World needs lessons in dealing with difference; Japan needs an education in attracting students

Following are three more readers’ mails in response to both Gerry McLellan’s May 24 Hotline to Nagatacho column “Japanese adults need an education in dealing with difference” and other letters published on the subject on June 28.

Education also needed elsewhere

In response to Gerry McLellan’s letter, I would concur that yes, Japanese people do need more education in dealing with foreigners. But so do Americans, British, Australians and just about everyone else.

How many waiters, hairdressers and store clerks in your country can carry on a perfectly politically correct conversation with a foreigner without ever asking about their country of origin or what foods they like? I know a lot of “regular Joe”-type people in my country who unapologetically confuse Japan, China and Korea, not to mention South American countries, Middle Eastern countries, European countries and pretty much everywhere else.

In my university days, I would take Japanese exchange students to the local shopping mall; despite their earnest attempts to speak English with store employees, they would be told to their face, “Sorry, I can’t understand anything you are saying.” My Japanese friends who travel abroad tell me they regularly get jeers from people on the street. One friend even had raw eggs thrown at her, in a developed European country no less. Even my American friends who studied abroad throughout Europe told me they were surprised at how openly racist people were in those countries.

So in actuality, Mr. McLellan is demanding of Japan a standard that simply does not exist in other countries. I presume he had just never been on the receiving end of any cultural insensitivity until he came to Japan.

When studying abroad in Osaka, I had an American teacher who told us, “I love seeing these rich white kids coming to Japan and getting flabbergasted at the things Japanese people say to them. I think it’s a great experience for them to be a minority for once.” He had a good point.

Growing up as a half-Filipino in America, I was called “Chinese” by classmates, and even my teachers would jokingly call me a “dog eater.” I have never had such rude things said to me here in Japan.

While I do agree that Japanese — and people everywhere else — need lessons on cultural differences, I have a feeling that Mr. McLellan and his son will somehow find a way to endure the horrible burden of being told they are good at Japanese.


Ignorance is widespread

If you have traveled extensively, Mr. McLellan, you might have noticed that Japan is not the only country where adults say such things. If fact, you’re likely to encounter the same in other ethnically homogenous countries in the rest of Asia.

And even in Western countries like Australia — where I was born and currently live — as an Asian person I constantly get, “Your English is very good!” or “You seem kind of Australian, not like the other foreigners” from probably well-meaning people of all demographics. After telling them I was born and bred and educated in a private school, they seem to be able to find a justification for my out-of-place, unexpected English proficiency. Then they will pursue some other questioning of Asian stereotypes, e.g. why we like to gamble so much.

I am not the only Asian person who experiences this. It’s as widespread as our cane toad plague.

So if you think Japan is culturally challenged, look again and you’ll find that so is the rest of the world — that is, if you cared to look.


It can’t be helped, for now

I, of course, like any non-Japanese person in Japan, have felt discriminated against.

A recent example was when I was on a business trip to Tokyo with a Japanese co-worker, and our hotel staff asked him to ask me for my passport. My co-worker doesn’t speak English, so I answered by saying that I didn’t have my passport with me as I did not come from overseas. Then they asked for my foreign registration card for them to copy.

I complied, but of course my Japanese co-worker did not have to show any identification. I got pretty upset that apparently a non-Japanese person is more of a risk than a Japanese person even though they are paying with the same credit card and work for the same company.

Totally unnecessary if you ask me, but then again, there are those non-Japanese people that take this discrimination and lash out. When that happens, hotels might be happy that they took these steps. But did they take steps to help a problem, or did they create the problem?

In either case, these types of situations — and even just saying that someone’s Japanese is good — are cultural. Reading the other comments, it looks like most people who have not experienced racism are the most upset. Racism is everywhere. I almost guarantee that the people writing upset comments have also said racist comments about Japanese people themselves. I have, even though I am married to one.

Living in another culture is frustrating, especially one as unique as Japan’s. This education will not come quickly, but as the number of foreigners and interracial kids increases in Japan, Japanese people will learn from experience.

As there is still racism in all countries, though perhaps not as much as before, discrimination will not go away in my lifetime. I choose to feel shōganai about this problem, as that will bring the least amount of frustration.


World should learn Japanese?

Re: ” ‘English interface’ could be key to Japan’s revival” by Glenn Newman (Zeit Gist, July 5):

It would seem that the writer has failed to recognize that the English-speaking countries were the primary facilitators of the recent global financial collapse. Maybe if the Japanese had a better command of English, the criminal activities of those Western bankers would have been more easily noticed; but numbers are numbers in any language, and one can be lied to in many languages.

The world seems unable to grasp the concept that Japan would like to remain Japanese. The Western ideal of cultureless societies that only embrace consumerism continues to destroy all cultures in its path.

The wheel of time changes many things, and the overreaction to the Japanese way of doing things is based on the “I want it now” attitude that prevails in the West.

Corruption in Japan is a major issue, but it is also an issue in many other countries. The financial crisis was a result of political corruption in the U.S. and the U.K.

I hardly think that learning English will be the healer of all that is wrong in the economic system. Culture maintains things of importance to a society and binds people when problems arise. Consumerism divides people by objects owned and is based on acquisitions and greed.

Maybe the English-speaking world would do better to understand Japanese?

Norfolk, Virginia

What’s anime got to do with it?

Re: ” ‘English interface’ could be key to Japan’s revival” by Glenn Newman (Zeit Gist, July 5):

The proposal at the end of the column to send companies to set up recruitment booths at anime events is a terrible idea.

Those who attend such expos are all otaku-like fanatics who probably wouldn’t fit very well into a Japanese company.

The last thing we want is more “weeabos” (wannabe Japanese) morons to come to Japan and make Westerners look even more idiotic.

It’s people like this that end up giving foreigners a bad name. I am so tired of hearing Westerners, scholars and others like you talk about anime as if it’s the only thing Japan has to offer.

Going to Japan or being interested in Japan just because of video games, manga and/or anime is incredibly shallow.


Make colleges more accessible

Re: ” ‘Foreign students back but numbers look likely to fall” by James McCrostie (Zeit Gist, July 12):

I read the article with great interest as it concerns me personally. It seems I am one of the few who applied in May for a one-year precollege visa via a language school. If successful, this would be my second time in Japan, which I visited first as an MBA exchange student in 2006.

I truly believe that while the tsunami, Fukushima disaster and the obvious ineptitude and arrogance of TEPCO and the government won’t help to restore trust, there are also structural problems Japan faces that were only partly addressed in the article.

I for one found the application procedure highly inflexible and strict. I was particularly worried that I had to send the original, not the certified copies, of my last diploma. Also, I was told (perhaps wrongly) that people who graduated more than five years ago weren’t eligible at all. Language schools are missing out again on a big target group. Why not accept the 50-year-old Japanophile on a sabbatical? Visa regulations need to become more flexible and less of an administrative burden.

I know from personal experience that the quality of university courses is often so-so (“difficult to get in but a ride in the park afterwards,” to quote a Japanese friend). If I were a parent paying for something extremely expensive like sending my kids to university abroad, I would want to make sure they are safe and would end up with an internationally appreciated degree. So some reforms are definitely needed as well as a rational PR effort directed at the parents as the paying party.

A big eye-opener for me was when I started to check out the possibilities of studying Korean in Seoul or Mandarin in Taiwan a few weeks ago as a backup plan; I got the feeling that these countries actually want me to come and study their language. The application procedures seem faster (two months versus five), less old-fashioned (Fax? Really, Japan?) and easier (two forms versus I-lost-count-of-the-number). The cost of living seems a little lower, and these countries have good universities and pretty funky entertainment, too. If I were to do it all over again, I’d perhaps select Taiwan or South Korea over Japan.

Don’t misunderstand me. I loved living in Japan, and am looking forward to coming back for a year, but Japan still has a long way to go if it wants to reach ambitious goals, Fukushima or not. For some people like myself, anime, Arashi and tea ceremonies alone don’t do the trick, and there are more dynamic countries out there that come to mind when investing in one’s future, such as Australia, the U.S. and Singapore.