I’ve realized something about Japanese culture that took me twelve years living as a permanent resident here to finally get. There has always been some ethereal difference, other than the obvious, touristy differences about Japanese people from Americans. Not just in their broad cultural attitudes or their propensity to prioritize social harmony over individual freedom, there’s something else. Something flowing through it all that is difficult to see. It’s something about the way they wear jeans, or write, or play cat’s cradle, or pause during conversation, or drink, or whatever.
Before I share what I think that difference may be, I need to declare the standard disclaimer. Japan is not a utopia, there are many areas I think Japan would do well to address. I don’t hold Japan up as some model for the entire world to emulate. Sometimes, when I write about something I admire about Japan, some idiot feels like they need to list their grievances in the comment section about Japan’s struggles with misogyny, seemingly blind obedience to authority, war crimes, whale slaughter … yeah, I get it. It’s not a perfect country. With that in mind…
Japanese people live on purpose.
That’s it. That’s the big reveal. But it’s more interesting that you may think. Let’s contrast that with ourselves…
Many White Americans are looking for The Flow. This is beyond political rivalries. It became huge in all circles in the 90s. Gen X is rife with it. It’s deep in our White American culture whether conservative or liberal, Christian or Buddhist or Atheist. It permeates everything we do. The Flow is that moment when everything just clicks, when everything in our life hits a natural rhythm, and then friends, happiness, and success (whatever that means for a person) just Flow. It’s that moment when we are truly ourselves, we are natural and free to just be alive.
We White Americans all have a different version of The Flow. But whatever you call it, it is that moment in the Matrix when Neo discovers himself and then everything just … Flows. Once he’s got that realization of himself, it becomes effortless. It’s Luke Skywalker. It’s God Calling you. It’s your natural you. When we hit The Flow, we rise above mundane reality. Putting effort or enthusiasm into something suggests that you haven’t found Your Flow yet and you’re probably a loser. Don’t we think our friendships should Flow naturally? Don’t we resent it a little when someone suggests, “Hey, you both like The Lord of Rings. You should be friends.” Because that’s not how friendships work. Friends aren’t “made” and “maintained”, they Flow.
And so, once in the Flow, we White Folks don’t have to care about the mundane things happening all around us. We don’t notice things like a person’s shoes, or think about which ringtone to use, or how to decorate the interior of our cars, or remember to take a picture of the event happening in front of us, or anything. We don’t have to care about the details of our lives: We are in The Flow.
(Who cares if he said that Mexico would pay for the wall? We know what he meant…)
I often think about Taylor Swifts “Shake it Off” video where she just floats through situation after situation, doing things badly or just being silly, and just shrugs and says “Whatever. I’m just being myself.” I love that song by the way. I really do but I compare that to the strict work, discipline, and attention to tiny details of a Beyonce video or “This is America”. The Flow also reeks of privilege. The Flow works for so many of us White Americans only because our society has been engineered to coddle us…
But Japanese people live on purpose.
I, along with an endless parade of White American Japan admirers, marvel at Japan’s lack of The Flow. “Why does everything have to be a thing?” They either respond with quiet admiration of the Mystery of the East, or they mock Japan’s inability to ignore small details. Over the last 12 years, I have gone through both.
I have chaffed against teachers meetings that I thought dragged on and on as everyone tried to work out every detail. “Look, I got it,” I would think to my White Self, “Let’s get on with it.” Ignoring the fact that the reason I could “whatever” my way through the situation was that I was born in White America and me fumbling through a situation would be forgiven and I could just “Shake it Off”. Ha ha ha. Next. Meanwhile, some Japanese person would clean up the mess I would leave behind.
I avoided joining clubs or bands because I hated that it would “become a chore”. A lot of white Americans come out here and complain because they joined a basketball club and the club would take up their free time. All they did was practice! If you joined a club, you would get phone calls, emails, you would get invited out constantly and they would be disappointed if you didn’t go, that club would take over your life. Japanese people join clubs on purpose knowing “it’s what they do now”, while the White American just wanted to Flow through it.
Japanese people pay attention to their lives and what’s happening around them. They go through their day doing things on purpose. With will. They choose a certain belt on purpose. They wear jeans that fit and aren’t filthy. If they decide to play a musical instrument, they actively play it practicing for hours. And you will never hear them play it unless they feel like they are good enough. There are no shitty street buskers in Japan. They have chosen a specific ringtone for their smartphones. They are conscious of the immediate moment to remember to take a picture of it. They understand the significance of the event. They decide exactly when meetings, drinking parties, or funerals begin and when they end. They don’t just put just any trees in their gardens and let their flowers go wild. They practice bonsai, an art that epitomizes a refusal to just let things flow but rather shaping nature to their desires.
They live life purposely so that life doesn’t overwhelm them. This is how they avoid rioting when calamity hits. This is why they clean the stadium after the World Cup. It’s not because they are “good”, it’s because they are “aware”.
Doing things on purpose takes time. To us White Americans, it seems like Japanese people take forever to do anything. But that’s because they are taking the time to do it right. I’m serious. Watch Japanese second graders cut paper. It is deliberate. It is slow. It used to drive me crazy. I used to tell them “It doesn’t have to be so perfect. Just hurry up.” I don’t do that anymore.
Almost every baffling thing that Japanese people do can be explained by saying “They did it on purpose. They did it with will.”
And there’s coming a time, when The Flow isn’t going to work for White people anymore. A lot of millennials are realizing this, and I see them starting to put effort and awareness into their lives. That’s good. I couldn’t see it until I moved to Japan.
For people my age, Generation X, if you can’t travel abroad, start paying attention to how many minority groups behave in American society. Since The Flow will get them nowhere in America, they have to rely on an age old morality: effort, practice. Watch how they pay attention to detail, how they practice and make an effort to maintain friendships and social harmony. Learn from them. I think we made a big mistake in thinking that society just Flows when everything is in place. I think we are beginning to see that social harmony is work, it requires effort.
And maybe it starts by putting an effort into the details of our own lives.
Start by purposely choosing a ringtone for your phone. Two things to consider: 1) chose a ringtone that expresses who you are. 2) Chose a ringtone that takes others into consideration since you won’t be the only person listening to it.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a ringtone. But start putting thought into the little details of your life rather than just expecting everything to just Flow to you from the wellspring of the Cosmos in gratitude for your self-awareness.