Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Country's Happiness

In general, Japanese people are extremely nice. So nice, in fact, that it almost becomes uncomfortable. From the ever-enthusiastic “いらっしゃいませ!”s to the cutified animals on posters and signs, I can’t help but wonder if Japan’s affinity for “happiness” is masking something much deeper within. Surely, the store clerks at the supermarket must get somewhat annoyed with me when I take forever in the checkout line (mostly because I’m trying to get rid of all my 1-yen coins). And during the month I’ve stayed with them, I haven’t heard Otou-san or Okaa-san or Riko yell once. Actually, the most they’ve done is playfully scold each other. They might argue behind closed doors, but because of the way the house is built, I’m pretty sure I would hear them if their voices even rose a notch…

The only instance of “unhappiness” (if you can even call it that) that I’ve witnessed in Hakodate so far is by the sea. I described the elderly people walking by the ocean in the morning from a previous post, but I went another time in the afternoon and saw a larger crowd of people doing the same. A middle-aged man in his bicycle smoking on the beach. A younger woman parked alone in her car staring off into space. Of course, I’m not claiming that all of these people were depressed, but they certainly revealed a different side than the unfaltering smiles and rehearsed phrases from the tram driver.

On that same afternoon, I also crawled onto the cement barrier separating the road from the beach, but was startled to find bits of metal and trash strewn across the sand. For a country that blocks its lawnmowers with giant screens to stop stray grass from getting onto the street (see below photo), it was unsettling to find so much trash on Hakodate’s beaches. As such, it seems like the beaches aren’t much for recreation, even though almost all of Hakodate borders the ocean.

Only in Japan...

The routineness of everyday life is also unnerving me – I adore my host family, but they never fail to stray from their daily schedule of work/school, grocery shopping, making dinner, watching TV, and taking a bath. Of course, there are things like school festivals and art exhibits at the shop, but they seem to go through the motions so naturally. Dinner conversations pleasantly flow around the weather forecast and whatever else is in the newspaper, reminding me of an American 50s sitcom. Then again, I am one to hate on suburbia. And my faith leads me to believe that this life holds something greater than earning a living. But even then, I could almost appreciate an occasional complaint from Riko or even a raised eyebrow from the supermarket clerk.

I wrote one of my papers last semester on something that may be loosely related to this: the conflict between giri and ninjo, or social obligation and personal feelings, in Japanese society. Now, I really dislike generalizations and stereotypes, and I know that Japan has changed a lot from the staunch loyalty to one’s household in the feudal age. But at the same time, the spotless politeness and daily routines are somewhat unsettling. Do people really find happiness in all of this?

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jglc said...

"Then again, I am one to hate on suburbia."

:D miss you miriam cho. very profound.

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