Friday 30 June 2017

The Japanese Character: Courteous or Short-tempered?

One of the most common images of the Japanese, both inside and outside Japan, is that they are courteous (reigi-tadashii =礼儀正しい). For example, in the latest (2013) Institute of Statistical Mathematics regular survey on the Japanese self-image, "courteous" was joint top (together with"hard-working" or kinben =勤勉) as the word which best represented the characteristics of the Japanese. A 2012 global survey by Dentsu of foreign images of Japanese produced a similar result (see page 7). The perception of the Japanese as courteous grew stronger both after the March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and also during the promotion of omotenashi Japanese hospitality in the campaign for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"Violence is a Crime"
Given the strength of the national character (kokuminsei =国民性) stereotype of the Japanese as super-polite, it is interesting to note the existence of a media discourse lamenting the increase in middle-aged and elderly (chūkōnen =中高年) people who snap and "lose it" (kireru the intransitive form of the verb kiru, to cut). This discourse was in fact prominent in the late 1990s when it mostly referred to kireru kodomo (kids who snap) against the context of heinous crimes by juveniles and the collapse (of discipline) in the classroom (gakkyūhōkai =学級崩壊). Today, it is chūkōnen who explode in anger at stations, hospitals, and stores (the poster on the right is the latest in a campaign which started in 2015 at stations to stamp out violence against station staff). Over-60s were the top demographic in 2015 in terms of those commiting such incidents.

Click to see on amazon
The problem of angry older people was epitomised in a May 14th letter from a young reader in the Yomiuri's problem page (jinsei-annai 人生案内) column (reprinted here in English) troubled about how to deal with with enraged chūkōnen customers. The letter prompted many readers to write in with similar experiences and led to a follow-up article trying to explain the phenomenon. Psychologist Hiroaki Enomoto, author of "The reason why chūkōnen lose it" (pictured left) put it down to stress stemming from frustration at and dissatisfaction with outspoken/overly-sensitive young co-workers in a system that is no longer based on seniority or effort but merit (seika-shugi =成果主義). Feelings of not being respected either at home or in the workplace are exacerbated following retirement when their sense of having no "place" (ibasho =居場所) is heightened as communication chances with others decrease. Interestingly, Enomoto focuses almost exclusively on men, even though such incidents are certainly not limited by gender.

 Whatever the reasons, this is no media exaggeration: the number of elderly criminals has skyrocketed in recent years, overtaking juveniles for the first time in 2015. Today, amid a rapidly ageing population (kōreika =高齢化) the ageing prison population (and prisoners with dementia) has become a key social issue: today more than 20% of inmates are over 60-years-old, and many of these deliberately re-offend, reflecting the fact that for many prison has become their ibasho.