God (and the devil) is in the detail

Greecejapan_The_hard_way

text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis

A couple days back, while on my regular morning photographic walk, I came across the gentleman in the picture, a foreman in one of the ubiquitous construction sites spending about five minutes of his life (and mine, since I chose to stay there and watch him) trying to park his bike between the site’s fencing and the bars used to prevent outsiders from entering it. Instead of moving the bars and the traffic cones on which they stood, park his bike comfortably and then put the bars back in their place (like most people would had done) he devoted a small part of his day doing the countless micro-movements necessary to put the bike in its place without touching the bars or knocking down the cones; when he managed to do it, he got off the bike (with great difficulty), gave me a puzzled look and went on to his work. I assume he goes through the same procedure twice a day (coming and going), every day.

The whole thing was one of the most succinct illustrations I have seen of something that I have come to believe should be written on Japan’s flag, circling the hinomaru sun: if you can do something the hard way, why do it the easy way? For as long as I have been observing them I have gotten the impression that, for some not immediately apparent reason, be it individually or collectively, in their job, their social life or even when they are just enjoying themselves, the Japanese will pick the most uncomfortable, impossible, idiosyncratic, counter-intuitive, illogical, fastidious, demanding, anally-retentive and dreadful way to do anything, they will characterize it a “kata”, a word I have mentioned before, meaning simultaneously “method” (方), “pattern” (形) or “model” (型) and they will not only follow it with religious fervor but also disregard any other way, regardless if that would allow them reach the same target faster or more effectively.

To their defense, most Japanese probably realize that obsessing with details they often end up making the easy things, hard; hence that the verb “kodawaru”  (拘わる) and the corresponding derived noun (“kodawari”/拘り) used to describe precisely this meticulousness in everything can have a positive or a negative connotation depending on the context. This doesn’t mean that they are willing to abandon it, though: having spent centuries idealizing it and elevating it to a dominant element of their culture, I suspect that the mere idea of doing something the easy way seems like a rejection to their very national identity. And, truth be told, many of the elements that other people admire in the Japanese (the quality of their products and their services, their behavior, their diligence) are products of this same kodawari; the same is of course true for many of the elements that other people despise or, at best, are unable to comprehend.

 

Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/

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