THE BASE NOTES OF BLEU DE CHANEL

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I often hate Wednesdays, and yesterday was no exception. The day started off well; I slept like a log and woke up invigorated;  the sky was blue, if sultry and humid, and I felt kind of in the mood to face my twelve hour day (Wednesdays and Fridays are my killers….)

Walking along in my own world, still half daydreaming, out of the blue…BAM! a woman in her fifties on a motorbike crashed head on into another on a bicycle, ramming into her and throwing her from her bicycle and onto the road, as a car came down the hill. Startled into action by the sudden shock of violence I rushed over to see if they were ok – fortunately the only injury was a cut leg, but both were shaken up and she seemed to be in some pain. Looking at the time I worried I might be late for work, but decided to stay awhile. Perhaps I should have walked her home….

I left the scene adrenalized and disquieted, but what had upset me much more, sent me livid, was the total indifference and inaction of passersby, who did nothing to help, not even a ‘daijobu desuka?‘ –  ‘are you alright?’

Stiff businessmen, just walking by with their briefcases on their way to work, deciding that that it wasn’t worth getting involved with, not worth dipping into, and even the man whose house the accident happened outside of just came out for a moment, disturbed by the noise, took a look, mumbled something, and went back into his house without so much as a word.

I helped the woman with her bicycle, and stayed a while to make sure they were both definitely alright (I left them altercating about whose fault it was, something about shadows or a mirror (‘kage’? ‘kagami’?) , then headed off to the station, fuming wildly at the coldheartness of these middle-aged ‘salarimen’ showing no human feeling, not even expressing anything on their furrowed, ‘dignified’ visages, and then found myself ranting and raving in my teacher training classes like a madman, refusing to talk about anything else until I could at least start to get to the bottom of this callousness (sometimes I am like a volcano, and the magma rises up and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop myself; I even don’t want it to stop, unafraid of the consequences).*

Lunchtime came, and I had an hour to kill, so I went to the local book store that carries all the lowest denominator US and UK gossip magazines: Kim Kashardian (‘is Kanye West really gay?’) and other celebrity slobs I don’t really give a toss about, but sometimes feel a need to connect with anyway (perhaps in moments of deep cultural alienation like yesterday we need to plug into even the most meaningless of baloney if it somehow reminds us of home, not that I really know where home is any more):  lardy dardy, is Katie Holmes just ‘skin and bones’, is Brad Pitt supporting Angelina’s brave decision, let’s move on now to a fashion magazine, ok James Franco, good, and this one has fragrance strips in it as well which I can naughtily rip open (a shifty trick all perfumistas must know – we cannot resist), even though they are all men’s, so guaranteed to be dull doppelgängers that will foul up my mood even more, and yes of course they did, all the same; always the same pattern that I can’t be bothered to even describe because you know that pattern as you have smelled these blends a thousand times yourself. Bleu De Chanel, Salvatore Ferragamo, Armani something or other, dull as dish water, but then I suddenly remembered two weeks ago in Tokyo, when we went to a Eurovision Song Contest party which began at 4am  with a bunch of fun people, and I remember one, an Adam, smelling, yes a bit typical I suppose, but good; attractive; a bit strong, but fully aromatic, with integrity and definite character. I was sat next to him on the sofa for the entirety of the contest as we scored each number, and thus that rounded, warm smell (after all, it was created by Jacques Polge), permeated my memories of that evening completely, most of us conking out on the floor before the awards were even given; and smelling the strip again with that usual sherbety woody ‘sport freshness’ in the top notes, I could still catch some of those memories still, now in my brain fluid, there right down in the base.

I am not sure what the point of all this is, really (has my blog suddenly turned into a banal series of diary entries?). Perhaps I just want to say that even though I am as much of a decrier of boring men’s fragrances as the next art-yearning perfumist, at the same time, I realized that as with almost anything in this life, there is often more than meets the eye; that surface realities most definitely do not always tell us everything.

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* In a very strange moment of synchronicity, after I had just written all this down on a piece of paper at the school I was working at, I reached into my bag and happened to take out this small ‘Etiquette guide To Japan’ book that Duncan had picked up cheaply at some book store, not the kind of thing you think you would need after fifteen years in the country, but it was written by Boye De Mente, an ‘acknowledged authority’ on Japan, whose experiences often chime with my own, but written with the sharp eye of the unemotional, objectivity-driven, anthropologist. A complete Japanophile (like me to a very large extent: this place has made me; I love it; it goes deep; it is mysterious, beautiful, maddening, intoxicating, dream-like), but like me, he is also nevertheless crystal clear in his analysis of its negative points, at least from the typical western perspective.  And in some peculiar moment of Jungian non-coincidence I happened to just open the book on a page which explained exactly, or at least began to, what had happened to me in the morning.

Before I quote him directly, I just want to preface it by saying that I hope it goes without saying that am uncomfortable with any kind of racial or cultural stereotyping, especially when I know so many excellent Japanese people and you reading this may not know what I do about the country and thus get overly negative impressions ( I am very protective of Japan in many ways); and yet, the culture of ‘being Japanese’ is SO PERMEATING in this homogenous, sealed-off-for-centuries land (there are even countless, self-serving and to my view, almost racist, books on ‘nihonjinron’ – or theories on why Japanese are so unique – which are apparently eagerly consumed by a lot of people here): the country is utterly obsessed with itself, with the fact of being Japanese, that there undoubtedly are common national traits that Mr De Mente is very adept at describing:

“One of the many puzzling contradictons of the Orient is that the Japanese, internationally renowned for their refined, stylized manners and unfailing courtesy, are also infamous for being rude in public, uncaring about strangers, and heedless of the environment. While Japanese public rudeness and callous attitude towards strangers, which has been exaggerated to some extent, has significantly lessened in recent decades, the concepts of public awareness and concern for outsiders remain relatively undeveloped.

Once again, historical factors explain why the Japanese tend to reject any responsibility for the environment or for strangers. For centuries the focus of responsibility in Japan was extremely narrow and limited to the family, the work group, the village, and the local authority. Each unit of this vertical grouping was exclusive and in competition with every other unit. ….

As Japanese sociologists and management gurus point out, the Japanese work exceptionally well within their own groups, but have little or no affinity for working with other groups or taking individual responsibility for things outside of their immediate work area. Translated into public behaviour, this means most Japanese are inclined to ignore everything and everybody not somehow related to them or their group.”

I gave this passage to a Japanese colleague to read to see if he agreed with this conclusion before writing anything here, and he agreed with it entirely. Also, on the way to the school, an extraordinarily rude woman had pushed me, barging me aside to get off the train with out so much as an excuse me (this is perfectly common, and I won’t repeat what I shouted out after her), but even another Japanese friend told me the other day that she had been on an immensely crowded train (you don’t want to experience a rush hour densha here I tell you:

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there are NO manners, it is all herd, look out for yourself, fuck everybody else – thank god I don’t have to get trains at these times working the hours I do). There was a poor girl who was practically suffocating, and as the doors opened, and the blind work zombies surged forth, she collapsed onto the platform, pale and obviously in trouble, and in a weak voice was saying ” kyukyusha, kyukyusha, get me an ambulance”, but to my friend’s horror and disgust, people just rushed pasther, leaving her lying on the platform. Only Yukari actually stopped what she was doing and went to get the station master.

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41 Comments

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41 responses to “THE BASE NOTES OF BLEU DE CHANEL

  1. It was kind of hard to like this post as I definitely do not like the mindset that would ignore, or worse not even see someone in need of help. That is quite frankly appalling. What I do like is how you talk about your experience and your observations in a frank, intelligent, and thoughtful way.

    For a long time I used to deny that any kind of ethnic or cultural stereotypes could apply to me. Quiet? Demure? Subdued? Good at math? Hah! I tend to be loud, loud, and louder (I have calmed down a lot though). I’m terrible at adding together digits larger than the number 5. Then I realized that there are things that I instinctually do like defer to elders, or be keenly observant of the needs of others. Many times cultural stereotypes have a nugget of truth buried deep down in them, and oftentimes, it takes an outsider to identify them.

    Thank you for sharing, Neil. Very thought-provoking stuff. I’m going to look up this Mr. De Mente (and I liked how you worked perfume into this too).

    • Thanks a lot for your comments. I feel a bit nervy having posted it now (still furious from yesterday, actually).

      As you say, the whole culture/ethnicity thing is a delicate and dangerous minefield. At the same time, I live here, observe and analyze everything, and have a profound need to express it. I hope I don’t come across as anti-Japanese, as I not (except the things I hate!) Any foreigner in any country could write similar things I am sure, and then when they went back to their country of origin, write perhaps even more. That is why it is all so fascinating.

      And yes; De Mente is extremely sharp on Japan, like a knife slicing through it.

      • It’s tough to criticize one’s adoptive country, isn’t it? I feel that way when I complain about France. On the one hand, so much about that country bothers me and without the catharsis, I would just explode. On the other hand, there is so much about France that I love otherwise I would not have chosen the profession that I have.

        I don’t think you come across as anti-Japanese at all. Whoever reads you like that is letting their own emotions cloud their ability to read closely.

      • Good. And France is the ultimate, isn’t it? I think we may have touched on this before. I have Francophilic tendencies, as all perfume and wine lovers must do, but that country and I are in many ways incompatible. I can’t bear the cinema, for instance, while in theory I should love it. As for one’s own country, I can slag off the UK til the cows come home – what a miserable place it is in some ways, something that Japan, definitively is not; there is such an energy here – but of course I am from there so it goes too deep. I love the UK but am happier visiting there on holiday, unshackled from the daily crap.

  2. You haven’t stereotyped and for the majority of people, they’ll see that too. It is shocking though that people can be so rude, an international trait for sure. Certainly you may know what the Central line at Bank station can be like in London during rush hour? I think it applies wherever there is a huge swarm of people. Base instincts or something kick in. Though I guess from reading your experiences, it sounds as though this Japanese disregard is a juxtaposition of how polite they compose themselves, so perhaps comes across as confusion and outright wrong. I think there’ll always be people the world over who just ignore things like what you mentioned, too caught up in their own world, too consumed with their own troubles to help others. I’ve been guilty of this too, but only when I see five or six people helping the helpless. Then again, I’ve rushed in and been the help for others too, in fact, three days ago to a girl off her head on drugs at a festival who nearly got crushed during an encore; I dragged her out of the crowd to a less dense space, tried to get her to see the paramedics on site, only to then face a barrage of “What the hell are you doing, man!? Leave me alone,” from her. Go figure, sometimes the helpless don’t want to be helped!

    • I can imagine your possibly bemused resignation at the response of that ungrateful ditz, and you are right actually about the juxtaposition of extraordinary ( often fake ) politeness and then this uncouth callousness, but then this country is always choc-a-bloc with contradictions, and that is part of what makes it so infuriatingly addictive.

  3. I am horrified at the thought of anybody lying injured on the street and people walking by with no move to help. But I don’t think that you are stereotyping and I think it happens everywhere, albeit in different forms. The rudeness I experienced in Paris once when I was lost and actually frightened was the same; one man who stopped for a moment to my soft “I’m lost, I need directions” actually walked off saying (in heavy accent) “I don’t think you speak English very well.” It’s a less serious situation than being injured, but it would have taken lessthan a minute to help instead of insult, which is why I still remember it. All we can do is not be part of that awful mindset that says “if you are not like me, you don’t matter.”
    And you don’t always have to write about perfume! Besides, sometimes nothing relieves your feelings about your homeland (by birth or choice) like a good slagging-off. You should have heard me after Bush got elected for the second time.

  4. Brilliant and provocative….and I truly hope that this will one day be published in a book….

  5. Lilybelle

    How awful that no one would stop to help a stranger! That horrifies me, but I’ve seen it before in large cities. Usually, something catastrophic happens to pull people together (e.g., 9/11, Earthquakes/tusnamis) and change awareness, change hearts. I would have been furious and shocked, too. About fragrance, I will have to take a sniff of Bleu sometime.

    • Oh lord you will be bored by it. It was just that I always cursorily dismiss these scents as run of the mill and dull, as they are, but this was an occasion where I met someone new who was wearing it well and being the weirdo scent obsessive that I am, I got to smell it up close for an entire evening. And it was quite a revelation for me. These quality standard fragrances do have something sometimes that we ignore.

      • Lilybelle

        Often, dull fragrances of good quality smell good on clothes – preferably someone else’s Much easier to appreciate them from a distance, in a surprise moment. I totally get that. I like discovering new to me fragrances that everybody else has been wearing for a while already. I’m always way behind the trend, but the extra elbow room there is nice!

  6. Martha

    Sometimes I think we haven’t evolved much past basic reptilian behavior. Eat or be eaten (so says Iggy Pop). Or, like Liam, one attempts to help a dire situation and then is told to F*** O**. A clear case of “no good deed goes unpunished.” We humans are an impossible species. On the other hand, you and Liam displayed exemplary human behavior so I say, ” Well done, gentlemen!”

  7. As an irrationally sworn Japanophile I am finding hard to digest all the information that contradict my love, but my dream destination just suffered a blow. From the characters you describe, I vividly imagined myself in the place of your friend who tried to help that girl in the subway. I would feel more helpless then, not speaking the language and being a foreigner than actually suffering myself. Terrifying!

    • Definitely, but trying to get to the bottom of why some people do behave like that makes the place all the more fascinating. I have tried to leave but can’t, at least not yet, and find I am still not bored of it. My heart still races slightly every time I go into Tokyo, and the positives, of which there are many indeed, do outweigh the negatives, or I wouldn’t have stayed. At the same time, I will not shy away from slagging off the things I hate, and on Wednesday I HATED the place!

  8. Kathy Mueller

    Love your blog! I just recently found it through the NonBlonde, and I look forward to every new post (and have been reading past posts too).

  9. Cath

    I can relate to all of this. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, I’ve experienced it.
    Japanese people will ignore whatever doesn’t directly affect them, they want to avoid “getting involved”.
    When I tell friends and family back home about the rudeness of the Japanese, they don’t want to believe it. They only know the outside facade, the image they display, the mask they wear towards visitors and guests. Once you’ve been here as long as we have, we get the same heartless treatment, sometimes even worse, because no Japanese likes a gaijin that has seen the ugly side of Japan. I have been cursed at and told to “go home” several times, purposely tripped by someone on the station platform so I fell flat on my face, threatened by a lunatic, and so much more. And no one lifts a finger.
    Those are the times I HATE this country.

    • People reading this, as far as I know, Cath and I are the only perfumistas who live here. And I can imagine how this might look to outsiders, but sometimes we need to spout our venom. I know exactly what Cath is talking about.

  10. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    Was there something in that lunar, red eclipse last night?

    Had a great Tuesday, energized and happy, but today…. Wednesday ( I was born on a Wednesday, actually ( were you ?)

    Is it true that we Wednesday-ites are excessively full of woe?

  11. Olivia

    Born on a Friday, but I was due on a Wednesday (late as usual!) I hope I am a Friday’s Child (I think so..) but I am certainly prone to woe – it’s all that introspection and relentless reflection, some days are all shadows and it’s easy to sink into the harder edges. I’m not of a totally Eeyore disposition though, overall. This week is blue indeed so far (funny, given our chat about the wonderful Jarman); we lost my dear Uncle on Monday night (cancer. Terrible.) And I’m in that knackering state of constant anxiety in the run up to finals (exhaustion and adrenaline in equal parts.) Can’t sleep, on edge, mind whirring. Rubbish init? Feel better soon: these things come in and out in waves as you know. Important to indulge it for a bit (to recognise it, to work things out), and then try to move on through it. A lunar, red eclipse sounds very beautiful. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day here.

  12. Olivia

    Mwahaha. Ok, ok, so I’m a midnight perfume peddler! But I have so many to shaaare.. It’s like that grotto of bejewelled grails at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in here (with little fugly Loulou being the true cup, obviously.) Although being ‘invaded at the sponge level’ sounds rather pushy, admittedly.
    I hope you have better, less perfumey sleep tonight (a good nights kip makes everything seem better.) Apologies for any melodrama in my last message (I blame the Celtic blood: prone to being lit up emotionally, in all directions. Especially when over caffeinated.)

    • I’m caffeinated and dramatic myself, O: you speak my language.

      I think I am always just so excited when I hear about all these perfumes that I can get overstimulated, the perils of loving writing The Black Narcissus while doing an intensive teaching job: I’m all over the place.

  13. In a strange, serendipitous way moments before reading your post I was watching a video posted on a Greek news site. Essentially three friends decided to experiment with social apathy. One of them was filming secretly, the second pretended to chat on his mobile standing in a pedestrian precinct and the third staged a pick-pocketing attack to him. The aim was to see how bystanders reacted. Only twice out of the fifteen times the scene was staged did someone speak out to warn the person being robbed.

    Traditionally social empathy is a western trait in behaviour. It is hard for me, not having read social studies, to identify whether this comes from a stronger social support or it just goes hand in hand with it. Social apathy is growing fast however. This comes at a time were the fabric of western society is being torn by a declining economy, austerity measures, disbelief in the system of social security and general turn to conservatism of western societies.

    I think we are living the end of the western civilisation as the dominant and defining culture in the developing world. I am not saying this with any kind of regret, I am just observing it. I think a culture closer to the one you are describing in your piece, a bit everyone look out for themselves”is slowly emerging as the predominant culture. What I find intriguing is that we are noticing it actually. To this day we wonder whatever happened to the Maya civilisation and we think that we don’t know just because the end of it was not recorded. It isn’t exactly so. The end of western civilisation is being recorded but still remains unnoticed.

  14. I think there’s truth in Christos’ comment: the basis of ‘moral’ and ‘neighbourly’ behaviour in public is shifting drastically away from a traditional Western mode. Something that’s popular both in the UK and abroad is this ‘Very British Problems’ style joke, wherein we affectionately send ourselves up for being overpolite, stoic and unnecessarily self-denying to our own huge inconvenience. But reading through those lists and comparing them with real life in 21stC London, it’s clear that what we find endearing in them is an idea of an England that’s disappeared. Polite? Formal? Emotionally repressed? You’ll be lucky. This isn’t to say at all that it should be lamented. Morality in the public sphere has always been hugely culturally determined. I’ve known friends from smaller European cities absolutely horrified at the way Londoners walk past street sleepers, begging for help, without so much as a look. I’ve known Londoners walk straight past dead bodies of the homeless (who have multiplied astronomically in the last decade). This behaviour doesn’t look in any way moral or decent, but it’s what we’re conditioned to, and has to do with a separation of public and private behaviour which exists in every culture, if very differently determined. Anyway. I hope many life-affirming things have happened since to counteract the gloom. New commenter, but have always really enjoyed your posts- please keep writing.

  15. Renee Stout

    I was just remarking the other day to someone about the lack of civility, common decency and concern being show towards fellow citizens here in the U.S., especially in this era of Trump. If something happens to someone right in front of me, I feel compelled to help, knowing that if I was in that person’s place, I would hope that someone would be concerned enough about me as a human being to help. We humans can be horrible creatures and we can also be amazing creatures.

    • Totally agree. And there are plenty of extremely kind people here as well, obviously. But there is also a state sanctioned lack of empathy as well. Of COURSE you would help someone in front of you – to me it’s an unthinking, primal impulse.

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