I’m exploring this topic the best way I know how, which is simply to sit and type until I reach some kind of revelation… or just leave a series of questions in my wake. Recently, a friend of mine told me she found my travel writing incredibly offensive, if not downright racist. I couldn’t understand where she was coming from, and kept prying until she said she thought I generalized an entire race of people, in saying that “all” Japanese do the same for foreigners.
But was it true? Had I been living in Asia so long that I started to embody some of the behavior I and others see on almost a day-to-day basis? When I wrote about life in Japan, did I paint all Japanese with the same brush, leaving no room for individual behavior? It reminded me of a joke I liked to tell around expats in Japan:
When a Japanese person trips, it means he had an accident. When a foreigner trips, it means he doesn’t know how to walk.
Implying that, to your average Japanese observer, foreigners simply can’t be seen in the same light as a fellow Japanese. Things are seen in absolutes, especially where behavior or habits are concerned.
– You saw a foreigner passed out drunk? Well, that’s what foreigners do.
– You’re living in Japan but you’re not an English teacher? That’s impossible; all foreigners are English teachers. You must be mistaken.
(this is hyperbole, if you can’t tell).
Is that offensive? Before I say anything else, I should say: that was not my intention. For whatever that’s worth.
That being said, I can’t deny the experiences I had in Japan. Never at any time did I feel a part of that ultimate in-group, Japanese society. And, of course, you can take that as you will: maybe my Japanese skills weren’t up to par; maybe I didn’t try hard enough to fit in; maybe I was just too stubborn to ever fit in. I personally believe there is and has always been (but hopefully will not always be) a clear barrier between Japanese people and foreigners… on the part of Japanese. Why? I know I’m generalizing here, but with good reason. This is not dealing with Japanese as a race, but Japanese that were born in Japan to ethnically Japanese parents, raised in Japan in the Japanese school system, and continue to live their lives in Japan; in other words, not any ethnically Japanese people raised outside Japan. No Japanese could go through that process without developing a sense of group mentality. Spending time in schools, becoming part of the system, told to fear individuality. In-groups and out-groups. And foreigners are the ultimate out-group, as gaijin (外人).
I’ve said it before: people who think Japanese are racist in the western sense of the word – and yes, there is a difference – are mistaken. There are racists as Americans and Europeans have come to know them in Japan: bigoted ignorant idiots. But, those who spend time in Japan know bigots aren’t representative of the population as a whole. So why do they feel discriminated against? Japanese people don’t treat foreigners differently because they have strong objections to white or black skin; they treat them differently because they are not Japanese. They don’t fit into society’s rules and therefore, must be treated like they don’t belong. Ironically, this is more of an attempt to make foreigners conform; it doesn’t work, because we can’t (very similar to the mentality behind ijime, bullying). More on the subject here
So I need to know, and I need honest answers from my readers. Is that argument inherently offensive and racist? I honestly believed it was just being pragmatic. I suppose it very well might be 日本人論.