30 November 2008 ~ 18 Comments

10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama: #1-Don’t be you!

I know it’s difficult to do anything life altering. I came here planning to alter my life, not to have it altered. It just kind of happened, and I fought it every step of the way. Which only made it more intense, and more interesting I’d like to believe…the results of which I am filling my blog with. But, for those of you who are planning to come to japan or have come here already and just want to have fun and not upset the status quo- Japan’s or your own- too much in the process I have compiled a list of ways to make the potential life altering experience of living in Japan less…life altering.

Of course, if you’ve been here 3 years or longer, and assuming you aren’t loco already, you’ve put together your own list of ways to survive life in Japan. It’s the rare foreigner, I believe, that hasn’t had to significantly adjust his thinking, behavior, lifestyle, and so on, in order to adapt to life here. And perhaps like I, you feel the better for it.

The following list I’ve been putting together in my heart and mind for several years. I’ve tested each one and they have proven to have a high success rate. They’re not 100% but they range from the high 70s to the low 90s percentile. Whether or not they’ll work for you, I really can’t say. And any feedback you have on my list is of course welcomed.

The reason I specify Yokohama is because I know Yokohama well. I also know Saitama and Tokyo well, but, though Japanese are indeed Japanese, I do believe that people have different experiences depending on their area or region. I’ve met foreigners who live in Kansai and were utterly surprised when I told them about some of my experiences here. And I’ve met Nihon-jin in the countryside whose reaction to foreigners was significantly more dramatic and intense than the usual.

Some Gaijin are only here for the short term. A one year contract with an English school, or your company has a joint project with a Japanese company, or maybe you were hired temporarily as an adviser or Consultant. If so, this list may not be of any help to you. But, for the rest of us, the ones who might have come initially for one of the above reasons, but somehow (and there are a number of ways) Japan got its hooks in you, and wiggle as you may, escape is unlikely and in some cases impossible: this post’s for you.

1- My first tip may very well be the most difficult. It certainly was the most difficult for me. I still struggle with it, but the longer you’re here the easier it gets. It may seem ironic that though Japanese life is heavily influenced by nature my first tip to the foreigner living in Japan is: Don’t be Natural. By natural I mean don’t behave the way you would in your home country, or rather don’t be yourself. Get over yourself, to use the fairly modern vernacular.

For example: Japanese behavior towards foreigners is, in general, offensive. That’s a fact. How offended and how often you will be offended depends solely on your sensitivity and tolerance levels. My sensitivity was high and my tolerance was low so I found myself offended quite frequently. I have theorized that this occurs because of the difference between the definition of offensive in Western societies and offensive here.

So, ask yourself how you would naturally respond to an offense against you back home. Let’s say someone upon seeing you reacted as if you were a rabid hyena, how would you respond? Now imagine that reaction 10-20 times a day. I think responses would range from ignoring the offenders entirely (the more tolerant of us) to drop-kicking them all (the least tolerant of us). At a minimum you would want to know what their issues were to determine if it was something legitimate or illegitimate, something you had control over or not. But, in Japan, you learn early on that the offenses being committed against you are done merely as a result of a kind of institutionalized ignorance.

If posed to a Japanese person, the response to the why question (why do Japanese people react like that to me?) is always the same so you can feel the indoctrination, the resignation that this is the way things are and will probably continue to be as long as they are Japanese. We’re a small island, cut off from the world…we don’t have exposure to foreigners…we can’t speak English…we are shy…. These do not sound like things that will ever change, do they? Forget how shocking it is that they feel that they’ve given you an acceptable excuse for treating you the way they have for a moment, and ask yourself what is the natural response to that?

Well, if you’re like I was, the natural response is to react, and in some cases react strongly. But, tip number one is don’t be you. Be a new you. Be a different you. Be the you that can look at such offenses every day and somehow find solace and maintain your inner peace. How do you find this solace and inner peace? You have to question all of your ideas of right and wrong, question your own indoctrination and institutionalized ignorance. It’s easy to say, they are wrong, I am right. The challenge is to say maybe they’re right and maybe I’m wrong, or maybe my sensitivity and self-righteousness is as much a part of the problem as their ignorance and nonchalance about it is, or, maybe there is no right or wrong, there’s just an is. If you have, you’ve taken the first step.

But that’s just the beginning.  Believe it or not, that’s the easy part.

I found that solace and inner peace were virtually impossible for me to attain while Japanese were in my vicinity. As hard as I tried to accept their offenses as just a sign of their ignorance I was so in touch with their behavior that I could spot an offense against me at 50 yards. This is how most Japanese feel about us, as well, however. Our very presence here is uncomfortable and offensive, which is part of the reason why they behave the way they do.

One question I can count on being asked by Japanese (and I’m sure most of you can bear witness) is: Why did you come to Japan? This question used to vex me something awful. I’ve never asked a single foreigner in NY why did they come to America. But, I realized that this question is at the heart of the problem. The idea of leaving one’s home, where one is surrounded by all the trappings of home, by people who feel as you feel, think as you think, do as you do, look as you look, is absurd to most Japanese. Most of us want nothing but mirrors around us. Us meaning human beings. We want to see our reflections while we’re reflecting the people we see. Reflectors reflecting reflections of reflections, like some crazy house at the amusement park or maybe a barber shop. The reflections go on forever, with no reason and no end.

I asked myself why did I want Japanese to look at me and not see me but see themselves, see just another human being. After all, I was taught that this was the way the world should be. That in an ideal world, people would be people, and fish would be fish, etc…Martin Luther King said he dreamed of a day when a man would be measured not by the color of his skin but the content of his character. And his vision helped shape the society that reared me.  Of course, I’ve never lived in that world, neither did MLK, and neither have any of you, I presume. That world only existed in dreams. But, it was a dream that was shared by millions of people and so it became more than a fantasy it became an ambition. And, as an American, I was taught that the people that couldn’t look past my skin color to my character were dangerous, were obstacles in the path to reaching that goal. Obstacles that needed to be hurdled or removed. i learned that this kind of thing was unacceptable, and not to be taken sitting down unless it was at a lunch counter or on a bus where a sign reads “No Coloreds Allowed!” I also had some Malcolm X (pre-trip to Mecca) influenced feelings and ideas, as well. I grew up in the revolution. The Black Panthers were my teachers. Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis were as much my heroes and role models as Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. The struggle had several fronts.

I brought all of that energy with me to Japan. But, after being here for a while, encountering for perhaps the first time, people who had not even been influenced by MLK’s Nobel Prize winning message of how to build a better world, I started to wonder, for the first time, if this type of indoctrination, this ideal, was exclusive to Americans. I really don’t know what’s being taught in other countries. I know there is no other country in the world that can boast the kind of diversity that America does, even if some of it merely hype. So, maybe this is not the ideal in other countries. Or maybe it is the status quo in some countries I don’t know about.

I’ve listened to hundreds of Gaijin from all over the western world speak about their ideal, and their reactions to Japanese behavior vary from “How dare the little yellow savages treat me like a second class citizen!” to “I know exactly how they feel and I agree: Gaijin will sooner or later destroy what little culture and tradition this country’s has managed to retain,” and everything in-between.

So, I concluded that this indoctrination is a large part of the problem. We’ve all brought our ideals with us to this land and we assert them in everything we say and do. And, if Japan didn’t want to learn of them they shouldn’t have allowed us in or in some cases invited us. We have the inalienable right to be ourselves! Trust me, I know how you feel.  And, you know what? THAT’S OFFENSIVE to them! So, do yourself a favor, and don’t be yourself.

I know, I know…it begs the question: Who shall I be then? That’s up to you, but if you live here that person had better be someone less disruptive to the status quo or loco awaits.

Personally, I chose to be the happiest, go luckiest, friendliest, non-threatening-est, shyest, playful, joyful gaijin they’ve ever met. (-: I deserve an Oscar!

Next up: #2: Camouflage and Props

Loco

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18 Responses to “10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama: #1-Don’t be you!”

  1. topaz 1 December 2008 at 3:39 am Permalink

    Loco – A great and thoughtful post. I think you're on to something. One of the first keys to being a happy foreigner living in Japan (and, maybe to just being a happy human living in the world) is to find that solace and inner peace you talk about. To stop living for affirmation from people you don't know and don't care to know.

    Once you get past caring, and past being emotional about how Japanese people react to you, you're one step closer to being able to understand why they react that way. And that, in turn, gets you one step closer to being able to change the way they react to you, in case you come across somebody you *do* care about.

    Personally, I don't think those negative vibes we get as foreigners are 100% due to our skin color (even yours). It's a huge factor of course. But I think there's quite a bit we can do to temper those reactions by studying, learning, and changing our own behavior, too.

  2. Locohama 1 December 2008 at 4:39 am Permalink

    Thanks Topaz for a very thoughtful response. I think we are definitely on the same page. (-:

    Loco

  3. Uchujin 4 December 2008 at 6:19 pm Permalink

    Loco-Thanks for this post. It's an issue I've been wrestling with my whole time here. I'm not an American but feel I was brought up with a similar set of values RE: judging people by their character not by their appearance.
    This country has driven me to the very edge of "loco" and honestly I'm still there.
    Some great food for thought, ideas that I have thought about before but need to be reminded of for fear that being treated that way I am on a daily basis will only turn me into an intolerant racist myself.
    Not sure I agreew with everything you say, but the beauty of not being Japanese is I can ingest the parts of your opinion I don't agree with and actually respect you more BECAUSE I don't agree with you.
    Keep up the good work.

  4. Locohama 4 December 2008 at 6:31 pm Permalink

    Thanks Uchujin (-: Aint it just grand to respect and be respected? The edge of loco…I might have to borrow that (-: Thanks for the shout and I'll certainly try to keep it up!

    Loco

  5. michaeljohngrist 11 December 2008 at 7:50 am Permalink

    I guess I'm a pretty tolerant person, so the things you're talking about would just slide off me more. This is not exactly the same thing- but I have friends who get enraged by old people walking slowly, people walking 5 abreast in a group and not contracting to let people through, people just ignorant of their own physical location and clumsiness, people smoking in smoking restaurants, and even being touched at all.
    These things have never really fazed me, so I can't claim to have gotten over them- but if they were to enrage someone, yes, I think that might be tough to deal with.
    As for getting upset about any charges of intolerance from Japanese people, I can't really get worked up about it. It's not the same as intolerance in other countries. It's not strong, it's weak, and it'll fade away. They know they are not a world power in any meaningful way, they don't have an army, they do what the US says. We here as representatives of the Western world come from stronger bigger countries, with mother-tongues that afford us far more opportunities than does theirs. It's hard to think being excluded or even mildly disrespected here means all that much.

    • Locohama 11 December 2008 at 8:23 am Permalink

      Yeah, Mike, bring the noise! Thanks again! I wasn't tolerant I learned upon entering this man's land. I admire you. Your friends sound like nitpickers but I think the things that get under my skin are the kinds of things it would take an extremely tough skinned individual to tolerate or ignore. it's still a daily challenge for me. Even today I almost boxed someone ears for a conspicuous slight. I think if you look throughout history you can see examples of people who were and weren't fazed or affected by intolerance and prejudice both contributing to the battle to eradicate them. Whether or not they will ever be eradicated once and for all, who knows. I can tell that you derive some of your thick skin from the knowledge that these people who I find offensive are, in your eyes, beneath or unworthy of contempt. It would be like getting all bent out of shape about what a child or a drunk says or does. I'm not there and I'm not sure I'll ever be there or if that's even where I want to be, but it sounds like it gets you through the night and like John Lennon says that's alright!.

      Peace ans all that! (-: And keep bringing it!

      Loco

  6. XO 7 January 2009 at 7:01 am Permalink

    ”It’s hard to think being excluded or even mildly disrespected here means all that much."

    It means a lot to me and my children. We feel humiliated on a regular basis. It is death by paper-cuts, a slow torture. And the more you understand the intricacies of the ways you are being insulted, the more it will bother you. It is possible people are insulting you and you are not picking up on it. I guess it also depends on your attachment to this place. If you plan to go back soon, then, yeah, why let it ruin your life. But if you are here for a long time, or maybe forever, then I honestly cannot see how the dozens of daily attacks–big and small–will not greatly impact your quality of life.

    • Locohama 7 January 2009 at 7:12 am Permalink

      XO-san, I couldn't have said it better myself! Thanks a lot for the feedback…
      You friggin' nailed it!!!

      Loco

  7. XO 8 January 2009 at 7:02 pm Permalink

    Loco, It's a great blog, the best I have seen. I will try to come back reguarly. Thanks for giving us a voice.

    • Locohama 8 January 2009 at 8:25 pm Permalink

      Thanks XO (-: who is "us"? Foreigners in Japan? (just curious)

      Loco

  8. freedomwv 23 January 2009 at 6:55 am Permalink

    I have found that I have to stay real cool at all times in Tokyo. When they freak out because I am gaijin, I have to be cool and let them treat me like I am from Mars. After a while, they chill out and treat me like am actual human.

  9. XO 25 February 2009 at 6:48 am Permalink

    "After a while, they chill out and treat me like am actual human."

    Ah, but that would not happen in most situations, because you are only meeting them briefly. For example, let's say you are walking to Lawson's down a small back street, and an o-ba-chan overreacts to you. In this situation, you would never see the person again, so they won't get a chance to chill-out. And if something like that happens to you 10 times a day, then life will suck. But I grant you that the uchi-soto distinction is basically valid with Japanese relationships.

  10. Jorge 10 May 2009 at 9:42 pm Permalink

    I actually LIKE the the low-level racism I experience here all the time, in a strange way. I feel like it makes me psychologically much stronger and tougher in a very positive way.

    I used to be hypersensitive to the slights and was genuinely hurt. No amount of intellectually understanding it lessened my feelings at all.

    But then, little by little, I began to develop a more realistic and perhaps much darker view of human nature and to accept our humanity in all it's flawed and tortuous glory.

    My life in Japan has allowed me to vastly expand my ability to simply not care what others think – a very enviable skill that eluded me most of my life in America. I no longer care so much about trying to please or be "nice" or fake myself in order to be liked by others, wherever I am, in America or elsewhere. I owe this new-found autonomy and inner strength to the Japanese.

    I think you're approach of being especially nice and friendly to the Japanese, while I understand and respect where its coming from, is misconceived. I've tried it, and I've found the consequences to my ego were devastating, and I don't think it actually gets you better treatment from the Japanese. You just sink ever deeper into a psychologically subordinate position vis a vis the Japanese, and that you want to avoid at all costs. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating you be especially rude or unfriendly, by any means.

    What I do is precisely act normal and be unapologetically me. I am not especially nice nor especially rude. I do not seek approval from the Japanese nor do I make ay special effort to be liked by them. I feel this projects an attitude of inner strength and stability that the Japanese respect – remember, the Japanese with their feudal notions of hierarchy will respond far more favorably to you if you can project high status than if you are merely "nice", and I have actually found I get a much better level of treatment acting this way than "kowtowing" by spreading the niceness on very thick.

    I don't condone or ignore the slights, but I simply accept them as a brute fact of human nature. I am neither surprised nor reactive to them – human nature has a dark side, we are animals designed by evolution for survival, and this is one of the darker manifestations of our design. So what? It is meaningless and says nothing about me. Nor should I be even slightly surprised or expect anything different. I even sometimes enjoy it in an ironic way.

    I've developed a thick outer carapace which has allowed me to be much better at ignoring what others think of me, and this has improved my life in countless ways in almost all social encounters – even with women :) – both in America and Japan. Japanese racism has been education for me in autonomy and independence. My ego has strengthened, not wilted.

    And at the end of the day, there are TONS of Japanese who are extremely friendly to foreigners, so I spend most of my time seeking them out and enjoying wonderful interactions with them. And the racists? For them I reserve irony, amusement, and perhaps even gratitude.

  11. XO 15 May 2009 at 6:27 am Permalink

    Jorge,

    I appreciate your post. It is not denialism, you seem to get it. You obviously are living here, and not just visiting, if you know what I mean. But, I guess if Japan has made you think of human nature as being worse, then there are some consequences to your psyche that are just as devastating as trying to be extra nice. My question is, is it human nature to attack and hassle and bully and ridicule and consistent fuck with others in millions of trifling ways? My guess is that this is culturally bound, and not natural at all. Or put another way, has all this bullshit made you stronger as you say, or just meaner? Again I want to stress that I respect your view points, because I can tell that you have some insight into this.

    X to the Izzo


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