Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Keeping Down with the Joneses

It's safe to say that conformity is an issue in just about any culture. From our early childhood we're told that we have to "fit in". We're advised not to trust the "outsider". We're bombarded with sayings such as, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," or, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down."® There is certainly some common sense in this; after all, you can hardly form a community out of people who are all going in separate directions. It's also human nature to be wary of that which is different. But where do we draw the line? When does conformity cease to be a social benefit and start becoming an annoyance?

The issue of fitting in tends to come up a lot in my household because my father-in-law considers it a moral obligation. In fact, his determination to be just like the neighbors borders on obsession, and sometimes it crosses the line into the absurd. Take for example his habit of throwing most of the leftover bath water onto the street every evening. There is really no practical reason whatever why he should do so, and during the winter it sometimes means we are left with a sheet of ice at the top of our driveway. When I confronted him with the issue (after the frozen driveway had made my departure to work a maddening comedy of spinning wheels), his response was, "What choice do I have? The old man across the street has done it every day for at least the past forty years!" All discussion ended there. As far as he was concerned it was just a matter of course that he had to imitate whatever the neighbors did, even if it didn't make a damned bit of sense.

What if the effort to conform winds up throwing a wrench into your very way of life? Take for example the issue of our circuit breaker. When we moved into the second house on my in-laws' property, the two homes had a shared breaker which was by no means big enough. My father-in-law invested in a larger air conditioner/heating unit for his house, and during the seasons when it came into heavy use (i.e. the hottest part of summer and coldest part of winter) we kept having problems with the breaker tripping, leaving both houses without power. (It usually happened every time my FIL microwaved a glass of milk while his AC was switched on. Naturally, he kept insisting it was our fault.) Because of that, when we had the renovations done on our house a few years ago, one of the first things we asked for was a larger, separate breaker. The man in charge of the construction agreed; he said it was simple common sense for families living separate lives to have separate connections (especially since we were also getting a larger AC/heater ourselves as part of the package). I thought it was a done deal until I came home from work one day just as the electrician was connecting our new, larger breaker to the one in FIL's house (basically reducing our capacity from 30A to 20A, not to mention a total of 40A for both houses). I immediately confronted FIL over the matter, and his response was just to say, "We CAN'T have separate breakers! What would the neighbors think? Look around! ALL of those family groups have shared breakers! And the reason is that no one can afford more than that!" I couldn't see what relevance our neighbors' budgets could possibly have on our home life, but he wouldn't budge on the issue. Consequently, though we don't have problems most of the time, whenever a guest comes to stay at FIL's house during the summer or winter (which does happen fairly regularly) and uses the guest room, we have to put up with the breaker tripping as much as two or three times a day even with us living by candlelight with our AC/heater kept off. (Our last guest was the uncle who had been in charge of our renovation work, and he was pretty pissed off about it.)

There are also times when excessive zeal for conformity can ironically be a form of conceit. Take the last "Clean Operation" (kuriin sakusen - クリーン作戦), for example. The "Clean Operation" is a seasonal, city-wide campaign to clean up trash and weeds along the roadsides. Each neighborhood takes care of itself, organizing and providing its own work team, and each household is expected to send at least one member to participate. The last such Operation was scheduled for March 7th, and it turned out to be a very cold and stormy day. Not surprisingly, at 6:10 a.m. there was a public service announcement on the city PA saying that the Clean Operation had been CANCELED on account of the weather. I gratefully went back to bed only to be awakened a couple of hours later by my FIL throwing a screaming fit downstairs. It turned out that the leader of our local clean-up group had decided to do it anyway. We looked out the window and saw just a few brave (or hopelessly insane) souls in rain parkas out there in the whistling wind and mixed rain and sleet gathering up the tiny smattering of litter on the roadside. That was enough. We HAD to participate. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of the neighborhood was smart enough to obey the public announcement (not to mention common sense) and stay indoors; as an exalted pillar of the community (or so he claims), my FIL is OBLIGATED to involve himself in neighborhood events, which usually means my wife and I are OBLIGATED to involve ourselves as his proxy. (Actually, this time I put my foot down and bowed out, partly because I had a bad cough, and partly because I had to get ready to go to work. My wife therefore made an appearance...for all of ten minutes.) At times like this I have to wonder whether this "selfless service to the community" is really just a "more dedicated than thou" attitude in disguise, which then makes me wonder why we can't be "more gifted with amperage than thou" at the same time.

Oh, well. What do I know? I'm just a barbarian gaijin.


  • My usual thought is to be yourself, as different as you want to be - on condition that it doesn't upset anyone else.

    That is fine in the UK, but would probably give your FIL a heart attack! I guess you will have to continue to work subtle subterfuge while keeping up/down appearances for the sake of a peaceful life!

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 7:52 PM  

  • you sure have more stamina than i. i don't do what is wanted when i don't want, no matter if it would make everybody happy. we have a breaker problem in our house as well. it's old and anytime we have the studio up and going, in the summer, and flip on a few a/c's, everything shuts down. it's a pain, that's for sure. at least you could remedy yours by having the new one that was plugged in to dear ole FILs.... we have no such luck. :)

    keep up the good spirits my friend. your wife is a lucky lady, as well as your FIL... even tho he may not always admit it, if ever. ;)

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 8:16 PM  

  • I had no idea you live in such primitive dwellings. WTF no sewer, septic?

    Your father is violating the electrical code. HA! What code?

    If it wasn't for the fact that your FIL owns your house. Just move!

    By Anonymous Dave, at 9:11 PM  

  • Rock Chef
    Japan has always been a very group-think culture. There are many advantages to that, but individuality and therefore initiative is squelched. I've always done my best to do my thing without stepping on toes. Usually it works.

    Um Naief
    From what I've heard, homes equipped for high electricity loads are something of a rarity around the world. The highly influential British indie band My Bloody Valentine had the same problem as your hubbie: their wonderful and oh-so-expensive home studio wound up throwing their breaker every time they tried to use a large, old London house!

    Most Americans are shocked by the seeming contradiction when they come here. If you go to a typical home appliance store, you'll be blown away by what is considered common, everyday technology here. But then you look at the houses themselves, and they tend to be amazingly primitive. Only recently has Japanese home construction started to include such things as flushing toilets, insulation, and multiple electric outlets in each room as standard rather than as "expensive" perks. The "city" where I live only started laying down sewer lines during the last decade. There's one on my street, but our houses are slightly downhill from it, so a connection would have to be routed through a pump or down the hill through the neighbors' yards. (FIL refuses to do either.)

    As for the "just move" suggestion, get in line. I've been told that a lot, but it's easier said than done for a multitude of reasons. At any rate, leaving this home would mean leaving my wife (and likely my kids considering the state of child custody laws here). I have no intention of doing that.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:45 PM  

  • Oh, yes, we're on a septic system. There's no need to dump the bathwater in the street, but the old guy across the street always does it, so FIL does too. (My wife says that that is apparently an old custom, and the 80+ generations consider it a matter of course.)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:48 PM  

  • I see. Well, I guess its just a matter of putting your foot down or being endlessly tolerant of these little annoyances. I would bet though that your FIL would put in a new circuit breaker if you persuaded him the right way, and mentioned it casually in conversation until he got tired of hearing it:)

    By Anonymous Dave, at 11:23 PM  

  • Hard to say. You don't know the man. He's definitely a unique sort. I won't elaborate any further than that.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:32 AM  

  • My thoughts are similar to Rock Chef, though when my money is involved, I get a lot more aggressive. I've been ripped off too many times.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 12:37 AM  

  • Rodney Moody - You don't get any respect. I wouldn't either, but I decided early on to stop going to the in-law's house, and lucky me, it's not the same property.

    Good luck.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 10:23 PM  

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