(This is part one of a series of posts about my impressions of Japan. Please forgive any generalisations, inaccuracies and the taint of a mindset unaccustomed to the East)
In my previous post I expressed great admiration for the culture of service and deference in Japan. However, not everything in Japan is amazing. The efficiency (things are really efficient here) and orderliness come at a cost and Japan has a darker side.
The love isn’t (always) real
In a system where you are expected to interact in exactly the appropriate manner with everyone (such as enthusiastically greeting every customer that walks in) you need to learn to put on the appropriate appearance (there is even a word for this, though I have forgotten it). It is very important to seem enthusiastic, even if you are not. It is very important to be polite and friendly. This makes it quite hard for Westerners like myself to distinguish between what people really feel and what they are merely obliged to portray.
This would not really be a problem, but it also causes a lot of stress (as far as I understand) for those who need to do the portraying, who need to suppress their true emotions. I asked a young man for directions at a metro station and he grew visibly distressed and chanted “gomenasai” (“I am sorry”) several times. I feared he might die of stress. I do not know if how much of his distress was real and how much was because he needed to be profusely apologetic, but clearly he was under a great amount of pressure to act in a certain way.
I think that if I had sat down and thought for about thirty seconds before actually going to a Maid Café, I would have thought the better of it. But, stupidly, I was dragged to one by a girl advertising the café. It was probably the most awkward and horrible experiences of my life. It literally consists of several girls dressed as maids. They look like they are between 16 and 18 years old (but they’re probably older) and they treat you as their “master” and sing the most inane songs (you are expected to sing along). The treatment I got from these girls, as “cute” and enthusiastic as it may have been, was a very good example of forced appearances – they seemed very strained (though admittedly my awkwardness must not have helped).
The cafés are populated, it seems, mostly by “salarymen” (businessmen who wear suits) who go there, it seems, for the kick of being called “master” and served by a young(-looking) girl. Honestly, it’s one of the most sexist and demeaning practices I’ve experienced. Maid cafés are a very perverted form of entertainment. Don’t go there.
Profiteering “Buddhist” monks
Outside Tokyo I was approached by a man in monk’s clothes. He gave me a gold token and offered to pray for peace for me. I should have been very suspicious. He gave me a booklet in which to write my name and it became clear he was actually asking for donations. He showed me a picture of a run-down temple under construction. My brain was clearly not working very well, because I tried to give him a small amount of money (which he tried to increase by saying “no coins” – this and “peace” seemed to be the only English he could speak). Through sheer persistence and by making me so uncomfortable that my brain must have short-circuited he got 500 yen out of me. That’s 500 yen more than he deserves. Be aware of cons in Buddhist clothing!
The sex industry
Indeed, Japan has a sex industry (though apparently, it typically stops just short of actual sex to stay legal). I know little else about the sex industry, but apparently entrances like the one pictured below are where you can go if you want to experience it (but you should probably not expect anyone to speak English).
Japan has a very high suicide rate. The reasons for this are probably complex enough to fill several PhD theses, but most suicides are male and many result from being overworked or from retiring (often after being with the same company for decades). It is common to hang oneself in a certain forest near Mount Fuji or to jump in front of a train. Suicide is not stigmatised in Japan and, if done under the right circumstances is honourable.