Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

A few months ago, I happened upon this video essay (it sure as shit ain't a documentary) based upon Alvin Toffler's prescient-if-not-entirely-accurate tome Future Shock. It's more entertaining than enlightening, especially thanks to its quaintly dated standard of new hotness. Oh, and it's hosted by Orson Welles in all his bloated, furrowed-brow, uh, glory.

The video ran a lap around my social circle, giving everyone a fair chuckle. One friend in particular loved how short the film fell of its own title: "So there's Orson Welles, strolling along a moving sidewalk in some airport - smoking indoors! He can't begin to imagine the shock the future has in store for him..."

I doubt Welles (or Toffler, for that matter) would have foretold the day when smoking became prohibited outdoors, let alone in. Several of Tokyo's 23 wards (including Chiyoda, Shibuya, and Suginami) have limited al fresco smoking to designated "smoking stations", though this is meagerly enforced - at least compared to the new turf subject to the ever-expanding ban. The above picture is of a relic, a once-pervasive staple of contemporary Japanese life, already vanished without a trace: the train platform smoking station.

This network-wide smoking ban came as some surprise: not only is tobacco ubiquitous in Japan, but it's a fraction of the cost in any other developed nation (around ¥300 a pack) because the government is the majority stockholder of domestic tobacco production. My god, there's a smoking section in every McDonald's! What could possess a country so nicotine-addicted to ban smoking in all of its public transportation hubs? An Olympic bid. Gotta look sharp for all the foreign tourists & investors, after all.

But unlike the megadecibel wailing & gnashing of teeth when the EU-wide smoking ban went into effect last year, there was nary a peep out of the Japanese public. There are scarcely any notices posted in or around train stations reminding people to butt out within a hundred paces. The ashtrays disappeared, and along with them, any apparent urge to light up.

Meanwhile, my wife's been teaching a high school debate class. Parsing the list of acceptable topics, she noticed that alcoholism - a reasonably cut-&-dry (ha!) subject - wasn't mentioned. She asked if this was because it hit some of the students a little too close to home (double ha! for tasteless pun). No, mercifully that wasn't the case. The problem was that, when past teachers had attempted to explain alcoholism to the students, they didn't understand that there was anything wrong with the behaviour itself.

There are words for "addiction" in the Japanese language, and "junkie" is one of the few colloquialisms that requires no awkward translation for those minimally conversant in English. But "addiction" is understood almost exclusively in terms of narcotics. The idea that someone could be "addicted" to coffee, gambling, or internet porn is seen as a poetic embellishment. In fact, the most commonly-used word* for "addiction" (中毒 - chuudoku) also means "poisoning" - so addiction is seen less as a long-term destructive habit than an unwise short-term decision or accident.

But it's no accident that addiction, as Westerners understand it, isn't a part of Japanese pop-psychology, because when Japan admits to the detrimental effects of compulsive, unhealthy behaviour, compelled by some agency stronger than individual will, the very foundation of this society will be shattered.

In this context, smokers' quiet acceptance of the widening tobacco ban makes perfect sense: if they're not addicts, why couldn't they just wait for the train without smoking? Were smokers to argue for their right to light up, they would have to argue on behalf of their addiction; meanwhile, any opposition to the smokers would necessarily be based on the ruinous effects of their habit, to themselves and others. But once that line - from unpleasant habit to unhealthy dependence - is drawn, the etiquette & conventions that shackle so many Japanese shred like a paper chain:
  • Is it so important to be drafted into the white-collar army immediately after university?
  • Does drinking for five hours after work actually bring me closer to my colleagues?
  • Do I really need six beers and two chu-his whenever I leave the house to have fun?
  • Why is consensus more important than improving an idea by vetting competing ideas?
  • Why bother lining up in train stations?
  • Why bother registering my bike?
  • Why bother separating my trash?
And that's just the quotidian bullshit the Japanese put up with on top of the other issues of "civic responsibility" that raise the hackles of libertarians throughout the West. Once income tax, legalising marijuana, reforming the streamed education system, and immigration become hot topics of popular discourse, society will have become so socially pulverised that I'll be expecting looting at the local Lawson and the Tocho towers to be on fire.

(*) - Take any statements I make about the Japanese language with a grain of salt, as I'm far from fluent. I've picked up what caveman-grade speech I have from band practices, bars, and late-night talk shows.

Non-Sequitorial Addendum: I've been reading a bunch of musical biographies lately. I'm currently thumbing through Erik Morse's profile of Spacemen 3, which is basically one long anecdotal argument for doing every drug all the time (at least as far as making music is concerned). Last fall, I thoroughly enjoyed Miles Davis' autobiography, even if was basically 300 pages of "[Name of legendary jazz musician] was a bad motherfucker who wouldn't take shit off nobody!" But it's with no small amount of shame that I must confess, if only to pacify a friend's insistent recommendation, I recently read Slash's autobiography. For anyone who doesn't particularly need a roll-call of every groupie Mr. Saul Hudson banged during pre-production of Appetite, this particular quote from page 215 sums up the story nicely:
"Under the circumstances, I did the only thing that made sense: I hung out with David Lee Roth all night."

No comments: