A reader named Furansujin recently described his stay with a Japanese host family:
“They showed complete hysteria when I told them I loved curry or could eat takoyaki . . . the only reason i can think of for so many grins, laughs, and exclamations is acting. Like people were overly polite because they felt they needed to be.
“We also tried calligraphy. Everyone was doing a terrible job, me especially. But someway somehow our Japanese teachers inspected our work saying “Joozu, Joozu”—-you’re good at this. But they would also talk with each other in Kansai dialect. One of our students had a good understanding of it and told us that in fact they were saying that we sucked badly. So much for politeness.”
You know, they say you shouldn’t generalize. So I won’t. But if I was going to generalize, I’d say that pretty much 100 percent of all Japanese people are lying to you. They’re putting on a massive act. And there’s a reason for this.
Beautiful Japanese Women
Somehow this reminds me of a beautiful Japanese woman named Moe I dated for a few months. She had like forty pairs of sunglasses. Every time we went out, her light-brown hair was coiffed into radiant curls that set off her crystal blue eyes, and she wore the most amazingly high heels that showed off her ample curves. I honestly loved walking with her just because she looked so damn good. I’m kind of shallow like that.
The thing I could never figure out was what happened to her the next morning. After the make-up and hair spray wore off, the color contacts came out and the fake eyelashes fell off, she was a completely different person. The tight waist and big boobs were gone. After the removal of control-top pantyhose and a padded bra, it was like waking up next to a small boy. That’s a bit unsettling, lemme tell you. Like, you ever get a Christmas present wrapped in glittery foil and a big, red ribbon, and then after you open it, you’re like, Ah man, the wrapping was the best part? So it was like that.
Two Things All Japanese People Know
I don’t know, maybe that’s unrelated. Never mind. Anyway, Japanese people are imparted at birth with two pieces of knowledge. The first is fanatical customer service. At school and at home, they’re drilled for years in how to walk, how to stand, how to greet people, how to bow. Year in and year out, they march in formation around school yards, in the sun, rain, and snow, responding on command in loud voices to their senseis. Visitors often remark on the polite customer service of the Japanese, and you better believe it didn’t just happen by accident. It took years of military-style training, preparing a nation of children to be the world’s best waiters, cooks, and convenience store clerks.
The second piece of knowledge all Japanese persons are imparted with is, We’re different. Those other people—-foreigners—-they’re not like us. Koreans? Okay, they used to be Japanese, but now they’re not. Taiwanese? Sure, Taiwan was part of Japan, but now that doesn’t count. Okinawa? Okay, that wasn’t even Japan, but now somehow it is. Anyway, we Japanese, we know who we are. Even if we’re born and raised in France or Peru, we still know. And we’re not like you, foreigners.
But back to customer service in Japan, because here the concept of “customer” is quite broad. Your boss is your customer. A new acquaintance may be your customer, particularly if he’s an older male. Sometimes even family members are customers. Anybody you have to serve is in that category. Now, when the roles are reversed and you’re the customer, you’re free to be as big a dick as you want. You can order people around, speak rudely to them, or ignore them completely. In some ways, you’re supposed to. The idea of being friends and equals is, well, a bit foreign. You’re the king and queen all rolled into one, and you can act like a big shot. Because that’s your role. Until it isn’t and you’re back to being a servant. Japanese people switch between these roles naturally and automatically, and take some delight in doing so. I mean, that’s what I’d say if I were generalizing, which I’d never do.
Being a Foreign Guest in Japan
So back to you being a foreign guest in Japan . . .
You know, when I was a kid, I had a persistent fantasy about Abraham Lincoln. Yeah, some kids dream of girlfriends or boyfriends; me, I had Lincoln. Eh well, what’re you gonna do. And it went like this: Abe Lincoln would somehow travel through time and when he got to the present, I’d be there to show him around. I’d introduce him to escalators and cars and telephones and he’d be amazed. I’d instruct him in how to ride planes and use the TV. Me, an 11 year-old boy, showing the President of the United States how to do everything. He’d be completely helpless without me. I’d be more than a hero. To him, I’d be a god.
It’s good to be an 11 year-old god. But hey, who gets to actually live that? And . . . cut to you in Japan. Because here you are—-maybe you’re a computer genius or a millionaire CEO—-but once you get to Japan you’re utterly helpless. You can’t even open the door, because you keep pushing when it clearly says “Pull.” You have to ask for help flushing the toilet. You’re worse than a child. Then enter your hosts and protectors. They take you around, show you the city, teach you how to use the telephone and television. You’re the ultimate customer. They can use their years of customer service experience, and you can’t even act like a big shot, because you’re helpless. You’re their ultimate fantasy. You’re Abe Lincoln.
This is what you lose by being in Japan too long, and especially if you speak Japanese. People are thrilled to death when they see your “foreign” face—-here, let me show you this place! Oh, you’ve already been there? Oh. Here, let me introduce you to this food! Oh, you ate it for lunch? Oh. Suddenly, you’re no fun. Nobody wants to entertain Bill Nobody from down the block. They want Abraham Lincoln, clueless hero from a foreign land.
So when I say that Japanese folks are lying, I don’t mean like they’re gonna try boosting your Lexus. I mean putting on a false front—-the Japanese call it tatemae—-the way a restaurant is all starched tablecloths, wine glasses, and oversized silverware in front, while meanwhile the cooks are out back in the alley sucking down beers and flicking cigarettes. They’re just great at treating you like a customer, and doubly thrilled if they can categorize you as “foreign.”
Why are YOU in Japan?
Because compounding things is the fact that Japanese folks are bombarded with images of “foreigners” as incompetents. Weekly television shows seek out “foreign-looking” people and film them unsuccessfully unwrapping onigiri and failing to use vending machines. They call them “YOU.” In one episode, they enter a sushi restaurant and pan through the customers, slapping a big digital “YOU” over every white person’s face. I’d love to see this show in the U.S., only done with people who looked “un-American.”
So of course you get treated like a customer, and not, well, a normal person. Japanese folks are taught every day that “YOU” are different. You can’t even eat like a human being. God knows how you’ll manage in the bathtub. Don’t bother reading our language; we’ll just relabel the entire nation in English. The more we can keep defining “YOU” as unlike “us,” the more it reinforces our belief that we’re unique.
To see what Japanese folks are really like, don’t look at how they treat “foreigners.” Look at how they treat each other, and consider their relationships. Sometimes they’re super polite, and sometimes super not. In Japan, sometimes we pour glasses of beer for each other, and buy our coworkers drinks. Other times we bump into strangers, step in front of them, take the last item on the shelf, and never say a word. And everybody ignores the homeless. Because nobody’s nice to everybody all the time, and in that we’re all the same.