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Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010


Feeling revulsion may signal you're finally home away from home

There is a curious and very telling phrase in Japanese to describe the feeling of hatred that people can have for family. It is kinshin-zoo, or "close-relative abhorrence."

Often in the course of human affairs — whether in social, political, ethnic or literary contexts — descriptions of distant others are proffered in less than flattering terms. This hatred of "the other" can even lead to conflict, war and genocide.

But there is also that kinshin-zoo phenomenon of hatred for one's own. After all, we know them best, in all their multifaceted glory. We are our own harshest critics. This may be, all in all, a natural consequence of belonging.

In my life, an incident that occurred in 1989, some 20-odd years after I came to live in Japan, engendered in me a most virulent feeling of anti-Japanese sentiment; and that was the moment when I realized I had come to consider myself a native.

I would venture to suggest that this happens to many expatriates who live a long time in a country: They arrive at a point where they belong more to that country than to any other by virtue of their identification with the social and ethnic traits of the people there. If you want to know whether you have been overwhelmed by this sense of identification, go back to your own country and see whether you still feel "at home" there.

The incident that brought home to me my sense of belonging to Japan occurred in London.

Japanese sponsors were bringing a lavish production of Georges Bizet's "Carmen" from London to Tokyo, a staging of the 1875 opera on an enormous revolving stage that employed 100 extras and a bevy of live animals. The Spanish Catalan tenor Jose Carreras, who was not appearing in the London production, was to go specially to Tokyo to sing. I was sent from Tokyo to London by a major Japanese advertising agency to see the production there and then speak about it on television once I had returned to Japan.

The London production was at Earls Court Exhibition Center, which had been transformed into a 10,000-seat theater in the round — including a small block of prime seating reserved for Japanese VIPs, among them some media types, music critics and two famous writers.

As the only non-Japanese sitting in this section, I felt a trifle out of place, but the champagne served beforehand in the tent for Japanese visitors had amply smoothed out the raw edges of my self-consciousness.

Once in the hall, the two writers, both trendy social commentators in the decade of kokusaika (internationalization) that characterized the 1980s, were seated directly in front of me. Looking sophisticated in their designer Japanese clothes, they surveyed the crowd in what to me seemed a rather imperious manner. But that was, of course, the 1980s — the first postwar decade in which many Japanese started gloating over the country's phenomenal economic rise, which some believed would boost it up to number one in the world.

So it wasn't particularly strange that the two writers were chatting loudly about how Japan's ability to bring the world to its doorstep was now second to none; that the country's wealth was great enough to purchase whatever culture it felt it needed.

Then suddenly, just as the first chords of the overture were resounding throughout the cavernous venue, a pit opened up in my stomach and I felt a wave of revulsion flow through it. Was it nausea from the champagne and stale prawn canapes in the tent? No. It was a revulsion toward the two Japanese people in front of me, a revulsion, I might add, that was hardly justified by the mild form of arrogance they had expressed a moment before — no worse than that I had heard from people of other nationalities.

It was at that moment that I realized it: I had become a Japanese. I was experiencing that special kind of abhorrence we reserve for our own kind.

What then made me any different from them? I, too, was wearing the latest Japanese designer clothing. I, too, had been sent as a VIP on this publicity junket. I had even said similar things in the media at the time — that Japan had now come of age and should be unashamedly proud of its cultural and economic achievements. A feeling of unease, not unlike that of a hangover, persisted during the opera, and afterward I was happy to slip away back to my hotel and skip the post-show party.

This instance of a kind of adopted ethnic kinshin-zoo is, I suspect, not uncommon among veteran expatriates.

By its very nature it is different from the aversion outsiders typically feel for "the locals" — one that grows out of the notion that things are done better in one's own country. This aversion, in contrast, indicates that one identifies with "the locals" — that one belongs among them. It is an aversion to oneself as much as others. It is the kind of aversion that causes one to cover one's face before a mirror.

And yet, at the time, Japanese viewed non-Japanese as outsiders no matter how long they lived in this country. When commenting on Japanese life in the Japanese media, the most common request I received from the TV producer or newspaper editor was, "Please talk about us from the outsider's viewpoint." They would not allow the likes of me to think of myself as a genuine insider — let alone a native.

During the 1980s, when I protested that I had lost the advantageous outside edge, it only worried them. If I was just like a Japanese, they reckoned, then what could I possibly have to say of value that would surprise or delight a Japanese viewer or reader?

But, in the last 20 years, Japanese society has turned diffidently introspective. The opinions of foreign commentators on Japanese mores are no longer sought after with vigor. When they are elicited now, it is because the non-Japanese chosen have some expertise or specific knowledge that would aid the process of introspection. The Japanese don't want to see themselves as unique or bizarre. They just want to understand themselves on their own terms.

This is a positive and welcome change. Foreigners in Japan are not seen as special anymore; their opinions "from the outside edge," are not as valued. To put it another way, this means that nonnatives can now be accepted as natives — that the internationalization of the '80s, begun as a fashionable trend, has now become a reality in the consciousness of the Japanese.

As for me, the antipathy for something or someone I encounter here is, in my own mind, that of a native. If you dislike "the other" as much as your own, then I guess, for better or worse, you belong where you are.

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