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Does Japan need an education in dealing with difference?

The Community Page received a large number of emails in response to Gerry McLellan’s May 24 Hotline to Nagatacho column “Japanese adults need an education in dealing with difference.” The following is a selection of readers’ views.

Compliments ring hollow

This article made me smile because I have experienced this so many times during my stay in Japan, and it continues to happen very often even now. All I need to say is “Konnichiwa” to be praised to the high heavens that my Japanese is very good. “Nihongo o-jōzu desu ne!” It invariably makes me think, “Well, I haven’t actually said anything yet!”

When praised thus, it felt good when I had just started learning the language many years ago, but after spending 14 years of my life trying to master Japanese, it does sound a bit hollow to be praised for being able to say konnichiwa.

Probably, as the author mentioned, most Japanese really do not (or rather cannot) believe that a foreigner can master their language and speak without an accent; that they would not have realized any difference if they had not seen the (different) face.

Maybe it stems from lack of confidence because of the inability (of many Japanese) to speak anything but broken English. I am not so sure about that, because I still believe that Japanese people can master a language if they really want to and take a positive approach.

Perhaps such Japanese people who can actually speak foreign languages well are considered the exception rather than the rule.

I have heard comments like, “Atama no kōzō ga chigau,” literally meaning “The structure of your brain is different” (hence you can or cannot speak a foreign language)! It makes me feel creepy that someone is looking right through my skull!

An interesting incident happened when I telephoned my electricity provider in Japan during my student days. The person at the other end of the phone thought I was Japanese. He asked my name at the end of our conversation, and it was only then that he realized I was a foreigner, as was evident in his exclamation: “Ah! Gaikokujin desu ne!” (“Oh! You’re a foreigner, aren’t you?”)

It made me want to say: “I love you and I love your country. Please treat me like a Japanese!”

On the other hand, feigning an inability to speak or understand much Japanese has its advantages too. One is usually treated very kindly (almost like a child who understands nothing of the big world). I consider this a very short-term benefit, though, and would rather use my Japanese ability than hide it.

RAJDEEP SETH
Kure, Hiroshima

Similar experience in the U.S.

I just read the article by Gerry McClellan with interest, because I have had similar encounters to his right here in the U.S.

I worked as a program assistant at an university in California. I was in charge of giving information on our program to our students, and mostly to their parents.

Whenever those adults came into our office and asked questions about our program, they often asked the exact same question to my white colleague to confirm right after I gave them the answer.

This happened often enough that our student counselor commented on it. He thought that it was totally unnecessary, as I had given them the correct information in the first place.

I originally came from Japan and graduated from a prestigious university. I worked in the U.S. until my retirement. As soon as those parents saw my face (an Asian, with a slight accent), they assumed that I didn’t know the whole works of the program. When my white colleague gave the same answer that I gave, then they were finally satisfied and left the office.

I guess it could be human nature, not just the “homogeneous” Japanese.

YOSHIKO TAGAMI

Translator wasn’t called for

My husband and I have been traveling to Japan for 15 years; I did an elective in Sapporo as a medical student in 1982, and we go to visit friends and enjoy the country. We have been in some very obscure places, such as Shibecha and Akkeshi.

Once, we were staying in Ochanomizu (in Tokyo) and decided to find a restaurant for dinner. We went down a few side streets to find a place, settling on a quite beautiful restaurant.

My Japanese is not the best, but I can get around with it. We came in and were seated.

Omakase kudasai,” I said. The next thing I knew, a man from a restaurant across the street, who spoke English, was summoned to talk to us. He told us the chef was worried we did not like fish! We had to reassure him that we indeed liked fish and had been eating Japanese food for years. “Please call me if you have any difficulties!” he warned us.

The dinner was delicious, and we constantly said “oishii” to reassure the chef. It was a situation we might have expected in Shibecha or Hakodate, but not in Tokyo!

LIBBY CONE

Not worth the column inches

Oh come on, is this what gets you hot and bothered? Is your life so sublime that being paid a compliment, however patronizing, is cause for a letter to the editor? Use your energy for something productive, please.

People compliment my Japanese the same way Japanese initiate conversations with a quip on the weather — it’s just something pleasant to say, to break the ice. Or they’re curious. Or ignorant. But who cares.

I just wish I could be as carefree as you, to think that this was worth writing to the newspaper over.

The issue will resolve itself in time. Given that there is no violence, overt hatred or anything worth whining about, perhaps we can tackle something a little more worthwhile?

CHRISTIAN WALKER
Tokyo

Stop being so self-centered

My name is Juan and I’m half Japanese and live in the U.K. I’ve experienced the same here in England, the same question: “Where are you from? Your English is good.”

It is important to understand diversity. We do not need to change Japanese people; that’s the wrong idea. Western countries always try to put their influence everywhere, but people should stop being so self-centered.

JUAN IGNACIO
London

Mixed-race U.S. ‘inconveniences’

Gerry, I am in the same boat. Only difference is that you are white and I am half-black and half-white, from California.

As a mixed-race person, I had to deal with similar “inconveniences” while growing up in California. So for me here in Japan, I am accustomed to dealing with the inconveniences people who don’t fit in need to put up with.

Also, keep in mind that this is Japan. Ninety-nine percent of the people here are Japanese and have little to no interaction with people who are different from them. They just don’t know how to do it.

JUSTIN FRANKS

Getting out their hammers

For an industrialized nation that carries on trade with almost every other country on the planet, how is it that so many otherwise well-educated Japanese remain so utterly perplexed about racial and cultural differences? The title of Gerry McLellan’s essay, “Japanese adults need an education in dealing with difference,” is an understatement.

There is no doubt that barring any further nuclear meltdown and/or severe economic downturn, the expatriate population in Japan is going to continue to rise in the 21st century. The Land of Wa might never witness the sort of racial/cultural diversity now seen in many EU nations or in America’s major urban centers, but ethnic diversity is certainly going to be a major sociological and political issue in the coming decades. This is assuming that Japan’s political and industrial leaders realize that without such diversity the future will look very bleak, with an aged native “homogeneous” demographic accounting for nearly 40 percent of Japan’s overall population. New blood might not be such a bad thing after all.

I see grave problems looming on the not-too-distant horizon for McLellan’s son. Hasn’t the father ever heard of the old Japanese proverb “The nail that sticks up is driven down”? Hasn’t he realized yet that he’s setting his son up for some terrible classroom bullying in the years ahead? The other kids will deeply resent his son’s fluency in English – and where there’s resentment there’s anger. It doesn’t take much to provoke ijime (bullying) wrath in a junior high school classroom.

There’s trouble brewing unless, of course, McLellan does what most sensible gaijin parents do at that time in their child’s life and send the little tyke off to some relatively safe international school where cultural and racial diversity are the norm.

I wonder how McLellan’s son will feel when he comes of age if he opts to keep his British passport and must then submit to being fingerprinted and photographed every time he enters the country? And the first time poor little McLellan junior is suddenly stopped on the street by a nosy Keystone kōban cop and ordered to hand over his “gaijin card” for inspection will be a troubling day indeed.

Finally there emerges the full-blown identity crisis that any and all hāfu (mixed-race Japanese) must face if they choose to make a life for themselves in Japan. Things are actually easier for his British-born father, who no doubt looks like a typical Brit.

Hāfu children often pull up their tent stakes when they reach maturity and opt to live in the country that their gaijin parent came from. Can you blame them?

How tiresome it will be for little McLellan to hear the comment, “Oh, so you’re hāfu, are you?” again and again.

Japan might be digging its own grave by clinging to worn-out notions of “racial purity” that have no place in the 21st century. The notion of Wareware Nihonjin (we, the Japanese people) has no place in postwar Japan.

But who will educate the Japanese public on such things as racial tolerance? The ministry of education? Don’t make me laugh.

I still recall the horror stories I used to hear about Japanese children who lived overseas for many years and then attempted to return to study at a junior or senior high school in Japan. Kikokushijo (returnees) are natural-born victims in the menacing eyes of their classroom tormentors.

Ask me sometime about all the hāfu children in Okinawa and what sort of life they experience in the public schools there after about age 12 or 13. It gives ijime a whole new level of meaning. Dante would understand. Every hāfu facing an inferno every day on the playground.

McLellan is a fool if he thinks his son will have an easy time of it because he speaks Nihongo better than most kids his own age in Japan or because he’s so clever at English. McLellan’s neighbors are getting out their hammers.

ROBERT MCKINNEY
Winona, Missouri

Questions are disrespectful

It was very interesting to find out that other foreign people living in Japan share my point of view about Japanese perceptions of difference.

I come from Costa Rica, a Latin country where heterogeneous is our everyday experience of living in society. Every skin and hair color, size and shape of eyes and body can be found, and we know we all are Costa Ricans.

Even though the official language is Spanish, most of the population is bilingual because of business and close relations with America.

Since I arrived in Japan, I’ve been questioned many times about matters like my ability to speak English (because I’m not Caucasian), the straightness of my hair (that should be curly) and the skin shade of people from tropical countries like mine.

Sincerely, I have no answer to those questions, which I consider inappropriate and disrespectful because they draw attention to differences.

I’m amazed to find that people in Japan are still living according to stereotypes.

I think that a developed country whose people don’t evolve and grow to embrace the differences will somehow be left behind in the context of globalization. Our modern world is all about differences.

MARIA SOTO
Okayama

Confession of a guilty party

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have often exhibited the same reaction when I met foreigners who spoke good Japanese, as I like meeting them. I never meant to discriminate against them, though.

I believe that many Japanese point out the excellent mastery of the Japanese language by foreign residents in admiration, without meaning in the slightest to hurt them. Please don’t feel intimidated by the Japanese tendency to feel cultural uniqueness.

NOBUYUKI NOJIMA
Iwakuni, Yamaguchi

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