November 29, 2002
Learning to be Japanese (it's very hard)

Patrick Crozier has just finished giving a talk about Japan, based on his recent visit there, and out of the conversation afterwards emerged a point about Japanese society that will seem very obvious to all those who have been aware of it for many years, but which only got to me tonight, for the first time.

The Japanese alphabet is diabolically complicated. In fact, if I heard an exchange between Patrick and David Carr correctly, there are three Japanese alphabets, for three different purposes which I didn't quite catch. And each alphabet contains characters beyond numbering. Something like eight thousand.

The upshot of which is that it takes about two decades of unremitting toil to become, in a basic sense, Japanese. What our cleverer or luckier or smarter pupils have done by the age of about nine, takes them twice as long and more. You think it's hard for Westerners to "penetrate" Japanese society? Well yes, it is. But so too, and for the same sort of reasons, is it hard for the Japanese themselves to get to the centre of it.

Suddenly the "conformity" and "collectivism" and "authoritarianism" of Japan makes more sense. Becoming Japanese is, in a basic sense, climbing an endless ladder of cultural complexity. Becoming British or French or Spanish or American, by comparison, is about as hard as passing your driving test. And once you're in, you're in, and everyone's equal.

I'm sure the internet is pulsating with places where all this is much more thoroughly gone into. But I only really got this notion tonight, and I have no links to offer whatsoever, except to Patrick's own Transport Blog, where, if you dig in the archives you'll find pictures of Japanese trains, and such like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 PM
Category: Literacy