Despite the fact that Japan is the birthplace of the Samurai and the Yakuza – not to mention the perpetrators of the Showa period war crimes – many Americans view the Japanese as a peaceful people; hard to rattle, fiercely disciplined, respectful to a fault, beautifully friendly and above all, unfailingly polite. It’s not an entirely outrageous perception – in fact, I might even venture to say the effect is deliberately engineered to some degree. In Japanese, when one wants to inquire as to another’s general well-being, the phrase most commonly used is “O genki desu ka?” which loosely translates to “Are you healthy/happy/well?” In Japan, to appear genki is the thing – it is considered socially unacceptable to let one’s emotions interfere with their performance or mood. The most common way to express genkiness is by maintaining a lively and energetic attitude, regardless of one’s circumstance or natural disposition. Even ex-patriots living in Japan are not excluded from the pressure – at my school, we are reminded to be as genki as possible at all times. I have noticed that in my Japanese books, there are no suggested responses to the question “O genki desu ka?”
I’ve been in Japan long enough now, I believe, to have scratched the surface of the honorable, pleasant Japanese veneer and detected the less-than-genki human passions that lurk beneath the wa. It can be a difficult thing to penetrate at first – a genki person is a lovely, friendly, helpful person and for a stranger in a strange land, such an attitude is extremely comforting. The moving abroad honeymoon effect also adds to this willing acceptance, to be sure.
Despite the genkiness, wa, bowing and politeness, I have noticed lately that there is an awful lot of slapping going on in Osaka. To be sure, it isn’t a Jekyll and Hyde effect, nor is it stumbling into a shooting at a club or being cabjacked by a bleeding Yakuza. It is merely the humanization of a formerly one-dimensional set of co-inhabitants, the slipping of a mask visible only to the uninitiated. And to witness the mask of such carefully perfected happiness slipping can be a fascinating thing.
My class of 3 year olds at Wakayama is lovely, but, as I scrawl in my roll books, “Kazuki is very restless and sometimes the other students become distracted.” What I mean, of course, is that adorable little Kazuki has bratty tendencies. He likes me enough to bound into the classroom before class, bellowing, “Eba-sensei!” and can be reduced to stitches by my animal imitations, but as time has gone on, he has become harder to keep focused in class. He is increasingly fidgety, loud, whiny and completely disinterested; preferring instead to run about the classroom and keep the other students from hearing what I’m trying to say. Thus, “restless.” Naturally. I have learned to write such comments from my Japanese staff members, who are masters at gentle insults. When my 12 year olds are being complete jerks, the staff members will calmly observe that “They are very active today.” Sometimes they use the word “powerful.” “Powerful” and “active” are ridiculous understatements, but I have actually grown to like using such language. It feels oddly powerful, almost like using a subversive code. This is how bratty Kazuki becomes “restless.” Kazuki is also 3 years old, which is why I always feel compelled to add “but he is a good boy” to my notes. He’s 3 – therefore I feel the onus of his bad behavior falls on his mother, who is always present in class. Far be it from me to discipline a 3 year old in front of his own mother. Far be it from her to discipline him, either – she laughs each time he shrieks and tickles him between gentle urges of “Hora!*” and “Nani iro**?” so that he makes even more noise. Kazuki’s attempts to kick me or hit me in the face with a rubber ball while I am drilling the other students with flashcards have also met with this kind of “punishment.”
Sometimes, Kazuki’s mother brings her husband to school. He clomps in, wearing a black leather jacket accessorized by square, yellow-tinted sunglasses. He speaks little to no English and when I greet him cheerily before class, he only bows deeply in response. He slumps in a chair outside the classroom, watching quietly until Kazuki begins to scream or kick at me. He then glares angrily at Kazuki until Kazuki’s shrieks turn tearful. The man came to class a few weeks ago – flowing ponytail swishing angrily – and Kazuki was inconsolable. He sniveled, shrieked and the little girls in class stared in wonder. The day’s class was nearly impossible to teach and as I was wearily bidding the students goodbye at the door, Kazuki’s father jerked his chair back and left my line of vision. Aya and Miko tugged on their little shoes and tripped happily out of the room with their parents, but Kazuki sat on the floor, crying bitterly as his mother tried to interest him in putting on his sandals. Annoyed and partly deaf, I left them to their drama and wandered into the school’s reception area, where I noticed Kazuki’s father stalking towards the classroom, with a large, stiff, rolled up magazine in his hand. I heard rather than saw the blow – a savage crack followed by even more intense wailing. The whole family emerged from the classroom; the mother laughing and happily chatting to the staff, Kazuki screeching in her arms and the father bowing solemnly to each person in his path.
Last night, Meir, Sean, Andy and I headed down to Namba; Osaka’s hustling and bustling center of nightlife – a series of narrow streets lined with glittering neon billboards, izakayas and gracefully arranged swooping street lanterns. After a snack of edamame, beer and chicken parts we sipped conbini beers at the north end of the bridge, beneath the giant plaster model of a Pocky Sticks box. Sean received a phone call on his cell phone and stepped off to the side. I caught a flurry of activity beyond his tall form – a group of girls in mini shorts, hair falls and tall heels, surrounding a man with fierce ‘burns and a striped button down. One of the girls had begun slapping at him with a flat palm, teetering on her heels as she did so. At first glance, it looked like the teasing sort of slap flirtatious women often give the men in their circle, but the slapping continued. One of the other girls joined in.
I asked Meir if the girls looked serious to him. He said they didn’t, but as we peered more closely, we noticed that the man had begun slapping back. Soon, the rest of the girls had descended upon the man like a flock of ravens and it was impossible to mistake the ruckus for anything but an unbridled slap-for-all. As soon as the man began to slap back, Meir and I had instinctively wandered towards the fray – although I’m not sure what we would have done; taken him down? – and I caught a few angry shouts of “otoko*” combined with adjectives I didn’t recognize.
Two or three men wearing wife beaters and bandanas around their bald heads appeared from back streets and stepped into the melee, holding back the enraged females and blurting what seemed like sensible words to all involved. The catfight slowly dissolved.
Last week, my coworker Peggy told me that several of her adult female students have complained to her about workplace beatings. I expressed confusion – “what’s a workplace beating? I’m from America, where smiling while saying “I need to lick some envelopes” to a female coworker can earn you a reprimand. My coworker explained – she’s learned that, apparently, male higher ups will actually smack a female employee on the back of the head or on the arms if she makes a mistake or annoys them in some way.
“I asked one of my students what she would do if she had magic powers for a day,” said Peggy. “She said that she’d make a rolled up magazine slap her boss up the head. To get him back.”
Peggy then told me the story of the milkshake – in her neighborhood, she saw a man fling the contents of his milkshake at a girl with, what seemed to her, very little warning. I reacted with surprise to the new tale, but was still focused on the workplace violence.
Peggy is not the only one with a Public Display of Violence story. Sean, too, witnessed what he described as a “brilliant” scene. It took place in the street, in our neighborhood. A girl and her boyfriend stood outside a shop, blending into the scenery until the boyfriend suddenly shot his hand out, slapped her upside the head and shouted, “Baka!”
Sean grinned as he told me this story; hand twitching, cool blue eyes surveying me with a keen hope.
“No.” I said emphatically.