For many foreigners in Japan, one of the most frustrating elements in daily life is the tendency of many Japanese to offer praise for being able to perform the most simple and rudimentary tasks that foreigners supposedly aren’t supposed to know ... holding chopsticks, for example ... or liking some kind of food foreigners supposedly don’t eat.
These compliments are sincerely meant as icebreakers – and almost seem like behavioral algorhythms ingrained into many Japanese on how to behave around foreigners.
I can’t tell you how many times a week I get into taxis or go to izakayas and have to have my tweeting interrupted with, “Okuni wa doko desuka?” and hear the same person respond at some point in the conversation, “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, nihongo wa jozu desu ne!” Or they ask how long I’ve been here, what I think of natto or some other little trivial thing.
Then (as I mentioned in another article) there are those situations where you’re speaking in Japanese, and being answered in really bad English.
I once knew a Japanese person who would speak Spanish to me every time he got drunk because he once had some kind of Spanish foreign friend. (Spanish is one among many hundreds of languages I don’t speak.)
Slowly the foreigner goes mad
After a while, some foreigners seem to become self-conscious that there is a sense of “we Japanese” that no matter what, it will not be penetrable. They assume relationships will always be superficial and at some point simply give up, yet for some reason, don’t quite get around to leaving. Sometimes I see them on the train. There’s a sad rugged look about them and they always seem to be reading secondhand paperback novels. They’re here, but they’re not.
I imagine that some of these individuals are bubble era refugees whose friends have left one by one and have become loners living in their own world. Over time, they come to develop a type of negativity that seethes over from the core of their very being – especially when they get their hands on an Internet connection.
These individuals become Japan’s resident Japan bashers and they remind me of a period when I was in my early 20s and fresh out of high school.
Around that time, Michael Crichton’s novel "Rising Sun" had just been turned into a film, starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. Even though I saw it just before I became strongly interested in Japan, I felt in my heart that it was vile and racist.
Yet Crichton himself claimed to have lived in Japan several years and claimed to be “enamored with the culture.”
The book reflected a type of mid-'80s to early '90s hysteria that Japan’s prosperity was a result of corrupt and unfair trade practices, that the U.S. had been beaten at its own game, that its best days were behind it. People were worried and convinced that America was under attack by a strange and cunning enemy who didn’t play the same rules.
This fear was played upon by the publication of a number of popular novels at the time, among them "Silent Thunder" (Peter Tasker), "Kensei" (Steven Schlosstein), "Blood Heat" (Steve Pieczenik), "The Secret Sun" (Fred Hiatt), "Debt of Honor" (Tom Clancy). Let's also not forget the movie "Black Rain" with Michael Douglas.
Out of a mix of jealousy, anger and racism, a type of hysteria ensued in which World War II era stereotypes were dragged out of the closet and people driven to a frenzy by politicians in a way that would probably be viewed as reprehensible today.
But no sooner did the bubble burst than America calmed down. A younger generation became obsessed with Japanese manga and anime, and soon it was all forgotten. Today, many young “otaku culture” Japanophiles also see Japan through literature and movies. Fortunately, the portrayal is a lot more “kawaii” and “kakoii” or novels like “Snow Falling On Cedars” or “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
Yet, some of the hysteric relic-of-the-past Japanophobes live on today. You may run into them online, or even work with one.
If you do happen to encounter one, ask them if they have read any of the novels above. They probably have. And don’t be surprised if their views of Japan reflect the plots of some of these novels.
As you observe them, feel compassion and pity. Their heads may be so buried in those books and further fueled by a small number of conspiratorial-minded journalists that they’re simply missing out on the adventure of a lifetime in a wonderfully quirky and unique (though not perfect) foreign country.
My advice to them: Take a walk, get a breath of fresh air, visit a temple, greet a neighbor. It may take quite a few greetings and a few Japanese lessons before the first conversation ensues, but eventually it will. That’s how it works here.
The first interaction might be subtle and may include a quick quip about the weather. Actually, most likely it will. Or it might be the person sitting next to that person at the izakaya who says, “Ohashi wa jozu desu ne! Okuni wa doko desuka?”
As that happens, our Japan basher friend may very well be able to take in a breath of fresh air and realize, no, they’re not all bad and corrupt. They’re real people just like you and me -- only from a different culture and who speak a different language and may have different perspectives.
In the end, nothing is wrong with burying one’s head in a good thriller, but when literature or media become a reality that engulfs a person’s existence, it threatens to destroy the individual from the core of his very soul. Yet, if that person can escape, he will be born anew.© Japan Today