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