The BBC has reported on a serious issue that affects Japanese when travelling to Europe – so called ‘Paris Syndrome’. Being careful here not ruffle anyone’s feathers, this manifests itself as an antipathy between East and West – something that has been apparent since the mid-nineteenth century. The BBC cites the example of a dozen cases per year of Japanese tourists being so overwhelmed by the seeming rudeness of the French that they have had to be re-patriated by their embassy under the care of doctors and nurses.
The syndrome was first identified twenty years ago by Professor Hiroaki Ota and it takes the form of complete mental breakdown when confronted with rude taxi drivers or waiters, accustomed as they are to the polite and deferential culture of their own country. The effect is taken so seriously that the Embassy in Paris operates a twenty-four hour hotline for sufferers whose only cure is not to travel to Europe in the future.
I am reminded of the extreme reactions that the Japanese had to Europeans when they finally opened their borders to trade in the 1860’s. Woodblock prints of the time depict the British, Dutch and American travellers as being ugly as demons; spotty, long limbed and badly dressed. The fascination with these alien peoples led to an entire genre of prints known as Yokohama Prints or Yokohama-e named after the seaport where for decades traders were corralled by statute, away from the indigenous Japanese. However, later in the century the Japanese instituted a series of draconian laws to appear ‘civilised’ in the eyes of the Americans and Europeans, with the aim of negotiating better trade deals for the future. The Meiji period statutes limited everything from public bathing and urination to public nudity and the disposal of waste and litter plus many matters concerning ‘morals’ and what might be classed decorum. It is possible that this reaction (or over-reaction) to the foreigners is what underpins the extremely sensitive nature of contemporary Japanese manners; that and the legacy of the highly ritualised behaviour and manners of the samurai class.
It may come as something of a surprise to read that one American in the nineteenth century wrote, “There is no other country on earth in which men and women conduct their lives together by such indecent manners”. The Rev. S. Wells Williams declared Japan the “most lewd” of “all the heathen nations” he had ever encountered:
Modesty, judging from what we see, might be said to be unknown, for the women make no attempt to hide the bosom, and every step shows the leg above the knee; while men generally go with the merest bit of rag, and that not always carefully put on. Naked men and women have both been seen in the streets, and uniformly resort to the same bath house, regardless of all decency. Lewd motions, pictures and talk seem to be the common expression of the viler acts and thoughts of the people, and this to such a degree as to disgust everybody.
It is curious now, only one hundred and fifty years later to see such a reversal of attitudes; indeed one might say that European travellers of that time were as much sufferers of Edo-Syndrome as today’s Japanese are of the reverse.