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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 38, New Delhi, Sept 4, 2021

A Gripping Autopsy of Japan | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 3 September 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVIEW

’Orienting: An Indian in Japan’
by Pallavi Aiyar

HarperCollins India
https://harpercollins.co.in/product/orienting/
2021
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 304 pages
₹ 499.00
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9354227643
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9354227646

Life in Japan can be stranger than fiction.

Indian journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar realized this during a four-year stay in Japan as she probed the inscrutable Japanese and their way of life, discovering in the process why people in the archipelago are so unique.

In the process, Aiyar could also make out why India and Japan find it difficult to get together despite their Buddhist links, the attraction Bollywood holds for many Japanese and India’s fascination with Japan’s meteoric rise after World War II.

Life in Japan is marked by scrupulous honesty, punctuality, neatness and hygiene, respect for silence, thriftiness, aversion to tattoos, enchanting manhole covers and ultramodern toilets. Most Japanese have no good word for China. The negatives in Japan include inbuilt racial prejudices, high suicide rates, nepotism in politics and messiness of Japanese homes arising out of their matchbox sizes. The lack of space for buildings has also made Japan a nation of vending machines — which stand on every nook and corner, without any fear of tampering or robbery.

During her stay, Pallavi one day left her laptop on the monorail to Haneda airport; her husband left his iPhone in a taxi in Kyoto and her brother forgot his passport in a hotel lobby in Hokkaida. Between the three of them, they regularly ‘lost’ umbrellas, jackets and hats. Every single item was retrieved, thanks to high levels of integrity among the Japanese. The Tokyo police handled a total of 343,725 umbrellas in 2018; the same year, a whopping 3.8 billion yen or around $35 million in cash was found and handed back to the right claimants in Tokyo itself.

What lay behind this marvel? “Did the Japanese just have morally superior DNA comparable to the rest of the world?” asks Pallavi in her gripping Orienting: An Indian in Japan (HarperCollins India). The reply: Good deeds encourage good deeds. The Japanese also placed the comfort and needs of others on par, or above, their own. This is why talking loudly in public was discouraged lest it disturb others. People were always on time. On this, India and Japan were cultural misfits. “In Japan, being on time was akin to religion, whereas in India time was fungible.”

Japan was not Europe and not quite Asia. The Zen practiced in Japan was a more practical, less metaphysical version of Indian Buddhism. Talkative as she was by nature (like most Indians), Pallavi realized that silences inhabited much social behavior in Japan. Most Japanese attributed almost all ills — pollution in the oceans, talking loudly, eating ice cream while walking and dumping plastic in the paper recycling bins — to the Chinese. While in other countries people would endlessly question Pallavi about China since she had lived there, the average Japanese seemed more interested in India — yoga, Bollywood, saris and curry — and even Belgium, not in China.

Japan’s busy life has led to a very high rate of suicides — the highest among OECD countries. It also has a disproportionate number of work related deaths. Japan’s statutory working hours are eight hours a day for up to 40 hours a week. But most employees would go on and on beyond their working hours, for more reasons than one. Naturally, it took a heavy toll. Japan, Pallavi realized, was “both profoundly healing and deeply broken”.

Racism permeates Japanese society in both lazy, careless ways and in more problematic, deep-seated ones. At times, foreigners would be denied tables at restaurants. Seats next to a foreigner remained stubbornly empty even on a crowded train. It was not all together uncommon for some restaurants, and even some hotels, to deny entry to non-Japanese. Nearly a third of foreign students complained they had experienced derogatory remarks because of their racial background. Certain business — spas, hot spring baths, hairdressers, restaurants, brothels — were only open to Japanese.
Yogendra Puranik, elected a ward councilor to become the first ever Indian-born Japanese politician, admitted suffering innumerable race-related slights. “I am forever an outsider here,” the man from a Mumbai suburb moaned to Pallavi.

Japan is also home to — believe it or not — a traditionally reviled ‘caste’ of people who are the country’s equivalent of India’s Dalits. Pallavi puts the number of people with ‘burakumin’ ancestry at between 1-2 million. Most Japanese tend to brush it under the carpet of supposed harmony. But Pallavi hastens to draw a distinction between India and Japan; while Indians were perpetrators of the ugliest kinds of racial and religious discrimination, Japanese racism “was more respectable, less violent”.

Indian revolutionary Rash Behari Bose, who took refuge in Japan to escape the British, also introduced Indian curry by opening a café in Tokyo in 1927 which still exists. But it was neither Rash Behari Bose nor Subhas Chandra Bose, whose INA was backed by the Japanese, who were the most well known Indians from a historical past in Japan. That stature belongs to an Indian lawyer, Radhabinod Pal, who, as part of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal post WW II, issued a 1,235-page dissent against the West’s way of handling Japanese wartime leaders. He did not deny Japan’s wartime culpability but argued that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki should also be counted as major war crimes. A memorial exists for Pal — who is almost unknown in India — in Tokyo.

The Japanese also have an ambiguous relationship with religion. It was fairly standard for someone to be welcomed as a baby with Shinto rites, get married in a Christian ceremony and be buried accompanied by Buddhist rituals. And unlike their Indian counterparts, Japanese Buddhist monks showed no difference between meditation and cleaning. The Japanese in general do not see cleaning as a punishment. No one considers it beneath one’s dignity to keep the surroundings clean. Hindu god Ganesha can be found in Japan too but his statues are rarely displayed publicly. He was viewed so powerful that beholding him was thought to be dangerous.

Anyone visiting or wanting to learn about Japan should read this book.

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