Many years ago I coined a phrase — “Frozen Gaijin” — to describe a particular kind of foreigner living in Japan.
A frozen gaijin can be recognized in an instant.
The longer frozen gaijin stay in Japan, the rosier everything in their native country looks to them. Everyone in Australia becomes magnanimously
multicultural; everyone in Germany,
hardworking and scrupulous; everyone in
India, forthright and ambitious. Even
British beer starts tasting good to displaced
Brits. Frozen gaijin not only feed off the
sanguine stereotypes of their nationality,
they exalt in them.
Frozen gaijin never tire of saying to
Japanese people, “In my country we would
never do things like this.” U nusual (to
them) Japanese traits are seen as, at best,
quirky — and, at worst, backward. They
are often heard to “urge” Japanese to scrap
all the “outdated” features of their society
and become “international” or, to use the
trendier phrase, “global.”
Finally, frozen gaijin confront Japanese
people on the street or in schools and
offices, refusing to go along with what
appear to them to be the strict directives of
Japanese interpersonal relations.
Frozen in time, frozen in space: Frozen
gaijin are alive, well — and blissfully
unthawed in today’s Japan.
But, some frozen gaijin, long unmoving
in the deep freeze of their living past, have
morphed into another type of disgruntled
expatriate. A ctually, this type has been
around for just as long as its frost-bound
counterpart. But with the stagnation of the
economy and the malaise of indecision
permeating every layer of Japanese society,
this new type of gaijin has even come to be
viewed with fondness by many Japanese
people. It answers to their stereotypical
view of what a foreigner in Japan is
expected to be like.
The new type is the “Whingeing Gaijin”
(henceforth, WG). In case you might be
unfamiliar with the British/Australian verb
“to whinge” (rhyming with singe, cringe
and binge), it is best translated into
American English with “to kvetch” and
into Japanese with “guchi o kobosu.”
Whingers, like kvetches, are driven by
irritation, annoyance and self-pity. They
cannot understand why Japanese people
can’t be more like them.
When it gets to the point of OCW
(Obsessive Compulsive Whingeing), WGs
have only two choices left. Either they go
back to their own country, where
everything is done right — or they buy a
dilapidated thatched-roof farmhouse
somewhere in the depopulated Japanese
boondocks and rediscover “the true beauty
of Japan,” surrounded by kindly neighbors
in their eighties who never say more than
“good morning” to them and ply them
with overly salted pickles.
If WGs do decide to stick it out in the
big city, mixing with Japanese colleagues
at their workplace, the thing that sticks in
their craw more than anything else is the
Japanese mode of communication — or
should I say, non-communication.
Rule No. 1 of Japanese interpersonal
relations is: A nything worth saying should
be left unsaid. Rule No. 2 is, needless to
say, its converse: A nything not worth
saying must be said, over and over again.
This accounts for the fact that 99
percent of all conversation at a Japanese
company comprises small talk. Big talk is
saved up for the restaurant at night, where
sufficient alcohol lubricates the jaw.
Consequently, the gaijin who believe
that the workplace is, as the word suggests,
a place to work, are in for a rude shock.
Whingeing about how laboriously slow the
decision-making process is at an office — or how excruciatingly long, tedious and
unproductive staff meetings are — is not
only a total waste of time; it merely
demonstrates how out of touch WGs are
with Japanese reality. Perhaps this
Japanese dictum about the Japanese way
of getting things done may help to
illuminate the situation: A rgue, but do not
decide; decide, but do not put into action.
A highly placed official in the Japanese
government recently said to me, “Everyone
in the government knows what has to be
done, but it just doesn’t get started to be
done. I think we Japanese are afraid to hurt
anyone. So we all get hurt.”
Having taken all this on board, dear
reader, you may now understand not only
things like the proceedings at Japanese
PTA meetings, but also the secretive cabals
of Japanese party politics. Run in place as
fast as you can and everyone thinks you’re
a star Japanese sprinter.
And what about the way Japanese
people so studiously and rigorously avoid
all verbal confrontation? Some of them
would rather die than state their opinion.
This is a great trait if you are the person
in charge and deriving clear advantage from
the status quo. Y ou just tell any would-be
opponent, “Sure, you’ve got a point, and
everyone is entitled to an opinion, but just
keep it to yourself for the sake of harmony
and everything will run smoothly.”
And it goes without saying that you
want everything to run smoothly, without
opposition, if you are a regional electric
power company operating a nuclear power
plant and you are keen to get those rods in
heat again. Y ou recognize there is genuine
opposition to you, but you wisely — from
the Japanese standpoint — do not openly
oppose it. Rather, you embrace it in such a
tight embrace that it cannot wiggle, and
then get the politicians and media who are
essentially under your control to mollify
any opposition with ambiguous, insincere
statements about caution and safety.
Then there is the ingrained Japanese
reluctance to take responsibility for crimes
and mistakes. Oh, the captains of industry
have been known to stand up behind their
row of tables, suck in air between their
teeth and bow simultaneously, like so
many mechanical ducks. But watch the
expressions on their faces when they come
up for air following their unctuous bowing
display. Their faces read, “Now that that’s
over, let’s get back to the business of
hoodwinking the public.”
Accountability doesn’t exist for the
powerful in this country. Those on Mount
Olympus, if you will, never get the scope of
scrutiny shoved down their throats. Those
who are “No. 1” make sure that the
contaminated winds blow away from them.
As of midyear 2012, Japan is at a virtual
standstill. The change that citizens looked
forward to after they’d swept the opposition
Democratic Party of Japan to power in a
landslide L ower House election victory in
2009 has been no change at all. A nd when
the so-called reformist party in power
makes open front-room deals with the
ultra-conservative opposition party at the
expense of its own unity, you know you’re
in Japan. I tell you, U .S. Pres. Barack
Obama would love it here. He could make
sweet deals with the Republicans and
finally tell the left wing of his party to go
and jump in L ake Michigan.
When nuclear reactors are being
restarted, despite a majority public outcry
against it; when reassurances of safety are
given before adequate measures have been
taken to protect the public from another
disaster; when social welfare has been
slashed in the face of one of the highest
poverty levels in the developed world — and all of this without proper debate in the
media — you know you are in Japan.
What can you do in a situation like this
but whinge, kvetch and spill the guchi
(grumbles) from your lips? I guess I too
have been turned into a WG. Irritation,
annoyance, self-pity … I’ve got it all.
But I’ve also got my anger over the
revolting state of affairs in this country, as
well as my love for Japan, nurtured over a
period of 45 years. I may be a WG, but I
am not, and have never been — and
hopefully never will be — an FG.
I’ve got my love for Japan to thaw me
out and my anger to keep me burning with
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