Here’s a question for my fellow expatriates: When was the last time a Japanese person said “hello” to you?
Wait, let me rephrase that: When was the last time somebody used your presence as an excuse to say/shout/whisper “haro” whilst furtively glancing sideways at their companions to confirm they just made the funniest joke ever?
I am asking because it struck me that it has been a while, maybe half a year at least, since this has happened to me — since I have had the chance to further perfect my standard response to what I call haro-hara, a form of harassment. This response consists of shaking the haroer’s hand while offering them my hearty congratulations on being the 10,000th person to make the short synaptic leap from gaijin (foreigner) to haro. I keep thinking that next time I should add something about how they have just demonstrated the requisite level of comic originality to qualify as a Yoshimoto-branded TV “talent,” but like I said, it’s been a while.
When I first came to Japan 30 years ago, getting haroed was just a fact of life for us large, lumbering white alien beings. In the years since, accumulated experience has taught me that haroing is a hobby practiced overwhelmingly by males traveling in packs, often suffering from some form of diminished capacity — usually childhood or alcohol. There have been the occasional soloists, but they usually work in a different genre, like the man who asked if he could speak English at me, apparently unfazed by the fact I was using a urinal at the time. Such utilitarian gaijin-bothering has generally been the exception compared to prevailing forms of recreational haroing.
When living in Sendai in the 1980s, I thought “haro” might be superseded by the more sophisticated “This is a pen.” Apparently a stock phrase from introductory English texts in use at the time, children used to delight in shouting this at me, sometimes from across a busy street with a bemused parent watching from well within scolding range. A shift from single words to a sentence-based form of alien-teasing would certainly have evidenced an improvement in the general level of English, at least amongst the random stranger-mocking demographic. Sadly, the drunk who botched it to declare “I am a pen” was a sign that only “haro” had the Zen-like simplicity to remain sustainable over the decades.
It also struck me that it might be useful to develop a scale based on the average number of haros experienced over a specific period of time. Standard units of measurement I would call “harons” could then be used to rank places for ill-mannered parochialism.
“Oh, let’s not go drinking in [name of place] — Gaijinpot is listing it at 7.5 harons.” Or, “I was with the JET Programme in [village in Shikoku], which must be at least 500 kiloharons away from Tokyo.”
Tokyo might be the “absolute zero” on the scale, since you can probably spend a long time and hear nary a “haro.” Kyoto, where I live, would not rate a very high haron score either. Of course, it has long been a mecca for foreign tourists and seems to have more French-style boulangeries than convenience stores (also, it has some temples and stuff) so everyone here may be pretty numb to foreignness. That said, I have been haroed a good number of times during my time here. Even so, it has been a while, as I keep saying.
This subject has been stuck in the back of my mind for a while, but came to the forefront when we took our children to the o-Bon summer festival at the elementary school up the street. It was night and the grounds were full of people enjoying the event. As you might expect from such a venue, it was full of elementary school children.
In the past, the effect of me walking into a schoolyard full of elementary students was completely predictable: It would generate a steady stream, if not a veritable chorus, of “haro,” just as surely as putting food in the mouth of a vacuous young woman on TV generates an effusive “oishii!” I steeled myself, but nothing happened. The sea of kids ignored me and I ignored them — it was great!
Thinking about it more, the last person to haro me in Kyoto was an old man, one of a troop of old men who filed past me as part of a tour group on their way to see some old remnant of old Japan. Perhaps he was bored or had run out of food- and ailment-related topics to share with his companions. Or perhaps he was drunk or it was just some Pavlovian reaction to seeing a tall, shambling Caucasian in a place like Kyoto. But there it was, the faintly taunting “haro” from someone clearly old enough to know better.
The haros will probably continue for a while yet. But that old man will be dead soon (well, not that soon — he looked to be only in his late 70s) while the kids from that schoolyard will be around for a long time to come. So, it gives me great comfort to have been accepted into their version of the world, one in which people who look different do not merit any special comment or attention.
I could speculate about the reasons — my neighborhood being surprisingly cosmopolitan, the effect of the JET Programme and other initiatives, globalization blah blah blah, or maybe me just not getting out enough recently — but frankly, I don’t care. All I know is that being able to go into a space full of pre-teens without feeling vaguely like John Merrick minus his head sack could reflect some sort of subtle yet significant sea change in Japanese society as I experience it in daily life. And perhaps once the haros have all died out, it will be easier to actually just say hello.
Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Law of the Land appears in print on the second Thursday Community Page of every month. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org