Friday, November 30, 2012

Are foreigners perpetual outsiders in Japan?


Time for a post that's not about economics.

Number 4 on this list of "5 Things Nobody Tells You About Living In Japan" is, in fact, something that almost everybody tells me about living in Japan. Namely, that foreigners will always be outsiders there. I've stopped arguing about this with my friends and acquaintances and drunk people I meet in bars, because frankly the discussion has become repetitive, and I never really manage to convince anyone of my point of view. (I felt like I was constantly screaming "There...are...four...lights!!!")

So I thought instead I'd write it down.

Here's what the article has to say about life as a foreigner in Japan:

Simply put, the country just isn't very accommodating to people who can't speak Japanese. Without the language, you will barely be able to buy food or get around, let alone establish any kind of permanent living situation that doesn't involve keeping a bilingual girlfriend/boyfriend/hostage on hand 24/7 to translate every commercial that comes on the radio. You can't just exchange shouts with people and come to a working understanding like Han Solo and Chewbacca. Real life doesn't work that way. 
So how is that different from moving to any other country where English isn't the native language? Well, for starters, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for Americans to learn, requiring 2,200 hours of study if you want to be considered truly proficient. This is partly because of the difficulties of learning a new language as an adult, and partly because English and Japanese have about as much in common with each other as Halloween and Halloween III
That being said, once you actually got the whole language thing down, you might expect to finally be able to integrate yourself into Japanese society and thrive, right? Well, here's how it was with me: I've been coming to Japan for nearly a decade, my wife is Japanese, I speak the language fluently, I know the culture inside and out, and yet I'm still "that foreign guy" to most people here (even the ones who have known me for close to 10 years). 
Japan is one of the most homogenous nations on Earth -- roughly 98 percent of the population is ethnically Japanese. No matter what you do to try and fit in, you will always stick out like a sore thumb in a room full of people who have had their thumbs removed by rototillers. 
For instance, one of the biggest hot button issues in Japan concerns people of Korean ancestry who live in the country. In most cases, these are people who were born in Japan, have Japanese names and speak almost exclusively Japanese, but because of their Korean lineage, they are still legally considered foreigners and as such face several restrictions (such as the inability to vote or hold management positions in the public sector, a law that the Supreme Court actually upheld in 2005). The government literally decided that all Koreans are dastardly shitheads who are not to be trusted and mandated it to the entire country. 
So now ask yourself this -- if the Koreans in this example (who by all rights should be full Japanese citizens were it not for ethnic prejudice) are given the same treatment as convicted felons, what chance does a white kid in a Gundam T-shirt have to not be considered a complete outcast? 
I'm not saying that every single person in Japan hates foreigners, but if you live here, you will be constantly reminded that you are most decidedly not Japanese, nor are you likely to spontaneously become so.
This is pretty typical of stuff I hear from Westerners who have lived in Japan. No, not pretty typical; depressingly, mind-numbingly ubiquitous. It's almost as if Westerners living in Japan are in thrall to some sort of...well, never mind, I shoudn't go there.

Anyway, to put it bluntly, this runs directly counter to my own experience of life as a Westerner in Japan.

I lived in Japan for 2.5 years between college and grad school, and I've been back several times since then, mainly to work at Japanese universities, but also to help my friend make a documentary. The experiment in my job market paper was run at Aoyama Gakuin University in downtown Tokyo. When I showed up in the fall of 2003, my Japanese was pretty rudimentary; I had taken one year of the language in college, but that was it. So I made a concerted effort to learn the language, hanging out around people who spoke no English, reading manga, and memorizing kanji off of the internet. It took about a year and a half before I was really able to carry on an intelligent conversation.

Japanese is not a difficult language. Reading it is difficult, because of the use of Chinese characters. But you can memorize these pretty easily by reading on the Web and using a rollover dictionary like Rikaikun. In fact, this method was suggested to me by my friend Tobias Harris, a political scientist who specializes in the study of Japan. Using this method, he was able to teach himself to read Japanese so well that, after only a year of study, he was able to work as campaign operative for a Japanese politician in Kamakura.

As for the grammar and pronunciation, neither is particularly difficult. Compound and complex sentences are easier to construct than in English; there are fewer verb tenses, and most nouns can easily be made into verbs. Pronunciation is quite simple, as Japanese has only one sound that English doesn't have (a kind of humming "nn" sound). 

Despite the easiness of the Japanese language, many Westerners never bother to become truly fluent. The reason is simple; they can get by in the country speaking simple English and broken, simple Japanese. Of course, as the author of the article above suggests, this makes it difficult to really relate to most of the people in Japan. It makes it tough to form close relationships, tough to be included in social activities, and tough to work productively with Japanese coworkers. But because Japanese culture is generally friendly, and because some Japanese people take it upon themselves to speak English to foreigners, these Westerners can manage a sort of stunted, good-enough social life over there without ever spending the effort to become fluent. No wonder they feel like outsiders! What would you expect??

So much for the language part. What about the cultural attitudes? The xenophobia, the closed society, the racial homogeneity?

To be perfectly honest, I haven't seen much of it.

These days I go to Japan to work with my coauthors, at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, and at Osaka University in Osaka. When I'm there, I'm mostly around academics - professors, grad students, and undergrad research assistants. Culturally, they are essentially identical to academic people in the United States (who themselves are usually from a mix of countries). They bemoan stupid politicians. They make nerdy puns. They go rock climbing and biking. They show up to work late and then stay up all night reading papers. They try to eat at interesting restaurants. They read science fiction. They occasionally check out blogs. They politely pretend to follow each other's seminar presentations. In other words, if you are at home in a university setting in America, and if you speak Japanese, you will be at home in a university setting in Japan. And never once has anyone there treated me as an outsider. 

What about other, less intellectual, less cosmopolitan segments of Japanese society? Well, when I lived in Japan the first time, I went to plenty of rock and techno shows. I found the people there to be extremely welcoming and friendly - and not just in a "Wow, look, a white guy came to our show!" kind of way, but in a "Hey, want to hop on scooters go out for a beer?" kind of way. They didn't speak a word of English, they knew hardly any American bands, but they were essentially the same people as the rock hipsters I've hung out with in Los Angeles, Austin, or San Francisco.

Another time, I joined a "yosakoi" dance team - I saw them practicing in the park at about 9 PM, wandered up, and asked if I could join. They said yes. Again, none of them spoke any English, but we got along great. I volunteered at the yearly festival and had a great time, and some of those people became my friends. We'd go out for yakitori (chicken skewers) at 2 AM after we got done practicing.

There are plenty more examples.

Yes, I've met some Japanese people who seem nervous or shy around foreigners, or just plain uninterested. They're not as bad as the Texans who screamed "fag!" at me from the windows of pickup trucks when I was a blue-haired college kid, or my racist Texan junior high teachers. But they did exist. I don't know how many Japanese people there are who don't want to accept foreigners into their social circle, and there's a very good reason I don't know: I don't hang around those people.

Yes, that's right, "people". You see, if you spend your life speaking pidgin Japanese and walking around thinking "I'm a foreigner, I'm an outsider," you can easily fail to realize that Japanese people, despite their vaunted "racial homogeneity", are just as heterogeneous in terms of their tastes and attitudes and personalities as Americans or Canadians or Australians. As in so many situations, individual differences matter far more than group differences. And if you're walking around Japan feeling a wall of alienation between you and everyone you meet, chances are it's due to the cultural prejudices of one specific individual: you.

Oh, and as for that legendary prejudice against Koreans, it is true that Japan doesn't have birthright citizenship. But in no way are "zainichi Koreans" prevented from becoming Japanese citizens. If you are born in Japan to non-citizen residents, you have the option of becoming a Japanese citizen when you reach adulthood. I have a couple friends who did that, in fact. No, Japan is not as welcoming to immigrants as America or the rest of the Anglosphere, but few countries are. It is certainly not true that "the government literally decided that all Koreans are dastardly shitheads". That's just trumped-up BS disguised as a lame, misplaced attempt at humor.

So there you have it. The myth that foreigners can never be accepted in Japanese society is, to all the evidence of my eyes, a myth.

These sort of myths about Japan are common. For example, I've had lots of Westerners insist to me - absolutely insist! - that Japanese people use the word "gaijin" ("foreigner") only to refer to non-Japanese people, even when abroad. Yet I've asked a number of Japanese people living in America: "Are you a 'gaijin'?" And every single one of them has immediately answered "Yes." (Although one did take care to point out to me that "gaikokujin" is a more polite term). So there you go. There...are...four...lights!!!

Anyway, my apologies to everyone who comes to this blog looking to read about economics. I just needed somewhere to vent. Now, instead of getting into the same old argument about Japanese "xenophobia", I can just link to this post.

(Oh, and by the way. #3 on that list was "Hospitals are closed on evenings and weekends." Hey dude, have you ever tried to go to a doctor on the weekend in America? Good luck! Try the Emergency Room instead. Which is open in Japan 24/7, just like in America. They even have their own version of "ER".)


Update: The more time I spend in Tokyo, the more I start to think that maybe my perspective just comes from having spent most of my Japan time in Osaka.

48 comments:

  1. Some of this might be where you are living. I lived in Japan twice, once for a year as a highschool exchange student, and for four more years later on as an adult.

    I agree with your description that foreigners are very well integrated in major cities like Tokyo, but if you get outside of the city a bit, its a big difference. Also, white-kid-in-tokyo is no big deal, white-kid-in-full-highschool-uniform can stop traffic (or at least it could ~15 years ago).

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    1. It's true that urban areas tend to be much more cosmopolitan, anywhere you go.

      As for white (and black, and South Asian) kids in Japanese school uniforms, I've seen it quite a number of times, and traffic was not stopped.

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    2. No, there is no difference once you get outside the city a bit. I've lived in Saga City, with all of 180,000 people, since 1984, and have never...

      let me rephrase that...

      NEVER

      had a problem associating with Japanese. Old ladies on back streets even come up to me and ask for directions in Japanese, assuming that I can help.

      The key was having studied three years of Japanese at the university level before I got here, and then spending the time to get really good after I got here.

      Why anyone not fluent in the language in any country expect to be dealt with as anyone else would be has never been adequately explained by the Anti-Nipponists.

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  2. Noah, just for curiosity, how does the economics profession evolve over there? I was wondering the way that açademics work, produce scientific knowledge, teach, do rsearch etc.? Is it similar to US work-course load in terms of econ grad-PhD programs? What makes Japan special compared to US in terms of research and teaching in economics?

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  3. Enjoyed this post immensely. Will write JLPT N3 tomorrow.

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  4. Simon6:36 AM

    Im coming to this blog to read about economics, but really enjoyed this post. thx

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  5. Hellestal7:02 AM

    I agree with a helluva lot of this post, but not all of it. Part of your argument here reminds me of one of the best pieces of scientific advice I've ever received:

    Anecdotal evidence is worse than no evidence at all.

    Our brains tend to extrapolate naturally from whatever "evidence" is available, regardless of how unreliable it might be. We're jump-to-conclusions machines, which is a big problem with small sample sizes, because such small samples, of course, have a much higher likelihood of exhibiting extreme behavior. Selection bias makes it even worse. I think, with the people you've been arguing with, that you've had major frustrations with that very sort of behavior. But I think you might also slip into a similar mistake.

    Now I'm not a linguist, but your personal experience and stories from your chums don't seem to match up with the research from the experts. Among all the lists of difficult languages I've ever seen -- not absolute difficulty, but difficulty of second language learning given a native language of English -- Japanese is always at or near the top of the list. This isn't just the kanji, although that's part of it. Arabic and Korean, which both use alphabets, also tend to max out the difficulty levels. These lists are based on the general experience of many language learners, not the personal experience of individuals. It's fantastic if a language seems easy to learn, but even if that's true for us personally, we shouldn't jump so quickly to conclusions about general difficulty.

    Japanese is not easy for most people. That's simply a fact, borne out by the research.

    As for anecdotes: I've never heard of a foreigner getting kicked out of a bar in the US for not being American, yet I know a bar not far from where I live where a white guy can get ejected from a place the moment the bartender lays eyes on him. I've also never personally heard of a foreign guy getting yelled at in America for dating the local women, but again, it does sometimes happen in Japan. (Never happened with me personally, but there's a married guy who gets the occasional angry comment.)

    The problem is trying to extrapolate from isolated examples. These cases are evocative, but there's not necessarily anything deeper to them except the increased likelihood of a small sample exhibiting extreme behavior.

    And even if it's true that the average Japanese average is more xenophobic than other countries -- which isn't an argument I'd feel comfortable making -- that doesn't really mean anything. I agree entirely, 100%, that individual differences always outweigh whatever group characteristics we think we see.

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    1. I wasn't trying to argue "There is no racism in Japan", or "You won't experience any racism in Japan", or even "I've never experienced any racism in Japan".

      What I was trying to say is, "I don't feel excluded, or like an 'outsider', when I'm in Japan (even though I am one!)." Which contradicts the claim of that article that no foreigner can ever feel accepted in Japan.

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    2. Hellestal8:39 PM

      I wasn't trying to argue that you were trying to argue that "There is no racism in Japan".

      The point I was trying to hint at, though maybe not very effectively, is that there is occasionally racism, even in cities, that is directed against people who have never in their lives had to deal with racism before. White Christian American is so totally default in the places where they come from that they have no previous experience with remaining an "outsider" for some small racist subset of the population.

      When I was listing those "anecdotes", it was in a post where I also said that anecdotes were worse than no evidence at all. We tend to extrapolate too quickly from them. And instead of taking me at my word, you seemed to have extrapolated too quickly from them, even when they were fully labeled as dangerous.

      Here's the interesting thing about those dangerous, unreliable anecdotes. A lot of white guys in Japan have no notion of what it might be like, for example, to be black in some parts of the United States. And perhaps some other ethnic minorities as well, yes? Getting kicked out of a bar? Getting negative comments for having married the wrong woman? This does in fact happen. Just not where the stereotypical Japanophile happens to grow up.

      I think for a lot of people, the notion of being fully "accepted" would mean never having to ever put up with any of that, because it's the first time for them to have encountered it.

      This is why I said I agreed with a helluva lot of your post (except for the language comments). The people who don't feel acceptance are the ones, in my opinion, who have a somewhat skewed notion of what it is to be accepted. Your own notion of acceptance is infinitely better.

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    3. Atsugi man4:23 AM

      I've been prevented from entering a Japanese pub-snack near a US military base with a few American friends. A year later I went to the same place because a mutual friend was then dating the "mama-san". I came to learn the bar survived by catering to local executives who drank expensive whiskey on the tatami and used it as a club to relax after work. Had the mama-san allowed Americans to frequent her establishment she would be changing the traditional atmosphere favored by the lucrative Japanese executive clientele for sailors who would typically drink less profitable beer. It was an economic decision that I fully understand. I became good friends with her and her friends and dined and played golf together. Think Blues Brothers.

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  6. afeman8:52 AM

    I'm reminded of when I lived in Prague in the early 90's and "everybody knew" that the place was overrun with Americans, when any quantitative angle I could come up with suggested otherwise.

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  7. I also lived in Tokyo for a bit over 3 years until early 2009, working for a U.S. law firm's small Tokyo office. I agree with Noah that many foreigners do not put in the needed effort to learn the language and of course, that makes it difficult to make Japanese friends as would be the case in any country where you don't speak the language. However, even the Japanese admit that most of the them have "omote" (the public polite persona they project) and "ura" (the real feelings they would only intimate to their family and close friends). Foreigners find it virtually impossible to penetrate this mindset, as did I.

    The fact that I was a Korean-American probably impacted me differently compared to the Caucasian foreigners living in Japan. I do read and speak Japanese, sufficient to do all my work; most meetings and background documents that I dealt with were in Japanese while I produced English legal documents, mostly related to securities offerings.

    I never lived in Texas, so I cannot evaluate Noah's personal experience but I'd say I have also encountered similarly closed mindsets in Massachusetts where I spent the most time (10 years) in the U.S. I do think that many "myths" about Japan have many grains of truth but it should be pointed out that it is difficult for outsiders to assimilate in any society unless you are in true melting pots like New York City.

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    1. However, even the Japanese admit that most of the them have "omote" (the public polite persona they project) and "ura" (the real feelings they would only intimate to their family and close friends).

      I think everyone has this, including Americans, and Japan just has a word for it because of (I think) some old book.

      Foreigners find it virtually impossible to penetrate this mindset, as did I.

      See, it's blanket statements like this that I object to. Foreigners don't necessarily find it difficult to "penetrate" this mindset. For example, I usually find it pretty easy to tell what Japanese people are really feeling. Maybe not as easy as Americans, but easier than, say, Canadians, whom I often find impenetrable.

      I do think that many "myths" about Japan have many grains of truth but it should be pointed out that it is difficult for outsiders to assimilate in any society unless you are in true melting pots like New York City.

      I agree completely. I think Japan has about as much of this as most places, and I think a lot of people may be just exaggerating it because of old stereotypes (some of which, to be fair, were promoted by pre-WW2 Japanese governments as a way to try to foster Japanese racial consciousness).

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    2. Just a couple of thoughts:

      1. On "omote" and "ura": Yes, I agree that everyone has this, not just the Japanese. However, I do think the Japanese have it a bit more. If you walk around Tokyo, whenever a kid does something obnoxious, his mom would usually scold the kid saying "kore-wa meiwaku-yo" (your behavior is inconveniencing the people around you). The Japanese are pretty thoroughly brainwashed from the very young age to put up a polite public face. Looking at suicide rates and other social statistics, I'd say there is quite a bit more pent up angst in Japan than the U.S.

      2. Penetrating mindsets: I'd say from both academic research and my experience that both Japanese and Koreans engage in high context communication (vs. low context in the U.S.). If you think you figured it out, I'd say think again. I was under the delusion that at least I understood Korea but three years living in Korea disabused me of that notion. As for Japan, I never had that notion in the first place.

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    3. Also, check out Dave Aldwinckle's blog at http://www.debito.org/ about colorful commentaries on the Japanese society. David is a white guy who gave up his American citizenship and became Japanese and is fully fluent in Japanese. He has some harsh things to say about being an outsider in Japan.

      Having said that, if you'd like an obvious contrast, of course African-Americans had it far worse in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years than foreigners have it in Japan today.

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    4. On "omote" and "ura": Yes, I agree that everyone has this, not just the Japanese. However, I do think the Japanese have it a bit more. If you walk around Tokyo, whenever a kid does something obnoxious, his mom would usually scold the kid saying "kore-wa meiwaku-yo" (your behavior is inconveniencing the people around you).

      I don't understand how public politeness or consideration is any indication of people hiding their true feelings.

      Also note that German parents are famous for scolding their kids (in public) more than anyone else, and Germans are also famous for their brutal, blunt honesty...

      Looking at suicide rates and other social statistics, I'd say there is quite a bit more pent up angst in Japan than the U.S.

      Pent up angst is not necessarily the result of holding in one's true emotions. For example, East Europe has even higher suicide rates than Japan, as does South Korea...none of those places are famous for people putting up polite public faces.

      See, I think what's happening here is heavy confirmation bias. People have this preconceived notion of Japanese society - polite and considerate, false public faces, etc. - and they tend to filter everything they observe through the lens of that pre-existing paradigm, even when the evidence really doesn't warrant it at all.

      Maybe the whole idea of Japanese fakeness is bullshit! It wouldn't be the first time a popular perception of a culture is bullshit. America as the land of equal opportunity and personal liberty? Bullshit. The American South, friendly and polite? Bullshit...

      I'd say from both academic research and my experience that both Japanese and Koreans engage in high context communication (vs. low context in the U.S.). If you think you figured it out, I'd say think again.

      Maybe I am really just that smart...

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    5. And yes, I've read Dave's blog.

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    6. I've read a few of Aldwinckle's articles in the Japan Times, but stopped bothering. He is the least credible observer on Japan I've ever encountered.

      There is no delicate way to put it, but the problem is with him, and not the Japanese.

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    7. This is the first time I've heard of politeness being called "brainwashing". Mr. Hwang, if your country doesn't teach children to be polite, I'd rather not visit.

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    8. Anonymous6:18 AM

      Noah asserts, "America as the land of . . . personal liberty? Bullshit.

      Why would you make such a false statement? Other than it probably being against the law to have public sex with goats what personal liberty are you missing?

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    9. Other than it probably being against the law to have public sex with goats what personal liberty are you missing?

      How about the freedom to drink a can of beer while walking down the street?

      If I want public sex with goats I can always go to Germany.

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  8. Quick question: What were your thoughts about the other claims on that list? Some of them surprised me.

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    1. The low-tech thing is real, as is the thing about houses being un-heated. The hospital thing was BS. And the "weird" thing is just purely subjective...I tend to think of it as creativity rather than weirdness in the first place, and I think Japan has about as much of it as America does.

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    2. Thanks for the response!

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  9. Noah,

    On another blog your wrote

    I gave this post to my students to help them on their final projects...

    A little counseling about loyalty. This is at least the second time in recent days that you have buttered up to the wrong tribe. Williamson was another example.

    This, appropriately, will be seen as a lack of loyalty. Stop doing such. The rule is pretty simple: If you are not for me, you are against me.

    No good deed goes unpunished. Williamson and the other will not respect you and your tribe now doubts you. You might later stab someone in the back by supporting Williamson or @#$%

    If someone not of your tribe has something useful for your students, compliment in private, and not by a comment on their blog.

    And, you look really dumb being implicitly critical of Warren Buffet.

    The White House called and said not to bother sending your resume.

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  10. My Brother teaches at Tokyo University. I'll ask him how he feels when I see him in a couple of weeks.

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  11. Thank you for your post.
    I have lived in Japan for many years and have always felt the way you do and explain so well.
    The damage done by "concepts" like honne/tatemae is really extraordinary. What about French being unreliable or British being hypocrits? Same level of non thinking.

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  12. Anonymous2:30 AM

    I'm currently working an English teacher in a pretty rural part of Toyama. I've found, living in Japan, that there's a general lack of exposure to the other cultures, and it can lead people into saying some fairly dense things.

    For example, new people I meet will try and compliment me or ask me questions about myself (as any polite person would), but they often miss the mark. The most common thing is to say how good I am with chopsticks. They will say this even when I'm picking my food off my lap. I also hear "do you have oranges/tofu/whatever in America?" The other day I was asked if we had rakes back home. >_<

    And it can come from the kindest people too! This isn't rascism by any means, but I can understand if some people find it distancing. On the other hand, it does play well for laughs.

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    1. William9:28 AM

      I live in Japan and can relate to this. But I also remember spending a year as a foreign exchange student in the US (suburbs in fhe North East) and people would ask me whether in my country we had refrigerators/ radio stations / Coke/ whatever. I actually find the Japanese extremely well-read on many subjects.

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  13. the idler of march6:25 AM

    I think your sample pool (academics and people who go to rock concerts) is probably quite a favourable one. I work with lots of Japanese businesspeople, and you would probably be surprised at the enclosedness of their lifestyle, and the general rigidity of their way of thinking. Certainly if you're foreign, then that's going to be the primary thing they notice about you for some time, and they are going to be full of preconceived notions (some good, some bad) about what kind of a person you are based on that fact. They are racists in an ethically neutral way, if you define racism to be the assumption that people's behaviour will depend upon their ethnicity or country of origin.

    However, I do think that most Japanese are not highly expressive of emotion (positive or negative) and that most social interactions have a high level of small talk, which to the western mindset can make people seem nervous and unfriendly. But they do it with each other as well.

    I would also say the social framework makes a big difference to how people react to you, or to each other. If you have some kind of an 'in' - eg you're a friend of a friend, or you're from a partner company - people are much more open and for some reason much less likely to want to talk about your foreign-ness. Certainly speaking Japanese also makes them much more relaxed.

    This e-mail has been full of generalizations, but in contrast to yourself I would say that Japan is a fairly generalize-able culture. I came to Japan for professional reasons and didn't come along with any strong feelings about the place, but that's been the impression which has built up.

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    1. I work with lots of Japanese businesspeople, and you would probably be surprised at the enclosedness of their lifestyle, and the general rigidity of their way of thinking.

      Oh no, I know those people. But of course, I also tend to avoid the equivalent segment of American society, which hardly welcomes me as an insider either.

      Certainly if you're foreign, then that's going to be the primary thing they notice about you for some time, and they are going to be full of preconceived notions (some good, some bad) about what kind of a person you are based on that fact.

      This is true of strangers, but once you get to know people it disappears fast. It's also a lot less true in Tokyo these days.

      However, I do think that most Japanese are not highly expressive of emotion (positive or negative) and that most social interactions have a high level of small talk, which to the western mindset can make people seem nervous and unfriendly. But they do it with each other as well.

      Huh, I find Japanese people very emotionally expressive, compared to some other cultures of people.

      in contrast to yourself I would say that Japan is a fairly generalize-able culture.

      This is, indeed, the big point on which we seem to disagree...

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    2. the idler of march6:00 AM

      Well, this is the problem with this kind of topic. When everybody's going on subjective personal experience, it's hard to get to a firm conclusion.

      For questions like 'are Japanese generalize-able', you could do a reasonable paper on it by looking at the societal distribution of social data - eg how are habits such as using your mobile phone whilst you walk through a crowded station, or how much you spend every month on tentacle rape porn, distributed through various cross-sections of society. A big standard deviation means non-generalize-able.

      But on the topic of 'are foreigners perpetual outsiders', I saw a survey somewhere (the economist maybe) which basically asked people within a country, whether it was possible to become a member of that country - eg, can people 'become' American, can you 'become' Japanese. To my recollection the US was top with something like 80% - 80% of Americans think that people can 'become' American, and Japan was the real outlier at something like 2%... you can wriggle around a bit with definitions and suggest that the Japanese would have been more likely to interpret it as a racial statement (though that by itself would work against the apologist), but really that's pretty damning.

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    3. "Pronunciation is quite simple, as Japanese has only one sound that English doesn't have (a kind of humming "nn" sound)."

      This is false: Japanese also has, at the very least, a unvoiced bilabial fricative, which English doesn't. (We write it as 'f', as in 'Fuji', but it is not an 'f' sound; 'f' is a unvoiced labiodental fricative.)

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    4. Ah, that is true. And I guess the "ti" sound they use is not in English either.

      "N" is just the only Japanese sound I can't distinguish audibly.

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    5. "N" is hard in Japanese because there are (at least, and I'm not joking) 17 different pronounciations. But this isn't odd linguistically in the least, because all of these differences are completely natural results of way the human vocal tract works. Shinbashi is pronounced Shimbashi (lips closed), shinkuukan has both ns with the lips open, for example. Most Japanese aren't aware of this, get all of them correct, and are freaked out when someone points it out.

      Another nasty is pitch change: meaning changes when pitch goes up or down in the middle of a word for some otherwise homophones, and how that works changes with the context of the sentence, and dialect.

      And you'll never get a second language speaker of Japanese to admit how much trouble they have with extended vs. non-extended vowels in Chinese loan words.

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  14. I believe there's a Despair.com Demotivator to that effect, Noah: "The only common link in all your dissatisfying relationships is you"

    Of course, that could work both ways. Not all of us are socially ept. Some of us rely on our wives to handle the heavy lifting of social events, which kind of creates a problem when we're in the 'pre-wife' stage of life. Reminds me of when I was a teenager out in the sticks - you needed a car to get a job, but you couldn't get a car until you had a job. Well, I suppose it's natural selection, in a way.

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    1. Heh. Should I start another blog giving advice on how to be social? :)

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  15. I find this observation interesting as a frequent visitor to Japan who (almost) ended up living there. I've heard lots of different variants on the notion of Japan being 'different' in relation to outsiders. But then again, I'm from Ireland and I know communities here where people will quite openly describe people born and reared in the area as 'blow-ins' because their parents were not born in the local parish.

    One theory a friend of mine who could be classified as an embittered ex-long term resident of Japan is that the Japanese are only open to foreigners who clearly accept themselves as foreigners. He said he loved the first 2-3 years in Japan and found it open and friendly, but insisted that once he passed a particular level of fluency in Japanese things changed. Instead of people making allowances for his clumsiness with language and culture the reaction was 'you have lived her long enough to know the rules: and rule no.1 is that you don't belong'.

    Then again, I remember a conversation with a Kyoto lady who had married a Canadian. She said her family were cold and rude to him for being a foreigner. When I said 'for being a Canadian?' she laughed and said 'no, that doesn't matter, its for not being from Kyoto, they would have treated him the same if he came from Tokyo! As for as they are concerned, anyone not from Kyoto is a foreigner and not worthy of their daughter'.

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  16. Nathanael12:26 AM

    Japanese actually has a very complicated set of verb inflections -- but they inflect for *different things* than we do. Yeah, there are fewer tenses (so the language doesn't care as much about time). But there are a bunch of inflections related to *politeness*, and a bunch more related to *level of certainty about the information you are relating*. These are fairly alien concepts to the English speaker. :-)

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  17. >>It's almost as if Westerners living in Japan are in thrall to some sort of...well, never mind, I shoudn't go there.

    Bwahahahaha!

    I love it: It's racist, so we were told, for any American not to want the population of their country to be replaced with a population representative of the world, or something. It's also racist, apparently, for any American to feel out of place in Japan, a country with approximately no immigration whatsoever.

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  18. Anonymous4:04 PM

    Umm I think you are still a bit delusional with your love affair with Japan. No matter how good your Japanese is, even if you marry a Japanese lady in the Japanese eyes you will always and I mean always be considered a gaijin. Just listen to your wife when she talks to someone at city hall. Gaijin will be heard over and over and over again. I have to laugh at all of the people wearing the kimono's. Participating in all of the Japanese festivals with big smiles on their faces thinking they hey I'm fitting in. You never will. Bottom line you will always be a gaijin in the Japanese eyes.

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  19. Anonymous4:58 AM

    > For instance, one of the biggest hot button issues in Japan concerns people of Korean ancestry who live in the country. In most cases, these are people who were born in Japan, have Japanese names and speak almost exclusively Japanese, but because of their Korean lineage, they are still legally considered foreigners and as such face several restrictions (such as the inability to vote or hold management positions in the public sector, a law that the Supreme Court actually upheld in 2005). The government literally decided that all Koreans are dastardly shitheads who are not to be trusted and mandated it to the entire country.

    As the author of this articles states, that's simply not correct. It could not be more wrong. It is *not* because of their Korean lineage--it's because of their Korean *citizenship*, and more importantly, their lack of Japanese citizenship. It's incredibly easy for any Zainichi Korean to get Japanese citizenship. They walk down to immigration, and say, "I want to be a Japanese citizen," and that's just about it.

    The government didn't pass some law saying, "Everybody with Korean lineage is a shithead." It said, "One of the requirements for holding Japanese office is being a Japanese citizen." It's hardly an unjustifiable position.

    Then it talks about how these Zainichi should all be Japanese citizens--when they themselves do not want Japanese citizenship.

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  20. "Bottom line you will always be a gaijin in the Japanese eyes."

    Well, you ARE a foreigner, no matter how long you have lived in Japan for. How can you not be? You were born and raised in another country? Then you are a foreigner. It's that simple. That doesn't mean that every single Japanese person will treat you as a foreigner and never accept you as one of them.

    I spent one year in Japan as an exchange student nearly ten years ago and came back to Japan about 20 months ago to live in a rural part of Southern Japan. My Japanese fluent and I can keep up with any conversation held at a dinner table just as well as any Japanese person can. I understand THE JAPANESE (I do hate generaliszations!!) just as well as I understand THE GERMANS.

    I have met Japanese people who don't know anything about Germany and I have met many thinking that Germany consists mainly of cars, sausages and beer. Likewise I have met Germans who don't know anything about Japan or Germans who think Japan is the country of kimono, geisha and sushi. That does neither mean those people are racist nor unwelcoming.

    I don't feel the need to become Japanese. I wasn't born Japanese and it's not my aim in life to turn into something that I am not. But I do can say that I am fully accepted as who I am and I am not perceived as THE FOREIGNER in my small community.

    As for the language, I don't feel like Japanese is a language that is very hard to speak. I have studied several languages and found Japanese to be one of the easier languages to me. Of course, Japanese pronunciation is much closer to German than English and prolonged vowels aren't a big trouble for most of the japanophile Germans I know. So I can see how a native speaker of English would have more trouble with Japanese that a native speaker of German. Grammarwise, you could definitely argue that Japanese is not very complicated. Still, it's not a language that you can pick up easily without even trying. What language is, though?

    Just like Noah, I'd say that a foreigner in Japan is not doomed to be the perpetual outsider. But if you wanna argument that they are, you will always find someone who will happily support your opinion and of course, you are free to generalize and ignore anyone who doesn't feel that way.
    No one forces you to live abroad, though, wherever that may be for you.

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  21. Hello Noah I have been coming to Japan since 1975 having lived and worked here a couple of times in my career. I am now retired in Tohoku with by bride of 37-years as they here say we U-turned. We live in a very small farming community and have been accepted very well by most people. However, there are always a few sore heads in every country or community that will never accept me because I am the outsider that is a given. I have found for the most part if you are willing to be part of the community you will be accepted and I have been. As for the Japanese language like you I took Japanese in college in 1979 and never really studied it until I arrived in Japan 3- plus years later. I do find it a lot harder to remember all the Japanese words and practice every day reading and writing. Learning Japanese is difficult here in rural Japan as almost all people speak in dialect. I am hoping in time my Japanese will be a fluent and that will certainly help my situation. Appreciate the blog for those of us that actually live in Japan know you are spot on with your comments.

    For those responders that refer to Japanese as mama san or papa san just need to stop saying that. That is really a U.S. military (G.I.) made up term and is never used in Japan to refer to someone.

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  22. Julien8:42 PM

    Hello Noah,
    I Really agree with you for the having fun part,
    I feel I can perfectly integrate anyone's activities and I could have fun with anybody in Japan.

    However, I don't agree with you when it comes down to business, money and serious jobs (other than gaijin oriented jobs or part-time jobs) . For example, try to work in a Japanese bank as a foreigner, even with great skills, an MBA in finance and fluent Japanese reading in writing especially in your field ... Or try to find a working-class job as a homemaker that does not require communication skills but technical skills like any Japanese with no higher education would do, I guess you won't find much even in sector with very high demand (you might be accepted to go for some nuclear cleaning though...-just kidding-)

    This is just an example but many jobs are not available for foreigners in Japan even if they deal with international affairs that require two, three or more languages skills. Of course you will never feel excluded in teaching english or working in a Japanese university, and your said it, but you seems saying that if people feel outsiders its their fault (in your environment, yes it would be your fault) and I think you don't take in account other examples. Finally assuming that the most socialising activity in Japan is your job (most people will always make their job a priority over having fun) you cannot be fully integrated if you cannot get a proper full time job in your field.

    However, if you are fine with gaijin oriented jobs, of course you can fully integrate the Japanese society and those who don't, are responsible for it (by choice or not).

    As I'm not a native english speaker, sorry for the mistakes that may have slipped into my comment.

    Cordially,

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  23. Anonymous5:25 AM

    Dude the more japanese you speak the more alienated you will become; and you wont always be aware of it, takes time. Its why many longtermers speak in broken Japanese even though they can do better as to appear to be the naive gaijin. Japanese is a language of hiearchy, and has its roots in a caste system where foriengers where at the bottom (san kun chan sama omae temae etc) As a gaijin, my name has mostly been omae or temae, a slur used to berate somebody. In order to avoid this most disgusting situation, I speak only in English as much as possible and the treatment I get is totally different than before. As an English speaker, you are sombody different and suddenly outside the caste system. As soon as Japanese pick up that you been here a long time and you start speaking that Japanese, they remind you that they are in charge and your a gaijin.

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  24. Anonymous5:36 AM

    As for all the babble about how somebody experienced some form of racism in another country or we who choose to live in Japan were losers in our country of origin, Ive heard them all and done all the self examining. Those excuses dont address some very peculiar and unique things to Japan. For anybod who has been in Japan for a long time, there are 2 authors who can really sum up why Japan is the way it is: Patrick Smith and Alex Kerr. You experience Japan, read those books, and youll be in the know. The usual responses you get from other foriengers are shallow. Kerr and Smith dont answer it all, but they really know the subject. Reccomended.

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  25. I've been traveling to Japan researching traditional boatbuilding for over twenty years now (www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com) and most of my time is transiting through big cities and then off to the countryside, often very deep countryside. One thing that I have noticed is, despite the supposed cosmopolitanism you would expect from urban folks, that Japanese in Tokyo tend to be very uptight around me. Then I get to the countryside and elderly fishermen and their wives would immediately ask me what I was doing in their backwater village. I would tell them and they would laugh with delight and often invite me in for tea and crackers.

    I finally decided that Japan's famous (infamous) politeness, with all its difficult social cues, was actually just as difficult to navigate as it was for me, and what I was seeing in Tokyo was the stress of having to behave properly. Rural Japanese are the warmest, most expressive, and friendliest people I have ever met. I am absolutely certain that many of the conversations I have had with fishermen and boatbuilders have probably been the very first occasion these people have had to talk to a foreigner, and yet I have never felt alienated in the least. I have encountered a few times, from academics and others, a stated resentment that I as a foreigner should not be mastering a craft they consider "uniquely Japanese," but I could find that attitude in any country. I have never encountered that attitude from among over fifty boatbuilders I have met, interviewed and studied with.

    I like the woman from Kyoto's comment about how her Canadian husband was received, how her family's negative reaction would have been no different had he been from Tokyo. Despite the prevalence of "We Japanese..." I now see Japan as a nation of villages. People, crafts, culture, language, etc. are all intensely parochial. My boatbuilding teachers had no clue as to the boatbuilding traditions of other parts of the country, but they all instantly declared those traditions inferior, whatever they were. You want to feel alienated in rural Japan, just tell them the seaweed seemed to taste better in the village next door....

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