Expats in Tokyo seem to believe that Japanese culture has few redeeming qualities. Not only are the men sexist and the women moronic, even their fellow expats aren’t worth talking to. But if all these stereotypes are true, why are we here? I mean, we put up with a lot to live in this culture. Is Japan really such a terrible place?
All people believe in stereotypes to some degree or other, because they conveniently reduce situations and people to their most basic components. This makes it easier not to think. The problem starts when we stop questioning these stereotypes and their connection with actual situations. That’s why I think it’s time to re-examine some of the usual complaints about Japan.
Perhaps the most pervasive cliché is that Japan is a sexist country, especially in the workplace. As a Western woman, I definitely deal with sexism and xenophobia at my job. Do I deal with it more in Japan than in any other country? To be honest, I don’t know. Yes, I have had Japanese co-workers ignore my opinion because I am Western. But to be fair, Japanese people ignore the opinions of anyone who is not in a senior position. Remember, most Japanese aren’t allowed to have opinions until they are 50 years old.
Actually, by far the worst “professional dis” I have ever received was by a prominent foreign women’s professional group in Tokyo. Go figure.
So, do I personally find Japanese men sexist? Well, yes, but I can think of many sexist men in my home country, and in some parts of the world women are burned alive for receiving an education. This is not to dismiss the need for social change in Japan, but merely to suggest that we would be better off maintaining some perspective.
Then there is the charge that Japanese women are materialistic imbeciles salivating at the latest brand-name designs. While the seeming mindlessness of young Japanese women is understandably disturbing, let us Americans remember that we are the culture that made Paris Hilton a celebrity. What was that about glass houses?
Expats have their stereotypes about Japanese people, and Japanese people in turn have their stereotypes about Westerners. The most appropriate analogy I can think of is the “talking dog” phenomenon. If you came upon an English-speaking dog in the street, you wouldn’t admire its eloquence, you’d simply think, “Wow! It’s a talking dog!” Likewise, many Japanese people feel a similar sense of wonder when they see a Caucasian person speaking Japanese or attempting to perform any daily life function. Thus, often well-intentioned Japanese people will ask obnoxious and patronizing questions like, “Can you eat sushi?” or “Can you use chopsticks?”
While these and other questions could make the Guinness Book of Asinine Comments, we should be more generous. In this culture, we are talking dogs — we get to be superstars for learning simple vocabulary words. This, obviously, can also be frustrating, but there is nothing we can do about it. Caucasian people in Japan feel like they are the only ones singled out, but I can say with authority that there are significant numbers of Chinese and Koreans who are almost completely unintelligible in Japanese as a second language. So, in reality, many Japanese people really are impressed that Johnny Blue-Eyes can order water by himself.
Finally, we come to everyone’s favorite complaint: Charisma Man. He’s the man we all love to hate. The loser who comes to Japan and discovers how to finally meet women. Does it help that the women here are perhaps less aware of Western standards of attractiveness? Probably. Does the language barrier help stifle the offensive offal usually spewing from Charisma Man’s mouth, thus making him tolerable to non-native English speakers? Most likely.
I can’t help but wonder, though, why we care if Charisma Man is finally getting laid? Regardless of how much we like to speculate, his sex life is absolutely none of our business.
Doesn’t all this fretting and fussing really indicate an inferiority complex on our part? I mean, if we were truly satisfied with our own lives, would we really feel the need to focus on the lives of others so much? Do these things really bother us, or is it just that we are overseas, away from familiar social networks, with a lot of free time to whine? Often, the more we adamantly embrace these stereotypes, the more personally miserable we become—as if we were voluntarily shutting ourselves into an ideological prison. We should all keep in mind that, if things truly bother us, we can go home anytime we like.
Katherine Pitts is an English teacher currently living in Kanagawa. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (http://www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today