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Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010


Today's complex society in Japan spawns a new 'foreigner complex'

Among the many Japanese words and phrases that have fallen by the wayside of late and become shigo (obsolete), gaijin komupurekkusu (foreigner complex) is certainly among the least missed.

"Foreigner complex" referred to the attitude and behavior of some Japanese people who nurtured, for one reason or another, an inferiority complex toward certain outsiders.

I say "certain" outsiders, because those hapless, complex-afflicted Japanese folk did their furtive little inner bows and tugged their forelocks only in front of white foreigners. The foreigner complex was, in effect, a Caucasian complex.

It first appeared in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan opened its doors to the outside world and was eager to emulate the achievements of Western civilization and duplicate the imperial practices of their governments. Once the Japanese people had, by the end of the first decade of the Showa Era (1926-1989), achieved a status commensurate with their ambitions, they forsook their inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West for its nasty flip side: superiority.

Defeat at the hands of the Allies in 1945 flipped the coin back over again, and Japanese people then came to perceive themselves as meek and mild proteges of triumphant, gloating Western masters.

Now that this coinage, both sides of which were patently inane, has been laid to rest, you might think that Japanese people could comfortably relate on an equal footing to non-natives living in this country. Indeed, the great majority do.

But another variety of gaijin (foreigner) complex has lately come into being, somewhat complicating relations for those non-natives who experience it.

However, this shingata gaijin komupurekkusu (new-type foreigner complex) is not a Japanese preserve. It is, rather, a complex manifested by non-natives themselves, though a particular kind of naive and provincial Japanese behavior may be its catalyst.

I have encountered this stripe of Japanese behavior countless times, and, I tell you, have sorely felt the temptation to take refuge in the comforting embrace of the new complex myself.

A very recent personal experience illustrates this temptation.

During the January sales, I went to a large department store in Tokyo's central Shibuya district in search of worthwhile bargains in men's clothing. I stopped before a rack of very handsome jackets.

"These are of excellent quality," said the well-dressed, gray-haired salesman in Japanese. "And the price is much reduced."

"Yes, I like these," I said, proceeding to enquire about the material the jackets were made of and what sizes they had.

I tried on a number of jackets the salesman retrieved from a storeroom, explaining to him that I was purchasing them for appearances on television in a new show I would be on.

"I can't buy jackets with lines that are too close together," I said, "because they might 'swim' before the viewers' eyes."

I decided on two jackets, one beige and the other of a light-orange hue. All in all, the process went pleasantly thanks to the salesman's helpful and gentlemanly service.

But then came the little shock . . .

"Well," he said, "since you are a tourist, I will give you a further 15 percent discount off the jackets."

My jaw dropped like a bulldozer's shovel.


"Yes, it's past Christmas, but, well, for foreign tourists I think it would be acceptable to do so."

I might add that he was not shutting his eye to the fact that I was quite likely a resident in Japan. He blithely chose to assume that I was a tourist.

You could have knocked me over with a neutrino.

A foreign tourist? For crying out loud — which I certainly was not going to do — I had spoken pretty effortless Japanese with the guy! Since when do foreign tourists speak Japanese like that? And since when do they buy jackets for appearances on Japanese television?

The dull horns of the expatriate's dilemma were staring me in the face.

On the one horn I could have reminded him, gently or otherwise, that I was by no means a tourist. I've been in Japan for 42 years. That's enough time for 168 tourists' visas to expire.

But the other horn was, in reality, a cornucopia. The salesman had offered me a "tourist discount." If I disabused him, it would amount to self-abuse of the "pecuniary self-abuse" kind. Too much of that and you may not go blind, but you could definitely lose your shirt.

"Oh, thank you very much," I said to the salesman, handing him my Japanese credit card, trying to cover up the letters "Mitsubishi Tokyo UFJ Bank" running along its top. "We don't have service like this in my country."

That was indubitably the truth. In Australia, no department store would give special service to foreigners. In fact, no department store there gives much service to anybody — so at least the country might be said to be strong on the equality of neglect.

But well may you ask: What does all of this have to do with foreigner complexes, new or old?

The fact is that even in today's Japan — as relatively international and cosmopolitan as it is — foreigners often receive special treatment. This is, of course, highly appreciated by tourists and temporary residents. But non- natives who live semi-permanently or permanently in Japan, and who speak the language, generally expect to be treated like Japanese.

Often a non-native who asks a question in near-fluent Japanese will be replied to in fragmented English and left thinking, "Why don't they realize I am speaking Japanese and answer me in their own language?"

Japanese people will invariably hand their name card to a non-native with the English side up. OK, fair enough; not all foreigners — even those who can speak the language — are able to read Japanese. But this happens to me almost all the time, even when the Japanese person accompanies the handover ritual with a remark that they enjoyed reading a book I wrote in Japanese.

These quaint Japanese mores have nothing to do with discrimination or racism or complexes or anything of the sort. They are only manifestations of politeness or, at worst, a kind of innocent provincialism.

The new-type foreigner complex is one held by the non-Japanese who take these gestures the wrong way, overreacting with either a peevish dismay or a defensive anger. Some non-native residents resent being treated as tourists or newcomers. After all, they have put in their years here and paid their dues to fit in. They feel they must lecture the Japanese on the difference between newcomers of one sort or another and themselves.

These non-natives have a new-type foreigner complex. Some of them even feel discriminated against.

My advice to you, if you feel this way, is to brush it off. If you feel aggrieved when a Japanese person speaks English to you, smile and tell the person, in Japanese, what a wonderful command of English they have.

The harmony of the moment might just break some intercultural ice. And you might even get a discount in the bargain.

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