Spillly with 3 Ls

Mad in Japan – an entertaining read (via @brodiegal )

Posted on February 25th, by spillly in Uncategorized. 12 comments

Mad in Japan (AA Gill)

On the face of it, the Japanese are very like us.

We are both island nations, about the same size, both mongrel populations
with constitutional monarchies; it rains a lot, they drink tea, we drink
tea. We’re both obscurely addicted to odd sports (cricket, sumo), both had
empires, are bellicose, mistrustful of foreigners, and are passionate
gardeners. Neither of us are particularly good-looking, we are both
repressed, both suffer a class system, drive on the left, and only in
Britain or Japan is having a stiff upper lip explicable as a compliment. But
that’s just on the face of it. Underneath, we’re chalk and tofu.

You don’t have to go to Japan to have an inkling that the Japanese are not
as the rest of us are. In fact, they’re decidedly weird. If you take the
conventional gamut of human possibility as running, say, from Canadians to
Brazilians, after 10 minutes in the land of the rising sun, you realise the
Japs are off the map, out of the game, on another planet. It’s not that
they’re aliens, but they are the people that aliens might be if they’d
learnt Human by correspondence course and wanted to slip in unnoticed. It’s
the little things, like the food. They make the most elegant, delicate food
in the world and then make it in plastic for every restaurant window. Only a
Japanese person could see a plate of propylene curry and say: ‘Yum, I’ll
have that.’

And the loos. Heated loo seats are slightly worrying the first time you
encounter them, but after that they’re a comfy idea; and there are buttons
for jets of variable power, warm water, one for back bottom, one for front,
with pictures to tell you which is which and hot air to help you drip-dry.
All of which is strangely addictive and makes you question your sexual
orientation, or at least wish for diarrhoea.

But it’s not that which gets the canary of weird coughing, it’s the lavatory
paper: it’s like rice paper. They have 21st-century bogs and 13th-century
bog roll. Your bum’s clean enough to eat sushi off, but you need to scrub
your fingernails with a boot scraper. This is a country where the men pee in
the street but it’s the height of bad manners to blow your nose, and they
wear woolly gloves on their feet.

Hiroshima is shockingly empty of grave resonance. You feel next to nothing.
There’s a memorial garden in the bland civic style, a hectoring museum and
the peace dome – one of the few brick and concrete buildings in old
Hiroshima whose skeletal rubble has been preserved as a symbol. It was built
by a Swede.

The atomic bomb that wiped out Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people and
reducing a wooden city to ash and black rain, was, if you ask me, with the
benefit of hindsight, all things considered, a good thing. As a direct
result of Hiroshima, the war ended. The emperor overrode his military, who
wanted a banzai suicide last battle, and broadcast their unconditional

The only vibration left in the place is a saccharine sentimentality and a
trite, injured morality. Hiroshima wears its unique, nuclear-age victimhood
with the simpering pride of a geisha’s wig. The quiescent kids in
quasi-naval uniforms line up for peace studies and group shots; all make
peace signs, or maybe they’re victory signs, because if anyone won the
peace, Japan did. Any sense of sympathy for this place is snuffed out by the
petition I’m asked to sign insisting that the Americans apologise for
dropping the bomb.

Well, hold on, Tojo. When it comes to apologies, Japan’s silence is
cacophonous. What about your treatment of prisoners of war? ‘Oh, they were
soldiers,’ I’m told with a quiet, slow patronage. What about the Chinese
massacres? ‘Exaggerated.’ The Korean comfort women, don’t they deserve
apologies? ‘Oh, they’re just making a fuss because Japan is rich and they
want money.

And 20,000 Koreans were killed in Hiroshima.’ True, they were slaves, and
when they asked if there could be a memorial for Koreans in this peace
garden, the Japanese said no.

Let’s get the Japanese as victims into perspective. During the war in the
East, half a million allied soldiers died. Three million Japanese died and
20m other Asians perished under Japan’s brief expansion into an empire.
That’s 20m we in the West rarely remember. As I stand here, the newspapers
are full of Koreans and Chinese bitterly denouncing new Japan’s school
history books, which deny any culpability. The Japanese don’t think they’re
worth a sorry. The detonation of an atomic bomb above Hiroshima was the
starting gun for modern Japan. It blew away not just the most deeply cruel
military government but a thousand-year-old political and social system –
the most inhuman and exploitative ever designed. The violent burst of the
nuclear age was the best thing that ever happened to Japan. It didn’t
destroy anything like as much as it created.

What’s extraordinary about Hiroshima is how fast it has grown back into a
huge neon and concrete city that looks as if it’s been here for ever. Before
the war, Japan had an economy that was a small fraction of America’s. A
wood-and-rice peasant place, its main exports were textiles and soldiers.
Today, even in the slough of a prolonged depression, it’s still the second
biggest economy in the world, with a GDP as large as Britain’s, France’s and
Germany’s combined. That’s astonishing, not least because Japan is about
11/2 times the size of the UK with twice as many people and only a third of
its land habitable, yet it has no natural resources to speak of. So, where
did it all go wrong? How come Japan has such commercial success but still
manages to be a socially weird disaster? Because, have no doubts, they’re
not happy.

Kyoto is Japan’s old imperial capital, and escaped being Hiroshima by the
whim of an American diplomat who once visited it. Kyoto boasts more heritage
sites than you can shake a fan at. And you get there by a bullet train that
looks like God’s suppository and is twice as fast. The bullet trains run
like clockwork, as if there were anything as techno-regressive as clockwork
in Japan. The ticket collectors bow when they enter carriages, and there are
little girls in pink cheerleader’s uniforms who collect rubbish. It’s the
symbol of modern, efficient Japan. But, and I’m not obsessed, the lavatories
are pee-in-your-socks squat jobs. It’s very odd.

Kyoto is a disappointment: an ugly sprawl of low-rise confusion. The streets
are a tangle of stunted electricity pylons and cat’s-cradle power lines.
Hidden among it are thousands of shrines and temples, which are beautiful,
up to a point. There’s an anaemic, minutely obsessive quality to them and
they’re very repetitive. I did rather love the gardens, though: vegetative
taxidermy. Everything is tied down, wired up, splinted, truncated and
pruned. In the pools, albino carp slip and twist with a ghostly boredom.

Religion is one of the reasons Japan is so socially crippled. In the
beginning they had Shinto. Now, if religions were cars, Shinto would be a
wheelbarrow. It’s your basic animism: ancestor worship, goblins and ghosts,
tree and rock spirits. It lacks the most rudimentary theology. It made the
emperor into a god descended from the sun. Onto that was grafted Buddhism –
the wrong sort. Not the happy Dalai Lama stuff, but Zen Buddhism via China.
Zen is so desiccatedly aesthetic that nobody knows what it means. On top of
all that, the Japanese chose to add Confucianism.

Now, it has been said there’s no such thing as bad philosophy and that below
a certain level it simply stops being philosophy at all. Confucianism is the
exception that proves the rule. It’s unpleasant and lowbrow. Confucius and
Taoism were the excuse-all, get-out-of-work-and-responsibility for the
samurai. Modern Japanese people get born Shinto, married Christian, buried
Buddhist and work Mazda. Consequently they believe everything and nothing.
There is no solace in Japanese religion, no salvation or redemption, hope,
encouragement, and, most importantly, no concept of individuality, which is
why you always see them mob-handed. A Japanese man on his own doesn’t think
he exists. It’s just a static, miserable round of corporate responsibility
and filial duty. I’ve never come across a place whose spiritual options were
so barren. This pick-and-mix theology has stunted Japan like a tonsured,
root-bound pine tree.

Kyoto has the most famous rock garden in the world: the ultimate Zen
experience, 15 stones set in raked white gravel. You’re supposed to sit and
ponder. Nobody knows who made it or why, but it’s deeply aesthetic, and
fundamentally risible. Look, I’m sorry, but this is the emperor’s new
garden, an impractical joke. It’s medieval builders’ rubbish.

Oh, but then, silly me, of course I don’t understand. I’m constantly being
patronised for my coarse sensibilities and told that naturally I couldn’t
comprehend the subtlety, the aesthetic bat-squeak of Japanese culture. No
country hides itself behind the paper screen of cultural elitism like Japan,
which, considering they’ve bought their entire civilisation from other
people’s hand-me-downs, is a bit of a liberty. When it comes to Japanese
civilisation, it’s mostly eyewash. Kabuki theatre is only just preferable to
amateur root-canal work. The three-stringed guitar is a sad waste of cat.
Japanese flower-arranging is just arranging flowers. Their architecture is
Chinese, as are their clothes, chopsticks, writing, etc. The samurai were
thugs in frocks with stupid haircuts, and haiku poems are limericks that
don’t make you laugh. Indeed, they are so aesthetically difficult, one haiku
master managed to compose only 23,000 in 24 hours, including gems like: ‘The
ancient pond, A frog leaps, The sound of the water.’ Marvellous.

And then there are geishas. In Kyoto’s wooden old town, hundreds of Japanese
tourists loiter, cameras at the ready. Nothing happens in Japan unless it
happens at 400 ASA. Kyoto has 7m tourists a year, 90% of them indigenous.
It’s a pleasure to see that even at home they travel in gawky, bovine
groups. They’re waiting for a glimpse of a geisha slipping into a teahouse.
There used to be 20,000 geishas in Kyoto; now there are fewer than 200. They
hobble out of their limousines, bowing in all their pristine, extravagant
absurdity. Geishas are trained to devote their lives to rich, drunk men.
Only the very, very rich can afford geishas.

The salarymen dream of them. The trainee geishas, the backs of whose heads
are dressed to represent vaginas, clip-clop down the road, their smiling
white faces making their teeth look like little yellow cherry stones. A
geisha’s raison d’être is to pour drinks, giggle behind her hand, tell men
they are handsome, strong and amusing, listen to boastful lies, and never
show any emotion except bliss. Occasionally, for a great deal of cash, some
will allow men to copulate on them. We, of course, have geishas back in
Blighty: we call them barmaids.

Tokyo is daunting. It’s huge. It has no centre, no suburbs and no end. And
there is no point of focus. It’s one of the little weirdnesses of Japan that
there is no single man-made structure you could put on a postcard. Tokyo’s
lack of cohesion gives it a frenetic absence of atmosphere. It is a U-bend,
built round a hole that is the royal palace and park, closed to the public
364 days a year; a lump of real estate that 10 years ago was said to be
worth the same as Canada or California. Today it’s probably not worth
Swaziland: property prices have fallen as much as 90%.

Then there’s the traffic, the fabled stasis of millions of drivers Zenishly
not going anywhere. Naturally the cars are all Japanese, though not models
you’ll ever see in the West. Strange, clunky, misshapen things in tinny,
bright colours, with antimacassars. Dozens of men lurk around car parks in
white gloves and the uniforms of Ruritanian admirals, waving batons. They
look like retired chief executives, and many of them are. Japan has a bonsai
social security system, relying on businesses to over-employ on minuscule
wages as a way of hiding unemployment. After schoolkids, retired men have
the highest hara-kiri rate. In a country with no sense of individual value,
belonging to a job is their only source of self-worth.

A Japanese man tells me that the key to understanding Japan is to grasp that
it is a shame-based culture. In the West, success is the carrot. In Japan,
fear of failure and ostracism is the stick. This isn’t merely a semantic
difference, it’s a basic mindset. Westerners trying to do business here
complain that it’s impossible to get decisions made. The Japanese negotiate
for months without saying yes or no. Nobody wants to lay their face on the
line; there is no comeback from failure. Decisions emerge out of group
inertia. Japan manages to be both rigidly hierarchical and enigmatically
lateral. It’s no accident that alcoholism is endemic; drunkenness is not a
social problem, it’s social cohesion for a depressed and confused male

The thing westerners worry about before getting to Tokyo is that all the
signs are pictograms. Well, being constantly lost is as close as you’re
going to get to knowing what it’s like to be Japanese. Most of the shop
signs, though, are in English, but written by people who don’t speak or
understand it. So they’re a continual source of amusement. Japan has
actually two written languages: borrowed Chinese characters and a phonetic
squiggle alphabet. Usefully, there is no word for claustrophobia and, more
disturbingly, I’m told, no indigenous one for the female orgasm.

Sex is where the weirdness of the Japanese peaks. I should start by saying
that the widely held belief that you can buy soiled schoolgirls’ knickers
from vending machines is apocryphal, but it certainly could be true. It
would hardly be out of character.

The area around Shinjuku station is the Japanese red-light district. There
is the better-known Roppongi, which is distressingly reminiscent of Bangkok,
but Shinjuku is the real local thing, and foreigners are not encouraged. I
was told that the station has more people going through it in a day than go
through Grand Central in a month, and it’s only the second largest in Tokyo.
Salarymen stop off at one of the many bars, and get tanked on beer and sake
and perhaps slurp a bowl of noodles before staggering off to a girlie bar.
In the streets, girls ply their wares and gangs of lost boys, all sporting
the same long-fringed peroxide hair and mod suits, try to recruit
schoolgirls for Tokyo’s latest sex craze, telephone dating. Men go to
booths, pick up a phone and chat up a girl. If they hit it off, they go to a
bar and reach an arrangement. This is not seen as prostitution because the
girls audition the men and they do it on a part-time basis. The latest,
hottest variation is bored married women, called literally ‘someone else’s

Yakuza gangsters slip past in blacked-out BMWs or saunter round the streets,
conspicuous in shiny suits, permed hair and laughable socks and sandals.
Japan’s mafia, they invest every facet of life with a dull, unsophisticated
violence. They’re universally seen as modern samurai and folk heroes. Every
street has seven or eight storeys of girlie bars and sex clubs. What do you
get inside?

Well, what do you want? If you’re Japanese, you probably want pole-dancing
crossed with amateur gynaecology. You can rip the knickers off a teenager
and, for a bit extra, keep the knickers and a souvenir photograph.
Underpants do seem to loom large in Japanese sexual fantasies. You could
catch a massage with a happy ending, or go to a fetid little room, stick
your willy through a hole in the wall and be manually relieved by an old
lady sitting knee-deep in Kleenex, wearing a cyclist’s anti-pollution mask.

And then there’s the weird stuff.

If you do pull a prostitute, there are the ‘love hotels’: themed,
by-the-hour rooms, where you get sex toys in the minibar. Although used
mainly by the sex industry, their original purpose was more prosaic.
Traditionally, the Japanese live with their in-laws, and, in a cramped
apartment with paper walls, marital harmony can be strained. So harassed
couples, carrying the shopping, sidle in for half an hour’s conjugal bliss.
It takes the spontaneity out of sex, but then if you asked a Japanese man to
do something spontaneous, he’d have to check his Palm Pilot first. To say
that they appear dysfunctional when it comes to fun is missing the point.

Japanese men must be the vainest, with the least justification, on the
planet. Hairdressing, waxing, face-packing, ear-grouting and general
pandering and pampering to aesthetic hypochondria are multi-million-yen
businesses. My favourite bit of male kit was an electric razor specifically
for thinning body hair. The reason for their X Files sexuality is again said
to be down to religion. They don’t consider sex as something that demands a
system of morals. This is a country where eating etiquette is more complex
than the instruction manual for a Sony video, but with your clothes off,
anything goes. There are no rules, not even handy hints on sex. Anyone who
thinks that ethics are best kept out of sexual politics ought to go to Japan
and see where it ends up. And there’s another reason for male sexual
dysfunction: Japanese boys’ relationships with their mothers. Worshipped is
not too strong a word. Mothers are adoring handmaidens to their sons, often

Worst of all – by far, far and away worst of all – is Japanese males’ view
of women. Historically, women were next to worthless: peasant daughters were
regularly sold into prostitution. In the 19th century, most of the brothels
of the East were staffed by Japanese girls, or they were sold to factories
as indentured textile workers. Today, women rarely make it above the
noncommissioned ranks of business, which is still the preserve of very, very
old men. In offices they are ornamental secretaries, encouraged to wear
short skirts and have harassing lunches and drinks with their bosses. Women
are either silent housework drudges or sex toys.

You see this dehumanising view of women in manga. Manga are those ubiquitous
pornographic comic books. Men read them openly on the trains and buses. You
can buy them anywhere. But the motherlode of manga is a massive basement
bookshop in Tokyo with staff dressed like fantasy cartoon characters. Pick
up almost any book at random and be prepared for a sharp intake of breath.
The stories, such as they are, generally involve schoolgirls being attacked
and raped; the scenarios are inventive in their nastiness. Children are
abducted, gagged in their beds, dragged up dark alleys. The victims are
small and defenceless, with unfeasibly large breasts and round, tearful
eyes. They are regularly killed or commit suicide. I kept thinking that the
last pages must be missing, the ones with the comeuppance, but there’s none.
And, to add a peculiarly Japanese weirdness, the drawings are delicately
censored. Minute slivers of genitalia are Tipp-Exed out. Nothing is as
unnervingly sordid as manga, and nothing would so distress the European
parents of a daughter. And the Japanese think less than nothing of it.

How young girls react to the violent sexualising of their youth is equally
depressing. They consume; they shop with a myopic concentration. You stand
at a crossroads in the shopping district of Tokyo, with video screens
flashing out western ads and pop videos, and when the traffic lights go
green, which they do to the sound of cuckoos, 1,500 people cross the road.
That’s 1,500 every three minutes, all day, every day; and most of them are
little girls.

For a nation that puts such a high premium on elegance, Japanese girls walk
incredibly badly. They slouch and yaw on foot-high platforms, dye their hair
a sort of gingery blonde and look as sullen as 4ft-high Japanese teenagers
can, which isn’t very. Their parents despair of this generation, calling
them bean-sprout children because they lack the backbone and
single-mindedness that forged Japan’s economic ascendance. They’re giving up
on the exam-passing, company-cog work ethic and exchanging it for a western
girl-band fanzine mindlessness. This teenage rebellion isn’t political or
social or even sexual, it’s a plastic copy. It’s not even active, it’s
passive and pouting and decorative. These kids are turning themselves into
the living embodiment of the manga comic victims: pigeon-toed, mini-kilted,
white-socked sex dolls. They are a generation of social anorexics who want
to remain provocatively prepubescent.

This was a culture that forged a minimal aesthetic of tatami mats and single
twigs in vases. But now it’s drowning in puerile, syrupy decoration. Even
police notices come with cartoons of Disney coppers. These teenagers are
running from the heartless culture of guilt and blame, to hide in a
fairy-tale nursery.

I started off this journey by saying the Japanese were weird. Well, weird is
an observation, not an explanation. By the end, I was absolutely convinced
that the explanation is that they are not eccentric, not just different, but
certifiably bonkers. Japan is a lunatic asylum built on a hideous history,
vile philosophy and straitjacket culture.

If Freud had lived in Tokyo, we’d never have got analysis. He wouldn’t have
known where to start. It’s not that we can’t understand the subtlety of
Japan. It’s that we’ve been looking at it from the wrong angle. When you
stop reading the signs as cultural and see them as symptoms, it all makes a
sad, shuddery sense; the national depression, the social Tourette’s, the
vanity with its twisted, eye-enlarging, nose-straightening, blonde-adoring
self-loathing. The psychopathic sexuality and the obsessive, repressing
etiquette. For 300 years, Japan committed itself to an isolation ward. It
tried to self-medicate by uninventing and forgetting things. When it finally
let in the rest of the world, its fragile arrogance couldn’t cope with the
deluge of information from a far more robust western civilisation. Their
plan had been to take the technology and medicine and turn their backs on
the rest, but it can’t be done; you can’t put on the suit and not the
beliefs that went into tailoring it.

Japan has become the West’s stalker, a country of Elvis imitators. To walk
among them is like being in a voyeur’s bedroom. They loathe the objects of
their obsession. An English banker who has lived there for over a decade,
speaks the language, married a Japanese girl and takes his shoes off in his
own home, told me: ‘You have no idea how much, how deeply, they despise us.
Don’t be fooled by the politeness: it’s mockery. They are very good at
passive aggression; it’s the only type they’re allowed.’

He went on: ‘You must have noticed they’re obsessed with perfection: a
perfect blossom, an ideally harmonious landscape. They can’t abide a chipped
cup. We’re imperfect, coarse, smelly, loud.’ Japan has taken the worst of
the West and discarded the best. So it has a democracy without
individualism. It has freedom of speech but is too frightened to say
anything. It makes without creating. And, saddest and most telling, it has
emotion without love. You never feel love here. They have obsession,
yearning and cold observation – even beauty and devotion – but nothing is
done or said with the spontaneous exuberance of love, and I have never been
anywhere else in the whole wide world where you could say that.

I want to finish back in Hiroshima. After the war, the survivors of the
atomic bomb were ostracised. People would hire private detectives to ensure
that prospective spouses weren’t from Hiroshima. So the survivors lied and
hid their guilty secret and trauma. Imperfect, embarrassing and tainted,
they should have died. It’s the absence of the western idea of love – of
brotherly, charitable love or sensual love, that finally explains Japan’s
appalling, lunatic cruelty. In the market of Kyoto I saw something that was
so madly bizarre, yet so unremarkably mundane, it summed up something of
Japan. A very old woman, bent in half and tottering on crippled legs, slowly
and painfully pushed her own empty wheelchair.


12 responses to “Mad in Japan – an entertaining read (via @brodiegal )”

  1. Dont Let me waste Your time says:

    a cut back version (easier to read)

  2. Rob Thurman says:

    What a load of arrogant racist rubbish.

  3. Byrnzie says:

    As a directresult of Hiroshima, the war ended.

  4. Freda Bouman says:

    What cat? All I saw was…like…umm…f*** it (fap fap fap).

  5. S LLoyd says:

    AA Gill seems to not have enjoyed Japan at all.

  6. Todd says:

    So funny because its true.
    P.s. lived there for 10 years, ironical thing is that the females that are considered sub-human are the only reason we ex-pats stay there for so long.

  7. jerk says:

    Haha glorious! Whether or not it’s accurate is secondary to the fact that it makes me want to visit all the more. You’re a real salesman, article writer guy.

  8. Forest says:

    Hola! I’ve been reading yor web site ffor a whilee now and
    finally got the bravery tto go aahead and give
    you a shout out from Porter Tx! Just wanted to mention keep upp the excellent work!

  9. Guy says:

    I’ve lived In Japan for fifteen years. This is about 80% right on the money.

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