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WIRED on cultural differences: A good story comes first

I see that Wired magazine has an all-things-Japan correspondent who, unfortunately, is a wee fond of the easy generalizations. Let's take a look.

In Meet Hiroyuki Nishimura, the Bad Boy of the Japanese Internet:

"Japan is a nation where the 3:17 train arrives every day at 3:17 — not 3:16 or 3:18..."

No, life is never that simple. Overall, train punctuality here is great. But in the heavy, big-city morning rushes, the daiya (schedule) goes all to hell. The electronic schedule signboard ceases to show trains' arrival time, simply displaying daiya ga midarete imasu (the schedule is off); trains come as fast as they can manage, not on schedule. It's not just Tokyo. I used to ride Joban line, more in the countryside; that line was habitually off-schedule in mornings, for no good reason that I could see.

"In Japan, there are specific rituals surrounding the exchange of business cards... Nishimura fumbles in the pockets of his cargo pants, then sticks his card in my face as he receives mine with a dismissive nod."

You can expect to see employees of big, traditional companies present business cards in a nice formal way, but it's not an "in Japan" thing. With smaller, younger companies, name cards can get presented pretty informally; nothing unusual about that. (Fumbling in a pocket for one isn't all that common, though, I'll grant!)

" 'But waste is our culture in Japan; look at how we package each candy individually.' It's true — in Japan, if you buy a bag of gummies, each piece inside is swaddled in its own superfluous wrapper."

That's true for some products. Definitely untrue for others, which don't use individual wrappers for contents; why imply that it's true for all? Either way, we also have no shortage of culturologists telling us that waste is the cultural norm outside of Japan, while Japan has some magical inhibition (expressed by the magical word mottainai) against waste. Which is it??

"Japan is an unhappy culture. The people are lonely and depressed, and the Internet is a release valve." [quote from Joi Ito]

Wow, can't get more generalizing than that! Ignore all the non-lonely, happy Japanese, and it's even true.

"And in a nation that actually has a word for 'death from overwork'..."

Groan. That's a topic to tackle in detail here. The short version: You form many "death" words in Japanese by tacking -shi to the end of a cause. Thus, there are everday single words in Japanese for death by cold/freezing (toushi), death by burning (shoushi), etc. The single-word status of karoushi (overwork death) is linguistic happenstance, not some meaningful cultural insight. Unless you want to also argue that the single word shoushi indicates a special Japanese propensity toward trouble with matches. Or that the single word drown in English means Englishmen are culturally prone to asphyxiation in water.

(And to be sure, death by overwork is a universal happening. Overworked souls drop dead of heart attacks in every land. No special nationality is required.)

There's more, but it's not worth harping on. In any case, don't let the above scare you off the article; the subject, Nishimura, is an interesting character to read about!

Then there's another article, A Brief Tour of the Japanese Web:

"The Internet didn't take off in Japan the way it did in the US. It was strictly a place for geeks and otaku until relatively recently. The key reasons were obvious: Most sites were in English, and typing in Japanese on a computer keyboard was arduous and counterintuitive. (Even today, more people in Japan access the Web via their cell phones rather than on their home or work computers.)"

What's "recently"? There's no huge gap between the US and Japan in migration to the Internet. Most sites are in English? No surprise there, but statistics clearly show Japanese to be one of the web's major languages, not some backwater. Typing in Japanese is difficult? Yes, but it's not a barrier; the sentence about using the Web on cell phones – where text input is even more arduous – contradicts the claim.

"The site his company runs is a uniquely Japanese take on YouTube, letting users post their comments directly on top of any videos that anyone has submitted. 'What we're doing is not just Web 2.0. It's Web 2.0J.' "

Leave comments on videos? But I've seen the same feature already on "Western" sites! (Anyone able to help me recall what service(s) are involved?) Even if the above-mentioned service offered a new take, what the heck warrants the "Web 2.0J" label? Does a web service have to be tagged with country of origin? Should all those US-born web services become "Web 2.0U"? Sheesh.

Next up: US Fans of the Japanese Web:

"It's rare you find a love story that transcends not just language, but cultures" [quote from a fiction translator]

Huh? What's a love story that doesn't transcend cultures? Can somebody name one?

" 'Japan offers an alternative to US pop culture that goes further than what's permissible here,' Macias says. 'We can't dress up and do the Haruhi dance in the US because we'll get in trouble.' "

Yet the culturologists are always telling me that Japan is the repressed place and the US allows freedom to do anything. I do wish they'd coordinate their stories.

Anyway, WIRED, you're a fun read, but please do take a more skeptical approach to your reports. Do you want to present things factually, or just play up the most polarized "cultural difference" angles you can concoct? (Hmm, maybe you'd rather not answer that...)

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