When I first read this, I immediately thought of my time working in a papermaking studio in Oguni for two years. The author is talking about the protagonist of his story, but also about the Japanese, and what’s expected of them. In Oguni, I always felt a certain pressure, an unspoken expectation of me to keep at my work, without complaint, no matter the job, until it was completely finished (obliterated). I wasn’t being held to a higher standard because I am a foreigner, or because I was the new guy, or because I was in a pseudo-apprenticeship position. All of those things may have contributed, but in the end I was held to the same standard as anyone else in the studio: work diligently until you are done. I wonder if I have always been a bit lazy (or a lot!), and that made me feel this difference more keenly than others might; someone with a better work ethic might not have felt as sharp a contrast. I believe it changed me, and changed me for the better.
There’s a great passage in the equally great article “The Man Who Sailed His House” about expectations and work, which says a lot, I think, about the Japanese work ethic.
“After hellos, you take your place in the first shed, running tree trunks through the table saw to make rough boards, the fanged blade in ceaseless rotation, throwing sawdust and the good, clean scent of cedar. Not an hour into the shift and your callused hands are chapped red. But even this is familiar, an unspoken lesson taught decades before by your father in the rice fields: Work without complaint. Apply one’s mind to the task at hand until everything else has been obliterated.” (Do take a bit of time to read the whole article; it’s well worth it.)