KONGETSU

Standard

So the internet tells me that the majority of Japanese developers are not sending their staff to E3 due to swine flu. What the hell is swine flu anyway? Isn’t it just flu? I’d like to think that in any non-third-world country flu you have something like a 99.999% chance of not actually dying of it. Just rest for a few days, drink plenty of fluids, and you’ll be fine.

For Japanese businessmen, missing a day of work is a fate worse than death. It’s not just that they fear missing a day of work, or the loss of face that results from being ‘the guy who missed a day of work’, they also relish the opportunity to show up at work with a surgical mask covering the lower half of their face. A guy in my office wears a surgical mask every day. This is a guy who falls asleep at his desk maybe three times an hour, and whose role in the office is so unclear even to himself that, out of primordial dread, he feels compelled to make spreadsheets of everything anyone says, and then email the entire office announcing the existence of a new spreadsheet on the local server. Or how he decided that the color-coding for ‘A’ priority items has changed to purple, so that ‘S’ priority items can be coded red, being that red is a ‘hotter’ color than purple. I wish I were making this up. In fact, I wish no one out there reads this and says ‘That sounds like something that happens in an office’. I wish the world wasn’t like this. The minute one guy who wears a surgical mask gets a promotion, everyone starts wearing one.

You know what I don’t like? I don’t like being told what to do. The one thing I don’t like more than being told what to do is being told what to do when I’ve already done it. The Japanese are obsessed with telling people what to do after they’ve already done it. Years ago, I noticed all these little things that irk me about Japanese society, and only recently have I started to realize that, no, making lots of money and/or finding success in business has not dulled the sting of these insulting annoyances. Take the ticket machines at train stations. When you insert your money, a voice screams: “Please select the price of your ticket!” I suppose this isn’t exactly evil, because some people really are stupid enough to not know they have to press a button to choose the price of the ticket they want to buy. What I dislike most is that after I purchase my ticket, and the ticket pops out, and I remove both the ticket and my change, the machine beeps loudly three times, before a voice booms: “Please don’t forget to take your ticket and your change!” It repeats this command five times, the beeps punctuating each scream. These machines have laser scanners inside that can tell if you’ve inserted a Y1,000 bill or a Y5,000 one. Why can’t they tell when I’ve removed my change and the ticket? What’s worse is how the volume on the machines has inched up over the past few years, with the proliferation of iPods.

So I was leaving the supermarket via the escalator – because there aren’t any stairs – when a series of loudspeakers blasted through the rock ‘n’ roll in my earphones, informing me that it’s ‘not safe to carry a baby on the escalator, so please do not do it’. If I had a baby, what would I do? Leave him upstairs to play in the dairy section? The voice continued barking bizarre commands, telling me that I’m not permitted to carry guns or knives in the supermarket. I’ve never seen anyone with a gun in Japan, much less in the supermarket. Then it tells me that escalator hand rails are a breeding ground for germs so I shouldn’t touch my face until I’ve washed my hands. I remind myself it’s someone’s job to write and record these voice messages.

In all my travelling experience, no country in the world succeeds in telling people what to do nearly as frequently as Japan. In one level halfway through Super Mario Galaxy, you’re swimming and a penguin glides in from nowhere, spewing forth a word bubble: “Press the A-button to swim.” The word bubble sticks there in the middle of the screen for maybe four seconds. The same thing is happening to videogames that is happening to the world: people forget anything that can be remembered, and damn near no one is reading the instructions any more. I am only 49 per cent joking when I say that I fear for the day when the Japanese government installs loudspeakers in all private residences, to warn us not to fall down the stairs, even if we don’t have any stairs.