Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Harden the Fuck Up, Gaijin

It's a little difficult to conceive of a more navel-gazing, self-suspicious subcultural clique that gaijin - foreigners living in Japan, a demographic bound by little beyond their shared otherness. The dearly-departed (and deleted) blog Westerner's Fear of Neon Sign (WFoNS) once described gaijin as:
that most mutually hateful and backstabbing of tribes... On an intellectual level, knowledge of things Japanese decreases in value the more people share it. On another, more carnal level, the attraction of Japanese women diminishes as more men partake of it. It goes without saying that foreigners in Japan, or gaijin, are natural rivals and have rarely produced anything of worth in collaboration with one other... Better reserve ‘we’ for strictly rhetorical use among foreigners in Japan.
And to that end, "we" are an incredibly paranoid group of unintegrated immigrants, prone to tiresome disputes, endless stalemates, redefinitions, reappropriations, mistranslations, self-flaggelation, and wolf-cries of "oppression" so mal à propos they'd make Glenn Beck blush. The very use of the word causes significant debate, not unlike the use of the "n-word" within the African-American community.

The great irony is that most of the argument is amongst relatively comfortable, middle-class westerners, as opposed to working-class Latinos or other Asians who still face the sternest discrimination within Japan. Yes, regardless of what's on the front of your passport, it's undeniably odd to fall within the slim 1.57% of the population who aren't native Nipponese, because it consigns you to the sidelines of what is ostensibly a "cosmopolitan", post-industrial nation and the world's second-strongest economy. But however marginalised you may be, and however suicidally devoted to homogeneity the country remains... Japan is still a post-industrial nation and the world's second-strongest economy. For the affluent foreigners working white-collar gigs across the country, there's only so difficult life can really get here.

But lord, that don't stop 'em from complaining. And complaining. Hell, complain loud & long enough and you can make a career out of it! The gross of the gripers fall into one of two categories: self-exiles or sycophants. The former tend to cast themselves as unfairly ostracized, shackled several rungs below red-headed stepchild on the social ladder. Like adolescent goths, their outlook is all solipsistic pessimism and Morriseyan self-martyrdom. (Real goths, on the other hand, often find themselves utterly at home in Harajuku's permaparade.) A perfect example of such wretchedness can be found on this comment thread from the fantastic photoblog Tokyo Times:
When you stay for longer, say between six months and two years, its far more common for culture shock to become this screaming entity in the back of your consciousness, constantly reminding you that 1) this is not your home, 2) most of the people who do live here would really rather you left, and 3) there is no place here for you. The more people who glare at you in the street, mock you loudly on train cars, or pretend not to understand your Japanese even though your phrases have been checked and doublechecked by other natives without fail, the more you feel “outside” and alone.
The immediate question this prompts is: if you're so estranged from the general populace, how have you come to the conclusion they actively want you gone? Assuming racism on the part of anyone by virtue of their ethnicity alone is but another form of racism. But that's semantic nitpicking, I suppose. A more pressing response would be: then why don't you leave? There are compromises involved in living anywhere, so it becomes a matter of what compromises you can sustain. I decided I didn't want to live in a country where people were armed to the teeth and I had no political presence, so I left the United States. I found myself living in a country socially inhospitable and artistically stagnant, so I left Germany. Here in Japan, in spite of the various removes I feel from the mainstream of society, I am at home. And if you're free enough to wax maledictive online, and your chief complaint is that you suspect the locals dislike you, you're presumably not an undocumented indentured worker slaving away in a Toyota assembly plant, and thus have the flexibility & funds to find your way out of the country. If daily life is a Sisyphusian cycle of resentment and social malaise, may I suggest a one-way ticket to fuckin' anywhere else?

Something I've noticed about these self-exiles is their love-hate relationship with Japan bears the acute bitterness of a jilted lover. Indeed, many are people who arrived with an ornately detailed fantasy of the nation, based upon some study or cultural fetish. However, a profound knowledge of the Sakoku era or the Gundam mythology does little to prepare anyone for the current reality of the country - and so the culture shock hits like a bitchslap. Hence, there stalk the streets folks like my housemate, a self-professed otaku with an encyclopedic knowledge of manga, anime, and classic video games who can scarcely repress his rage at what he deems Japan's "idiot-robot" social mores. Granted, he is German - famously the most forthright people on the planet (after Cuban drug dealers) and certainly not familiar with the delicate contradistinction of tatemae and honne.

According to the "Seven Stages of Gaijinhood" impeccably outlined by WFoNS a few years ago, my housemate fits snugly into the third stage: Witless Cynic.
...someone devoid of insight who claims to be able to mine humour in holding Japan up to Western standards and finding it lacking. This kind of person is a keen online aggregator of stories about sexual inadequacy or amusing spelling errors in Japan. A reasonably sane person should be done with this stage in the first six months.
The subsequent stage is where we find those whose inexhaustible objections are largely directed towards their fellow gaijin, the sycophants or (in the parlance of the Seven Stages) Indigenous Wannabes.
A raging supremacy complex will likely kick in with devastating consequences for this individual's likeability as a human being. The issue now is how to distinguish himself. Indigenous wannabes are keen to tell anyone who will listen about their love of something slightly arcane - sumo, natto, enka, it doesn't matter what - in order to stake an indigenous claim. Provincial wannabes may imitate the rustic flavours of their local Japanese dialect. Make what you will of a person so undistinguished as to have to resort to travelling overseas in order to steal a foreign yahoo's identity.

Men tend to introduce gruff masculine slang to their speech to show that they never really subscribed to those hard-fought identity politics back home and are ready to embrace chauvinism as a way of life. Unsurprisingly, a lot of Western women leave Japan around this time. Copying those around them, Kansai-based gaijin may adopt a dismissive attitude towards all things Tokyo. Bullishness, small-mindedness, borrowed opinions: didn't you leave your own country partly to escape these kind of things?
For a glimpse of this loathsome archetype in action, look no further than the English-only rag with the largest circulation in Japan, Metropolis magazine, wherein a certain Robert Masucci composed a strategic guide to blending in:
Stop acting like a foreigner. You know. Those kinds. The ones that don’t shut up in the train or the elevator. The ones that don’t remove their shoes before entering someone’s house. The obnoxious frat boys on vacation lurking around the Nishi-Azabu crossing. Simply put, you’re in another’s country, so mind your damn manners.

...Do you ever cringe when you see foreigners clustered in a big group, looking around like they don’t know what’s going on? Me too. The only thing that sticks out more than a sore thumb is an entire hand of sore fingers, so whenever you can, take advantage of the fact that in this country—um, Japan, right?—you can actually hang out with Japanese people. You’ll be less noticeable while at the same time improving your Japanese language ability.

...As an addendum to the idea of blending in, why not try adding some Japanese flair to your sartorial repertoire? In terms of eccentric style, you can get away with a lot here in Tokyo. So take a trip to the nearest accessory shop. Trade those flip-flops for a cool pair of heels or boots. Men, grow your hair out, get it shagged, and start carrying a man-bag. Try wearing sunglasses at night.
Whatever happened to the dictum To thine own self be true? How doughy & insubstantive is someone's character that a haircut & man-bag put him halfway towards integration? (And how cheaply does Masucci appraise Japanese culture if that's all that is required to integrate?) His advice is doubtlessly well-intentioned, and I'd do nothing to discourage someone from strolling outside their social ghetto, but there's a big difference between simply advising, "Don't act like an asshole", and the kind of social reengineering that Masucci advocates. At best, this is cultural squatting; at worst, it's Orientalist minstrelsy. I wonder how you say "Uncle Tom" in Japanese...

Speaking of gentlemen named Tom, let's take a minute to play these two complainers off each other. Now, let's assume that the Witless Cynics are correct: the Japanese really want nothing to do with expatriate interlopers. Well, that presents an insoluble conundrum for the Indigenous Wannabes, doesn't it? How can they possibly insinuate themselves into Japanese society if, no matter how flawless their honorifics & absurd their footwear, their membership will never be granted?

As the dawning sense of rejection peels away the gaijin's hippie-grouphug optimism, they'll likely molt into a 5th-stage Gaijin, or Ill-Informed Activist, possessed by the conviction "that Japan is a bad tooth in need of some severe canal work." This assumes, however, that the foreigner had a reasonably solid sense of self upon which to fall back. If, however, he was a bipedal palimpsest just waiting to have the stern calligraphic silhouette of 日本人 painted upon him, then this isn't someone who'll simply resent a hidebound culture with just an extra dash of ardor. This is a Tom Ripley-class sociopath who sees anything but themselves when they look in the mirror; a hollow vessel thirsty to be filled by an Other. Faced with a flat disavowal by the country whose embrace he craves, Ripley-San may very well snap if he decides his beloved Japan is little more than a calloused husk of archaic decorum and venal distrust masking the very same stygian void that Ripley desires to fill within himself.

On the other hand, it may give him a Quixotic quest that sustains him for the rest of his life, casting him as Cap't Ahab seeking the White Whale of approval from an indifferent nation to which he will never truly belong. Debito Arudou, come on down!

Backtracking a moment to the two missives that prompted this post: both Jessica's comment at Tokyo Times and Robert Masucci's article confess to a grinding insecurity about being stared at by Japanese. Jessica's antipathy towards her domicile grows "the more people... glare at [her] in the street", while Masucci asserts that "no foreigner in Japan can escape being stared at." My reaction to this is twofold. First - welcome to being part of a minority! I've long been flabbergasted by the umbrage taken by westerners at something that is the daily reality for a staggering portion of the world's population (not to mention an infinitesimally petty indignity on the scale of anti-immigrant injustices). Indians do this across castes, Germans do this to Turks, Brits do this to Muslims, and Americans do this to damn near everyone in eye-shot. (Ever heard of DWB?) Getting gawked at is not some special offense the Japanese exact upon gaijin, so don't cite it as a qualification to enter the Oppression Olympics.

Secondly, I've lived in Tokyo for about four years, and I earned more icy glares at a KFC in Saksatchewan for being a skinny motherfucker in an ironic T-shirt than I ever have in Japan. Who are these bug-eyed bullies shining their bitch lights on me on the Chuo-Sobu line? I certainly don't see 'em seeing me, and neither do most of my foreign friends. If anything, we enjoy living here because of the anonymity we're afforded by existing on the fringe. (Also, remember all those tasteless jokes about all Asians looking the same? It works both ways.) Could it be the fallacious ego-trip that you're special because you live in *oooh!* Japan *aaah!* translates into an equally ill-founded paranoia which assumes all eyes are upon you because you are that rarest of birds, a Foreigner? Well, grow up; no one actually cares.

And y'know, even if they did care - even if I do get stared at by some embittered pensioner, old enough to remember the Hiroshima bombing but with selective enough memory to recall Nanking as a "skirmish"... fuck them. That's their own damage that they can't accept people with different pigmentation & funny accents running around their country. I'll genuflect to no one's national narcissism.

And neither should anyone else. We are not deer, and those aren't headlights beaming our way. We're human beings, naturally curious about our fellow creatures, and should feel blessed that we're not blind. Now grow a pair and stop being so damned self-conscious.


ken said...

how refreshing to read something about japan which is both knowledgeable and thoughtful.

i lived in japan for abut five years in the early 90s and i learned to avoid like the plague what i came to refer to as professional gaijin who were desperate to give anyone who would listen the benefit of their great wisdom about the country and its customs.

Seb said...

Then you'll be glad to know that "professional gaijin" still enjoys frequent use amongst my friends and I. It's really the only term to describe these nitwits & blowhards...

Sam Davies said...

Seb, pretty late chiming in on this, but have you read much by / about David Peace? Might be worth googling up some of his interviews in the Guardian/New statesman, I remember him making some interestingly ambivalent comments about life as a longterm Tokyo resident & gaijin.

Seb said...

The name's been kicked my direction a few times, but I've never picked it up. I'll have to do so; thanks for the tip!