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.
* 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:
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.