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02/08/2007: "1st Month Impressions"
I recently passed the 1 month mark since I moved here and I thought I'd give a more first person account on my experience and opinion of the country. I've been through big ups and big downs since arriving but now I think things are settling down and I'm getting a good grasp on how to manage my life here.
Everyone has an outside vision on how they think this country is. They see what is exported or what is highlighted (Anime, culture, cars, movies, etc.) and take it at face value. These impressions are further propagated when foreigners enter the country whilst not speaking or understanding the language and see only what they choose to see (the real life version of their japanese exported fantasies and hobbies). Visitors also commonly only come for a short stay for vacation or business trip. This too is how I viewed Japan my previous 3 trips up until now. With my increased ability to speak, read, write and understand cultural nuances, granted to me by having a daily grind and living with a family, I now have a much different view on how things work here.
About now, I'm sure many of you are pushing your noses up in the air and cursing my name thinking, "boy what an asshole, he's so lucky, how can you not have fun every day that he's there." That's fine, you can do that and stop reading here.
In no way am I saying I'm an expert on this culture (especially only being here 4 times and only a month on this current stay). I don't think any foreigner can fully understand a country they aren't raised in. Neither am I saying I hate this country or hold any particular grudge against it. I only wish to share with you my observations as I've come to see them.
The first thing that impressed me about this country's people is their exceesive dedication to manners and respect for the fellow citizen. To me, it seemed deeply rooted in their culture to treat eachother with equality and respect. But...after a time, I starting seeing that this culture was, at the same time, very devoted to understanding one's social status and position in the work place and at home. People seemed to have their places or roles, and accepted it. This seemed highly contrasted by my culture, where one of our base values is, fight for what you want to be and you can eventually be it. Noticing these two cultural nuances co-existing, I began to think that possibly the manners were simply programmed into them and probably not heart felt when practiced. To give you an analogy, in America when you meet someone, you ask how they're doing, regardless if you actually care how they feel. You also responsively wait a moment after passing through a door if you notice someone following behind you to help them. In that same action, the person then hurries to the door and thanks you. These are manners of our culture that we don't even think about. In the same way, I think Japan has developed their way of respect to the fellow man. Whether it is heart felt or not, I must commend them for it.
Japan also has something in their society which is refered to as the "wa". The wa is in short, the social peace of a groups surroundings. For example, if you're on the train, it is not likely to see someone listening to music loudly, talking rudely with another passenger, talking on the phone, or otherwise being disruptful to the other people on the train. It seems that to the Japanese, disrupting this peace when in social crowds, it an offense to never commit...very taboo to say another way. I'm sure you're thinking, "Great! I wish America was like that!." And yes I agree with you to a point. Where this devotion to the wa is not so pleasant, it when disruptions happen accidently. When people disrupt the peace, they're seen as deviant from the crowd, and are almost always ignored. This could mean, if a fight breaks out, someone is hurt, someone falls down, everyone will simply ignore it. This is practiced in America to a degree, but the point in which we will speak out and help another, is much sooner then here. Since not breaking the peace was higher valued then helping others in need, I began to grow disgusted with people who would ignore shit happening around them. To give you a specific, but in no way rare example, I was on the train at about 11:30pm a couple weeks ago and there was a person who was so belligerently drunk that they collapsed on the floor and couldn't get themselves up after a time of trying to explain his ailment to the other passengers. To my surprise, 5 minutes passed and noone helped this man on the ground, obviously in serious need of asisstance. Apalled, I looked around at the other passengers who went on acting like the man wasn't right in front of them on the floor sick to near unconciousness. I got up and picked the man up and helped him off the train. I talked with him and found where he lived and physically dragged this man through the train station to the proper train, and helped him on his way home. Things like this happen everyday everywhere, and noone will act to help the needs of others (granted, extreme situations will call at least a few concerned Japanese to the aide of others). This fact hit me hard as I viewed it as an inhuman feature of the Japanese people as a whole. The idea that peace was more important then the needs of someone else, regardless if they're disrupting everyone, far from sits well with me. Whenever you have a social norm that highly values the peace of the group, people who deviate are left behind.
Another thing to know about my circumstances here is my experience with my host family. A part of my agreement with the school in my first semester was to live far into Saitama away from Tokyo to completly immerse myself in the language and culture. A biproduct of this I didn't forsee was the accompanied lonliness that would follow. While I may have many people around me, none of them understand me and treat me as they would normally treat one of their own. On top of this, since I am so far away, I never see other classmates outside of class and my social life is non-existent. Having noone that understand me on basic levels like another American could, is increasingly frustrating. This lonliness breeds resentment in my heart because all of others I see is how I'm treated by Japanese people in Saitama (I am not refering to my family who in their nature are very loving to me, even if we may have cultural misunderstandings).
In America, seeing races and cultures from around the world is a daily life experience pushed upon us from birth. It is the norm to see someone different from you, and while you may or may not have racist opinions of another group, you unconciously accept their existence as normal (save the extremist who want people out of the country who are different...but hey, those people are fuckheads and I'm only talking about the general American citizen). In a country where at one time, we were all emigrants, we lose a strong sense of what's foreign and what's not. The line where one culture ends and another begins is much harder to define. Because of this, we take our base acceptance of foreigners existence for granted and in the same action, assume the rest of the world feels the same way. In reality, many countries still are incredibly homogenous and the sight of someone else's culture is quite rare and foreign. In this country, where over 99% of the inhabitants are Japanese, a level of innate racism spawned from a mix of fear and misunderstanding can be expected. Due to this, racism is not only blatant, it's legal and somtimes encouraged. There are still many businesses throughout Japan that have signed posted outside their doors reading "No Foreigners Allowed!" (hilarious enough, it's usually written in only Japanese). Born after the civil rights movement, hearing of this seemed like a blast from the 50's and almost surreal. That's just once example though, racism is experienced on a daily basis, be it blatant or subtle. I experienced racism on previous trips, but my lack of language abilities saved me from the majority of it (hey, ignorance is truely bliss). As I speak more and more as days pass, I understand more and more of what people say and mean when speaking to or about me. Since it's expected of me to not speak but a few words of Japanese, people will straight out say some racist as fuck shit about me thinking it was alright cause I couldn't possibly grasp what they're saying. Racism here can also be found in forms as making it near impossible to find housing on your own, be unecessarily harrassed and questioned by police (rare though), be treated as having the plauge on trains, and generally treated as a second-class citizen.
I was esepcially sensitive this, probably because I'm a moderately liberal american raised in California. Try to understand though, that I don't speak of this as every Japanese person being the culprit. There are extremes of blatant racists and biggots and that can't be helped. They're found in every country and equally as ignorant and stupid wherever they may be found. The subtle racism of the general public I think is unintentional and is purely a cause of fear and lack of knowledge. I can understand how someone can be weary of a foreign person if all they've seen their entire life was one race. Imagine how you'd react is martians started living in America. I also notice that even this subtle racism is dying more and more with coming generations. The youth here is becomming so integrated with an international setting, and are raised with seeing the occasional foreigner, that they see us more of a cheeky attraction rather then a war-loving demon that killed their family in WW2. In the same way, you can see how American youth are so closely connected with Japan and foreign cultures, and in general, are much less racist then their parents or grandparents.
My attempt here was to absorb the culture as a second one to my own so that I could better understand it to give myself a huge boost when it came time to start my international business career. This killed me inside as the more I learned the undesirable features of the culture, the more I felt I myself was undesirable because I wanted to absorb it. Every culture has its positive and negative attributes, that can't be avoided. I recently learned a less damaging way to deal with it. Instead, I must continue acting as I really am, American. Being myself whether the Japanese may like it or hate it, won't limit me from learning their culture. Besides, not being yourself always turns out poorly. I think this realization is one that many people obsessed with this country while being American really want to dodge. And while these people who love Japan wholeheartedly without living here don't want to hear it, it's not as great as you expect it to be.
This phenomena is a two-way door. Japan being an economic super-power as they are, got that way from their industralization movement in the Meiji era. From that point on, they embraced so much of the West in many ways. Even more so is post-war years, the west is integrated here and is here to stay. You can walk a few blocks and see american fast food at every corner. When you see businessman or general public on the trains, they wear western styled suits, and clothes. With this being the case, there are many Japanese who idolize America from what they see of us from the outside. Many times, out of curiosity, I've asked a Japanese person what they thought of America. They say such cliche statments as "oh I can be free and get rich there easily" or "I'd be scared, everybody owns a gun". People here are just like people in America, viewing us from what we export here. Movies, clothes, and music to name a few. Because our two countries are so closely connected, it is natural that we view one another as the alluring other. While I think people in my specific circumstances are rare, I think my experience of that "other" becomming more real and less fantasy, can be a bit depressing. It further depressed me that since what I'm doing is rare, I could hardly find someone who could share in my pain. Furthermore, people back home would easily write me off as ungrateful and undeservingly lucky for even thinking of talking bad about the almighty and wonderous country that our beloved hobbies were born from.
To me now, this country seems like America, with all the problems and advantages that go with it. While the flashy Japanese Life as I dreamt it becomes a reality of hard work including the ups and downs, just like home, I found myself depressed. Over the past week, I pondered to myself if it was worth it. Now that it no longer held the alluring mystery and rarity it did before, did I really want to do what I came here to do? I understand that as time passes and my skills increase in this language, the culture will only more and more seem real and common.
Yesterday, after a conversation with a more seasoned JA about some of the aspects of this culture, I sat for a long while and thought about my situation.
I looked back on my life prior to coming and thought about my future. I'm a very goal oriented person and while I chase after dreams, I can easily derail from my course of action if parts of my plan go awry. With that in mind, I realize my fault of not easily adapting to changes in my plans. But, like I said before, I'm still a very goal oriented person and have big dreams I'll refuse to give up on.
While it took me a rough month to reach this realization, I find that regardless of the reality of this country, where I want my future to be has not changed. I will adapt and my resolve is stronger now then before. I will become bilingual in this language and I will achieve the goals I've set before me. I just now understand that I can't be inflexible on my views on the exact route to get there. I also can't be anyone but myself reagrdless if the people of this country can't handle my super american-ness. All I can do is work my damn hardest to get where I want, and if something changes, adapt, and re-apply my drive.
To sum things up, things have been hard dealing with what I guess is commonly refered to as "culture shock" which because of the lack of language before, I completely missed on previous trips. But I think I'm making better moves towards my goals and will be alright. If you actually read this and didn't leave when you noticed no humorous .jpegs with japanese themes, thanks. Otherwise, if it was too much text for you, please refer to the above post for a more light-hearted topic.
Replies: 8 Comments
Monday, February 19th
I'm not reading all that.
Thursday, February 15th
Wow, you are awesome just to be so aware of everything surrounding you, well also because you have to but because your strong and have a smart head on your shoulders. I give you all the props to stay in there and do what most really wish thay could experince just like what do,even though its stressful at times. Good luck and keep writing, its amazing!!!!!
Thursday, February 15th
Hey man, like I have always said. If you want to just hang out for a weekend and get re-Americanize yourself, all you need to do is call.
I feel your pain and distress to a certian point, as I have been here for almost 3 years as a civilian, and it's much harder living like that than it was being in the military.
You got a great future planned out ahead of you, don't lose sight of that and, as the quote goes, "Keep your nose to the grind stone."
Or, as Skid Row put it, "You can be king of the world when you're a slave to the grind."
Peace out, brotha, call if you need anything.
Saturday, February 10th
Your awsome man hang in there! Also your saying wha we did the trains was "rude". Like the fact that we run these streets?
Friday, February 9th
> You know Mason, I'm willing to bet that out of our entire Freemode group, I'm the one who closely identifies with your situation. This cultural divide/bias/shock that's felt between the two countries are no different than the ones I experienced myself sevral times.
> Having lived in 3 different countries and also currently being part of the military, your words ring true to say the least. It's like a surreal thing. People look in, my associated group - Filipino, Canadian, Marine and expect certain things out of each. While at the same time I'm looking out trying to ask why things are like it.
> It's as you've described servral times in your blog. People have assumptions about people, expecially if they themselves haven't had much contact with them "different" beings. Currently I'm experiencing something similar, albeit it's me as a Marine and anit-war/troops/peace loving hippies. Most of that group have so many misconceptions about us in the military, and usually the ones who have the biggest and most incorrect reservations about us are the ones who have never been exposed to the military way of life. Who've never set foot on base, lived in one, had a few friends who were serving.
> In the end, it's as you pointed out, it's just a lack of exposure to the other that sets this divide.
> This is probably the one thing you and I understand each other the most. Good blog.
Friday, February 9th
Sounds like what we talked about on AIM. You're courageous to hang in there. But always remain flexible to other paths to your goal. Keeping in touch with friends and family at home should help, too. And once you're on our own, closer to school, you should make better connections with other intl students.
Friday, February 9th
Wow, I'm in a bit of a shock. I have thought that things between our countries was in fact different, and there would be a lack of intolerance there superior to our own, but it is easy to understand where the resentment stems from. My world view just shifted a good deal like I have been uprooted and I'm going to have to sleep on this one.
I had no idea.
Sarah Decker [e-mail]
Thursday, February 8th
I think it is great to hear that even though things are not quite what you imagined, that you're still going for it. Kudos and good luck to you!