Everything You Wanted to Know About Japan, But Were Afraid to Ask

What’s the difference between Japanese and Arab racism?

Arab racism is not limited to national borders. Arabs are an ethnic group spread throughout the Middle East.

The Japanese should be considered to be their own ethnic group, but they are limited to the Japanese isles.

Starting in the Tokugawa Period (ca 1633) all foreign contact was forbidden except for trade with the Portuguese on an island in Nagasaki. Although there were Japanese throughout eastern and southeastern Asia, any Japanese who was outside of Japan at that date could not reenter Japan without being executed. This limited Japanese to the main islands, and bound ethnicity to nationalism.

Arabs aren’t bound to a particular country, and their culture, customs and language have flourished without such a limitation.

What’s your impression of Japan from overseas?

I’ve lived and traveled throughout the world and met many different people, but the Japanese are the most unique people that I’ve ever met. As an American I have more in common with the Hadzabe hunter-gather people of Tanzania than I do the Japanese. Even the Koreans who live right across the Japan Sea have more in common with Americans than the Japanese. So far in all my travels through Asia, Europe and Africa, Japan and the Japanese are more different than anything I’ve experienced.

Most people view the Japanese as like them but speaking a different language and eating different food. That’s what my mother thought while I lived in Kansai for 5 years. But the truth is the Japanese are much more different, more complicated than that.

In Japan different usually means “bad” and that’s not what I mean. It’s just that the Japanese do everything differently. They think differently and they even move differently. In my travels I’ve learned to tell Japanese from Chinese or Asian-Americans by how they move.

Living in Japan was very difficult. Japanese is an incredibly difficult language to master. The Japanese people are very suspicious of foreigners. Sakoku is embedded in Japanese thinking and culture although I believe the situation is improving with the younger people. But change happens very slowly in Japan, and usually comes from the top instead of from the ground-up in other societies.

People think the Japanese work hard but there’s a difference between being busy and spending time in the office surfing the web or reading manga. People think a country that’s the home of Toyota and Mitsubishi must operate very efficiently, but it doesn’t. People think Japanese students study hard, and they do until they take the college entrance exams, then they play for 4 years in college.

Japan has much to admire and I still watch Japanese anime, eat Japanese food and follow the news of Japan because it is a wonderful country with a wonderful unique people.

But the Japanese are truly different.

Both East Asians and Western Europeans are very secular. What are the differences between the secularity in East Asia and in Western Europe?

Secularism in Western Europe has its roots in the Enlightenment, which was a reaction to the rise of Protestant sects and their antagonistic relationship with Catholicism. So you can say that the Christian religion is the grandparent of secular thinking. Secularism today remains very antagonistic to Christianity, much more so than other religions such as Islam or Buddhism, and I believe this is because secularism has its roots in Christianity. Many European secularists are born in that religion and only later reject religion in favor of secularism.

In Japan secular thinking is a much more modern invention starting in the Meiji Period of the late 19th century but not really reaching its greatest extent until after WW2. It’s source was also the European Enlightenment, and it appeared during a time when the Japanese looked to Europe as a guide for its own culture and society. But the Japanese had very limited experience with Christianity, so Japanese secularism doesn’t have that innate antagonism with Christianity that Western European secularism has.

As a result one could argue that as a result Japanese secularism is much “purer” than Western European secularism.

Are the expats in Japan getting sick of the notorious question, “Why did you come to Japan”?

Don’t forget that you are living in a culture where being a foreigner (unless you lived in a Portuguese trading post) would have gotten you killed for 300 years. Japan didn’t fully open up to the outside until 70 years ago which is a blink of an eye from a cultural perspective. The Japanese are still working through their isolation, and even today I would expect interest in foreigners to be more pronounced in more rural areas than in big cities.

Besides, they are just “following the script” how they were taught to treat foreigners. I’d treat the question more as a meaningless “How are you?” greeting and respond with a canned answer that’s polite rather than rude.

Honestly, if it’s getting to you then maybe it’s time to leave. Very, very few foreigners stay there indefinitely and it’s a tough place to live as a gaijin, so don’t beat yourself up about it.

How does it feel to be a white Caucasian male in Japan?

Japanese discriminate against whites just like they discriminate against all non-Japanese.

My wife and I (Caucasian Americans) were refused service at restaurants, called epithets and harassed, but worst of all was the difficulty we had finding anyone to rent to us. We worked with a Japanese friend and an apartment finder who spoke to dozens of landlords. None would rent to us. We ended up being forced to live in areas where foreigners were tolerated, and found a place in a shabby building in an area that from a Japanese perspective was considered “the hood,” but honestly, given the low crime rate in Japan we never had a problem there.

Look, the Japanese discriminate against non-Japanese, but our treatment was nothing compared to the way my African-American friends were treated, or even worse, the way generations of Koreans who have lived all their lives in Japan have been treated. In the hierarchy of foreigners white Europeans/Americans/Canadians/Aussies are at the top. Koreans and Africans are at the bottom.

It sucks being treated poorly just because of the color of your skin or your nationality, but as a white American it was an important learning experience that made me much more aware of racial biases. I think it’s made me a better person, more tolerant and open-minded in my travels and my daily life at home.

I don’t mean to excuse this behavior. Japan suffers from it’s its isolationist (sakoku) thinking, but come on: Commodore Perry’s Black Ships was 160+ years ago. They need to change.

But change doesn’t come easily in Japan (and often comes from the outside). So the best thing to do is to realize the situation and know that during your stay there for every d**khead there will be a dozen kind and generous people.

Will Japan ever become multicultural?

Some cultures are by their very nature multicultural. For example ancient Rome encompassed numerous ethnic groups and accommodated many languages. It even made room for foreign gods in the Roman Pantheon. Countries like France, the US, and the UK have little difficulty assimilating other cultures. To be American or French is to accept an identity based on ideas and secular principles, one that ideally is shared regardless of ethnicity, language or religion.

Japan on the other hand is based on Japanese ethnicity. To be Japanese means to be a descendant of the people who settled in Japan about 2,000 years ago. It is thought these people originated from China, but the Japanese Shinto origin myth has the people as descendants of Amaterasu, the Sun goddess.

To be Japanese means much more than what Americans or other foreigners think. To be Japanese starts with being a descendant of 100 generations of Japanese people. During those 2000 years your ancestors must have lived in Japan. There is an assumption that as soon as you leave the country you begin to lose your Japanese-nature, which is why Japanese who study abroad for long periods are chided for “speaking Japanese funny” when they return. To be Japanese you speak the language fluently. But being Japanese also determines how and what you eat, how you dress, and how you relate to other Japanese. In many respects this is similar to how religions are followed in the West, which is why I’ve always viewed being Japanese as more of a religion and ethnicity rather than a national identity. Look up the term “nihonjinron” for more examples.

To put it bluntly, Japan would die if it went multi-cultural. It wouldn’t be Japan at all, and as a nipponophile I would really hate to see that happen.

Will the decrease in Japan’s population lead to deterioration of Japanese culture?

Nope. For two reasons.

First the Japanese are at the forefront of robotic technology which minimizes the need for human workers. Their factories remain some of the most efficient in the world because of the use of robots, and they lead the world in attempting to get robots off the shop floor and into the streets and homes of Japan. Although androids or human-like robots remain a fixture of science fiction, if anyone is going to make them a reality it will be the Japanese.

Second the Japanese aren’t efficient users of their human workforce, particularly women. Women are under-utilized, working in junior and support roles and expected to leave the workforce entirely upon marriage to raise children. This is changing but like all change in Japan it is changing very, very slowly. By relaxing some of the cultural norms that prohibit women from developing careers the Japanese will be able to handle a declining population without resorting to importing foreign labor the way Germany has.

A century ago Japan had a population of 55 million, less than half of its current 127 million. Culturally speaking Japan might be better off with a 1915 population as long as advances in robotics and the continued relaxing of the prohibition against women in the workforce allowed the nation to adjust to the smaller population. I believe less crowded cities and more space would improve Japanese well-being, plus with robots doing some of the dull and mind-numbing work, the Japanese would have the time for more creative pursuits.

Now whether they spent that time studying traditional Japanese arts like ikebana (flower arranging) or tweaking their Facebook profiles is another question.

Why did you decide to leave Japan?

I’d like to say it was due to events outside of our (my wife and my) control. Her scholarship ended and a post-doc fell through, and the idea of watching her scramble for editing or conversation jobs seemed below her status.

Then there was our kid who had just been born. The idea of raising him as a gaijin in Japan from Day 1 didn’t seem right. Growing up is tough. Growing up in Japan is tough. Growing up as a foreigner in Japan, well that just didn’t seem fair to put him through.

But honestly I was tired. I had hit a wall with the language and knew I would never go beyond it. I couldn’t do anything but continue teaching English conversation, and it had become soul deadening for me. By the end my heart was simply not in it. And 20 years later I still can recite some lessons from the textbook we used.

I got tired of struggling with the language. I got tired of the stares and drunken “hellos” on the train. I got tired of the panic whenever I approached a counter in a store, because the shop assistant might have to speak English. I got tired of the litter in the shrines and bosozoku joyriding on Saturday mornings. I just got tired.

During my stay I estimated that there was about a 25% attrition rate every six months, meaning that by the end of my 5 years about 95% of the foreigners who had arrived at the same time I had were gone. It seemed that everyone had a set time, and when that time was up they needed to move on to the next phase of their life outside of Japan.

For 5 years I was away from my home country and my family. During that time I had a wonderful experience and learned much not only about Japan but about myself and my own country. But 5 years for a young adult is a long time making 250,000 Yen a month with little chance for advancement. I needed a new challenge (besides parenthood). I needed to build a career, and I couldn’t do that in Japan. My time was up.

It was the right decision and almost 20 years later I have no regrets. It’s okay for me to love Japan from a far. I am quite content where I live in the USA now, and the older I become the more I travel abroad. It would be nice to visit Japan sometime, but in the meantime there are so many other places to go. It’s a big world after all.

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