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What a stranger taught me about Japan (bbc.com)
160 points by hwayern 239 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

I find Pico Iyer's writing insufferable and this is a good example why: how, exactly, do random interactions with the Japanese equivalent of a spoiled trust-fund kid who can afford to spend his life noodling about with haiku and abstract painting show the "living heart of traditional Japan"?

Then again, given that Iyer can't read Japanese despite living there for several decades and he seems to take perverse pride in being illiterate [1], he's not going have a lot of other local sources for insight...

[1] http://m.dailygood.org/story/1092/the-art-of-stillness-pico-...

The first thing that struck me about this story was the absolutely terrible writing:

>An elegant middle-aged man, in a spotless black jacket, came up to me, hand extended, to say hello, and I was startled. My neighbours in Japan tend to be formal and reticent; few of them are eager to take the initiative. And we were simply standing around an art gallery on Kitayama Street in northern Kyoto, 20 years ago, where a handful of us had gathered to see an exhibition of a friend’s pen-and-ink drawings.

This paragraph is awful from a purely grammatical perspective.

The second thing that becomes apparent is a definable arrogance and pretentiousness from the author. As you said, the "essence of Japan" isn't a trust fund baby selling his poems. If anything it is getting hired on at a zaibatsu, working yourself to death, living alone in a tiny apartment and developing alcoholism by age 30. This image isn't as fantastical as the one Pico presents though.

Japan is a very complex place, which is why it's so annoying when people like Iyer reduce it to window dressing, or when you reduce it to some dystopian Japan Times 過労死 click bait headline.

Edit: In case my point wasn't clear, I'm saying that it's better to taste the tea, and useless to talk about it.

> I'm saying that it's better to taste the tea, and useless to talk about it.

Yes, it is better to taste the tea, but useless to talk about it? That's a bit strong, IMO. It is futile to reduce a culture to cliches, sure, but there is always something to be learned from the discussion thereof - in fact, even this shitty article has raised the point that "Japan is more than just this cliche, so ignore this hack."

I read it twice because I was convinced I didn't understand it. I was right. I didn't understand it... but I also still don't understand it. I don't know why this is on the front page of HN...

> I don't know why this is on the front page of HN

Because people see "Japan" and upvote before they even open the link.

>This paragraph is awful from a purely grammatical perspective.

Poor grammar doesn't necessarily mean poor writing.

See: Cormac McCarthy

Agreed: the writing is poor for reasons unrelated to grammar.

> getting hired on at a zaibatsu, working yourself to death, living alone

To be fair, I think the tradition the writer is supposedly referencing comes from a time before concepts like zaibatsu and sarariman even existed.

I do agree the article is pretentious though. The "gentleman" seems like the japanese version of a hippy boomer, and would have been thoroughly despised by his own ancestors.

Thank you for [1], I found the transcribed interview wonderful. However, I did not read his words as taking "perverse pride in being illiterate" but rather more of being happy with his current situation and not wanting to change it.

A few gems from the transcript - "And as you know, the Dalai Lama, in response to the global times that you and I have been discussing, when he comes to this country, will always tell people, “Please don't become a Buddhist. Stay within your own traditions where your roots are deepest. You can learn some things from Buddhists, Buddhists can learn something from you. But don't too hastily abandon the centuries of tradition sent down you and grab something you don't perhaps imperfectly understand. And I think he brings us back to that wonderful truth, which is also maybe a feature of this age, which is that when a Buddhist and a Christian have a really deep conversation, the Buddhist becomes a better Buddhist the Christian becomes a better Christian."

While I don't agree with the Dalai Lama's argument on staying within one's own traditions, a world where talking about religion is not taboo, and deep and respectful conversations between people of different faiths is encouraged, would be so much better than what we have today.

"I wondered if, what if spirituality is water, and religion is the cup, you know, which carries it forward, although it may be flawed, and we may drop it and break it"

"...is that my education had taught me quite well to talk, but I don't think it had taught me to listen. And my schools had taught me quite well to sort of push myself forward in the world, but it never taught me to erase myself. And the virtues of when I got to Japan, finding that I was essentially an illiterate. I can't read — I can't — to this day, I can't read or write Japanese. And I'm at the mercy of things around me. I can't have the illusion that I'm on top of things."

I thought I have a severe case of deja vu, but actually I have seen it before - this guy was discussed previously!



IMO, in word2vec terms:

Pico Iyer = Thomas Friedman + Deepak Chopra.

(I bet it actually is the case.)

This guy is so full of himself - almost disgusting how he tries so hard to come across as a humble and reflecting person.

The artist of which the author speaks is Notomi Shinsuke:


The only work of his I can find online is "Sans Titre" (Untitled): http://www.arcadja.com/auctions/en/notomi_shinsuke/artist/46...

Which seems to have sold at an auction in 2013 for 100 euros:


He also has 2 book listings on Amazon, unsure if it is the same person: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&tex...

Edit: After some digging around, it seems that the kanjis used for のとみしんすけ are 納富慎介.

Google Images reveals a few additional works, and a scan of a ticket for a gallery opening where his work was exposed in 2010:


See this page particularly: http://crossroads.ldblog.jp/archives/51728356.html

And the books on Amazon do seem to be his.

This was a good article, but I think it was good because of the portrait it paints of the man he met. I'm not calling all the claims about having learned something "about Japan" unwarranted, but let me offer by way of counterbalance this invaluable essay I read some time ago and to which I've returned whenever someone brings up Japan like this. [0]

[0] http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2014/08/let-me-explain-ja...

i used to work at a hotel and one year there was a japanese person staying at the hotel

one day i was walking to a park to play some guitar and enjoy the sun and i saw this person walking in front of me

i ran to catch up and asked the standard traveler questions: how long have you been here? how are you enjoying the states?

thae explained that thae really enjoyed the us because, 'in japan it is all take take take, and in the us it is all put, put, put'

i laughed, 'really? did you get that backwards? how do you mean?'

thae explained, 'in japan there is a really strong core of tradition from which everyone draws from in order to live their lives, and in the us there is a strong core of tradition that everyone adds to and changes'

i laughed, 'wow! that's great, do you want to hang out?!' ;P

it ended up being a great friendship and we even lived together for a few months

i still think about that pearl of wisdom from time to time

"a culture in which the truest sign of intimacy is not needing to say a thing" - what a wonderful sentence! I must have been Japanese in a previous life :)

Actually that part drives me insane.

Maybe we're taking about different things but... My understanding is in the USA it used to normal not to talk about affection for your partner. In the 70s and 80s there was a huge cultural push to stop doing that and verbally express your affection and appreciation. It was drilled in that assuming your partner understands you feel for and appreciate them without saying it is like believing in fairy tales. Your relationship will end in ruins and your partner grows distant not knowing you actually care, appreciate , etc..

So here I am in Japan where I hear this stuff about not needing to express that stuff. You should infer it. Except I can't accept that because it was taught to me it's BS. So many spouses whos partner leaves feeling unappecisted and the other partner is like "but I shouldn't have to say it you should just know". There's 1000s of books on why that silence is a recipe for disaster. In sex as well the advice in the USA builds and builds , say what you want, don't expect your partner to read your mind. They won't (mind reading is impossible and expecting your partner to devine what you want is childish). Your be disappointed and frustrated and then take that out on your relationship.

So I don't buy it. They just sound old in the same sense that blood letting is old.

Pretty much anybody I've met who comes to Japan with the romantic ideas embraced by this article in there head ends up hating it. I'll be honest, I think that this "silence" thing was never a Japanese thing in the first place. I believe it is a misinterpretation of several cultural phenomena.

1. The Japanese language allows you to be more imprecise but still have people understand what you are talking about from context. If I've been speaking Japanese for a long time, switching to English seems like a pain because you have to spell everything out. Also, mood can be transmitted in words where in English you would need tone of voice. In novels, you don't have to describe that a person is irritated because you can simply choose to have them say something in an irritated way. Similarly, people can make absolutely cutting remarks without changing their tone of voice or getting agitated.

2. Culturally, most shared spaces are understood to be quiet spaces. Man, I hate riding the train in the UK. People think they are still in the pub. In Japan, you can spot the foreigners in public spaces with your eyes closed because they are invariably making a racket. This has nothing to do with silent communication. It's just silence. In other places Japanese people are very noisy.

3. Japanese people are raised in Japanese schools. This is where they are taught manners, how to behave, etc, etc. I taught in a school in Shizuoka prefecture, which has a relatively large Brazilian population. The children from Brazilian families are quintessentially Japanese because they have been taught the same way. It's very different than our method of letting parents determine how to raise their children. The result of this is that Japanese people have a huge base of common culture to work from. It's not that you "should infer it" -- it's blatantly obvious because it's been drilled into your head 1000 times when you were at school. And everyone has had the same experience.

There is no magical transmission of knowledge. And as you said, crappy marriages exist here just like anywhere else. Miscommunication is common. But lots of things are understood by context, by culture or are simply not spoken of. The timing of when, where and how you discuss things is completely different, too.

> Japanese people are raised in Japanese schools.

I would like to know more about Japanese schools. You seem to know about Japanese culture a great deal. Is there any material (fiction, non-fiction) accessible in English that talks of this 'national character building' occurring at Japanese schools.

I typed in some of my experiences, but it's too long for HN :-). Email me if you would like my to send it to you. My contact details are in my profile.

> In other places Japanese people are very noisy.

You can just step into any izakaya after 4pm - the place will be loud and waiters will be shouting over your head like you didn't exist.

Silence when dissonance exists may be a bad thing. Silence when dissonance is resolved by reflection may not.

The Japanese know sacredness because it's baked into their society. Maybe that was because of Zen Buddhism, or a different reason ("island life" will do it to people too). Whatever it is, it may have bad manifestations in larger cities, but there's no denying the Japanese have always had a special sort of sacred way of getting impressive things done.

It depends on how you read the sentence, I guess. If you read it as "comfortable being together without having to talk", that's a good thing, but read as "good partners 'just know' what the other wants without being informed", then yes, as you say, that's bad.

The sentence reminds of the Finnish culture, too. You know you're with friends when silence isn't awkward.

Not really related, but "The Finland Conspiracy" on relations between Japan and "Finland" is an amusing read: https://www.reddit.com/r/finlandConspiracy/comments/2y0oog/t...

I live in Japan and have a Finnish friend. We talk plenty, but I think we'd both be perfectly fine saying nothing when there's nothing to say. There's lots of small talk in Japan, but a lot of it is pre-scripted by convention, so there's no pressure to actually engage with strangers if you don't care to.

Not just a Japanese thing though.

It has a name in English - "comfortable silences"

My dad use to say this to me, which would frustrate me to no end.

I hope you didn't answer and instead remained comfortably silent

"Shut up, Dad!" might also have been appropriate...

This story is kind of hokey, but it reminds me of the time I was on a layover to California where I had lunch with a woman from Oregon and a finely dressed old British gent. The Oregon lady was telling a story about how she allowed her (retired) husband to buy, ride, and maintain a motorcycle without complaint because it's a hobby he truly loves and enjoys. The British gent replied with something like "You should always follow your dreams and pursue what you love; if there's you truly want in your heart, you should go for it." It would have sounded like utter horseshit coming from a motivational speaker, but I was struck by the twinkle-in-eye sincerity with which he said it.

As he got up to go to his connecting flight he said "By the way, you should look my name up on Google." I asked him what his name was and he replied "Bobby Teale. T-E-A-L-E."

Bobby Teale was the man who informed on the Kray twins, Britain's most notorious gangsters at the time, in the 1960s. He had gone into hiding for decades and re-emerged only just recently to reconnect with his brothers and tell his life story.

May be I'm missing something but all I read was this writer met an painter few times. What did they discussed? what were his stories? what the author learned more about Japan? There doesn't seem to be hint of those. Feels like I wasted my time reading the whole thing through in anticipation author would say something about the mysteries behind the mysterious stranger he was talking about.

Meta note: if you're in the UK, this work is apparently not funded by the license fee but the cache works: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:AJEIClX...

Definitely an interesting character that the article describes, I liked the writing style too.

Completely off Topic:

With Catchy headlines ( Link Bait ) and people voting by the headlines, ( I honestly dont know anyone who read the article first before giving it an upvote ) I tend to skip the article and Jump to comment first. Not only for Td;DR, but also reaction.

I'm amazed that people still write this kind of stuff.

It seems that much of this article is about how little the author knew about this person and then extrapolates an odd intimacy in the mysteriousness of it because this eccentric guy remembered him and sent him gifts.

Further more, even though this guy acted completely different than every other Japanese person he met, it somehow gives him greater insight into the culture?

One thing that struck me about this article is that every single picture on it has the author's name on it. Iyer, Iyer, Iyer. It really is strange to see 5 seemingly unnecessary photos, especially since the photo captions are just explaining something or quoting something in the story, and aren't taken by the author.

In any case, I feel this is a romanticized version of Japan that people really try to find when they visit. I've certainly had some magical moments in Japan -- Kyoto, especially Arahiyama, is very beautiful and some parts of it feel magical -- but in general having visited multiple times and currently staying here, I feel like Japan is an eastern Asian country with a separate language and potentially more indoctrinated politeness. I'm curious why people get so fascinated with Japan... Not that it isn't, but what makes it more fascinating than, say, Korea, or New Zealand?

Also, is it common for things that aren't editorial or news to appear on BBC? It feels out of place.

Great article, I'm wondering if Shinsuke's 'I'm dead' joke was wordplay on his name? If I'm not mistaken, 'I'm dead' translates to 'ore wa shin da', which sounds similar to 'ore wa Shinsuke da' ... then again, I could be way off :-)

Iyer's article has inspired me to devote my first ever Youtube rant to it. He makes a handsome living out of passing off really poor quality fiction as mysterious "travel" journalism, written about where he actually lives. I think you have to travel to qualify, Pico.

Anyone else getting this[1] vibrating text effect on the site?

[1] https://www.dropbox.com/s/fqupnni4jtjnraj/Vibrating%20Text.m...

For those of us in the UK:


Not the kind of article I typically read, but I thought that was incredibly well-written.

So delighted to see work by Pico Iyer on HN. His writing is always thoughtful.

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