Perhaps it is fitting on this, the last day of 2006, to look back at the year and reflect on the state of Japanese culture, society and life.

Incongruously, it was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of Dec. 11 that set me to thinking about the year gone by here in Japan. The Herald reported on an announcement by Prime Minister John Howard that “immigrants hoping to become citizens [of Australia] will have to pass a test on basic English skills . . . and shared values.”

Now, what could Howard have meant by “shared values?”

I suppose he meant honesty — this man who, in Oct. 2001, lied (in order to bolster his popularity for an upcoming election) about asylum-seekers on boats throwing their children overboard. Or perhaps he meant a commitment to peace, such as is evidenced in his unflagging support of America’s unlawful and unfounded invasion of Iraq. And then there is the value shared by virtually everyone: the belief in the importance of higher education. Prime Minister Howard has a strange way of supporting this — by drastically cutting back his government’s financial support for Australia’s universities.

But it occurred to me that making non-Japanese people take a similar test about “shared Japanese values” would be a good way to assess their suitability for life in this country. It might also tell us something about the state of affairs here in the year that ends tonight.

So, dear non-Japanese reader, see how you fare. Japanese readers are, of course, invited to answer the questions below — though should you woefully fail to pass muster, perhaps you should consider emigrating in 2007.

The first question is:

Why hasn’t there been a viable change of government in Japan for more than 50 years? Choose one from the answers below.

(a) Because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party doesn’t want one;

(b) Because the opposition parties don’t want one;

(c) Because the United States doesn’t want one;

(d) Because there are no viable opposition parties in Japan.

That was actually a trick question, just to get you started. Actually, all of the above answers are correct.

In which of the following places did former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi feel most at home in 2006?

(a) Graceland;

(b) Disneyland;

(c) Poland.

The answer is (a) Graceland, although Disneyland is a close second.

Which of the following, having the initials SMK, most characterized Japanese culture in 2006?

(a) Sushi/ Manga/ Karaoke;

(b) Sumitomo/ Mitsubishi/ Kanebo;

(c) Starbucks/ McDonald’s/ Kentucky [Fried Chicken].

This one is so obvious, I can’t imagine anyone, Japanese or not, getting it wrong. Of course it’s (c) — although were this a test for Canadianness, (a) would be the right answer.

What accounts for the popularity of geeks (otaku) among Japanese women?

(a) All real Japanese men have gone to the Middle East with the Self-Defence Forces;

(b) A geek makes a perfect husband for a woman who wants a sexless marriage;

(c) All good-looking foreign men are either gay or married;

(d) A geek is too busy collecting comic books to bother a woman by talking to her.

First of all, if you answered (c) you may be highly prejudiced, and I suggest you enter therapy immediately. The only correct answer is (a); and until the soldiers come back from Kuwait, Japanese women will just have to settle for geeks and nerds.

Which of the following two companies with the initials JT had a greater stranglehold on Japan in 2006?

(a) Japan Tobacco;

(b) Japan Times.

The correct answer is (b), The Japan Times. Japan Tobacco may have killed more people, but this newspaper affects the mind more deeply and is printed on better-quality paper.

Wipe the slate clean

This may be a good point to see how you are doing on your score.

If you have failed to answer some of the above questions correctly, I suggest that you e-mail your travel agent the moment he or she gets back from their traditional two-day New Year’s holiday next Tuesday morning.

But in a festive spirit, let’s wipe the slate clean and see how we do in part two of the test. Here goes nothing.

Why hasn’t Japan apologized for what it did during the war?

(a) Because it didn’t do anything wrong during the war;

(b) Because there are too many words in Japanese for “I’m sorry,” and they’re still debating which is most appropriate;

(c) Because they’re waiting for the Phoenicians to apologize for their war crimes.

This one is so easy, I can’t conceive of anybody getting it wrong. Obviously the correct answer is (c), though the implications of this are disturbing, seeing as the last leader of Phoenicia died somewhere in the vicinity of 894 B.C. This would imply that an apology by the Japanese would certainly be “carefully studied and cautiously worded” by the time it is forthcoming.

How much money does it cost to hold a town meeting in Japan?

(a) 16 million yen — 100,000 yen to rent the hall and 15.9 million yen to pay off the audience;

(b) 16 million yen — 50,000 yen to rent the hall, 15.9 million yen to pay off the audience, and 50,000 yen to courier the questions to selected participants prior to the meeting;

(c) Nothing — It’s paid for by the Japanese taxpayer.

The correct answer is (c), although there may actually be some savings here, thanks to pay cuts taken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his seemingly contrite cohorts for packing the audience of 242 at one of these meetings held to discuss judicial reform in Naha, Okinawa, in October 2005 with stooges. Cabinet Office documents that were released on Nov. 29, 2006 show that the government disbursed 16 million yen for that meeting.

Which country does Prime Minister Abe consider the most important for Japan in 2007?

(a) The United States of America;

(b) The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea;

(c) New Zealand.

I know that many Australians reading this will naturally choose (c); but the correct answer is (b). Thanks to the aggressive stance taken by North Korea, Abe was able to increase his popularity and argue for revisions to Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution.

Just two more questions and I’ll leave you in peace on this New Year’s Eve.

Why are Japanese so bad at speaking English?

(a) Because they study the language for six years at school;

(b) Because they’ve only been trying to learn it for 150 years;

(c) It isn’t that they’re so bad, it’s just that everyone else is so good.

The correct answer is, needless to say, (b). It’s unrealistic to think that a complex language like English can be mastered in a mere century and a half. Come back here in 2157, I say to all of you, and see how fluent they are!

And finally, the hardest one of all. If you get this one right, you can stay here for as long as you like.

What is the gravest issue facing the Japanese people in 2007?

(a) The economic rise of China;

(b) The dwindling global supply of tuna;

(c) Figuring out a way to honor George W. Bush without offering him honorary Japanese citizenship;

(d) The high cost of luxury goods in Japan.

If you are a non-Japanese and you answer this final question correctly, you are in tune with life in Japan and will no doubt fit in here for years to come. If you are Japanese and did not answer correctly, you most certainly do not share the values of your compatriots and you may be looked upon as a misfit, an outcast and a social subversive.

As for the correct answer, I will publish it in my column appearing on Dec. 30, 2007.

Until then, you will not be wrong if you think of “shared values” in Japan, Australia or any country as being essentially undefinable — depending, that is, on who you bother to ask.

A Happy New Year to you all!

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