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Beautiful in Every Direction

April 13, 2008

“The Japanese are soooo friendly!”

Hands up, everyone who’s heard that. Now, hands up everyone who’s lived in Japan, and believes it.

Japanese people are very polite. And helpful. In shops, staff will always do what they can to help you out, and be very nice about it. Japanese people always show an interest in foreigners. They always want to know where you’re from, and what you think of Japan. And tourists, or people passing through, would probably take all that as being friendly. But to me, being friendly means being open and easy to befriend.

I know a bunch of Japanese people. But Japanese Friends are very few and far between. For some reason, Japanese people are very difficult to “befriend”, in the sense that I think of it.

I think New Zealanders are very friendly. I think back home, if you meet somebody randomly, you can have a good conversation with them, you can hang out, you can probably exchange details and hang out with them again. People will invite you to parties, tell you all about their lives…

In Japan, that doesn’t happen. You’ll meet somebody, and maybe have a decent conversation (although always within certain polite boundaries), and possibly, if you try, exchange details. But then, you won’t see them again. I undersdtand Japanese people are very busy, but that’s not enough to account for the way that Japanese people are so very very poor at keeping in touch with people they don’t know well. And so, there’s no way to get to know anybody well.

I wrote in a previous entry about Dating. Everybody dates either their schoolmates or workmates. And the only way to meet anybody else, is to have a Goukon, or group date, with friends of friends. It’s a safe environment. Mutual friends can grease the wheels and ensure no social politeness levels are disturbed. It’s the same with friends. I, and many other foreigners, have been annoyed at what happens when we introduce two Japanese people who don’t know each other. They speak to each other very politely, are careful not to offend anyone, and then move on. There’s alot of bowing. It’s all so polite and nice, shallow and superficial. There’s no desire on either side to strengthen the relationship at all.

As a foreigner, things may be a little better. We are less constrained by the social rigours of society, and so the general tension in a conversation can be reduced. However, the flip side of that, is that as a foreigner, we are always a “foreigner”. That’s a stigma that never goes away, and for alot of people, it’s a block that means that we are never to be fully trusted or treated as one of “them”.

I always found this very frustrating. I can meet someone and get along very well with them, and exchange details… but then no matter how hard I might try, afterwards, they are impossible to get in touch with. Either they will reply to messages late, or not at all…. or else they will happily and politely reply, but are always “too busy” to meet (the exception to this is the “English leech” – the person who you meet for about 14 seconds and have a very shallow conversation with, but who suddenly becomes your best friend and wants to hang out with you every 10 minutes because they “love English and love to speak it” – meaning, of course, that they want free English conversation lessons).

Why?

Well, I recently met a Japanese girl who lived overseas for a long time. She has returned to Japan, and is herself disillusioned with many of the ways this society works. She is my informant. We shall call her Ms. X.

On my first meeting with Ms. X, we discussed many things about Japan that aren’t perhaps as nice as they could be. This surprised me, and it was obvious that Ms. X was not your average Japanese woman.

I asked her about the “friendly” thing. Why is it, that no matter how well you seem to get on with a Japanese person, there is always that wall? Well, she had an answer. Happou Bijin.

Bijin means a beautiful person. Happou means eight directions – in this case, analogous to the eight points of the compass. A happou bijin is someone who is beautiful in all directions. However, contrary to how it might sound, this isn’t a compliment. I’ll do my best to explain this Japanese concept as well I can.

Japanese people are very conservative. Honour and image are very important. If you are friends with someone, and you go away somewhere, you bring them back a souvenir. Even if you’re not friends with someone – for example, your boss – if you go away somewhere, you bring them back a souvenir. It’s one of those things that’s become expected, rather than a nice surprise, like leaving a tip at an American diner.

If you have friends, you have to show them that you are their friends. This includes things like bringing back souvenirs. And it also includes letting them know that you prefer them over other people. If you meet someone randomly, then start hanging out with them alot, maybe as much as you currently hang out with your current friends, then it seems you put them on the same level.

It’s like each person has a limited supply of “friendliness”. If I have two friends, then I can divide my friendliness between each of them evenly. If, however, I have three friends, I must split my friendliness three ways. If I have another friend, four ways. The more friends I have, the less “friendly” I can be to any one friend. Therefore, someone who has few friends is inherently a better “friend” than someone who has many friends. Someone with many friends is looked down upon, and people talk behind their back. That person is akin to the gaudily dressed harlot who has many men, and yet is not really giving herself to any of them. Not only that, but if she is spreading herself so thin, no man really wants her.

It’s the same kind of deal. If my friend is out there making friends with lots of other people, then I lose respect for them. Why can’t they be happy with a few solid friends to last them the rest of their life? But instead, they’re out there, flashing their ankles to everyone they meet, trying to impress everyone by showing their beautiful side in all directions, instead of keeping it covered to all but a select few. Happou Bijin.

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