Sunday, 30 October 2011


There are many stereotypes that western people hold about the Japanese. Some of them are true, like the one that says that the Japanese never get to the point, always circling around an issue, very much beating about the proverbial bush and will sometimes even tell you incorrect information to avoid offending you. Some are not correct, like the one that says that the Japanese are always extremely polite (in the last few weeks my English sensibilities have been mightily offended by queue jumping), or that Japanese children are extremely well disciplined and obedient.

There are certain situations where I’ve found the Japanese to be extraordinarily rude or offensive, and they usually revolve around the fact that I am a foreigner. These observations are the natural result of having a country where very few people travel abroad and where there is next to no immigration. Japan is one of the most ethnically homogenous nations on Earth.

It is extremely common in my experience, to be walking down the street and simply be stared at. Among children this is most prevalent. I used to think it was cute when they would scream “Harroooo” at you and then piss themselves laughing. Now I find it tiresome. But there’s a certain indulgence one must have with kids that I do not extend to adults who, everywhere else in the world (in Western Europe and America at least), know better.
To the Japanese, it is hilarious to see a foreigner trying to speak Japanese. In supermarkets, I often feel like a comedian just for saying “please” and “thank you”. Add into the equation the fact that I cannot yet instantly recognise the value of each yen coin and I’ll be on “Tonight at the Apporro” before you know it. Perhaps it’s a nervous thing, and perhaps they’re not trying to be rude, but I for one, when trying to speak a foreign language, find it a little bit infuriating to be constantly laughed at. Once, in a supermarket queue, I turned to the people behind me and gave them an extremely impolite rebuke while bowing and smiling, which they lapped up mirthfully.
Assuming, as they do, that white people could never speak Japanese, it is perfectly normal for Japanese people to talk about you quite obviously when you’re sitting there. This has happened to us in bars, in the street, on the train and even at work. One of my employers has an awful habit of talking to my students about me while I’m there, though it’s extremely clear that I am not included in the conversation, as she doesn’t look or gesture towards me.

There are times, I think, when this borders on racism. More than once, members of our group have had words like “Shiro!” (white), “Gyunyu!” (milk), or “Yankee!” shouted at them, and we’ve picked up these words in the conversations we’ve overheard. Speaking to our Japanese friends reveals that these are pretty unpleasant taunts that have not been acceptable in the UK for quarter of a century at least.

Japanese culture, I think, insists that JAPAN IS DIFFERENT. The Japanese revel in the idea that they are a special race, a special nation, set apart from their neighbours and the rest of the world. This creeps up everywhere.
The Japanese creation myth talks of the sun god dipping his sword into the sea to form Japan; the rest of the world is not mentioned. At parties, Japanese guests clap with glee when one of us holds a glass with two hands to receive beer or wine or something, crying “Aaaaaah! Japanese style!!!”. It is often used as a weird excuse for things too. There was an instance where I was about to teach a lesson and had a glass of water in my hand. I was stopped and told by my employer “aaaah, in Japan, we don’t teach with a drink”. What she meant was: I enjoy control so I’m going to stop you doing this and you don’t need any justification. Suffice it to say, you’re foreign so you wouldn’t understand.
And the Japanese love this. They seem to love underlining all the differences between “us” and “them”. If I tell a Japanese person that I’ve eaten sushi, they are shocked: “eeeeeeeh, you can eat sushi?!?!”. Yes, of course I can eat bloody sushi; my mouth opens, closes, masticates and swallows just like yours. “Eeeeeeh, you can use chopsticks?!?!”, “you can eat rice?!?!”. And they often seem slightly disappointed when you tell them that you don’t find Japanese food difficult to eat, or when you tell them that Japanese grammar is no more difficult than French grammar or something else. It begs the question what they think we eat all day in a country where “bread” is more or less inedible and the western style “food” scarcely deserves that title.

I was fascinated to discover that very few of the Japanese people I’ve come into contact with have ever left Japan. Even those who project an image of being internationally minded have, at best, once been to Korea or something. Very few have come to Europe.

Japan is truly a fascinating place, but I would say the same about many of the other countries I’ve been to, and at least the people in those countries were aware that other countries existed. 

Right, back to being confused by things.

No comments:

Post a Comment