Thursday, August 10, 2017

[Second Opinion] Japanese punctuality, Filipino time

The author with friends at the summit of Mt. Fuji
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

TOKYO — Whenever I’m in Japan, I cannot help but marvel at the people’s punctuality.

A recent experience was illustrative: My friends and I had just left Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture and were aboard the bus back to the train station, but just as it was about to depart, a passenger rose, talked to the driver, then faced the other passengers. In between apologetic bows, he asked if it was okay for us to wait for his friend who should be arriving in one or two minutes. He hadn’t even finished talking when his friend arrived, running. The friend was late for just over 30 seconds, but such a delay sufficed for him to make a public apology.

How did the Japanese acquire such an acute sense of time?

For a facile answer, one could cite a highly efficient and reliable transportation system — from extensive subway systems to the famed shinkansen — that makes it very easy for people to fulfill their commitments. Because it takes exactly 33 minutes from Asakusa to Shibuya via the Ginza Line, I know exactly which train to take if I’m meeting someone at Hachiko’s.

But even the Japanese who are in the Philippines are known to be punctual, which tells us that there’s more to their sense of time than the infrastructure that enables it.

Surprisingly, scholars aver that the Japanese sense of punctuality is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Historian Takehiko Hashimoto notes that Westerners in the mid-19th century actually complained that the Japanese were always late! It was only decades later, as part of the Meiji-era reforms, that punctuality was institutionalized. Children, for instance, were instructed to arrive 10 minutes before the start of class.

A second wave of time consciousness — one that pervaded the people’s everyday lives — came after the war, aided by the proliferation of wristwatches, heavy industrialization, and the inculcation of Western values. Surely, this sense of time, too, fostered the rise of a hyperefficient transport system, making Japanese punctuality a “coproduction” of culture and infrastructure.

As for the Philippines, while it is easy to blame our tardiness on the traffic and the unpredictable weather — or label it as an immutable “mentality” — one way to look at it is to consider how time has always been relative, and not just in Einstein’s sense of the word.

Anthropologists point out that “clock time”—i.e., seconds, minutes, hours — is in itself a modern invention: Until very recently, events dictated the pace of the day in most societies. A colorful example of this “event time” is “alas-puno” — or when the jeepney leaves, not at a certain time, but when it is full. Moreover, temporal categories were broader: umaga, hapon, gabi—allowing for more pakiramdaman (“feeling each other”).

Even in professional contexts in the Philippines today, there is more leeway: Arriving one minute late will likely not merit an apology, but one hour would. Then there’s a “politics of time,” too: Some can arrive “fashionably late” because of—or to assert—their importance. Indeed, people’s conceptions of time are shaped by others’ expectations, even as these expectations also change over time.

Sometimes, I think the Japanese can be punctual to a fault: On a hike up Mount Fuji last year, our guides wanted to schedule everything — including sleeping and waking times — removing the fun in climbing Japan’s highest peak. My Nagoya-based friend Jeion also feels that the overreliance on schedules can lead to a “domino effect” when things go wrong. “Filipino time,” with its flexibility and improvisation, may be suited for situations beyond our control, or when time itself need not be micromanaged — as when one is on vacation.

But the Japanese sense of time remains a valuable trait, not just for self-improvement but also for national growth: It is no coincidence that the 1950s-60s — when the Japanese began to adopt their modern conceptions of time — also marked the beginning of their “economic miracle.”
What we should strive for, then, is neither a full dismissal of Filipino time nor a full embrace of Japanese punctuality, but the ability to make use of both.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

[Second Opinion] In defense of the millennials

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

It is human nature to find fault in the next generation. The Baby Boomers were critiqued by their elders for eschewing traditional values, but they in turn critiqued the Gen X-ers for being too carefree, unfocused, even cynical. Although it is fashionable to say “the kids these days,” accompanied with a sigh, the suggestion that the so-called “millennials” are exceptionally different from generations past has little factual basis.

The perceived frivolity of emojis, for instance, can be seen in the context of every generation deploying linguistic playfulness to set itself apart — and adapt to technology. Just as the youth of the ’40s and ’50s inverted words to the annoyance of their ermat and erpat, the youth of today are inventing acronyms and metaphors: I hope they don’t find this essay TL;DR — or worse, boring AF.

Much has also been said about how millennials are addicted to selfies. But self-photography has always been important for Filipinos. In the past, people went to great lengths just to have their self-portraits, even going to studios, and buying albums and photo frames to “display” their pictures — a function now taken over by Facebook and Instagram.

And what of their supposed overdependence on the internet? This I take as a valid concern (more on this later), but take note that every new technology — from electricity to video games — is perceived thus by those who did not grow up with it. Haven’t parents been railing against TV for the past half-century?

Finally, student civic engagement is derided as naive, as if the “grownups” in 1972 viewed the students of their time any differently. Surely, the young ilustrados and the revolutionaries who came after them were likewise derided for their “juvenile” ideas, but today nobody questions the wisdom of Rizal, who incidentally saw the youth as the hope of the nation.

An entire generation defies generalization: There are many “millennials” who do not have access to the internet, let alone smartphones. On the other hand, I know old people who are more hooked to Facebook than their grandkids. However, there are significant social and technological changes today that affect most millennials the most.

Social media, for instance, has created a new way of “separate togetherness:” Folks can be together at one dinner table but worlds apart in their smartphones. It has also created a problematic form of validation—through “likes” and “shares.”

The near-universal availability of information from the internet, moreover, can lead to the complacent idea that everything can be found in Wikipedia, searched in Google, or, as a last resort, crowdsourced through Reddit.

The comforts and technologies of today can indeed engender a sense of entitlement and laziness. But at the same time, they can also create new forms of responsibility. In this age of screenshots and virality, one learns early on to be responsible for what one posts in social media. In an age where teachers can easily check for plagiarism through search engines, one learns that simply relying on a quick Google search for assignments won’t impress anybody. Not anymore. So it always works both ways.

Similarly, while the virtual world may have greatly expanded, the internet has also allowed for an easier exploration of the real one: Traveling and going outdoors have gotten much easier. And while it has given rise to trolls and cyberbullies, it has also given voice to fact-checkers, real-life communities and support groups.

The challenge, then, is to maximize the good and mitigate the bad, of the technologies and trends we are faced with today. And, instead of blaming millennials for modernity’s problems, to think of how education can be responsive in a time of information overload and a dearth of critical thinking.

Throughout this piece, I’ve tried to defend millennials from unfair critique, but critique itself is most welcome. As a millennial myself, I think we need to be challenged more, and so by all means keep challenging us.

Someday, we will also realize our mistakes.

By then, perhaps we would have earned the right to lament the “decline” of the next generation.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

A version of this article appeared in Thailand's The Nation: