26 June 2010 ~ 4 Comments

The annoying, the offensive, and the spooky

Over the course of my seven years here I have modified again and again the extent to which I’ll allow myself to be affected by what’s going on around me. By that I mean the behavior of  Japanese people.

I’m reminded of a scene from a very funny movie by one of my favorite film writers- Cameron Crowe-, called: Singles

Janet: Well, when I first moved out here from Tucson I wanted a guy with looks, security, caring. Someone with their own place. Someone who said “bless you” or “gesundheit” when I sneezed. Someone who liked the same things as me, but not exactly. And someone who loves me….

Friend: That’s a tall order.

Janet: I scaled it down a little.  

Friend: What is it now?

Janet: Someone who says “gesundheit, ” although I prefer “bless you.”

Well, I’ve scaled down my tall order, too.  I no longer expect Japanese people (the ones I don’t know) to see me or treat me as just a regular person, with all that entails (thoughts, feelings, intelligence, sensitivity, etc…) I even try to refrain from desiring such a possibility. I’ve found that if I do make the mistake of hoping for or expecting more I’ve effectively set myself up for at best disappointment and at worst offense. It’s a sad reality but if you live here you know how it is.

If you live here and you don’t how it is, you’re either secluded, deluded, desensitized or plumb lucky… or from a race or culture the Japanese have sanctioned off as relatively harmless.

Nowadays, I’m about at that “someone who says Gesundheit” level. That is to say it takes a pretty strong breeze to ruffle my feathers these days. I’ve lowered the bar on what I feel to be acceptable behavior that low.

Sometimes, I’m not particularly happy at having accomplished this feat of tolerance, and I question its suitability more often than anyone should have to question such a thing. I wonder if I haven’t effectively done to Japanese people what I feel they’ve erroneously done to me. That is, written them off as a different or even lower breed of human incapable (in most cases) of excelling beyond expectation; a breed incapable of the diversity (of thought or emotion) I’ve concluded is a uniquely and definitively human quality, a breed unworthy of the benefit of the doubt, and, with few exceptions, hopelessly trapped in a singularly obtuse and dark little crate of conventions. 

I worry if such thoughts inform and infect every interaction I have with Japanese people, whether friend or stranger, either predisposing me to keep an emotional distance, restricting my level of basic human intimacy, or causing me to designate those who do meet my criteria for “friend” as exceptional Japanese people (as opposed to just people.) And I’m concerned that part of the prerequisite for attaining this position as “friend” is a willingness to be the recipient of at least some of the animosity and resentment I hold for their less distinguished brethren.

I also wonder what repercussions, what long-term impact, this adjustment to my sensibilities will precipitate if and when I return to the outside world.

But, while I’m here, though its stressful, this feat has somehow managed to fall under the umbrella of sanity maintenance. Just one of those things Loco has to do to keep from going loco.

The behaviors in question fall under three categories: the annoying, the offensive and the spooky.

Most of the merely annoying behaviors I’ve managed to scale down by creating excuses for it, on behalf of my Japanese brethren. Either Japanese quirkiness or benefit of the doubt type excuses. For example:

It is a relatively safe and innocent presumption on their part that because I am not Japanese that I cannot speak Japanese at all, and that I must speak the language of foreigners: English. There was a time when this would give me a case of the ass. Now, I can roll with it as long as they don’t press the issue to an offensive level.

The offensive level behavior, which is almost (I believe) exclusively race-related, took much longer for me to learn to mitigate or navigate around. But I’ve managed, again, by blaming myself or by (dangerously) providing the offender with an excuse. However, depending on my disposition on any given day, these behaviors can be upgraded to spooky. Admittedly, the excuses I use for these behaviors I mostly borrowed from other people…stuff they say works for them. So, I gave them a try telling myself nauseatingly over and over: it’s for a worthy cause, it’s for a worthy cause… For example:

If I hadn’t been raised in as racially charged an atmosphere as New York in the 70s and 80s, that probably wouldn’t have bothered me at all…My sensitivity is as much the issue here as their apparent insensitivity.


This person is as ignorant about the richness and diversity of African American people and culture as black people back home are ignorant about them and theirs, so this is an opportunity for cross-cultural education while simultaneously upgrading the image of people of African descent among Japanese people. (I really gag on that one sometimes)…

or (dangerously)

If it weren’t for the propensity of Japanese media to portray people of African descent in a negative light, or as clowns / entertainers, this person would not hold these prejudices. The preponderance of these images negates any positive images (Obama, Stevie Wonder, etc…) so it’s no wonder they exhibit so flagrant a fear of people who look like me. Just remember, they don’t really see you…they only see what they’ve been told to see. They’re essentially blameless victims of their media’s single-mindedness.

or (even more dangerously)

If it weren’t for those African guys and black Military cats making a bad name for us, I’d have a much better life here in Japan…I mean, hell, if Japanese in NY had a fuck-all disposition and were known for disrespecting black women and dragging Black men into clubs where Yakuza would make sure they left hundreds of dollars lighter, I would probably avoid Japanese people, or at least harbor a deep resentment for them, too.

I’ve documented many of the behaviors that warrant the excuses above on my blog so I don’t think I have to rehash them.

Sometimes the whack ass excuses above can’t alleviate the revulsion in my heart…Deep down…deep, where I try to keep it, I know that I don’t accept ANY of the above excuses as valid! Not one. I just use these vindications to ward off hate and the desire to retaliate.

Beyond race, however, offenses tend to fall into two groups. One appears to question my common decency and the other appears to question our common humanity.

These offenses constitute the spooky.   

Maybe it’s race-related as well, but when I see it I don’t feel like it’s a result of purely petty racial ignorance. It feels like it comes from a much deeper source. The fear that begets and wears the ignorance like a mask. Like the source the Third Reich tapped into enabling them to sell a vision of a Master Race, or the Bosnian Serbs, or the Hutus in Rwanda, where otherwise good people become hellbent on exterminating or ethnically cleansing away all traces of another race of people like they were vermin or a virus.  We all know that the capacity to do such a thing lurks in the hearts of all people, of all races, and it only takes the right kind of light to shine on it to bring it to fruition.

We’ve seen it all too many times to deny its existence. 

Well, I’ve seen it in America. But, mostly from afar. On television, and what not.

And I see it here, too. Only here it’s in my face, up close and personal. Beneath all that surface politeness and civility, beneath all the peace signs and kawaii-ness, lurks the capacity to reduce another human being to…let’s just say less than a human being.

It all appears so innocent. 

But, sometimes, when it looks at me, through the surface ignorance of Japanese eyes, like a fanaticism in its infancy, it sends a shiver up my spine.

Partially because living here has allowed me, for the very first time, to see this human capacity to strip another race of its essential humanity not only within others, but within myself, as well.


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