Self-improvement is one of my long-standing goals. You know, striving to be a better human being and all, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Basically like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, only without the scary eyes, and slightly more buffed.
Fortunately, I accomplished that goal in 2004, which was good because it freed up lots of time for other, nobler pursuits, like studying Japanese and drinking beer. Then I moved to Japan and everything got nuked to zero.
Moving to Japan
You’re really a child when you first get here, because you have to re-learn everything. You can’t speak, read, or order food. Even if somebody helps you acquire nourishment, you’re still faced with getting it into your mouth using those darn sticks. Navigating the train system reduces you to tears. Forget about ever riding a bus. Going to the bathroom is on par with solving a quadratic equation.
My crowning achievement was failing to correctly operate a 2-story elevator. This was in a train station in front of a Starbucks, and must have been on my first or second trip, because I remember wearing a huge, blue backpack. Now there’s a real fashion statement. Anyway, I sandwiched myself into this elevator, and turned around to see a couple dozen Japanese folks gaping at me over cups of coffee just before the doors closed. Then I was all by myself, which is actually kind of rare in Tokyo.
You know, you can’t really tell if an elevator’s moving or not. Well, I mean, I guess you could do some physics experiment with a lead ball and balloon or something, but whatever, I didn’t have those. It just seemed like I’d been in there a really long time. So finally I started pushing buttons. I pushed a button labeled 閉 and nothing happened. So I pushed the number 2 button couple of times. Nothing. Then the 1 button, over and over. Again nothing happened. Finally in a panic, I started pushing all the buttons, like Get me the hell out of this terrifying steel prison, until miraculously the doors opened. And there was everybody, still sitting at Starbucks, mouths wide, just staring at me. I jumped out and ran up the stairs.
But as challenging as the physical aspects of Japan are, they’re nothing compared to what you go through emotionally. You have to re-learn how to deal with every situation. You need to grow up all over again, only this time, in Japanese.
Japan and War
Maybe this article is really targeted at long-term ex-pats. Because Japan’s hard to understand if you haven’t lived it. I mean, I grew up thinking war was really cool too. Like, you watch something like Top Gun, Platoon, or even M*A*S*H, and it just looks cool. It would be awesome, doing all that manly stuff like sleeping in your poncho in the rain and eating rations and playing shirtless volleyball with your bros. Sure, I knew it’d be hard. I’d have to do lots of push-ups while drill sergeants yelled at me—I got nowhere else to go!—and then I’d get to the front lines and Charlie would be blaring music while flares exploded overhead. But it’d be awesome too. And I think when people read about Japan, they have roughly the same idea. Challenging, but somehow immensely cool.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that living in Japan is like doing two rotations through Afghanistan. But it can be a demanding experience in its own way, particularly if you aren’t under the protective umbrella of an international company, school, or some Japanese partner who simply takes care of everything and wipes your bum. I’ve seen lots of folks come here by themselves thinking This is gonna be awesome, and then two years later, they’ve melted down like Fukushima. I don’t know if it’s some PTSD or what, but a lot of long-term foreigners seem pretty mental. Like the other day, I saw a six foot-tall white guy striding through Shibuya in heels and a dress. And they say Vietnam vets had it bad. Good luck re-integrating into Oklahoma looking like that.
Japan and Isolation
It’s really the isolation, where “YOU” are constantly an outsider. Before I moved here, I read countless stories of people saying, Oh, you’ll never fit in. Japanese people won’t accept you. And I thought, Yeah eff that, you couldn’t become a part of the society, but I’m going to. And now, after a decade of learning all the customs of the nation and perfecting my Japanese, I think, Eh, okay, maybe they had a point.
So last week I came across an article in The Atlantic that really hit home. It pointed out twelve ways that people go mental—well, they call them “cognitive distortions”—by basically over-thinking stuff. And I recognized that hey, that’s exactly what foreign people do in Japan. Or at least, I do. But I don’t think I’m the only one. So, with apologies to the entire field of Behavioral Psychology, here are
Common Cognitive Distortions, in Japan
1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks of me as a gaijin.”
2. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “Next, they’ll say how good my Japanese is,” or “I’ll be asked where I’m from.”
3. Catastrophizing.You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if somebody handed me the English menu.”
4. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I don’t fit in,” or “Japanese people are rotten people.”
5. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what people are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when they speak to me in Japanese,” or “Making a dentist’s appointment in Japanese was easy, so it doesn’t matter.”
6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who view me as an outsider.”
7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “Being talked down to generally happens to me. I seem to be treated differently a lot of the time.”
8. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get the gaijin treatment from everyone,” or “I either fit in or I don’t.”
9. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “My girlfriend didn’t help me improve my Japanese, so she’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My host family caused all my problems.”
10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if they greet me in English?,” or “What if I get ignored by taxi drivers?”
11. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, this whole Japan thing’s not working out.”
12. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought “I’m a foreigner,” you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people accept you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper cultural problems. There are other factors, in Japan.”
Japan and Coping
I think the idea is you’re supposed to recognize these distortions and then find some coping strategies, rather than just going nuclear, flipping over a table, storming out of your eikaiwa job and flying back to New Zealand. You gotta be like, Okay, so one person called me a foreigner, so what? I’ll just drink a beer and forget about it. Or, so they handed me the English menu that only contains six items, no big deal. Guess I’ll have another beer. Or, the guy at the convenience store didn’t offer me a bag for my beer because he thought I wouldn’t understand him. Oh, that’s another beer for sure. And then after a few rounds of coping, I generally feel a whole lot happier. Honestly, I’ve been loving life in Japan even more since discovering behavioral psychology. So fill up the cooler, give it a try, and let me know how that works out.