Overlooking Kagoshima City in southern Kyushu, Sakurajima volcano has had a few devastating eruptions over the last two hundred years, one of which bridged the gap between the island and Osumi Peninsula. There is a regular ferry to Sakurajima from Kagoshima that runs every 10-15 minutes.
Also of note... I got a job offer with another English conversation school. Still waiting on location and salary.
If I receive enough feedback and responses from readers, this should be a useful and continuing segment on KPIJ. If not, we’ll let it rest here.
Let me propose situations in which foreigners are living and working in Japan, and come up against a roadblock. Naturally, we will want to overcome these problems. But in the Japanese world, this can sometimes be far from simple. What’s the best method of reaching a solution by saving face to those involved, not disrespecting anyone, and above all, minimizing inconvenience?
Scenario #1 This comes from Japan blogosphere’s own Lea Jacobson, former Tokyo hostess and author of Bar Flower.
You’re working in Japan at an English conversation school (I know, it stretches the imagination, but try to picture yourself there). You commute by car. You have already established a fairly good rapport with your coworkers, and have not felt excluded from anything in the workplace. One morning, the brakes on your car start making a horrible grinding noise. Fortunately you make it to work safely, but the brakes no longer function.
As this is a company-owed car, you feel it is inappropriate for you to take the vehicle in for repairs yourself (Japanese and automotive skills aside). Anticipating that you will merely have to report the situation to achieve a favorable result – the brakes being fixed – you inform your immediate superior, who agrees with your assessment: the brakes are shot. Your superior informs the boss, who decides to drive the car himself to see if there is a problem. He returns to the office, and declares nothing is wrong; the brakes are working fine; there is no noise. Your superior declares “shoganai”. End scenario
What Lea did in this case was have a fit. I can hardly blame her from a western perspective; after all, she thought she was being asked to risk her life for the company. So she yelled, and eventually the brakes were repaired. However, she did permanently disrupt wa (group harmony) in the workplace and mark herself as the angry, unstable foreigner. Heat of the moment, and all.
What should she have done? What’s the “Japanese solution” to this problem? Hard to say; it always is. It’s easier to look back on this with a certain detachment, simply because I wasn’t involved at the time. I suppose I would have thanked my superior for the help, apologized to the boss for taking up his time with a problem that didn’t exist, and finished out the rest of the day normally. The next day, however, I’d move the car slightly out of my designated parking space at my apartment – say, just down the street – and take the train, taxi, or whatever is most convenient to reach work… late.
Yes, late. I’d walk in late, and explain that I tried to drive this morning, but there was something wrong with the car. I would NOT say the brakes were faulty, because it has already been established by the company that they are fine. Instead, some other problem caused me to pull the car over and find alternative transportation. I might even park the car in a tow-away or ticketed zone.
At this point, someone may volunteer to drive me home after work, and deflect any towing or parking ticket charges. He or she will want to inspect the car, naturally, and, depending on how stubborn the company wants to be, may declare the car is in perfect working order. I’d keep up this pattern of showing up late and blaming it on a different mechanical problem each time until someone finally cracks and takes the brakes in to be fixed. In this way, I suppose, I’m not yelling at the company, and in doing so, calling them liars, nor I am causing my immediate superior to lose face by forcing him to return to the boss to take the blame himself for a misbehaved foreign worker. I have not lost my temper, just calmly explained a different problem every morning that caused me to be late. Oh, and I apologized for the inconvenience of being late, and not taking care of monitoring my car more closely.
I’m honestly not sure if this is a feasible solution, but it is what first comes to mind if something like that happened to me: face is saved, respect is given, and wa is maintained.
"Lindsay Ann Hawker (December 30, 1984 - March 24, 2007) was a 22-year old British citizen who was murdered in Japan in early 2007. The man seen fleeing the apartment where she was killed, Tatsuya Ichihashi, is wanted by police for abandonment of a body."
I started Keeping Pace in Japan less than three years ago to chronicle my Japan experiences as an expatriate, and a runner. What began as a simple black background white font blog has become a source of vital information for those seeking to teach English abroad. Every week I usually get one or two emails requesting help with an AEON interview or some other question regarding living in Asia.
I admit I wish I had more of an audience. ~20,000 visits/year is nothing spectacular, but I’m still proud of the numbers and fortunate to have made it this far. If there are any aspects of life in Japan or Asia that I haven’t addressed, send me an email and let me know. I would also hate to sound like a broken record (i.e. Debito and racial discrimination), so if you feel I linger too much on one particular issue, comment appropriately.
50,000 visits. Over 500 blog posts. No end in sight.
I’ve read a lot of stories in expats’ Japan memoirs regarding medical care in Japan. Although I don’t claim to have gone through a full assortment of illnesses while residing abroad, I was admitted to a Japanese hospital without an English-speaking staff for surgery. Maybe the rules are different from institution to institution, but I’ve heard far too many misconceptions in these books to let them go unanswered.
1. Japanese doctors are no good
Hardly. The doctors are well trained and most have practiced abroad during their residency or for at least a few years’ work. Strictly speaking, there are no Japanese doctors – doctors are a species unto themselves. Come down with something serious and you’ll see what I mean.
2. You must provide your own food while admitted
I’d be delighted if someone would prove this statement to be true, but I seriously doubt it can be done. Like most hospitals around the world, you will be charged a ridiculous amount for poor quality food, but food you shall have. I was so sick of the bland rice they were serving at Imakiire Hospital I snuck to the nearest convenience store at least three times to get an アメリカドグ.
The harsh but true facts, however, are…
The cure for everything in Japan is a suppository
Well… not everything, but 99.99% of the time.
Doctor’s won’t tell you about certain diseases
Actually, I’ve found this to be true across China, Korea, and Japan. It varies doctor by doctor of course, but a few believe that if you have a potentially fatal disease like cancer or AIDS it is unwise to inform you of your true condition. Why live with that knowledge?
There are always giggling nurses
You’re a foreigner. Need to have your leg amputated after an unexpected crush injury? Just been diagnosed with a terminal illness? Can’t speak Japanese that well? Regardless of your condition a plethora of giggling nurses with always be at your disposal. They know you’re in pain, but hey, your unwieldy grasp of their awesomely powerful language is funny.
More of a short blurb of the day. Some old-fashioned managers in Japanese companies might be insistent on the order of seating at an outing. For example, if you were in a restaurant with sliding paper screens, the most junior employee would traditionally sit nearest to the door, while the company head or closet equivalent would be in the corner.
The reason for this dates back to the days of samurai and bushido - whoever was seated nearest to the door would be first to be killed in a surprise attack. Nowadays it’s more of a standing joke, but you can still demonstrate your knowledge and modesty by insisting on the “dangerous” seat.
Where the trip to Thailand had encouraged us to pursue the nice parts of Japan, the trip to China made us realize how many nice parts were still extant in Japan.
A Snake in the Shrine, David Geraghty
It was funny to me, seeing this in print and understanding exactly what the transition is like from China to Japan to Thailand. Although I still maintain Japan’s state of perpetual construction makes it far from a “get away from it all” country, Thailand isn’t exactly high on the list either. I’ll admit that the beaches and landscapes of Thailand are more impressive than anything I ever saw in southern Japan, but after a few weeks of hearing, “Hello sir! You want taxi? Tuk-tuk? Where you go? Where you go?” you too might settle for a beach of half-sand, half-tetrapod; even in touristy areas, the Japanese don’t intrude on your privacy like that.
China is a similar study in contrast. I’ve been exchanging emails with a semi-well-traveled friend currently based in Mexico who assumed that Japan and China, both in culture and appearance, were practically one and the same. I immediately attempted to dissuade this notion.
Living in Japan is nothing like living in China for all intents and purposes. Granted, there may be similar stories of how locals interact with foreigners, but there is a line in the sand that can easily be drawn between both countries.
Japan is clean – clean air, clean people (bathing culture), clean streets, clean behavior (as far as tatamae goes, anyway). Everything is considered to be orderly and proper, more civilized than the rest of the world. Things that are not supposed to happen do not happen; or, when they do, are simply dismissed as fiction. This is best expressed in a story from Alan Booth’s Roads to Sata, in which he describes a close encounter with a jellyfish brushing his face. Later, when relating the story at a local izakaya, his host is affronted and tells him condescendingly: “That’s quite out of the question… you see, the jellyfish season ended yesterday.”
China, by comparison, is absolutely chaotic – horribly polluted air (I got ill after spending a few days in Beijing), no enforceable rules as far as roads are concerned (bicycles and cars darting in and out of any available space). Even the style of speaking disturbs me. As I was boarding the ferry from Osaka to Shanghai last June, I heard an ungodly loud noise coming from the rear of the deck. Upon further inspection, I discovered it was just a group of Chinese grandmothers, almost yelling at the top of their lungs in what I imagined must have been normal conversation – their expressions didn’t indicate otherwise.
Which do I prefer? Thailand is great for short-term stays, but I really couldn’t recommend living there; I didn’t spend enough time in the country to acclimate to the diet. As a result, I never felt I really had the energy and enthusiasm I did in Japan. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a cheap beach vacation in a clearly exotic part of the world, Thailand definitely has it.
Japan is my recommendation for long-term results. True, this is dependent on you being a certain type of individual, one for which I’m not sure I fit the bill. You have to be prepared for the constant pressure of being a foreigner in a relatively homogenous culture, in which you stand out, are ridiculed, are separated, are treated differently, and may never fit in. Not all these things happen at once – depending on where you choose to live, it could be months or even years before you’re aware of such things. But they do happen. It wore me down, piece by piece, and I had to escape, even if for a short while.
But despite these occasional setbacks, Japan is comfortable; a first world country that knows exactly what its residents need to relax (even if few of them take advantage of it): convenience stores open 24/7; hot spring resorts; skiing in Niigata; trains that run on time; a society that goes to great lengths to prevent scenes in the street, anything to avoid standing out (there are huge exceptions to this, of course – just visit Yoyogi Park on Sunday).
I could live in Thailand if I gave it enough time. I could live in Japan without thinking twice. But China? I just don’t know. The pollution alone is enough to drive me off; maybe I just have high expectations.
I suppose there’s another reason for my wanting to return to Nippon, albeit more of a superstitious and unfounded one. Eternal youth.
Although Japan is host to the largest elderly population in the world, it is also a country that doesn’t look its age. Whenever I did some people watching in a train station hub, I would always assume some salaryman was 5-10 years older than he appeared. I mistook a 70-year-old man for about fifty on my first day in Osaka. Women are even better about not showing their age – I could easily mistake someone in her thirties for an early twenties.
Appearance is just a small part of the equation. I worry about feeling my age all the time; naturally, being 26, it hasn’t really been a problem for me, but I’ve had reminders from time to time: riding a coworker in Kagoshima about his performance in the Sakurajima Half Marathon, to which he responded: “Wait until you’re my age. It will happen, you know”; watching my father struggle to walk up the road into Dinosaur Park on the volcanic island… I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I were physically unable to accomplish something that I had done a few years earlier.
That’s the problem with being a runner. Everything is so quantifiable: you know exactly how much you’ve slowed down with each passing year. It’s not that you’re simply a little tired, or a little out of shape; age is sucking your talent, and it’s only going to get worse. A 5:00 mile turns into a 5:10, then a 5:30, and finally you’re nearly bonked going for six minutes.
Maybe it was simply the fact that I spent a good deal of my prime years (24-26) in Japan, but I never seemed to feel really run down or lacking in charisma. A huge part of it, and what enables the country to keep such a centennial population alive, is a healthy diet: plenty of fish, a respectible amount of rice, and fresh vegetables. Rarely will you see an obese Japanese.
Another is hot springs. Purifying the water in your system liter by liter, and, I personally believe, slowing the decay of your internal organs. What makes us age? Imperfections. If your body were a perfect engine, able to take 100% of the energy absorbed and use it accordingly, with perfect cell efficiency and regeneration, then you’d simply carry on, with no loss in age or ability. You’d still be completely vulnerable to disease and injury, but barring that is immortality.
Fear is what it comes down to for me. Fear of change, and losing what all have lost at all times. I just think of Japan as a place to pass the time, where your body does become more of an efficient engine, able to handle everything you throw at it… a place to feel young and stay young.
Cleaning is considered a vital part of the training process in all traditional Japanese disciplines and is a required practice for any novice. It is accorded spiritual significance. Purifying an unclean place is believed to purify the mind.
Geisha of Gion, Mineko Iwasaki
On the advice of one of my readers, I read this book as a contrast to Memoirs of a Geisha - some people don’t realize that the book-turned-movie is actually a work of fiction. Well written and researched, no doubt, but fiction nonetheless.
Geisha of Gion, on the other hand, is a true account of one of the most popular Maiko in Kyoto, if not all of Japan, nearly half a century ago. Although her story walked arm-in-arm with Memoirs of a Geisha 90% of the time (different time periods, so practices differed slightly as well), I did find some astonishing misconceptions in the latter. Given that mizuage holds different meanings for “commoners”, maiko, courtesans, and prostitutes, I suppose I could forgive the author if he hadn’t disgusted me with details.
What most surprised me, though, was Iwasaki’s decision to leave the trade before she was even thirty. She was hoping to cast a spotlight over Gion and show her teachers and trainers just how outdated the rules of the willow world had become. Seventy others followed her example, but none of their disappearances caused the landslide they desperately sought.
The quote above, however, has little to do with that. It simply struck my eye as a tenet of Japanese culture and Buddhist tradition. Another that clearly stands out above the rest was one I read nearly two years ago, in Japanland:
(Abbreviated conversation) “Do you know the secret of life?”
“The first step… is to keep the temple clean.”
If you ever want to know how a person thinks, look at the interior of his living quarters: that is his mind, without a trace of irony. My room is scattered with bits of food, clothing, post-it notes, books, and trash. I can safely say my imagination wanders from one idea to the next without sinking its talons into any smooth, refined train of thought. The monks’ quarters, by contrast, are ridiculous neat and ordered. No doubt this serves them well with meditation practice.
If we assume this is true, and extend it to its logical conclusion, then it serves to point out that Japanese women may have the clearest and sharpest wit of all the peoples in the world.
Couchsurfers and travelers who have spent little time in Asia ask me about the similarities between China and Japan. Although the two countries do have many counterpoints in history, the question might as well be how closely the Earth is related to the Moon – if you recall your geological timelines, you might remember that although the Moon was once part of the Earth, it separated over a billion years ago to form its own “island”. The same could be said of Japan – there is evidence to suggest that ancestors of the Chinese began to colonize the islands from the south (the Ainu are a huge exception, of course). Though I’m willing to bet few Japanese like to think of their culture as an offshoot of another. Better to be the land of the gods, ruled by the descendents of the goddess Amaterasu.
As a result, the Chinese and Japanese do have a bit in common – some from a shared history, others from Japanese monopolization of Chinese culture: the tea ceremony, silk kimono, kanji, etc. I don’t think the door swings both ways there, but I could be mistaken.
There are two major languages in modern China - Mandarin and Cantonese – though, naturally, each region or town has its own dialect and accent. None of which, however, sound in any way like Japanese. The grammar, the sentence structure, the intonation… nothing is similar.
Both written languages, on the other hand, share some common characters. I won’t pretend that a native Chinese speaker could look at a Japanese newspaper and understand everything going on, but the gist of the message would be conveyed. And vice versa. The Chinese use only their characters for the entire written language, whereas the Japanese have three distinct alphabets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji (check out the links on my toolbar).
Hiragana is a loopy script of 46 characters that children learn first. Each sound is one syllable, i.e. “ne”, “te”, “shi”, “ko”.
Kanji are the Chinese characters with a Japanese twist, though many are identical. Ex. 日本語, “ni-hon-go”
Katakana is phonetically the same as hiragana, but used exclusively for words with foreign origins. For example, the country America: アメリカ, “ah-me-ri-ka”.
Last spring, when my brother came to visit me in Kagoshima, I was eager to hear his impressions of Japan. He happens to live in Beijing, understand Mandarin, and know a lot about Chinese history. What greater contrast can you imagine between the two of us?
Although he never had a problem getting around town, he wasn’t able to understand what was inside most of the stories and office buildings. Any why?
Because in an effort to make the business seem “modern” and sophisticated, many companies would prefer a katakana name over a traditional kanji one. Many products are marketed in the same way: ice cream, cheese, hamburgers… The Chinese, lacking such a script, choose to use existing characters to describe items or actions (ex. “computer” in Chinese means “electric brain”). The Japanese just slap on a katakana sticker and consider the matter finished.
The result of course, it that to understand the Japanese language completely, well, you need to know English. Most of the words in katakana are English derivatives, and pronouncing them correctly gives no clue as to their meaning, unlike the Chinese, in which speakers can intuit the definition: “electric world… electric world… world inside of an electric device… ah… television!”
People and property are much safer in Japan than in most other countries. The exception is bikes. There seems to be little regard for the ownership of unlocked bicycles. In fact, they are not so much seen as an opportunity for a joyride, as a means for commuters who arrive at the train station and do not fancy the walk to get home. It is against the law, but the practice is widespread and seems to be socially acceptable.
Chasing the Cherry Blossoms, Lowell Sheppard
A poorly written book with blatant errors (the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 19th? I think not), but there were a few decent quotations.
I’d say this mentality about bikes is just as much true on any university campus as it is in Japan. I only had my bike stolen once. As I mentioned in 2007, my wrist injury was due to poor bike maintenance – the brakes locked up and caused me to sail over the handlebars.
Once I was casted and sent home, the demon machine lay unlocked near my out-of-the-way apartment in Yoshino Town. The brakes were still faulty, and I had hardly any traffic passing by… so you can imagine my surprise when I left for work one morning and discovered someone had taken the bike in the middle of the night. If the guilty party happened to break their wrist sometime in the process, I wasn’t going to shed any tears. No such luck, though – the police called the next week and reported the bike had been abandoned about six kilometers from my apartment near a Sunkus convenience store. How the thief managed to get it even ten meters from my door is a mystery.
In any case, Sheppard is correct about the mentality in stealing bikes. 99% of the time it’s not to resell them as scrap or acquire a new bike, but merely a convenient way of getting home or to some other destination.
The same is true for umbrellas. A disproportionately large number of Japanese stores and businesses have racks for customers to store their umbrellas before entering. Well, you can imagine how desperate people get during the rainy season – all it takes is one forgetful slightly wet person thinking he’s entitled to stay as dry as possible, with someone else’s umbrella. I’ve done it myself; in fact, I had acquired four decent umbrellas during a period of particularly bad weather.
Yet you can leave a bag of personal belongings on the street or in a train station, and it’s likely to be returned to you in the same condition; I don’t recommend experimenting with this, though.
Since moving to New York I’ve learned what the word “geisha” really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I’ve been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewelry. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don’t turn up quite as they should. She has no idea what to say! And then the burden of conversation falls to the man or woman who has introduced us – because I’ve never really learned much English, even after all these years. Of course, by this time there’s little point even in trying, because this woman is thinking, “My goodness… I’m walking with a prostitute...” A moment later she’s rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is. Well, I often find myself wondering why she can’t sense how much we really have in common. She is a kept woman, you see, and in my day, so was I.
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
An interesting insight into the floating world, but I must admit I was completely disgusted after reading about the buying and selling of mizuage - so much so that I won’t mention the details here. I always knew most Japanese men had a thing for innocence, but to see how far it would take them if they had the means… A doctor collects the blood!
Just finished reading Gai-jin, the James Clavell novel for the first time. Interesting, but I think I prefer Shogun. I had no clue, however, that the premise was based on the British-Satsuma War; in the late 19th century, two British officers were riding just outside of Tokyo (called Edo at the time) and failed to pay proper respects to the daimyo of Satsuma (modern Kagoshima Prefecture). The results of this encounter left the officers slain by loyal samurai guards, and the British to forthwith bombard Kagoshima City with their fleet, essentially leveling it – though Satsuma did process some cannon at the time, which can still be viewed along the road to Cape Sata on the Osumi Penninsula.
The book is based on everything that happened in between, dealing with the Japanese who are part of the Shogunate government, the bafuku, the spies and assassins who seek to restore power to the Emperor, the shishi, and the mix of British, French, Russian, and Chinese inhabitants of Yokohama and Kangawa – the dangerous outsiders, gai-jin.
Clavell definitely offers every conceivable viewpoint by Japanese at the prospect of modernizing the nation: expelling all foreigners and returning Nippon to its isolated island status; using foreigners for the knowledge of cannon, guns, and ships only to later lay siege to the world when Japan becomes a world power; keeping the foreigners on Dejima (near Nagasaki), as it was allowed before the Shogunate.
No matter how you play out the situation, Japan lost. Saigo Takamori’s rebellion supporting the samurai caste and traditional values was crushed by Imperial troops, Japan did build up an impressive force of naval, air, and land power, only to overextend themselves and their ideals in WWII, and the gai-jin, already having a foothold in Japan, would refuse to withdraw again to Dejima.
What I find most impressive in Gai-jin is way Clavell writes the inner monologue of the characters of various nationalities: the Chinese who, already subjugated by the British, still hold illusions of bringing Europe and Japan to its knees, refusing to even consider the possibility that foreigners can understand them or their ways. Similarly, the Japanese, believing themselves to live in the land of gods who will not fail them, that the gai-jin are uncivilized, uncouth, and smelly (comparing Japanese and European standards of hygiene at this time, however, they were probably right); there’s so much hate for the foreigners, even among Japanese who deal with them directly. Although the British see themselves as superior, given their small insurgence in Japan, I would say they accord the people a little more respect than those at your average outpost – the Aborigines in Australia, or the Maori in New Zealand, for example. In both cases, the Japanese and European ways of thinking elude the other side.
“…please be patient with me, but we believe we can have all that the gai-jin have. As you know, in Nippon rice is a currency, rice merchants are bankers, they lend money to farmers against future crops, to buy seeds and so on, without the money most years there would be no crops therefore no taxes to collect; they lend to samurai and daimyos for their living against future pay, future koku, future taxes; without this money there is usually no living until there are crops to tax. Money makes any way of life possible. Money, in the form of gold, silver, rice or silk or even manure, money is the wheel of life, profit the grease of the wheel an-“
“Come to the point. The secret.”
“Oh so sorry, the point is that somehow, incredibly, gai-jin moneylenders, bankers – in their world it is an honorable profession – have found a way to finance all their industries, machines, ships, cannon, buildings, armies, anything and everything, profitably, without using real gold. There cannot be that amount of real gold in all the world. Somehow they can make vast loans using the promise of real gold, or pretend gold, and that alone makes them strong, and seemingly, they do it without debasing their currency, as daimyos do.”
“Pretend gold? What are you talking about…”
If this seed really was planted in the Japanese mind one hundred and fifty years ago, they did an extraordinary job setting up a modern economy to challenge the world in just over a hundred years. It’s a shame about 1990, though.
I’ve got Japan on the brain, and it can’t be stopped. Even in the most innocuous conversations concerning sport, work, school… it inevitably shifts to talking about Japan from my end.
A kiwi friend of mine was discussing the school system in New Zealand… eventually talk turned to Japanese education, conformity, bullying, and black hair.
A Sri Lankan girl mentioned she had studied abroad… a sudden shift to Japanese cities, how ugly Osaka was, how I couldn’t believe she hadn’t eaten ramen in Fukuoka. Though, to be honest, she was more keen on discussing the finer details of Twilight.
Ramblings with a co-worker over career possibilities, and I casually mention wanting to work in Hokkaido, perhaps even Nemuro, famous for its Russian beer runs.
It’s a little disturbing, this trend of discussing my travels. My thoughts don’t linger on my summer in Alaska, my few months volunteering in Thailand, and my current situation in New Zealand. The floodgates in my brain are opened with the mere mention of hot springs, sushi, teaching… even as I was skydiving in Taupo I casually informed my tandem instructor of jump zones in northern Honshu.
When can I get my tongue to stop, and accept the fact that I’m just a white guy with a crazy Asian fetish… though this being one of culture, not of women.
An unfortunate habit of travelers is losing the ability to just shut up and listen. We always want to be ichiban, the most well-traveled, the most experienced, the one who saved a group of orphans from a burning building and won the love of the beautiful princess, all while standing on one foot.
“Yeah, I did a homestay in Japan a few years ago. I was staying in Nagano and…”
“Ohhh, did you get to see the snow monkeys in the hot springs?”
“Yeah, that was cool. My family…”
“How about skiing? Did people still recognize you as a foreigner when your head was all bundled up? That happened to me the first time. I lived in Hiroshima and Kagoshima, and my Japanese experience was so much better than yours, excuse me. Did you know I can use chopsticks without using my hands? I met the Emperor as he was buying an onigiri in Sunkus! Such a nice guy, we went out for karaoke and had way too much sake. What else did you do over there?”
“Well, I mostly…”
“Me too! Isn’t it all so crazy? Well, I guess I’ve proven I know more about Japan than you, so I’ll be on my way and not listen to your other travel stories, which may be better than mine. Cheers!”
“Cheers… yeah… baka.”
I guess my best defense would be to get over to Japan, where people actually already know what living in Japan is like. Then I’d actually have to come up with new material.
My interview with an English school in Nemuro is arranged, so all I can do is hope for the best. Although Lonely Planet has very little information about it, I was surprised at how much I could find this time around, now knowing how best to search the vast Internet - using the kanji, checking the train schedule, Googling blogsearch, finding the Japanese local town website (ALL towns in Japan have one of these, I'm sure).
"Japan girai" — dislike of Japan — is an allergy that seems to afflict many Westerners here. If someone handing out Japanese-language flyers assumes they cannot read Japanese and ignores them, they cry racial discrimination. If they are left sitting alone in a train, they assume that is because the racist Japanese do not want to sit next to foreigners. If someone does sit next to them and tries to speak to them in English, they claim more discrimination, this time because it is assumed they cannot speak Japanese.
Normally these people do little harm. In their gaijin ghettoes they complain about everything from landlords reluctant to rent to foreigners (ignoring justified landlord fear of the damage foreigners can cause) to use of the word "gaijin" (forgetting the way some English speakers use the shorter and sometimes discriminatory word "foreigner" rather than "foreign national."). A favorite complaint is that Japanese universities discriminate against foreigners. How many Western universities would employ, even as simple language teachers, foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language?
Recently they have revived the story of how they bravely abolished antiforeigner discrimination from bathhouses in the port town of Otaru in Hokkaido. Since I was closely involved, allow me to throw some extra light on that affair.
An onsen manager who allegedly had earlier been driven to near bankruptcy by badly behaved Russian sailors had decided this time to bar all foreigners from his new enterprise. The activist then filed a suit for mental distress and won ¥3 million in damages. In the Zeit Gist and letter pages of this newspaper, some have criticized these excessively zealous moves by the activists. These critics in turn have been labeled as favoring Nazi-style discrimination and mob rule. Maybe it is time to bring some reality to this debate.
Otaru had been playing host to well over 20,000 Russian sailors a year, most arriving in small rust-bucket ships to deliver timber and pick up secondhand cars. I visited the wharves there, and as proof I harbor no anti-Russian feeling let me add that I speak Russian and enjoyed talking to these earthy, rough-hewn people in their own language. Even so, the idea of them demanding freedom to walk into any onsen bathhouse of their choice, especially to a high-class onsen like Yunohana, is absurd.
The antidiscrimination activists say bathhouse managers can solve all problems by barring drunken sailors. But how do you apply a drunk test? And how do you throw out a drunk who has his foot in the door? Besides, drunken behavior is not the only bathhouse problem with these Otaru sailors. I can understand well why regular Japanese customers seeking the quiet Japanese-style camaraderie of the traditional Japanese bathhouse would want to flee an invasion of noisy, bathhouse-ignorant foreigners. And since it is not possible to bar only Russians, barring all foreigners is the only answer.
The antidiscrimination people point to Japan's acceptance of a U.N. edict banning discrimination on the basis of race. But that edict is broken every time any U.S. organization obeys the affirmative action law demanding preference for blacks and other minorities. Without it, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama would probably not be where he is today.
Malaysia has also ignored it, with its Bumiputra policy of favoring Malays over Chinese and other minorities. There are dozens more examples of societies deciding to favor one group of people over others in order to preserve solidarity or prevent injustices. A large chain of barbershops in Japan has signs saying service is denied to those who do not speak Japanese. Non-Japanese speakers probably cause much less harm to a business than delinquent Russians. But we do not see our activists in action there.
The activists say there should be action to educate Russian sailors in bathhouse behavior. But do we see any of the activists in the friendship societies where worthy Japanese citizens try to ease problems for foreigners living here? Not as far as I know. Presumably close contact with these citizens would also upset their Japan-girai feelings.
In Otaru the obvious answer from the beginning was to create a seamen's club similar to those that exist in many major ports. But here too the activists were very silent. It seems they prefer to move against weak targets where they can gain publicity with a minimum of effort. One result, either of the intensity of their beliefs or of their self-aggrandizement urges, is the vitriol they pour on those who have criticized their actions.
Sometimes their activism goes beyond even the absurd. Japan has long had a real problem of clever Chinese and Korean criminals taking advantage of Japan's lack of theft awareness to pick the locks and pockets of unsuspecting citizens. But when the authorities try to raise this problem, they too are accused of antiforeigner discrimination. Even companies advertising pick-proof locks are labeled as discriminators if they mention the Chinese lock-picking problem.
Obviously Japan needs precautions against these theft experts. Many, myself included, dislike the fingerprinting of foreigners at airports. But this too is needed to stop criminally minded foreigners from re-entering Japan after they have been caught and expelled. If anything the authorities are too lenient with these people. (Let me add that I also have no anti-China feeling; I speak Chinese too.)
It is time we admitted that at times the Japanese have the right to discriminate against some foreigners. If they do not, and Japan ends up like our padlocked, mutually suspicious Western societies, we will all be the losers.
Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.