‘The barriers of racial feeling [between Japanese and foreigners], of emotional differentiation, or language, of manners and beliefs, are likely to remain insurmountable for centuries.”

So wrote the Greco-Irish Japanophile and resident of Japan Lafcadio Hearn of the great wall of misinterpretation and misapprehension that he saw towering between Japanese and non-Japanese more than 100 years ago.

In Hearn’s era very few foreigners living in Japan spoke the language or took more than a globetrotter’s interest in its people’s true aspirations. We can safely say now that that great wall is no more than a waist-high hedge. Non-Japanese people from all countries of the world have come to live in Japan, experiencing everyday life here virtually as natives.

And yet . . . read letters sent to the editors of Japan’s English-language dailies, and you will encounter a litany of grievance. Many non-Japanese people believe that the Japanese are, at best, barely tolerant of outsiders or, at worst, bitterly hostile to them.

What is the actual situation?

Let’s go back, for a moment, to Hearn’s era. Hearn himself was then one of an exceedingly small number of foreigners who took Japanese citizenship. The Western community at the time, from missionary to merchant, considered doing that to be a sacrilege and an outrage. Forsaking the superior Christian white-man’s culture for an Asian one went against all proper notions of what true civilization signified and entailed.

Equally, from the point of view of the Japanese, intent then on rapid Westernization, such a move as naturalization by foreigners was an absolute puzzlement.

But the circumstances were different for Okinawans, who until the latter part of the 19th century considered themselves members of a separate nation. During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), however, the dictates of the so-called doka seisaku (assimilation policy) ensured that ethnic groups such as Okinawans were coerced by law into forsaking their native language and culture in order to fit into the cast of “loyal Japanese subject.” Okinawan children who were caught speaking their native language in school were forced to hang a batsufuda (punishment card), around their neck. Doka seisaku was, in reality, kyoseiteki doka (forced assimilation).

Customs and codes of conduct

The notion was that being Japanese represented not merely a legal trapping of registration, but a total commitment to conform to the customs and codes of conduct that every Japanese was presumed to follow as a matter of birthright.

Let’s return to the present, when, in some senses, the old concept of assimilation has changed little. On the one hand, Japanese don’t expect foreigners to be like them at all. Their view of their own culture and traditions is as something practically unique and peculiar to these islands. When a foreigner “knows too much” or acts in an archetypal Japanese manner, the Japanese response is likely to be one of befuddlement, amusement, shock or dismay.

Over the past 39 years of living in Japan I have had countless such experiences. Allow me to recount one here.

In the 1980s, I helped find and arrange an apartment in Tokyo for a Japanese friend who was coming from Kyoto to live in the city. I did negotiations on price, etc., for her as well. When she came to Tokyo, I set up a meeting at the apartment for her with the owner, a kind elderly Japanese lady.

When the three of us entered the unfurnished apartment, I was surprised to see a single chair in the middle of the tatami room.

“Please sit down there,” the landlady said to me in a polite fashion.

“Oh no,” I replied. “I’m fine on the tatami. I have lived on tatami for many years.”

“No, I insist, please,” she said.

I turned to my friend, who remained silent but was pleading with her eyes, “Just do as she asks, please. This is important to me.”

So there I sat, on a chair in the middle of the tatami room, while the two Japanese exchanged pleasantries below. I can tell you, I felt like a complete dill.

Needless to say, the landlady was only trying to be gracious, assuming that because I was not a Japanese I would naturally prefer to be comfortable on a chair. My having spoken Japanese with her, assuring her that I knew the ins and outs of the Japanese rental system, had no effect. My aoi me (“blue eyes” is often used as a term for being foreign) and takai hana (big nose) were the clinchers. Even if you, like me, have brown eyes and a medium-size hooter, it doesn’t matter. What matters is not what you look like — but how you are perceived.

The whole circumstance is a double-edged sword. One edge is that of compulsory assimilation. If you want to be accepted here on equal terms with the Japanese, you must do things as they (typically) do. Outward conformity is the sine qua non of approval. So long as you behave yourself, as it were, in public situations, you can let your foreigner’s hair down in private as you wish.

Lose-lose situation

The other edge of the sword of acceptance in Japan cuts in the exact opposite direction. You are fully expected not to know how to act; to display surprise at how different the Japanese are from everybody else on the planet. Many Japanese are still suspicious of foreigners who fit in too snugly here, although the genuine internationalization of Japanese life that has occurred in the past two decades has gone a long way to decrease their number.

It all looks like a lose-lose situation, and if you love Japan, you might end up like my poor Swiss friend “Helmut” (he is still alive, though only barely, so I will refrain from using his real name).

No one loved Japan more than Helmut, who during his 25 years here became more Japanese than the Japanese. But he was still treated like a run-of-the-mill foreigner, so he packed his bags and returned to Zurich.

Some months after his return, I received a letter from him.

“Roger, please do me a favor,” he wrote. “I am missing Japan terribly, particularly my favorite food, fugu (blowfish). Could you send me some fugu please? Thank you.”

I was in a real pickle. How was I going to post a fugu to Zurich? What if I got arrested for sending poison through the mails?

I solved the problem by buying him a varnished fugu lantern, securely boxed it and sent it off to Switzerland.

Some weeks later I received a postcard from Helmut. He wrote:

“Thank you for the fugu. I sliced it up and boiled it, but it didn’t taste the same. I guess you really have to eat Japanese food in Japan. I’ll never have my beloved fugu again. Goodbye.”

I don’t know what Lafcadio Hearn would have said about that, but I do know it’s hard being anything these days, let alone an assimilated foreign Japanese.

But my advice to readers is: If you fall between two stools like most of us, make sure you have a chair handy. It’s the least you can do to please a nation.

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