Maybe the problem is I’m too sensitive and wayyyy too observant to live stress and anger free in Japan. I mean, I have a tendency to notice almost everything. Great for writing – terrible for living.
The one thing that vexes me the most about Japanese people is something I’m sure many foreigners living here don’t notice. Or, if they do, it simply doesn’t get under their skin the way it gets under mine. Because, if it did, I wouldn’t be reading so many weblogs from foreigners living in Japan gushing about how great their lives in Japan are and how wonderful the people are, in general. Maybe they’ve found some way to ignore this thing. I, decidedly, have not!
Japanese call it shyness, but it certainly looks more like terror. It’s not only that they avoid contact with me but the incredibly insensitive ways they go about this tactless task.
Case and point: Today, I was walking from the station to my job. A ten minute walk I take the same time every Monday through Friday. On this walk I must pass a couple hundred people going the way I’ve come. The sidewalks are pretty narrow on certain streets. Barely enough room for two people to pass one another without one giving a little way. And If I were Japanese that’s exactly what would happen. A little way would be given by either myself or both of us in the spirit of keeping it moving. I know this because I observe this daily. I wish I didn’t but I do. But, I am not Japanese.
So, daily, I have to watch a couple hundred people do variations on the same dance I’ll call for the sake of this article, The Xenophobic Waltz. Picture one of those waltz scenes from a movie where the dancers have blank faces and they bow, join, turn, step and twirl and everyone is just as tranquil and syncopated as syncopated swimmers. Synchronization is so important here, as is predictability. The salaryman bullying through two office ladies in a mad dash is as expected and accepted as the schoolgirl paying more attention to her cellphone than the car, though in the right, waiting for her to cross the street without even touching his horn. That’s Japan. You can almost hear the waltz playing in the background. Everyone doesn’t do it the same way, but it’s the rare person who doesn’t participate in this dance at all. The essential elements to this dance are the facial expressions and the accompanying body language. It’s all about attitude. Ask any dance instructor or choreographer.
I can’t dance, by the way.
Now, imagine something totally incongruous entering that ballroom. Something scary yet… Man, it’s not easy to explain this. I mean, if a wolf was in the ballroom, then people would run. That would be the logical reaction. Rarely do people actually run from me. It’s more like if there were a deaf, dumb, clumsy, mentally-challenged dancer among them that no one knows but everyone believes or has heard is prone to do something stupid, unexpected, or in some cases even violent, and this is horrifying for it is a distraction and ruins the syncopation that generations of rehearsal have honed into a rhythm most know by rote. At best he is representative of that which is strange and potentially dangerous, like two left feet or the weak link. At worst, he is the anti-Shinto, and goes totally against Natural Law.
So, as a salaryman approaches me, and I’m in observant mode, like some kind of glutton for confirmation of my long since confirmed belief that the Japanese people are cowardly xenophobes and racists, I watch his every move. I watch as he passes people ahead of me, confidently in stride and uneventfully. I watch as he finally notices me. The recognition of “the other” in his eyes is plain to see. He glances across the street, considers crossing, checks me to see if I’m watching him and on seeing that he has my undivided attention puts his hand up to pick something out of his eye, turns sharply and crosses the street without checking for traffic and causes a car to have to stop a little short. The driver of the car notices me and glides his car as far away from where I’m walking – on the sidewalk mind you- as possible. I guess the suddenness and carelessness of the the other guy’s crossing made the driver sense a danger about. And upon seeing me decided I was that danger. His glide away from me causes the oncoming traffic from the opposite direction to slow, and the driver at its lead looks around to see what caused the other driver to perform such a dangerous detour, sees me, and nearly pulls on to the sidewalk.
I shake my head and keep moving. This kind of shit goes on daily, I swear.
A woman further up the road, missed all of that and is still coming towards me, she notices me and suddenly has a intense desire to check her cellphone for text messages. She whips it out, stops, turns her back to the area where I was to pass, and fish-eyes me until I reach her. Exactly as I pass, like if she were facing me, her body arches forward in order to avoid any possible contact and her head turns to confirm that I had passed. Once I’m pass, and the danger I represented to her has passed, the message she had to see suddenly wasn’t so important anymore, at least not as important as making up for the few seconds she’d lost by stopping, and she ran to catch up to where she ought to have been if it weren’t for, well, me.
Another man is approaching. He notices me and places his back against the wall and aims his head at the sky, while at the same time craning away from me like if I had a chainsaw sticking out the side of my head with the blade aimed at his neck. All of this while he is somehow still moving forward. He never stopped, like one of Spike Lee’s signature shots in his films where characters appear to be moving without walking, kind of floating down the street.
A woman approaches with her child. I brace myself, emotionally. I can almosttolerate the older people and their ignorance, but when they impress it upon the next generation, like it’s some kind of common sense, that really hits me where it hurts. I can almost hear them spewing ignorance. “Be careful of gaijin, Hiro! They are dangerous!” I really hate this stuff, when the kids are purposely infected with this disease. She picks up the toddler, at least he appeared to be a toddler, and steps off the sidewalk, walking along the gutter with her head thrust towards the opposite side of the street until she’d passed me, and then gets back on the sidewalk, places her son back on the ground, glances back at me, sees me watching her behavior and shifts her glance to the cloudless sky, then turns back around to continue on her way. Her child never noticed me, thank god.
Another woman is coming towards me. She is texting on her cellphone. I wondered if she’d seen me while I was looking around at the previous woman. I hoped so. I hate to come upon people without notice. It’s almost worse than than coming upon them when they have preparation. She’s dressed in a black pants suit, thin, short, pretty cute, pushing her mid-thirties. Pretty typical looking Office Lady. A couple of feet from me she glances up and her our eyes meet. I register. Her eyes wander around in her head as she tries to figure out what to do…has to do something…what can she do…life flashes by her eyes…two steps away…will he kill me…rob me…touch me…help me, Buddha! She stiffens, braces for the pending assault….passes without incident. I turn around to see if she shows sign of shame for clearly overreacting, an inkling of the offense she’d just committed against a relatively innocent man. Nothing. Just relief. She regains her composure with a deep breath, not slowing her pace at all, glances back at me, meets my eyes again and turns head back to face what lies before her.
I can just hear her telling her co-workers later about her terrifying encounter with a foreigner on the way to work, and how she was lucky to escape with her life!
By the time I get to the school, each day, I’m in no mood to deal with the foolishness I have to with the people I see everyday.
But, here in Japan, the foolishness never ceases.