“What the hell is that?” I remember thinking to myself. Alas, I had no time to ponder the olfactory complexities wafting through the lobby however, as I was about 30 seconds away from being late to the morning meeting.
As the meeting progressed I became aware of a very harsh, almost gritty particulate substance coating the back of my mouth and nose.
I tried to clear my throat a couple of times – convinced it must be psychological – but to no avail. At that moment the jicho (vice chief) finishes up his notices for the day:
“And finally, workmen will be removing asbestos from several rooms over the course of the next week, so please watch your step when walking through the halls.”
Asbestos!? My level of alarm raises considerably. Is that what I’ve been breathing?
I try to shrug it off – after all, people removing asbestos wouldn’t be so foolish as to just let it float through the air – would they? Besides, the asbestos removal was downstairs, and my staffroom on the second floor. Nothing to worry about (save the incessant power-tool fueled din reverberating through the floors and shaking the building’s foundations), I tell myself.
After a couple of hours, however, it becomes quite clear that there is definitely something in the air. My throat – already sensitive from a cold earlier in the week – is harsh and raw, and every breath I breath is like gaseous sandpaper ripping apart my nasal passages. I can’t take it anymore. I turn to a co-worker:
“Say… are you finding it hard to breath as well?” I inquire.
“Hmmm? What?” he murmurs, before looking up. I repeat my query and he pauses for a second, head turned slightly askew and to the right, pen touching his lips as he invisibly quantifies the pungent properties of the air.
“Sugoi asbestos no nioi desune!” (“Wow, it really smells like asbestos, doesn’t it!?“) comes the pronouncement.
“Well, are you sure it’s only the smell of asbestos? Doesn’t that mean we’re also breathing asbestos right now?”
“sou desu ne…” (“yeah, I guess you’ve got a point“) comes the rather disinterested reply as he turns back to his reading. His level of alarm seems a bit low considering I’ve just raised the specter of a potent airborne carcinogen floating about our immediate environment.
Since the man clearly has paperwork to do and no time to devote to worrying about asbestos, I bring up the point with several other people, only to be similarly rebuffed. The over-arching theme seemed to be a conclusion that “if there was truly something dangerous in the air, we wouldn’t be exposed to it.” Who or what was supposedly tasked with safeguarding us from these supposed dangers was never explicitly stated, but one can infer that it might obliquely reference either the workmen or the office manager who hired them.
This brings up an interesting point, and that is the implicit trust so many Japanese have in “the system”. In many ways, living in Japan is to exist as a child in a playpen – continuously watched over, chided, cautioned and steered by forces supposedly “in charge”, it’s hard to ever be in a situation in Japan where you are forced to take responsibility for thinking for yourself. I am reminded of a passage from Karl Van Wolfrens “The Enigma of Japanese Power“:
Although the system might not be Big Brother, the Japanese are asked to accept that it loves them in return for social obedience. This means, among other things, not questioning – at least not continuously and systematically – the political system. They are asked to believe not that they themselves are citizens with rights, but that the administrators have big hearts. To put it simply: whereas power in the West is masked by the illusion of principle, in Japan it is masked by the illusion of benevolence. In the Western tradition, intellectual probing of the socio-political environment is allowed and sometimes encouraged; the Japanese tradition requires emotional trust.
Japanese are conditioned to accept as natural the unequal tie to a social superior, and many develop a psychological need for it.
One detects [such nursing behavior] in the admonishing tone of instructions suddenly emanating from the loudspeaker on a police box or cruising patrol car. In the apartment-block districts of some smaller cities the police may try to make people feel part of a community by wishing them good morning through the public address system at 7a.m., and by providing music for calisthenics, uplifting talk and reminders to be careful about all manner of things.
The public, on its side, tends to obey police directions, however unnecessary and overbearing. Pedestrians will usually wait for quite superfluous traffic lights to change on narrow streets that could be crossed in a stride or two, or even where no vehicles can pass because of a blocked-off road…
Another example of this combination of police meddling and almost blind obedience by the public occurs regularly on crowded major roads where snow has turned to mush. Lit-up signs along the road and cruising police cars command drivers to put on snow-chains, whereupon hundreds upon hundreds of people stop and fumble, often in the dark, to follow orders, only to ruin their chains and damage their tyres, not to mention the road, in the process.
The Japanese, especially in cities, are constantly made to feel like subjects rather than citizens. The live in a cajoling and exhortative environment. They are continuously warned about dangers, reminded of the proper way to do things, gently chided… The loudspeakers on cruising police cars and on the bigger police boxes recall a worrisome mother; something is always abunai dangerous. The hint of aggrievedness in the tone emphasis further the likeness to a Japanese mother; people walking the streets are made to feel like potentially naughty children.
In the railway stations that almost all commuting salarymen pass through everyday, incessant announcements giving mostly superfluous information acquire the quality of an acoustical whip, spurring on commuters at though they might otherwise clog the passageways and platforms. Together with the admonishments of the police, this constitutes the daily manifestation of authority outside the workplace. The intrusion is only aural; no one is picked up by the collar, no flashlight is shone in the face. But one is reminded, ever so mildly, that authority is immanent in the world.
The point that van Wolfren is so saliently driving at is the almost blind faith and unwavering devotion that many Japanese have in the words of individuals “in charge”, regardless of their actual qualifications. There is an implicit trust by most Japanese – the “emotional trust” that van Wolfren alludes to – that no matter what, someone will be there looking out for their own best interest, that the powers that be will never let any harm come to them, will always know what is “right” and “best”. I would add to this that such trust has long supplanted – or at the very least overridden – the capacity for individual thought and questioning in most Japanese. And that, in turn, has produced this environment that is so very frustrating for most Westerners to live in.
The problem of course is that as a Westerner, you usually have no choice but to bow to the overwhelming pressure of this mindset – you can try and actively resist, issues calls for action and bitch and moan in the bars to your fellow gaijin about how “Japanese can’t think for themselves, what’s wrong with them, why can’t they see….etc.“. But doing that will only burn you out and make you cynical. When I first came to Japan however many years ago, I used to get bent out of shape by this automatic Japanese deferment to the illusion of authority – one incident in particular that comes to mind was when my girlfriend discarded my advice (as a person who repaired computers for a living) in favor of a horrendous suggestion by a pimply young trainee clerk at an electronics store when buying a computer, the rational being “he works in a computer store and you don’t so he obviously knows what he’s talking about”. At the time I got so angry I almost walked out and it caused no end of headaches and aggravation – to mention nothing of stress on our relationship. Comparing my approach now, after living here for a while, I’d most likely shrug and say “you’re right”, then let him/her reap what they sow.
Contrasting the two approaches I can see the flaws in the former but am not sure the latter is much better – after all, it amounts to little more than just “giving up” and “going with the flow”. Nonetheless, that’s usually the tact I take now – deferring to the Japanese method on the surface, and just doing what I want in secret.
But there comes times when this approach is insufficient, and you need to say something. And being forced to breath asbestos would be one of those times, I thought, as so after failing to generate any support amongst my coworkers (ideally as a foreigner it’s best if your co-workers initiate any action), I wandered over to the jicho.
“I’m very sorry, but I’m having a hard time breathing. Can I ask you to see if maybe some of the asbestos has escaped into the air?”
He glances up at me.
“Don’t worry, it’s downstairs. We’re on the second floor. It’s safe!”
I resolutely stand my ground.
“I’m very sorry, but can you please check anyway?” He fixes me with a gaze, slightly annoyed.
“Okay, I’ll look into it in a minute.”
I didn’t hear anything else about it, but a while later when I walked out into the hall, I saw a workman taping plastic sheeting over a large ventilation duct right next to the staffroom entrance.
“Hey, what’s that?” I asked the workman.
“Oh, this duct leads directly into the room downstairs we are removing asbestos from. So to be safe, we are covering it so asbestos doesn’t escape.”
So asbestos doesn’t escape. I pause for a second, and I think we are both fully aware of the mutual fiction that has passed between us. We both know that asbestos has already been belching out of this duct and into my lungs for the past three hours. What can I do? Call him on that? Point to the strange particulate dust floating everywhere around us? Cough in his face so he can see what’s coating my throat?
Sometimes in Japan, you need to participate in those shared fictions to make everyday life easier.
“Ahh, I see. Well thank you very much for doing that!” I reply, the head down the hall on my way. No one ever mentions this duct – or the mistake we all are aware occurred – for the rest of the day, and so I don’t either. After all, in the end, at least someone did something about it and all it cost me was making a few waves in the otherwise tranquil sea of wa.
As I went home that day – pausing to snap the picture of the grate above – though, I couldn’t help but think. Sure, this time I acted the “gaijin” and made some noise and got what I wanted despite having to “rock the boat” in the process. But what happens all those other times I don’t say anything and just remain silent and obedient like the majority of the Japanese around me? Nobody had a clue about this asbestos belching straight into our lungs – everybody could smell it, everybody was breathing it, but nobody said anything, just trusting that “someone” was making sure it was safe for us.
But there was no “someone” there, nobody looking out for us or making sure – the watchers were sleeping on the job, if they were even there to begin with. What’s truly frightening is that this blind – often misplaced – faith is how much of Japan runs as a country. How can I reconcile that with who I am as a person?
Now listening to: “Panic! At the disco – I write sins not tragedies”
Christ, now I’m letting the myspacers influence my music choices…