The number one question I’m asked by Japanese people is why did I come to Japan in the first place. However, when it comes to friends and family, number one is why the hell do I stay here if it’s as bad as I make it out to be. I guess I do tend to focus on the negative aspects of life here more so than the positive, don’t I? Well, I’m trying. My previous series, how NOT to go loco in Yokohama, was suppose to be positive, and I think it was to a certain extent, wasn’t it? What do y’all think?
Well, eradicating cynicism and pessimism from one’s life is a journey, and I may not get there in this lifetime, but I won’t give up.
In the meantime, however, I have to keep writing. So, I’ve been putting together a list of things about Japan that I initially didn’t care for very much but I’ve come to appreciate, and maybe some of these things are part of the reason I haven’t jumped ship, yet.
1–Daimyo for a day: Regardless of how crowded a train gets, or a store, or a concert, or anything that draws a crowd, I (for whatever reason) always have, at least, breathing room…and at most, I have enough space to do my Japanese morning workout routine.
I don’t know the exact reason why I’m given such a wide berth. (But as you know I’ve been exploring possibilities) But, recently, I’ve taken to imagining it’s in deference to my power and superiority. That I evoke from the Japanese some kind of residual ancient cultural instinct towards capitulation and fear before a superior or high-born figure. The way, in Japanese history, farmers and peasants kowtowed on the road, their faces in the dirt, when a Samurai passed by. Tremble and obey or incur my wrath. Yeah, that image works for me.
So, this feeling of royalty I walk around with is doing wonders for my self-esteem, which needed a boost, I gotta tell you. Those NY publishers gave my esteem a thrashing when I submitted my first novel to them. Thus I’ve re-written it and I think the results are pretty damn good (if you want to check it out it’s called: Real Gods Require Blood.) But it’s all part of the process. Tom Clancy got rejected several times for “The hunt for Red October.” I’m sure some heads rolled on that one. I can no more be mad at the NY publishers for turning me down then I can get mad at the Japanese giving me the Samurai Loco-sama treatment everyday. They’re just doing what they do…And I’m kinda starting to get off on it (not on rejection, on the royal treatment.) (-: Like being Daimyo for a day, everyday.
2- Outside the Bento: Being an object of fear has another great perk. Since I am essentially a pariah here, I attract certain kinds of people. Some of them, because of my race, are the hip-hop heads. Syouganai. But there are some people who are sick to death of the cultural rigidity and social inflexibility of life here. They want to be free of it, and they want to be in the company of people who are free of it. Americans tend to have that l’air du Liberté (-:
Usually they find other Japanese people to be free with, mostly because of communication issues. But, sometimes they gravitate my way. And some of these people are the best people I’ve met since I’ve been here. Mostly artist. Something about being an artist requires a certain amount of free, outside the bento (Japanese lunch box) thinking.
One of the first Japanese people I became really cool with was a student at NOVA. He was a Manga Artist, kinda shy, but extremely thoughtful and open about his ideas. He did some very racy Manga, T & A everywhere, but he actually had a great deal of depth. Against the NOVA rules we used to meet and have drinks after school and we’d kick it about various issues and he’d explained to me that there aren’t too many people he can really be himself and share his ideas with but he felt totally relaxed talking with me.
My first girlfriend, Aiko, was another one of these types of people. She felt that Japanese culture strangles creativity, and she really admired my “freedom.” Her brother was a filmmaker and she was in the process of planning a documentary about why Japanese are fixated with foreigners when she passed. I wish she could have lived to see it through, or that I could do it for her, but she was unique with a unique vision, and though I was party to it I could never quite see Japan through her eyes. She gravitated my way because she needed to think outside the bento too.
Of course I attract a certain amount of hentai hito (strange people), too, but I ain’t mad at them. Nobody’s perfect. Got some hentai up in me too. (-:
3- I could be a booty scratcher: In NY, African American is African American, and African is African and never shall the two be confused. In fact, Jamaican is Jamaican and Haitian is Haitian and Panamanian is Panamanian, and etcetera is etcetera. Everybody has a cultural designation and holds tight and true to it in most cases. By no means did “we” want to be associated with “them,” as John Singleton so aptly put it in “Boys in da hood”, African Booty Scratchers.
But, here in Japan, for the first time in my life, I was able to see myself as part of a black world, not set apart from it, on the top of some kind of international black social hierarchy, so to speak. This kind of thinking was the final goal of Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz) once he returned to the US from his pilgrimage to Mecca and before he was assassinated. He realized in Africa, that Africans, and the African Diaspora all over the world, needed to unite. That only by working as a unit could the goals that effect all be achieved . The fate of a child in Ghana is not unrelated to the fate of a child in Brooklyn. Ironic that the new president is a child of both Africa and America. Like a major plateau has been reached in both Malcolm and MLK’s visions.
Growing up in the US, you are bombarded by negative images of the so-called “Dark Continent.” When I was growing up, when one thought of Africa ideas and images of cannibalism, savages, voodoo, disease, starvation, Apartheid, pity, needy and donate sprung to mind. Images of flies on unblinking eyeballs, swollen empty bellies, plates in lips, bones through noses, and half-naked people dancing around skull-laden idols drenched in human blood dominated. Nowadays the dominant stories are genocide and AIDS, and recently even Somalian Pirates oil tanker-jacking off the coast of East Africa. On one hand you know that if you focused on the downside of any culture or society you could come up with a list similar or worse that the above one. On the other hand, who in their right mind would want to be associated with that if they had a choice? Not most African Americans. In the media, America’s image is powerful, successful, the land of opportunity, milk and honey, the downside: reckless, stupid, arrogant, obese…etc. Africa is the continent of despair, poverty, genocide, and disease. The upside? Ummm…well, it’s beautiful, rare animals, exotic cultures, and those pyramids.
Also, most of the Africans I’d actually encountered in NY behaved like they believed that they were better than me. So, I came to see them as arrogant and cliquish.
I came to japan with these ideas. And, lo and behold, what do I see? Africans, peddling Hip-Hop and pretending to be Americans…successfully! I was dumbfounded. I could spot an African at 50 yards, but the Japanese can listen to this Nigerian speaking with an accent so strong it’s laughable, and say, “America-jin, kakkoiiiii!” (Americans are cool!) When I pass by, the Africans know that I know that they know that I’m not an African and they are not Americans, but they smile and wink and nod and say what’s up.
Initially, upon learning this knowledge, I went out of my way to try to distinguish myself from Africans figuring that maybe that was why Japanese were so afraid of me. That they confused me with an African. Hell if they could be New Yorkers then I could be Nigerian just as easily. So, how does one go about distinguishing oneself from Africans, you might ask. How does one let their Americanism shine? 9-:
Are you picturing me wearing a US flag T-shirt or baseball cap or a button on my lapel like Obama was forced to wear (though none of the other candidates were questioned about their lack of flag buttons-but that’s a different story)? Nope, that wouldn’t be me. That would be an African. Sometimes they go to the extremes and made making the case in that fashion just that much more difficult, on top of being ridiculous. No, after all of my fixating on the issue I couldn’t come up with a single utterly effective way to distinguish myself from them in Japanese eyes.
Which begged the question: What difference does it make?
I started speaking to Africans when the opportunity arose. Some of them would tell me about how they’ve gotta do what they gotta do to hustle their merchandise. That the racism they faced here was considerable. They couldn’t land the jobs they were qualified for. They couldn’t teach English because most English jobs at a minimum require the applicant to be from an English speaking country. Some of them were university graduates with degrees in various technologies and sciences, yet they were forced to milk the notion of cool that American Hip-Hop held in order to make a living. And yes sometimes that included pretending to be American…
I actually began to admire their initiative, their enterprising spirit, their adaptability, and I’m grateful for their assistance in my learning a valuable lesson about my identity here; that it’s only as important as I want it to be. I can use it as a tool. I can be American and market cool or sell Hip-Hop, or African and sell jewelry and artwork, or Jamaican and DJ at a Reggae Club…I am African and the African Diaspora in one, here. I can be anyone I want to be…
Or I can just be me…
To be continued…