Starved for Irony

Picture shows a notice posted in a college restroom in Japan. Translation runs as follows:

  • Thanks to you, the toilet is always maintained in a clean condition.
  • Let's continue to use the toilet in such a way that the next person can feel good about using it.
  • Let's avoid wasting toilet paper and water.
  • Smoking is prohibited in the toilet.
We request everyone's cooperation.

[In the lower-left corner, next to the drawing of the toilet, surrounded by little stars, is one of those peculiarly Japanese expressions which serves as a sound effect for something that doesn't really have a sound: pika-pika, or in other words, "sparkle sparkle."]

The only thing that could make this any more Japanese would be a cute cartoon animal pointing to the text.

Now consider hypothetically a similar notice (but in English, of course) posted in a restroom on an American college campus. What would be the effect? For the assorted reading audience, standing at the urinal, surely reactions ranging from befuddlement to raucous laughter. Is this for real? Within a matter of hours, defacement by some sort of crude graffiti. Within a matter of days, the notice is flung to the ground and trampled upon, and most likely soiled with a selection of bodily fluids.

So here we see an interesting aspect of Japanese society (or perhaps it is an interesting aspect of non-American society): the incredible sincerity. Japan is a place where you can actually say things like "It's a shame that a few bad apples have to spoil a good time for everyone by breaking the rules" and no one will snicker.

As an American of the sarcasm-prone variety, I am acutely conscious when in Japan of the need to watch what I say. Sarcasm is still possible, but must be carefully calibrated. Otherwise leads to befuddlement on the part of others, or in the worst cases, offense.

The advantages of the sincere society are pretty much what you would expect. The restrooms are in fact remarkably clean. As are the streets—all the more remarkable when you consider there is hardly a trash can to be found. Properly disposing of a plastic soda bottle entails separating it into three components—the bottle, the cap, and the label—and putting them in three separate locations.

I can't help but feel, however, that sarcasm and cynicism have their advantages as well. Life in Japan has provoked a lot of introspection. Why do I feel a frequent urge (by no means always indulged in) to play the devil's advocate, particularly if I can flavor my cynicism with a little humor? There are two obvious justifications:

1: I get to show off my sparkling wit.

2: I get to brighten the day of those around me.

But I think the real basis for American cynicism is something more philosophical. We recognize that no one is perfect, that even the most virtuous among us have a guilty secret or too. And therefore, when we hear someone or something praised extravagantly our automatic reaction is oh yeah? Well, what about....
Japanese people, if pressed, will admit that everything has its dark side. But they don't share our compulsion to point it out constantly.

Lest anyone misunderstand, my intent here is not to claim that America is better than Japan, or vice-versa. I think of different societies as representing different strategies for social organization, and am rather fascinated by the many different possible approaches to solving the same problems. Somewhat in the spirit of Arrow's Theorem, I rather think every approach is going to have serious drawbacks some of the time.

1 comment:

Tororo said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the scarcity of sarcasm in Japan. It is something that I am currently struggling with. I (a European male) have been living in Tokyo for almost a year now, and despite being able to express myself in Japanese, I have a really hard time accepting the absence of sarcasm, cynicism, and irony in personal communication as well as most of the media. I feel I cannot use my wit, and at the same time, there is very little fun here to be had and shared.
Like you, this made me think about my sense of humor, and if I was maybe too dark or negative. While I certainly do appreciate black humor more than any other kind, I have come to the conclusion that I personally do not like, and therefore do not want to adapt to, this dictate of positivism. To me, there is a very thin line between positivism and shallowness, and the Japanese unfortunately seem to be unaware of their shallowness in the realm of humor.