Lost in Kyoto

"Navigation only works from your current location."

This was easily the most useless feature an offline map could have. Standing in a busy Kyoto subway corridor quite far from my "current location" and "home," I was the most lost I've ever been. The charts on the walls were artistic masterpieces of numbers and patterned lines with incomprehensible Kanji. Google maps was impossible without wifi. But ten people, an umbrella, and two neighbors later, I made it home.

As a culture, Japan is renowned for its politeness. The words “sorry” and “thank you” can get you through half of your interactions, and the endless possible layers for polite speech are what make Japanese one of the most difficult languages in the world. But Japan is far more generous than courteous.

Determined to find matcha ice cream parfaits, a friend asked a random store worker where to find the right cafe. Rather than say “I don’t know” or give brief directions, the worker went through a catalog of the neighborhood’s stores and, after finding a match, ditched her post and personally led us there.

This has been my everyday experience here. Each person I’ve met has tried to actively understand the situation I am in (awful Japanese included) and guessed the greater desperation behind my simple requests. From a scientific standpoint, this is perhaps unsurprising given Japan’s commitment to context sensitivity. A series of studies have ingeniously measured a culture’s sensitivity through characteristics of artwork. Japanese paintings, even ones by contemporary artists, have higher horizons that allow more information to surround and contextualize subjects. Meanwhile, Western paintings prefer singular, focused perspectives that are aesthetically realistic but contextually limited.

This tendency to adopt a bird’s eye view is not just an artistic phenomenon, however. It is a trait that is cultivated carefully by society’s rules. What East Asia’s cultures have in common is an unwillingness to state things directly, whether this be out of courtesy or more political motives. In South Korea, adherence to norms of hierarchy even resulted in a series of airplane crashes in the 1990s. Given these realities, it should be unsurprising that the ability to carefully guess and piece together context is a fundamental social skill.

While these norms can be difficult and sometimes inconvenient, they are invaluable for creating empathy. In America, empathy is not preached as a necessary basis for kindness. We instead worship surface generosity. But generosity defines the situation in terms of the giver—it is about your resources, your morals, your ability to impact the world. The receiver is reduced to one or two abstract needs. Beyond what’s relevant, they are an ignorable abstract.


But while generosity will make you share your umbrella with the stranger walking next to you, it will not motivate you to gift your family's second umbrella to someone who is quietly searching through her bag in a corner. Generosity will give you the patience to explain directions to a foreigner, but it won't inspire you to ditch your route of travel during rush hour and accompany her five blocks away, even though she tentatively says she understands your directions.

However wonderfully analytical, generosity is simplifying and unintelligent. Needs are the products of situation, not isolated independents. An unwillingness to expend basic cognitive effort can only result in taking too many things at face value. We become resentful because we do not see others as full beings in a busy world of which we are only a part. We become mad at the waiter for his slowness, not stopping to consider the number of staff or the difficulty of the orders given by other tables. We do not realize that there is more to massive waves of illegal immigration than a desire for prosperity—there is domestic abuse, gang violence, and starvation.

Our simplification allows us to interpret situations in black and white, despite Western art’s love for color and multi-dimensionality. And when it comes to kindness, we see far less need and far more blame. This is not to say that Americans are bad or that the Japanese are infallible. This is only to say that details do matter. And that a little bit of common sense empathy could revolutionize not only the way we make offline maps, but also our own, complicated societies.

Elizabeth Y. Sun '19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.


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