The Tokyo Olympics has been a steady topic of conversation in recent months. Although to hear Japanese folks tell it, they might as well be discussing a collective ice bath. Can’t we just put off this horrible thing a little longer? No? Mmmnn, could we at least make it less awful? Okay, how ’bout if nobody watches? And here we go . . . whew, glad that’s over. Now, why’d we do that again?
If nothing else, this year’s Olympics did a great job of reinforcing Japan’s longstanding image of foreigners as a bunch of wacky bastards who’ll never fit in here. Athletes and staff jumping on beds, openly consuming alcohol, intermingling between teams, being arrested for cocaine, and running off to go sight-seeing in the face of Tokyo’s highest-ever COVID-19 levels did little to improve Japan’s traditional perspective toward visitors from the outside world. Well, bring on the Paralympics.
Although the details are new, the problem is ancient. Long before the pandemic forced Japan into lockdown, the nation was struggling to accommodate the waves of foreigners washing up on its shores, who often stood out glaringly from the local population. In many countries, there’s debate about immigration, but also a template for it. In Japan, the belief is that “outsiders” could never grasp the singular way of thinking unique to those born on this archipelago. There’s “the Japanese” and then, well, everybody else. Schoolkids in the U.S. learn their country is “a melting pot,” an amalgamation of different races and cultures. As a teacher in Japan, I’m a daily witness to children being taught just the opposite. Japanese instructors emphasize the uniqueness of Japan—its kanji, kimono, karate, koi, kendo, karaoke, and cup noodle. And that’s just the K’s. Wait till you see the W’s.
The Japanese Identity
Japan doesn’t have a strong sense of religion. Instead, it’s a nation grounded in the unwavering belief that its language, bloodlines, and customs are found nowhere else. The national identity depends upon maintaining a clear boundary between “Japanese” and “foreign.” Never mind that chopsticks and ramen came from China, along with a reasonable percentage of the population and the entire backbone of the writing system. Landlords routinely deny apartments to “foreigners,” and it’s common to hear discussions on the nuances between “pure Japanese” and “hafu”—persons born with “mixed blood.” “Asian racism” has a wholly different meaning in Asia.
Yet, in modern-day Japan, the traditional culture is crumbling at the edges. Budget-conscious shoppers purchase cheap imported goods by the crateful through popular 100-yen shops. Wooden homes passed down through generations are increasingly surrounded on all sides by rapidly-constructed concrete apartment complexes. The fabled diet of centenarians is ignored by a younger generation stuffing its collective face full of steak and hamburgers, washed down with milk and coffee. While “cultural appropriation” has become an overseas buzz-phrase, Japan conducts white dress and tuxedo weddings held in mock chapels with foreigners hired to impersonate ministers. The Japanese language itself is filled with thousands of foreign loanwords, rendered into phonetic script. Nobody’s bothering to devise kanji for “French toast ” and “orange juice” at Japanese Denny’s.
Old Japan Versus New
The 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi depicts an aging chef and his sons getting up before dawn, shopping at the fish market, then laboring for hours to craft sea creatures into edible delicacies for a few fortunate customers. Set to stirring music, it presents an idealized and somewhat fictional portrait of a noble yet fading Japan. Basically, an American production that conveniently omits showing Japan as full of restaurant chains with sushi machines. Thousands upon thousands of plates go out daily atop conveyor belts for Japanese customers in Adidas and Columbia sportswear. Doing things the old way turns out to be neither cheap, efficient, nor particularly popular.
Japan has painted itself into a corner, between the forces of capitalism, a precipitously aging population, and a similarly anemic birthrate. Japanese kids don’t want to spend years washing rice, mastering tea ceremony subtleties, or inspecting cameras on the Canon assembly line; they aspire to become YouTubers, web designers, and e-sports athletes. In the struggle to maintain altitude in the international marketplace, Japan’s hurriedly jettisoning its trademark culture.
The Setting of The Rising Sun
Immigration has always been a thorny issue in Japan, although these days it’s unclear if immigrants are ruining the country, or saving it. With a decreasing population, one could argue the nation needs all the Mongolian and Russian sumo wrestlers it can pack onto the Yamanote Line. Japan either needs to rapidly manufacture an army of animatron priests for its Buddhist temples, or upskill some foreigners.
Immigration is no longer the biggest threat to Japanese culture; rather, the Japanese themselves are. Like its empty countryside homes, Japan’s being abandoned by a generation under the spell of Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix. Once the internet plugged the nation into the rest of the world, the eroding border between “Japanese” and “foreign” began collapsing altogether. For better or worse, Japan’s becoming like everywhere else.
To be a Japanese person in the 2020’s requires an astonishing level of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, there’s Italian-style pasta, but if it’s served in a hot dog bun then, hey, it’s magically Japanese. Japanese people now sport tattoos and blonde hair, but they also sit at low tables on tatami mats, if only after all the regular tables in the restaurant are taken. And of course, fans worship baseball as the de-facto national sport, although they still cheer in Japanese, in between mouthfuls of nachos and beer.
Even a casual observer can’t fail to be struck by the nation’s deep denial, where a dreamy Japanland of citizens espouses the virtues of its traditional culture while simultaneously slipping into Crocs for a shuffle down to 7-Eleven to grab a Chinese meat bun and a Coke. Even the notion of “Japanese” appearance is shifting. It’s becoming harder to ignore the foreign lineages of Japanese Olympic athletes, basketball stars, tennis stars, entertainers, singers, governor, and Miss Universe. Japan requires an ever-larger rug to keep sweeping all its exceptions under.
Foreigners Visiting Japan
Japan remains an interesting place, and well worth a post-pandemic trip. But foreign visitors should anticipate some culture shock—not from the fish markets, shrines, and Chinese tourists dressed as geisha, but from the sight of so many Baskin-Robins, KFCs, and Starbucks. For their part, Japanese folks aren’t wasting any tears mourning the loss of their mythologized, ancient culture; they’re too busy enjoying double-dip cones, buckets of wings, and oversized cappuccino. Whether you view internationalization as a plus or a minus, it’s made what was once foreign an inseparable part of the nation. So while it’s still common for “the Japanese” to maintain a line between themselves and “outsiders,” it’s increasingly difficult to avoid catching a glimpse in the mirror, to see how foreign they themselves have become, from the inside.