*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Monday, 22 November 2010

"Nemawashi Cluster%$#@"

"Nemawashi Cluster%$#@" is a phrase I have borrowed from someone's comments on some Japan blog. Click the Nemawashi link, if you are not familiar with the word. It is an essential concept here. The Wikipedia definition is pretty weak, because in practice 'nemawashi' is synonymous with 'cluster%$#@'. So is 'wind-sucking': confronted with anything that should be dealt with in a way obvious to the Gaijin, tilt your head, clench your teeth, grimace and suck in air in a sibilant manner and say, "That would be difficult", or "It's a little different", or "There's nothing to be done about it". Whether you say each phrase in English or Japanese, are Japanese or a tame-Gaijin, they really mean: "Your tidy solution is still something I don't want to make the effort about", "Were we to do it we'd have unwelcome responsibility", "Please do not challenge my sloth and cowardice". Passive-aggressiveness is not unique to Japan, but perhaps one thing that is unique about Japan is that the entire society can act like a union-protected bureaucracy. If you have dotted all the t's and crossed all the i's, or something, everything will go very smoothly, but should you require the smallest irregularity expect gridlock. A few of my own experiences follow, and I would love to hear yours.

I went to one of the embassies in Tokyo to get a passport for a second citizenship I had inherited through my father. The local staff was Japanese, of course. I had all of the documents that I was required to have: my own passport from my birth-country, my birth-certificate and those of both my parents, their wedding license and the birth-certificate of my father. However... the marriage license was filled out wrong, and showed both of my parents as born in my birth-country. It must be clear to you that as a naturalized citizen my father had both a passport that showed he was entitled to live in my birth country, and that the obvious explanation is that the frustrated Catholic priest who wrote the marriage license had... younger things on his mind. Asking for new documents was a little impractical, since the license was made forty years past, and both my father and the priest are dead. Gridlock. I came upon a solution a week later, and had my hands on the passport soon after. I helped them pass the responsibility to someone else. I told the embassy the name and number on my brother's second-nation-passport, which he had received in Toronto.

I was in Japan during the Kobe Earthquake of 1995, but well away in Kanto. This little quotation sets the stage for the cluster%$#@:
When the earthquake hit, fire broke out throughout the city... Over 300 fires quickly started, especially among the remains of wooden buildings; these fires were caused by cookers, live electric wires and hot embers from fireplaces.
By the next day, teams of firefighters had arrived from all over Japan, but despite this there were at least a dozen major fires that burned for up to two whole days before they were brought under control. Research conducted at the Kobe University suggests that 500 deaths were due to fires, and that almost 7000 buildings were destroyed by fire alone. Fortunately, it rained soon after, otherwise the damage would have been even greater.
Japan has very few fireplaces. I think that what is meant are the many electric, natural gas and kerosene space heaters that Japan uses to poorly heat its uninsulated residences. There is little central heating, and many people keep a few gallons of petrochemicals in their homes in a country well known for natural disasters (wtf?). And though you save most lives in a disaster during the first few hours, why not make the fire-fighters wait until the next day? Why not refuse the help of foreign governments and agencies? Why shouldn’t the prefectural governor wait four hours to ask for help, even when no help could be sent without his approval? In a Japanese disaster you're on your own. Not that I expect much help from the Canadian government; one of the few times I'd want the U.S. government behind me.

Teachers and police do not manage their charges much better. Japanese media and educators are still sucking-wind over how to deal with bullying, as they were the sixteen years ago that I arrived, yet they preserve the inherent bullying in the sempai/kohai relationship, and the general social-Darwinism in their hierarchies. This is why Japan has a high suicide rate. This is why there is an entire culture of people who won't leave their homes. This is why though Japanese workers are less productive than N. Americans, though they spend 150% as many hours at work: they cannot be the one to leave first. The topic of conflict-avoidance and passive-aggression is inexhaustible. I have seen educators and police ignore and avoid the many small things they could easily solve, until someone produces a weapon or just loses their $#!+.
I am very happy this time to work in a Gaijin dominated workplace.

I do like it here, you know. Every society has its pathologies. In western societies it is egotism and proselytizing (religious, economic...) which go so well together. You'd better understand the "Nemawashi
Cluster%$#@", because it is going to get in your way all the time. You might as well learn to use it to your advantage. More than a few times I have been able to receive an unusual indulgence from a boss, not by begging or justifying my case (it ain't Kansas), but by passing around the word that I have been thinking of doing something and I am sorry how it might inconvenience them. Try it; it works.

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