Thursday, 5 August 2010

PostHeaderIcon The Japanese Samaritan

Naomi took these two paparazzi style shots last week in Tokyo.  We were riding the train back from Yokohama after we had another fun dinner with the Japanese side of her family.  The carriage we were in was quite empty apart from these two young lassies.  The drunk girl slowly slid down until her face was planted in her friend's lap.  Things remained calm for a few stops but it suddenly became apparent that their journey was coming to an end.  When the train stopped the conscious girl attempted to wake her friend by giving her a quick shake.  It was a token gesture as she must have known a more valiant effort was required.  She immediately stood up to let the comatose head collapse onto the seat.  The next course of action was an attempt to lift her up.  Both of them probably weigh less than a bag of sugar but such a weak frame meant that the girl struggled to help her friend off the train.  Eventually the drunk girl managed to stand but she moved with the agility of a mad cow.  There was a brief period when it looked like they were both going to make it off the train but then the girl vomited all over the seat and floor, before collapsing on the latter.  It was at this point that Naomi and I moved to go and aid them both but we were reasonably far from their door.  Also, we stopped because a few people sitting and some new passengers entering the train looked like they were about to help but then decided to step back and avoid them both.  It's a typical scene that I've seen far too often in Japan.  It's like the Japanese brain is in a constant process of conflicting thoughts.  All of the passengers initially stepped forward to help the girl when she fell to the ground.  However, as always, I noticed a small switch labelled 日本人 flick in their head and they lunged back into a frozen glare of uselessness.

I'm not exactly sure what it is with this country but there is a strange culture of people not wishing to get involved in other people's matters.  I don't think it is exactly them being cold hearted or mean but rather something built into their mentality that they should not interfere in a matter if it is outside of their responsibility.  A strange example of this I've heard a few times is that someone might see a person drop their wallet at a crowded station and instead of chasing after them and making a scene, they'll just send them it in the post.  A number of my friends have had this happen to them and they were returned with absolutely nothing missing from them.  If the same situation happened in Scotland then I  assume that most people would chase after and hand the wallet back.  However, I'd say a large minority who found a wallet on the ground would either steal it or take the money out before sending it back.  Personally I would hand it into the police... more because there is a chance the post office workers would steal it themselves.

There is no doubt that this honesty is an excellent virtue that the Japanese have but it is part of the same mentality that means that nobody will come to the aid of a drunk girl collapsed on the floor of a train.  A few days later we were at Fuji Rock and the ground had become quite slippy and muddy due to the rain and masses of people.  Naomi was leaving the Muse gig when she slipped and fell on the ground quite badly.  She told me there was about half a dozen Japanese guys staring down at her with vacant expressions as they watched her pick herself up.    I think Naomi made sure they knew how she felt about their actions.  Incidentally, last year she driving and noticed an old man fall off his bike and struggle to get up again.  She watched a number of fellow Japanese walk past him as he did a fine impression of a turtle stuck on its back.  Eventually she had to stop and get out her car to help him herself.  I was walking across a pedestrian crossing in Kochi City once and I noticed that an old lady's shopping bags had burst in the middle of the road.  Again I witnessed about twenty people avoid her and her desperate attempts to gather her things.  Sadly, it was only myself who stopped to help her.  I even went into a shop and asked for some spare bags.  She was very thankful but I think she was embarrassed at the incident and that an illiterate foreigner was helping her.

It raises a lot of questions about the initial incident with the girls.  For example, was the girl's friend helping her because she was concerned and cared about her friend's well being?  Or was it more the case that this fell into the category of her responsibility?  Indeed, is this even different in Japan or do girls just react exactly the same back home?  I'm not exactly sure what I think.  I'd say on the face of it they are exactly they same situations and I'm well aware that I've had to help vomiting friends in the past because they were my friends.  However, I can't help but feel there is a little bit of a different mentality in other instances.  I could be wrong and racist of course but I can't help but feel they are more consciously aware of their actions in these instances.  It's like they initially go to aid someone as they act on human instincts but then they are held back by something.  This could also be said about the situation of finding a wallet.  Does a Japanese person originally think "Wow 50000 yen" before succombing to their 日本人 as honesty is what is expected in Japanese society?  I tried to imagine the same situation in Scotland if two drunken girls started vomiting on the train home.  I wondered if I would be so ready to help them or would I have some prejudice towards their idiotic, binge-drinking, orange tanned nedness?  I might be more reluctant to help some rough Glaswegian lassies but I'm pretty certain I'd still immediately help them when it was apparent they required it.   I've tried to understand and explain why Japanese people act like this but it can be hard to see beyond the fact that the vast majority more often than not act like cowardly arseholes.  You may think I have topped myself again at failing to understand the differences in cultures and what have you but if you're Japanese and reading this... perhaps you should help the next 80 year old you see in trouble.

I really wanted to make a pun about the Japanese having a samuraitan soul or something but I couldn't quite work it out.  I'm not entirely comfortable with my wild assumptions and generalisations in this entry but I'll post them anyway.  Also, I remember reading the story of a JET who had just arrived in Japan a few years ago.  She was walking over a bridge in a busy part of her city.  As she was coming down the stairs she went over her ankle and fell down to the bottom.  I can't remember the details but I think she ended up breaking an arm, some ribs and was covered in blood.  Anyway, streams of Japanese people flowed past her without acknowleding her.  She had little Japanese and was not sure how to call anyone for help.  The saddest part of the story is that the first person who helped her was another foreigner... a good few minutes after she had fallen over.  Also, just to add another example to this increasing list.  I broke my leg playing football with some Japanese guys in my town.  I tried to walk away before realising I couldn't walk and sat down at the door clutching my leg.  About ten of them walked past me as they went off to have a smoke break.  Who was it that helped me that night?  A foreigner and my supervisor... probably because he felt he had to.


Taylor said...

You bring up some interesting points Craig. I too have noticed and experienced the Japanese avoid-helping-you-ness. Many people that I've encountered have been hesitant to approach or help a stranger but I found that if you do ask for help, the Japanese go out of their way to give you a hand.

One night in Tokyo my drunk friend and I were lost in Shibuya searching for a internet cafe to crash in. I asked a group of young Japanese men if they knew of any places and instead of blowing us off or giving us directions, they guided us around the city to three different cafes (unfortunately all were full). After parting ways, they sent us a text message to check up on us. We ended up sleeping on the street but I still appreciated their kindness.

Joanna said...

Hello Craig,

Hadn't realised that the story of the JET who fell and no one helped had been published.

I'd met her and it was a shock to see how much she had not only lost weight because of the incident, but also her 'genki-ness'. Having re-contracting JETs living near her who'd already established friendship groups, compounded her situation so it became a more isolating process of settling in Japan. Until you blogged it, I'd never took the incident as it being a Japanese avoid-helping-you-ness. Is that really what JETs and expatriates/gakokujin believe? Perhaps it was because she was a stranger, but then why would the guys from your town you were playing football with when you hurt your leg, just walk past than help you? There were not your friends but were also not strangers at the time, (maybe just 'playmates'..hehehe).

Not sure if you ever walk to the Elementary School from home, but nearby there is cross-junction where the alley meets the same street Tano post office is on and I'd always halted there when I rode to the school. One time I'd stopped for traffic and was about to cycle again when my trousers got caught in the chain. I quietly yelped to myself down the alleyway as I didn't know what to do, (what with the whole schoolroom of children I was suppose to practice Japlish with waiting for my arrival). I attempted but couldn't free myself and was attached to the bike by my leg. Oh the embarrassment, so close to home and the scissors but immobile. Then these two old ladies came out from no where with shears (probably from gardening) and set me free. They knew, and probably heard what had happened and realised that there was nothing I could do and thankfully they helped. (I'm sharing this with you and the blogosphere not becuase I want to be told to wear trouser clips. Besides the Tano ALT bike eventually got stolen, so I ended up walking to the schools instead. Luckily all ALT successors only like driving cars).

However grateful I am for their help, it was embarrassing to realise that they will always remember me for that incident. It is not a great introduction to meet a person, however much cinematic persuasion tries to illustrates that it is [skip to 1min30., ] people always stare but rarely help.

When an incident involves being helpful to strangers over something that isn't a traffic accident or directions, it's a bit of an odd political game of respecting/offending others. Take the whole offering a seat to a woman who looks possibly pregnant when on public transport. There are other numerous 'Paddington Stares' situations, all of which are relentless. Isn't there a similar cultural and colloquial term for this in Japan?

Reikalein said...

Have you read Murakami's "Underground"? It describes exactly what you wrote about. Even though I'm half Japanese, I found it to be quite horrific in places.

I agree with Taylor though, more often than not, when you do ask for help, people really do go out of their way to assist you right to the end.

As awful as this sounds, while I normally help people who are struggling with things, I'm not sure I would have been jumping all over the opportunity to help a girl I don't know drag herself out of her alco-vomit. But maybe that's because I'm Japanese?

Krampus said...

Yeah man I know exactly what you mean. I'm pretty sure everyone has a story like this who's been in Japan longer than a few weeks. Just a couple weeks ago I was out drinking in Osaka and we saw this ridiculously wasted Japanese guy falling over onto a pile of bikes. He was so drunk he couldn't get up and after watching everyone else just stare and do nothing my friends and I bought him a sports drink and helped him wipe the blood off his hands. For a nation with people who will perform obscenely selfless acts of hospitality for complete strangers, there seems to be a prevailing social sickness of what I like to call "NYC Syndrome..."

Ahoy hoy said...

Thanks for all your comments everyone. It's always nice to get a varied reaction to the bollocks I write. I meant to reply days ago but yeah...

I'm usually too stubborn to ask for help but it's true that I've witnessed Japanese people fall over themselves to try and help me when I've asked for it. Still, I wonder if they'd be just as keen to help say a beaten up foreigner covered in blood... to one just asking directions. Who knows?

I read the story a few years on one of those JET websites. There were a few others but that one stayed in my head. I guess the image of being injured and ignored in a sea of people stuck with me. It is more a case of ignoring a stranger rather than the gaijin. The guys I played football with were just wankers I think.

That small junction is a nightmare. I always drive so slow passed it because I'm expecting a hundred kids on bikes to jump infront on my car. Also, my bike got stolen as well! Typical Japanese tsk tsk.

Helping strangers can be a bit of a mindfield but I guess the point I was trying to make is that everyone goes through the same analysis of a situation but for some reason the Japanese fail to act at all in the majority of cases... I think.

I haven't read that but I've heard it was a good read. I'm reading a history book on Japan after WW2 at the moment. I just finished a chapter that discussed the fate of orphans, widows, single mothers,war veterans and the elderly in the aftermath of defeat. They were basically ignored and shunned from the rest of society. This led to all sorts of philosophical questions posed by Japanese about traditional Japanese morals. Interesting all the same.

Yeah... I'm probably not so keen to help vomiting drunk girls as well I guess. However, all that was required in my example was to help the girl get off the train at the right stop. About four lads just stood over them and stared as the doors started to close with one of her legs sticking out of it.

Actually... the last time I went to Yokohama we got off the same train at Osaka. There was a drunk guy trying to go down some escalators that were going up. He must have been there for at least ten minutes as we were the only people that got off the train. We did kind of stare for ages because it was least we told him in the end though. There was a station worker about 20 metres away just staring at him.

Cheers chaps. I tend to go a bit of a rant when I get going and avoid the positives of Japan. Still, I do honestly believe there is something culturally different when it comes to these situations and sadly it comes across in a generally negative light.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you took photos!

Ahoy hoy said...

I didn't take them... I just posted them on the internet for the whole world to see.

Anonymous said...

It wasnt so long ago I observed passersby ignore a man lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood. The most that anybody did was ask me to help him. It was just an old man that had fallen over as well, nothing threatening about the situation. The person that had caused him to fall over walked off.

This was in the UK. So I wouldnt be so quick to judge the japanese and/or pretend you'd find a better attitude in the UK.

Ahoy hoy said...

I wasn't saying that everyone back home was a saint. A drunk lay outside my University library for hours once. I passed him myself because... well he was passed out holding onto to a vodka bottle. It was only when I left 3 hours later and he hadn't moved that I went to see if he was dead or not. Another girl then helped when she saw me do so. Not great. Still, about a week later I saw an old man passed out on the ground and a woman punching his chest back to life after a heart attack. Do I think this man would have less of chance of being saved by a passerby in Japan? I'm afraid my answer is yes.

You say I rush to judge the Japanese but I'd say my post was more about examples and an understanding over what I see as an obvious cultural difference. There are lot of things wrong with the UK in comparison to Japan but I think helping strangers is something more likely to happen in the former. Of course, this is just my opinion and you have your own.

Also, I don't think anybody in the world is ever keen to rush to the aid of someone in a fight or something. It was just the other examples.

Anonymous said...

But this is how to be British?

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About Me

I am a 24 year old Scotsman currently teaching English to Japanese schoolchildren. I live in a small town on the east coast of Kochi prefecture.