Unpacking koto: retain, discard and repeat as necessary


Special To The Japan Times

While guest-lecturing on race issues at Waseda University in Tokyo earlier this month, I was asked a question that jarred with a conviction I’d long held about Japanese people.

The students from the political science department had been assigned to read portions of my first book and come prepared to pick my brain on its contents. There were several questions, though, that could have been filed under the heading of “utterly unexpected” because, I must admit, my experience here has led me to think that most Japanese people are either incapable, prohibitively uncomfortable or lack the incentive to engage when it comes to thinking critically about racial issues. The most common remarks on this theme have generally been along the lines of, “There are no race issues in Japan because almost everyone here is Japanese.”

The questions that challenged my perception came from a student who struggled to express his thoughts in English, but whose determination to make himself understood carried him through. In essence, he asked: “How much of what you’re experiencing here in Japan do you think is a result of the ideas and ideals you brought with you? And how much do you think these have hindered your ability to acclimate to the environment here?”

I wanted to applaud his question but I was concerned that it might have come off as sarcasm.

One of the things you learn early on when you’re studying Japanese is the difference between mono and koto — mono being physical, tangible things, and koto being generally things without material form, like ideas and feelings.

Unpacking mono is fairly straightforward: Open suitcase, remove the items inside of it, place them where they belong, move on to the next bag and repeat as necessary.

But that koto is another story entirely, and unpacking it has proven to be the challenge of a lifetime, replete with enough drama and trauma to keep me knee deep in “think pieces” till I keel over. Such was the case with the first of the items brought to my attention. I discovered a secret I’d kept from myself: I loved America.

It wasn’t a love of the image of America, a love I’ve always found disturbingly American, one rooted in the absurd notion that the nation is that “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan had the audacity to call it amid the crack epidemic that was decimating black families and communities across the country. No, that kind of love always seemed to me to be ridiculously credulous — evidence of an ignorance that’s downright offensive, damn near criminal.

Rather, I learned that the love I had for America was more complex and grisly. It was a love a parent might have for his bad seed — a criminal-minded and notorious bully of a child, the one the parent habitually abuses and condemns yet would fiercely protect if that abuse came from an outside source: “Yeah, my child is piece of work but he’s mine! Disparage him, in any way, at your own risk!”

This love was a bit of koto that had found its way into a Samsonite suitcase in my soul, and I likely would have never known of its existence if it weren’t for the Japanese tendency to, often and without intending to offend, subtly and casually make denigrating comments about my country. On any given day, and generally in comparison to Japan, I’d hear an off-the-cuff remark about the unhealthy, overweight, generally dangerous and violent, unclean, sexually debauched and wanton nature of America or Americans.

And even if it were true, even if I agreed — even if at the moment an insinuation was made I was in the midst of a grievance with America that made such chiding pale in comparison — I’d have to somehow conceal a rage so intense it would put any jingoistic flag-waving patriot to shame.

On one of my first days in-country, as I was walking through the streets, I couldn’t help but notice that the eyes of most passers-by, whether on foot or in vehicles, were locked on me in various degrees of shock, fear, amazement or amusement. I waved sometimes. Other times I just smiled.

“I am probably the first black person they’ve ever seen in the flesh,” I told myself, unaware that these words would eventually become a sort of mantra absolving this Japanese tendency and most of their other transgressions in advance. I would find this amnesty quite necessary for surviving here with my sanity and tolerance intact.

A car stopped at a light where I stood and the kids in the back seat pointed in my direction and hollered something, but all I could make out was what sounded like “Bob sap.”

Later, I’d see a commercial on TV with a huge black guy clowning around and dancing with some Japanese girls, trying to look cute in an effort to peddle pizza. A friend informed me that this gentleman was Bob Sapp.

I looked nothing like him.

Over the course of my life, mostly from white people back in the States, I’ve been told I look like a number of black people, from Eddie Murphy to Martin Luther King, so I was aware that other races’ perception of my appearance had a tendency to be warped. Often the people making these observations were unaware they were picking at the scabs of festering racial wounds. Nor did they seem aware that their ideas could veer into stereotyping very easily. So, at least for me, this “name-calling” became a sort of indicator of a person’s ignorance or insensitivity level.

As the years wore on, I got less tolerant of these often unintentional digs, and on the increasingly rare occasions — at least in New York — that I came across a person so unsophisticated as to make such a remark, I would make it plain to that person that they should refrain from doing so in the future.

After I’d started my English teaching gig here in Japan, I found myself one day seated opposite a quartet of Japanese students. One student said to another, in Japanese, “Blah blah blah Bob Sapp blah blah blah desu ne.” The other nodded in agreement, both covering their mouths to perhaps conceal their inappropriate amusement.

I kept my customer-service smile open and obvious, per the school’s standing directive — and to conceal my annoyance — but something inside of me had been agitated. It was yet another cache of koto rattling around in a valise labeled “racial sensitivity.”

“Bob Sapp?”

“Yes,” she said. “You look like him!”

The others at the table joined in, giggling in accord. “Kakkooii!” (“Cool!”)

“Do I really look like him? How so?” I asked, through straining facial muscles and with a subtle shift in pitch that even Inspector Clouseau could have detected meant that I found the comparison objectionable.

Obliviously — or perhaps thinking that, having added that they considered Bob Sapp to be cool, all was well — the speaker giggled again and said, “He’s a black guy!”

Another added, “A biiiiiig black guy.”

They all giggled some more. I was finding it increasingly hard to believe that none of them found this conversation or their amusement the least bit troubling. In the days and weeks and years that followed, and as my likeness seemed to morph, in Japan’s eyes, from Bob Sapp to Billy Blanks, Bobby Ologun or whomever happened to be the vernacular media’s darker-hued darling du jour, I learned that this kind of nonsense was the norm.

So, if I intended to stay here, the option was mine: to make the necessary sensibility adjustments or spend way too much energy reproaching Japanese people. Thus, the key to success in Japan, I suspected, was in managing this elusive koto. Locating and recognizing it is an exercise in self-discovery of the “no pain, no gain” variety. But once it’s found and has taken definable shape, the process is almost as straightforward as it is with mono: Unpack it, evaluate whether it’s in your best interest to retain or discard it, inventory it and repeat as necessary.

I didn’t say all of this to that Waseda student, though. I thanked him for his insightful questions and said: “Actually, I think the ideas and ideals I brought here with me have impacted my experience a great deal. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that they have hindered my ability, or even extinguished my desire, to fit in. Nor would it surprise me to learn that I didn’t quite know the value I placed on them till they were put to the test here.

“But, what your question touches on is perhaps the greatest benefit of living outside of your sphere of comfort: You’ll likely be forced to confront what you’re really made of.”

Black Eye, which appears in print on the third Thursday of every month, focuses on the experience of living in Japan from the perspective of people of African descent. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Pat Smyth

    We ALL come with baggage which can color (or discolor) our view of our surroundings. Being aware of your own baggage can make every experience much more valuable. Hats off to Baye McNeil for exposing some of his – and thus challenging the rest of us to examine our own.

  • http://www.amazeaweek.net Rob Nugen

    I love your thoughtful insights! Thank you for encouraging a very important discussion!

  • ceugb

    Great article, after 25 years living in Japan I can really relate to the writer. A couple of things that really hit home were a) the love for America that without realizing it I seem to have that appears whenever I feel she’s being verbally attacked in my presence. b) being a black man living in Japan I’ve been told I look like or remind someone of every dark skinned person that appears on TV. As mentioned in the article, if you intend to stay here, get use to it, find your own way of keeping your smile and dealing with it as I don’t think it will change anytime soon.
    Like the first article as well as both books, every time I read Baye’s writing I feel like someone has tapped into my own experiences in Japan and is speaking for me. Thanks man, another very good view into a lot of our lives here in Japan.

  • http://rick.cogley.info RickCogley

    This has been my experience too. I think Japanese love to put the unknown or unfamiliar into boxes, and they certainly do it to each other. You see it with the incessant nicknaming of sub-groups like – ikemen, gyaru, bijuarukei and so on.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    “my experience here has led me to think that most Japanese people are either incapable, prohibitively uncomfortable or lack the incentive to engage when it comes to thinking critically about racial issues. ”

    Nihonjinron at its finest. I wonder how Baye even knows what Japanese are actually “thinking critically” about, given that he has admitted he lacks a high level of Japanese, and famously said when asked why he didn’t study:

    “Besides I just lost all motivation to study. Technique wasn’t the issue. Contempt for the speakers of the language was (is?)”


    “And I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that (the ideas and ideals I brought here with me) have hindered my ability, or even extinguished my desire, to fit in.”

    You shouldn’t be surprised, Baye, because it is patently obvious to anyone who reads your writing that you have refuse to make concessions or try to fit in.

    You shouldn’t be so hard on Bob Sapp, Baye, he may act the clown to sell a product, but so do you – “The Beast” is his schtick, his product, how he makes a living. “Loco in Yokohama”, the writer battling racism in Japan with faux authoritative pronouncements on how things are, is yours, and you are using it right now for a paying gig with the JT. You’re not better than Bob, or Bobby, or Dante – although all three of those have learned the trick to succeeding in Japan, and at least two of those are far more successful at integrating here than you shall ever be.

  • Gianluca G.D.

    I loved the article and hope to read from you soon. Your buddy, J

  • davecolly

    I too being black in Japan had my share of “I look like” random famous black people… Bobby Olugon, Obama, Usain Bolt, Eddie Murphy and the list goes on. I got used to it now. What I can’t seem to get used to is people telling me “you are good at using chop sticks” even after being here 7 years. As if using chop sticks is some sort of rocket science. I used to ignore it but recently I tell them over and over that I’m here 7 years now and that using a chop stick is not difficult.

  • Ella

    I thought this was a great piece and had a lot of the ideas that you’ll find if you read the authors books. As a black woman who has lived here for two years I have had to learn how to react to comments and stares similar to that which the author writes about. For me it took time to find that I needed to learn mutual understanding for why they might say I can sing like a gospel singer and why I might react (in my head) negatively to that. They like to put people who are unknown to them in categories and schemas to help them handle the situation. Where I come from that means they stereotype a certain demographic. It means that I am, more often than not offended by what they say, but because of the understanding, I learn to let it go…similarly to how I let it go when my friends say I look like Queen Latifah. Particularly love the last quote: “But, what your question touches on is perhaps the greatest benefit of living outside of your sphere of comfort: You’ll likely be forced to confront what you’re really made of.”
    Thumbs up!

  • Sasori

    Dude, I’m White: I get the exact same thing. Perhaps it’s easier to think that the words ‘inconsiderate’, ‘inappropreate’ and ‘mature’ don’t exist in Japanese.
    It has less to do with you being black; ‘they’ don’t sit next to me on the train either. It’s slightly like I am Griffin.

  • Squidhead

    Some people just never learn to fit in. I think Baye would have been experiencing the same thing in any foreign country he chose to live in.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    I am glad we agree that cultural memes are not universal – however there are others here who appear to think that if X is bad in their culture, it should be bad in Japan as well. Even a supposedly educated individual, a prominent professor at Temple University in Tokyo and who also writes for the Japan Times, weighed in on the e-mobile monkey advertisements a few years ago with “Japan must adjust the image it presents even within Japan in consideration of what other people in the world might find offensive.”


    JJL below summed up the “pointing at someone and saying which celebrity they look like” issue quite well. It is neither racist, nor a stereotype, it is “small talk”. Icebreakers, we call them. Now, if you consider such “icebreakers” to be “blindingly racist”, then it is you who have the problem, not the Japanese.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    >Why do we need to force everyone to speak the same language?

    Dear lord, is a question with such a self-apparent answer really that difficult for you? And it is not “forcing”, it should be common sense that if an individual speaks one language, then decides to immigrate to a country where everyone speaks another, that the immigrant needs to learn the language of that country. Unless, of course, their goal is to be part of a permanent, illiterate underclass.

    There are, of course, countries with multiple official languages. And every single one that I can think of has those because the country, as it exists today, is formed of an area of land which was not totally inhabited by just one people, but rather represents a vestige of an old imperial state or an old colony of one, and was formed from an amalgam of various indigenous ethnic or cultural groups. But then again, there are other cases, such as some African countries, where one single language has been set as an official language to avert the chaos that would result if equal representation was given to most or all of the dozens or hundreds of indigenous languages within the national borders.

    Now, as far as Japan, I can see your point about Okinawan and Ainu languages, but we are not talking about those, and even if we were an Okinawan may be able to get by just fine in life speaking nothing but Ryukyu dialect while in Okinawa, but that won’t fly in the rest of Japan any more than a Welshman would be able to become a successful businessman or graduate from Oxford speaking only Cymraeg. For someone from outside of those regions, and I do believe “Brooklyn” qualifies, the question is entirely moot – English was never a language of any part of the long-dead Japanese Empire, and there is absolutely no good reason for English-speakers who decide to move to Japan to demand that they be allowed to conduct their daily business in English.

  • C.J. Bunny

    >If an American in Japan lives among people who speak English and works with people who speak English, and conducts his business in English, what is it to you? Who does it harm if Japan has enclaves with different cultures and languages?

    Probably the only people harmed are the expats themselves. No real problem for others, but why would anyone listen to their” insights” on the culture around them? And why would anyone choose to listen to them moan about how hard their lot is when so many of their issues are self-inflicted by choosing to handicap themselves? The only people interested in this are those justifying the same poor choices. Plenty of foreigners live happily in Japan with little Japanese language ability, but to externalise problems of your own choosing and generalising without understanding are recipes for a stressful, unhappy experience.

  • Sasori

    So, if one ‘learns’ the culture, one will also learn not to be offended?
    How has that worked out for your relationship with the KKK?

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    >You’re being purposefully obtuse – this is just simplistic cultural relativism.

    I do not think that word (“cultural relativism”) means what you think it does. Perhaps you meant “moral relativism”, where one holds that all beliefs are equally valid, and so anything is OK?

    If so, rest assured I do not hold that view. When living and interacting in Japan, the only rules and mores that are valid are Japanese ones, just as when living in England (or France or Russia or anyplace else) the only rules and mores that are valid are the ones held by the members of that society.

    >For example, JJL claims that comparing people to celebrities is common ice breaking – odd, since I’ve never once heard anyone in my life do so with each other. Never seen a Japanese person do it to another Japanese person.

    And any number of people have never once seen you post to the Japan Times – and yet, you do.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    Careful there, toolonggone, you are using English just a bit too well here. You are going to blow your cover again, next time, when you revert to broken English and the “I am a native Japanese who can’t write English properly” character.

  • Gordon Graham

    I learned how to use chopsticks in the two seconds it took for someone to show me…I learned to get over being complimented on it just as quickly

  • Gordon Graham

    I’ve never accused anyone on these pages of having mental problems. I come to these pages merely to take my English for a walk as it were. Perhaps you bellyache in English Pubs with likeminded malcontents, I don’t know. How could I not enjoy my life here? I’m treated like a king, which is why I have the impulse to defend my host. I take delight in doing so. Is that so difficult to comprehend? Just as you and “people like you” take delight in criticising the Japanese and wallowing in victimhood. I’m not a Buddhist so being at peace is not really in line with my spirit. I’m a hockey guy…I naturally gravitate to the fray, so when someone wants to drop the gloves it makes me happy. So, thanks…

  • Gordon Graham

    Whatever tu quoque means I think she’s onto something close to what I believe…that this pointing out differences is a human trait not a Japanese one, as is getting over oneself enough not to be offended by something that was not meant to be harmful…well for some anyway for others it’s an opportunity to wallow in victimhood (which is also a human trait).

  • warota

    I saw that but I didn’t want it to just end there with a “tu quoque”. I ran with it to bait him into admitting that pointing and laughing was cross-cultural.

  • warota

    In the common parlance of the hypercapitalist modern world, I believe Gordon and others like him here have a benign case of the so-called “F*** you, I’ve got mine” syndrome.

    Benign cases may result in trolling on Internet forums while more extreme cases of this syndrome may result in enacting of public policies which victimize already marginalized or financially disenfranchised groups for personal profit.

  • warota

    Gordon’s isn’t white male privilege. It’s “professional sports athlete” privilege, that oh so common occupation that nearly all foreigners in Japan have. Imagine something like foreign baseball players strutting around doing a similar thing to ALTs, JETs, factory workers and Eikawa staff. Sounds ridiculous right? You can basically append “…and let them eat cake!” to every one of their posts and it starts to make sense.

  • warota

    I did reply to this but I guess it got lost or something. It was a fairly long post as well. But I’ll try to reconstruct it.

    I took a look at the video. I felt it was a bit overgeneralizing of both foreigners and Japanese but understand they probably wanted to create a foil for the “Japanese” way of arguing. But what if green foreigners see this and then see multiple counterexamples on TV or at work etc.? If they introduced as a way that some Japanese argue with each other in order to avoid conflict then it’d be more accurate (personal opinion, not necessarily universally applicable).

    So according to the video foreigners can unknowingly offend their hosts when what they consider is simply pointing out the truth (eg. it’s a dog) because that’s not a big deal between some foreigners (eg. “I mean, are you going to get offended just because I told you it’s a dog and not a cat?”) But, if some people feel this way even though we may think it somewhat ridiculous, if we value the relationship with the person we’re talking to then we have to concede and be careful next time. It works both ways. On that point, I found the video to be informative.

    And it’s probably my imagination but I think the announcer at the end of the video was trying to suppress an embarassed laugh. I mean, she’s delivering lines asking “how was it” for a video created entirely by foreigners generalizing her own culture as if it was some sort of anthropological study.

    As for your case in Vietnam, it seems to me you may be projecting your own privileged case to all other Caucasians or foreigners and you feel that since you don’t deserve respect because of your privileged position that these others don’t either. Correct me if I’m wrong. If so, I find that unfortunate.

    Regarding the “having a stake in a country” bit: sorry, I can’t see how this would be related to the receiving of negative stereotypes.

    Perhaps it may be painful for you and others to admit that what they’re doing is “wrong” and try to justify it with these sorts of generalizations. To recognize this means admitting that true closeness as you personally understand to such people is illusory. I’ve went through the same experience myself. The thing is, them wanting to get close to you was never in their minds in the first place although you personally may desire it. Imagine the reverse situation and a foreigner starts fetishizing your culture desperate to fit in. How would most people react to that? In hindsight, I suppose that many people who take to such religious zeal in defending Japan may also be doing it from the point of covering up the feeling of loneliness that would result in admitting the above. It’s a natural feeling to do so and I should be more empathetic in regards to this.

    Ok so now what, right? For me, I trust only to a certain degree and set my expectations low based on past experience. Relating to such people is like a business transaction. Anything on top of that is icing. I won’t start anything. I avoid conflict whenever possible. I try to interact only when the situation is clear and exude friendliness. Perhaps I’m doing it “wrong” but this works for me so far. I like Sasori don’t care to “fit in” but I learn the language anyway. There are a lot of new ideas expressed only in the Japanese language and I feel comfortable separating concept from source when I need to. Japanese seem to be able to adopt so many foreign ideas for themselves without hypocrisy so there’s no reason I can’t do the same in reverse.

    I appreciate all of your posts so far including the ones to other posters. While we may disagree on how to react, we both acknowledge and understand the causes which is more than we can say for other threads.

    Let the net flow with opinions. We can then all see where we really stand. My stance on Debito is that I can also understand where he’s coming from even though he and some his posters take it to certain extremes that I don’t agree with for which some of my posts get deleted. But I don’t think anyone can deny that he and his posters have a unique voice which is fairly underepresented here. I’ve come to know more about activism and legal things from his site so I’m grateful it exists for what it’s worth.

  • Gordon Graham

    I’m offering my perspective which is what my opinion is based on. I’ve read Mr.Baye’s complaint. I don’t see it as being worthy of indignation.

  • Gordon Graham

    Check out another conversation, you’ve joined this one a little late.

  • Boebekar

    Makes me wonder what is wrong if people tell you you look like someone in a positive way. No matter your ethnicity, straining your head over this is a silly thing to do.