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Understanding Japan and the Japanese was never meant to be easy. This is especially true for the Japanese attitude to foreigners — at times exclusivist and at other times extremely open. There is an answer to the seeming contradiction, but it requires outsiders to accept that the Japanese might have a value system just as valid as their own — something many find hard to accept.

Back in the 1970s, when Canberra was determinedly trying to understand the nation that was suddenly supporting Australia’s economy with large food and raw materials purchases, it gave the well-known author Hal Porter a generous cultural grant to travel around Japan and discover its people.

In his subsequent book, “The Actors,” Porter describes the Japanese as a robotic people quite incapable of expressing genuine sentiment — a surprising conclusion for anyone who has seen the animated faces of the Japanese crowds as they head home from work on a Friday evening.

Porter went on to write a nasty short story, “Mr. Butterfry,” about a former Australian soldier who had stayed on from the Occupation days, married a Japanese woman and had two daughters. Porter met them and decided that these mixed-blood children, and their father, would have no future in exclusivist Japan.

If Porter were still alive, he would have discovered that one of the daughters had married an heir to the Bridgestone Tire family fortunes. The other married the politician Kunio Hatoyama, grandson of a former prime minister. And the ex-sergeant had gone on to a happy old age, fussed over by his family and others in Japan’s elite.

Soon after, the Europeans weighed in with a famous report claiming the Japanese were a nation of workaholics living in rabbit hutches. Then, during the trade frictions of the 1980s, it was the turn of the Americans to bash Japan.

Perhaps the worst example was a Washington Post report claiming that a Tokyo store selling Sambo dolls proved that racist Japanese attitudes toward black people existed. It triggered a strong anti-Japan campaign in the United States — until someone discovered that the offending dolls had come from the U.S. and were on sale there, too.

The Post went on to discover, back in the days when Japan was prospering and the U.S. economy was in trouble, that the Japanese had invented the term “bubei,” or contempt for America. It even splashed the ideographs on its front page, which is just as well because we could not find them being used in Japan.

The newspaper USA Today followed up with a report from a Tokyo-based journalist saying the Roppongi fleshpots were riddled with “No Foreigner” and “Japanese Only” signs. Once again, no visible proof could be provided. When I checked with the author of the report, he complained how his copy had been deliberately changed by U.S. editors determined to believe such signs existed.

With the trade frictions largely ended, the banner has been passed to ultrasensitive foreigners here in Japan. They too complain of a rash of “No Foreigner” signs. What’s more, they are determined to take legal action against the “racist” offenders. But when one checks out the claims, invariably it is a situation where some unfortunate Japanese proprietor has suffered severe damage or loss at the hands of foreigners, and does not want to see a repetition.

The landmark case almost a decade ago involved a jewelry shop owner in Hamamatsu, where many underprivileged Brazilians now live thanks to Japan’s policy of allowing the kin of former Japanese migrants abroad to come and work in Japan. His display counters had become a favorite window-shopping target. There was also some shoplifting.

Eventually he felt he had no choice but to put up a sign saying “No Brazilians,” only to be dragged through the courts, and heavily fined, by some of those ultrasensitive foreigners claiming he had violated a Tokyo-ratified U.N. convention banning racial discrimination.

Now we have the problems in Otaru, a Hokkaido port regularly visited by small rust-bucket Russian ships. A bathhouse that had suffered severe property destruction at the hands of drunken Russian seamen had felt it had no alternative but to put up a “No Foreigner” sign. It too was hit with a suit claiming it had violated the U.N. convention.

The litigious foreigners involved have now published a book, detailing their fight against yet another example of Japan’s alleged racial discrimination (for a review, see the Jan. 30 article “Bathhouse pushes a foreigner into the doghouse”).

Yet to anyone who visits Otaru and speaks to the seamen, as I have done, it should be obvious that, while these are very likable people, it is most unlikely that they would be able to respect the rituals and atmosphere of the Japanese bathhouse, even when sober. Japanese customers would begin to fade away. The owner would feel obliged to protect his business.

The failure of some foreigners here to realize that the Japanese, too, have their sensitivities seems alarming.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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