Saturday, February 21, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Part III

You Will Never Be A Japanese



Let me clarify that – I don't care if you've lived in Japan for twenty years out of 25 and know kanji that would baffle the most advanced language scholars. Unless you were born and raised in Japan by an ethnically Japanese family, you are not a Japanese. And never will be...

This was one of the more depressing aspects when weighing whether I wanted to live in Japan long term. Being treated as a token foreigner is amusing for a few months, perhaps even years, but for the rest of your life?

When I first arrived in Hiroshima, I was perfectly content in not being Japanese (or even a permanent resident), appreciating that it would take time to understand how to function in this society, or if such a thing were even possible.

During my first 8-9 months in Japan, I unwittingly played the role of the stereotypical foreigner:

- Being amazed by all the "old" shrines
- Looking aghast at raw fish
- Drinking too much at expat bars and picking up Japanese girls who seemed to enjoy "international liaisons"
- Clocking out on the dot
- Drinking Coke and eating pizza
- Frequenting "gaijin circles" of friends

It was mostly due to ignorance, and the excitement of simply being truly independent in a foreign country, once that summer camp mentality wore off.

As time went on, however, and I started to actually consider what an amazing place Japan is and wonder how it came to be, I focused more energy inward, continuing my Japanese studies, and trying to make certain mannerisms second nature: bowing, using the correct guttural sounds to show I was listening to someone, humbling myself in the eyes of others, trying not to stand out.

They are habits that have stuck with me even today as I live in New Zealand and study Buddhism. A girl I met in Austin was curious as to why I bowed to her the first time we met.

Some people simply don't reach this phase, and choose to remain a guest of Japan for 5, 10, 20 years drinking, only teaching English, hooking up in clubs, and badmouthing anything Japanese before they realize their youth is used up, their job prospects slimmer, and they discover even after years of living in a foreign country, they haven’t learned anything. Or changed.

Those who do try to be less of a "stake that sticks out" will find, however, that it's impossible. Despite a new generation of semi-rebellious Japanese youth, the country remains a conservative, closed-off nation: even with an aging population, falling birthrate, and increasing labor shortage, there is no policy designed to promote immigration; Japan's problems (even though they "don’t exist"), will be solved by Japanese alone.

Excluding Asian nationalities (and most of these residents hold the passport in name only), Japan’s foreign population is less than 1%. Japan is all well and good if you want to go to a museum or stay at a five-star hotel like a tourist, but what if you're living in a rural area and want to indulge in a soak at the neighborhood sento (bathhouse)? You may find a sign stating simply "Japanese Only". Some restaurants or lodging establishments may not want to deal with you if you can't speak Japanese. Even after living here for years, you're still fingerprinted like a common criminal.

With the exception of being refused a haircut on one occasion, I never encountered any of these situations. But they do exist. In few numbers, to be sure, but the fact that they do and the country allows it sends a clear message: Japan for Japanese; you’ve overstayed your welcome.

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