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Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The melting pot of 2008


Today's fun fact is that 2008 marks the 100th year since the coining of the term "melting pot" to describe the multiethnic stew that then comprised the American populace. "Then" refers to the years when immigrants flooded over the ocean in a great global warming of the pursuit of opportunity.

While the "melting pot" expression has since earned enough play to win a spot in the dictionary, America has long searched for a more appropriate metaphor, one that would show that the rich ethnic ingredients haven't always blended so well.

Take your pick: America is a tossed salad, a stir fry, a smorgasbord, a jar of jelly beans, a bowl of Chex Party Mix. All very colorful and appetizing, but far from a fondue. If I might add a little election year side dish . . . Perhaps the American Left has somewhat simmered together. But the American Right embraces diversity the way a steak-and-potato man takes to tofu.

All this leaves me hungry for a metaphor for Japan — where a graying population and a trickling birthrate have resulted in far more foreign workers and students than in this nation's historically isolated past.

But instead of a straight image, I offer a memory — of cheese. Years back, Japanese processed cheese used to be nonmeltable. If you wanted cheese that melted, you had to purchase the brand called, "Melty." As for the other stuff, you could microwave it on high till the cows came home and then some and it would still keep form. I know. I tried.

That's Japan. The heat of change hasn't melted very much.

One would think Japan would be "softer" now. The ethnic multiplicity has not produced sukiyaki, but decades of English education have somewhat kicked in and today's Japanese travel the globe. Not to mention that influx of foreigners. Japan should not be the bowl of clumped rice it once was.

But that's not my experience. For example . . .

Over a summer dinner, a Japanese colleague shook his head at the yet unsolved gunshot murders of three supermarket clerks in Hachioji in 1995.

"It had to be a foreigner that did it. No Japanese would commit a crime like that."

"Hello?" I knocked on the table. "Look at me, please." Was not his dinner mate a foreigner too? And might not foreigners be offended by such an indictment?

The man squirmed and said he meant to emphasize the "gun." Japanese crooks would never be so cruel as to shoot people in the back of the head with a gun.

Right. They might ram a car into a crowd and then knife everyone in sight, a la the killing spree in Akihabara this year. Or like child-abductor Tsutomu Miyazaki, they might drink their victims' blood. Or like lots of Japanese killers, they might just hack a body up and leave it in pieces. But they would never be so cruel as to use a gun.

Yet, I squirmed back at him and said nothing. My own "melting pot" country has a miserable record with violence, offenses that are too often blamed on minorities. Besides, the man wasn't young. When you're old, you are perhaps permitted to be audacious. See John McCain.

But next an 18-year-old girl . . . when asked what might be the biggest problem in modernday Japan, she looked me straight in the eye and said, "Gaijin crime."

"No, no, I didn't mean you!" she said while her classmates roared. "I meant people from Asia!"

That is, of course, the euphemistic heart in the term "gaijin crime." Asians would be offended if the words were more blunt. And they should be. I am too.

So I told the girl that the biggest problem in modernday Japan was her point of view. She didn't get it.

And in reading about 19-year-old tennis whiz Kei Nishikori in a Japanese sports tabloid on board a plane this August, I kept plowing through the text to find something about someone else in the tournament.

Nishikori had made the round of 16. The paper made no mention of the other contestants.

"Oh you are a poop," said my wife. "It is a Japanese paper with a Japanese readership. Plus, it is a wonderful story. They don't have to cover everything."

Yes, they do. The door to the world works two ways. One reason elderly teachers and 18-year old students can't see that is because the media refuses to be microwaved.

People focus on what they see and hear. Tell them more and they'll learn more. Keep things narrow-minded and you will end up narrow-minded. And people won't get it.

"Well, if America is still not a true melting pot after 100 years, then you can't have such high expectations for Japan. Cut her some slack. The cheese might not melt, but it can be cut."

Now that's a metaphor I refuse to touch. Give me the Chex Party Mix anytime.



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