Saturday, February 16, 2008

In the Dark

Back in my former company's former office, we had a tiny little kitchen that barely two people could squeeze into for food-related tasks. It was often the case that foreign staff, who had a set schedule for conducting lessons by phone, would find themselves log-jammed into that small space at about the same time setting up drinks for the upcoming session of telephone speaking.

Since my boss and I are both tea aficionados, we found ourselves, once again, jockeying for positions in that small room as we made our teabag and milk applications and dealt with some lunch-related dish-washing. We went about our business in the kitchen with the light out because there was a single window through which sufficient light was passing for us to take care of such mundane ministrations in a relatively dim setting.

A salesman wandered over to the postage meter that was inconveniently planted in front of the office refrigerator and said, "You're in the dark. Why are you working in the dark?" Both my boss and I said that we could see just fine and didn't need to use the light. The salesman, nonetheless, walked over and turned on the kitchen light. He decided to substitute his assessment of the needs of the situation for ours.*

This experience illustrated something which I've seen time and again in all areas of life. That is, people approach life as if their perspective and judgment are the appropriate ones and that the solution to the problem is the one that suits their sensibilities. It doesn't occur to them that different people may have different needs and there isn't a "one size fits all" solution that oh-so-conveniently just happens to be in their "size" (all the time, no less).

Awhile back, there was a lot of hubbub in the foreign community about instituting a language proficiency "requirement" for people who work in Japan on long term visas. A lot of the fretting about this was misplaced and based on ignorance of the situation and inadequate research into what the details of the proposed change. (Incidentally, I have no interest in debating the merits and demerits of this potential requirement and any comments addressing this point will not be replied to and may in fact be booted by my moderator - it's already been discussed to death everywhere else.) The interesting thing about all the commentary regarding this situation was that, in debating what level of Japanese language proficiency was sufficient, everyone set the bar where they would be most comfortable setting it. People who can read and write Japanese well felt high levels were fair. People who knew little Japanese felt basic communication should be enough. Those who have studied for and taken standardized tests (JLPT) chose whatever level test they'd already passed. Those who could speak but not read and write felt only oral ability should be tested.

Except for a few rare cases (my blog buddy Penguin for one, who is quite proficient in Japanese, but had concerns about the practicality of instituting such a policy at all), most people set the bar right at where their proficiency was settled. Their "size" was the one they felt was just right for everyone when it came to Japanese ability.

My intent with this post is not to assert that I know what solutions are best or what is right and others do not, but simply to encourage people to be be less rigid about what they believe is "right", "sufficient", and "acceptable". Everyone is different and has different needs. The way you live your life and view your world from how good your language skills have to be to cope with your particular job in Japan right down to things as small as how much light you need to see to do a task can be different from person to person and you shouldn't place your judgment above everyone else's.

*I will note that blue eyes allow in more light than brown eyes and both my former boss and I have blue eyes, though clearly the salesman didn't think about what we could see. He only thought about what he could see.


Sherry said...

That was interesting. I haven't heard anything about the issue since my days are mostly filled with making bentos and changing diapers. I can only imagine the discussions that have gone on regarding this.

Alex said...

I'm shooting off on a tangent here, but regarding light in Japan I've noticed two things: (1) When natural light would suffice, many people are still prone to turning on lights, and (2) a Japanese household that is unlit by fluorescent lighting is often perceived as strange.

I'm a big fan of natural light, and if it's unavailable I prefer the closest thing, which is yellowish-lighting. To be honest, white light irritates me; gives me a headache. But, like you've experienced, while sitting in an office working with satisfactory natural lighting, I've had co-workers come in and berate me for "working in the dark", at which point they turn on the fluorescent lighting and leave the room.

medea said...

I have had that exact same experience, with the light. When I used to work on Saturdays I never put the light on- there was certainly enough light coming in, since all the walls had windows and my company is high on a hill so no matter which way the sun was shining it hit my desk. Often someone from another floor would drop around to shoot the shit and without fail turn the light on for me. Somewhat annoying and not particularly environmentally friendly.

As for the Japanese language requirement, I think the only reason that the government is considering instituting it is to give point-of-contact bureaucrats the ability to make decisions about the immigrant. I think the government has come under fire for letting in people of Japanese descent to do menial jobs, since they tend to congregate and this makes some neighbours very unhappy, rightly or not I cannot say. The government won't rescind the policy for 2 reasons; a) big business (and big donators) needs these workers, and b) that would be admitting that "blood" doesn't make you Japanese. By giving the customs officer a very vague credential (check their Japanese), they are giving a way to discriminate for other reasons, like being boisterous or otherwise un-Japanese.

But hey, that's just my little conspiracy.

ThePenguin said...

Odd that, Mrs. Penguin has the habit of switching the light on for me unbidden, but I'd put that down to one of Mrs. Penguin's little habits.

Thanks for the mention. By coincidence I finally found your missing comment and have posted it. Sorry about that, the blog runs on software of my own making and evidently the anti-spam mechanism ate it (in the month since then and now there have been over a thousand posts to various sites on that server, 80-90% of which are blog spam, and that's not counting the automated posts which get caught before they enter the database). I'll keep an eye out for false negatives and tweak the system accordingly.

Shari said...

Sherry: Trust me, you're having more fun with the diaper changing!

Alex: I used to work in the dark on Saturdays when I was the only one in the office. My coworkers did the same thing as yours when they sometimes came in later in the afternoon. The office had 3 sets of lighting striped down a long tunnel and they'd come in and turn them all on even if only one set affected their desks. I'm sure they didn't even know I was there since I sat in the dark.

I can't say white light bothers me, but, I do prefer real light and dimmer rooms, especially when working with a laptop display that can easily look too dim in bright, white light.

Medea: I wonder if your situation had you toasting in the summer as well. When I worked at Nova, the light came in through the windows around 2:00-4:00 pm and roasted the hell out of us (as well as blinded us). We nagged the manager for blinds and they didn't buy any until students finally complained (the teachers encouraged them to do so).

The environmental issue really bugs me about this. Japan is the home of the Kyoto accords, but you wouldn't notice it if you look at some people's habitual behavior.

Many thanks to all for reading and taking the time to comment!

gaijinalways said...

Interesting point. It is easy to forget that what might be intolerable for you might be acceptable to someone else. In cases where you are making out fine in that situation, it is hard to understand why they would insist on turning lights on, especially since they are not planning on staying in that area.

Then again, some Japanese have told me they find the dark, and hence the night, frightening. So it may even have something to do with that as well.

Kanagawa G said...

I don't mind people trying to "help" by switching on the lights, but I really don't like it when people decide to put sauces on my food without asking because that is the way that they think it should be eaten.

I've sent back many a dish at restaurants because the wait staff decided to pour on sauces in front of my eyes despite me saying otherwise. They are always surprised that I ask for new food because they honestly thought that they were helping, but I explain that I'm a grown man and can decide how much of sauce A or B to pour on by myself.

badmoodmike said...

I guess since moving into my own house, I have become more sensitive to having unnecessary lights on. I rarely, if ever, turn on a light if I don't have to.

First thing I did when I moved in was replace all the light fixtures. Only natural, since we redid all the electric anyway. I put fluorescent lights into all of them, where I could. The modern compact fluorescents have come a long way in imitating the natural spectrum of light from the sun.

At work, in the dungeon, we have no windows...but we do have a whole bunch of fluorescent lights in the ceiling. I had our buildings and grounds crew take the light in the very center of the room and hard-wire it so it would stay on all the time...a little better for security. Now, we very rarely turn on the rest of the lights. This single light panel gives off enough that we can do 90% of our work without eye strain or losing anything.

Shari said...

gaijinalways: In this particular case, the fellow wasn't even in the area at all. He was in a separate (though adjacent) well-lit area. Essentially, he saw us in a darker room (though by no means dark) and decided to turn the light on for us even though he wasn't in the room or planning to be in it.

I hadn't heard that some people were a bit afraid of the dark, though I guess that's common in many cultures. I wonder if city dwellers, who are unaccustomed to no lights at all, are a bit more likely to be uncomfortable in the dark.

KanagawaG: Wow, I'd never heard of that happening. It certainly does seem a bit much. I guess they do it for everyone though, and not just for a foreign person.

I'm not sure if the Japanese are any worse about how things "should" be eaten than any other culture, though probably most other cultures are more rigid about such things than the U.S. (where anything goes, and sometimes goes too far).

Thanks to all for the comments!

Shari said...

Mike: Paying the electric bill for yourself does wonders for energy conservation efforts! As I get older, I have a better understanding of the things my parents complained about and why they did so though sometimes I feel like my head is so full of niggling little concerns that I'm trying to deal with daily "thought avalanches".

Being an adult really is quite tiring at times, though I honestly wouldn't go back to being a child for anything.

Thanks for commenting!