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Pow-wa Hara

tjm Holden

In Japan it’s a big word, a concept, a way of defining relations between people. Most often in organizations – like between teachers and students or managers and staffers -- but also in other connective sets. Like when a coach presses a tennis player for greater effort, or a hotel guest berates a maid for failing to make up a room, or a cop pulls a driver over to the side of the road.

"Pow-wa" means "power". No big decoding mystery there. "Hara" (aside from being a family name in the ReDot on the order of "Jones" over in the English-speaking West) is the Japanese rendering of "harassment". And, as I have explained elsewhere in the PopMatters’ world, it is common for Japanese to shorten words as a means of expediting conversation. For instance, "akemashite omedetou gozaimasu" – (Happy New Year) – is transformed into "ake-ome" (akay omay). In the same way, "Brad Pitt" – short enough as is -- nonetheless, gets even shorter shrift, becoming "Burapi". Everyone seems to get the meaning, it saves time, and no one is any more the worse for wear.

Whoever said the Japanese weren’t creative?


So, although a phrase like “pow-wa hara” is a big concept, as is true of a lot of Japanese phrases, it is, ironically, smaller than it actually is. Smaller than one hears it; tinier than it’s true meaning; more microscopic than its actual uses. But that is not only by design; it’s the Japanese fashion. And, this pow-wa hara thing, that is a fashion, too. Something that is on the minds of everyone cruising the halls; something in the air breathed by anyone who is told to stuff the mailboxes with this flier or get out of that car (right now, asshole!) and submit to those questions in the sweltering sunlight.


Harassment has been a major theme in the society since just before the turn of the millennium. "Seku hara" – short for "sexual harassment" – was the concept that ushered in this "hara boomu". In that way, one could even say that it was sex that gave birth to the bastard child that has become Japan’s burgeoning harassment obsession. Actually, more than obsession, one might better characterize it as "the beast that's run amok". Sure, we've had legitimate cases (and, sadly, likely more than our share) within the musty, recessed carrels of the academy, but enough is enough. Now, one can’t turn a corner without bumping flush into (then getting leveled by the shrill accusation of) inappropriate sex-tinged action. Given the climate of hyper-comportment, of ultra-decorousness, there can no longer be fingers on an elbow when directing a person down the hall; no more can there be idle patter about how nice an acquaintance’s clothes may look today; and, above all, no random, fugue-state gazes that may linger in the wrong quarters for an inappropriate span of time.

Ready. Set. Everyone synchronize your watches.

Any and all of these acts may quickly serve as the foundation for legal action – in which case your life may come to mirror the refrain of Pat Benatar’s signature song (go ahead: try to name that tune . . . just "fire away!")

In Japan these problems have all been amplified by a hierarchical configuration installed deep in the social foundations, regulating nearly all human relations. This is especially true in organizations, where after-hours drinking or mandatory post-knock-off time socializing leads to situations in which juniors are expected to serve their seniors. No matter how unreasonable the demand, no matter how raucous the remark. Service with an unyielding smile.

In the new climate, though, we are slowly witnessing the erosion of the cultural infrastructure. It may seem glacial, but the crumble has fast converted into a rockslide. Beware, the revenge of the browbeaten; the revolt by the revolted underlings. Bitter times; contentious times; jarring times dead ahead.


So, what does all this have to do with travel, which is (ostensibly) what this blog space is about? Well, that is the wild thing. It was in the contemplation and planning of my next long-distance trip that all of this came about. Now I can’t get into names (cause lawsuits tend to be time-consuming and finance-gobbling creatures), but I can get into facts. Such as when the (nameless) guy in my research unit decided (the pattern seems to be during his frequent piques of jealousy) to challenge my right to go. Actually, the trip was probably ancillary to the fact that he just wanted to spoil my fun -- or else short-stop my career. Unless it was that he just want to live up to his reputation as the all-around ("get out of the car, blank") that he has become.

For me, then pawa hara came in the form of this dude telling me that I couldn’t go on my already scheduled, paid-for, and printed-in-the-program trip to Oslo because I had an obligation to be at work. Well, actually, the obligation is all theoretical, since the work hasn’t yet even been determined to exist. But seeing as how my job is to preside over my academic department, I suppose maybe he had some kind of point. But then again, if I am the man in charge, how is it that the guy technically beneath me was able to exert power over me? Hm . . . not a bad question . . . and, I confess, one which has me currently stumped.

But, I suppose that shows that power is one of those relative commodities -- you know, it looms larger or smaller in the minds of those seeking to exert it. But the thing is, this was not some philosophical disquisition. This was, like, real life crap staring me in the face. Because the next thing I know, in the midst of a recent staff meeting, this guy starts demanding to see that proof of my invitation to go away and talk and this evidence of when-to-why-and-who-to-how -- as if the words "professional courtesy" are alien to his picayune muddle-headed (dark) matter.

The thing that someone failed to explain to my over-stuffed colleague is that power harassment only works when one has leverage. As in: a position of authority to wield over the person you are trying to cow into doing your bidding. Since he and I are tied to the identical rung in this magnificent (even noble!) Ivory ladder of ours, it is rather difficult for either of us to get this pow-wa hara thing to work against one another. At least on a consistent basis. Call that "Introduction to Power Harassment, 101" pal. Which is one reason I opt out of playing that game (I mean . . . aside from the fact that I'm such an all-around nice guy!). Yet, to my amazement (well, actually, everyone around these halls since he has trotted this routine out in front of just about everyone he has spent time on a committee with), and for whatever embarrassingly myopic reason, he keeps trying. Complete with copious passages of red lettered script in his interminable, voluminous, raving correspondence.


Personally, I am used to his petty exertions, but they do tend to go on and on; and get greater and ever more over the top. Which is one of the signatures of "pawa hara"”. In this latest round, aside from his demanding that I provide documentation that I really was going away to the professional conference I had informed him of, he started going off on questions he had demanded that I answer last year!! about – geez, I can’t remember any longer – but stuff like: "why is it that you refused to bow down and sniff my toenails when I was Chair?"

Well, gee, let me think about a good reason there, fella, and, uh . . . I'll get back to you. (Possibly on the back of a postcard from Oslo).

In the meantime, although I make light of it, I wonder if I'll actually succeed in making it over there. Well, if I don't, you'll know it. Because in two months' time you won't find any pictures to the right of this entry-space of the lush, frozen Nordic city-scape or the breath-taking aurora borealis. And if you don't, then you'll know the reason why.

And you'll also know the word for it, too . . .

Repeat after me: "pow-wa hara".

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