Three cases of whine offer lessons in how not to criticize Japan

Novelist John Updike famously declared America to be “a conspiracy to make you happy.” I wonder sometimes if Japan is, then, a conspiracy to make you unhappy? Or, if not exactly unhappy, how about uncomfortable, exasperated or confused?

You might suppose so from some of the views in columns like The Last Word, in Tokyo’s Metropolis magazine, or online forums for foreigners living in Japan. Puerile television, the despoliation of the countryside, grumpy and incompetent taxi drivers, disgusting salarymen, the illogical this, needlessly complicated that and possibly prejudiced other. Our well of dissatisfaction with the ways of our host country seems bottomless. Why, I even read one whiny malcontent having a go at those charming jingles at railway stations!

Of course, moaning amongst fellow expats is easy enough, and has been going on for as long as I can remember. I’ve been in Japan long enough to recall the forerunner of The Last Word — Rant and Rave — in the old Tokyo Classified, which contained rather more rant than rave, if I remember correctly.

Some high-minded people find it all a bit distasteful, but I’ve never really seen the harm: It’s cathartic, occasionally enlightening and sometimes even productive. And, above all, it’s honest. But if you are one of the “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go home?” brigade, you might be interested to know that there are some very busy forums and blogs out there dedicated to the Japanese community in the U.K., consisting of just as many complaints as the expat forums here. Many of them, unsurprisingly perhaps, are to do with food. Britain, a conspiracy to make you feel ill?

Of course, whether to let off steam among ourselves is one thing, but any long-term resident in Japan will, sooner or later, find themselves faced with a far pricklier poser: namely, whether or not it is permissible to voice one’s disapproval on matters cultural to the natives themselves, and, if it is permissible, how should one go about it? My three cases of whine will, hopefully, illustrate exactly what I mean.

Case 1: I was invited to a sushi restaurant by my students. The conversation was following a familiar path: “Why did you come to Japan?” “Can you eat Japanese food?” “Can you read kanji?” All very pleasant.

Yet, as the evening wore on and the effect of several cups of sake took hold, I began to find the need to be polite a little tiring and ventured — very tactfully, I thought, and more in jest than by way of a serious cultural critique — an opinion. I told the group that since even the most skilled chopstick user still occasionally drops things, and even the most cack-handed knife-and-fork user rarely ever does, I couldn’t quite see the value of Japan’s traditional eating implements. Could anyone enlighten me?

It was a terrible mistake. The atmosphere suddenly and dramatically changed. Everyone stopped talking. What had been a bright and charming social gathering took on a far darker tone. The next day I received a pained email from one of the students expressing her great disappointment and distress that I “didn’t like Japanese things,” and the earnest hope that, in time, I would come to understand and appreciate the subtleties of Japanese culture.

I still find this degree of sensitivity a little exasperating, and with a different group of people I may well have got away with those comments, but I did learn an early lesson from this experience: As a newcomer to a country I was in the position of a guest, and I should probably have kept my thoughts to myself.

But a guest, and a paying guest at that, can only remain one for so long. At some point he must either leave or change his status — to resident, perhaps? With that change of status comes responsibilities, of course, but also, surely, rights. Not voting rights, alas, but maybe, and I only say maybe, the privilege to — let’s not say moan or whinge — at least, question things.

Apart from that early aberration in the sushi restaurant, I hope I was a good guest when I first came to Japan. I was generally reluctant to question anything back then, partly because I’m not particularly keen on upsetting people, but also because I distrusted my first impressions and knew I had a lot to learn. And I learned the hard way.

Case 2: The first time I looked for an apartment by myself I was shocked by the treatment I received. I had experiences that brought to mind that scene in “An American Werewolf in London” where the two students enter the “locals only” pub and the atmosphere is suddenly transformed from one of noise and amiability to a sullen, frosty silence. I was even stopped from entering one agency when one of the staff saw me approaching, leapt up, ran to the door and, arms crossed in front of her in an unmistakable gesture of prohibition, explained that I couldn’t come in as they “didn’t deal with foreigners.” She then, astonishingly, smiled broadly, bowed and thanked me (presumably for attempting to use their services)!

These were uncomfortable experiences that left a bitter taste. But after 10 years, innumerable conversations on the topic and some open-minded research, I’ve learned that the situation is rather more complex than it first seemed. Agents may or may not be prejudiced, but they take quite serious professional risks when agreeing to act for non-Japanese, especially those (the majority, perhaps) who cannot read the paperwork — risks that could, if things go badly wrong, potentially jeopardize their entire business. I have also had enough lousy gaijin neighbors to know how bigotries can start and spread as people generalize from the particular. Not a justification for the cold shoulder treatment, by any means, but worth at least bearing in mind before one chooses to fire off a volley of self-righteous abuse.

Case 3 occurred recently and saw me faced with an even more difficult problem. A student approached me after a class and pinioned me with the question, “What do you think of ‘whale-catching’?”

Now, unless you actually sympathize with the official line on this issue, how can you answer it without either being dishonest or risking causing offense? I have slipped this one in the past but I don’t like doing that, so I decided I would pay the questioner the respect of an honest answer. I told her I found it abhorrent and saw no real justification for the continuation of this practice — in any country.

The woman looked as if I’d harpooned her. I had certainly disappointed her, even pained her. Such were the consequences of a truthful response to a sensitive question. She seemed to regard my views as a direct attack on her country, on her culture, on her. It was an unpleasant moment and it did sour the relationship somewhat. And the point of especial difficulty here is that I hadn’t raised the topic — I had been asked.

I’ve learned valuable lessons through these experiences, and come to realize that some cultural questions, just like those cups without handles full of hot green tea, are rather hard to get hold of, and, like chopsticks, need to be handled with great care. But I am still, even after 15 years, often pulled in opposing directions — between a desire to be polite, an urge to be honest and a fear of offending.

So what’s to be done? Leave? Hold my tongue? Or let it all out and take the consequences? There may be no perfect answer, but my approach has become more subtle over the years, and I find now that the best policy is the Socratic one: Don’t criticize, ask questions. If you’re wrong, you’ll learn why; and if you’re not, you’ll make your point without a direct confrontation. About three well-aimed queries should be enough to expose the feebleness of the defense of whaling, e.g., “Is tradition always a good thing?” “How many people actually eat whale meat?” etc.

Hopefully, with this technique, I will be able to handle tricky cultural questions without compromising myself or offending others, and, in the process, take a few more steps along the endless road towards an understanding of Japanese culture.

My only problem then will be finding something to have a good whine about.

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a university in Tokyo. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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