‘Disabled’ in Britain, just ‘foreign’ in Japan

Briton finds an unexpected sense of liberation in a place where his foreignness trumps all


“At the same time there was a new feeling of freedom. The visitor was no longer controlled by his own mores and he could disregard Japan’s. Exceptions were made for the gaijin [foreigner] who could be expected to know nothing. This freedom included the ultimate liberty of finding everything other than himself — walking down the street, he enjoyed the freedom of being manifestly different.”

As the late author Donald Richie noted, to be a foreigner in Japan means to experience a paradox. You experience a kind of freedom living in Japan — of being able to experience your surroundings but not your own self. Your status as a foreigner is reflected back at you by the environment you traverse, and it is not only the more-than-occasional stare that reminds you that you are gaijin — here, even the buildings, tall and proud, loom over you, remonstrating you for your foreignness.

Whilst not experienced all of the time by all gaijin, it does lead some to experience themselves schismatically: There is both the person I think I am and the one that is perceived by others. You have to negotiate with the world in order to receive a self-image you can recognize as your own.

There is a kind of liberation in this, but one that not all find welcome. As another writer, Richard Lloyd Parry, notes, every foreigner “experiences the small daily shock of re-entry,” an act of remembering, or rather realizing, that yesterday was not a dream or hallucination — that you are, indeed, in Japan. It is also an experience of the uncanny, a feeling that your own self is always public; as a foreigner you are always “out there,” in the world, and on show. Who and what you are is no longer something you have control over. Here, it is probably better not to worry about your own self-identity; other people in Japan will worry about that for you.

As a disabled foreigner living in Japan, I have experienced both sides of this paradox. It may seem bleak, but I do not find it so. And yet, for myself, a British citizen who has cerebral palsy living in Japan, it is the liberatory power of being a foreigner here that leaves the deepest impression on me.

In Britain, I always felt like an outsider — not discriminated against, at least not personally, but I always felt like I was someone for whom allowances had to be made. Apologies were made for me by others, often for the crime of tripping someone up or over, or for “getting in the way.” Actions that would otherwise have been dismissed as the actions of, at worst, a rude man, became actions of a disabled man.

Not so here in Japan. I am not claiming that Japanese people do not make such allowances, but at the very least, I see nothing in the faces of my hosts that offers pity or sympathy; if anything, curiosity is the dominant expression.

The life of a foreigner is, at times, one of negotiation. There are terrains to be traversed, both physical and psychological in nature. Not only do you have to negotiate for your identity — to insist daily that, in my case at least, I am British, not English (Japanese people rarely recognize the term “British”) — but you also have to negotiate the physical space. For the foreigner with a physical disability, the need to negotiate the environment safely is of paramount importance.

However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the people of Japan have an odd sense of space. Examine a morning train journey. The queue to enter the train is long and slow-moving. The people of Japan rarely run — “rush hour” is a misnomer. Regardless of the human traffic, everyone — from the salaryman apparently “hurrying” for work to the young mother “dashing” for the shops — will march at the same slow, orderly pace. Nothing shall disturb the civility of the morning commute. Japan is a country that follows the advice to “hasten slowly” to the letter; everyone is in a rush, but nobody ever runs.

Until the train doors open. After that, such civility appears to be suspended, as passengers flood in and out, often attempting to do so simultaneously, and it’s everyone for themselves — no “women and children first” on Japanese trains. I am flung into the carriage and I trip towards the “priority seats,” those reserved for the elderly, disabled, pregnant and children.

Salvation from the hurly-burly of the morning commute often arrives in the form of a friendly smile, a nod from a fellow traveler as they vacate their seat and offer it to me. A nod and a smile from her (the offer usually comes from female traveler), a nod and “arigatō gozaimashita” (“thank you”) from me and I am seated. Perhaps it is quite fitting then, given the obstacle-course nature of the morning journey to work, that the Japanese for disabled person, which is pronounced shōgaisha, is etymologically related to the word for “obstacle.” I am an “obstacle person.”

The reader may be thinking that this doesn’t sound liberatory; it may even sound unwelcoming, if not physically dangerous for a disabled person. And yet, I enjoy a sense of liberation — of being freed from the constraints of my disability — here in Japan.

In Britain, my disability was often made visible. For example, I would step on the bus and granny types and mothers would shoo their children off seats, saying, often quite loudly, “Let the disabled man sit there.” They meant well, of course, and I would never want to discourage such acts of kindness. However, the act of helping me often entailed or even required the act of announcing my disability to the entire world, and that can become grating after a time. One has to keep remembering the good intentions of the Samaritan, but after 30-plus years of such encounters, it takes a lot of effort to do so.

When I first moved to Japan, I noticed one thing very quickly: People simply didn’t seem to take note of my disability in the same way they did in Britain, and they would certainly never refer to it. Of course, they have noticed it — that is why I am offered the priority seat — but my disability, in many ways, still remains in the background; it seems to recede, with my not being Japanese a far more dominant trait.

In April, when I moved from Tokyo to Osaka, on my first time going to Osaka Umeda University, I tripped while boarding the Hankyu Senri Line train from Yamada to Umeda. I fell, quite dramatically, into the priority seat, almost sitting on a young female passenger.

I dusted myself off, exclaimed “gomen nasai” — “I am sorry” — and sat down.

There was a pause.

She turned round, faced me, and said (in English, coincidentally), “You are English?”

I responded, “Yes, I am English,” sat back and smiled.

I thought to myself: Yes, I am a gaijin, an “outside person”; yes, of course, I am still disabled; but at least here (however strange or silly this sentiment may sound), I don’t feel disabled, nor am I seemingly treated as a disabled person by many.

My status as a foreigner seems to have rendered my disability unapparent, if not at times completely invisible, and in that invisibility, I experience a kind of freedom I never had in Britain. And for that experience, I am indebted to Japan.

Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Suita, Osaka Prefecture. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on Thursdays. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Being different is good if you are treated like a curiosity to be engaged, or having a personal context to be considered as a basis for empathy. But if being different means as it does in Asia, being exploited as a ‘gold mine’ (as say in the Philippines, Indonesia or Thailand), or derisively being ‘tolerated’ as it can in Japan, then its a burden that one bears only because one is disempowered by others lack of accountability.

  • Tony Gregson

    Interesting and uplifting in many ways – but I can’t help but wonder whether the general tendency in Japan to keep their – what’s the current PC word? – “challenged” populace “out of sight, out of mind” has a bearing here. It was one of the things that most struck me when I first visited Japan (1989) – the apparent absence of any disabled people in public, along with the absolute predominance of white cars! Both seem to have changed over the intervening years, but to what extent these are real and meaningful changes versus me just becoming inured to them, I wouldn’t like to speculate.

  • doonga

    “buildings…remonstrating you for your foreignness”?

    “remonstrating you”? Don’t you mean “reprehending,” “admonishing” or the like, Mr. Academic?

    • Michey Peckitt

      no I meant remonstrate, meaning to protest.

  • Michey Peckitt

    All I can say, is I have taken 7am trains. Nobody runs, not like in the UK. During rush hour I would be elbowed out of the way in seconds flat.

  • Michey Peckitt

    One was aware. But it is
    literary flourish, Not all literature needs to be grammatically correct. And remember ‘ remonstrating you for your foreignness.’ not against me, a protest is necessarily against anything, and reprehend or admonish isn’t quite right as the experience is not necessarily negative.

  • Frank

    Thank you Michael for this insightful article. As a fellow disabled person living in the Tokyo area for five years now, I can only nod at your observations, though I may not stand out as a foreigner that much, being half-Asian. I also have no need for a cane and am pretty much able to walk as everybody else do, albeit with some difficulties, but I have no right to complain knowing that there are people unluckier than I.

    To add my grain of salt to the story, I am particularly impressed by kids’ attitude towards disabled grown-ups over here. In my home country of France I often used to get the puzzled and/or curious stare from kids crossing my path in the street, with the occasional “hey mommy, look at how he’s walking!”. I’m sure they meant no offence; at first you may simply brush it off by telling yourself “it’s ok, he/she’s just a kid”, but hearing this so many times eventually begins to affect you.

    I’ve found none of that in Japan as far as I can remember. And that is truly refreshing.

    Fortunately I have never been the target of bullies at school; I heartily sympathise with those who are. Knowing that bullying quite often make the news here, life might not be so cool for disabled children attending regular schools. Any ideas?

    • Michey Peckitt

      My wife like me has cerebral palsy (and she is Japanese) This situation is different if you are Japanese certainly, and much needs to be done. I wish I had ideas as to how to improve things! Thanks for reading!