A shave with harmony


Random ramble – It’s been a while since I’ve thought about “h” words. The letter on its own means something totally different in Japanese (if you’ve heard about hentai (lit. perverse) then you know what I’m referring to), but to me “harmony” can connote so many other quietly passive aggressive aspects that it could stir an even stronger reaction from me.

Having lived in Japan for close to a decade, I appreciate the kind friendliness of your everyday cyclist who gives you the right of way or nods at your consideration in doing so for them. I have picked up the habit of thanking strangers along the way, something innately natural to do when expressing genial appreciation in this society. In Singapore, there are campaigns to make the society more polite and gracious. Here the virtue seems to be inundated in its people.

Harmony and consideration for others seem to be very closely related, almost like a razor and its blade. To me, harmony is building or keeping the peace, the razor, while consideration for others is a means towards achieving it, the blade. We all know that a blade can cut both ways, especially a blade with two similarly potent edges, one purely to maintain a clean demeanor and another to put unruly sprouts in their place – washed down the sink.

The second case is where harmony becomes stifling, where the shaver falls into the hands of a power monger. The case in question is how this becomes possible. For hegemony, there must be a dominant presence. In Singapore, it’s the 70% Chinese resident population, in Japan, well, the almost homogeneous society. Back to the question of how harmony breeds hegemony – consideration for others can be a virtue but also turned into a front for putting people in their place. Whether the latter poor souls desire it no longer becomes relevant since any personal aspirations would have been diluted by a sense of acceptance, or even worse resignation, which would only work to strengthen the consensus against their underlying wishes.

We can find the simplest example of a visibly foreign person in Japan employed to be just that, a foreigner. He is an ambassador for his country, culture, language, probably English, enlightening the wide-eyed curious populace and having a desk in the office with little or no prospect of moving elsewhere in the organization. He’s got a comfortable lifestyle, has time for family and friends, plus amiable working conditions but faces the prospects of a career and pay freeze even as the rest of society benefits from changes in the economy.

Our locked-in expat can soon be expected to be less happy because he might no longer be able to sustain his lifestyle despite an absolutely solid wage simply because of rising living costs. Total resignation would be suicide, acceptance would be letting things be. If keeping people in their place is social policy, then good luck to trying to retain valuable, skilled, and loyal employees, whether foreign or local. Outsiders will sure be faster to realize the dead-end ahead, and if we project the situation onto larger society, then it would be no surprise if it soon faces a foreign brain drain.

In what I see as a normal situation, certain skill sets would be associated with some particular area of expertise. However, social consensus on maintaining harmony by showing consideration for others beyond oneself reeks of hegemony; however capable, someone with a particular trait would inevitably be associated with it and put in the “rightful” place to fulfill a certain role. Even though some flexibility (read lip service) might be allowed by the powers that be to assuage temporary dissatisfaction, the general overarching framework remains virtually impenetrable and incapable of changing, even if for the better. Imagine a whole society of people wanting to succeed rather than just earning their keeps? Absolutely chaotic and ultimately undesirable! Dissatisfaction would soar and social order would be in peril.

Of course, the powers that be would not consider the fact that their loss of some authority would result in overall gain, or even new social backing; dissatisfaction would not be faced with resignation or acceptance, but with passionate creativity and innovation, which would bring renewed energy and transformation. The blade would then turn to cleaning up the entire face, not just plucking away at the most evident stubble around the mouth.

Everyone aspires to something sometime in their life, and with backs to the wall, people usually come out fighting; we get creative when we need to and society today needs to be more creative than relying on enforcing harmony through hegemony, but of course, we can’t make everyone happy can we? I can only hope that everyone is given the chance to find their place in society and not simply be put in someplace and be deprived of reaching their ultimate potential. Which reminds me – it’s time to find a new blade.

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