It’s been a long, hot summer, so time for a lighter topic for JBC:
A non-Japanese (NJ) friend in Tokyo recently had an interesting experience while out drinking with coworkers. (For the record — and I only say this because how you look profoundly affects how you are treated in Japan — he is a youngish Caucasian-looking male.)
His Japanese literacy is high (which is why he was hired in the first place), but his speaking ability, thanks to watching anime in America from childhood, is even higher — so high, in fact, that his colleagues asked him whether he was part-Japanese!
That kinda harshed his buzz. He wondered how he should respond. Should he abide by Japanese manners and deferentially deny his jōzu-ness (skill)? Or accept the praise with a “thank you” and a smile?
I suggested he should not only say thank you and accept the accolades, but also claim the part-Japaneseness. Yes, lie about it.
Why? Because this simple-looking interaction involves several issues, such as social hierarchy, bad science and privacy. And if not handled well, this episode could end up eroding his standing within the group.
First, hierarchy: Longtime readers of this column are by now aware that I see most social interactions in terms of power relationships. This is particularly true in Japan, where just about everything from politeness levels to porn seems to revolve around power. There is almost always some element of social stratification involved — be it senpai/kōhai (senior/junior), jōshi/buka (boss/subordinate), nenpai/wakamono (elder/youngster), not to mention gender, educational background, etc.
One’s social standing naturally affects expectations of how people should behave, and what manners one should adopt. But manners get really screwy if NJ are involved.
For example, consider the expectations behind international communication strategies. It’s pretty much axiomatic that NJ who don’t “look Japanese” can’t possibly speak Japanese: NJ must speak and be spoken to in English!
This means that if somebody has the courage to address an NJ (overcoming the group psychosis of English instruction in Japan; see “Don’t blame JET for Japan’s bad English,” JBC, Sept. 7, 2010), he will often take it as a personal affront if the NJ defies expectations by clicking into Japanese.
Even if no umbrage is taken, the Japanese-speaking NJ is still treated as deviant. You see that in frequent microaggressive behavior like “henna gaijin” (weird foreigner) snipes, or the occasional public figure candidly wishing that “gaijin” weren’t fluent (see “Newscaster regrets anti-foreigner quip”, Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 21, 2006).
That’s one issue. The second is the bad science. Do people seriously believe that having Japanese ancestry makes you better at Japanese?
Actually, many do. But that’s quite unscientific. Admittedly, growing up where people are speaking Japanese around you is helpful for learning what I call “kitchen Japanese,” i.e., unaccented speech but limited literacy. However, not all people with Japanese lineage grow up in a Japanese-language environment, so the connection remains tenuous.
In any case, bloodline doesn’t account for my NJ friend’s Japanese literacy, which rarely happens without structured and disciplined study. He accomplished it, hence the compliments. But the praise is still entangled within a “blood = ability” narrative.
The fact is, Japanese language is a skill, which means it can be learned by anyone able to learn a foreign language, regardless of bloodline or background.
Which leads us to the third issue: privacy. What business was it of my friend’s coworkers to ask about his background?
That’s why he should feel free to lie about it. After all, everyone else in Japan lies about things that are nobody’s business.
Consider the single young lady with the ring on her finger. Ask her where she got it and she’ll probably say she bought it for herself. Even if her boyfriend gave it to her last night at the love hotel. Why? Because personal matters are kept private.
Lying is nothing controversial. I’ve talked before about how not telling the truth is a standard practice of adult life in Japan (see “The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit,” JBC, Nov. 1, 2011).
But in this case, lying might actually do some good. By confounding expectations.
Confounding expectations erodes stereotypes. And an excellent way to do this (as comedians and satirists throughout the ages have done) is by poking fun through absurdity and satire.
Naturally, there will be some resistance. Critics of this column essentially believe that Japanese society can never be satirized, i.e., using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to criticize social stupidity and folly. That’s what this column has done for years, raising howls of “cultural insensitivity” and so on.
Such critics are missing the point of irony and satire within social commentary. Since Japanese humor is short on sarcasm, avenues are limited for pointing out foibles. Fortunately, you can still be absurd and get your point across.
Let’s play this out. Consider what would happen if my visibly Caucasian friend were to (falsely) claim Japanese lineage in this setting.
The dogmatists would be pleased to have their expectations confirmed — quite possibly bloodline is the only explanation they’ll accept. The critical thinkers may pause and say to themselves, “Hang on, really?” And maybe, just maybe, a few would realize that the question is patently absurd, and that blood is irrelevant to learning skills.
But what if my friend instead went the route of humility and showed deferential manners? He’d lose. Because, again, Japanese manners are not applied equally to NJ.
For example, even if a Japanese says, either as a response or a disclaimer, “My language ability is no good,” it is usually taken as pro forma humility. People pretty much know “he’s just saying that,” and they don’t take it all that literally. However, if a NJ does it, it reaffirms the narrative and expectation that NJ don’t speak Japanese.
But there are knock-on effects for NJ, especially if you’ve acted deferentially to your juniors: You’ve taken yourself down a rung in the social hierarchy.
Never do that. As I’ve written before (“Toot your own horn — don’t let the modesty scam keep you down,” JBC, Sept. 4, 2012), once you drop down a peg, the group is probably not going to help you back up. Hierarchy is not only something you earn; it’s something you claim.
After all, most native speakers of Japanese cannot appreciate what non-natives have gone through to reach fluency. As I’ve said before, communicating in Japanese is not all that difficult. What’s difficult is communicating with Japanese people.
You have to get over the Catch-22: people not speaking to you in Japanese because it’s not good enough, yet it’s not getting good enough because people won’t speak to you in Japanese. All the power relations and ingrained prejudices accompanying just about every social interaction work both as a barrier and a subordinator for NJ.
So when complimented, say thank you. You’ve earned it, so own it. And if they ask you to play to their expectations, only do so in a way that is to your advantage. Because it’s only going to get more difficult as you get older, and all the young pups who have trouble accepting NJ as senpai will happily enforce stereotypes and police you back into the Dumb Gaijin category. And then you will languish as a permanent subordinate, unrecognized for your herculean efforts.
Defy disempowering expectations, or ultimately it will be your expectations — of equal and respected treatment in Japan after all your investments and sacrifices — that are defeated.