- ＞ In the Dark of the Night
- ＞ Of Mirrors and Black Cats
- ＞ Real World Worries
- ＞ Scary Japan?
- ＞ Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
In the Dark of the Night
Years ago, in the early days after I had first arrived in Tokyo, I had trouble sleeping, and I used to take frequent late-night walks through the environs of a large neighborhood Shinto shrine. The area in and around the shrine was full of beautiful old trees, and I found the cool, leafy environment a very pleasant escape from the glass, steel, and concrete of the big city. The sound of the night breeze rustling through the treetops and the damp, oxygen-rich air brought me a great sense of peace and relaxation, as did the fact that I rarely encountered other people on these nocturnal strolls.
However, when I mentioned my night walks to a Japanese friend, he seemed slightly taken aback, asking if I wasn’t “afraid” to walk through the shrine’s grounds. I replied that I felt perfectly safe, as the area seemed empty, and I was reassured by Japan’s famously low crime rate. He cocked his head and said, “Well, that wasn’t what I was thinking about…” Mystified by his response, it took me some time to realize that he found such places vaguely menacing and spooky, and possibly haunted by supernatural entities at night. Not knowing much about the traditions associated with such locations, I had seen only the beauty of the trees and nature. However, after our chat, I never again felt as carefree taking those long evening walks.
Of Mirrors and Black Cats
Fear is, of course, experienced by all people, but as the anecdote above illustrates, it can take different shapes in different cultures. Similarities and differences are apparent when comparing superstitions and old traditions from my homeland (the United States) with those of Japan. When I was a child, for example, my mother would always toss a pinch of salt over her shoulder “to avoid bad luck” if she spilled some by accident. I learned that in Japan it is customary to do the same when returning to your home after a funeral―a different context, of course, but might the two traditions be distant echoes of each other? Other events, such as having your path crossed by a black cat, are traditional causes for fear in both cultures. Nevertheless, there are many culture-specific superstitions. In America, people often say that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, or that one should “knock on wood” with one’s knuckles to ward off misfortune when talking about negative future possibilities, which are things I’ve never heard in Japan. All cultures have different ways of using superstition to combat the little fears of daily life, and their endless variety is endlessly fascinating.
Real World Worries
What about less supernatural, more “rational” fears? Certainly, we all fear for our health, our safety, our loved ones, and our futures in an uncertain world. But are there deep differences in these areas between cultures?
Over the years, many Japanese people have asked me about the dangers of crime in America. Many foreigners feel that fears of crime or danger abroad are unrealistically emphasized by the Japanese. However, Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so it seems logical to me that there would be concern about travel to other places, where crimes can and do happen with greater frequency. Moreover, the media and entertainment world repeatedly emphasize dramatic and terrifying events, making them seem more common than they really are. Given this, Japanese fears about this topic are perhaps more understandable. Even so, it is important not to let fear of the unknown get the upper hand. Remember, millions of people live long and happy lives in cities abroad without ever being the victims of serious crime. This realization should be balanced with an awareness of proper precautions and appropriate behavior when traveling, in order to minimize risks in any unknown or potentially dangerous location.
Foreigners frequently use the word “shy” to describe the Japanese, and many have noted the reluctance of some Japanese to sit next to a foreigner when there is an empty seat on a train or in a restaurant. “I wondered if I smelled bad or something,” said one British friend. “Or perhaps they are afraid I will start talking to them in English.” Most people sit down next to foreigners without any second thoughts, of course, but the exceptions are frequent enough to be a common topic of conversation among foreigners who have spent significant time in Japan.
What do foreigners fear in Japan? Despite its famed safety in terms of crime, travel to Japan is not without anxieties for many. Earthquakes are among the fears mentioned by foreigners―more so than ever following the tragedy of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, which captured global attention. Radiation, too, remains a persistent concern, and in some cases the fear has been great enough to prompt people to leave Japan or to postpone plans for trips to the country. Others, however, such as a friend of mine who has recently been sent here on business, seem totally unconcerned with these matters. “Millions of Japanese people just go about their daily lives without thinking much about it,” he said, “so why shouldn’t I?”
Other fears are more subtle. “Japan has a reputation for complex etiquette,” said one woman from Australia. “Before I came here, I was really afraid that I would make a big mistake and offend people in some way, without even knowing it. But after I got here, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I thought. People are very patient with my poor Japanese manners, which has been a big relief.” An American friend said something similar: “I love the taste of Japanese food but I’m always afraid of making a mistake with table manners, like doing something rude with my chopsticks or using the wrong sauce. This was even scarier for me when I saw one day that most of the Japanese in an Italian restaurant had better table manners with forks and knives than me.” Eventually, he told me, he learned to relax by “just doing what everyone else was doing.”
Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
My own personal impression is that the most conspicuous differences in the ways that Japanese and Westerners experience fear are found in the sphere of human relations. To generalize broadly, I sense a greater fear of “doing the wrong thing” in social situations in Japanese society. Meanwhile, I would say anxieties about "not being noticed” or “not standing out from the crowd” (that is, not being able to assert why one is “special” or worthy of attention) are more pronounced in Western social interactions. “Timidity” is a greater social faux pas in the West, while excessive self-assertion is more generally frowned upon in Japan, and people’s social fears appear to differ accordingly.
“Americans strike me as very confident and unafraid,” a Japanese friend once told me―a flattering statement I’ve always remembered with pleasure. And the admiration is often mutual, as I was reminded not long ago when a friend of mine back in America remarked that “the Japanese are so fearless and brave” to put up with repeated natural disasters and other difficulties of recent years. If fear is universal, so is the courage of normal people in every country who work to overcome it every day—something in which we can all take pride.