For me, there was no preparation for the challenges I would face as a foreigner living in Japan. This country has tried me in so many different ways. It has forced me to come to terms with aspects of my character I hadn’t even known were there as well as confront demons that had been deviling me long before I decided to move here. In some battles I’ve been victorious, and did my Rod Tidwell dance in the end-zone.
In others, I lost, and found myself crying on the sidelines, towel over my head. Some battles are still waging.
I believe it’s been a blessing I may not truly appreciate fully until much later in life. Living in Japan, with its specific issues that have specifically provoked my specific demons, has been a trial I will never forget. And one I wouldn’t have had a dream of someday prevailing over if I hadn’t gone out and done #8: find a role model.
My role model was a long time coming…
I had already been here several years before I first encountered the man who would first convince me that change was possible and then show me by example how to bring about the changes I needed to make to improve the quality of my life. I was filled with misdirected anger and bitter frustration, with no end nor escape in sight. I had to make a change, or loco was my destination for sure.
Everyone says, why don’t you go home if you don’t like it here. Sounds simple enough. But, these feelings were a part of me, so I knew no matter where I’d go these feeling would be there already, sitting and waiting, plotting yet more setbacks, wondering what had delayed me. I could no more run from them then I could run from my shadow. So, I decided to draw the line in the metaphysical sand right here in Japan.
I learned what ailed me, despite the scapegoating I’d done, was not initiated by nor was it tied to Japan. It was tied to me. America protected me by giving my ailment a multicultural environment where it could be practically ignored, I could pretend it didn’t exist. I could even argue its existence away if I felt like it. In japan that argument does not exist. In fact its imagined justification is most prevalent. My ailment did not lay dormant here, it was fully exposed for what it is: a tumor on my soul.
My role model taught me that this tumor was not necessarily malignant. It was only as malignant as I wanted it to be. It could also be benign and operable. So, I’d decided that I will go home a healthier person than I left or I wouldn’t go home. What good would I be anyhow, to anyone anywhere, if I couldn’t get it together? I knew what waited back home for me. The same person I’d seen in the mirror every day.
I used the above clip from Jerry Maguire for another purpose as well. Jerry Maguire (a movie I happen to love) to me was about inspiration and role models and the effect that role models can have on one’s life. Jerry had two. The first was the original sports agent Dicky Fox, who in Jerry’s darkest hour reminded him of why he’d become a Sports Agent in the first place and that the line between being a successful human being and a successful sports agent who can look at himself in the mirror without getting nauseous did not exist. They were one and the same.
The other was Rod Tidwell. He counseled Jerry on how to love and, not just with words but with actions, taught Jerry how to love his wife and how to love his life.
I still well-up when I watch this movie.
Initially I thought my role model for life in Japan had to be Japan specific, but my selection was a little faulty. Unrealistic actually is a better description of it. I chose as my role model (don’t laugh) a fictional character: Anjin-san from the Clavell novel, Shogun. I have to admit that part of the image I had of Japan before coming here was molded by Clavell’s imagination. He painted a picture, in damn near 1000 pages, of a world where the right man with the right mindset could achieve great and wonderful things on this tiny island. I’ve read the book a half-dozen times. Each time I learned something new, some idea I had missed in the previous reading; another clue to understanding Japanese people and unlocking Japan.
Yes, I know, the flaw in my thinking is a glaring one. Actually there were several glaring errors (assuming you, like me, suspended disbelief when reading his books.) Two jump off the page:
1-It was fiction, loosely based on historical records of that time period.
2- Assuming he did channel some long dead Shogun or British sailor and the hearts and souls of a dozen other Japanese people, the Japanese in the novel lived in a time period before western infiltration so they would be totally different from today’s Japanese.
Nonetheless, I loved the book so much and wanted so much to believe that the Japanese people of today living in a culture derived from the Japan Clavell described in loving detail, couldn’t be that different. Well, this might come as a shocking revelation to some of you but they are.
However, what I realized when I arrived here was that Clavell wasn’t describing Japanese people. He was just describing people. And the characteristics that he imbued his characters with are characteristics found in people from all walks of life. What I had loved about Clavell’s Japan was the depth of feeling, and the integrity and honor of the people he created. But, his characterizations were based as much on historical documents as it was on the people he met and the culture he encountered while he was researching the book. And those people and that culture still persists, as much as it did then (in that fictional time period.)
But that wasn’t the part that dissuaded me from using Anjin-san as a role model. The discouragement came when I realized that I had little in common with Anjin-san. He had a great deal of advantages that I did not. He was respected initially because he could do somethings that neither the Japanese nor the foreigners in the book could do: he could pilot as well as build ships. That made him extremely useful to powerful people. People in a position to enhance his experience in Japan. Also, he knew things about the world that they didn’t. So, the Japanese could learn something of value from him.
I came here with an English degree and…well…an English degree. Sure, I had quite a bit more life experience than the majority of the foreigners I worked with for they were mostly recent college grads while I graduated over a decade ago, had already done time in the Army, gone to several countries, been a salaryman in NY, a journalist in Brooklyn, a novelist, a hedonist, a junkie, etc… But, of what use was my experience to the Japanese? I was only useful here because I could speak and teach English. At least that’s what I thought before I met my role model.
So, I soon discarded Anjin-san as a candidate for role model. And, went role model free for a while, feeling and groping my way around. At one point I met a Nigerian guy in Harajuku. I can’t remember his real name (for he never used it so I never used it) but he called himself Billy. He had a Hip-Hop clothing store- actually several- and was a wealth of information and opinions. Smart, clever, successful, a little arrogant but direct and from what I could tell honest. Especially once I’d established that there was no way in hell I was going to buy any of the “authentic” hip hop fashion he was peddling, for that wasn’t my style and his prices were out of control.
The day we met, we stood in front of his shop and talked for about 5 hours. In 5 hours he’d pretty much handed me the keys to his success in Japan:
1-Come here with a goal and prepared to work hard for it,
2-learn the language thoroughly,
3-Marry a Japanese woman (preferably one on the same page as you and understands her role; love is optional) to ease any immigration issues and to facilitate the business ownership issues,
4-Network like hell,
5- Stay focused on the money! Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by anything (girls, prejudice, girls, discrimination, and oh yeah girls, etc…)
And that was pretty much it. He was happy to share all the above with me. He said he’d been hoping to have an extended conversation with an African-American someday (he’d said nigger, though) that wasn’t all about Japanese girls. He theorized that African Americans didn’t come to Japan to make money and most were lazy or stupid and not all that interested in anything but getting laid. That they (I) were totally oblivious to the advantages they (I) had over Africans, as far as business is concerned, and that if he were American he would have been a millionaire by then, a la Antonio Montana- though I don’t think he knew the reference.
I listened to him disparage African Americans but I didn’t take it personally because, well, he also bashed Nigerians as well. He said a good number of them just come to Japan and expect everything to be easy. They want to be given a business and not work hard, like he had, for it. He said mostly the younger Nigerians were like this. Getting spoiled and lazy, he explained, like niggers.
I watched him almost all day, ordering his Japanese staff around. If he saw one of his ‘grabbers’ loafing off a little he’d tongue lash him (in perfect Japanese of course.) He could spot a potential customer in a crowd at 50 yards, much faster than his nihonjin staff. And he’d bark at him, ‘Go get that!’ (in perfect Japanese.) And when his people would pass by he’d kick it with them for a few minutes in their native tongue, then introduce me in standard English. (He mentioned humbly that he could speak a couple of Nigerian dialects, French, Japanese and of course English) And once they’d left he’d give me their MO and background. That one…He owns 3 stores. That one…he owns a bar. That one..he’s a lazy, useless fucking oaf.
By the time I’d gotten ready to go I felt like I’d come to Japan from Nigeria. We still meet occasionally, but Billy only gets off on talking humbly about his business I’ve learned, and aggrandizes himself in this way. My business is my life and thus I am successful. I respect his accomplishments but I don’t want to have them thrown in my face, ever so humbly, every time I see him. As a representative of the possibilities if one focuses on making money in Japan, he is a great case study, but as a role model he left something to be desired. For me, he is more intimidating than inspiring. Besides, I love money but I’ve never fully focused on getting rich. Making money was something I usually did because I had to.
Time passed. Time spent studying Japanese language and people and to an extent wasted pissing and moaning internally and externally about them.
Then, something happened in January 2008. I had checked my email and someone had forwarded me a link to a speech:
Before I came to japan I used to be a news junkie. But, after most of the American press became the ‘Embedded’ press (feels like ‘in bed with’ press) and went to war in Iraq with Bush, they lost all credibility with me so I turned my back on them, moved to Japan, and didn’t look back until 2008. But after I watched the above speech, no pun intended, everything changed.
I’d found my role model.
How powerful is the message, “Yes we can”? At first, it only made me sit back and say, oh my God, is he for real? So, I backtracked his career back to the Democratic convention in 2004 and I listened to that speech.
And I listened to all the speeches between then and the New Hampshire primary. And, I decided, he is for real! My god, he could really win!
When Hillary Clinton and company said he was successful solely because he was black, he said nothing. When Hillary said I wouldn’t have sat in the pews and listened to Rev Wright’s hatefulness for twenty years he said:
and I cried like a child…I wondered how could I have missed all this? Had I forgotten that I was a citizen of a country that could produce people like this? Had I ever known? Am I not cut from the same cloth?
Whenever Hillary or the Press said anything to undermine his efforts he never took it to heart. He stood strong, with a vision more powerful than they could withstand. When McCain tried the same thing, Obama did the same thing…he believed in the people and the people believed in him.
So, I talked to him…in my mind of course (he’s not that accessible) I said, “Senator Obama. You face a significant amount of adversity everyday. You deal with ignorance and bias on a daily basis on a level I have never experienced, and I applaud you for the incredible amount of tolerance and perseverance you’ve exhibited throughout your campaign. My name is Loco and I live in Japan. It’s a beautiful country and the people here are for the most part good people…the salt of the earth. But, a good number are, to put it mildly, pretty close-minded and fairly intolerant. I know it’s not personal. They don’t know me. They only think they do. My problem is I really like it here and I want to live here for a while longer but I don’t want to go nuts in the meantime. I know running for the presidency is a little different but some of the principles are the same. How would you face this intolerance and keep your wits about you? What would you do to balance your life so that you could find solace and peace of mind?
He answered me, believe it or not. He said:
I said: Really? Don’t you think you’re oversimplifying it a little? I mean the Japanese are not Americans. And, I’m not you. I don’t know if I can do that. Maybe I’m not as strong as you or as confident and self-assured. Sure, you always say “Yes we can” but those are just words. People always talk about change, and that’s OK for the easy surface stuff, but can people really change? How can I make the major changes in myself that I need to keep on keeping on?
Every time I had a question Barack answered me with words that inspired me. And that’s just what I needed in a role model.
Find yourself a role model, or you’re welcome to mine. The majority of my nation would endorse your decision.
And once you do find one, you must #9 Be Patient, (coming soon) and good things will follow!