Foreigner, Heal Thyself
A lot of people contact me with various questions regarding living in Japan (especially now that my Truth About AEON posts have gotten so many hits). A few that keep cropping up are:
What’s the American sentiment like in Japan? How do the Japanese feel about Americans as a result of WWII?
Let me follow those questions with a commonly occurring situation for me in Japan, among foreigners and Japanese alike. I am an American. I am from Texas.
“Oh, isn’t that where Bush is from?”
I think we can all agree with this flawless logic: if an American happens to be from the same state as a current unpopular president, he should have to justify it. Because, after all, he must be the living embodiment of everything unpopularly American.
At least, that’s what goes through my mind when the first response to “Texas” is always “Bush”. In actuality, I don’t have any problems being an American and a Texan in Japan. Nor is this exclusively Japanese; Texas is such a cultural (and large) state that it’s reasonably well known around the world. It’s worth pointing out, however, that I associate myself more with Austin, the only good city in Texas, with the best university, “Keep Austin Weird”, Chuy’s Mexican food, and of course, Leslie.
But I digress… if the Japanese have any anti-American sentiment, I can say with reasonable confidence it stems more from current events than those surrounding Nagasaki and Hiroshima. If you’d have talked to a Japanese between August 9th and 15th, 1945 (the dates of the last major bombing, on Nagasaki, and the Emperor’s radio broadcast, respectively), that would most likely have been the height of their hatred of Americans. When the country was still believing itself to be righteous under the Son of Heaven, and any opposing country that would launch such a “dirty” attack must be, well, pure evil.
Since August 15th, the mindset of most Japanese slowly turned around, seeing how arrogant they were to believe they could conquer the world under the banner of the Emperor, turning those feelings of hatred towards the government and high officials that had “tricked and deceived” them. There’s no doubt that many feared and suffered at the hands of the American occupation, but considering what could have happened (open rebellion, continued armed conflict), the Japanese reaction to the occupying force was, well, accepting. MacArthur himself, the overlord of the American forces, received numerous gifts, offers of marriage, and letters of concern over his health during his time in Japan (though he rarely travelled outside of the few blocks required for his office).
Although there are many exceptions, it’s important to understand that the entire country essentially turned those feelings brought on by the war, and culminated in two atomic blasts, not against Americans, but the Japanese government (one reason for such radical reforms in the 1950’s).
When I first came to Japan, I lived in Hiroshima. Not once during my time there did I experience any racism as an American (or as a foreigner, really) by a Japanese. I never saw hate hidden behind people’s eyes as I walked down the street. I could jog through Peace Park (though perhaps feeling a bit hypocritical myself). I could attend the lantern ceremony on August 6th, joining other Japanese and foreigners for the same cause. Quite the contrary, I was accepted and doted on.
The little discrimination I have experienced is not a result of anything that happened sixty years ago, but in the last five years in Iraq. And more often that not, the most pointed remarks come from fellow foreigners rather than Japanese. Naturally, this isn’t isolated to Japan
If you believe the Japanese are racist against Americans, you should hear what other nationalities say about each other while in Japan: Texans (well, we were a nation once) all ride horses, own guns, and support the war; Americans are fat, arrogant, wasteful, and inconsiderate; Australians do nothing but get drunk and fight… it goes on. You see it on the blogosphere as well; if a YouTube video crops up on Japan Probe showing foreigners behaving badly in Japan, some of the first comments that come up by NJ (non-Japanese) are “F$#&ng Americans”.
It is for reasons like these that there is such significant pressure on expats to be dutiful representatives of their native countries, to expel the stereotypes. Even if you know you’re not an arrogant, uncultured, intolerant foreigner, you tend to walk on needles a lot in sensitive situations, to stop yourself from exhibiting any behavior that might prove otherwise.
Guess what? The Japanese may have more cause for their hate, but discrimination is not exclusive to this country, nor has it ever been. Although I personally haven’t seen too many examples of blantant racism by the Japanese (Debito’s sources as exceptions, of course), I believe all this pressure on expats to be true representatives of their own respective countries heightens existing stereotypes, causing them to really look down on those not behaving in a similar manner.
People see a video of some foreigners jumping a JR ticket taker, laughing and screaming: “They must be Americans. Look how arrogant they are as guests in such a wonderful country. They’re ruining it for the rest of us.”
An Australian is beat up after getting drunk and damaging a truck: “Damn Australians. Can’t they stay sober? They’re ruining it for the rest of us.”
Out of line? Send me your thoughts.
Update 3/11/08:Here’s a good article called “Traveling While Texan”