Readers' letters: What to do about 'haro'? And where to study, Japan or China?

Some emails received in response to recent Community articles:

‘Haro’ as an icebreaker

Re: “Is it time to bid bye-bye to haro?” by Colin P.A. Jones (Law of the Land, Oct. 15):

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Having said that, I find the various foreigner reactions to “haro” or other Japanese interactions with them fascinatingly depictive of said foreigner’s history and subsequent life perspective.

I’m a New Yorker, born and raised. I’m also black and Puerto Rican, and not proud of it, simply because of the fact that I had nothing to do with being born black or Puerto Rican. I’m not ashamed of it either, and I love the cultures I was born into as well as the multitude of beautiful cultures around the globe. However, I am proud of my accomplishments and the things I actually had a say in doing, creating or otherwise making a reality. One of those things was making the decision to say “hello” to a certain girl.

Flashback to the fall of 1992. I was a high school senior at a prestigious all-boys boarding school. It was the first dance party of the year and a nearby girl’s schools was invited to mingle with boys to try to keep their testosterone levels in check (some being better at it than others).

In my precious three years at the school, I had never attended a dance party. I was more interested in sports, studies, the outdoors, and was a terrible dancer and exceptionally shy around girls. But at the beginning of my fourth year, I decided to check out this dance party.

A few minutes after entering the main hall and walking around with my hands in my pockets avoiding eye contact with giggly girls, I heard something amazing. A South Korean classmate of mine yelled out, “Hey Joe! Come over here! These girls like black guys!”

Having grown up in a society where being black was often an obstacle to overcome, this was truly amazing to hear. After years of racial insults, malicious cultural stereotypes and having to wade through mine fields being painstakingly conscious of my every action because — unlike whites who may simply be browsing through products in a certain store’s aisle — my browsing had to be quick and as innocuous seeming as possible to avoid a mass of security, staff and dirty, suspicious looks coming my way. Racially motivated explosions were always only a misstep away, and the resulting shrapnel always seemed to prefer darker-skinned targets.

They liked black guys? Suffice it to say, that gave me the courage to go over and instantly break out of my shyness, and say “hello.” Long story short: 20-plus years later I’m still with the girl I said hello to, and now living in her hometown in Japan with our family for the past eight years.

While living here, I’ve been the victim of countless “haros” and naive or stereotypical comments about my physical characteristics and blatant staring, etc. But all of it comes from a place of genuine curiosity. I have yet to encounter the malicious intent behind any of these that I encountered daily in the U.S.

In Japan, my hair is a novelty, my skin color, my nose, my eyes, my cultural background. I am a novelty, and being such, I can only expect to be treated the way any child treats a novelty, with awe and curiosity. And yes, I do consider the Japanese, for the most part, to be very child-like with respect to their experiences or knowledge of outside cultures and people. But with the lack of malicious intent behind their words and actions, I find it much more bearable, heck, even enjoyable to receive attention as a novelty and then, through my own efforts with the Japanese language and customs, turn that initial naive curiosity into friendships, business partnerships, customers, etc.

In the U.S., even within my own ethnic groups, the attention was anything but benign. I was either too black or too light, hair too nappy or not nappy enough, sometimes used Ebonics so I was automatically stupid, or talked too “white” so I was trying to be something I shouldn’t be. Rarely was I ever simply an American, until I left America. It took me moving to Japan to be able to truly identify with being an American, and all of the beautiful differences that come with it.

“Haro” as a form harassment? I could never see it as such. I welcome anyone who asks to touch my hair to do so, but please be gentle. For the first time in my life, I have let my Afro grow to early Jackson 5 proportions, and I love it as much as my Japanese students do.

Samukawa, Kanagawa

‘Haro’ as a constant irritant

Ah yes, it seems like only yesterday that a rowdy gang of Nipponese urchins was nipping at my gajin heels, shouting “Haro, haro, haro . . . haro!” every time I walked past a schoolyard or through a busy shopping district in the late afternoon. Back in those days, the thick-skinned gaijin soon learned not to let such public insult prove too terribly upsetting, though I’m sure that the more sensitive sort fled tearfully to Narita airport, never to return to the fair shores of “Haroland.”

When I arrived in Japan in August 1984, I met an American couple who were on a one-year sabbatical from their jobs as elementary school teachers in eastern Oregon. They were teaching the “L and R” catechism at a provincial English conversation school in the lovely lakeside town of Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture.

One fine day, Tom and Linda were walking past a local elementary school in the ancient city of Tsuchiura when a horde of screaming “take no prisoners” Nipponese brats descended upon them. Luckily there was a chain-link fence separating the rabid kiddy mob from our innocent, democratically minded “all men are created equal” American adventurers, or the pair might have been verbally torn to shreds. As it was, poor Linda was reduced to tears by the crescendo of voices shouting “Haro, haro, haro . . . haro” along with the vile epithet “Gaijin, GAIJIN, gaijin. . . gaijin” over and over again.

I don’t think the hapless couple ever entirely recovered from that ever-so-vicious verbal mauling on an otherwise quiet street in the fair city of Tsuchiura. Tom was a meek, “hippy” tree-hugging sort of guy always flashing the peace sign and thinking himself a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi and/or Dale Carnegie. Still, he tried to console his traumatized wife as best he could and somehow they made it back to their gaijin “rabbit hutch” in one piece. Oh, the humanity.

When they shared this horrible experience with me, I was overwrought with indignation and unspeakable rage. How could anyone treat American exceptionalism in such a despicable manner? I mean, really!

Tom and Linda were in Japan on a “good will tour”, bestowing the blessing of American English on rich and poor alike. It was their mission in life to help all Nihon-jin better understand such brilliant aspects of American culture as the joys of backyard badminton, weekend barbecues, the beatitude of Sunday school lessons, and the heartfelt joys of a July 4th parade! How mortified they were when they discovered that not every Nihon-jin was overly impressed with their PR package, and to think that they came in peace for all Americans.

Tom and Linda have recently retired from the classroom and now spend their holidays hiking in the Swiss Alps or bicycling across the British Isles, with apparently no plans to return to Japan. I wonder why?

Oh, those poor oppressed gaijin. No doubt their three sons were raised to always be tolerant of others and never shout a racist pejorative . . . in public.

Yes, I too recall local kids shouting “Haro, haro!” “This is a pen!” or just simply “Gaijin!” as I rode past on my mountain bike back in my Ibaraki daze. But I also recall that another gaijin was asked for his autograph one day while sitting in a McDonald’s fast-food joint at Tsuchiura Station.

When I visited local schools the students were always polite, well-mannered, curious in a most friendly way, and just very good-natured. What more can I say? Anyone who has any knowledge of white man’s 500-year history of imperialistic genocide (mostly South America and Africa, famine in India) and colonial oppression must appreciate the fact that Japan was never colonized. I can think of far worse pejoratives for European and American imperialists than the word “gaijin.”

Yes, I know, imperialism doesn’t exist anymore. That’s why the U.S. has an embassy in Baghdad that can house 5,000 employees and staff. And why Argentina is in such debt to U.S. bankers.

The Japanese must love that old Beatles song with the lyrics.

“You say goodbye, and I say haro.”

Otaru, Hokkaido

Time to get over getting ‘haroed’

In response to Professor Colin P A. Jones’ concern about being identified as a gaijin, my take and experience is much different. For a person who has been in Japan for 30 years, it seems to me that he should get used to it and be perhaps a bit less sensitive.

We are in the minority, and we do stick out. Mr. Jones must remember that Japan is a far more homogenous society than ours, and I am assuming he is from the USA or perhaps U.K.

My take and experience are quite different.

While in Kyoto, on an early morning walk, three giggling 12-year-old girls encountered me, and all said “haro.” I did not at all get a sense that they were mocking me, sarcastic, or resented my presence. Westerners were just rare where we were and we all got a big laugh out of it . . .

Several days later, I was in Nara at the Stone Garden, with a number of other Westerners. One of the tourists was carrying his two-year-old (curly light-haired Caucasian) child on his shoulders. We passed a group of high school students and they were all smiling and waving, and of course saying “haro”; it was totally welcoming, friendly, and I felt absolutely no sense of condescension.

Imagine if the roles were reversed. Perhaps a group of Japanese tourists somewhere in the USA. At best, they would be ignored, and at worst? Well, who knows?

Another time, in Fukuoka, at a museum, I was the only Westerner around, and the “haros” were all made with warmth and friendliness. It did not occur to me that I was considered as some strange outlier creature.

I had my share of unpleasant encounters while in Japan, and of course it is a far more insular place, with its own set of challenges, but most of the time I was just ignored. While I was always aware that I was an outsider and on their turf, the Japanese did seem to be far more interested in the West than Westerners are of Japanese society.

San Francisco

Irrelevance is bliss

A great article. I chuckled all the way through and I am going to pin it up at my eikaiwa [English conversation] school.

I have felt the same subtle tide of change recently . . . I think! I’ve been here 16 years. Irrelevance is bliss!


Haroed to death in Oita

Don’t come to Oita. You’ll be hallo-ed to death. I walk around with a hat, sunglasses and a white mask to make myself invisible.


Japan nice to visit, but study?

Re: “Japan struggles to keep up as China woos international students” (Learning Curve, Oct. 26): Study in Japan or China? What a question!

Of course it depends on what you want to study. Flower arrangement and soba-making are best studied in Japan. But any subject that concerns the real world will make any person choose China, of course. China is going to be the biggest economic power in a few years, while Japan . . .

What sense does it make to learn a language like Japanese, which no one speaks, while Chinese will gain more and more usefulness, and one third of consumers worldwide speak Chinese. The biggest corporations of the world will be Chinese soon.

Japan cannot separate itself from the USA. In any conflict for superpower status, the U.S. will sacrifice Japan in any war with China immediately. Everybody, and most certainly the Chinese know, that there are stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Japan and the Chinese would be idiots to not take them out at first sign of war.

The people of Japan simply are not able to elect rulers that govern in their interest. That is a bad habit in most democracies, and Japan it is going to be dead in the end.

Japan is an obscure place at the end of the world — nice to visit, but study? How long did Japan think it could get away with what it does and still make people believe there is any future here?


Japanese top for tech, biz, culture

I couldn’t agree more with this article and the intent. I am currently studying French, but I want to study Japanese soon and embrace the culture. I realized the beauty and graciousness of the country when I was in the service back in the 1970s.

I am a second-career librarian and also a patent researcher, so learning Japanese could be important to me. Many people want to learn Chinese, but I believe Japanese to be a better language for technology, business and culture — far more than Mandarin/Chinese.

These are my humble opinions.

Saint Louis, Missouri

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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