I scoured the internet to find a good nonfiction piece to do my presentation on. At first, I picked a piece about the guy who hacked OKCupid to find his fiancee, an article which combined all of my main interests: computer hacking, romance, sketchy morals, and really smart people. The article itself, however, wasn’t “of literary merit,” so I moved on. The title “Selling Indulgence in Corporate Japan” [by Andy Couturier] felt intellectual, so I went for that after the OKCupid disappointment. It was the first creativenonfiction.com piece that didn’t feel so extra. By that I mean it wasn’t overly lyrical or overly sentimental, and, best of all, I didn’t really like the narrator on the first reading. I also dug the writing a lot. More on that later.
Alright, so this is a pretty interesting piece. It’s about the narrator’s time teaching English in Japan, and basically the whole thing investigates cultural differences between American and Japan, most significantly this idea of each person in Japan living in two different worlds. In the piece, he describes these two worlds as the world of work and the world of sweetness. That is, one part of a person’s life would be dedicated to contributing to the world’s second largest economy, and this would be a world of intense structure and formality, and is kind of this overwhelming, ruledriven world of work and corporations. And the other side is the world of sweetness, where places of “indulgence” are written into society to counteract this intense working world on the other side. This side of sweetness, the narrator says, is the side that allows for Japanese manga and “comfort women” and receptionists and even the narrator’s own job. Throughout the piece, the narrator struggles with his role in Japanese society, including his own perception of himself versus how he is being perceived by others. In the end, he determines that he, like the receptionists at the corporation where he works, is just another example of these “indulgences” that are necessarily to Japanese society. He realizes that his role isn’t as much to teach English as it is to create a space of acceptance, lightheartedness, and even fun for these corporate workers.
Throughout the piece, the narrator especially emphasizes the differences between Japanese culture and his own through the use of language. This is natural, as the narrator’s an English teacher. He talks about the difference between American and Japanese phrases, in particular the phrases in Japanese that denote humility, different levels of respect, politeness, etc. He shows these examples of customs that must be followed in Japan: humbling phrases that must be spoken at the end of conversations, and verbal exchanges of apologies and selfdeprecation. In contrast, his English classroom is revealed as a place where these formalities are no longer necessary, as they are not present in the English language. Thus, his classroom becomes a place of indulgence, free from these rules. It’s a fascinating comparison and an effective motif.
The interesting thing is, the first time I read the piece, I didn’t particularly like the narrator. I feel differently now, but let me just analyze this real quick. On the first read, he felt very Piper Chapmanesque. He’s the American foreigner attempting to judge a culture based on his halfway knowledge of Japanese history. Every new observation he receives working as an English teacher at a Japanese corporation immediately becomes a cultural truism: an immediate reference point that he can continue to build cultural knowledge on top of, without regard for the accuracy of the new statement. When a man in his class mentions cherry blossoms, he immediately draws a conclusion about Japanese masculinity and sticks to it. Obviously, there’s his misguided attempt to teach one of the receptionists about feminism, informing her that she is oppressed. I think after several reads, though, I realized it doesn’t matter. Of course he’s not the authority on Japanese culture. This is his story, his creative nonfiction. It’s about his observations and his exploration of himself. And so with that view in mind, I could turn to the piece again. It turns out the piece is really this weird journey of empathy, where he was able to put himself in the shoes of all these different people he’s interacting with, and he can try to understand their culture. As a premise, that’s really, really interesting. This concept of finding one’s place in a foreign culture, reevaluating the things once seen as human truths, is incredibly gripping. That must be why I was so drawn to it as to email it to Rolater before I even finished it.
It’s a really great piece. It presents fascinating observations on Japanese culture from the point of view of an outsider, while also evaluating, in a way, American culture. By figuring out what parts of himself were cultural, he could better understand just base humans, I think. That’s what gives the piece that universal appeal that all pieces of writing strive for. And the narrator’s journey in selfperception was incredibly compelling, absolutely relatable. We all want to think of ourselves one way, and we see the things that we were raised with as true, so that struggle to empathize and understand while those understandings are being thrown away is powerful.