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Sunday, July 8, 2012

COUNTERPOINT

The sorry state of affairs in Japan is enough to turn WGs into FGs


Many years ago I coined a phrase — "Frozen Gaijin" — to describe a particular kind of foreigner living in Japan.

A frozen gaijin can be recognized in an instant.

The longer frozen gaijin stay in Japan, the rosier everything in their native country looks to them. Everyone in Australia becomes magnanimously multicultural; everyone in Germany, hardworking and scrupulous; everyone in India, forthright and ambitious. Even British beer starts tasting good to displaced Brits. Frozen gaijin not only feed off the sanguine stereotypes of their nationality, they exalt in them.

Frozen gaijin never tire of saying to Japanese people, "In my country we would never do things like this." Unusual (to them) Japanese traits are seen as, at best, quirky — and, at worst, backward. They are often heard to "urge" Japanese to scrap all the "outdated" features of their society and become "international" or, to use the trendier phrase, "global."

Finally, frozen gaijin confront Japanese people on the street or in schools and offices, refusing to go along with what appear to them to be the strict directives of Japanese interpersonal relations. Frozen in time, frozen in space: Frozen gaijin are alive, well — and blissfully unthawed in today's Japan.

But, some frozen gaijin, long unmoving in the deep freeze of their living past, have morphed into another type of disgruntled expatriate. Actually, this type has been around for just as long as its frost-bound counterpart. But with the stagnation of the economy and the malaise of indecision permeating every layer of Japanese society, this new type of gaijin has even come to be viewed with fondness by many Japanese people. It answers to their stereotypical view of what a foreigner in Japan is expected to be like.

The new type is the "Whinging Gaijin" (henceforth, WG). In case you might be unfamiliar with the British/Australian verb "to whinge" (rhyming with singe, cringe and binge), it is best translated into American English with "to kvetch" and into Japanese with "guchi o kobosu." Whingers, like kvetches, are driven by irritation, annoyance and self-pity. They cannot understand why Japanese people can't be more like them.

When it gets to the point of OCW (Obsessive Compulsive Whinging), WGs have only two choices left. Either they go back to their own country, where everything is done right — or they buy a dilapidated thatched-roof farmhouse somewhere in the depopulated Japanese boondocks and rediscover "the true beauty of Japan," surrounded by kindly neighbors in their 80s who never say more than "good morning" to them and ply them with overly salted pickles.

If WGs do decide to stick it out in the big city, mixing with Japanese colleagues at their workplace, the thing that sticks in their craw more than anything else is the Japanese mode of communication — or should I say, non-communication.

Rule No. 1 of Japanese interpersonal relations is: Anything worth saying should be left unsaid. Rule No. 2 is, needless to say, its converse: Anything not worth saying must be said, over and over again.

This accounts for the fact that 99 percent of all conversation at a Japanese company comprises small talk. Big talk is saved up for the restaurant at night, where sufficient alcohol lubricates the jaw.

Consequently, the gaijin who believe that the workplace is, as the word suggests, a place to work, are in for a rude shock. Whinging about how laboriously slow the decision-making process is at an office — or how excruciatingly long, tedious and unproductive staff meetings are — is not only a total waste of time; it merely demonstrates how out of touch WGs are with Japanese reality. Perhaps this Japanese dictum about the Japanese way of getting things done may help to illuminate the situation: Argue, but do not decide; decide, but do not put into action.

A highly placed official in the Japanese government recently said to me, "Everyone in the government knows what has to be done, but it just doesn't get started to be done. I think we Japanese are afraid to hurt anyone. So we all get hurt."

Having taken all this on board, dear reader, you may now understand not only things like the proceedings at Japanese PTA meetings, but also the secretive cabals of Japanese party politics. Run in place as fast as you can and everyone thinks you're a star Japanese sprinter.

And what about the way Japanese people so studiously and rigorously avoid all verbal confrontation? Some of them would rather die than state their opinion. This is a great trait if you are the person in charge and deriving clear advantage from the status quo. You just tell any would-be opponent, "Sure, you've got a point, and everyone is entitled to an opinion, but just keep it to yourself for the sake of harmony and everything will run smoothly."

And it goes without saying that you want everything to run smoothly, without opposition, if you are a regional electric power company operating a nuclear power plant and you are keen to get those rods in heat again. You recognize there is genuine opposition to you, but you wisely — from the Japanese standpoint — do not openly oppose it. Rather, you embrace it in such a tight embrace that it cannot wiggle, and then get the politicians and media who are essentially under your control to mollify any opposition with ambiguous, insincere statements about caution and safety.

Then there is the ingrained Japanese reluctance to take responsibility for crimes and mistakes. Oh, the captains of industry have been known to stand up behind their row of tables, suck in air between their teeth and bow simultaneously, like so many mechanical ducks. But watch the expressions on their faces when they come up for air following their unctuous bowing display. Their faces read, "Now that that's over, let's get back to the business of hoodwinking the public."

Accountability doesn't exist for the powerful in this country. Those on Mount Olympus, if you will, never get the scope of scrutiny shoved down their throats. Those who are "No. 1" make sure that the contaminated winds blow away from them.

As of midyear 2012, Japan is at a virtual standstill. The change that citizens looked forward to after they'd swept the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to power in a landslide Lower House election victory in 2009 has been no change at all. And when the so-called reformist party in power makes open front-room deals with the ultra-conservative opposition party at the expense of its own unity, you know you're in Japan. I tell you, U.S. President Barack Obama would love it here. He could make sweet deals with the Republicans and finally tell the left wing of his party to go and jump in Lake Michigan.

When nuclear reactors are being restarted, despite a majority public outcry against it; when reassurances of safety are given before adequate measures have been taken to protect the public from another disaster; when social welfare has been slashed in the face of one of the highest poverty levels in the developed world — and all of this without proper debate in the media — you know you are in Japan.

What can you do in a situation like this but whinge, kvetch and spill the guchi (grumbles) from your lips? I guess I too have been turned into a WG. Irritation, annoyance, self-pity … I've got it all.

But I've also got my anger over the revolting state of affairs in this country, as well as my love for Japan, nurtured over a period of 45 years. I may be a WG, but I am not, and have never been — and hopefully never will be — an FG.

I've got my love for Japan to thaw me out and my anger to keep me burning with hope.



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