Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Do I Generalize Japanese?

I'm exploring this topic the best way I know how, which is simply to sit and type until I reach some kind of revelation... or just leave a series of questions in my wake. Recently, a friend of mine told me she found my travel writing incredibly offensive, if not downright racist. I couldn't understand where she was coming from, and kept prying until she said she thought I generalized an entire race of people, in saying that "all" Japanese do the same for foreigners.

But was it true? Had I been living in Asia so long that I started to embody some of the behavior I and others see on almost a day-to-day basis? When I wrote about life in Japan, did I paint all Japanese with the same brush, leaving no room for individual behavior? It reminded me of a joke I liked to tell around expats in Japan:

When a Japanese person trips, it means he had an accident. When a foreigner trips, it means he doesn't know how to walk.

Implying that, to your average Japanese observer, foreigners simply can't be seen in the same light as a fellow Japanese. Things are seen in absolutes, especially where behavior or habits are concerned.

- You saw a foreigner passed out drunk? Well, that's what foreigners do.
- You're living in Japan but you're not an English teacher? That's impossible; all foreigners are English teachers. You must be mistaken.
(this is hyperbole, if you can't tell).

Is that offensive? Before I say anything else, I should say: that was not my intention. For whatever that's worth.

That being said, I can't deny the experiences I had in Japan. Never at any time did I feel a part of that ultimate in-group, Japanese society. And, of course, you can take that as you will: maybe my Japanese skills weren't up to par; maybe I didn't try hard enough to fit in; maybe I was just too stubborn to ever fit in. I personally believe there is and has always been (but hopefully will not always be) a clear barrier between Japanese people and foreigners... on the part of Japanese. Why? I know I'm generalizing here, but with good reason. This is not dealing with Japanese as a race, but Japanese that were born in Japan to ethnically Japanese parents, raised in Japan in the Japanese school system, and continue to live their lives in Japan; in other words, not any ethnically Japanese people raised outside Japan. No Japanese could go through that process without developing a sense of group mentality. Spending time in schools, becoming part of the system, told to fear individuality. In-groups and out-groups. And foreigners are the ultimate out-group, as gaijin (外人).

I've said it before: people who think Japanese are racist in the western sense of the word - and yes, there is a difference - are mistaken. There are racists as Americans and Europeans have come to know them in Japan: bigoted ignorant idiots. But, those who spend time in Japan know bigots aren't representative of the population as a whole. So why do they feel discriminated against? Japanese people don't treat foreigners differently because they have strong objections to white or black skin; they treat them differently because they are not Japanese. They don't fit into society's rules and therefore, must be treated like they don't belong. Ironically, this is more of an attempt to make foreigners conform; it doesn't work, because we can't (very similar to the mentality behind ijime, bullying). More on the subject here.

So I need to know, and I need honest answers from my readers. Is that argument inherently offensive and racist? I honestly believed it was just being pragmatic. I suppose it very well might be 日本人論.


mariko said...

Whatever, cracker! Just kidding. I think you have been in Asia long enough that your opinions and observations are well thought out. It is irritating when people who have hardly spent any time in a foreign country jump to conclusions, but I don't think you fit into that category.

I am Japanese American and lived in Japan for a year. I remember once someone said she knew I was "different" because she saw me walking, and I did not walk like a Japanese. I thought that was interesting. Another time I was scolded by a train engineer for sitting in the wrong section. He told me I should "know better." Guess I looked like the real deal to him!

Japan is a homogeneous society. That's just how the world view is over there. It may strike some westerners as racist, but there you go.

Drew said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head with this one. It's incredibly easy to just pass off these cultural differences as racist. And, I get comments from people from time to time who seem to think that I'm not entitled an opinion after living in Korea for 8 months. I think there's a middle ground; I have never once proclaimed that Koreans are racist, but I usually tell my experiences how I've perceived them. I also try to explain why Korean culture may have lead to certain events, which is when I get comments like "you could never understand Korean culture." What do they want? Me calling someone racist or me suggesting that culture might have had something to do with someone else's actions?

The truth is, Western society is very different from Korean and Japanese societies. I'm not saying the latter two are directly comparable, but they're both very exclusive. Still, to point that out or to attribute it to a cultural difference is only sensible.

Unfortunately, it's a controversial topic that I try to avoid, since people seem to lash out pretty easily at some seemingly innocuous comments.

Anonymous said...

I'd chalk it up to Nihonjinron (sumimasen, baka BlackBerry ha Nihongo wo kakaremasen).

My observations, and those of friends include some similar to mariko's. An Asian-American friend of mine taught at one of the national universities on Debito's blacklist for 5 years, and got called out quite a bit for 'not speaking/reading Japanese better' by merchants and others not related to her job. Another friend wondered why there were all those bright orange signs saying "Frequently patrolled by police", "Security cameras in use", and other friendly messages plastered around ATMs, stores, etc all in English. I pointed out that most were also in Chinese, but she was not amused.

In many parts of the US, most of the commonplace Japanese behaviors would not be acceptable to most people, and many people wouldn't think of doing such things anyway.

In short, when in Rome...

Michelle said...

I don't think you are being racist or overly general. People who live in foreign countries (expats) have a unique perspective on their new homes, one that cannot be shared by natives or non-expats. Compounding this problem is the wide gap between American individualism and the culture of some community-focused countries, especially those which are extremely nationalistic. Some countries are quick to accept foreigners (Turkey has been pretty great so far) and others are hospitable but always treat you as a foreigner (Jordan). Keep giving us your observations!

Vicki said...

I agree with you! We foreigners are the ultimate outsiders in Japan and we will never fit in no matter how well we speak Japanese, talk the talk or walk...not going to happen. If we try, we will be repeatedly frustrated with our failures.

I am a soon to be 35 year old American woman married to a Japanese man and raising my 2.7 year old son in the country side in Japan. I have lived here for 5 years now. At first when I was single and researching at the University...I had a blast learning Japanese, being myself. (I knew I would probably never fit in in Japan after living in Korea for 2 years, so I did not expect to fit in to Japanese society.) Then I got married, and life was okay when I was not with my husband in public. Then I had a baby...and boom just like that I was expected to be Japanese. Wow! Do I feel the pressure now. No more smooth sailing as a single "visitor". Its a catch 22 Damned if you do and Damned if you Don`t. In this Japanese Rome, it is not really possible to "When in Rome Do as the Romans", because even if we do the same behaviour or say the same words...because of our face the action/words will not be heard or seen. The phrase "You can not judge a book by its Cover" does not really apply in Japan. Foreign= the predetermined definition established by Japanese culture...an outsider!

I always get accused of saying bad things about Japanese. This is never my goal. I have an American way of thinking. I state things I see as positive and as negatives. I do not think American way is better, just different. But because I naturally act American I receive lots of criticism for not raising my Japanese child as Japanese. Well, how exactly am I supposed to do that....I am not Japanese and the fact that I do not look Japanese kind of makes it a dead give away. I am sure if I wanted to I could get plastic surgery in order to look Japanese, but to become Japanese in character in my opinion is impossible.

So I determined, I just have to chalk up all the cultural/social mistakes that I make and live the best life that I can while living in Japan.

I realized that I have to just do what I need to do for myself and ignore the rest. Accept the cold and lonely life I have to lead here. It is much easier that way!

Dunny said...

Whatever the country you choose to live in you have to make a life for yourself. If people want to make groups and leave you out then you have to make your own group if it hurts so much to be in a country and feel alone and unwanted.If you are a group of one so be it. Also in my opinion we are all taught to be racist growing up. What the hell is a Country after all? The ultimate symbol of racism.Me Australian, you Japanese, him South African etc. I divide people into only 2 categories. Arseholes and not arseholes. If I close my eyes and listen I can always tell the difference. That's all that matters to me. Good luck with splitting hairs but you are wasting your time.

Anonymous said...

As a writer, you are expected to distill your thoughts and experiences into some drops of insight. If you want to call that a generalisation, fine. Don't be too worried about it.

I do find, as a ex-pat in Japan for 7 months now, that at work especially, I have to sit through lunches where Japanese to make sweeping and often wildly incorrect negative generalisations about various countries in Europe.

However when it comes to my thoughts on Japan, I feel the pressure to make only positive statements and negative comments are at my peril.

In such an exchange where I share my real opinion, the conversation will always soon come to an end since I have offended Japan and the Japanese nation.

I have had far fewer similar experiences living as an expat in Europe where negative statements are either accepted as a fair point or further discussed. Typically in the latter situation, someone will say "you have the wrong end of the stick-let's set you straight on that..."

Perhaps arseholes/non-arseholes is the way to go.

Malia said...

Haha! The type of racism definitely has a different flavor than North American "racism"... Very touchy topic,and certainly fun to read... sort of speaks to a question of on what basis cultural phenomena can be generalized, and when should they not? That's a tough one to untangle, but when you're living any foreign place for a period of time there are stages... I start to generalize more about people when I have the intense perception of myself as an outsider... and that can descend into cynicism (for me) which is something anyone living abroad needs to keep a handle on (unless they were born with an angel halo and those feelings never cross their mind)

thaerin said...

You are absolutely correct in your conception of the Japanese condition as it pertains to issues of race and identity. I'm afraid that your friend, in making such a loosely-defined conclusion about a country she knows nothing about, is the racist. Even more so if she actually does have experience with Japan.

Maya Rose said...

Hi, I recognize this post is somewhat old, but I'd like to say I agree with a lot of the things you've said about Japan as well as the other (insightful) comments about living in Japan and racism.
I'm half Japanese and look...like a typical "half" in my opinion, but most people in Japan treat me as the full on "gaijin"...I've lived in Japan for most of my life, childhood, teenage, and young adult years. And I can say nothing much as changed. People never think I am Japanese, speaking Japanese is out of the question, but if I open my mouth they all look at me in shock and ask why I sound so native.
When I first officially moved over to Japan as a child, I felt like a monster in a cage. Everybody stared at me and in my town people would whisper around me when I walked past. Even today, I get people following me to check what I'm doing. Not sure why...
As a side note, I am Japanese by nationality and ethnicity (my mother is Japanese), and I speak Japanese natively ...but that doesn't change things, it does help me get out of annoying situations though.
Sometimes ,depending on my mood, when people ask where I'm from I know what they want to hear so I usually say I am from "America". Which isn't a a lie...my father is American I was born there...but the difference when I answer where I'm from is surprising. Most people expect me to answer I'm from a foreign country. They WANT to hear that. because A). I don't look Japanese and B). It's so exciting to meet a WHITE person, right? But lately I'm very tired of this act and flat out say I am full-on Japanese. They either don't understand or stop talking to me because they find me boring. The difference really astounds me. Or I'll get harassed by locals who see me in the area (where I live/work) and they'll keep saying things like "HEY YOU, I know you speak Japanese, I see you everday!" and maybe they aren't being..racist, but intrigued by me..maybe? But it gets really annoying, also I get stopped by the police...a lot. I read on a different blog how that sort of racism doesn't happen as much. ...No way, it happens to me almost on a weekly basis, if I'm lucky daily!
Either way...I've never fully fit-in and am pretty miserable living in Japan, I'm planning to move out of the country in a few years time. But the journey has been interesting. I am currently writing my B.A. on racial ideology in Japan and ..it's pretty frustrating to say the least.