Slogging Through the Years

Jan 15,2014

It's 2014 and, with apologies for the delay in making a post to confront the new year, I wish the two or three individuals who might happen to read this a very happy new year. Winter is cold and has given us a fair bit of snow, the Doomsday Clock is a minute closer to midnight than it was since the last update, and the twin forces of television and democracy continue to erode our so-called civilisation.

I had noticed a skein of articles on the world wide web, which I should probably avoid but don't, that have caused a great deal of stir closer to home in 2013. By now, this is a really tired subject, but it keeps going on. We keep harping on it because it's still relevant. Some people are optimistic; most people who comment at Arudou Debito's site are pessimistic in the extreme.

This article is interesting, and the comments even more so. It wasn't one of the most remarkable of the year, but it's representative of the type of feedback expats normally share around. The issue is extremely complex, and I'll admit that I've spent the better part of 2013 keeping my head down and ignoring most of the people around me in an effort to escape the kind of ignorant and prejudiced thinking described in the comments.

Then there was this piece, which caused a great deal of friction beyond the expat community and well into the local and nationalist. Granted, the treacher's approach was controversial and some of the information he provided was inaccurate, but most of the backlash seemed to be more from the very notion that a 'foreigner' had the temerity to suggest that anything like 'racism' exists in Japan. As was described succinctly by a commenter to the previous article, the Japanese public has an enormous appetite for praise toward the country and is extremely sensitive to criticism. This goes further when the person making the criticism doesn't have the proper citizenship or ethnic makeup that a lot of people seem to think is a prerequisite for implying that Japan is anything other than paradise.

I wasn't surprized that Miki Dezaki's actions caused a stir, so much as by the utter unwillingness of people to question their assumptions that his video brought to light. What exactly 'racism' means is is hard to define, but a lot of people here seem to think two different standards of definition apply, depending on whether the person doing or thinking the thing in question is Japanese, or not. Quite recently, a group of my students voiced contempt for Australia's former white-only immigration policy; when I commented on how difficult it is to immigrate to Japan, they responded with, 'One blood for thousands of years--immigrants are not welcome!'(And yet these same individuals continue to pay me to visit their home.) The logic seems to go that it's discrimination when 'other people' do it, but not when Japanese do the same thing to 'other people'.

It's certainly a high challenge for anyone to examine their own preconceived notions, as it is the effects their words and attitudes have on others. In my experience in the US, for example, unworldly people constantly call attention to someone's ethnic origin even when it has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand, and worldly people do not. 'There's a new guy starting work here tomorrow. A black guy.' Are there simply fewer wordly people in Japan than in the US? I'm often told, by expats and natives alike, that the answer is yes, and that the reason for this is that it's an 'island country'. (If you look up 'insularity' in most electronic dictionaries, the Japanese definition literally translates as 'island country mentality'). I've been in taxis where the driver didn't know the location of the place I wanted to go and had to telephone the base for directions, explaining he had a 'gaijin' who wanted to go there.

While I doubt that in the US a white taxi driver could get away with saying, 'A black guy wants to go there', I've seen plenty of cases where an individual was judged simply on the basis of darker skin as being violently inclined, lacking in intelligence, or both. (To gauge how offended you should be as a white dude in Japan when Japanese children, upon seeing you, shower you with taunts of 'harro, how aaa yuu', ask yourself how offended you would be if you were black in the US and white children constantly called out hip-hop lyrics at you irrespective of your age, fashion sense or socioeconomic status.)

The G-word strikes me pretty much the same as the N-word, but some people throw it around in complete innocence, just as many whites did the N-word in the US until the 1920s or so, even using it to refer to people they supposedly liked. At least one person in the office here throws around the G-word on occasion, but the majority don't, and in fact most Japanese who have extended contact with non-Japanese are perfectly aware that the word is offensive and don't use it; after all, it has been banned from public television along with a bunch of other terms that are clearly offensive.

Sometimes, when people ask why I came to Japan--which itself seems a loaded question, like they're implying I should leave--I tell them, tongue-n-cheek, that I wanted to feel what it's like to be Mexican in the US. I don't think I was completely aware of it when I lived in California, but Mexican immigrants are often treated like they couldn't possibly understand the language, are lazy, and are unfit for any work other than manual labour. Now that I've spent ten years on the receiving end of all those stereotypes (replace 'manual labour' with 'English conversation') I'm a lot more sensitive to the plight of Mexican immigrants than I was when I lived there--and I already knew they risked an awful lot more to get across the border than I ever did. I had a pretty cushy trip, but before I came here I hadn't experienced constant 'othering' yet. (True, I met black people in certain neighbourhoods who were very, very angry at me for having been born white, but that would deserve a separate post.)

So it really is difficult to draw comparisons and say where racism begins and ends. The amusement and bemusement at my being able to carry on a conversation or read a book in the language of the country where I've spent a quarter of my life is, to say the least, rather odd. I'm often told, often by people much younger than I am, how 'jouzu' I am. When I respond in kind, they think I'm joking (and answer with the most phenomenally asinine--and predictable--line: 'But we are Japanese!'), and then I have to patiently explain what should be patently obvious: That I started studying the language around the time they were born, and so the fact that they speak it better than I do is actually rather embarrassing. (That they have trouble understanding that is, quite frankly, nothing other than racist.)

Every day on my way from one job to the next I'm greeted with at least three taunts of 'Harro' from elementary school children (and sometimes older kids). When I respond in Japanese, sometimes pointing out that it's not very nice to do ridicule people just because they look different, I sometimes get asked in complete innocence if I am actually Japanese. This is because it's been drilled into them by miseducation and whatever they watch on the lobotomy box that only Japanese people speak Japanese, and if a guy looks caucasian he must be straight off the boat. Then I usually shake my head and leave the scene because I have to go to work and don't have the years necessary to get people unlearn all the stupidities they've been fed with. The problem, of course, is that ignorant children grow into ignorant adults, and although a recent statistic claims that one child in fifty in Japan is born to parents of different races, if prevailing attitudes continue as they are these children are going to have a hard time in the job market and in society.

It will be interesting to see what will happen when I try to buy a house. I might be pleasantly surprized. I like to hope so. At least, being a pariah in a country where the majority believes itself to be clearly unique against all scientific evidence isn't as bad being on the receiving end of genocide that sometimes comes of that line of thinking (yet--knock on wood), or living in a forced labour camp, or the threat of nuclear annihilation. But it's something. And it would be interesting to leave this post online for another ten years in order to look back and see if things seem to be different.

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