Tag Archives: Japanese culture

An imagined second year


I have hit a low point in my attitude towards Japan. Well, towards life as a foreigner, filtered through the lens of Japan. I’m not dissatisfied with the country per se; I’m disappointed in the treatment of foreigners and the underlying cultural attitudes about them. It feels like instead of meeting the Japanese halfway and striking a balance between our cultural differences, I’m stretching 90% of the way all on my own – and still find myself pushed onto a strange pedestal that feels more like a prison.

There’s a Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” I think the glaring exception to this rule is foreigners: no matter how much we try to worm our way into the proverbial wood, we are firmly held back, held separate, by the surrounding culture.

I’ve noticed a change in myself in the last month or two: for at least my first six months here, I tried so hard to adapt, to “read the air,” to show coworkers and the general public that I could fit into their culture. I was always on edge, always apologizing or preparing to do so, trying to do everything the way I saw others doing it.

I used to privately distinguish myself from other foreigners who really seemed to want, literally, to become Japanese – people who obsessively studied the language, put on all the cute clothes and mannerisms– but it turns out I was working just as hard to change myself, in the hyper-adaptability and humility I tried to exude. Now, I act and react more or less as my American self, stripping away the makeshift Japaneseness that everyone always knew was counterfeit anyway.

 I will always, my whole life, maintain that Japan is a gorgeous country with a culture worth learning about, both in the teeming cities of Tokyo and Osaka and off the beaten tourist track. But I cannot endorse it as a place to live and work as a foreigner. I don’t pretend to speak to the experience of all foreigners here, nor to imply that immigrant or resident alien life is better in the United States or elsewhere. All I am saying is that I’m disillusioned by my experience, and that life as a gaijin is not for me.

My Fantasy Second Year

There are so many things that I wish I could stay and accomplish, so many frustrations from this year that I know will never be resolved. So I like to imagine that, if I stayed a second year, I would confront head-on everything that has bothered me about my life here.

I would start by refusing to play along anymore in the caricaturizing of foreign countries.

One day, I would refuse to smile indulgently when a teacher told her 10-year-old students that, “if you put up the middle finger in America, you will be riddled with bullets” (this last clause not spoken but vividly mimed). My supplies of temperance and patience would run dry as I continued to correct the stream of outrageous and offensive assumptions about Americans or foreigners in general (because all too often in Japan, those two terms are interchangeable), presented to me gleefully by coworkers who should know better.

I would also confront the routine harassment of foreign women, the legions of men who target us because they assume that we lack the language skills to object.

When a store employee said, “you have long legs compared to me,” and reached to grope my hip – or when a stranger asked me out of nowhere if I was wearing nylons and pinched my knee – I would finally yell at him like I always wish, in retrospect, I had. I would embarrass him for the whole country to see: I’d eloquently tear down stereotypes (because in this second year, I would be practically fluent in Japanese) as well as this creep’s inflated ego.

No More Ms. Nice Guy

And yet, at the same time, I would be a stereotypical American. I would put my foot down, set ultimatums, stand up for my individuality and my personhood and my culture, for the ideals of tolerance and respect that America has instilled in me.

Why I haven’t done any of these things this year, I couldn’t tell you. All I feel is an immense shame and frustration, a lack of integrity: I was so busy trying not to make waves that I forgot how to be myself in the midst of this vast ocean of a foreign culture.

Until tonight, I had felt guilty about the recent transition I’ve mentioned, from desperate attempts at adaptation back to plain old me. Until tonight, I had seen it as giving up. But I’m beginning to view the problem of cultural exchange (and yes, in Japan it is a problem) as one that can’t be solved with tact and gentleness and a sugar coating. I’m beginning to believe that, as someone hired for my foreignness, my job is more about constructive criticism than about playing nice. And my job extends far beyond the classroom: in a way, I’m always at work – challenging prejudices one at a time, in every interaction with every store clerk, postal worker and creepy stranger.

I think our countries have things to learn from each other, and the closed-mindedness I’ve run up against time and time again here discourages me. I can only hope that I won’t find a similar brand of exclusivist nationalism in my own country when I return.

To become Japanese?

I have been forming these thoughts for a while, and I’ve already talked to a lot of fellow JETs about this topic in person. So if you’re one of those people, sorry for the repetition! Maybe I’ll be more eloquent on paper (well, on screen).

I always used to envy friends whose families had immigrated to the United States from elsewhere. It seemed like there was this huge facet of their identities — that of having a mother culture — that I lacked. My family has been in the same country for generations; we never had to pack up our heritage and bring it to a new place. We never had to work to preserve the traditions, clothes, language that were important to us; these things already surrounded us, they were already part of the dominant culture. I always felt a little deprived, passed over, for not having the kind of cultural history and identity that I could see was so important to my friends’ families.

Coming to another country has helped me to become aware of my American-ness and how profoundly it has shaped who I am. Some people begin their journeys abroad as visitors and then become permanent expatriates; they create a home in a new part of the world. I have a strong feeling that the opposite is true for me. As I wrote in the last post, I feel that I belong in America, whatever its flaws may be; at least they’re intimately familiar ones!

This position of being between cultures — of growing up in one culture and then being transplanted to another — is one that people approach in a variety of ways. Some hold tight to what they are used to and fail to see any value in assimilating; they create an individual-sized American bubble in Japan, or a Mexican microcosm in the United States, and so on. Others attempt to balance the familiar and the strange, the old culture and the new, while still others dive enthusiastically into the new culture and try to soak up as much of it as possible.

Which brings me to my main point: The great paradox of the JET Program is that the Japanese government hires Westerners with the aim of bringing a small piece of authentic, pristine Western culture to Japan — and yet, many of the people who make the final cut are Westerners who want more or less to become Japanese. It’s this perfect, circular irony, like The Gift of the Magi or something! As Japan works hard to accommodate our difference and learn from a different culture, some JETs work just as hard to efface those characteristics that make them un-Japanese.

As you’ve probably figured out, I don’t believe we should become Japanese — indeed, I don’t think we can. I do think that we can and should learn from and appreciate the culture that surrounds us. So it’s a balance. If some behavior or belief that you brought from home is important to you, you can find a way to fit it into your life here. If it’s a hot day, I’d go ahead and wear that spaghetti strap blouse, even though I haven’t seen any Japanese women dress like that. But at the same time, I make every effort to eat new and strange foods, to notice and emulate the behavior of the people around me, and to speak Japanese.

At its best, I think time abroad should teach you an infinite number of new things while also showing you exactly how and why your home culture is precious to you.

“So, why Japan?”

When you think of Western expats living in Japan, what comes to mind?

Go ahead, you can say it:

Manga geeks. Anime devotees. And, most of all, Western men on the singular mission of getting a Japanese girlfriend/wife. Protest all you want, I just said what many of us were thinking.

None of those things are bad! They’re just the stereotypes. And it’s easy to see why: each of those types of people has a particular fascination with Japan, a specific reason to come and make a life here.

Which brings me to a small problem I’ve been facing: many Japanese coworkers and friendly strangers expect me to have a special cultural interest that brought me here. Last week, when I met the principal of one of my schools, we sat down to chat over some cold tea and one of her first questions was: So what is your #1 interest in Japan?

I was caught off guard and ended up answering lamely, “Learning Japanese.” I could feel her wanting me to say “tea ceremony,” “karate” or “Arashi,” and no matter how much I think about it, there’s nothing like that that really resonates with me.

So, if we’re talking about my reasons for coming here, let’s just get the pragmatic one out of the way: yes, I just graduated and am still not sure what to do with my life and the job market back home is abysmal. Yes! No shame! For a year, I can support myself, and if it happens to be in Japan, so be it.

But beyond that, what I failed to explain to the principal and to many other people here is that my interest isn’t so much in Japan as in the world beyond the United States in general. I don’t want to live here forever; I know deep down that my home is America and that’s where I’ll be long-term. But I do love the challenge of living in another country. I’ve always loved learning other languages, learning to express myself in new ways, and examining the ways culture determines how people live their lives.

But if the interest is that general, why did I end up in Japan? I guess I feel a sort of affinity with the culture of politeness, as overbearing and tedious as it may be. As an introvert, as someone who worries about pleasing others, I feel a little more comfortable here than in the U.S., where inflated individualism is a major influence (to say the least!). Maybe I’ll expand on this in another post.

But even if I knew how to explain that in Japanese, I’m not sure it would really satisfy people. “Your culture is good for quiet people like me.” Hmmm.

So is it bad that I don’t have a passion for anything uniquely Japanese? Is it my responsibility to have a keen interest in the nation I’m now a part of (even if I’m still kind of a guest)?