Saturday, May 24, 2008

Ron`s Nihonjin

I went to the immigration office the other day and had a thoroughly good experience. The immigration people were polite and efficient. My previous visit had not been so positive.

It got me to thinking about the ways in which experiences in Japan can be categorised. This is a bit complicated and off the top of my head, so bear with me: it seems to me that there is a language for speaking about Japan that is common among foreigners. Almost any experience can be categorised within it. I am thinking about common tags like: "Japanese efficiency", "Japan is a group society", "those crazy Japanese", "Japan as ultra modern society", "Japan as a tradition bound society". The language goes on and on and I haven't got a real handle on how it works, but my intuition is that it contains all sorts of contradictory or at least paradoxical categories, which allow pretty much anything to be put in a box within it. In this sense it is a "language" rather than a useful analytical system, because languages have to have this ability to swallow all facts, whether contradictory to another proposition in the language or not.

Like all languages, it not only describes but shapes the way we experience the world. I'll take that a bit further in this case: I get the feeling that this is an extremely crude language - people seem to be able to pick it up and speak it fluently within weeks of getting here, some people even speak it without ever having visited Japan - so I think it really does crudely shape people's views and experiences. My feeling is that it cannot be contradicted, that it has a category for (almost) every eventuality and is in that sense ideological and unfalsifiable.

As I say, I haven't really got a grip on how it works. So, what I am going to over time is to record experiences and how they might be categorised by a hypothetical speaker of this language sitting on my shoulder. I will call him "Ron". I am also going to record other categories within the "Ron's Nihonjin" language that do not apply to the given experience and/or seem contradictory to it.

I am not going to do this systematically. Partly because I am not trained to do so and also because there is something very unsystematic about the way people use this system. It is all very haphazard, so I am going to haphazardly apply categories as they occur to me. I am not going to be making factual claims - for instance, in the immigration office experience below I am not saying that the experience contradicts the proposition that sometimes Japanese organisations act irrationally. This language is usually not used in that sort of empirical way. In my "contradictory/unapplicable tags category" I am just recording tags that would commonly be used in other situations by speakers of this language that seem not to fit the case in hand. I also might find over time that some tags actually mean the same as others in the language. Let's see how it shapes out:

22. 5.08
Go to Tokyo immigration bureau. Speedily and politely dealt with on a difficult issue.

Ron's tags:
"Japanese efficiency", "Japanese politeness"
Related tags: "Japan ultramodern"

Contradictory/uncomfortable tags: "Japanese bureaucracy", "Japan's irrational organisations"
Related tags which don't fit comfortably: "Japan's racist society", "Japan as rigid society"

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