Friday, April 24, 2009

Two Boxes (and the non-existence of time)

There are many ideas that people accept as so completely obvious that anyone who questions the status quo is seen as being a little mad. I'm sure that anyone who thought space was anything more than a vast black nothing full of heavenly bodies was completely reasonable up until "dark matter" was hypothesized by scientists. Of course, dark matter isn't a fact, nor is there any direct evidence of it. It's something scientists made up to explain the unexplainable while figuring out the way the universe works.

At any rate, when you question what is utterly obvious to the vast majority of people, it's hard to make others understand where you are coming from. When I say that I don't believe in the existence of time, I find it a little difficult to explain to those who can't even begin to fathom such an absurd notion. Last night, I was having a talk with a student about the future and whether or not she believed that people could tell the future. When she asked me if I believed they could, I told her that it was complicated because I didn't believe time existed, so it's not a matter of predicting what has not occurred.

After the lesson, I was thinking about how to frame this feeling about time in an understandable and clear way. When I explained it to the student, I drew a time line of our life which is like an arrow shooting forward from birth to death. Our conception is that that is how we experience life. We move in one direction and we can't go back nor can we change the rate at which we move forward. The best I could explain to her at that time was to consider the smallest measures on that line as chopped up little slides what we existed in and were blind of the slices ahead of us. That is, we were walled off from the past and future, but they were still there.

Later, I thought about this again and a better example came to mind. Consider that there are two boxes on either side of you. You don't know what is in one of the boxes, but you know something is in them. You are given an item from the "future" box and you experience it. You can touch it, see it, smell it, or even taste it if you want. When you are finished with it, you put it into the other box, "the past". Once you put the item into the past, you can never access it again. Would you say that the box full of the past was empty because you couldn't see what was in it or access its contents? Do you really believe the "future" box is empty because you cannot see what is inside of it? My feeling is that just because you can't access the contents of the boxes, it doesn't mean they cease to exist. Time shapes how we experience this existence, but it is a construct that exists to feed us experiences in a manner which will not overwhelm the fragile body's sensory mechanisms.

This is how I view time. Because of the limits of our perceptions (due to our nervous systems' inability to process multiple "dimensions" without suffering a complete mental and likely physical overload), we can't have access to everything at once so we can only access life in a limited way. It's as if our bodies are designed to be "handed" items in a fashion that they can process so they can still function in this reality rather than being inundated with all experiences (past and present) at all times. I don't believe that means those experiences are gone, but rather that we aren't allowed to access them for our own "protection".

This relates to both predictions and past lives (if you believe in such things). Some people, perhaps because they are capable of handling it or have a capacity which is uncommon, have access to the contents of the boxes that we don't. The extent to which that access is distorted, however, is always an issue. That is, just because they can reach into those boxes, it doesn't mean they can clearly and accurately experience what is in them as they are fighting through a construct which is meant to protect our reality from others, so such things are rarely presented without the distortion of the psychology of the involved party and less than 100% clarity is present while processing them. The results of any such access will almost certainly be skewed (sometimes very badly) by the zeitgeist the person lives in and their own psychological need to view things in a particular way.

This is also, incidentally, how I believe ghosts, spirits, and other strange things show up for some people in our reality. I see it as a form of dimensional "leakage" which occurs when two entities (people) have a sensitivity to one another and can interact. Most of them are terrified and react accordingly. That is, they try to force one another out of their respective realities. Such experiences are inevitably full of perceptual distortions as well. Consider that a "ghost" that is telling someone in our reality to "get out" may be experiencing the other party as a similarly invasive and terrifying "ghost" in their reality.

I could be wrong, of course. I've never had an experience with a past life memory or what might be considered a significant premonition, nor have I ever seen a ghost. However, I'm not prepared to utterly dismiss those who have had such experiences as all being self-deluding, psychotic, or simply liars. Scoffing at them and waving away their experiences is a handy way of explaining away the unexplainable, but I question the psychology of the need to do this. Mainly, I think that it's rooted in arrogance and self-centeredness. That is, if it is unusual and I haven't experienced it, it didn't happen, so that person must be crazy or a liar. While I am sure that some people have psychotic breaks or neurological problems which cause them to see, hear, and experience things (as I've worked with such people before), I'm not prepared to believe that is always the case.

I don't believe that time doesn't exists as an explanation of the unexplainable, though it somehow does end up explaining some things. Though I guess that if I did make it up to explain the unexplainable, I'd be no different from those who made up dark matter to fill in the gaps of their theoretical notions of how the universe works.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The "Case By Case" Culture

Back in the days when such statements were not considered racist, people in movies, television, and various other media used to say that the Japanese were "inscrutable". I'm not sure exactly what aspect of Japanese behavior elicited this widely held observation, but the statement is supposed to reflect the idea that the Japanese are difficult to analyze and understand. One thing I can say for certain is that it does not have anything to do with language. Plenty of people learn to read, speak, and write Japanese language. Another thing I can say is that the idea that Japanese people are incomprehensible to outsiders is one that the Japanese themselves love to perpetuate.

Part of the reason I believe that the Japanese believe that outsiders can't understand their culture's depth and breadth is that they lack perspective on outside cultures. They don't know how their culture differs because they don't have intimate knowledge of other cultures as a point of reference. They can't explain the differences because they don't know what is different except in relatively isolated cases. Few people in either culture have a macro view of the mechanics of the cultures they're trying to understand so we are left with a lot of micro views of things like deference to authority, respect for the aged, notions of homogeneity and conformity, etc.

I'm sure that somewhere someone has written books explaining the things I'm about to say and that someone in an academic ivory tower has made it their life's work to understand and explain such things. I'm not attempting to compete with such authorities or to say I know what they know, but there are some things I've realized which have provided me with a different perspective and a better understanding of a particular aspect of Japanese culture which tends to drive many foreign people who live here mad. That is the way in which the Japanese handle matters of rule and law on a "case by case" basis. That is, they have rules which they will recite chapter and verse, but then they will bend those rules on a whim.

For foreign folks, the "case by case" culture is maddening because we never know where we stand and we always expect to be standing in the line which says, "you're going to get screwed over." The latter is a bit paranoid, and probably fueled by errors we make when dealing with Japanese business and bureaucracy, but I'm sure that prejudice is applied at times as well.

Just to be clear, I will offer an example of a typical "case by case" situation which affects our lives as foreign folks. This is the immigration situation and the requirements for visas and visa renewal. When you apply for a visa, you get an application form and a list of documentation that you must submit. In the vast majority of cases, you hand over the documents and you get your stamp and move along. However, as part of the information you receive, there is essentially a statement that the immigration office can demand any other documentation of you that they wish and can refuse you for any reason whatsoever. They don't have to point to any rule to demand that you offer up your mother's birth certificate, your foreign bank account's address, or your grandmother's marriage license. If they want these things, they have every right to request them because they have the power to handle every situation on a "case by case" basis. There is no promise that you will be treated equally to other applicants or that the same demands will be made of each applicant. Now, I don't think that such demands are made, though I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if certain people were refused renewals based on this flexibility and power.

The interesting thing about the "case by case" culture is that it can benefit as well as take away from you in a given situation. People who have power to make life harder for you also have the power to make it easier. They can waive punishment if you apologize or they can make your case an exemption when the other 1000 cases before you had to do exactly the same thing. This does happen in Japan and I think it'd probably happen more often for foreign folks if they knew how to show regret and accept responsibility in exactly the same manner as Japanese people do.

Unfortunately, we foreign folks, by and large, are accustomed to rules that are hard and fast. We like our rules this way because they guarantee that each person is treated exactly the same and that we are all equals. Without such rules, there is the possibility of prejudice and abuse of power. We like to have everything spelled out for us so that we can operate under the expectation that we can be guaranteed a certain result when we cross all of the "t's" and dot all of the "i's". Under such a system, we have the power to control the outcome because we know exactly what to do and we know that no one in an authority position has the power to deny us if we do everything we're supposed to.

If you compare the usual Western structure to the Japanese one, you'll notice that the Japanese situation places a great deal more power in the hands of the authorities making the decisions. You are, essentially, at the mercy of their whims should they choose to exercise them and you are powerless to do anything about it by tapping on a rule book or quoting a law because they have a trapdoor in most cases which allows them to say 'and whatever else we want from you or want to do to you.'

Fortunately, most of the time the people who have the power do not abuse it nor do they use their power to make your life difficult. Generally speaking, everyone just does what they're supposed to do and all goes smoothly. Mainly, in my experience, knowing about the way the case by case culture works helps when things go wrong. If you approach the person in authority in a manner which does not challenge their power and places you firmly as someone who is of inferior status, highly apologetic, and sincerely regretful that something has gone awry, that flexibility is used to help you rather than harm you.

Unfortunately, most expatriates don't approach dealing with various authorities and businesses in Japan in this fashion. Because we are accustomed to knowing exactly what our rights are and what sort of power we have, we get aggressive and insistent about what is supposed to happen and what is "right". In other words, we challenge the person in authority's right to make various requests and choices which only serves to make them all the less likely to want to help us or let us off the hook.

To us, following the Japanese way is degrading. It makes us feel like we're allowing ourselves to be cowed into submission or lowering ourselves in order to cooperate. In American culture in particular, the whole idea of figuratively kneeling before an authority in submission or putting yourself at their mercy is repugnant, cowardly, and a surrender of your independence and rights. In the end though, it's not about your ego. It's about a culture that is comfortable with having two faces, the true face (honne) and the public face (tatamae). The Japanese don't feel degraded by having to use a different face in order to make things operate smoothly in most cases. Their core ego structure is not centered around the public face. It's just something they put on when needed and take off when unnecessary. They oil the wheels when needed to make things go smoothly and move on to other things.

In the end, we can only be true to who we are. As an American, I don't know that I could ever be entirely comfortable with the "case by case" nature of Japanese life. However, one thing I've realized is that this system is not in place as an excuse to be prejudicial. It's about power, not prejudice, and keeping it in the hands of one group of people rather than in the hands of the average person. It's something that has developed as a result of Japan's history just as the egalitarian nature of America's laws has developed because of its history. If I want to continue living here, it serves me far better to accept that rather than to fight it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Nobody Tells Us

Recently, my husband and I have been through a pretty stressful experience related to some elements of the bureaucracy in Japan. All countries have their red tape and rules, of course. The difference in Japan is that the rules are so vastly different for foreign folks compared to the average Japanese person and it can be confusing at best.

If you want to do everything right and get everything straight as a foreign person in Japan, you have to make a concerted effort to find everything out and even then you might fail to get it right. The tendency of most people in Japan due to communication differences is to simply tell you only what you ask to hear rather than enlighten you about an overall situation. If you fail to ask the right question, you may not learn what you need to know.

There are a few reasons for various problems that foreign folks have in dealing with the red tape here. One of the reasons is that most Japanese employees are of a different status than most foreign employees. That is, most are "company workers" and we're considered "temporary workers". The point of making us "temporary workers" is to stop companies from having to fork over the benefits to us that they pay Japanese employees like supplemented health care payments, pension benefits, etc. Since most foreign folks remain in Japan for a short time, I don't have too great a problem with this. Most of them don't really need those benefits or would likely lose any money invested in such systems should they be hooked into them, though I don't think the companies care at all about saving us money. They do it mainly to save themselves money.

The real problem arises because company employees get a wide variety of bureaucratic tasks completely taken out of their hands. For instance, most Japanese people don't file their own taxes or manage their payments. The company's accountant just takes care of the whole thing. When I ask Japanese people about filing their income taxes, most of them have no idea how to do it, when to do it, or what they're even paying. The average Japanese person can offer me no advice on such things. The average American, on the other hand, can tell you plenty about taxes and how they need to be handled and when they need to be paid because the responsibility is equally in every person's hands.

Such is not the case for the vast majority of foreign folks and the people at the companies we work for often do not tell us anything about what we should be doing. The best you can generally hope for is some vague notation with your salary statement that you may owe additional tax and are responsible for paying it, but with no guidance about what those taxes might be above and beyond the income tax you already have paid or how you should go about finding out what they are. Sending newcomers to a foreign country out into the wild blue yonder in search of random taxes to pay isn't really the best way to handle things in my opinion. The fact that the companies know full well what taxes need to be paid and could tell you what they are, where to go to handle them, and how to make sure you are sent the proper bills indicates that they are either too lazy or indifferent to offer guidance or that they don't want you to know about those taxes because the bite out of your paycheck (10%) may make you think twice about working for your current salary. My vote is on lazy and indifferent.

During my first few years in Japan while working at Nova, I was never told that I needed to file an income tax return. I don't even know to date if I could have filed and gotten some of my tax money back or if I owed money, though the latter is almost certainly not so. The issue simply did not exist for me because I was completely unaware of this need. My husband's school, which was a much better place to work, took care of the tax filing for him so I figured this is what all places of employment did. In retrospect, it may have been what Nova did for me, but I have no way of knowing 18 years on. Certainly the idea that I was failing to act properly never even occurred to me.

Foreign folks get criticized a lot for not following the rules, not paying their way, etc., but the truth is that there is no organized system in place to help us do so. You learn piecemeal, if you learn at all. There's absolutely no reason for this to be the case. We're all registered at our local government offices and they have our addresses. They could send us tax forms to remind us that we have to pay, but they don't send them to you until you first file of your own initiative. In other words, you have to first find out that it is necessary and do it of your own volition in order to receive a reminder. If you assume that the company handled it for you (as is so often the case for the majority of people), no one is going to tell you this is even necessary in your particular case so you blithely go about your business. Most foreign folks are not even aware that their cases are different from that of the Japanese when it comes to such things.

The part that aggravates me about this situation is that critics (mostly the "Uncle Tom" foreigners) will state that you can't expect to be treated differently simply because you're a foreigner. The thing is that the problems stem from the fact that you are treated differently already because you're a foreigner. You can't automatically place the vast majority of foreign folks in different working conditions than the norm (the norm being the company handles such things) and then expect them to figure out that they need to do something differently and then criticize them for not doing exactly what the Japanese do (which is nothing). In other words, you can't have it both ways. Either they are treated the same and expected to do the same or they are treated differently and offered guidance to assist them in their particular situation. The aggravating thing is that the solutions are relatively simple, but no one takes responsibility for implementing them. Nobody tells you how to be a good citizen, but they're all ready to get in line and condemn you when you make a mistake and fail to act like one.

Personally, I think the ambiguity is intentional. The government wants your money, but they also want to allow loopholes for certain groups of people. In Japan, they love nothing more than being wishy-washy. This may sound absurd, particularly in regards to taxes, but there is a level on which it makes sense. There are "temporary workers" who are Japanese as well as foreigners. The main difference is that there are very few company workers who are foreign. In fact, lately, the number of Japanese who are seen as temps is growing. These workers are cheaper for companies because they get no benefits and cost the companies less.

The ambiguity likely exists to allow the companies to continue to easily secure such workers because they are okay with working under less than optimal conditions (no security, no bonuses, no benefits) if they can keep more of their paychecks than company employees. It may sound absurd, but Japan is not a country that views contracts and rules of law as something to be adhered to strictly. They view such things as guidelines from which to consider each situation on a case by case basis. One of the reasons Western business and Japanese business often have problems working together is that the Japanese don't view contracts as something hard and fast, but Westerners do. If ambiguity and selective enforcement are seen as having an overall benefit to society, then they are left in place. This can be rather maddening for those of us who are accustomed to having rights and using the laws to let us know where we stand.

(As an aside: I will note that my views spring from the fact that there are some Japanese people who are "temporary workers" who willfully do not file their taxes even though they are aware that they should. I'm told that they don't do it because they are young and don't want to start paying into the pension system yet because they won't benefit from it for decades and that this allows them to avoid paying city and prefecture taxes. (For the record, most of us are taxed accurately or over-taxed on our income taxes so not filing means writing off a possible refund.) This is an entirely different topic, but I think their reluctance to pay into the pension fund is driven by the ridiculously low monthly payments and the fact that paying in more or longer has no impact on your benefits. In other words, they can spend 25 years paying into the system or 50 years paying in and they're still only going to get a flat payment of about 60,000 yen so they don't want to start paying any earlier than they have to.)

Fortunately for my husband and I, our issues appear to have sorted themselves out at this point in time. We won't know for sure for a few more weeks, but I'd say it's 99% sure that everything is okay and that nothing bad will come of the situation I've been stressing out over for the past three days. Being a nervous sort of person, I'm still losing sleep over that 1% though. And having a tendency to construct worst case scenarios, I'm still building mountains out of molehills. Chances are though, that it'll all be okay.