Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Susan Menadue-Chun hits directly at one of Japan’s polite fictions (“First things first to fight the flu,” May 16th). Contrary to its reputation, Japan is very doubtfully the most hygienic country in the world. Washing hands is for show more than for hygiene. It’s only symbolic cleanliness. The same is true of removing shoes at the threshold. Wearing surgical masks to retard the spread of infectious germs looks good, but its efficacy is moot. Frequent bathing is good, but sharing water and bathing together in public baths are unhealthy. So, in fact, Japan is actually very dirty. Outside of their homes too many people have little or no regard for proper decorum, and quietly anti-social behavior is epidemic. Too much of the land is covered with litter if it is not already covered with cement. My local ward office is dark and grubby. My local hospital is dark, grubby, cluttered and user-unfriendly. Like most public parks, my local park is an esthetic horror. My children’s schools are filthy pits, neglected and abused. Come to think of it, almost every Japanese school I have ever visited was a filthy pit. But Japanese are very polite and they smile. Equipment works and most things are acomplished quickly (if all the proper documents are in order). Society operates smoothly with the help of a legion of polite fictions, but we make ourselves look foolish when we confess to actually believing them at face value.
Printed on Thursday, May 21, 2009 as “Symbolic cleanliness vs. hygiene.”
This letter is a milestone because it is my 100thpublished letter. Not 100thin The Japan Times newspaper, but 100th overall. It was an opportunistic letter. I mean, the letter by Susan Menadue-Chun that I was replying to gave me an opportunity to say something about the symbolism of Japanese hygiene. But without her letter I would not have written it, nor would it have been published. I feel very sorry that none of my other recent letters were published when I thought them pretty good - especially the one about child abuse (Monday, April 17th) which felt like an ace in the hole to me. This letter was chosen for publication probably only because there were other responses to Susan Menadue-Chun, one of which - by“Name Withheld” - was printed with mine. It is true that I have often spoken and written about the dichotomy of form over content in Japanese culture - how things looks is more important than how they actually are. As regards to bathing and hygiene, appearing to be clean is more important than actually cleanliness. Symbolism has greater currency than reality. But the Menadue-Chun letter gave me a chance to return to a topic I have written about before. I was motivated most by her strong-sounding assertion that “Japan is undoubtedly the most hygienic country in the world,”because I thought it was just outright wrong. I suppose the hygienic reputation of Japan is the spare cleanliness of a Zen tea house. But that is certainly not the reality. My purpose was not to say that Japan is a dirty country. It is not. My purpose is to remind readers that in Japanese culture form prevails over content, and appearance prevails over everything else. That means that the truth of matters is never what we observe, or at least we should never take our observations at face value.
On Thursday, May 28, 2009 another “Name Withheld” letter writer wrote criticizing my implication that Japan is dirty (“Longevity speaks for itself”). Of course, that is not my belief and it was not my intention, and obviously “Name Withheld” deliberately publicised a slanted view of my letter as an opportunity to say something on his/her mind. Probably a male. He thinks my letter was ridiculously silly, so that’s how he tried to make it sound in his response. I hate it when people do that.