I wish I had a yen or two for every time I’ve been told: “You will never be accepted in Japan.”

I first heard it from my relatives. None of them knew any Japanese people, nor had they ever heard of pachinko, sushi or the Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto. In fact, they had never lived outside the United States. Yet they were intent on convincing me that settling in Japan was tantamount to self-banishment: instant and eternal alienation.

“What is the business of acceptance anyway? Accepted as what?” I asked one of my relatives after I had spent my first year in Kyoto.

“Accepted as a Japanese,” he said. “They will never let you into their circle. You will always be treated like an outsider. Take it from me.”

Though such warnings were offered to me many years ago, the beliefs underpinning them are still entertained by many non-Japanese people, some of them long-time residents of Japan.

What does it mean “to be — or not be — accepted?” That is the question; although in reality, virtually all the non-Japanese people who feel this way are not Japanese citizens. Therefore, they are not Japanese, as the sole definition of “Japanese” rests on Japanese citizenship. Non-Japanese people who naturalize become Japanese. At least on paper.

This may not ensure that those new citizens are viewed as “one of us” by certain natives. There are many Japanese who stick to the notion that only so-called racially pure Japanese are true Japanese. Such folk are, in fact, out-and-out racists. Acceptance by them, on any level, is categorically impossible; and seeking acceptance from them implies recognition of their bigotry as something rational and normal.

But what of the hundreds of thousands of non-Japanese who have chosen to live and work in Japan without becoming citizens? Are we condemned to be perpetual outsiders?

Civility in social intercourse

I asked two friends — one Japanese, the other Swedish — what it takes for foreigners to be accepted into their societies?

My Japanese friend replied, “They must adhere to our code of behavior.” My Swedish friend said, “Once they speak Swedish pretty much like us, they are accepted as Swedes.”

I think these two answers are very telling and representative of the general feeling in Japan and Europe on this issue. The Japanese, on the one hand, are terrified that non-Japanese will come into their midst and destroy their civil way of life. Civility is the key quality governing social intercourse in Japan, and formal politeness and studied decorum are what maintains it. A non-Japanese who can live within these social rules is invariably highly praised, admired (as Japanese, too, labor under these strictures) and, in general, magnanimously welcomed.

As for the Swedes — or, for that matter, the Dutch, French or Germans — the ability to function peaceably in the society, whatever the person’s origin, background or faith, seems to be the critical factor, at least as a working ideal. Most Europeans (with apologies for the gross generalization) do not expect everyone to be the same in order to be conferred acceptance. The tolerance of difference is much greater than in Japan, where toleration is not notable even among the Japanese themselves. If gaijin (non-Japanese) are discriminated against because they are different, then they may merely be just another category of such people, Japanese included, who are treated differently because they are “not like the rest of us.”

Here lies the crux of the problem. Who is speaking “for the rest of us” in Japan?

When my Japanese friend cited “our code of behavior,” was she implying that approximately 126 million Japanese all agree on what that code requires? Japanese people may invoke the majority in order to humiliate or ostracize a person; but, by doing so, these Japanese are actually using the prop of a “norm” to further their own selfish interests. I have been on the receiving end of this several times, when someone has tried to embarrass me publicly to justify their own ends. Such behavior exposes the nasty pock of vengefulness under the thick powder of decorum.

So it sounds as if my relatives were right when they warned me off settling here. Yet, I have lived and worked in Japan for the better part of 40 years, married (to a non-Japanese) and brought up four children here, putting them through the Japanese school system, both public and private. Do I feel unaccepted? Not at all. Perhaps I don’t expect to be accepted by everyone all the time, as I wouldn’t wherever I lived. (In fact, as a non-native-born Australian, I have had more unpleasant “non-acceptance” moments there than in Japan.)

Bigots wielding great influence

As for Japan, I do not accept that the bigots, some of them wielding great influence here, to this day represent the Japanese norm. They are clinging to an outdated and very pernicious notion of race that, when taken to its extremes, can only lead to violence, both domestic and international. Their bigotry must be exposed and denied. Non-acceptance by those people should be worn like a badge of pride. It is they who are not acting like “the rest of us.”

Countries with a long history of accepting immigrants, such as the United States, have been historically open to non-citizens. In addition, speaking English is and has not been a requirement for fitting in. The American ideal in this is truly praiseworthy.

But it is unfair to compare the U.S. with countries that have traditional indigenous cultures. Americans decimated their indigenous culture, as did white Australians, before creating a tradition of openness. Countries like Japan, where an entrenched culture has existed for centuries, cannot be expected to be as open to outsiders on such broadly liberal terms. The building up of tolerance, on both sides, takes time, patience and mutual understanding.

As for me, I go about my life ignoring, as best as I can, the bigots whose days of majority influence are, I believe, numbered. I think of some of my Japanese friends, with whom I have more in common than they have, by their own admission, with many of their own compatriots.

We all live together in Japan in 2007, and we are all accepted to a greater or lesser degree on the basis of what we are and what we do here. If some Japanese people don’t accept that, it’s their problem — not mine.

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