Japanese insincere greetings
In the front page Japan Times story “Driver in Nagoya rents car, runs over 13 people” (Tuesday, February 25, 2014) about a suspected case of vehicular attempted homicide in that city an acquaintance of the suspect is quoted saying “He was not the kind of person who would cause such an incident. He would always greet people.” It irks me because the second observation has nothing to do with the first observation. It’s an irrational statement. But the exact same thing happens all over the world. In America neighbors of shooting spree suspects or exposed serial killers proclaim, “He was a nice man,” or alternately, “He kept to himself. He didn’t have any friends.” I suppose all of these statements are culturally-shaped strategies to distance ourselves from shocking events and thereby put things in an order or framework to make sense of it all. One thing we know for certain is that the people who commit these incidents and heinous crimes are, in fact, exactly the kind of people who do them.
In Japan greetings are very important. When you enter your workplace you are expected to shout out a loud and hearty “Ohayo!!” Never mind how you really feel. Failure to do so makes you suspicious. It’s strange because in the name of totally artificial social harmony people prize or pretend to prize the appearance of friendly greetings even in the full knowledge of their insincerity. I used to work in a Japanese office where the manager periodically conducted 15-minute tutorials on proper greeting technique. I hated him for that. He didn’t understand that by doing so he was doing more to undermine good human relations in the office than nurture them. In fact, that’s a common failing in Japan where management often wastes people’s precious time by holding overly long, obnoxious meetings that ought to take no more than a few minutes.
To live in society requires constant pretence and suspension of belief. I want to say that life in Japan requires more pretence and fantasy than elsewhere, but that is probably untrue.