National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

For Japan's foreign residents, the little things make such a big difference

by Michael Hoffman

Japan arouses strong feelings. You love it or you hate it — sometimes both at once; rarely neither.

Critics come well armed. Japan often seems narrow and parochial. Trading partners find it overprotected and overregulated. Refugees and their advocates deplore Japan’s cold shoulder. Foreigners sometimes complain of being made to feel like a different species.

Is Japan even a democracy? To some observers it seems more of a bureaucracy, the elected politicians a mere front for the unelected bureaucrats who really govern. Is it pacifist? It has a pacifist Constitution and hasn’t waged war since 1945, but its closest neighbors claim to see an unregenerate militarist core beneath its benign exterior.

Remarkable postwar success — economic, technological, educational — seemed for decades to justify various national quirks. But the economy sank, innovation flagged and education lost its edge. Times were changing, and Japan was failing to keep up.

A triple meltdown at a nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture is to many the clearest symbol of where Japan stands today, its vaunted know-how exposed as tattered and corrupt — dubious collusion among pronuclear politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists having been pinpointed as a major contributor to what went so catastrophically wrong.

However, never mind all that. What’s great about Japan? Long-term foreign residents ought to know: They came here voluntarily and live here by choice. They must have their reasons.

Indeed they do. The January issue of the monthly Shincho 45 features essays by 15 foreigners on what drew them to, and keeps them in, their adopted homeland. Japanese readers will be proud to see themselves reflected in this mirror.

Japan is: clean. Convenient. Polite. Rich. Modern. Traditional. Cool. Sensitive. Safe. Considerate. Et cetera.

Yes, convenience stores abound, people bow a lot, kimonos are nice, manga and anime are far out, the high tech is very high and ceremony is never far beneath the surface. Those who get a bit tired of hearing these virtues recited might wonder why seasoned Japanophiles never weary of reciting them. Could it be that the truth in them justifies repetition, lest we forget or start taking it all for granted?

The comparisons are primarily with the writers’ homelands, which, ranging from Egypt to Finland, the U.S. to Iran, Nepal to Poland, all come off second best in some small but essential way. American political ideals may be grander, European philosophy may be deeper, Islamic faith may be firmer than anything native to Japan — but Japan, perhaps uniquely, knows the value of small things, and small things can, astonishingly, astonish.

Everyone, it seems, has an impression of Japan. You needn’t have been here, or know anything in particular about the place, for mention of “Japan” to summon an immediate picture to the mind — divorced, it may be, from reality, but no less vivid for that.

An Egyptian sumo wrestler describes his surprise on first arriving at seeing no samurai — he had seen “The Last Samurai”; where were the warriors? A Nepalese was puzzled to see no one wearing kimonos. A Ukrainian wondered at all the modernity. Where was the fabled “tradition” she’d been primed for?

Maybe that’s part of Japan’s charm — when image and reality clash, it’s the image, as often as not, that triumphs. The Nepalese man encountered “Japan” as a child in the form of one Mr. Ishizuka, who boarded for three weeks with his family in Katmandu. Ishizuka taught him Japanese songs and rode him on the back of his bicycle. It seems little enough; it must have been the way he did it. It decided the boy’s fate, linking it forever to Japan. He arrived, age 20, as an exchange student in 2000.

The first disappointment: no kimonos. The second: “My life at university was full, but in my neighborhood I couldn’t fit in. I’d say hi and get no answer. If I spoke to the children, they’d look scared. Anything you want — a drink, a train ticket — you just push a button and it’s in your hand. That’s great, but on days off from school I’d go the whole day without anyone speaking a word to me.”

Did that dampen his spirits? Not at all.

“OK, so Japan is allergic to foreigners. Communication is not Japan’s forte. They have their own way of communicating. You have to understand that.”

Currently based at the Kanagawa International Center, he hopes one day to work for the Japan Embassy in Katmandu.

The Egyptian wrestler (professional name: Osunaarashi Kintaro) encountered sumo by accident at a judo gym at home. The gym held occasional amateur sumo tournaments to which his size won him an invitation — aged 15, he weighed 120 kg. He lost all seven of his first bouts, to an opponent half his size. How could he have?

His coach told him: “Sumo is not strength, it’s technique.” That fired him. He would master that mysterious “technique,” and Japan — where else? — was the place to learn it. What else has he discovered in two years here? Gratitude. Japanese feel it and express it. Egyptians, he says, do not — but should.

A French graphic designer, 25 years in Japan, discusses female empowerment. Japan’s seems lacking, but there’s another angle: “Japanese women are free to be full-time housewives.” “Free” to be, or pressured to be? It depends on how you look at it.

“French women envy Japanese women,” the designer says. She claims to know many French career women who would, if the truth were known, rather stay home.

“Japan is one of very few advanced countries where the full-time housewife role has been preserved.” And, in fact, a health ministry survey last year found 1 unmarried Japanese woman in 3 aspires to precisely that — a career as a full-time homemaker. Japan defies hasty conclusions.

TV personality Haruka Christine is from Switzerland — Swiss mom, Japanese dad. She’s 21 and first came here as a high school student. She’s extremely shy, she says. Her brash, argumentative compatriots intimidated her; Japanese courtesy brought her out of her shell. Now she’s trying to bring the Japanese out of theirs — by relentlessly raising political issues on her TV appearances. It amazed her, at first, how absent political passions are from Japanese social intercourse.

Smile, Japan: “The whole world is in the grip of a Japan boom,” observes English rakugo (humorous storytelling) performer Diane Kichijitsu. She writes of an African safari she went on, and of a Masai tribesman she met in Tanzania.

“The man has no house, no TV, no car, his sandals are made from old tires, and what’s the one country in the world he’d most want to visit?”

A certain archipelago on the edge of Asia.