Cultural Obs: The Price of Stillness

Walking into a pachinko arcade in Japan is like hanging out on the runways of Chicago’s O’Hare airport the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  The constant hum and clack of machines and little metal pachinko balls is deafening even when the establishment is nearly empty.  My travel buddy M convinced me to accompany him inside one of these oases of din because playing pachinko – a vertical pinball game – was supposed to be a “must-try” Japanese experience.  After spending 2k yen (about USD$22) in 10 minutes with little success, I was standing by the door with my coat on ready for a quick exit.  As M tried to figure out how to cash in his extra pachinko balls, I watched one of the ten middle aged men playing in the arcade among rows and rows of empty machines.

His eyes unblinking, he mechanically scooped handfuls of metal marbles into the loading bin at chest height with the mindlessness of endless repetition, inured to the bright images flashing in front of him and the bells that chimed when his patience was rewarded with a flush of new balls.  At his feet were many colorful plastic bins, stacked and filled to the brim with what must have been thousands of inert marbles waiting to be catapulted into a maze of pins and flippers.  Given the relatively small number of balls I’d bought with my two 1,000 yen bills, I figured that those bins represented hundreds of dollars’ investment.  After a few frustrating minutes of scaling the language barrier, M reappeared next to me and we turned to leave.  As we walked out the automatic doors into the promise of Osaka’s Saturday night, the men played on.

For all of the hectic people movement in its major cities, the most remarkable and pervasive characteristic of Japan is its stillness.  Walking down Tokyo’s sidewalks is strongly flavored by the sight of people standing and waiting patiently at bus stops, in lines outside busy restaurants, and at crosswalks preparing for the light to turn green even when no cars are approaching.  Subway cars are more often than not eerily silent, even and especially when packed with people standing so closely together that a sudden stop produces a massive domino effect.  Salespeople in stores stand self-possessedly behind counters, coming politely to life only when hailed by a customer’s “Sumimasen” (“Excuse me”).  In Kyoto’s charming Iwatayama monkey park, where tourists can walk among monkeys of all ages in a mountaintop preserve, there are always park staff silently standing guard, ready to offer a short greeting upon entry/exit or an apology if a monkey ventures too close to a human – but little else.

While sometimes this stillness has immediate physical manifestations, as mentioned above, the more convincing evidence presents itself in the many clothing and souvenir shops lining cities’ shopping alleys.  An establishment billing itself as a “crafts museum” offers hundreds and hundreds of painstakingly detailed keepsakes for sale, every stitch on a life-size cloth version of tuna sushi perfectly in place, every doll too finely wrought to have been mass produced.  Meditating on these miniature masterpieces, I pictured a Japanese seamstress toiling for hours with inhuman focus to attach button noses on bunny-faced mittens, one after another.  Breaking out of my reverie, my imagination was captured again and again in quick succession by further rows of artfully displayed trinkets.  Stillness begets stillness.

The end result is that absorbing Japanese culture in any significant way encourages a watchful, socially hesitant ethos – there are so many shrines to admire, so much merchandise to pore over, so many arcade games to lose oneself in, so many rules to avoid breaking, that it takes all the mental energy at a tourist’s disposal just to make sense of the pleasant and unpleasant distractions vying for his attention, never mind choose between them.  The orderliness of Japanese society and its natives’ distant politeness inspires a self-conscious echo in a sensitive newcomer, for it soon becomes apparent that it is better to watch and wait rather than risk a social gaffe by making the first move.  You’ll generally be left in peace unless you do something egregiously wrong, but this tendency to allow and accept others’ small fumbles paradoxically paralyzes those with good intentions.  The embarrassment is intensely magnified when someone indicates – very graciously and politely – that you are messing up, precisely because it happens so rarely.  The ideal strategy becomes risk aversion: engaging with the plethora of colorful, inanimate diversions seems the natural choice over engaging with people because of the fear of stepping over an invisible line.

As a strong believer in the power of community to impact our world on a large scale, the velvet chains of Japan-induced stillness do not sit well with me.  Sure, it’s easy to go with the flow and wander for hours through Ginza’s opulent department stores – it’s aesthetically gratifying, besides which the endless variety of fashion and flair bestows a satisfying sense of freedom.  For the more spiritually inclined, a stop at an ancient temple inspires deep appreciation for the authenticity and tranquility of the experience.  There’s something that’s missing for me, though.  Without some kind of human connection – intrusive and unpredictable though it may be – I feel the potential for marrow-shaking, world-defining purpose is very limited.  It’s messy and risky and not for everyone, but at the end of the day it’s what I want to recall with pride.  The Japanese have developed a nearly perfect system for providing opportunities to enjoy life and get along without the fuss of ambition or social friction.  I admire this phenomenon – they have worked very hard to achieve incredible results – but it is not for me.  Japan has been a lovely place to visit and enjoy, but I won’t look back with regret on a life of pleasant stillness that might have been.

Originally published November 2009.

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