For some bizarre reason, many Japanese people and non-Japanese people subscribe to the idea that non-Japanese people are more physical with each other than Japanese people are. I completely disagree. I think it depends much more on the size of the community you live in. I am deeply uncomfortable with the amount of touching I am subjected to from other women at work in Japan (the guys are much more careful). I find living in Japan like being surrounded by mothers all the time. I can’t count the number of times I have been sitting on the bus or minding my own business walking down the street and an older woman has started fixing my hair, re-tying the bow on my dress because I didn’t “do the shape right”, tucking in a stray tag or has pulled out a tiny pair of scissors and snipped off a hanging thread. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if someone one day walked up to me, spat on their handkerchief and started scrubbing my face (except that would be too unhygienic, she would surely have scented wet wipes in her bag). The intrusion extends beyond physical space too. Teachers will ask me if I am menstruating, if I am “lubu lubu” with my husband and whether I have tried infertility treatments (because I have been married for four years now and no kids… there must be a problem, right?).
For me this is confronting, invasive and unpleasant. I value my personal space and privacy. Ru-chan wrote an entertaining rant about this a while ago and it was interesting to hear a similar reaction from a Singaporean. Clearly not all densely populated countries deal with space issues in the same way. Yesterday I saw another side to this invasive tendency though.
I was eating lunch in a café and young woman with a toddler, a baby and several large shopping bags sat down nearby. To woman was having trouble soothing her baby while getting the reluctant toddler to eat. A waitress noticed her struggling and sat down at the table with uninvited. She took the fork and started singing a little song that ended every line with “paku paku mogu mogu” (which I am very studiously going to translate as “OMMnomnom”), at which the toddler happily took and chewed a forkful of food. The mother, freed to give the baby her full attention, managed to settle the bub and get some food herself. There are a lot of reasons why that would never happen in Australia: invasion of privacy, paranoia about letting strangers near one’s children, the general hatred many wait-staff have for their jobs etc etc. The widespread “mothering” can be suffocating, but it is also a sign that the community I live in is still a community. I doubt very much that anyone living in Tokyo would have experienced what I am talking about. When I lived in Nagoya I was riding the subway with my sister when she fainted, and no one even made eye contact and I frantically dragged her unconscious off the train, tried to gather all our belongings before the doors closed and then searched for a first aid station. My experiences here in the country are completely different. It is cloying, suffocating and irritating to be “looked after” when I really don’t need it. But if I did ever need it, I am sure I would be grateful that complete strangers are so willing and happy to help me.