Japan Part 1 – China’s OCD Nephew

“How was Tokyo?” A lot of people asked me this after I returned from Beijing, and I corrected them as gently as possible. I can’t blame them. Our ethnocentric American education system fails to teach us at every turn about the rest of the world. My high school history classes barely taught what they were supposed to about the US and Europe, so the other side of the Pacific was out of the question. Before college, I might have even made the same mistake. I wouldn’t know the first thing about the difference between China and Japan had I not wandered into an East Asian history class my first semester.

The fact is, Tokyo and Beijing are about as different from one another as Chicago and Mexico City. It can’t be ignored that Japan owes a lot to China. The Japanese language borrowed thousands of Chinese characters, and much of China’s buddhist culture and esthetics can be seen in Japan’s art and architecture. But that’s where the similarities end. Japan effectively cut itself off from the rest of the world from a “sakoku,” or “closed country” policy that lasted for almost 200 years. Many of the quintessentially “Japanese” cultural artifacts–Kabuki, Geisha, Haiku–developed during this time, while China went on its own merry way. Then Japan was forced open by, who else, the U.S. of A., and they became the first Asian country to rapidly industrialize and start colonizing the world. This maddeningly fast technological revolution and military ambition culminated in World War II, and we all know how that wound up. Here’s the best (and shortest) summary I’ve seen of the country’s entire history:

But this is all academic. Spend any time in the two places, and any vague notion of a single, monolithic “Asian” culture will be shattered. Japan, and I mean this in the best way possible, is like the OCD nephew of China. The emphasis on cleanliness and orderliness is will hit you right when you step off the plane, and stands in total contrast to the filthiness of China which David Sedaris and I have written about extensively. In China, everything from spitting to defecating on the street is tolerated, though luckily the latter is (mostly) only done by children. In Japan, I haven’t seen so much as a slip of paper on the streets. They’re pristine, almost to a creepy, fake Truman Show degree. When you do decide to throw something away, it’s not the simple matter of cramming everything into one bag like we do in America.  A poster in my dorm helpfully explains how I am to sort my trash into five different colored bags to be recycled or processed separately.


This is all great if you don’t want to live in squalor. But Japan’s insistence on keeping order sometimes verges on nannying. For a nominally “Communist” country, China was very good about leaving you alone and letting you do whatever you wanted. In Japan, you can’t take a step without being mindful of some rule or regulation. Often that’s quite literal, as stepping from one room into another requires taking off your shoes. This is most true at my gym, a place where I want to feel strong and independent, yet have never been made to feel more like a child.

When you enter, you immediately have to take off your shoes and replace them with a pair of “gym-only” shoes that have not been sullied by the outside world. But if you want to go into the locker rooms, you need to take even this pair of shoes off, meaning you’ll have two different pairs of shoes in two different places. On the first day of my membership, I had just managed to stow away my first pair of shoes when I was intercepted by a smiling personal trainer. I was pumped up on red bull and ready to start the workout I had spent the previous week planning, but the gym staff had plans of their own. The trainer led me into the workout room where he had a page of unintelligible Japanese attached to a clipboard, and began to demonstrate what they wanted me to do. This consisted cycling through every machine in the gym and proving that I could do a certain number of reps at a low weight. If I were a geriatric patient (as most of the members seem to be) or someone who had never set foot in a gym, I might have appreciated the tutorial. But I’ve been working out for a while, and I want to build muscle. Heavy free weights at low reps are the most effective way to do this, so fiddling around on machines was essentially wasting time. But alas, I didn’t learn how to say this in my Japanese classes, so I grudgingly went along with their plan thinking it would just put off my workout by 15 minutes or so.

The first kink in my attempt to get this out of the way quickly was how slowly they wanted me to lift the weights. During their demonstration, they looked as if they were moving in slow motion. Taking several. . . seconds. . . to lift the weight. . . and then. . . lower it. I did my best to imitate this as I performed the exercises under the trainer’s watchful eye, but the movements were so light and easy I would accidentally lapse into lifting weights at the speed a normal person might.

“Sam-san,” the trainer said with an ingratiating smile that nevertheless managed to make me furious, “what did we talk about? You need to go slower.” I grit my teeth and put up with the condescension. The other impediment to going faster was the strange ritual of actually using the equipment. After your sets, they ask that you take a mangy little brown towel that is hanging on the machine and wipe down every surface your body has touched. What are you wiping off exactly? Well maybe sweat, if this were a real workout, but my wiping seemed more like a pantomime done just for the sake of doing it. This sums up the superstitious quality of a lot of Japanese etiquette, which is more about appearances than any practical result. Wearing surgical masks when you or the people around you are sick? Well sorry, those masks don’t actually filter out airborne viruses which are small enough to slip through. And as far as the shoes go, they have no way of knowing whether I’ve worn them outside the gym. (I am almost hesitant to write this, because I’m sure if it were in their power, they would have you under drone surveillance just to make sure you weren’t wearing your shoes in the wrong place.)

At last I had visited every machine. “Great,” the trainer said, and indicated on his clipboard where he had recorded my reps, “now you just need to do the whole thing again 2 more times and record the results here.” This was too far. “Do I have to?” I asked. The trainer, still with the same smile, said a few sentences in Japanese too blisteringly fast for me to understand. But the effect was menacing. I knew I wasn’t getting out of this today. So I dutifully went back to the machines, feeling my wasted sugar high and motivation drain out of my body. 

Everything you do in Japan becomes this sort of chore. From signing up for classes, to opening a bank account, everything has been tangled in bureaucracy, everyone busy for the sake of being busy. I owe a great debt to my Japanese friends who acted as interpreters through all of the hurdles I had to jump, as I couldn’t have written my address once in Chinese characters, let alone on the dozens of forms and applications I had to fill out. Through all of this, I thought of my gym in China, where I had spoken to the staff the day I signed up and then never heard from them again. This is the same gym where I pulled a chest muscle that landed me in a Chinese hospital, but that’s the other side of the coin that comes with freedom and risk-taking. As much as I enjoy clean streets, safe food, and politeness in general, it’s not worth making life a sanitized paint-by-numbers exercise where you always feel safe, but never in charge of your own destiny.