Since the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the northeast of Japan last month, much has been written in the Western media about the dignified and selfless manner the Japanese conduct themselves in a crisis. In fact, such was the national degree of solidarity that a large number of companies decided to stop airing commercial advertisements for the time being.
From mid-March, these have been largely replaced by ads produced by the Advertising Council Japan (AC Japan), a membership organisation which runs campaigns and adverts concerning public welfare: anything from health and recycling to etiquette, much like the Public Service Announcements in the US. Their ads, however, are being shown with such high frequency on Japanese television, they began to attract complaints from exasperated Japanese and foreigners residing in Japan, saying they "get on their nerves".
Amused by one particular AC Japan ad, one Japanese blogger decided to investigate whether the message it was advocating was actually valid. The 60-second educational advert features cartoon characters singing hello ("kon'nichiwa"), good night ("oyasuminasai"), thank you ("arigato"), and other key Japanese greetings to each other. It closes with the slogan:
"Every time you greet someone, you make a new friend."
His objective was to test their claims that one can befriend people by saying hello. But what started as a well-intentioned joke ended up landing him in deep waters.
One evening, accompanied by a friend, the man started enthusiastically shouting "kon'nichiwa" to random men and women who walked past them outside a train station, while he documented their reaction in his blog post, "Is this ad true?" The experiment went on for nearly an hour.
A taxi driver, a post office worker, an old lady and a lady with a small child were some of a handful that did react, but the overwhelming majority not only blanked him but also scurried away as quickly as possible. When he finally heard someone take the initiative to greet him first, he was filled with glee.
It was the police.
The conversation that ensued is worth a translation:
Policeman: "Kon'nichi wa. What are you doing?"
Man: "I am greeting people."
Policeman: "And why?"
Man: "Do I need a reason to greet people?"
Policeman: "Are you campaigning for an election?"
Man: "Nope, I just wanted to make friends."
The man was then taken to a police station – where he carried on greeting all and sundry – and was questioned by several officers, who, incidentally, all said hello. Following a telling-off for giving tongue-in-cheek replies to the police, the blogger was forced to explain the reason for his uncommon behaviour, before being released.
Officer 1: "I would not say it is a bad thing but it rises suspicions, so stop it now and just lead a normal life."
Officer 2: "It is very brave of you; I'd like to tell you to continue but, sadly, it is too much to expect in present-day Japan."
The man concludes the report on his experiment with the result:
"Every time you greet people, people call the police."
At the time of writing, his blog, called "I am stupid. I howl at the moon. " (Baka damon. Tsukini hoeru), had received nearly 7,000 "Like" (or what the Japanese call "Applause") clicks, 4,000 Facebook "Likes" and had been retweeted an astounding 48,400 times.
Although the preposterousness of the situation makes you chuckle, once the amusement subsides, you can't help but feel a tinge of sadness. It resonates with prevailing attitudes in modern city life, which not even a catastrophic earthquake may be able to shake off.
No wonder he is howling at the moon.