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Sunday, June 12, 2011

COUNTERPOINT

Barber's cutting comment denies others' humanity — and hers, too


Special to The Japan Times

It's depressing, I must confess.

For more than 40 years, I've been writing about Japan and the Japanese — and a few other countries and nationalities thrown in for good measure — and I'm sometimes rudely reminded of the fact that many people around the globe harbor inane and unreasonable stereotypes about people in other ethnic, racial or religious groups.

The most recent reminder of this came from a barber in Sydney, a Korean-born woman in her mid-twenties. I mentioned to her, as one does, that I was flying to Tokyo that evening.

"Tokyo?" she gasped. "Oh my god, they had a terrible earthquake there."

"Yes," I explained through the whirr of the clippers, "well, especially up north. It was awful for so many people."

Then came the shock. Not that I hadn't heard the likes of it before.

"But those people aren't really human."

I wanted to turn abruptly up to her, but I didn't fancy getting my ears clipped in the process.

"What do you mean?" I asked, staring at her in the mirror.

"When Korean people lose relatives or friends in a tragedy," she explained, now with a wet razor poised over my right ear, "they cry and shout in sadness. But Japanese people are robots. They do not react to tragedy. Those people have no emotions."

Okay, I know about the horrendous crimes inflicted on the Korean people during the Japanese occupation of their country from 1910 to 1945. But does a person whose parents would not even have experienced that era need to be so ill-disposed to an entire nation, particularly at a time of such stark vulnerability? No, something else is at work here, a universal trait of human nature.

That trait is this: the inability to judge the behavior and mores of another group or nation of people against any other standard than your own.

I grew up with it in Los Angeles, surrounded by Mexicans who were "all shiftless and untrustworthy." I have seen it among people in Britain who are convinced that "all Irish are blathering drunkards"; or in Russia, where "all Jews are scheming misers"; or in Poland, where "all Germans are proto-Nazis." It's the same between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, the Greeks and the Turks, the white Australians and the Aboriginal Australians. Negative stereotypes based on one's own patterns of action abound. You need only lightly scratch the skin to draw anger and blood.

Foreigners in Japan form a very varied group of people, with nothing ostensibly in common except for what they are not, i.e. Japanese. A great many fit in here even better than a lot of Japanese I know. Yet, over the decades, I have heard some things said by some of them about the Japanese that make my young Korean barber's opinion seem sympathetic.

Of course, Japanese society has its glaring faults; and among Japanese people themselves there are plenty who are well aware of that. In fact, if you want to encounter the real McCoy of anti-whatever-it-is, the surest place to find it is in the ranks of those being denigrated. My dad always said, "We Jews are the biggest bunch of goniffs (Yid.-scoundrel, thief) in the world." And this from a man who wanted his son to be a second Benjamin Netanyahu! I told him that one is much more than enough.

Returning to these shores, let's take a look at a simple word that may shed some light on this subject. The word is taido, which is not so simple after all. Most people would naturally translate this as "attitude," and this is correct. But taido does not just represent a passive state of mind. It can also mean "behavior" or, to use an old but nuanced word, "bearing."

Your taido is not just what you think, but how you react.

Take a particular taido that many Japanese people who work in a company display. Every morning they may get a pep talk from their section chief. The section chief may upbraid them, even insult them, with scathing remarks about how their performance has not been good enough. I have heard many non-Japanese wince over these practices, which they themselves find humiliating, debilitating and intolerable. But most Japanese take them in their stride.

The Japanese company can be seen as a team — an athletic team. When a basketball coach calls a timeout and shouts in the faces of players much bigger than he or she is, the players grin and take it. We admire such a coach as being committed and on the ball. Why not extrapolate this to a company?

When a Japanese company employee says, during a natural disaster, that they stayed at their post rather than going home to tend to their family's needs, many a non-Japanese see a person with twisted priorities. What's more important, they ask, firm or family?

But when a soldier is called away from family to some hapless duty for the supposed good of their country — whether right or wrong — we admire the soldier's courage and stoic taido.

In other words, Japanese society condones and approves of certain norms of behavior that are seen to serve the group or team needs, even when they seem to be at the expense of the personal wellbeing of those involved. To some non-Japanese, only an emotionless robot would do such a thing; but to many Japanese it is regarded as a necessary, and in some cases noble, sacrifice; and it does not indicate a lack of feeling for family. If anything, it may show that the person loves their family deeply, making the very sacrifice in the interests of their welfare.

In the 1980s, my wife, Susan, and I befriended a Japanese couple. The wife shared a hospital room with Susan when her son and our son were born. Such friendships are common, and often last a lifetime.

The husband worked in sales at a leading department store. Those were the booming bubble years, and the poor man rarely spent more than eight hours a day at home, even on weekends. Though he was a devoted husband and father, he had little opportunity to express his devotion.

One day just before Christmas, the wife's mother went into hospital for a major operation. The department store gave her husband several days off at this busiest time of the year. In addition, all the colleagues in his group at work rushed to the hospital to give blood, in a show of solidarity for his wife's family.

I doubt that such a thing would readily occur in most countries. Were we to judge the taido of the people of those countries in such a case by Japanese standards, they might come out looking heartless and unfeeling.

If the people of a particular ethnic group or nationality internalize grief, whether out of a sense of social decorum or an innate shyness over externalizing things private, it does not mean that they are not suffering as much as someone who beats their chest and wails to the high heavens.

I wish that my young barber could put aside her absurd, if naturally occurring, prejudice and ask herself a basic question: Why would the human beings of any background, or from any location, not feel the very same grief, to the very same degree, when faced with personal tragedy and loss? To say that they don't is to deny their humanity — and your own. Beware, for someone may be turning the tables of biased judgment on you.

There is no harm in laughing at stereotypical depictions of ourselves and others — so long as we don't, for a minute, take them seriously.



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