The Bower Wars

Many people join the JET Programme because they have nurtured a love for the country from a young age, fascinated by manga or oriental gardens, robots or literature, food or fashion. I on the other hand, was driven by a desire to teach English in a foreign country whilst earning enough money to pay off some of my debts from the last bout of travelling (which, if you are so inclined, you can read about here). My knowledge of Japan was limited only to a few stereotypes:

  1. They are all a little bit mental, as evidenced by such real-life TV shows as Banzai! and Takeshi’s Castle
  2. They love technology, video games and manga
  3. They are all exceptionally polite and do a lot of bowing
  4. They drink a lot of green tea

Stereotypes in general, exist because they offer wonderful insight into the behaviour of a group of people as a whole and, while there are exceptions, they’re usually pretty spot-on for the majority; as long as they’re not hopelessly outdated of course. I don’t have terrible teeth, nor am I particularly reserved, but I do like fish and chips (though the Japanese seem to believe that that is all we eat in the UK), and I am partial to watching the occasional game of football when England are playing (although this pleasure has been lessened by the World-Cup-Era realisation that our team is inherently shit). Now, the bad teeth thing? I’m presuming that this stems from when we all had scurvy getting off the boat in America, and seeing as no-one has left America since then (you only need look at the passport/population ratio), the stereotype has stuck. Incidentally, when we worked out we could prevent scurvy with lemons (which were called limes at the time) they called us Limeys. Apparently they still do today. Clever I’m sure you’ll agree. Sorry, I’m getting off track here; the stereotypes I’ve listed above for Japan are all true, except that them being “a bit mental” can generally be passed off as a cultural difference that you get used to, as well as one you assimilate to some degree when you’ve been here for 8 months.

Politeness and bowing is a big one here. I’ve spoken about it a bit before but the levels to which it is taken really deserves another mention. Occasionally my school gets a visit from a textbook salesman who takes politeness to new levels. He’ll open the door to the staff room, say shitsurei shimasu (“excuse my rudeness”) and begin his bowing tirade. Rather than walk like most normal people, some Japanese people run everywhere; even if they’re only going 3 feet to grab a printout from the photocopier, they’ll run there and back as if chased everywhere they go by an imaginary rottweiler snapping at their ankles. Some people, Textbook Boy for example, have developed this further into a kind of stiff-backed, high-speed shuffle whereby you can never stand straight, only at a permanent 10-degree slant from which you bob down in a kind of semi-bow at every other step. The poor man looks like someone shoved a broomstick up his bum and is parading him around as some kind of cruel punishment; presumably for selling some of the worst English textbooks ever written.

One day he came over to see my good friend Ueda-sensei. You’ve heard of the Boer Wars right? Well this was the Bower Wars. There were no Brits or Boers involved; only bowers. After an extended chat about (I can only presume) textbooks and with a couple of warning bows thrown in to show that they were both serious, the conversation ended and the war commenced. Round after round of bow-fire was unleashed on either party, neither showing any sign of weakness, and both clearly experienced with years of bowing practice behind them. Textbook Boy was younger; slightly less experienced but well practised in the art from the many staff-rooms he had had to visit, but just when it seemed that Ueda-sensei was losing on account of his seated position, Textbook Boy began to back away; still returning fire, mind, but backing away nonetheless. A bead of sweat begin to appear on his forehead. You could see in his eyes that he was afraid; more afraid than he’d ever been. He’d bowed above his weight this time. No amount of practice would ever outdo Ueda-sensei’s poise and experience, and then, just like that, it was over. Textbook Boy turned around, and Ueda-sensei bowed one last time, saying arigato gozaimashita; “thank you very much”. Even in war, the Japanese are polite.

One thing I had never learnt from Banzai! was the word kawaii (pronounced ka-why-eee), which literally means cute or adorable. In our own culture, people are often suddenly possessed by extreme levels of happiness when they see a particularly fluffy kitten, and can often be seen running up to it squealing “cuuuuuuuuuute!” at a pitch audible only to the animal in question while their eyes glaze over and a stupid smile creeps across their face. After plenty of strokes and cuddles, both the kitten and the person (often regrettably) get on and go about their day. The kawaii moment is over.

In Japan, kawaii moments are never over. Kawaii is much less an individual moment, than a concept that permeates every layer of society. Girls and boys alike affix tassels to their mobile phones, bags and hair, and adorn them with beads, fluffy tails, teddy bears and friendship bracelets. Companies, prefectures, news programs, and even the Tokyo Police have cartoon animal mascots that they publish on many of their official materials. Some of the younger women in the country are stuck in a state of perpetual cuteness where they talk in a stupid high voice, jump up and down with excitement at everything they hear and hold onto an air of innocence generally reserved for girls of 10 or 11 in the UK.

It’s a bizarre concept which I’ve found hard to swallow having grown up in a series of schools where a boy above the age of, ooh, 4 or 5 seen with a teddy bear would likely be murdered in cold blood by his peers and have his head surgically replaced with that of the bear to send a message to other 6-year-olds daring to even consider such an act of femininity. My own bank card for the Shizuoka Bank has two little cartoon bears on it, and it pains me every time I have to get it out of my wallet and look at the little buggers smiling away. They know their brilliant plan to take over the corporate sector is working, and all they had to do to accomplish it was stand there and look kawaii while everyone fawned and squealed over them.

Fortunately all of this is balanced out by another word, kakkoii (pronounced ka-koh-eee), which means cool or handsome depending on the context. This word gives me hope for the boys of Japan. The girls can have their kawaii; kakkoii is a man’s word, and there ain’t no smarmy mascot that’s gonna take that for them. You can say it, girls, but you don’t own it; we do. Just like we own the words “tank” and “blade” and “steak”.

Kawaii is dead; long live kakkoii.

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