Recently I've been reading The Kimono Mind
, a study of Japanese culture written in 1965 by the Austrian-born architect Bernard Rudofsky. It also happens to be, by way of comparison, a study of American culture; and the author is quite clear that he regards Americans as a large collection of morons. This alone, of course, makes the book quite enjoyable, since Americans are, in fact, a large collection of morons. In his 1982 Postscript to the paperback edition Rudofsky writes:
-"ineptness and stupidity are our forte."
-"Could anybody conceive of an American president conversing in a foreign language?"
-"The length to which Americans sometimes go to avoid looking reality in the eye borders on paranoia."
And so on. When it comes to comparing how work is done in the two countries, Rudofsky says that while the Japanese have an "addiction to doing things superlatively well," in America "nothing could be farther from our thoughts." Our goal is quantity, not quality, he correctly points out.
I was recently reminded of Japanese-American differences the other day when I read a short article in a newspaper (carried by Reuters) regarding a recent court decision handed down in Florida. I couldn't help thinking how incomprehensible this story would be to a Japanese person. Here it is verbatim:
"TALLAHASSEE, Florida--Motorist Richard Catalano's five-year quest to crank up Justin Timberlake tunes on his way to work won the blessing of the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday.
"A unanimous ruling affirmed that a 2007 state law prohibiting loud music while driving violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
"Catalano received a $73 ticket in 2007 for violating a newly enacted Florida law that prohibited motorists from playing music that is 'plainly audible' 25 feet away."
A number of things we might say about this; but first, a very representative anecdote from my recent visit to Japan. I was having lunch in a cafe located in a Tokyo subway station when a few tables away, a young woman's cell phone vibrated. Before she answered the call, she took out a small towel, about the size of a washcloth, and placed it over the phone and her mouth. She also talked in a low voice. This was done so as not to disturb the people around her. (It's also common in such a situation for the person to get up and leave the restaurant, and take the call outside.) And as I mentioned in a previous post, there are signs posted in subway cars asking passengers to turn their phones off.
Back to Tallahassee. Here's my list; readers may have a few items of their own to add to it.
1. It never occurred to Richard Catalano, whoever he may be, that blasting his car radio might bother other drivers around him. And if it did occur to him, his attitude apparently was, "Too bad for them; this is America; I can do whatever I want."
2. Bad enough that Mr. Catalano is an inconsiderate and narcissistic douche bag; so are the judges on the Florida Supreme Court, who upheld his ridiculous point of view. Their concern is that his First Amendment rights were being violated; the rights of nearby drivers to *not* have to listen to this music somehow doesn't enter into the equation.
3. Catalano's concern for the Bill of Rights, along with that of the Court, is of course touching; but nobody here apparently is concerned about the fact that the current president has shredded that Bill of Rights, such that if the chief executive decides on a whim to have an American citizen assassinated, or to scoop up anyone he dislikes and imprison him under the "indefinite detention" clause of the National Defense Authorization Act, he can do it with impunity. No, for Catalano and the members of the court, what's important is the 'freedom' to disturb people around you with loud music. This is the appropriate target of the Bill of Rights.
4. So important was this 'freedom' to Mr. Catalano that he conducted a five-year campaign to have his obnoxious behavior exonerated. This issue was apparently worth five years of his life.
As I said, reading the newspaper article through Japanese eyes is an instructive exercise.
On a final note, Rudofsky records that when Fukuzawa Yukichi, the "Japanese Voltaire," published his Encouragement of Learning
in 17 volumes over 1872-76, it sold 3,400,000 copies--this at a time when the Japanese population numbered 34 million. In other words, 10% of the country bought these books. Translated into contemporary American terms, says Rudofsky, this would be equivalent to a sale of 22 million copies. Can one imagine such a thing happening in the US? Not even some ridiculous Oprah-approved New Age self-help book could come close to such sales, let alone a text on the importance of education.
And when I tell people the country is finished--they laugh!
(c)Morris Berman, 2012