You’ll often hear foreign residents say that no matter how long they’ve lived in this country, as foreigners they’re never fully accepted into Japanese society. If you feel you’ve never been accepted in Japan, then welcome to the club: Many Japanese people don’t feel accepted here either.
“Even though I was born on this island and went to the local school,” says my neighbor whose parents moved here from the mainland, “I still feel people look at me as an outsider. Since I don’t have any blood relatives here, no one shares my last name. I have no people to rely on except my husband’s family. I’ve raised three children here and they’ve all gone through the school system on the island.”
With the exception of a few people who have come in through the back door (such as myself), this island in the Seto Inland Sea has historically been off-limits to those who have no connections to the place.
When a mainland doctor was transferred to the island 20 years ago to provide a clinic and medical services for the islanders, he didn’t know anyone either and had a hard time making friends, continues my neighbor. “But he hit it off with my husband and they grew so close they wanted to become relatives, so the doctor adopted one of my children. Since the doctor already had a son of his own, he decided to take my daughter rather than my eldest son.”
The type of adoption my neighbor was referring to is called fude no oya or oyakata. This custom of adopting other islanders’ children was a way to ensure their progeny would be taken care of should anything drastic happen to their biological parents. The child, usually around the age of 15, would take a bottle of sake to the prospective parent to formally express their intent, and the parent would give the child something in return to seal the deal. On this island, the child usually received either a fan (for girls) or a pair of chopsticks (for boys).
But the adopted parent had no other obligations to the child except to be there if needed, similar to the role of godparents in the West. “It was a bit of a status symbol for someone to have adopted many children,” my neighbor said. Her daughter, now 40, is the last child on the island believed to have gone through the adoption system here. While the arrangement helped children ensure a stable future no matter what, it also, perhaps unintentionally, helped outsiders like the doctor assimilate.
The problem of acceptance persists for “U-turn” residents, too — those who come back to live in their hometowns after living away for many years in the city. Mrs. Ishii confided in me the other day, while poised on the edge of my sofa sipping a cafe latte, that after returning to the island after 40 years in Yokohama, she felt she was treated differently here. She had come back to take care of her ailing mother five years ago, and when her mother passed away, Ishii and her husband decided to stay.
I had also heard some people on the island say unsavory things about U-turn people, such as, “That old guy doesn’t know anything. He hasn’t lived here since he was in high school.” Even mere visitors are sometimes shunned. When an academic came to the island to give a lecture on the environment, someone said: “He has a Ph.D. and works for a university. He knows nothing about the state of the environment here.”
Murahachibu (ostracism of those outside the village) is a Japanese term used to describe this phenomenon. But there are other words in Japanese used to exclude other groups, such as nyonin kinsei (the banning of females), which was abolished in 1872 but, despite massive protests, lives on in the sumo ring, at religious sites such as Mount Omine (in Nara) and Okinoshima (Fukuoka Prefecture). And women are still verboten from the role of ceremonial head of state in Japan’s constitutional monarchy. Some archaic practices promote gender bias, such as mukoyoshi (where a son-in-law adopts his wife’s name if she has no brothers to safeguard the family lineage) and the law stating that married couples may not have different surnames. The lack of joint custody rights for children after divorce often precludes the noncustodial parent (usually the father) from seeing their child and also violates the child’s right to see and get to know both his/her parents. And bicultural Japanese citizens, referred to as hāfu (“half”), are not completely accepted into society either. Even Renho, the popular leader of the Democratic Party, has faced discrimination because she is not “pure-blood Japanese.” The LGBT community and other minority groups also challenge the traditional ethos of social order here.
All these phenomena point to a problem with acceptance of certain people (a rather large portion) into Japanese society. But rather than admitting a national identity crisis, Japan perpetuates its problems by politicizing them and ignoring the obvious solution: tolerance and acceptance. Even in a society where everyone is not considered equal, everyone should be treated fairly and guaranteed their human rights.
Japan’s deep mistrust of strangers, or anyone not exactly like them, is what is behind the plethora of institutionalized rituals here: students with recommendations get into their preferred schools; recruiting agencies introduce workers to companies; a nakodo (matchmaker) puts possible marriage partners in touch; and a guarantor is necessary before one can rent even the smallest apartment, so that the landlord can be assured that someone will pay the rent should the occupant default. All these things that are often left up to the individual in other countries have a protocol that is painstakingly adhered to in Japan. It gets back to the age-old philosophical question: Are people inherently good? Or nefarious? While the West leans to the former, Japan suspects the latter.
So it was no surprise the other day, while being interviewed on TV, that when I was asked why I chose to move to this small island, my answer resulted in a brilliant example of clashing cultures.
“I moved here because I wanted to experience Japan’s traditional culture. I wanted to live near the sea, amongst the island’s abundant nature,” I said.
“But by yourself?” the interviewer asked.
“Did you know someone here?”
“Had you ever been to the Seto Inland Sea before?”
“But you could have chosen any place in Japan. Why here?”
It was chance.
The drilling continued, but I couldn’t provide the answer she was looking for. The fact that the interviewer couldn’t understand why I would go somewhere and settle without knowing someone or having some connection was plausible to me because Japanese people don’t do that.
The larger issue was that because she could not understand my reasoning, she also could not accept it.
Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Your comments and Community story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org