Does the stiff upper lip still exist?  

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The subject of starting life in Japan continues to occupy my thoughts a lot of late. It is an exciting prospect, but also a little daunting. The idea of living in Japan has always been on my agenda, even before we got married, so I have quite naturally done a lot of research on the subject. During that research, I've naturally uncovered a lot of plusses and a lot of minuses. But interestingly, most the stories and comments you find on the 'Net are from Americans. Not surprising I guess - I'm sure there are a lot more Americans in Japan than English. Yet I've often wondered why it is so rare to find a negative comment from an English person about living in Japan. This led me to wonder whether there might be a reason for that - other than sheer laziness, of course.

While in Japan recently, I had a good conversation on the subject of iaido with my friend and sempai Kuni Sumida - a very talented iaidoka. We were talking about the meaning of iaido in a modern context; what motivates individuals to embark upon that path and what keeps them driving forward on their long and sometimes frustrating pursuit of perfection. Kuni-san pointed out the deeps links between iaido and classical Bushido - the traditional "Way of the Warrior". In modern Japan, of course, there are no more feudal lords or battles to be fought. But perhaps in many ways, the place of the Daimyo has been taken by "The Company". Modern-day "Bushi" are expected to give total commitment to the Company, much like their Samurai forebears. It is as a means of developing this mind-set of loyalty and commitment that iaido practice still has immense value in the modern age. And not just iaido - calligraphy and tea ceremony are other examples of traditional Japanese arts where proficiency can only be achieved through patient and dilligent practice over a number of years.

I was reminded very much of my own experience as an apprentice engineer - way back in the mists of time when you still saw labels that said "Made in England" and it meant something. I will never forget the first day: Clad in poorly fitting overalls, 80 of us stood nervously by our benches wondering what we'd let ourselves in for. I remember my gaze alighting upon a sign that had been hung on the wall of the cavernous workshop where we stood: I mused upon the meaning of the words "Smile as you file". We found out shortly afterwards: Each one of us was issued with a file and rusty lump of steel plate, with instructions that we should make both sides of that plate flat and parallel. When they said flat, they meant within thousanths of an inch. So began several weeks of filing - at first clumsy, but slowly more accurate and skilful. With this growing skill came a growing pride in this new-found ability that our patient efforts had uncovered within ourselves. Nobody who did that course ever forgot that lesson, and no matter what path each of us took in life after that, the pursuit of excellence became a matter of personal pride.

This combination of skill and pride, instilled at an early age, was so important to the success of British industry. Likewise, I would argue, to Japanese industry. Without it, nothing could ever move forward or improve. But this skill can only be forged in many hours of hard effort. And here is where modern UK and Japan differ: Japan still has people with this kind of personal grit - the UK, it seems, rarely so. My personal feeling is that this softening of our resolve is a natural consequence of today's something-for-nothing, buy-one-get-one-free culture where people seem to expect great things to fall out of the sky into their laps with minimal effort of their part. I would argue that this is perhaps something we have picked up from too long gazing across the Atlantic to the home of consumerism, the US.

That's not to say that the US to blame for UK's modern malaise - simply that as Western societies, we have chosen to go down this route. The US is just a little further down the road, that's all. So maybe the real reason behind the lack of comment from the English about Japanese life is really more to do with changing attitudes of the younger generations. Perhaps the backward English of my generation are still clinging to the last vestiges of the "stiff upper lip", making them far more likely to just get on with the challenges of living in Japan. Maybe we are just not used to the same standard of living as our American cousins, and so find less to complain about. But on a personal level, whatever it is, I'm really hoping that my personal life experiences will have prepared me well. I don't want to let the side down. That would never do.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button