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Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

Do Japanese yet realize that culture's acquired, not in the blood?


There's no doubt that Japanese people's attitudes toward foreigners, and the ways they relate to them, have changed markedly in the 40-odd years since I first arrived here. But is this change we can believe in?

First of all, in the 1960s — and, indeed, in the years from 1945 until then — most Japanese assumed that every foreigner here was an American. Countless times, while walking along minding my own business, I was accosted by children shouting, "Amerikajin da!" ("It's an American!"). I once shouted back at two scruffy little boys, "Amerikajin ja nain da!" ("I'm not an American!"). That sent them, mouths agape in shock, scurrying into a nearby shrine to hide.

In 1972, I played the character of Mr. Higgins in an adaptation by state broadcaster NHK of Akiyuki Nosaka's prize-winning short story, "Amerika Hijiki." Nowhere in postwar Japanese literature is the complex relationship between a Japanese and a foreigner more honestly portrayed than in this story (Hijiki is a kind of edible seaweed, and American hijiki are black tea leaves that some Japanese mistook for it.)

The protagonist in "Amerika Hijiki" is a young man named Toshio, who considers it his duty as a Japanese to cater to the selfish whims and absurd demands of the obnoxious foreigner Mr. Higgins (and his equally obnoxious foreign wife). However, the point of the story is really that Toshio, representing Japanese males, has a whopping inferiority complex regarding Americans, a complex he deals with through fawning obsequiousness.

"Amerika Hijiki" dates from 1967, and accurately characterizes a certain Japanese servility manifest at the time toward the chief nation that defeated them in World War II. Until the 1980s, most Japanese had never met a foreigner. The word gaijin (alien) referred, at that time, only to people of European origin. Asians were termed gaikokujin, a more formal form of gaijin. Gaijin, effectively, meant "Caucasian." Now it refers to non-Japanese of every nationality.

Meeting and speaking casually with Japanese people in those days was rather different from now. Then, as a non-Japanese, you were a novelty often asked an array of innocent and simplistic questions about Japan. If you responded positively, the locals were generally quite surprised that you could be familiar with, appreciate and like things Japanese.

This surprise was a product of naivete and provincial insularity, and if they disagreed with what you said, their response might border on the racist.

As an example of the latter I can recount how I often used to attend noh theater performances. I recall once telling this to a Japanese chap who remarked, "Yes, that's fine, but you really can't understand the noh theater, can you."

"Yeah, you can say that again," I replied. "It's something, I guess, you just feel rather than understand. It's so difficult."

"No," he said, "I don't mean 'difficult to understand.' I mean, you are a gaijin, so you can't understand it. Take me; I have never seen a single noh play — but I understand noh. It's in my veins."

"No!" I exclaimed. "Really? Is what comes out when you cut your belly open like a fanatic soldier red or blue?" I wanted to say. But I kept calm. After all, the fellow was not malicious; he was just dumb and didn't realize that culture is acquired: It doesn't run in the blood.

Much of this changed in the '80s, when many foreigners appeared on Japanese television speaking, in fluent Japanese, about aspects of Japanese life. In addition, thanks to Japan's growing prosperity, the number of people traveling overseas shot up. Japanese also became more relaxed in the presence of foreigners.

By then, too, although some still harbored the "gaijin complex" that tormented poor Toshio in "Amerika Hijiki," it began to show up more rarely in conversation and behavior.

The old inferiority felt toward Americans does still crop up from time to time. Indeed, one TV talk-show producer not so long ago begged me to identify myself on air as an American, rather than as what I am, an Australian. "It gives your words more weight," he said. I refused. However, I later found that the captions running at the bottom of the screen while I spoke referred to me as an Amerikajin (American).

But another thing has definitely changed. Conversations with Japanese people about Japan used to fall into one of two patterns.

Pattern 1: You say something absolutely banal and ordinary about Japan, like: "I have lived here for two whole years now, and I've noticed that Japanese people make a noise when they eat noodles." The Japanese person then exclaims: "Yoku gozonji desu ne!" ("You know us so well!"). In other words, you are fulsomely praised for stating the obvious.

Pattern 2: This pattern has two parts. Say something novel about Japan, something that is not within the bounds of conventional wisdom, and you may very well be met with guarded disbelief. After all, how could you, a foreigner, know more about Japan than any Japanese? Or you might be dismissed as someone who doesn't understand the real Japan — meaning the Japan that Japanese people "genetically" comprehend.

This, too, has, by and large, changed.

Japanese people today are generally much more attuned to the outside world than the two previous generations, and they relate to foreigners more naturally, without the old provincial hangups.

The quaint "Amerika Hijiki" obeisance to Americans on a personal level is largely a thing of the past, though it seems to be alive and licking among Japanese politicians. Equally, I doubt that any foreigner would be met with shouts of "Amerikajin da!" by a Japanese child today. In fact, most Japanese people are open to contacts with foreigners even to the extent of being more frank and forthcoming in their company than they might be with their own.

Compared to the Japan that I first encountered many years ago, Japanese society has internationalized and become open-minded, and there is no reason to believe that these attitudes will not continue to develop even further.

The alternative to tolerance is a return to narrow provincialism and the decline of Japan as a democratic nation. Japanese who would rather see such a future are the kind ready to cut their veins just to glimpse once what they imagine to be the real Japan.

But they won't find it there. All they will find is self-inflicted pain and an illusion of nationhood.



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