What are Japanese people really like?8 min read

When foreign people are asked to give a lightning impression of the British, many of them mention ‘mania for dogs, the gentleman ideal, honesty in politics and something called a sense of humour’. Then they go on to give individual opinions. Frenchmen say that Englishmen are crude and cold, and I have heard Japanese call us yabottai (unrefined) and also cold. Russians wonder why the English are always complaining, like Russian farmers.

As to the dog mania, I admit that it is true. Often British people say to me: ‘What are Japanese people really like? I have talked to some Japanese, and they were all very serious’.

‘You forget that they had to use a foreign language to talk to you’, I would tell them. ‘They wanted to get their English sentences right—that is why they were serious. You would be serious if you had to talk to them in Japanese: they would be making jokes, and you would be silent’.

Then I go on to tell them about Hachiko  and the statue of Saigo with his dog. When they hear that, British people warm to the Japanese.

Now, however, I want to say something about the famous British sense of humour. Of course, individuals in every nation have it, but in Britain it is a national characteristic. Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that it is a form of bravery.

There are many kinds of bravery. But I believe that both Japanese and British respect calm bravery more than shouting swagger. The calm hero rises above the present danger: he meets it but without inner agitation. Wonderful! But the sense of humour adds something more to calm bravery: it finds laughter even in the danger or difficulty.

Life as a Laughing Matter

I will give an example. During the bombings of cities in World War II, citizens everywhere showed great courage. At the height of the bombing of London, some American newspapermen asked ordinary citizens of London about their feelings. One reporter said that he was amazed not only by the brave determination but by the cheerfulness of the Londoners.

One working man had told him that he was not at all afraid of being hit by a bomb. The man said: ‘How can a German bomber kill me? First of all, he has to find London and then he has to find the East End of London. I live in Alton Street, Number 32. So he has to find Alton Street and then find Number 32. When he has found it, he has to drop his bomb on it. And even if he does, probably I’ll be out, having a drink at the pub’. This ordinary Londoner could not only face the bombs but also laugh at them with this comical story.

In English we distinguish wit from humour. Wit is a clever way of saying something indirectly which cannot be said directly. It is often a way of attacking someone. The French are famous for it. The French writer Voltaire was shown a poem by a rival author, entitled A Message to the Future, and remarked, ‘I doubt if this message will reach its destination’. In other words, no one will read the author’s work after he is dead.

The French constantly make witty sarcastic remarks about their neighbours, the Belgians. After hearing one of these, I asked the Frenchman, ‘Do the Belgians make sarcastic witty remarks about the French in return?’ He looked at me. ‘They would like to do that’, he said, ‘but they are Belgians, so they cannot think of any!’                                                                           ‘

We British can appreciate such wit, but most of us do not really like it. It is bitter. The farther east you go in Europe, the bitterer the wit becomes. The Hungarians say about themselves, ‘If you have a Hungarian as your friend, you do not need an enemy’. In other words, you can never trust him. (I have not found this true in my own experience.)

Japanese people should know about these acid international jokes; such things are common. And there is no need to be sensitive when some are told about Japan. The Hungarians even invent slanders about themselves; so do Jewish people.

Sometimes the wit says something very interesting. Vasary Tartakower was a Hungarian cavalry officer at the beginning of this century. He was famous as a duelist. In those days duels were frequent, but they stopped as soon as blood came from the first wound. The wounded man lost the duel. After World War I, the Hungarian army ceased to exist. Tartakower entered university, took a doctorate and finally became a brilliant chess master, one of the best in the world.

Near the end of his life, he was interviewed by a journalist, who said to him, There must be very few people who have had so many triumphs’. Tartakower gave a little smile and said: ‘I have never had a real triumph. Whether at dueling or at chess, I have never beaten a man who was wholly well! ’ He was hinting wittily that a loser always has an excuse.

What Budo Does Not Teach

The true sense of humour is entirely different from wit. It is almost never an attack on someone else. It consists in looking at one’s own misfortune from above and finding something to laugh at in it. Budo teaches calm endurance, but humour teaches more than that.

I have visited some prisons in London and know what they are like. They are crowded. Britain has more people in prison proportionally than other European countries. On the other hand, there is less crime in Britain than in most other countries. I once read the memoirs of a former prisoner, who was sentenced to four years for burglary. He said that the food was very monotonous, and some of the prisoners appointed him their spokesman to complain to the governor. The governor was a just man and was respected. The prisoner saw him and stated the complaint.

The prison food has been approved by the independent prison inspectors’, said the governor. ‘They confirm that it is well balanced and healthy. And I have exactly the same food myself here every day. I do not expect you to eat what I do not eat myself’. The prisoner looked at the governor’s face and knew that it was true.

‘Yes, but yours is cooked specially for you, isn’t it? Ours is cooked by mass production’.

The governor replied seriously: ‘Yes, probably mine is better cooked than yours and a bit more tasty. But after all, if you don’t like prison food, why come to prison?’ The prisoner said he could not help laughing. The governor laughed too, and the interview was ended.

In his memoirs the prisoner wrote: The governor’s words— ‘If you don’t like prison food, why come to prison?’—were a great help to him then and also afterwards in life. He never offended again. If he was tempted, the phrase floated up from his memory: ‘Why come to prison?’ In his heart, he thanked the governor, who had used the sense of humour to awaken a sense of responsibility. The prison circumstances did not change, but they became bearable.

Even in very small things, humour can be a great help. Once a year my accountant comes to my house to make up my income tax accounts. He brings a little portable calculator, which makes a buzz as it prints. I must be in the same room, because he occasionally has a question. One day I sat on the other side of the room, trying to do an urgent piece of writing. It was very irritating to be constantly interrupted by the bzz-bzz of the little printer. The young accountant, a good friend of mine, realized this. He stopped for a moment and said, ‘Every time this printer goes bzz, it means that you will pay less tax’. We both laughed. In a way it was ridiculous, but in fact I was no longer irritated by the bzz-bzz. The situation had not changed, but now I welcomed it.

A sense of humour is not part of the gentleman ideal, and as far as I know it is not part of Budo. But it is perhaps a very useful addition to those ideals. Here is a last example. When the Soviet space programme began, they sent up insects, then some rats, then dogs, and finally in 1961 Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. It was arranged that Gagarin should make international tours. He was a handsome modest man, and crowds lined the streets in London to see him pass. He stood up in the car, and the people clapped and waved.

The then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, with some of his friends, watched Gagarin pass. They remained quite calm outwardly, like gentlemen or bujin. But one of them murmured to Macmillan, ‘This is a tremendous propaganda triumph for the Soviets’. ‘No’, replied Macmillan. ‘And perhaps they have missed their chance in Britain. Thank Heaven! They did not send one of the dogs!’

© Trevor Leggett