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For Japan’s foreign residents, the little things make such a big difference

by Michael Hoffman

Japan arouses strong feelings. You love it or you hate it — sometimes both at once; rarely neither.

Critics come well armed. Japan often seems narrow and parochial. Trading partners find it overprotected and overregulated. Refugees and their advocates deplore Japan’s cold shoulder. Foreigners sometimes complain of being made to feel like a different species.

Is Japan even a democracy? To some observers it seems more of a bureaucracy, the elected politicians a mere front for the unelected bureaucrats who really govern. Is it pacifist? It has a pacifist Constitution and hasn’t waged war since 1945, but its closest neighbors claim to see an unregenerate militarist core beneath its benign exterior.

Remarkable postwar success — economic, technological, educational — seemed for decades to justify various national quirks. But the economy sank, innovation flagged and education lost its edge. Times were changing, and Japan was failing to keep up.

A triple meltdown at a nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture is to many the clearest symbol of where Japan stands today, its vaunted know-how exposed as tattered and corrupt — dubious collusion among pronuclear politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists having been pinpointed as a major contributor to what went so catastrophically wrong.

However, never mind all that. What’s great about Japan? Long-term foreign residents ought to know: They came here voluntarily and live here by choice. They must have their reasons.

Indeed they do. The January issue of the monthly Shincho 45 features essays by 15 foreigners on what drew them to, and keeps them in, their adopted homeland. Japanese readers will be proud to see themselves reflected in this mirror.

Japan is: clean. Convenient. Polite. Rich. Modern. Traditional. Cool. Sensitive. Safe. Considerate. Et cetera.

Yes, convenience stores abound, people bow a lot, kimonos are nice, manga and anime are far out, the high tech is very high and ceremony is never far beneath the surface. Those who get a bit tired of hearing these virtues recited might wonder why seasoned Japanophiles never weary of reciting them. Could it be that the truth in them justifies repetition, lest we forget or start taking it all for granted?

The comparisons are primarily with the writers’ homelands, which, ranging from Egypt to Finland, the U.S. to Iran, Nepal to Poland, all come off second best in some small but essential way. American political ideals may be grander, European philosophy may be deeper, Islamic faith may be firmer than anything native to Japan — but Japan, perhaps uniquely, knows the value of small things, and small things can, astonishingly, astonish.

Everyone, it seems, has an impression of Japan. You needn’t have been here, or know anything in particular about the place, for mention of “Japan” to summon an immediate picture to the mind — divorced, it may be, from reality, but no less vivid for that.

An Egyptian sumo wrestler describes his surprise on first arriving at seeing no samurai — he had seen “The Last Samurai”; where were the warriors? A Nepalese was puzzled to see no one wearing kimonos. A Ukrainian wondered at all the modernity. Where was the fabled “tradition” she’d been primed for?

Maybe that’s part of Japan’s charm — when image and reality clash, it’s the image, as often as not, that triumphs. The Nepalese man encountered “Japan” as a child in the form of one Mr. Ishizuka, who boarded for three weeks with his family in Katmandu. Ishizuka taught him Japanese songs and rode him on the back of his bicycle. It seems little enough; it must have been the way he did it. It decided the boy’s fate, linking it forever to Japan. He arrived, age 20, as an exchange student in 2000.

The first disappointment: no kimonos. The second: “My life at university was full, but in my neighborhood I couldn’t fit in. I’d say hi and get no answer. If I spoke to the children, they’d look scared. Anything you want — a drink, a train ticket — you just push a button and it’s in your hand. That’s great, but on days off from school I’d go the whole day without anyone speaking a word to me.”

Did that dampen his spirits? Not at all.

“OK, so Japan is allergic to foreigners. Communication is not Japan’s forte. They have their own way of communicating. You have to understand that.”

Currently based at the Kanagawa International Center, he hopes one day to work for the Japan Embassy in Katmandu.

The Egyptian wrestler (professional name: Osunaarashi Kintaro) encountered sumo by accident at a judo gym at home. The gym held occasional amateur sumo tournaments to which his size won him an invitation — aged 15, he weighed 120 kg. He lost all seven of his first bouts, to an opponent half his size. How could he have?

His coach told him: “Sumo is not strength, it’s technique.” That fired him. He would master that mysterious “technique,” and Japan — where else? — was the place to learn it. What else has he discovered in two years here? Gratitude. Japanese feel it and express it. Egyptians, he says, do not — but should.

A French graphic designer, 25 years in Japan, discusses female empowerment. Japan’s seems lacking, but there’s another angle: “Japanese women are free to be full-time housewives.” “Free” to be, or pressured to be? It depends on how you look at it.

“French women envy Japanese women,” the designer says. She claims to know many French career women who would, if the truth were known, rather stay home.

“Japan is one of very few advanced countries where the full-time housewife role has been preserved.” And, in fact, a health ministry survey last year found 1 unmarried Japanese woman in 3 aspires to precisely that — a career as a full-time homemaker. Japan defies hasty conclusions.

TV personality Haruka Christine is from Switzerland — Swiss mom, Japanese dad. She’s 21 and first came here as a high school student. She’s extremely shy, she says. Her brash, argumentative compatriots intimidated her; Japanese courtesy brought her out of her shell. Now she’s trying to bring the Japanese out of theirs — by relentlessly raising political issues on her TV appearances. It amazed her, at first, how absent political passions are from Japanese social intercourse.

Smile, Japan: “The whole world is in the grip of a Japan boom,” observes English rakugo (humorous storytelling) performer Diane Kichijitsu. She writes of an African safari she went on, and of a Masai tribesman she met in Tanzania.

“The man has no house, no TV, no car, his sandals are made from old tires, and what’s the one country in the world he’d most want to visit?”

A certain archipelago on the edge of Asia.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    “A French graphic designer, 25 years in Japan, discusses female
    empowerment. Japan’s seems lacking, but there’s another angle: “Japanese
    women are free to be full-time housewives.” “Free” to be, or pressured
    to be? It depends on how you look at it.”

    It depends on how much damage feminism has already done to your culture. People often want what they think they can’t have. France and Japan are at different stages of feminist indoctrination. The more enlightening perspective is to understand that that French woman’s opinion, if taken as status quo, will probably be the status quo for Japanese women 30 years from now.

    This illustrates that the truth is not to be found through that kind of ideology and rather in the simple phrase, “Individuals make choices.”. So, the government should have the foresight not be incentiving a culture that makes one choice (as housewife or working mother or childless career woman) more attractive than another, and simply acknowledge that women are going to value different things, and different life paths, the end “numbers” or “percentages” being irrelevant.

    • Madfoot713

      I have come to admire Japan’s traditional gender roles culture. Feminism is good in theory, the idea that anyone should be free to choose how to live their life is a good one, but in practice all it stands for is manhating and female angst.

      • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

        I disagree.

        Simply based on the fact that women can carry children and men can’t we will always see a divide in the values of the sexes when it comes down to the raw numbers.

        But that divide does not apply to any specific individual man or woman. The problem is not in “leaving individuals free to choose”, it is in the cultural framing of the issues, and endless attempt at polarization over perceived inequalities. It does not help that the government is empowered to by voters to act to “resolve” perceived inequalities.

        It’s one thing when there is actually legal inequality, but it is quite another for would-be social engineers to get angry over the fact that many individuals make choices that don’t mesh with they way they desire the numbers to be, whether that is women an men in the kitchen, on the job, or on the battlefield.

        This is the result of letting dogmatic ideology get in the way of business of living.

  • Steve Jackman

    Excellent points!

    “Japan is unbelievably sexist and oppressive for women.” I would add, Japan is unbelievably racist and oppressive for non-Japanese residents. These non-Japanese, like the ones writing the fifteen essays, have learned to pander to, humor, and feed the vanity of their Japanese hosts, in order to make a living here.

    There is a saying that people get the government they deserve. A corollary to this is, countries get the immigrants they deserve. Unless Japan and its institutions (corporations, judicial system, lawyers, judges, etc.) change their discriminatory, xenophobic and racist ways, it will never attract the kinds of high caliber and first-rate immigrants who have made great contributions to countries like the U.S.

    • Monaka der Hund

      “unbelievably racist and oppressive for non-Japanese residents”

      Today is a gray day, but I promise you, next time I go out I will look for oppressiveness. Haven’t seen it yet though.

      “vanity of your Japanese hosts”

      I guess visitors get the hosts they deserve.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    What do you mean “remain”? What is wrong with being a housewife?

    Secondly, what constitutes an “informed” choice made via 100% free will? The only proper requirement of the government is to ensure that individual rights are respected equally. That assured, anything else beyond that is a matter of responsibility. Whether or not she has made that choice or is informed is not relevant to anyone else. It is her responsibility — as much as it is anyone else’s responsibility to themselves.

    Claiming otherwise is to claim some obligation that others owe to that woman, or women — meaning rights are unequal. And that is the indoctrination. That is what is advertised as “equality” when in reality it means two separate sets of rights, a superior one for women, and an inferior one for men.

    And yes, there are more housewives in Japan because it has not suffered through the full breadth of feminism yet. Maybe one day Japan will be as progressive as to protect the fathering racket by banning the DNA testing of children. That would be nice and equal.

    None of my criticisms are to say that there are no cultural problems around this topic that need to be better identified and resolved in Japan, but rather whatever the solution is, it is not feminism.

  • Mark

    Femenist ideology claims it want’s frredom of choice for women to get a career or a family yet in practice it tries to shame motherhood.