Another day in Japan, and thoughts about shovels and spoons

We spent today touring Hakone National Park, the park in which Mt. Fuji sits.  As with so many things we’ve seen in Japan, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words to describe it. The itinerary was straightforward. From our “onsen,” which is a semi-traditional hotel with a hot spring, we caught a bus to a funicular.  That took us up a hillside, through a beautiful rhododendron grove, to a gondola station.

We boarded the gondola and soared above a semi-tropical forest, filled with lacy cedars; delicate Japanese maples; upright, feathering bamboo; and a whole lot of other foliage I didn’t recognize. Behind us was a beautiful valley. And then, over a ridge, we suddenly found ourselves staring down into the caldera of a semi-dormant volcano, complete with puffs of sulfurous erupting from fissures in the barren rock. 

The gondola ride ended immediately above caldera and, from there, we headed up to the hot springs. And was it hot. Between the blazing sun and the bubbling sulphur pools, it was easily 100 degrees up there. For those of us with wussy Bay Area blood in our veins, that was tough.

The sun had one good effect, though. It momentarily burned away the clouds shrouding Mt. Fuji, and we were lucky enough to see the very top of that perfect volcanic cone rising above the clouds. Then it vanished again. Apparently a lot of people leave Japan without ever having seen the mountain, so we were very fortunate.  

After our little Mt. Fuji moment, we hopped onto the gondola again, headed down the other side of the mountain and headed to Lake Aish . On the lake were two European-style pirate ships. Why European-style pirate ships?  I have no idea. It’s a Japanese thing. 

We caught a pirate ship, which ferried us across the lake.  On the other side, we wandered about the town a little, and then hiked toward a second town from which we’d catch the bus back to our hotel. The hike took us along the most humid lake walk I’ve ever experienced. Add to that about 700 stairs, both up and down, and you can imagine how wilted we were, with our fog-bred Bay Area blood. 

That’s the itinerary. The shorter version is that Hakone National Park is really lovely. There weren’t actually any stand-outs as compared to other parks which I’ve seen, although I did love that delicate forest.

What’s truly noteworthy, to my mind, isn’t the geography, but is, instead, the culture. To begin within, the Japanese people are so polite and kind. It’s really impossible to imagine the national convulsion that resulted in the Bushido culture and all its attendant cruelties during the 1930s and 1940s. The people we’ve met are so gentle. They truly embraced defeat, and turned it into a kind of cultural victory.

The other thing that so fascinates me is the inefficiency of Japanese culture. On the one hand, the Japanese are highly technical, with computerized train stations, buses, street corners, etc. On the other hand, it seems as if they always have six maniacally polite Japanese people doing the work of one rude Westerner, whether it’s manning the desk at a hot springs resort, directing people onto a bus, checking tickets for an attraction, etc.

I don’t know what Japanese unemployment is, but I’m guessing it’s pretty low, given the sheer numbers of people they assign to every task. Watching them at work, with their exquisite politeness (and their obsession about wrapping and packaging), I kept thinking of that Milton Friedman story about shovels and spoons. You know the one — someone mentioned a government job digging holes with shovels and boasted that it increased employment. Friedman said, if the only thing you want is to increase employment, why not use spoons?

The Japanese use lots of spoons. The thing is, though, that this excessive employment seems to be a product of culture, rather than government policy. Politeness demands that the public and consumers get the kind of attention that only too many employees (by Western standards) can provide.

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  • Kevin_B

    The latest Japanese unemployment figure I could find, which dated from May of 2012, was 4,4%.

  • Caped Crusader

    An ancient memory resurrected by your comments on Japanese politeness. After completing two years of active duty service and reporting to begin residency, my chief resident related the following episode in the Philippines, after spending his first year active duty in Japan.
    “I was sitting with a group in a bar and remarked that the Japanese were very nice and polite people. A young woman stormed over and yelled at me — ‘You think Japanese nice people, eh?  I wan’ you know they chop off my brother’s head!’ — No good comeback for that”.

    As Mr. Fred Rogers sings, “The very same people who are good sometime are the very same people who are bad sometime.”

    With your mother having been a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2, I hope you will comment sometime on the emotions and feelings that brings out in you as you experience Japan. Later, if you wish.

  • Ymarsakar

    Most people will bring up WWII when it comes to Japan. That’s a very unwise thing to do. It completely ignores the intent of the war effort and what it achieved. It’s expected of uneducated parochial individuals too stuck on the past to care about the future. This zero sum equation is still stuck in a lot of people’s heads.

    Let me tell you a story about a couple of million Vietnamese who fought the communist NOrth under the impression that Americans would be honorable or at least provide chump change in the form of ammo and logistics. Before you can utter a word about another nation’s patriotism or lack of it in war, first you must get rid of your own national demons and problems. Because if you can’t get rid of the politicians that killed off those millions in Vietnam for nothing but their own greed and ideological prowess, yet you call yourself an American, you’re a 100 years too early to be talking about Japan’s historical political and war time problems. People aren’t at a certain high enough perspective to produce quality opinions without an unbiased and balanced view of humanity. It’s what is known as above one’s paygrade. 

    Americans have a lot of things they should be paying more attention to these days than some other nation’s past. That kind of distraction is probably why a lot of Americans are suffering right now. And the politicians are getting a kick out of it. Most of the people here will only have heard rumors about Japanese historical texts, yet have no idea how it was actually handled. Just a chain of grapes linked up with a telephone game. Fat lot of good that does.

    As for pirates, the Japanese consider pirates to be somewhat romantic. And very Western in nature, even though Japan had their own local pirates.

    To understand Japan, one must understand the Japanese kokoro. To understand why Americans sometimes simultaneously are out for the blood of both good and evil people, one must understand the American heart, including the good and the evil in it. Those that are too lazy to do the work of understanding their own culture and its issues, will never be able to look beyond the veil and comprehend somebody else’s culture.

    The Japanese, in one aspect, are analogous to American Jacksonians. Dignified, quick to anger, yet polite and bound by a strong personal code of honor. Also intensely patriotic and nationalistic. In a sense, MacArthur was the perfect representative from America to link up with the Japanese, because they come from very similar cultural backgrounds, even if nobody knew it.


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