Gained in Translation: Japan the Second Time Around
November 2003

Gary T. Marx, aka Sensei Marx | Back to Main Page

Ramblin' boy
May your ramblin'
Bring you joy.

          —Jack Elliot

These are some rambling thoughts of an occasional rambling adult from some lectures in Kyoto and a conference in Tokyo in 2003. They continue travel reflections that began with a summer scout trip around the US in 1950, trips to Europe in 1960, Mexico and Guatemala in 1961, a year spent traveling around the world in 1964, and travel and teaching reflections based on living in France and England in 1970-71, Belgium 1991, Vienna in 1993 and China 1995. At some point I hope to combine these and all the photos along with travel and teaching experiences in the US in Morgantown, Evanston, Urbana, Gainesville, Richmond, Claremont and San Juan.

I attended a conference on information technology and society and gave talks at Kyoto University and InfoCom, the think tank for the Japanese telephone company. These on the run (or on the fly) travel observations are hardly the stuff of scholarship, but they have the virtue of being spontaneous and pretty unfiltered. They can be shared and are a better way of preserving the memory without impulsively buying some regional specialty bric-a-brac you won't use and will later grace a yard sale.

Gozaimasu 1965 ni nihon ni kmasheeteaga hotoendo yon ju nen buri desu kansha shimasu.

I forget just how that translates, but my colleague David Johnson wrote it for me as part of a longer introduction to my lectures. The shock on people's faces was apparent and their clapping after I was done always got things off to a great start (no clapping when I finished the English part.) The words translate to how wonderful it was visit Japan after our first visit in 1965. And wonderful it was. This trip was a trip.

Urban Beauty

Tokyo, especially in the district where the conference was, provides a contemporary urban landscape with a vengeance. As a tourist brochure notes, it "…offers a complex urban landscape, laced with layer upon layer of railways and highways with a mighty conglomeration of buildings in between." If that is not to one's liking, then the advice of our international journalist cousin Mort Rosenbloom who, when asked, "what is the best thing to do in Tokyo?" responded, "go see 'Lost in Translation', then cancel your trip."

The Akasa area of Tokyo where I was is a constricted concrete, glass and metal maze with elevated trains, cars and pedestrians zooming by, multi-level plazas with different green spaces, water features, bridgeways, escalators and stairs. There are few visible landmarks for locating oneself within the larger area. Surprisingly for such a dense urban setting, it was more harmonious than jarring and there was something almost comforting about the predictable automated rhythms. The pocket gardens, fountains and delicately trimmed vegetation in pots and the unexpected nooks and crannies filled with visual delights softened the scene.

This however involves the management and control of space and persons to an amazing degree. No naturally growing trees, weeds, visible trash or homeless in this district.

I was overwhelmed by the Japanese aesthetic, or at least the major form of it that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright—involving the simplicity, directness, starkness, readability, reliance on natural and geometric forms, and surprises to the eye in seeing little niches with flowers or rocks or water features in unexpected places. In one restroom a commonly blank urinal wall was transformed by a back lit glass covered alcove with a mini-Zen garden of grey stones blending harmoniously with the dark marble wall. Particularly memorable, even mesmerizing, were the ikebana vase arrangements consisting of a leaf and several flowers and rocks. Even the tiny Saki cup with a delicate simple tulip painted on it was moving, especially now that you can get cold, as well as the traditional warm sake. I had difficulty locating the paper towels in a rest room because their holder was so tastefully embedded into the wall. I particularly enjoyed the design of advertising posters and flyers.

Even the ever-present self-service vending machines for soft drinks and cigarettes were sparklingly beautiful, clean and white. The interiors were softly lit with a gentle white back light, increasing the appeal of the product.

Losses and Gains in Translation

Unlike the French with their anti-English language norms, the Japanese see no hint of cultural imperialism in the spread of English. Indeed its assimilation may be part of a Japanese (and earlier Roman) gift for incorporation from other cultures, although there are less charitable terms for that as well. One of the pleasures of Japanese travel is seeing English usages with what appear to be literal transliteration or less charitably, just poor translation. Beyond the literal idiomatic renderings, articles and prepositions are in less evidence.

Among some favorites:

"Happy morning" on the tooth brush provided along with the hairbrush, razor and other toiletries in hotels "Hair-Do" neon sign (for a hair salon)

Some of what I took note of might have been gender, rather than linguistically linked. Thus I wasn't quite sure what to do with "toning mist" and "hydrating cream."

The sports facilities at the Marroad Hotel, "are perfect for those wishing to break a sweat and refresh the spirit" (I'm glad it isn't the other way around.) The hotel also has an aerobic studio and a "resting room." My plan to serially explore these was not carried out.

A sign over an ethanol hand-washer advises:

Attention For Guests for the prevention of being infected with SARS we will complete to sterilize our hotel by disinfecting. So will make a request for disinfecting your hands by sterilizer.

How to use:

  • Put your hands into the indicator and drop the liquid from it
  • Apply the solution to the whole hands and spontaneously dry up
I recall an anthropologist describing Japan as an anal society. A different facet of that can be seen in commode artifacts. In a restaurant there was a sign indicating "Shower Toilets" which recalled 3rd world (and some European) combined facilities. But in this case the shower head was in the toilet basin and pointed upward, being for hygienic "posterior cleansing" after use of the facility. There were a variety of choices from high to low "showers," an air dryer and even a warm to less-warm heated toilet seat. My initial encounter with the latter was a bit unsettling, as I at first thought the seat was warm from the previous user. I also entertained notions of possible dribble-driven electric shock.

On a sparklingly white and beautifully back-lit cigarette machine with brands such as "Peace" and "Friendship" one reads:

"It is a common practice over there to offer each other a cigarette as daily greetings."
"So I heard. Cigarettes are offered to express friendliness and affection."
Just where "over there" is, is not defined, nor is it clear who is speaking. With friends like that one does not need adveraries. The literal Japanese meaning has an understood context but it does stray in translation.

After a long day (it was an unseasonable 80 degrees), I returned to my overheated, stuffy, airless middle class Kyoto hotel room and eagerly turned the knob on the bedside console labeled "air conditioner" and heard the reassuring swoosh of the fan. But as I got ever warmer I remembered you can't believe everything you read. The knob was mislabeled, being for the heater; there was no air conditioner. All the hotel rooms had emergency flashlights and I was proudly told by several persons about the anti-earthquake measures used in constructing large buildings.

The airport hotel had the usual English Bible but also a larger volume in both Japanese and English, The Teaching of Buddha offered by The Society for the Promotion of Buddhism, Bukko Dendo Kyokal. This was the 50th (!) Revised Edition, 1995.

In the section on "The Theory of Mind and the Real State of Things" we find some remarks for experts, "The fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed" (p.63) and re some supposed experts, "The important thing in following the path to Enlightenment is to avoid being caught and entangled in any extreme, that is always to follow the middle way." (p.114) But I wrestle with the fact that sometimes that means being wishy-washy and spineless. Some things ought not to be negotiable or up for much discussion. There was a nice metaphor in this section re what happens if a log floating in a river avoids entanglements and eventually reaches the sea, but I can't remember its referents.

There must be a cognitive process of tilting toward believing that we are getting through when we communicate. I was reminded of what it is so easy to forget: Just because the speakers know the word or expression, can spell it and think they can pronounce it, that does not mean that the audience will understand.

A Russian I chatted with on the subway to Narita airport didn't get my saying "spaceba" until I wrote it down and said in slow English "thank you." Nor could I communicate the name of the place my ancestors on my paternal grandmother's side—Grodno Gabera—were from. There were times in Japan when people were speaking English to me and I turned to the translator for the English translation, only to be somewhat sheepishly told that the person was speaking English and the translator didn't know what they were saying either. The translator then asked them to go from English back to Japanese so the translator could tell me.

I had better luck with important words such as "bi-ru nama" (beer on tap) and what sounded to me like "ohio-ga-dimas" (the initial greeting.) It was also fun to answer the phone "moshi moshi"—hello (and in my mind add "but go light on the plum sauce.") But then getting a Japanese response, I had to own up to faking it. However I had no success with "ichi bon tomadatchi" a line remembered from a 50's rock and roll song meaning, number one girl, finest in the world.

I had a hard time hearing the name when a Japanese scholar said he was interested in Durkheim and another said he had met Robert Merton when he visited Kyoto. With the average encounter there is no simple answer other than speaking slowly, repetition, using one's hands and making eye contact to see if there is recognition. Making a related point can be helpful to see if the person nods and makes a connection to what was previously said. Writing it down can also help.

There is a funny scene in the film Lost in Translation in which Bill Murray is not sure what a courtesan is requesting of him, given the mixing up of "l's" and "r's." I asked several people about "lock and loll music." I am not sure why I said it that way, perhaps to aide comprehension and it was fun to say, I was understood, but there was no hint to my listeners that there might be something humorous there. The punch line to the old joke "rots of ruck with your erection" has stayed with me, although I don't clearly recall the first part.

Just how the auditory relates to the written is fascinating. The vitae of one particpant reports that he spent time in Burgalia which is likely in Eastern Europe, not Disneyland. The highly literate official who sent the initial invitation to the small conference was sorry to have to later report that the "panerist from China" [my spell check doesn't like that, no doubt preferring panelist] would be unable to attend.

Some of the pronunciation shares something with Spanish. A great sign of changed times was the number of people who spoke some degree of English. I received help almost every time I asked a stranger for directions. Also of note was the number of non-Japanese seen in Tokyo (perhaps 1 in 10 of the people on the streets near the hotel.) That contrasts with my memory of rarely seeing non-Japanese when we were here in 1965. Also this time no one stared, not even children. A black rap group on tour however did garner attention and a request for photos.

I also found many faces whose biological/ethnic origin was hard to determine. Some were certainly Eurasian, but for others, it may also reflect the influence of Western dress, facial expressions, body language and diet. I was also struck by the significant number of Caucasians speaking Japanese.

Having a translator takes some getting used to and I found, especially in the smaller group settings, that I was impatient since one is asked to stop after a few sentences. This breaks up your chain of thought, especially when going beyond a prepared text. On the other hand the translator can ask you to clarify and you can ask if there is such a word or experience in Japan. That is not really possible with simultaneous translation using headsets.

For the latter I spoke slowly and occasionally looked up at the translators in the glass booth, as well as half-listening to the translation with the volume turned down. The need I felt in France in the early 1970s to get it all out rapidly in the short period of time allotted for the talk was absent. I did take what now seems like some kind of misplaced pride one time in Strasbourg when, years ago, I recall the translator pounding on the glass to get me to slow down (reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in the closed door last scene in the Santa Barbara church in The Graduate.)

The translator often used the word "gimmic" which I assume has come to mean device or technology. A colleague said that while the translators were technically very good, they often missed colloquial and situational meanings. I recalled the error in the Chinese translation of Undercover in which Scotland Yard was translated as a garden in Scotland. There were challenges and I recall pausing and looking up at the translation booth before trying to explain how an athlete neutralized a drug test through the use of a catheter to insert drug-free urine into his system.

The politeness, bows, and greater use of "thank you" and indirect and diplomatic refusals avoid some of the conflict, harshness, and abrasiveness of life in the West. As is the case in other parts of Asia, saying "no" is often expressed more indirectly. This may also be a factor in why long winded answers may be given to questions that could be answered in English with a short sentence.

I wondered how this relates to social class and if lower status persons have greater dignity and respect here. Are some aspects of the seemingly greater hierarchical nature of the society softened by this? Also how does it transfer to gender norms and the greater gender inequality here?

Note the non-confrontational, even apologetic offering of rules at a hotel restaurant:

"We are afraid we can not settle the bill separately."

"We are afraid smoking is NOT PERMITTED in our restaurant" (just down the hall from the affectionate cigarette machine)

The hand-held computer translators make things much easier (e.g., a colleague's ability to tell me that it was leek soup.) But for those the Japanese characters must be entered phonetically. The larger automatic character translators are not yet very accurate.

Society, Privacy and Surveillance

With respect to privacy, politeness norms seem conducive to respecting the other, especially regarding not starring in public and avoiding contact in crowded settings (although there is also concern over inappropriate touching on the subway.) The expected/accepted spatial distance between people is less in Japan than in the West and it appears that there is less direct eye contact and when it is present, it is of shorter duration.

Are high density and paper walls conducive to ignoring the other, as this relates to one kind of privacy? Or do they conduce at least what Goffman terms disattendance, as individuals pretend not to notice the other and to not intrude in ways that would make their presence more obvious? Such efforts both show respect and reciprocally carve out a bit of personal space, however circumscribed.

At Kyoto University Professor Makoto Hogetsu and his students are very interested in Goffman's work on the presentation of self, interaction, behavior in public places, and authenticity; and have done research on the history of this area in archives at the University of Chicago. Some of Goffman's ideas fit very well with Japanese society e.g., the idea of role distance. That is perhaps because in some areas there is a high degree of formalism and clearly defined role expectations. Does that leave room or space for violations and impression management in which the person is given the opportunity or room for showing role distance and violations (which may be hard to prove) such as bowing a little too low, or not low enough, or for "faking" conformity on the outside but not really feeling it on the inside? Looked at from the group level (beyond the possible steam letting-off and fun functions for the individual), there may be a clearer functional need for role distance and soft innovative kinds of creative deviance, the more formal, clearly defined the rules.

On the other hand I would hypothesize that the more formally defined the rules and the more homogeneous and consensual the society, the less the legitimacy and resources and related role models available for alternative ways of behaving or feeling. The concept of "shame" in Japanese culture ("Haji-no-bunka") as discussed by Benedict may also function to inhibit the expression of role distance. There are good sociology of knowledge issues regarding the "fit" between Goffman and the characteristics of Japanese and other societies.

In spite of the research on the universality of certain facial expressions, I found it harder to interpret these. I don't know if there is a tendency to show less emotion and to hide the inner self and show greater self-control, or is this just the western stereotypic notion of greater Asian inscrutability? I wonder if there are equivalent concepts within Asian cultures about the difficulty of understanding the west. I recall an article somewhere on face and Chinese society. How much of that applies to Japan?

There is increased talk of privacy, but the link to surveillance has not been made. Video cameras in public places are becoming much more common and in contrast to British and US data, I was told that they are effective in crime prevention. The lack of any research to support this claim didn't impede their belief regarding effectiveness. In Japan as in much of Europe and Latin America, criminology and social control are in the law schools, which gives the topic a more instrumental perspective. This may help account for the relative lack of critical social analysis.

As a matter of policy, signs in the subway or stores announce that video cameras are in operation. I think such notification may be legally required in a few years. There is still very little official wire-tapping, although police now can get legal authority to do this and one of the first official cases was recently tried.

New legislation has and is being passed such as a personal data protection act. With respect to the selling of personal information, most "good" companies don't use data in this secondary fashion, but it sounds like they legally still can. Nor is there much call-marketing since it would be wrong to call someone at home you don't know or have not been given permission to call. In two years call marketing will be illegal. This issue also ties to the unlikelihood of calling a stranger at home in Japan. About 50% of the people have unlisted numbers. That would be an interesting comparative issue to study.

There was a negative reaction in some local jurisdictions over a proposed national ID card sought by the central government. Yet several colleagues said the resistance was exaggerated by the media and most people didn't care. The flap over national ID cards that may soon be required did not excite anyone I talked to.

But overall I had the feeling that there was much less concern than in the US. Most people had not heard of the Japanese toilet that automatically analyzes offerings for health data, nor of aromatic engineering in which scents are pumped into heat and air conditioning systems, two examples I use in pointing out cross-cultural differences. These do not seem to be widely used.

I need to learn more about the "engawa," a semi-public buffer zone between the private interior area of the home and the public street. Not sure if this is like a porch in the US or is a distinct physical space between street and home.

There are a very large number of private investigation firms who do background checks for employers on potential marriage partners. Are these increasingly using computer based searches as in the United States?

Hideyuki Tokuda gave a very thoughtful presentation re ubiquitous computing linking physical space and cyber space and I asked him about the links to simulation that take off from the physical space.

In a nice example of designing warnings into a potentially privacy-invading technology, cell phone cameras, unlike those in the US, beep when they are used. Even the hair dryer in the hotel beeped when it was turned on. If I understood correctly there is a program to implant chips in children's shoes that would sound an alarm when a car gets too close.

There seemed to be less direct eye contact than in the west and little staring. Yet the noise level, especially in public, was very noticeable—not from ringing cell phones, loud one-way conversations, nor loud talking, rather the offence came from sound trucks pushing election candidates and the cacophony of sounds in the subway and train station. There are different tonal sounds for trains as they arrive and are about to depart and also voice announcements in Japanese and English. The latter were jarring and slightly overwhelming. One's ears are overwhelmed just as one's eyes are by the flashing neon ads and signs in the shopping districts. This is a level of urban over-stimulation that would have fatigued even Georg Simmel.

The hotel forms all asked for age and I was told it must be filled out. Yet there was very little in the way of personal discussions, re family, life, gossip etc. Persons whom we had had to our home did not reciprocate, or rather the reciprocation was more formal—in a restaurant. The absence of more personal communication (both in frequency and degree) was among the most striking contrasts I observed. No doubt over time this changes as people become better acquainted, and the US is at the far end of the continuum here (note the frequent contrasts to Europe and the supposed superficiality of Americans in asking questions of others and in revealing information.) The norms regarding what is appropriate or inappropriate to ask of others (or to reveal to them) in different contexts ties to my current research interests.

The Sony Building showroom in the Ginza area offers a futuristic glimpse into recently released and future products including robots. The government has invested large sums in their development, partly to help deal with the aging population by serving it, and also to produce robots for factory work. The alternative for the latter is foreign workers, about whom they are not enthusiastic, to say the least. There are said to be only about 100,000 foreign workers in a population of 92 million.

There is great concern with the aging of the population and the bankrupting of the social security system. Now four workers between the ages of 20-64 support one person 65 or older. But with aging baby boomers and fewer children born, with current trends there will be just 1.5 workers to support one person over 65 in 2050. This could mean major cuts in benefits and increases in premiums. There is lessened confidence in the system and an estimated 1/3 of self-employed persons did not make their required contributions in 2002.

Police offer public warnings against "bad foreigner" crime. There are efforts to educate officials about human rights and racial discrimination but there is a sense among civil liberties and rights advocates that there are many problems. I could not engage anyone in an in-depth discussion of the situation of Koreans or of stigmatized outcaste groups such as the Eta, Ainu and Burakun (sp?), nor of other Asian immigrants such as those from the Philippines or China, not to mention the situation of those with mixed Japanese parentage.

Several people I described the case below to said it was not possible that this could happen. Questions of Japanese identity and citizenship continue to be in flux and attitudes toward foreigners (particularly non-western) are ambivalent or worse. In a noteworthy case the Justice Ministry has just refused to accept the birth registration for citizenship of twins living with their parents in the Kansai region. The twins are the "offspring" [so to speak] of an older infertile Japanese couple who, because surrogate births are banned in Japan, went to California and used an "Asian American" woman's eggs and the husband's sperm. The egg was then implanted in the womb of another American woman. The registration request required a year of inquiry and was rejected because of a failure to accept the relationship between the mother and the babies. The inquiry concluded that the babies were not born to the Japanese woman and therefore were not eligible for citizenship. According to a 1962 Supreme Court ruling the parent-child relationship between a mother and a baby must in principle be established by the fact of an actual delivery. However as I learned from an article in the press complaining about racial profiling and discrimination against foreigners, it is possible for Caucasians and others of non-Japanese birth or biological orgin to become citizens. But I imagine it is much more difficult than is the case in the US and some parts of Europe.

The Conference

The conference was highly organized, the participants and staff were very competent and the setting was superb. Yet good musicians don't automatically make for a great orchestra. There was little in the way of over-arching themes, critical or imaginative dialogue, advancement of knowledge or the raising of cross-cultural or new issues.

In my presentations I spoke slowly, tried to use examples that would be known, used Power Point to show cartoons and photos to illustrate basic points, and think I kept the audience. I felt some of the let down after a presentation in which you throw yourself into it, giving your all, and then suddenly the party is over. In yet another case of hope getting in the way of experience, you await evidence that you lit their fire, provoked thoughts and new ways of thinking and look for signs of appreciation for a learned, artful, clever, humorous and inspiring presentation. This would come in the good questions the audience poses. But they usually don't come. At the worst there are no questions, you are misheard, a question involves the least interesting thing in the talk, or questioners want to make their own speeches.

For my two presentations I felt I was really on my game. Yet there was little in the way of comments during or after my presentations (other than from several other English speaking foreign "experts.") My hosts were polite and thanked us, yet I didn't feel the things I talked passionately about particularly engaged or stimulated them, and I didn't feel we were on the same wavelength or even close. I had no sense that any of the Institute staff had read the paper I prepared (other than the individual who translated a summary) or if they had, that the issues and arguments resonated. No one offered specific Japanese examples of privacy invasion or misuses and unintended consequences of information technology, or asked for references or clarifications.

In contrast I read all of the papers and wrote comments on several, and I had questions to raise in each session. After the session I spoke with one of the panelists indicating that I appreciated his paper and I had some thoughts on it. My offering of these was politely tolerated but did not seem to be of overpowering interest. I did not get the sense that this distinguished scholar, who spoke English very well, was a seeker of dialogue.

Yoshio Okawara, former Ambassador to the US and now president of the Institute for International Policy Studies, opened the conference by speaking of the "borderless society." I noted this and suggested alongside of this we are seeing the "borderless person" as illustrated by the new personal surveillance technologies. The breaking and reconfiguring of borders seemed to be a central theme, and one that touched a number of the papers. Yet no one picked up on it. In the final public session the scholar from our panel charged with summarizing it missed much that was central.

The conference was not very analytic or conceptual. Terms such as privacy were used in their broadest sense and as if the meaning was self-evident. I suggested making distinctions such as between privacy, secrecy, confidentiality, the individual and the organization (and then government and non-government), taking information from persons (cameras, drug testing, health records) vs. imposing it upon them (spam, call marketing) and a legitimacy-illegitimacy dimension, but this had no impact on the discussion. Perhaps it is hard to grasp distinctions verbally and certainly some meaning gets lost in translation. Some of my language may also have been too specific or cute or colloquial for the translator unfamiliar with the field.

I likely expected too much and should just have been happy for "the use of the hall" as the vaudeville story suggests. Still my professional socialization, however culturally relative, made me do it.

The Institute researchers are economists, lawyers and administrators. When I noted the absence of other kinds of social scientists who might have insight into these matters, I was told that most of those at the Institute are "seconded" from corporations or government and that is who works there.

I am not sure what this event cumulatively amounts to. They will post the papers on the web page. There will be a summary volume of some kind since this is the final year of a project on information technology.

From one standpoint, international institutes need to have international conferences. Symbolism and process may matter more than content, perhaps particularly when soft social issues are considered. Several persons suggested that we were honored foreign guests and this was an "experts" conference and one did not question experts. I recalled the quip that an expert is anyone who is more than 50 miles from home, so by that standard we were certainly experts. Perhaps the term expert and its associated expectations do not so easily transfer over from science and technology fields to social science.

Norms of deference and politeness may also help account for the lack of pointed dialogue with the presenters. A United States computer science colleague told a story of giving a talk to students at a Japanese university and then waiting for questions. Nothing happened. The Japanese host professor then pointed to a student and said "ask a question" and he did.

I wondered how effectively ideas can be exchanged given the use of honorific and occupational titles, deference to teachers and politeness and the absence of questions (although perhaps those are found in more private settings.) While I was there the head of a major corporation (who had worked in the US for 20 years) banned the use of honorific titles at work because they were seen to inhibit honest communication.

There is the Bushido/Samurai ideal of "loyal dissent" which may overlap Western individualism/independence. Yet in the current context these ideas have not had much currency, although that may change with the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai. Today the idea of committing suicide after the death of one's master as a way of showing loyalty seems culturally exceptionally alien, I would imagine even to non-individualists.

A colleague who had lived abroad, in commenting negatively on his society, said there was just not much interest or concern with these issues in Japanese society, although this was changing. Issues of cultural context and translation may also be important. The few people I had a genuine informal dialogue with had all spent considerable time in Western countries or Australia.

In my talk at Kyoto University there was one very good question from each of the four sociology professors in attendance. But even here there was no dialogue after my response.

In response to few questions, a Japanese colleague who had lived in England said that even for those who speak English well, the Japanese have a slower [perhaps more careful and deliberate] conceptual/cognitive style and take longer to process questions and compose answers. To keep things going and not to face the embarrassment (that I read as disinterest) of a long pause in the discussion period when I asked a question and there was no immediate answer, I then posed another and another to fill in the void. Had I realized the cultural difference I would have waited longer and perhaps there would have been more discussion. I recall some of same hesitancy in Europe re directing questions to the PROFESSOR.

The conference stayed close to the planned time frame and was well managed. At end of the first day's session a staff member was assigned to collect our name tags. These were given out the next morning again and were collected after the conference ended (in over three decades of conference attending neither of these has happened.) Perhaps the final collection was so they could be re-used. There was a call to the hotel room at 5:45 PM to be sure that we would not be late to the reception at 6. This began with formal welcoming speeches and our presence was required as part of the ceremony.

This level of control/organization was also at my presentation at InfoCom, the think tank for the Japanese telephone company. While there were only nine people in attendance, there was a printed seating chart with each person's name, responsibility and assigned seat around the rosewood circular table, and a precise schedule. The seating order was not random. The president of the company sat to my right, the translator to my left and then it seemed to go in seniority.

While unlike a contemporary country and western singer I do not "…drive an old pickup truck and drink my liquor from a Dixie cup," neither do I routinely fly business class at someone else's expense, stay in world class hotels and exchange formalities in penthouses with smart colleagues and former Premiers and Ambassadors. Could things be any better for Mr. Porter Square III, late of Cambridge, Mass?

At the reception, former Prime Minister Nakasone gave an optimistic welcoming speech which consisted mostly of expressing the hope that Japan would use the latest computer technology to catch up and get ahead in an age of globalization. This unbridled faith in technology was reminiscent of my visit to China, and it is an interesting sociology of knowledge question as to why in the US and Europe there is less optimism than in Asia.

We were then introduced to the Prime Minister and had a chance to chat. I thanked him for his vision in creating this Institute (which he did on leaving office) some years ago, and then asked him if there were any things we should be concerned about with respect to the impact of information technology on society. He smiled, warmly shook my hand again and thanked me for my interesting comment. A colleague next to me said, "politicians are the same everywhere."

Right after my "talk" with the Prime Minister, a swarm of media persons practically accosted me, escorted me to a corner of the room, stuck a microphone in my face and began videotaping, with almost no introduction. I began by asking them who they were, what they wanted, how they were going to use the information and was only told "TV news." As a good citizen I said "OK." Since this was a conference on privacy and personal information and I was an officially designated "expert," I assumed they wanted to tap my presumed expertise and talk about the issues and Japan's new law to protect personal information. However the only question asked was:

—"What do you think of Prime Minister Nakasone?"

—"I am a foreigner and am not familiar with Japanese politics and it would not be appropriate for me to offer an opinion."

—"But what do you think about the Prime Minister?"

—"I think that in creating this institute he shows foresight and an awareness of the need to think broadly and deeply about questions of technology and society. While I do not wish to rain on the parade which honors and nourishes us, it is important to ask hard questions about the topic and avoid a premature leap into optimism. Today's solutions, unless carefully thought out, may become tomorrow's problems and have undesirable consequences."

With that they departed. Their question was apparently motivated by the fact that the Prime Minister had recently been in the news because he wanted to run for office again and his party (or perhaps even a law) prohibited this because he was "too old." The crew assumed I was aware of this and would have a strong opinion about it, which I might have, had I known more about it beforehand.

Tourist Notes

Wonderful visit with David Johnson. He is spending the year in Tokyo on a Fulbright studying the very secretive Japanese use of the death penalty (the few condemned each year are not told when they will be hung until shortly before) and families are told after the fact and given only a short time to deal with the remains. We went to the 7 story Edo-Tokyo Museum of Tokyo city history from the "Old Stone Age" to the present with very realistic recreations. The architecture was in some ways reminiscent of the Pompidou Center. Given Tokyo's destruction by several large fires and later in WWII there is little of historic interest remaining and this museum richly recreates historical buildings (some original plans remained from buildings several centuries old.)

I now have a clearer understanding of the 200-year Tokugawa period in which there was relative peace and the Mejii reform period that began in 1853 when Commodore Perry and his enormous black warships steamed into the harbor to confront some modest Japanese wooden sail boats. That led to the opening up of the country and its very rapid modernization. Just why the latter happened so fast keeps scholars in business. The absence of colonialism and an entrenched rural gentry class (as in China) and the more centralized form of Japanese feudalism, along with island geography are often cited as factors. Yet even with the prior isolation there was always some cultural exchange and seepage across borders. One small port was in fact kept open and special trading rights were given to the Dutch there.

Japan, unlike Germany, has never fully accepted responsibility for World War II. They tend to see themselves as victims of their own military and then of atomic bombs and the firebombing of Tokyo. In Germany the civil service was purged of Nazis, but that is not the case for the fascists in Japan to the same extent. "Kamikaze no. 1" is on shirts and head bands and of course the red symbolic sun is prevalent. These have not taken on the symbolic meaning of the swastika in Germany. Within the educational system, World War II and the treatment of Korea and China, even granting for some differences of interpretation, is highly laundered. The Mayor of Tokyo in a controversial statement recently claimed that the Koreans invited the Japanese to take over their country because it was the best alternative.

Memorable images and imagable memories:

  • Food markets with a great assortment of unrecognizable, as well as familiar, vegetables in unfamiliar sizes, such as giant three foot leeks resembling something out of Little Shop of Horrors. The colors and shapes of the variety of products in clear plastic bags seen in a pickled vegetable shop were a delight.
  • The very bright but softly lit 24-hour convenience stores are taken to a high art form with a much broader array of merchandise and food than ours.
  • the visual bombardment from computer-driven, seemingly football field size multi-colored brightly lit (neon?) advertisements going up the side of buildings in the Ginza and other districts
  • Soggy bagel fried egg breakfast at a Kyoto McDonalds. A colleague says the only good place to get a bagel is at the Jewish Community Center in Tokyo. The problem with other bagels is a law requiring that they (and any bread products) be made with a certain percentage of Japanese flour. The JCC was able to get an exemption by claiming that for religious reasons they need all-foreign flour.
  • Taxis are a far cry from 1965 when the small, dirty cars felt like motorized sardine cans recklessly careening around obstacles at excessive speeds following no rules other than getting their first. This time not only did most of the drivers wear white gloves and coats and ties, there were embroidered white seat covers that looked like they were changed daily. Traffic was orderly and within the speed limit, although it was so heavy and channeled, they couldn't have gone any faster.
  • No tipping is a relief and avoids the feeling that the server is objectifying you as simply a meal ticket. I was told that tipping is even offensive to some because they are just doing their job and take pride in doing it well.
  • At the museum, beyond the usual red encircled signs saying don't touch and don't smoke there was a red line over an image of a man wearing a kimono gesticulating as he fell over with the words "drunk visitors will not be allowed in the museum" and another with what looked like a Model-T Ford with the red line and the words, "please come to the museum by public transportation." The equivalent sign for no cell phones noted that use of these is "allowed only in the telephone corner." Gum chewing is also prohibited.
  • Still some lack of standardization nationally, thus I was told that although they drive on the left as in Britain, whether you walk on left or right side on sidewalk depends on region of the country.
  • Recent generations of Japanese are taller and heavier than their parents. Yet aspects of the built environment continue to reflect average size. Thus one had to bend down to see out of the peep hole in hotel doors, the bus seats from the airport were narrower and the keyboard on some hand held devices seemed smaller than in the West.
  • In Kyoto revisiting the UNESCO world treasure Ginkajuki Temple founded in 1400s, and the Department of Stereotype Re-enforcement re the Japanese and cameras. With the ubiquitous cell phone and email/web cameras this is taken to unprecedented levels. I wasn't sure of the exact number of cameras my two hosts in Kyoto carried, but it was at least 4 and perhaps more. The visit was on Saturday and on my return home the next day the attached picture was already waiting on the computer (of course it could have been sent immediately to Phyllis at home as well.) This bringing of a real-time visual co-presence may have profound social implications.
  • Recycling everywhere with separate (and clean) well marked containers for cans and plastic, papers, glass and others (organic material.) The recycling contrasts with the throw away plastic personal grooming items in all of the hotels. However in one hotel there were large shampoo and soap bottles with a note that "we provide refillable types of shampoo and soap to help utilize our valuable resources more efficiently to reduce waste."
  • In early November seeing Christmas signs and decorations and hearing Christmas music in shopping districts. The commercial, although not the religious, aspects of the holiday have been taken over.
  • Some pay phones (which surprisingly were easy to find, even with all the cell phones) had ports for computer connections.


The train station had a striking posters showing five men in suits walking single file and leaning forward, they are on the move and moving quickly. It then says in bold letters, "Ambitious Japan." They are a famous singing group and the adds seek to promote a new train. Yet the imagery nicely reflected what I saw more generally re a frenetic pace and an intense focus on tasks.

The extreme busyness of people in hotels, on the streets and in the train station was reminiscent of the Richard Scarry children's book Busy Town; few people in the city were leisurely strolling, no French tradition of the flanneur here. Walking is to get somewhere. It made me tense just watching. In the large ANA hotel restaurant, the servers scurry and kind of walk run with a very focused expression. Their movement was aided by wearing walkie-talkie head sets that permitted constant supervisory communication.

What all the movement adds up to and whether some of it is spinning wheels, running in place, or expending energy jumping up and down but not getting anywhere is a different question, best not asked when one is in midstream.

I was overcome with emotion almost to the point of tears on Platform 17 in Tokyo Station waiting for the Bullet train (Nozumi Super Express #143) to Kyoto. This reflected the irrepressible thrill of being en route, privileged to be experiencing life in new ways and feeling blessed to be in this situation. I had the same overpowering feeling of excitement on the night flight to Berlin from Hamburg in June of 1960 and when we left Lee's Ferry on our trip down the Colorado River in August of 1982. The sense of seeking (and being) where the action is and of gliding into an inviting unknown was monumental. I recalled, with John Wesley Powell that, "we are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown... We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore."

Took a very long 45-plus minutes to get beyond high rise buildings as we sped away from Tokyo. This reminded me of the long ride into London. In land area Tokyo may be like LA and Phoenix, but they seem to have more of their area in single family homes and lower buildings. It was a relief to suddenly see 3 story apartment buildings and then the occasional little plot of farm land, as we reached the outskirts of Yokohama.

When the food vendor pushing a cart on the train gets to the end of a car, he turns and bows and says thank you to the riders who seem indifferent and do not acknowledge his gesture. The train conductors did the same thing on entering and leaving a car.

The punctuality of the trains must be up there with the wonders of the world, the precision, coordination and comfort are far from the early days when trains going in opposite directions collided on the same track or different gauges of track meant one had to frequently change trains.

The train track was a little confusing because the same track 12 had places on both its right and left sides where cars of the same number stopped and trains go in the same direction. A neon display tells you which side your numbered train will be on. My Nozuma express seat was in car 11 on the left side, but car 11 of the Nozuma express that came 15 minutes earlier departed from the right side at the same stopping place. The neon signs were easy since each of the trains was shown with a distinctive writing (in English anyway) and color and there were also announcements.

The noise "pollution" was jarring and unpleasant. Talk about overstimulation, the palaver and sounds are non-stop, trains arriving, departing –announcements in Japanese and English about this as well as about expectations for appropriate behavior and then distinctive tones indicating that the train was arriving and soon to depart. Perhaps they learn to disattend and compartmentalize, but I felt on edge from all of this and hyper-attentive less something important be happening. It required a lot of concentration, especially since the bullet trains seem to arrive every 20 minutes and I of course had gotten there early, and trains came and went so often and quickly –the norm seemed to be every five minutes or so and in the station for less than five minutes.

The train was amazingly fast and smooth, none of the jerk ahead and back that is so a part of my somatic memories from 10,000 traditional train rides. When you enter and leave the train, the platform is level so no need to struggle to get suitcases up and down. There are frequent announcements and signs on the train telling you to turn off the ringer on your mobile phone ("put on silent mode") and go between the cars to talk.

The extreme busyness and human density of the very brightly lit Tokyo station at rush hour makes Grand Central or Penn Stations look like rural hamlets. To get from the Bullet train to the subway to Narita it took fifteen minutes going straight, left, right, diagonally and on escalators both up and then back down and out of, and back into ticket demanding turnstiles—the changes come rapidly after a minute or two. No one ever collided. I did some deep-breathing and followed the frequent color-coded arrows pointing toward my train while gawking and marveling at the fast-paced scene I was in the middle of. Given the pace at which people plow ahead it was like running a video of a train station on fast forward.


Saying sayonara is hard, especially when you have adjusted to the time change, have a honed and avaricious appetite based on building up some local cultural capital and on answers that so often led to new questions. But the Buddhist wisdom regarding non-satiation of desire and the unbecoming nature of greed moderated my feelings about leaving.

It was not uplifting after flying awhile on Sunday afternoon to see on the plane's video display that we were still 9, 413 kilometers from Detroit. But alas the business class bulk head seat with 5 feet of open space in front of it, the cornucopia of just released films, the champagne, cold sake and even a pill (following Richard Farina's model --"I hopped on a plane, I took a pill for my brain") made it very easy.

Once on entering Canada when the customs official asked me what I was bringing in, I smiled and said, "only ideas." That didn't sit too well. I learned from my mistake. When I was asked, "are you in Japan for business" my first thought was "yes," monkey business but I said no, an academic conference. On re-entering the US I was asked if I was traveling for business, since mine was the sacred calling of knowledge exchange, I said "no" I was traveling for a conference, but the official insisted that I check the purpose of travel "business" category on the immigration form, which I dutifully did.

Got back to Morgantown where I was a visiting professor via Detroit, Pittsburgh and Enterprise Car Rental at about 8 pm (my watch said I had been traveling for 20 hours after getting the 12:10 shuttle bus to Narita.) I was wired and charged around for a few hours. Then slept twelve hours and woke up when I thought I heard the front door open and my wife say, "I'm back" and I felt a happy sigh of relief and went back to sleep. I was safe, secure and relaxed in a warm bed and she had been out facing the unknown and had returned. Calling Dr. F on the cell phone. Of course she was 2500 miles away at our home in Washington state and it was I who was just back from the unknown, but the unconscious preferred it the other way.

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