O is for Overkill

O is for Overkill

Ah, Japan.  Land of understatement, of the indefinite language, of exquisite minimalism, subtlety in culture that bleeds into modern social interaction.  Well, that is what the pamphlet would have you think.  But beyond the temples and shrines is a country that seems to be in a state of constant overload, in many ways.  How could Japan dare be accused of taking the figurative sledgehammer to the proverbial walnut?

In plenty of ways, in fact.  But let’s look at the ‘how’ before the ‘what’.

Back in my ‘H is for Ho-Ren-So’ post, I mentioned how a project can change many hands before it is made into the slick and risk-free product it is.  This stems from the same root of this:  whereas in the West we are all about performance, doing things to the best of our ability no matter what the cost, in Japan, it is about process: doing things right, having-a-go, following the correct procedure.  In a nutshell, the motto of the West would be “I don’t care how you do it, just do it”, in Japan it would be “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.”  Both have their strengths and gaping flaws, but we’re on a Japan blog here, so hey, let’s focus on them, eh?

It is this philosophy that gave birth to ‘Ho-Ren-So’ that also gives rise to Overkill in Japan.  Here, it is all about the layers of procedure, jumping through the correct hoops in the correct order, checking-and-double checking everything, crossing all the i’s and dotting all the t’s.  And getting sent straight back to square one if you make a mistake.

But what is this ‘Overkill’ I talk about?  Well, if you live in the UK, USA or such, you may be familiar with it’s opposite: rampant streamlining.  Remember, in the West it is all about performance: squeezing the best possible out of the least possible.  Bigger, better, stronger, faster.  If you’ve worked in any sector and seen the number of your colleagues tumble away around you yet your workload only increases, this is rampant streamlining.  If you’ve experienced the shutting down of valuable services in your community because they weren’t turning over a good enough profit for someone somewhere, then that is also rampant streamlining.  It’s that creeping sensation that things seem to be getting ‘less’ around you while ‘more’ is expected of you.

But Japan is the opposite of this.   Some mobile phone stores in Tokyo are prowled by a dozen staff and not a single customer.  A roadworks will be surrounded by as many people dressed like traffic cones than actual traffic cones.  On the trains, automated announcements are immediately followed by the real-life conductor announcing the exact same thing.  And, most famously (in fact this will get i’s own post someday), build stuff.  Roads, bridges, shopping malls…build stuff.  No matter how unwanted or unneeded it is.  Throw concrete at it and hope for the best.

This is what I mean by Overkill.  It is an alternate answer to the same question, which is how to heal a failing economy.  Performance, the way of the rampant streamlining, demands you slam on the brakes and make cuts while steal squeezing for the same level of output, while Overkill hits the accelerator.  It adds layer upon layer of irrelevancy, from lifestyle to employment to development.

And it is often worrying, occasionally distressing to see a country so at odds with itself at times, with citizens that really do hold true to the values of understatement and subtlety being smothered by this strange landscape that is overloaded with noise, eyesores and unnecessary fluff.  When you are on a train full of silent, weary commuters and the only sounds are the double announcements, creepy platform jingles and you look out the window to see yet more redundant construction sites and new roads, you really do begin to wonder if Japan really sees what it is doing to itself.  the Performance policy isn’t working, but Overkill is just as bad, if not worse.


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