about us, the Japanese were shocked — yes shocked! — at the vast, deep gulf that separated watashitachi (私たち, us) from the sekai (世界, world). Personally, these are some of the things that head off the list: the national insistence on strange and cumbersome hairdos, the national preference for suicide first and everything else a distant second, and the national diet that consists primarily of daizu (大豆, soy beans) in every form and variation. Three down, about 30,000 more items to check off.

In the 21st century, the Japanese have learned to live with the 変 and be OK with it. Let me tell you, it helps to resign oneself to the fact that the strangeness starts somewhere in the third year after birth and never stops from there. Take for example yōchien (幼稚園, kindergarten), which marks a child’s first encounter with the Japanese-style shūdan seikatsu (集団生活, group living), when all the kids are made to wear sumokku ( スモック, smocks) over their shifuku (私服, plain clothes), supposedly to avoid getting dirty and to foster solidarity. In first grade, they must don yellow caps and carry heavy, thick square book bags called randoseru (ランドセル) weighed down with benkyōdōgu (勉強道具, study paraphernalia and stationery) and kyōkasho (教科書, textbooks) and cross the street waving little flags.

It’s no secret that Japanese life accelerates in misery the older one gets. Once shōgakkō (小学校, elementary school) is over, chūgaku (中学, junior high) and kōkō (高校, high school) require students to wear the armor of seifuku (制服, uniforms) as they battle the realities of jyuken benkyō (受験勉強, prepping for entrance exams), ijime (いじめ, bullying) and the grueling bukatsu (部活, extracurricular sports activities), which I’m convinced is the real inspirational source behind the novel/movie series “The Hunger Games.” And then having finally made it to college, there’s the shūkatsu (就活, job hunting) to worry about, conducted once again in identical suits that make everyone look like products off a conveyor belt.

I don’t mean to sound ominous about life on the archipelago, but to note that such phenomena are so tightly woven into the fabric of existence that we know — with shimmering clarity — that it has never been part of our destiny to shinogono iu (四の五の言う, kick up a fuss) about anything. The yellow caps and heavy randoseru are a bummer, but at the same time they endow a child with a solid sense of security and belonging. The shūkatsu is a drag, but hey, at least there are companies out there hiring. And as for mounting misery with each passing year, the national, collective Plan A has always been: hosoku nagaku ikiru (細く長く生きる, live long and inconspicuously). The more suffering experienced in youth and middle age, the more rewards a Japanese can reap once s/he gets past 65 — or so they say.

But when things are really bad, one can always turn to one’s phone device. Thanks to relentless advertising on the part of the biggest phone and communications companies in Japan, we have now been conditioned to think that our phones are more than electronic gadgets, but very attractive companions that bear uncanny resemblances to mega movie star Ken Watanabe and aidoru actress Maki Horikita. We are convinced, via TV commercials, that when the chips are down one’s phone will always be there to comfort, advise and offer new apps. Of course, our phones are far more human and reliable than friends or family.

Which brings me to the issue of sumaho (スマホ, smartphone) vs. keitai (携帯, mobile phones) and how a surprisingly large chunk of the Japanese populace are still on what’s known as Garakē (ガラケー, of Galapagos Islands orientation) or the ordinary, ho-hum clamshell-shaped keitai that do not offer that many nifty functions and that work only on this kyokutō shimaguni (極東島国, Far Eastern island nation). My guess is that the Japanese soul at its bottom, is actually stoked by the unglamorous and fuben (不便, less convenient). There’s also a certain satisfaction to be gotten here, an inner sensation that, with the Garakē, one is in sakoku (鎖国, closing the country to outside influences) mode, even as globalization rages right outside our doors and when now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand.

On the plus side, the Garakē can take a beating or several, has no mood swings and is cute to look at. Show me a guy with a battered keitai held together with duct tape and a slogan sticker and I’ll show you truly trustworthy husband material.