Putting the frighteners on Japanese travelers

From the land of the ubiquitous Japanese tourist comes the ubiquitous dangerous foreigner


Films, books and television programs can teach you a lot about those who dwell in the world outside yours.

If you’re an American of a certain age, you probably learned from one or more of these sources that Frenchmen carry baguettes atop their berets, and Italians gesticulate wildly even as they pinch girls’ bottoms. And if you’re Japanese, you probably learned from your films, books and television programs that people who live overseas are all pretty much the same in wanting to cause you grief.

From the ’70s through the ’90s, “kaigai roke” (overseas location) films typically showed Japanese globetrotters experiencing a full itinerary of victimizations at the hands of the natives.

In the Paris of 1984’s “Yoroppa Tokkyu” (The Princess and the Photographer), the Japanese hero gets the brushoff from streetwalkers who tell him, “No Asians.” In the Switzerland of 1979’s “Kamisama, Naze Ai no Mo Kokkyo Aru No!” (God, Why Must Even Love Have a Border!), the Japanese hero is deported on trumped-up charges and ends up slaving in a West German factory. In the Miami suburbs of 1996’s “Kyoko” the Japanese heroine barely escapes being raped.

In the Rome of 1991’s “Firentse no Kaze ni Dakarete” (Florence, My Love), the Japanese heroine is relieved of her wallet by the first Italian she meets. In the Chile of 1991’s “Penta no Sora” (Penta’s Sky), the adolescent Japanese hero is relieved of his money by street urchins, and is chased by gun-wielding soldiers for entering the country without a proper visa. In the Spain of 1979’s “Hoaito Rabu” (White Love), the Japanese ex of the Japanese hero ends up a common prostitute.

It may seem paradoxical that the country that produced the ubiquitous Japanese tourist is the same one responsible for so much mass entertainment seemingly designed to kill any desire to become a ubiquitous Japanese tourist.

But “kaigai roke” film, not to mention similarly themed television programs, are nothing if not consistent with the Japanese state’s longtime efforts to discourage travel abroad.

In the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867), going overseas was a capital offense; as recently as 1963, going overseas was merely illegal.

Japanese-language guidebooks for overseas travelers also take great pains to warn of the “osoroshii gaijin” (frightening foreigners) who await the unwary. “Nishi Kaigan” (The East Coast) says of New York “that this is a city with a lot of muggers, murderers and rapists. Only in Tokyo, of all the world’s major cities, can a woman experience the miracle of walking alone at night without worry.”

Another guidebook, “Esunikku Nyuu Yooku” (Ethnic New York) advises that tourists brave or foolhardy enough to venture to Harlem “should not stimulate the antagonism” of the residents by pointing cameras at them, while “The East Coast” chimes in that “one should not think English is spoken here.” To discourage the unwanted attention of Gothamites, writes Shoichiro Ariyoshi in “Nyuu Yooku — Za Biggu Appuru” (New York — The Big Apple), “avoid eye-to-eye contact.”

In fairness, it should be pointed out that some guidebooks do manage to locate overseas destinations where Japanese will be met with open arms, rather than raised fists.

“Ajiann Maniakkusu” (“Asian Maniacs”), published in 1998, proclaims one south Asian country a “Homo Kingdom” where young Japanese male travellers are particularly prized. “Bakkupakkazu Dokuhon” (The Book for Backpackers), published the same year, makes the more generalized claim that Japanese young men may expect to be approached by homosexuals throughout Asia.

Local news programs, like certain guidebooks, often deliberately contrast Japan’s superior normalcy with weirdness abroad. And that’s true even of news programs associated with CNN, whose founder, Ted Turner, declared that the word foreign helps to “create a perception of misunderstanding.”

So, too, one might argue, do phrases like “nihon de kangaerarenai” (unthinkable in Japan) and “nihonde shinjirarenai” (unbelievable in Japan), but that didn’t prevent commentators on “CNN Daywatch” from using them.

The daily TV Asahi program, started in 1984 and on-air for over a decade, featured two-person teams offering their opinions on overseas reports provided by CNN.

Over the years, viewers were cautioned that foreigners do things a Japanese would never think or imagine doing: pre-Gorbachev treatment of Soviet Jews would be “unimaginable” in Japan; political violence of the type that rocked El Salvador from the late ’70s to the early ’90s would be “unthinkable” in Japan; the execution of criminals under the age of eighteen, whose constitutionality was pondered by the United States Supreme Court, would be “unthinkable” in Japan.

And when a U.S. soldier in Saudia Arabia told an interviewer he hoped the Gulf War would start and end soon so he could go home soon, you may be sure that a commentator declared that a resident of peaceful Japan hoping for hostilities to begin was, yes, “unthinkable.”

The effect of all these films, guidebooks and news programs on Japanese actively contemplating encounters with foreigners overseas is hard to assess. On the one hand, the number of Japanese tourists abroad multiplied nearly fourfold in the decade and a half from 1985 to 2000, from 5 million to 18 million. On the other hand, with a population half again as large as Germany’s, Japan spent over 40 percent fewer tourist dollars abroad in 2001, according to World Tourism Organization figures.

These figures do suggest that while the Japanese may be willing, say, to see Naples and die, they’ve become more adept at disinheriting Neapolitan cutpurses.

In the popular local imagination, if not actually at package tour destinations, foreign countries will probably always be a places where hostile natives do the unthinkable, like turn away male tourists looking for a good time. There is, however, evidence that the unrelenting antipathy towards Japanese, which has been such an ineradicable part of the Western personality, may be abating.

In 1977’s “Ningen no Shomei” (Proof of the Man), the sight of a white policeman working with a colleague from Japan on a murder investigation so enrages a black resident of Harlem, he stabs the “Jap lover” to death.

Nearly twenty years later, in 1996’s “Daitoryo no Kurisumasu Tsurii” (The President’s Christmas Tree), a Japanese businessman in New York is the victim of an unprovoked attack by two dark-skinned males, who somehow have managed to discern their victim’s nationality, calling him a “Jap bastard.”

Now comes word of a new kind of New York-based kaigai roke film from director Yukihito Tsutsumi.

After a Japanese photographer is murdered in New York, her ex comes to investigate and is mugged. So far, so typical. But in twist guaranteed to surprise, provided readers don’t finish this sentence, it turns out the the murderer is not a gun-wielding Chilean soldier, or an NYPD cop with an aversion to eye-to-eye contact, but the photographer’s ex-pat Japanese roommate.

Nonetheless, Tsutsumi’s latest doesn’t really disprove the basic lesson taught by so many Japanese films, books and television programs about the outside world. People who live overseas are out to get you.