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Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

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Mind the gap, get over it: readers' views

Following are are a selection of readers' responses to "Mind the gap, get over it" by Charles Lewis (Zeit Gist, Dec. 28):

Patronizing, naive, dangerous

While living in Japan from 2007 to 2010, I experienced my fair share of discrimination. I was denied housing, I was regularly stopped and searched by police, I was excluded from cafes and other institutions. All the while, I was encouraged not to get angry about this by longer-term residents, who seemed oddly willing to give Japanese society a pass on these problems.

Charles Lewis' article is yet another example of this bizarre attitude. While I'm happy to hear that a select few extremely successful, high-profile foreigners have managed to achieve some level of integration, using them as exemplars for why the rest of us should just "get over it" is quite ridiculous.

This is the equivalent of saying that since America now has a black president, the rest of the minority population should stop their complaining and "get over it." Obviously this ignores the fact that black people in America face widespread and daily discrimination, have lower life expectancies, higher probabilities of imprisonment, drug abuse, mental illness, and so on. To encourage people to "get over it" and give up the fight is not only patronizing, but naive and dangerous.

Discrimination is discrimination, and dismissing valid complaints as simply being part of the Japanese way is not an attitude that will ever lead to progress for foreigners in Japan, or indeed for Japanese society as a whole.

Southampton, England

A gaijin state of mind

Having lived in Japan for 24 years, I feel that I might have some insight into this matter of being the "eternal outsider," the gaikokujin.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times — to paraphrase Charles Dickens, I have a tale of two countries. And at the end of the day, my life was much richer in Japan.

Of course, I'm now living in a rural hillbilly region of America, called the Ozarks, where moonshine is something you drink, not write sonatas about. But even if I were living in Los Angeles or Chicago, I wouldn't have the rich cultural setting that is Tokyo today. Tokyo is one of the world's greatest cities, rivaling London or Paris. In the future it will be much more the city of the 21st century, given the level of technological innovation and cutting-edge architecture emerging all over the city.

About being a gaijin: If you are from New York City and find yourself working for a company in Dallas, Texas, you are a gaijin. If you're an atheist running for political office in Missouri, you're a gaijin. If you're a lesbian trying to work as a Girl Scout leader anywhere in America, you are a gaijin. Being an outsider is simply another aspect of the human condition.

American English has all sorts of words to describe the "outsider." The worst pejorative, of course, is the "N word." And yes, you can still hear that word in places like rural Missouri.

Obama did not win the popular vote in this region of America. One local handyman assured me that Obama wasn't American enough to be president. His prejudice is shared by millions of so-called "birthers" who dispute Obama's claim to American citizenship.

It's always something, isn't it? John F. Kennedy was Catholic and so in the minds of many redneck Baptist holy rollers, he wasn't Christian enough. During the dark days of World War II, Japanese Americans were not patriotic enough or loyal enough.

Yes, America too has its peculiar ideas about "us" and "them." It is a wonder these "united" states have endured this long.

As it is, the entire country is riven by regional tensions. Folks here in "Misery" can't stand anyone from California or Nevada, since those places are considered to be so sinful, dirty and "godless."

I met a fellow from Mountain Grove, Missouri, last winter who told me that he'd traveled around the U.S. when he was younger but then returned to Misery "cuz this is God's country."

Yes, there were times when I lived in Japan that I thought being a gaijin was the most horrible experience one could imagine — until I came home.

When Konishiki, the sumo star, goes home to Hawaii, he is reminded that Polynesians are second-class citizens on their own ancestral lands! I'm sure that he met with racist slurs during his childhood. Today Konishiki is one of the most celebrated athletes in Japan, but folks in places like Missouri or Indiana wouldn't know who the heck he is.

I myself had much success as an educator in Japan. Here in "Misery" I am not Christian enough to be hired as a teacher. The separation of church and state in this region of America is a very thin line indeed. Bertrand Russell would never have gotten a professorship in Missouri despite having won a Nobel Prize. He was an atheist.

I might add that the gaijin in Japan is often treated far better than an American in Paris.

Just some thoughts on the nature of being a gaijin. Some days I long to be a gaijin again.

Winona, Missouri

Getting away with it

The "Mind the gap" article of Dec. 28 should prove interesting and informative to those short-term residents who feel they aren't accepted here.

Nearing half a century in Japan, I share the views expressed.

Actually, I truly prefer my gaijin status. Even if 100 percent acceptance could be achieved, I would then be just another ant in the anthill. So as long as you don't try to change the system and educate the Japanese on how things should be done in Japan, gaijin life here can go smoothly, and will also let you get away with a lot that a native couldn't!

The difficulty in making friends that was mentioned reminds me of my first year here. I had more friends than I could count. I was more popular than the Beatles! But in my second year, when my Japanese became better than the English of my friends, all my friends disappeared!

A bitter experience, and consequently from that time on I've never spoken English to any Japanese at work or in my private life. All has worked out fine that way.

Additional "Mind the gap"-type articles from old hands giving their thoughts and experiences should be of value to many.


Article was an eye-opener

I found the "Mind the gap, get over it" article very helpful, as well as thought-provoking.

Personally, as a foreigner (from Canada), I find it difficult to befriend Japanese people. I found some quotes from the interviews rather eye-opening; in particular, the fact that " 'You speak Japanese well' comments are a kind of greeting most of the time" (Barakan). I usually tend to take such a compliment at face value, but after reading this article, I now realize that, indeed, it should rather be taken as a simple greeting, or perhaps as some kind of "small talk" or conversation opener. In contrast, "You speak English well" would usually not go down very well as a conversation opener in my country.

I also appreciated one of the conclusions: "Get over the fact you are not Japanese and get involved." I find this a very positive attitude in the face of constantly being reminded in mundane daily activities that one is not Japanese.

ERIK HONOBE Fujisawa, Kanagawa

Males have 'gaijin complex'

I found your recent article by Charles Lewis — "Mind the gap, get over it" — very interesting.

Something that is very much a factor in the experience of living in Japan as a foreigner, and not explicitly addressed in that article, is the fact that most Japanese men do not feel comfortable around foreign men.

I lived in Tokyo for 15 years, and though I speak and read fluent Japanese, and had many rewarding friendships with Japanese women, in all that time I never had a close male Japanese friend. All my male friends were other foreigners. I thought this was a situation unique to me, but in conversations with other male, long-term, foreign inhabitants of Japan, I learned that it was the norm rather than the exception.

To put this in perspective, here in Taiwan where I now live and whose language I also speak fluently, I have a large number of close male Taiwanese friends. The same was true during my two years in Changchun.

The difference is to be attributed to the open, extroverted, adventurous, self- confident, curious, and good-natured Chinese personality. Japanese men, on the other hand, seem to find it difficult to relax around foreign men — the so-called gaijin complex.

However, you take things as you find them; people are what they are, and it is up to the foreigner to adjust to his new situation. All happiness depends on choosing to approach things with a constructive frame of mind. With the proper attitude — as admirably stated by Konishiki, Barakan and Tsurunen — life in Japan can be very rewarding indeed.

Too many foreign residents make themselves miserable with constant complaints. If I wanted everything to be as it was back home, I would have stayed there.


Contentedly other

The astonishing level of ignorance required to consider all non-Japanese in all their variations in such a manner may be quite laughable.

Non-Japanese in Japan do not necessarily have to "accept" it, "understand" it, "blow it off" or "revel in it" as some cute cultural foible that is less offensive or isolating or condescending than it is. Nor should they blithely pass off the ubiquitous "jozu ni" as a phrase used when Japanese people don't know what to say. Dubious, too, is the suggestion that every other culture does it to some degree.

Even if they do, that's too easy.

The easiest solution is to (yawn!) find it boring. "There is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn" (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus).

Lewis writes, "So many Japanese claim that their country and culture is 'uniquely unique,' and . . . think that foreigners will never come to grips with its subtleties and 'become Japanese.' " Honto desu ka?

Actually, here's a top secret that not every Japanese knows (much less imagines): 1. Numerous non-Japanese are quite happy to delight in Japan itself even if it means they must ignore the grating prattle of some Japanese. 2. Numerous non-Japanese are quite relieved to be in Japan (whether long term or short) without being fettered by all that it means to "be Japanese." 3. Numerous non-Japanese who are deeply attached to Japan — live there, learn the language, maybe even marry into a Japanese family or hold prestigious positions in Japan — do not necessarily wish to "be" Japanese. Ever.

That may be a challenge for those Japanese who are "uniquely unique" — and superior on account of it — to understand, but that's the divide. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "Ignorance is like a delicate fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone."

Non-Japanese in Japan are sometimes quite content to be just that: uniquely other and free of obligations, rules and restrictions they'd have to bow to were they ever considered Japanese.

Contentedly other,

Abbotsford, British Columbia

Acceptance into what?

I think Tsurunen hit the nail on the head when he said that foreigners are accepted into society — as foreigners.

Maybe many foreigners believe they are coming from one inclusive society, where everyone is accepted. I'm not sure that exists anywhere; they are just blind to the discrimination that occurs at home.

The flip side is that the Japanese cannot escape society without negative consequences. What about the foreign-born Japanese, who are (similarly myopically) automatically included but find it hard to live up the expectations?

Part of me wonders what exactly foreigners want to be accepted into. Some may genuinely desire it, but I suspect many think of it as a right or normative action that can be rejected later if they so choose; but that seems to me precisely what Japanese "society" isn't about.

Looked at another way, foreigners are integral to Japanese society. It all depends where you draw the boundary of "society."


Caricaturing ourselves

Your article "Mind the gap, get over it" was interesting, and I agreed with many of the sentiments. I am a French woman living in Tokyo, working in a Japanese company and speaking Japanese, and I too think that we should see how things work in our own country before bashing Japan for its handling of immigration issues.

That said, there are things that need to be stressed that I did not find in your article.

First of all, when you say "gaijin," you seem to imply an American/European- born foreigner. But most of the gaijin in Japan are from Asia, in particular China and Korea, and face much deeper problems than just not understanding the senpai-kohai relationship (which they usually understand very well by the way, since it is not specific to the Japanese culture). On the other hand, the rightwing cars spitting out insults in their faces on a daily basis is really something Japan should work on.

Secondly, I have the feeling that some gaijin also caricature themselves in a broad category that follows this American/European culture pattern. For instance, you quote Konishiki as saying "One thing about us foreigners is we can become friends overnight, become really close," I wondered who he was referring to by "us foreigners." Personally, I don't become friends with anyone overnight.

My point is: Gaijin themselves should not use this word in such a generic way, or else it will be hard to criticize Japanese people for doing so. KIM BEDENNE Tokyo

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