A few weeks ago, one of the 48 women who make up the pop group AKB48 was caught sleeping at her boyfriend’s house. Soon after that, she shaved off all of her hair- a traditional Japanese expression of regret- and made a tear-filled apology video to her fans.
Meanwhile, the new conservative government running Japan has hinted that it might “unapologize” for Japan’s use of captive women as sex slaves during World War II. It raises a lot of questions about gender roles, sex-shaming, and double standards, but in my sheltered world, I’ve got another apology to think about.
Lately I’ve embraced a daydream of an afterlife in which I finally understand what everyone else is doing. This basic fantasy found its zenith in the fleeting notion that I could simply look up everyone I knew on Wikipedia to find thorough, crowd-sourced outlines of their internal machinations; this was compounded by the dream that Jonathan Franzen would write all the entries.
Even among people who use the same words for feelings and ideas, life is a never-ending series of confusing propositions and clumsy negotiations, but try living without it. Learning to tolerate all that ambiguity is one of the reasons I went abroad: To see where I start and years of living in the English-speaking enclave of American culture ends.
Use Your Words
Last year, an English-speaking co-worker was put in charge of making sure I didn’t die, which would have been inconvenient for my office. She was thorough, but spoke in a distinctly Japanese math. Everything was parenthetical and algebraic. Nothing was straightforward, variables were constantly implied. My work schedule would be evoked rather than explained. The Japanese call it “reading the air,” a skill that English would best translate as “read her mind.”
Notoriously, I would have to sort out when “probably” meant “certainly” and when it meant “never.” Once, I said I’d meet with students on a Monday. She said the students might be busy. When I came to school Monday, the building was locked for a holiday.
She was a stickler. Once, I wrote out a paper to leave school at noon for a routine business trip. I checked the train schedule and found I could cut my wait time in half by leaving five minutes sooner. I asked to leave at 11:55. She checked the paper, saw I’d been approved for a noon departure, and shouted that I needed to respect rules. I had divided by zero.
“I cannot permit it. I CANNOT PERMIT THAT.”
Not being permitted was one of the many last straws since, but marked my first passively Japanese temper tantrum. I stood beside her desk as the clock dragged its dawdling hands to noon. She anxiously shuffled paper. A month later she scolded me for arriving at 8:29 for my 8:30 workday, insisting that “other teachers know where you live, so you have no excuse.”
Recently she suggested that “perhaps” the English Club students would meet me at 4:15, but that “maybe” they had a study group, “I can’t be sure.” One student might, perhaps, come to computer room C, but perhaps now computer room C is locked for repairs, so they will use computer room B? “I’m not sure about that,” she said, “but maybe it’s the case, so, we don’t know when the students will come.”
“OK,” I said, desperately reducing her stream of fractions; “Can you unlock the security alarm so I can wait for them?” She said sure and then she didn’t do it, so I tripped the alarm at 4:15. She ran upstairs and, shouting in front of students, said that she told me to talk to her before coming here. “I TOLD YOU THAT.”
I, for the first time, and to the cheering of students, shouted back at her and flung my hands in the air dismissively.
I went downstairs and submitted my contracting papers for dramatic flair, refusing to renew – effectively canceling my life in Japan. I’d planned to do it anyway. It just felt more satisfying this way.
This mildly inflamed exchange would go unnoticed in America, where this is how you order breakfast on a busy day. But here, two teachers shouting at each other is blockbuster office gossip.
She didn’t speak to me for a week, which is a common approach to conflict resolution among many people here. Typically, you just avoid conflict at all costs. If someone seems to be sparking conflict – in this case, me – you avoid them. I’ve screwed up paperwork and felt like shaving my head to drive away the cold stares of co-workers who don’t say a word, but then again, they don’t say a word to me, anyway.
In the case of the dramatic doorway, staff members eventually held an intervention. I was told I was “one percent responsible” – after all, I did open a secured door without checking. Also, she was older, so I had to apologize. By this face-saving logic, the shop keeper may have been robbed, but maybe he owes the burglar a tiny apology for leaving all that money in his store?
This “1 percent responsible” line was told to me casually at first and then in a sit-down meeting in the conference room. I should apologize, save the wa, and complete my transformation into Japanese office culture, or I could be American.
“No,” I said. “I’m not doing that.”
“But she will not speak with you unless you apologize to her.”
“Well,” I said, “That sounds wonderful.”
OK. I’m petty.
It’s So Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry
If I’m going to expect empathy from other people, then it’s only honest to extend empathy toward them, and yet, I’m failing here. Someone who has never transitioned into another culture can’t really relate to my experience. I know that. And I’m not angry about that. If she can’t communicate with me, she can’t imagine how confusing everything is. It’s quite simple for her to assume that so much more of her understanding is also part of my frame of reference. She can’t see that the heightened awareness of my surroundings carries a unique form of mental exhaustion.
But I just can’t bring myself to apologize to her, especially not because she’s older and so I must have been the one who made the mistake. That’s just not a part of this culture I am willing to take on. And that feels uncomfortable!
After all, shouldn’t I be judging my actions in this situation by the context that everyone I work with sees it – that there’s no harm in apologizing, that there’s no shame, and even a bit of strength, in taking the hit to my ego to save everyone in the office some tension?
It’s tough, explaining this to unsympathetic observers. I know I’m supposed to empathize with those who can’t empathize with me. But I make dozens of exhausting concessions every day, themselves becoming an added source of mental stress.
Refusing to apologize for losing my temper to an unsympathetic office tyrant was my one stand against the thousands of tiny stresses that have chiseled into my skin like fiberglass. I had to draw the line somewhere and make a stand for my idea of who I am, instead of getting lost into what I see as humiliating acquiescence.
Sometimes, you gotta not assimilate.
Someday, perhaps we’ll end up in some enveloping consciousness where we can understand everything anyone has ever done with absolute empathy and forgiveness. The daydream starts with my resident office tyrant understanding how different my life here is from what I am used to; it extends outward to people I’ve loved who didn’t believe me when I told the truth. It extends to people who have suffered from my lack of courage, selfishness, ego or anger.
This fantasy is also my chance to understand the mystery of other people. It’s easy to assume we all act on the same impulses, desires, and sense of what’s right. But then you come abroad, and you realize there are a million ways for good intentions to manifest themselves. Maybe the source of all pain in a good-intentioned world is not articulating our intentions properly.
I want to cultivate empathy. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, assume that everyone has had their own reasons for doing the things they have done, to understand not only why people have hurt me but the extent to which I have hurt people. And then I wonder, if my vision of a perfect afterlife is just one giant cluster of mutual understanding, am I doing enough to cultivate it while I’m still alive?
I dunno, but I never did end up apologizing.
For “This Japanese Life” on Facebook, “like” means never having to say you’re sorry.