Last week, I ate school lunch in the staff room, sitting at a table with plates full of mini omelets, rice, daikon salad, and some goo of tofu mixed with beans, which is rather redundant, if you think about it. Well, probably best not to think about it, actually. Plus a slice of orange for desert.
“Seeroi sensei,” asked the school nurse in Japanese, “Do you like green tea?”
“Yeah sure,” I said. I mean, who doesn’t like tea?
And they all laughed.
“Wow, more Japanese than a Japanese!” said the Vice-Principal.
“And speaks like a real Japanese person,” said the nurse. And everybody laughed some more.
This is my life. Actually, I gave up trying to be a real person in Japan years ago, about the time I realized my innate whiteness makes even the simplest of actions instantly hilarious. So I just ate some more bean goo and drank my carton of lunch milk through the tiny straw included for my convenience.
“Are you watching the Olympics?” asked the Principal. He had a bit of egg hanging off of his lip.
“You have a bit of egg,” I said, “hanging off your lip. Yeah, I saw the Men’s Half-Pipe on the morning news.”
“Shame about Shawn, huh,” he said, only he said it with a mouth full of rice, so it sounded like “Schwinn.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Eh, Japan took bronze and silver, so that’s enough for me.
“You’re really Japanese!” he said, and everybody laughed some more. Ah, you make good joke about white teacher. You berry funny man.
“Almost like a normal member of society,” I said, and everybody laughed some more. I don’t know why I bother, honestly.
The Olympics in Japan
The truth is, even if you wanted to root for another team, I don’t think it’d be physically possible here. Like, this is the thing about the Olympics—-when I lived in the U.S., the entire spectacle seemed full of U.S. athletes, raking in tons of medals. But here in Japan, it’s exactly the same, only with Japanese athletes winning everything. Every highlight reel, all the interviews with athletes and fans, it’s all about Japan. I guess that only makes sense, but television is very deceptive, is the message I’m taking from all this.
Here, the Olympics revolve around Japan. Every time you turn on the TV, there’s endless footage of some wrinkly Japanese dude gearing up to be the oldest ski-jumper ever, or that skinny Japanese guy in tights putting on his sparkly shirt to go out for an ice skate. If Japan won only one medal, they’d simply replay it over and over, until it looked like they won a thousand medals. And they’re in love with curling for some reason, where apparently if you’re really good with a broom, you can get a medal. Seriously, if I were a Japanese woman, I’d be reluctant to enter any event that resembled cleaning the house. On the other hand, I guess you could just shred your self-pride and go for the Pentathalon, where you also prepare cute bento boxes, hang out the sheets and towels, race to the station with two kids on your basket bike, and yell at your husband for coming home late at night reeking of roast chicken. Goooold!
Karma is Waiting for us all
On my way home that evening, I stopped off at my neighborhood izakaya. They have really good oden, which is a steaming, mysterious broth of fish cakes, eggs, and daikon, served with a side of hot mustard. It’s pretty funky, but since it’s Japanese, it’s delicious by default. Above the bar, a TV was broadcasting the Japanese version of the Olympics, so I sat there with all the old men, drinking shochu and gazing intently. I knew it was just a matter of time before somebody said something to me, which made me flash back to a day in New York City, years ago.
I was in a taxi with my girlfriend at the time, going to see The Blue Man Group. I saw them in Tokyo too, by the way. You should really go if you get a chance, because they’re amazing. I mean, assuming you’re into drumming, and especially by people who are blue. Anyway, the taxi driver looked to be from India or Pakistan, and he had an accent, so just to make conversation, I asked, “Where are you from?”
“America,” he said rather sharply.
“Oh,” I said slowly, “I meant, where were you born?”
“New Jersey!” he shot back, “I’m American!”
And that killed that conversation. And I couldn’t understand then why he got so angry, since I was, in my mind, just trying to be friendly.
You know, it’s funny how life eventually gives you perspective. At the time, I saw my questions as idle conversation, whereas he saw them, most likely, as a comment upon his skin color. If so, he would have been right. He didn’t look like me. His English was different from mine. It wasn’t a matter of where he was born, because I’d already concluded that he was “foreign,” or at least, not as American as I was.
It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I really understood this, but making people feel like they’re different, foreign, is not a great way to get them to like you. Japanese folks have done a great job of helping me understand this, like every day. Thanks, nation of Japan.
I’ve also noticed that, assuming you don’t die, life has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass. That’s called karma. It’s an Indian thing. I looked it up on Wikipedia. And right on cue, the Japanese guy next to me at the bar said, “Wow, you use chopsticks really well.” Actually, that’s true; I do. Picking up a floating hard-boiled egg is not exactly easy.
“Thanks,” I said, “I have strong yet supple fingers.”
“Where are you from?” he asked, and for a moment I thought of saying, “Right around the corner,” but I knew that wouldn’t fly, so I said simply, “America.”
“How’s your country doing in the Olympics?” he asked.
“Hell if I know,” I laughed. “All I see on TV are Japanese athletes. Japan seems to be winning everything.
“Hmm,” he said, “I guess there’s a lot we can’t see.
“Here’s to that,” I said, and we clinked glasses. “And to Japan.
“Wow, you’re just like a Japanese,” he said.
Then we each took a sip of shochu, and watched the various people on the screen waving their countries’ flags. And here we were, two guys who looked nothing alike, sitting side by side in a Japanese bar, both rooting for the same team. Somehow it didn’t seem strange at all, at least to one of us.
“Nah, don’t get all crazy,” I said. “I just live in this country. By the way, how’s that octopus sashimi?”
40 Replies to “Japan Wins Every Sport in Winter Olympics”
Being an ambassador is a hard work. But I bet quite a few people you’ve met have actually thought more of the Planet Not-Japan in a different light after meeting you, or someone else in a similar situation. Sometimes it feels that people don’t learn things until they encounter them.
By the way, I happen to be in Australia on business, and there was this local girl that got silver in something… and guess what is happening on TV every hour?
Whew, all this ambassadoring sure makes a brother thirsty. I think that makes it time for a beer break. Yeah, Ken Seeroi, changing the world one person at a time. Well, everybody needs a hobby I guess.
What a CM, I laughed myself silly AGAIN. But all that mundane stuff aside, did you mention you had a girl friend….OMG, Really, congrats Mr. Gaijin, I hope this one loves you too much, tehe!! I think the Netherlands was ahead in the medal count just yesterday with Russia and the US tied for second… didn’t see Japan listed and I really don’t watch the Olympics, but it came on during the news and I forgot to change the channel!
I heard an interesting story about Putin a while back…. he was meeting with the owner of the New England patriots Football dynasty about expanding Football in Russia and he looked at the owners Super Bowl ring and asked to try it on and after admiring it, he walked off and never returned the $35,000 dollar ring. He basically stole it and two Guards stepped in front of the guy from America and advised him to leave the country as soon as possible!! Now that’s how you handle unwanted foreigners!! It’s a lot tougher to be a Gaijin in Russia Mang!!!
P.S. Did you get a lot of Valentines chocolates from the kids…LOL! Don’t forget White day too!
Ah, White Day, the bane of my existence. I have to set aside a month’s salary just for the event.
As for the girlfriend, ah, you know that was in the past. My current relationship status is stuck on a permanent “it’s complicated.” But thanks for your concern.
“Wow, you’re so Japanese!!” – Dunno how often I already got to hear this.
Kind of stupid, but I know they mean no harm.
I can’t remember that I ever assumed somebody could be a foreigner back home. I grew up with a lot of immigrants all around me, especially from Turkey, Poland, Russia ….
And since I left Germany 6 years ago, I heard it has become super extreme. People from poor EU countries are all moving to Germany.
Did you know that judged by the amount of foreigners living in a country, Germany is ranking number 3? Only Russia and America have a higher number of foreigners, but those two countries are HUGE. Germany is super tiny.
Maybe you can imagine that I feel more at home in Japan sometimes. At least I can understand the language the people all around me speak.
In Germany, that’s rarely the case as I can’t understand what any of those Turkish, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian etc. people are talking about. ^^;;
At least I don’t have to ask them where they’re from. They don’t even try to adapt. They keep speaking their own language, keep their own traditions – even though that means they’re acting against German law.
In Japan, at least most of us are trying to fit in, we’re trying hard to adapt and to learn the language. I know there are exceptions, but because of how we look, we will always stand out.
Sorry for that little rant. ^^;; …
“I know they mean no harm.”
I wouldn’t exactly say that. Japan has a fascination with creating an us/them division. It’s a country absolutely obsessed with determining who’s “foreign” and who’s not. It’s all done with a smile, so it looks innocent, but it’s ridiculously racist.
Respectfully, I think you’re wrong. Japan is a homogenous society. Any difference is obviously going to stand out. To say it’s “racist” is facile and puts it in an American context, which obviously doesn’t apply. I have found Japanese people to be quite self-deprecating, particularly in regard to the Olympics. Doesn’t it make sense that if there are just a few medal winners that people would be interested in seeing them? It makes sense to me. Why ridicule them? It is embarrassing to me that Americans abroad can be so arrogant about such things, any thing.
As a vegetarian, people in Japan seemed to not believe that I didn’t eat meat. There is a perception that Americans live on hamburger (perhaps not so untrue). Also, there is little true vegetarian food in Japan, as you must know. Why get offended? There’s no point. I just explain it, and think of it as just correcting perceptions. As for the chopsticks, most Japanese people are taught to use a fork and knife. Many westerns are not taught to use chopsticks. I’ve met Japanese that are still surprised that westerners can eat sushi. No doubt this perception comes from earlier tourists expressing disgust.
I just find this article sad. I would hope that after having the tremendous opportunity to live in Japan, that the author would be more perceptive about the culture.
Jen, New York
That’s cool, thanks for your input. I appreciate you taking the time to write a well-considered comment.
Everyone has different perceptions of Japan, as well they should, since it’s big country. Certainly my thoughts are quite different than they were a decade ago. For example, I once believed that Japan was homogenous, and now I see how often Japanese people themselves point out when another Japanese person has slightly darker skin or different facial features. This is a big deal in Japan, since everyone’s obsessed with who looks more “Japanese” than whom, and people go to great lengths to hide any traces of mixed bloodlines. The truth is that a high percentage of the population has Korean, Filipino, and Caucasian roots. They just do their damndest to hide it, to avoid being ostracized.
I also once believed that Japanese people were self-deprecating, and now I think just the opposite. Japanese people are proud to the point of arrogance, and invest a great amount of time labeling others as “different.” People of other skin tones, including those born in this country, can’t go a day without hearing subtle, seemingly innocuous comments on how well or poorly they do something or other. They’re fully aware that it’s racism.
I don’t necessarily blame anybody, per se. The predominant race in every country does similar things. Certainly America (including New York, I’m sure) has its share of people who engage in one-upmanship. But when it happens every day, hey, you gotta call people on it. To say that it doesn’t happen in Japan would be more than facile, but rather—to borrow another French word—naive.
Those naive comments from Jen in New York are the perfect example of why you should write that book on “Gaijin Decoded” and explain to Americans how the Japanese people treat all things foreign (as a mitigating factor) and to also explain to the Japanese how Americans (and other westerners) feel about not really being treated as equals. This cultural divide that you have experienced firsthand Ken directly effects relations between our cultures; for in order to address this problem, it first has to be identified and accepted as something that should be rectified.
IMHO, I feel like our current alliance with Japan is dependent on this issue and the only thing that prevents China from militarily dominating the Nippon government (which would result in the Chinese taking much of Japan’s future energy reserves and fishing rights), is the strengthening of our cultural bonds. As our American military is retreating from its commitments with Japan, due to our economic troubles, I believe that the only thing that can maintain our alliance is a stronger cultural bond with Japan.
There are currently not enough Americans that would commit to standing up against China to defend Japan and public support is what drives US political decisions. When it comes right down to it, not enough Americans would risk going to go to war with China to save the Japanese people from a Chinese military that would strip Japan of its resources and relegate it to a third world status. Japan certainly doesn’t have the military power to stand against China should American support buckle and cause us to remove our military forces from their country.
The Japanese face of acting polite and relating to others according to a set of formal etiquette (honorifics), while actually feeling hostile and distrusting anything that is not the expected standard (what they consider non-standard becomes gaijin) is exactly the reason why Japan has trouble in dealing with western cultures. I certainly appreciate the safer streets and compliance with authority that the Japanese people exhibit in their society (especially in a crisis or natural disaster), but I still feel that Japan will be unable to stand against China in the coming decades because our alliance (between the US and Japan) is just not strong enough.
So just to sum up: the future of the world depends on Ken Seeroi. Fabulous. Finally, a challenge worthy of my super powers. I’ll get busy sewing a cape and tights.
As often, you brought up more points than I could properly address without writing an entire book. Damn your cleverness, Bud.
I’ll simply add that Japan seems determined to drive away the “foreigners” who know it best.
I’ve met so many talented people who spoke fluent Japanese, came to Japan out of a genuine love of the country, stayed for years until they understood the culture deeply—and then left. As their language and cultural knowledge grew, rather than further assimilating, they found themselves increasingly isolated. Or even look at the people who stayed, like Debito Arudou. He naturalized as a Japanese citizen and now basically devotes his life to the Quixotian task of battling racism here.
It’s hard not to see this as a loss for the nation, especially considering the fact that Japan is trying so desperately to learn English. They’ve spent many years and yen bring English teachers from the West, only for those teachers to leave having found little professional and personal opportunities here.
Today a great number of English teachers are coming from places like India, the Philippines, even—gasp—Australia. Soon I expect Japanese people will be greeting each other with “g’day cobs.” And then heaven help us all.
@Jen, read about what the Japanese government did to the native Ainu people. Every country has racism, and Japan is no exception. Does that mean that every Japanese person is racist? No, but to assert that the description of “racist” is putting things into an American context (whatever THAT is supposed to mean) is demeaning to the people who have experienced actual racism in Japan (myself included).
I dunno about your perceived lack of racism. I spent a lot of time there growing up (half japanese, and I’m intimately familiar with the school system), and no, a lot of it really is racist. It’s more equivalent to what I get in the metro areas of the southern US. And while my family isn’t bad at all, there’s a definite in/out group thing that gets magnified if you’re clearly different, even if you’re totally oblivious to it Jen.
Jen, the homogeneity of Japanese culture is a lie. Japan has been host to a number of races and ethic groups for centuries; Ainu, Burakumin, Ryukyuans and Sanka are a few historical examples you are apparently unfamiliar with. Entire books have been written on the subject: http://books.google.co.jp/books?id=T0_EWolOfpUC&printsec=frontcover
Edo Japan was the world’s most long-running fascist state, and part of that success was built on segregating people in many different ways; caste, wealth, and geography to name a few. I’m not sure what the official stance was on Japanese race at the time, but I do think it’s safe to say that Meiji was the first substantial attempt at nationalism, and homogeneity was a big part of that. State Shinto, Nihonjinron, and the post-hoc implementation of Bushido created a platform that galvanized the nation into fighting several wars, and provided a basis for the Japanese master race theory. FYI, that’s the justification for butchering civilians and prisoners and conquering East Asia; if you aren’t yamato-damashii, you aren’t human.
It’s really that last bit that encapsulates the whole problem with the lie of homogeneity; in a society with few civil entitlements for its minorities, not being “Japanese” enough can come at great cost to one’s safety and livelihood. I would entreat you to have a heart for those marginalized people.
I think that historical perspective gives some insight into why it’s so important for people here to project the image that “We’re all the same. We’re all ‘Japanese’.”
When you look at the faces of people here, it’s quite clear that there are all sorts of mixed bloodlines, but that’s one subject nobody will discuss. Instead, Japan has made a sport of picking out people who look different and labeling them as “foreigners,” to help reinforce their own sense of nationalism. Sort of like, Well, okay, we all look different, but at least we don’t look that different. I mean, once you start accepting that white and black people can be Japanese, then what happens to your “pure” bloodlines?
Exactly, Ken. “Japan works in mysterious ways” is not going to fly if people start taking hold of their identities. Could you even dream it? A Japan where simply bowing deeply in apology won’t cut it for playing fast and loose with nuclear safety? Well I never.
Fortunately, the day when responsible behavior takes precedence over empty formalities is a long way off. Japan is safe and sound for the foreseeable future, assuming you can overlook a little bit of pesky radiation.
This comment really struck me:
“In Japan, at least most of us are trying to fit in, we’re trying hard to adapt and to learn the language. I know there are exceptions, but because of how we look, we will always stand out.”
I find this very true. I arrived in Japan a few years back from the Pacific Northwest of the US. Being the epicenter of political correctness and working for a multinational company, we received lots of training on diversity and respect of culture. However, the company was hiring lots and lots of tech workers from overseas who in turn received zero diversity or cultural training. It was creating some amazing disharmony as they moved into the Pacific Northwest area as they were living the same life they did in India/China/name your country but under US rules. But Japan, that would not fly….or it doesn’t right now. And I think I like it right now except the language part which I’m really, really, really lagging on.
However, I’ve not figured out how to interact with random foreigners. We, of pale skin, stand out pretty readily. And invariably when passing in train stations & streets there’s almost a conscious effort to NOT notice each other. Is this a subconscious effort to not stand out or just a problem I’m having?
Personally, I treat everybody the same, regardless of appearance. I’ve certainly met plenty of Japanese people who were Caucasian, black, and “other.” So I don’t look at anyone differently depending upon their skin tone. And when I meet people, I speak Japanese, unless you make it clear you want to speak another language.
I can’t even figure out how to do otherwise. Like, say you’re in France, and you say “Bonjour” to the white people, but “Jambo” to the black people and “Ni hao” to the Asian people. Yeah, like that’s gonna work. Good luck with that.
But that’s literally the way it is in Japan. There’s some crazy brainwashing that’s gone on here, that says you should treat people differently depending on their race. It’s actually promoted by the government, through the JET/ALT English-teaching program in the public schools.
Stuff like this would get you shot or sued in other countries. This shit needs to change.
I’m the same. I remember speaking to a Turkish guy in Okayama who lived there and had his own shop selling Turkish food. Naturally we had a conversation in Japanese.
I usually try to treat everyone the same as well.
Just because I pass someone who looks like he or she could be a foreigner, doesn’t mean I’ll greet them, especially not in a big city.
I also find it extremely weird when people I don’t know in a mass of people start greeting me in English just because I look different. At the same time, they ignore everybody else. They wouldn’t even think about greeting them.
I periodically had moments of frustration with Japan and Japanese people and their seemingly narrow perspective on the world. This was always made a bit worse during the Olympics because the games produce such a nation/team mindset. At those times, the differences between our cultures seemed most pronounced. But it’s Japan. Overall it’s a great place to live. Everything is relative but now that I’m back in New York, I could use some of that superficial politeness. And yes, school principals have the worst table manners. Always something dangling and no one says anything. Age-pan chodai.
Overall, it’s a great place to eat. I’ll fax you some age-pan.
Wait. You’re saying in the US, it seems like all the American athletes are raking in the medals, and in Japan all the Japanese athletes are? This may sound crazy, but here in Canada, it looks like all the Canadian athletes are doing the same. Is this some kind of global conspiracy? o.o
Canada’s in the Olympics? When did that happen? I really gotta get some satellite TV.
I haven’t had so much experience with the racism you know, having only been here less than a year and being Asian, but I can say for sure that Japan loves segregating and classifying. Whether it’s the prefecture you’re from, the country, your university, your company – these things are such an important part of the Japanese identity. So many students come into my lessons and tell me these things as a self-introduction, when all I really wanted to know is what they like doing on weekends (though the answer to that one is 85% chance golf). So I guess what I’m saying is that Japan as a nation puts an emphasis on defining people into “categories”. I’m sure other countries do it too and I just haven’t had exposure to them, but I like to think in Australia we’re less about those sort of things and more focused on whether you want to grab a beer to go with the BBQ. But then maybe that’s because practically everyone’s an immigrant in Australia and it just depends on how many generations back you go.
I agree with Bud though, Ken. You should write a book already!
P.S. Just in regards to Jeck’s earlier comment – Australia’s gotta celebrate our medals! I mean, c’mon, we’re not known for our winter sports haha. Though tbh, I think we tend to focus too much on ourselves in Australia – some of the more commercial channels really need to improve world news coverage.
Now there’s a good observation. People here seem unusually interested in classifying others.
I have a theory about this. Of course, I have a theory about pretty much everything, so don’t get too excited. Anyway, I think it stems from the fact that sharing personal information is virtually unheard of in Japan. It’s not uncommon to work closely with someone, or even be in a relationship, and not know the most basic information about him or her. Even family members frequently lack details about one another that Westerners would share on the first meeting.
So in the absence of personal information, what are you left with? Demographics. (Don’t forget the old favorite either—how old are you?) Japanese people try to piece together who you are by using these details. Oh, you’re Australian. Oh, you’re Asian. Now I see, now I know who you are.
The disconnect is that such details frequently don’t match with reality, and tell us virtually nothing about a person’s values. Your value system is the core of your identity, and for people to infer that from demographics is, well, demeaning. That’d be like me saying that because someone’s from Australia, they must like barbecue. Okay, that one’s actually probably true, but you get what I’m saying.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “You’re from America? Oh, you must think this.” That’s an amazing thing to say.
Don’t forget blood type and birth year to identify your astrological sign. First time I couldn’t answer the blood type question there was a very awkward silence in the room. I should have just said “green blood”.
I have a friend returning to the US after ten years in Japan. I need to remind him when he’s dating in the US, these are NOT okay questions to ask women.
This guy tells it as it is. I’ve done an eight year stretch here, speak the language well and can say he hits the nail on the head every time. Take off those rose tinted glasses and grab those chopsticks you use so bleeding well to wedge open your eyelids and let Seeroi sensei enlighten ya lady!
Thanks for jumping on the band wagon Mez, I hope others keep pestering Ken until he commits to taking responsibility for his GREAT wisdom and saves Japan from China before its too late…tehe!
I’m going to try another method of influencing Ken to write the Gaijin Bible,(“Gaijin Decoded”: The way to bridge the cultural gap between the West and Japan) by appealing to all of his vices:
*NOTE: This is all predicated on the belief that this book will sell world-wide in incredible numbers, in which I am absolutely confident it will!!
1. Wrath – Wouldn’t be nice to have a book published around that world that puts all of those Japanese racist slights you and others have been victim too for all these years into the public eye.
2. Envy – Put into context, a book to bridge cultural ties between Japan and the US would be the envy of all the people that haven’t been able to codify and understand the Japanese culture.
3. Greed – By finally becoming a full fledged author, you could reach financial security, stop teaching, be able to un-complicate your love life and afford to spend more time honing your GREAT wisdom.
4. Gluttony – With financial security, you could afford to go to ANY restaurant in Japan you wanted to.
5. Sloth – Well you love to be comfortable and hate to do housework, so being a successful author would make it possible to move to nicer private accommodation and have a maid befitting your new-found fame!
6. Lust – I’ve already touched on this before Mr. Hefner, so you could help repopulate Japan and fill those 10% houses in-country that are currently vacant!! Japan loves efficiency!!
7. Pride – Wouldn’t it be nice to show up that uninformed incompetent Loco by selling more books in one printing that he could ever sell in his lifetime (I’ll personally guarantee this… even if I have to sell your book door to door for the rest of my life).
And finally, when the time comes that you pass the surly bonds of life to be judged (just in case there is a God), wouldn’t it be nice to have saved Japan and helped to bring about World Peace… OK – that one is a bit of a stretch, but maybe it could happen, who knows?!
I hope that I made you laugh just a little bit Ken, but I’m still gonna still pester you to write that book. You have way too much talent to just let us privileged few see it on this blog!!
You had me at Gluttony, Bud.
I love that when I meet God at the Pearly Gates, the subject of this book will come up. At which time I can tell Him that my seven reasons for writing it, as supplied by Bud Martin, were the very things certain to send me to hell. Way to look out for me there, buddy.
But thanks always for your support, really.
Alleluia Amen! You’re very welcome Ken. This makes me very happy and I feel like I’ve done a good thing now; so a little temptation wasn’t all that bad was it?
I have a lot of time on my hands now that I’m retired, so I’d do any research over the internet that you needed done for your book and I do know some hard copy connections that you might be able to use for publishing your book in the US: Timo was talking about self publishing thru Amazon that I think gets you e-book connections.
So please lets all help out and give Ken all the encouragement we can to get his book finished and make it a great success… Ganbatte & がんばって！
Thanks so much, Bud and TimO. Assuming I can produce something worth releasing, I promise you’ll be the first to know.
Now this is a fine fine fine post. I totally agree on all points and love leveraging the 7 “sins”. Where can I pre-order? Amazon has an easy way for self publishing. You could even do a bi-lingual release.
Japan seemed to be in a Winter Olympics bug. When I had lunch with some Japanese friends last week, we watched the replay of figure skating. Teachers talk about it in the classroom. Around 90 percent of my 3rd year students wrote about the Japanese athletes in Sochi.Then, you wrote about it too! You really are a Japanese, Ken. 🙂
Not all is lost, Ken! 🙂
I have to agree that Japanese racism is painfully obvious after honey moon is over, but let me defend one thing: it’s better than in many other places, and it keeps improving.
Let’s look back. Couple of centuries ago the very notion of racial equality, or any social equality, was at best a liberal dream of a few revolutionaries. People were forming cliques based on any similarity imaginable, race being one of them, but then within that religion, wealth, clans, castes, place of origin – it was all used as a way to describe a person, and pretty much label them for life. Our last names still carry the echo of that, when peasants were named after the village, or their trade, for example.
Fast forward a bit, more progressive currents in Europe, and in the young US of A, caused ice to crack, and it was loud and painful, a few civil wars were fought over it, and only after the transformation we actually appreciated that treating people for what they are is actually the way to go.
Fast forward more, to pre-WWII Japan – still socially feudal (although economy has westernized), caste and family segregation, objectification of women, you name it. Western principles started taking root here and there, but more in appearance (such as fashion or cuisine) than in the substance. War was fought, under the banner of popular belief in the infallibility of their way of life. And they lost.
Then a damaged generation that emerged out of it started rebuilding the country. Coming to Japan and seeing what they achieved in the last 60-70 years is mind-blowing. It’s a string country that recognizes a lot of the true values, that respects Western culture, and got rid of plenty of bad old habits.
Not all. Gender inequality, racism, judgmental approach to foreigners and each other – it’s lingering. But they are on the right path, and it’s only been a few generations. People in power are still mostly old school thinkers, and there’s plenty of work to be done still.
When I meet someone who is Japanese and get stereotyped one way or the other, I just remember that where I grew up (Eastern Europe, post-Soviet) things are still awfully bad, and improving much more slowly. I remind myself that many of the -isms that bother us now are rooted in our subconsciousness, and it’s not easy to get rid overnight. I realize that I’m lucky to be living in the the very egalitarian society of the West. And I just sigh, and calmly explain “Actually…” for the thousandth time, but gently and with experience 🙂 Made a lot of friends that way, as sure did Ken.
I’m for one optimistic about Japan. Was just reading this article today:
There’s plenty to love about Japan. And it’s getting better every day!
Yeah, Japan certainly doesn’t have the racism that many places do. Nobody’s walking around with sheets over their heads calling themselves The Grand Wizards and stuff.
It’s just totally minor things, little bits of discrimination that seep through at the edges. But it’s no big deal, the same way that an annoying co-worker or a significant other does small things that slowly get on your nerves. In the grand scheme of things, they hardly matter. But then, somehow, every day, those little things add up. They’re so miniscule, but over time they just accumulate, until eventually you end up quitting a job or a relationship over something so tiny that someone looking from the outside couldn’t even see.
It reminds me of the platitude, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” That’s true; nothing really matters except that we make it matter. On the other hand, there’s a lot of research showing that social connectedness is important to well-being and longevity. So now when somebody says “Oh, you use chopsticks so well,” I just respond, “Dude, you’re shortening my lifespan!” It’s a great conversation starter, if nothing else.
“It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I really understood this, but making people feel like they’re different, foreign, is not a great way to get them to like you. Japanese folks have done a great job of helping me understand this, like every day. Thanks, nation of Japan.”
I was walking near Shinjuku-gyoen at closing time with my boyfriend, who is Japanese, when we entered a path that was about to be closed off. A man working further down the path saw my blonde hair and shouted “CLOSED!!” We moved away, and I began to complain to my boyfriend about how he had assumed and switched to English. I hoped that since the experience was presumably new for him, he would have some sympathy. Instead, he said “Yeah, of course.” Of course he saw me and switched to English. Most white people in Japan are tourists, right?? Most speak English! Right? Why not assume??
A minute later we broke up, which was what I had planned anyway, but that little interlude did not help change my mind.
It’s hard to explain just how much impact that single word of English has. You’re walking along, same as anybody else, when Boom! suddenly it’s loudly pointed out that “You’re not one of us.” Having that happen on a regular basis is nerve-rattling.
Japanese people are constantly taught—by the schools and the media—that it’s normal to segregate depending upon skin color, and apply different rules based upon race. I’ve had the same conversation with plenty of Japanese folks, and this us-versus-them thinking is so deep and omnipresent that it’s rare to find a person who even realizes it’s happening.
Sorry your boyfriend didn’t work out, but I’m sure that, if you haven’t already, you’ll find a great guy soon.
That happened this past Sunday, so no new guy yet – I’m thinking, if Japanese, 帰国子女 this time in the hopes that the nihonjin-ness will be less entrenched, but I won’t start looking for a while. Thanks for the kind thoughts 🙂
Ken, the more I read your stuff, the more I would love to meet you someday. Anyway, you are exactly right, life has a way of coming around to bit you in the ass. Gaining perspective is when life slaps you in the face with your own words and makes you eat them. Like your thing with trying to be nice to “foreigners” when they are, in fact, not foreigners.
I had the same thing happen to me, although a bit differently. I wasn’t a particularly good student in school. I skirted by by my own intelligence, but that involved no actual studying. But come middle-school, that stopped being enough and I actually had to start to at least try to look interested in my own future. It was getting harder and harder to keep up with the others, who actually learned how to study and how to “hunker down and just do it”. I lived in a pretty mediocre neighborhood, and most of the people around there were skirting by on minimal wage working in factories, doing menial labor, etc. They always looked tired, drunk and fed up with life wherever you looked. Uneducated, stupid, that’s where criminals come from. Yes, I was young and arrogant, I thought the world was mine. The thought of having anything to do with those people didn’t compute, and becoming one of them was unthinkable. I knew I didn’t want that, and I the only way I could scare myself into actual studying was asking myself “you don’t wanna be a run-down factory worker, do you?”. Both my parents were college-educated professionals (doctor and bookkeeper), and the thought of me being anything less than that scared me to no end.
Sufficed to say, life didn’t turn out the way I imagined. I had to drop out of college and was forced to find a full-time job. And yes, my nightmare came true. Having no qualifications, the only job I could take was a lowly factory job, manufacturing electronics. Working different shifts every few days, overtimes, having all the bosses stomp on me, all the staples of menial labor became my reality. Nothing makes you re-evaluate your values like being forced face your biggest nightmares. But after a few months I actually got used to it, I accepted my faith, so to say. I made friends with some of my coworkers, I talked to them, lived their lives. As it turns out, they are people too, they laugh, the cry, they good times, bad times, some of them are actually pretty smart just had the shitty luck to end up there like me, etc. And I started to see all the things I did back then, being tired and fed up with life, being drunk to dull the soul-rending, monotone work I was doing day to day, etc. Also, seeing how people look at me, like I was the refuse of society, my old classmates who made it through college now working white-collar jobs being managers and whatnot, all have this look their eyes, like “get away from me you tramp, you’ll make me catch the poor”. Yes, it was a shocking experience.
Perspective is a bitch. But having seen both sides, it was an experience I think a lot of people would need to understand how the world works.
You know, I had a similar experience. I used to work as a programmer for a large company in a fancy office building. I did that for a few years, and it was cool to make a lot of money, but it was horribly boring. Plus wearing a tie every day never really suited me. I think there’s a pun there somewhere, but I’m not exactly sure where. Anyway, one day I quit.
I thought I’d try working as a delivery guy for a while. You know, get some exercise, lots of fresh air. The money wasn’t great, but it was actually a very cool job. You meet a lot of ladies that way too.
And as fate would have it, I started doing deliveries in the same office building I’d worked at before. Only now when I’d get in the elevator wearing my delivery guy uniform, nobody’d acknowledge me. Except other delivery guys. There was a subtle nod between guys in suits, and the same between the delivery guys. I noticed that people of the same race also do it. The whole thing was interesting.
Same thing in Japan. I get subtly different treatment than Asian-looking people. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but apparently not. And that’s why I avoid elevators.