For quite a long time I thought I was an individual in a land of people who had forsaken their individuality to be counted as numbers. The Japanese with their adherence to strict social codes of dress, behaviour and thought struck me as sheep-like; as martyrs to the group, willing to sacrifice any spark of uniqueness and dissent to the greater good of Japan. After further consideration I have revised my opinion and now I feel I’m an individual in a land of individuals who aspire consciously or unconsciously to be numbers. They must suppress their individualism to maintain the social “wa” or harmony. In practical terms this means sucking up the shit all day. At work they put in the extra hours and forsake their holiday entitlements and submit to crude levels of patronage to preserve the strength of the group. At home the women treat their husbands like emperors and live in fear of the neighbourhood gossip mongers who are forever on the look out for any mother who might be trying to step outside the supposed ‘norm’. Even today it’s hard to find female doctors and engineers. Jane Austen’s universe of women who learnt to play an instrument and do stitch work and read only ‘suitable’ books bears an uncanny resemblance to modern Japan. And the outlets for the pent-up frustration that this suppression of individuality causes are obvious: a massive sex industry that ranges from pretty girls cooing over salary men to obscene sadomasochism; a multi-million dollar obsession with hobbies; a frighteningly high suicide rate; a slavish fascination with designer goods; rampant alcoholism; and bizarre subcultures like the heavily suntanned ‘ganguro’, the gangster wannabe ‘bosozoku’ and the theatrical punk Lolitas or ‘punkloli’. The irony of these groups being that the members are eschewing identity with the larger group only to conform to a smaller group with the same notions of hierarchy and conformity.
At the same time I find this analysis unfair and probably tainted by my own ‘western neurosis’. How can I know what it’s like to be Japanese? And my day to day impression is of a society of exquisite manners. I’m accepted just fine despite my unusual appearance, my prickly comments and all my idiosyncrasies. I’m afforded respect I feel embarrassed to acknowledge. I seem to be forever encountering older, wiser and more successful people who make subtle gestures of respect to the washed-out hippy sensei. Whether this is just another social convention or genuine human expression is irrelevant to how it makes me feel. So it’s this contradictory feeling of despising the mono-thinking victims of Japan while at the same time being overwhelmed by their gentleness that really epitomizes my experience of Japan.
The second defining point, which is very much linked to the first point, is the genius of Saturday night in Japan. Tom Waits sings about ‘The Heart of Saturday night’ – well it’s here. In Europe and America everyone’s fun is being restricted by laws controlling smoking in public, drinking on the street and opening hours. On top of that everywhere there seems to be a camera ready to digitally capture the transgressor in the act. The people’s fun on their big night off is continually being proscribed. Bags are searched, bottles of water confiscated, codes of dress strictly adhered to. It seems like the experience of getting into a pub or club is becoming more like boarding an international flight. Whereas, in Japan there is a refreshing lack of proscriptions: bars close when the last customer stumbles out, you can smoke anywhere, you are not subjected to lengthy searches, the police tolerate not only drinking in the street but also unlicensed raves and gatherings. But the best thing is the people you meet, like you they are up for having a good time, having a giggle. Not only will your average local indulge you by lending a sympathetic ear to your biased rants, but they will also supply their own conversational curios to keep the evening bubbling along. Boys and girls are looking for fun and looking for love up and down Japan in bars and clubs and karaoke joints; on the street and in the parks and for a few fleeting hours Dionysus is worshipped. And if the bacchalian rites all get a bit much you can pass out on the pavement and nobody kicks you, pisses on you or robs you. If you knock someone’s drink they apologize to you. And how can this be? It’s because the Japanese have such low levels of loutishness that those supposed ‘bad apples’ that ruin it for everyone else generally are not in evidence. And if you make the people work so hard for their daily crust why not reward them with one night of freedom? This atmosphere of permissiveness that pervades Saturday night and Sunday morning means that foreigners can be discretely off-side and large it to their heart’s content. Forget Bangkok where the police are continually trying to enforce a 2pm drinks curfew and are forever looking to get bribes, forget Bali where Australian piss heads ruin the ambience, forget China with it’s ridiculous nationalism, Japan is the place to be on Saturday night in Asia.
So there it is. What infuriates me about Japan is at the same time what keeps me here. On an average day nobody says or does anything very original; but there is no such thing as an average Saturday night for those seeking out nocturnal thrills and spills.