Friday, February 25, 2022

Giri & Ninjou At The Japanese University Part II

 Today's guilt trip

Coworker: Bana sensei, do you know all the part timer names? (Knows full well I don't)
Me: Nope
Coworker: Why not?
Me: I haven't been on campus for 2 years
Coworker: But before that
Me: I was busy getting used to this place
Coworker: But you must know their faces...
Me: When do we see faces?
Coworker: What?
Me: Can you see my face?
Coworker: What?
Coworker: What?
Me: Do you understand Japanese?
Coworker: What?
Me: We all wear masks so we never see faces anymore.
Coworker: But it is terrible you don't...
Me: (grabbing bags and heading for the door) You need to stop these guilt trips and attacks. This is why the other teacher quit

Ukraine, Personal Responsibility, & Neoliberalism 2.0

Although I agree in principle with all these 'stand with Ukraine' expressions, they all show the failure of nations to deal with the issue. Just as pollution was rebranded an individual responsibility and each of us were expected to buckle down to the three R's while corporate pollution was ignored in favour of economic expansion, so too are we individuals are expected to add a Ukraine flag, stop drinking vodka, and drop 'the' from Ukraine while the nations our taxes prop up twiddle their fingers to keep Russian gas pumping.

Welcome to neoliberalism 2.0.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Giri & Ninjou at the Japanese University

People often ask me what it's like being the only foreign prof at a J university. Normally, it is like anywhere else.

It's when the chips are down you see the differences.

Recently my uni went back to face to face but I refused due to my wife's health issues and my son's developmental issues. Basically, I haven't the energy to be a double careworker at home and ride the plague trains.

The response has been split along giri (obligation to work) and ninjou (intense humanity and empathy) lines.

When I made the announcement, my usually sunny supervisor called me irresponsible and terrible, and threateningly hinted at problems because the other profs didn't know what was happening. The dean noted I had gotten fat and told me to work more, then relented and told me to take care.

In response, I sent a mass email to everyone explaining exactly the pressures I was under, and got some sympathetic emails telling me they understood and to take care of myself.

Just now, an older prof I ran into shook my hand, hugged me, and wept openly.

So, these are the extremes you get here.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Life in Japan in the Time of Corona (Or why rona will be big in Japan for a while yet)

I just went to a new little soba (buckwheat noodle) shop in my neighborhood here outside of Kyoto and had a tasty and cheap bowl of nishin (Pacific herring) noodles with a green apple sour cocktail to wash it down. Only after ordering did I notice that the master (chef & owner) had his mask hanging off his chin as he cooked, bustled about the open kitchen, and breathed all over my food.

I would not have gone in had I noticed him first.

Which got to me thinking, why would a small business owner struggling under safety restrictions engage in such self-destructive behaviour? To step back further, why is a supposedly law-abiding society like Japan having such a hard time shaking off Corona?

(Warning - This article contains a lot of anecdotal evidence, but that doesn't mean it is totally invalid, just needing clarification & confirmation.)

1 It's a class (and hierarchy) thing

Who do I mostly see drooping masks over their chin here? A LOT of construction and service workers. In other words, blue collar workers at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum. People who have little to lose. I remember Bourdieu commenting on how lower class people engage in self-destructive behaviour more on average because they have little to lose. Japanese laborers seem to be embodying this trend.

On the other hand, I also see bosses and managers mask drooping as they command about bowing and masked underlings. It could be the rules don't apply to them when in a position of power at the top of the hierarchy.

Not that a virus cares about these things...

2 It's a social thing

Japanese are inherently social, but their sociablity is often outsourced to a paying contact - the girl at the snack bar, the master at the noodle shop. As I ate my soba, a local woman at the counter talked up a storm with the waitress. Many Japanese talk less with their family than coworkers or shop staff, so shutting down eating and drinking establishments is anathema to their social identity.

So stay at home orders feel like social suicide to many Japanese. No wonder they went on with the Olympics, and hordes of maskless young people throng in McDs and parks, and push up the daily Corona stats...

3 It's a macho manchild thing

Predominantly, the maskless faces I see in the streets are male. Ian Buruma's A Japanese Mirror adroitly dissects the Japanese male psyche, which is split between the swaggering machismo of the samurai (a la Yukio Mishima) and the co-dependence of a spoiled son from a hahmono, or suffering mother tragedy story, which were big in the 1950's. That was when Japan needed armies of manchildren to do what they were told and staff its companies and rebuild the nation.

Now, no one is telling them what to do, so their masks hang low...

4 It's a technocratic thing

Now that Japan is estimated to be 50% vaccinated, I am seeing older people loosening their masks. I live on the Tokaido, the old road between Kyoto and Yedo, and many of the largely senior citizen hikers that trudge past my house reliving the old glory days of the samurai have dropped masks altogether as they chat amiably as they walk.

This implies that we may see a rise in vaccinated people being infected. Time to watch those numbers...

I went out for beers under the ancient Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto the other day, and talking with a fellow professor who teaches at Kyoto University, we concluded Japan is only half way through the Corona epidemic. In short, we expected the epidemic to last 2 more years, even though we were sure we'd be sent back to classrooms long before that.

By the way, the soba was worth it. I'm fully vaccinated, I just hope I didn't bring home a side order of master's rona breath for my unvaccinated child.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Outsourcing Privacy Invasion: Japan's neoliberal ID check app

Here is an example of Japanese style neoliberalism. Tokyo has introduced an app for scanning the mandated ID cards of foreign residents.

With this move, the state retreats from its former duties (ie checking foreigner status, regulating employment) while foisting the responsibility for these on businesses and individuals with the warning "Business owners who employ illegals can be held liable."

The state also abrogates its duty to protect foreigner rights by making the employers do the checking and thus them commit any invasion of privacy.

Insidious and insipid at the same time.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Capitalism As A Flight To Nowhere

Have you seen the news? Flights to nowhere are selling out in minutes. Shops are selling airplane food. People (with jobs, homes, and money) are breathing sighs of relief that air travel is resuming because of the ‘tough’ year they have had.


More than ever before, we are at home with our family, and connected online 24-7, yet still desiring for escape. But what exactly are we escaping from, and to where?


Not since Durkheim’s groundbreaking work on how social disconnection leads to depression and suicide have we seen a clear indicator of how this phenomenon works. We are connected to each other, but disconnected from consumption, from sidewalk cafes, clothes stores, and bars. We can’t travel to exotic locales, or go see the shows. We are cut off from our goal – endless, mindless consumption, and the culture industry that takes our mind off it. And it is killing us. As Durkheim stated, “One does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or - which is the same thing - when his goal is infinity.” 



Under Covid, we see what Durkheim would describe as a “general state of extreme depression and exaggerated sadness, causing the patient no longer to realize sanely the bonds which connect him with people and things about him. Pleasures no longer attract.” Indeed, this is the very definition of Durkheim’s ‘Melancholy suicide’, in other words, an ennui towards the daily pleasures of family, work, hobbies, and health, and a craving for the hyped pleasures of consumption, particularly through travel.



Neoliberal capitalism has programmed us to desire the same thing: the status signifying brand, the high paying job, and the package tour to blow off steam from the effort required in acquiring these. This is the ideology of the times, the religion of what Foucault called homo economicus – man defined by his economic relations. According to Durkheim, “It is society which, fashioning us in its image, fills us with religious, political and moral beliefs that control our actions.” We are flailing and failing during the Covid crisis precisely because of how our society is constructed. Look at the utter failure of hyper capitalist US society to deal with the crisis, then the ‘surprising’ success of African and Asian nations, which realize the importance of traditional social bonds for stability and individual happiness.



Durkheim also noted, “Social the masterpiece of existence.” But homo economicus is not a series of masterpieces, each unique in his or her own right. Instead, we are mass produced knock offs, infinite variations on the same product, modded and kitted out in ways that simulate individuality, freedom, but which are just different coloured chains of consumption. Make no wonder that we feel unfulfilled and lonely, despite having access to the internet’s Cave of Wonders.


In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, media outlets sagely opined that the crisis would be a time to find a new normal, one that fulfills individuals while allowing a new relation with nature. Looking at the return of the airline industry, with the pump priming action of flights to nowhere, I fear that we are willingly slipping back into chains that bound us, and refusing the lesson on what is important in life that Corona is trying to teach us.

Monday, October 19, 2020

SHUKKOU – The first step in Japanese socialization


I had to walk my son to school this morning as he's still getting used to the new direction. It was eye-opening. You can see that the walk to school en masse in uniforms in the morning is really the start of Japanese socialization. Meet up at the appointed time, wearing the appointed clothes (unless you have special permission, like the kid in jeans because of a field trip), and with the same people every day Monday to Friday. There is a huge sense of belonging, of solidarity there.


As a foreigner, I have a knee jerk reaction against group proceedings. The hundred kids who flood the road in similar white shirt, blue vest, blue skirt or shorts depending on gender, and bright yellow hat and rucksack remind me of an invading army winding its way through the street on its way to a massacre or bivouac.


The foreign is tempted to see the masse movement as a loss of identity and individuality. Nothing could be further from the case. Every one goes together in the same direction in their own way. There are the gangly older kids leading the pack, each with some sort of individualized marker (glasses, a hanging strap, jutting hair). The fidgety younger kids can easily pick each other out of the crowd based on movement, sound, tidiness of attire, etc, despite the added barrier of facemasks. The proceeding is in fact a sensitization to individual differences, of all the little conscious and unconscious movements and signals that mark who we are.


I thoroughly enjoyed my walk amidst the throng today, and they seemed to enjoy my funny dances, matching mask and shirt, and the weird English (Gimme a break!) I taught them. More than that, I got to see my introverted son chatting easily to kids he knew and who knew him.


I think my wife saw today's walk as an imposition, a duty she had to invoke, and was ready to fight to make me go. Instead, it was a great joy for me to peer into the workings of Japanese socialization, as well as the increasing socialization of my boy.