Friday, June 23, 2006

I, Gaijin

It occurred to me the other night, during the course of a conversation with Nate, Joe and Jordan, that this blog is incredibly superficial. And not that there is a thing wrong with that; I wanted it to be a place where I could record my experiences without the bulk of a paper journal. But my journals are much more reflective than the majority of these blogs are, and more eloquent too. I am aware that my writing has lost a lot of the expressiveness I was able to give it when I was doing it on a more regular basis in university.

Our conversation, amongst other things, was about how foreigners perceive the native community here in Japan. Throughout my last year here, I have consciously decided to distance myself from the Japanese community. Not because I dislike them, far from it. But for a time now, I have felt that my ideals are not those of the Japanese people, and I struggled to find common enough ground with most Japanese people that I wouldn’t be left tearing my hair out after a conversation. I think my attitude towards the Japanese has grown very negative in the last twelve months. Only yesterday, I found myself biting my tongue as an eikaiwa student detailed how, after finding a wart on her neck, she went to a dermatologist to have it removed. He said it was too small to remove. Unsatisfied, she drove an hour and a half to another doctor who was willing to take it off. Then she was upset over the price. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just listen to the first doctor. Her ire over a small skin blemish struck me as rather vain, and the fact that the other class members in the room were nodding sympathetically led me to the conclusion that, in this student’s position, they’d have done the same thing.

This is where the gaijin community sells our Japanese friends short. Before arriving in this country, the majority of us do some sort of research on the community we are attempting to become a part of. Time and again, we read about the Japanese ‘group’ mentality; about how the standards and aspirations of the group are valued higher than those of the individual, be it the family, the company, the club or what have you. The archetypal Japanese salaryman is a common example in trying to explain this phenomenon to new arrivals: he works ridiculous hours, even when he has no real work to do, will go out on mid-week benders with his department to foster team spirit, and will often become little more than a stranger to the family he is working so hard to support. Of course, such people do exist in Japan: I’ve seen them on the Tokyo subways, late at night, shirt open at collar, cheeks flushed from beer, eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. They are a sorry sight, but a familiar one.

Now, here’s the crux: foreigners in Japan have become so accustomed to reading about and witnessing this ‘birds of a feather’ behaviour, that oft-times, we forget to dig deeper. Japanese people are not as cut-and-dry as much of the literature would have you believe. Individualism is rife in Japan, but people are not taught to express it. The group comes first. That doesn’t mean that individualism doesn’t exist. It just comes second.

Case in point: the self-assured, distinctive, refreshing Yoshida-sensei. Yoshida-sensei is a member of my eikaiwa class. She’s a staunchly feminist, human rights loving, knowledge thirsty middle-aged elementary school teacher. She’s not afraid to express her views, at least to our little club. She’s openly critical of the government, and loves to ask about women’s equality in other parts of the world. She’s an assertive, intelligent woman whose views would arguably be more at home in the west. What marks her out as Japanese is the fact that she is still very much a team player. She goes to work on a Saturday. She begs the favour of her peers. She serves tea to her male colleagues. Does this make her a hypocrite? Some might say yes, but I don’t think so. She gains more utility (to make use of economic language) by suppressing her own views and interests in order to achieve a common goal. She is prioritizing, and what Yoshida-sensei illustrates is that the Japanese have a different order of priorities to Westerners. The team comes first. The individual comes later, in private time with friends rather than collegues.

Until I was discussing this topic with the boys on Wednesday night, I had forgotten that Japanese are very much individuals, and that they just don't express it as much. In distancing myself from them, I allowed myself to place all Japanese people in the same boat, which is unfair. I'm not about to go out and start shunning the company of fellow foreigners in favour of Japanese people again, as I did in my first year out here. But I think I need to be a little more lenient in my judgement of them.

Again, eloquency fails me. This is hardly ground breaking thought, but I guess that's what I get for trying to expound on a 36 hour old conversation.

1 comment:

Fletcher said...

I think its healthy that your blog is different from you journals. Not every thought a person has ought to be shared, especially on something like a blog which anyone in the world can read.