Please teach us how to fit in

Dear Prime Minister Taro Aso,

When I first came to this gentle country I was 18 years old. I worked for the U.S Department of Defense. My fellow airmen and I walked about the city smoking, drinking and eating. We drank beer straight from the necks of oversize beer bottles, spoke loudly and roughhoused on the trains, and called out to girls on the streets of Tokyo like we were back in the ‘hoods of America.

Thinking back now I could almost cry. How we must have looked to people around us. How much social damage did we do? How many people’s image of non-Japanese people did we forever taint? Even though our upbringing and the superiority complex bestowed on us by militant Uncle Sam did come into play, I wonder how much of our rampage could have been avoided had we been taught our host country’s culture and manners.

We were taught how to operate high-tech computers, how to operate various state-of-the-art machines, how to salute an officer and march in straight lines. We were taught how to use the M-16 assault rifle and the 9 mm semiautomatic pistol — all of this would come in very useful during our stay in Japan, I was sure. But, we were never taught how to bow in respect to your host, how to pour another’s drink, how to receive or serve tea on a social visit. Nor do I recall being drilled on escalator etiquette, when or how to open a gift or the art of saying “no” without saying “no.” As a matter of fact, I received not a single minute of language training and didn’t have much knowledge of Japan at all.

During my first few years there were so many mixups and misunderstandings that I almost threw in the towel and did what a lot of non-Japanese do: just curse this country and go home to Mommy. Now, 16 years later, I think back and wonder how much more enriching those first few years could have been had I gotten motivated or been ordered to expose myself to a little more culture and learn about the etiquette of my host country, which is now my home country.

How might things be if government officials and the public had access to more courses or workshops on both domestic and international culture and manners, as well as their local neighborhood crime patrols? Military personnel, English teachers like myself, farm hands, exchange students and office workers are just some of us who want to live here, but regardless of the reason for visiting or staying, being familiar with culture and manners is beneficial to society as a whole.

But let’s be serious and talk about the money. First, why not reduce the police force’s weapons and surveillance budget? This is a fairly whipped society, and a good job has been done to remove firearms and other weapons from the hands of those who could be potential threats. Also, I think we can give up this delusion that China or North Korea are suddenly going to attack out of revenge for past transgressions. Who would profit really from an attack on Japan? So how about reducing the Japanese military budget? How about being more open to suggestions on how to share in cultural awareness? Isn’t that where more of our tax yen should be going?

The bulk of the negativity I’ve felt myself and heard from other expatriates about living in Japan — aside from the difficulty of learning kanji — has been down to problems with cultural differences, or how hard it is to figure out what is going on in a given social situation, whether at work or out with friends.

It might be too late for me. I had to learn the hard way. But it’s not too late for others to get a more positive and solid foundation of cultural awareness on which to build their new life in Japan.

Submissions to Hotline to Nagatacho should address issues that affect your life in Japan or be in response to government policies. Please imagine you are actually writing to a government official — be it a local school board head or the prime minister himself — to bring attention to an important matter. Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp