Monday, June 21, 2004

Gaijin … a rose by any other name?

For a lot of people Japan never really comes into focus. I was thinking about people overseas when I began that sentence, people who have no reason or desire to visit Japan, but it strikes me now that the same could be said for many of the gaijin who have lived here for years. A gaijin is a foreigner, literally an "outside person".

For a lot of people this apparently innocuous term carries a bit of a charge. They get bent out of shape entirely when this term is applied to them, as if it were somehow equivalent to a raft of other epithets we have been taught not to use any more -- supply your own examples in this space.

By itself the term gaijin seems pretty bland and a fair sight better than the Chinese version "gwai-lo" which translates as foreign devil. I suppose a lot depends on how the word is used -- as in "Smile when you say that, mister".

You can live in this country for 100 years, marry the Emperor's daughter (unlikely), get elected to your local city council, play for one of the national teams, walk around waving your shiny red Japanese passport, and you will still be seen as a gaijin.

For some people this is extremely irksome. Every year there is a spate of letters in the local English-language press decrying Japanese attitudes to foreigners in general and the widespread use of the G-word in particular. This happens every year; nothing seems to change.

Just how bad is discrimination in Japan? The Japanese claim they are not making any moral distinction, just using the evidence of their eyes in the same way all people automatically register whether another person is male or female, old or young. Maybe so. It has to be said people don't drive their cars into plate glass windows when they see you, hordes of taunting giggling children don't follow you through the streets (they used to), few people glare at you and none of them throw stones.

Being a gaijin in Japan is a sweet deal compared to being a gaijin (or whatever the word is -- probably not nice) in a place like Iraq or Saudi Arabia. There the locals will try to shoot you, blow you up or cut off your head. Count your blessings. On the minus side of the ledger you may find yourself denied entry to certain bars and restaurants and even some stores; you may find it very difficult to rent an apartment in certain areas; you may hit a glass ceiling on promotions if you work for a Japanese company; and you may encounter frigid hostility from the parents of your Japanese girlfriend or boyfriend. There are a few actively unpleasant people around and in Hokkaido you can't even have a bath, which I'll come back to later.

None of these things are part of the happy-clappy side of cultural communications, but I hardly think such reactions are limited to Japan. Any ethnically different group of immigrants in a new country faces similar, and often worse, discrimination. The Irish in 19th century America were treated as scum of the earth, soon to be followed by Italians, Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. Afro-Americans still face subtle and not-so-subtle inequalities of treatment in the land of their birth. In secular enlightened Western Europe (pause for laughs) the Germans look down on Turks, the French dislike Algerians, the Italians shun Libyans and Albanians, the Dutch keep the Moluccans at arm's length and the holy sainted Irish (the world's most persecuted people, thanks to the co-operation of the evil, clueless English) make life miserable for their own indigeneous gypsies. The Mexicans are nasty to their Indians, the Hindus beat up on Muslims, the Sunni are not nice to the Shi'a, Southeast Asians gang up on local Chinese, and the unhappy list goes on.

What makes the gaijin debate in Japan particularly interesting (for me, anyway) is to watch the reactions of members of a majority group in their home country coming to terms with suddenly becoming a minority-type person over here. They don't seem to like it at all.

Most if not all of the recurring outrage in the Letters to the Editor, the loudly-voiced complaints at parties, the smouldering resentments of newcomers and oldtimers alike, stem largely from North American, Anzac (Aussie/NZ), and Western European Caucasians who are finding out for the first time in their lives what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discriminatory behaviour.

Does this somehow make discrimination OK? No, it doesn't. Discrimination remains unfair and it can be deeply hurtful to the person who experiences it. But if the experience opens a few eyes among those who belong to a majority group at home, and if it alters their attitudes toward minority groups in their own countries, then it may have served some useful purpose.

That's a nice pious thought for the foreigners who go home. But what about the foreigners who have settled in Japan?

David Aldwinkle is an American (actually an ex-American) who lives in the northern island of Hokkaido. He is a very prominent anti-discrimination activist who is best known for his ongoing campaign against local bathhouses on the island. These bathhouses arbitrarily decided to ban all foreigners after a number of distressing incidents involving drunken Russian sailors. Instead of making a sensible decision to ban all drunks of whatever nationality, the bathhouse owners clubbed together and announced a blanket ban on all non-Japanese. Dave (we've met) was incensed and mounted a campaign to get the decision overturned. He started petition drives and has been all over the national and even international press. No dice. He even took the rather extreme step of taking out Japanese nationality, thereby renouncing his US citizenship (the things we do for a bath!), and armed with his shiny red Japanese passport, a posse of supporters, and a rolling tape recorder, marched into a local bathhouse and demanded his place in the tub. Still no dice. "You may be a Japanese citizen", he was told in effect, "but you still LOOK like a gaijin."

The Japanese constitution explicitly condemns discrimination but the courts and politicians see this as a non-issue with the Japanese electorate. Is there no way of getting this in-your-face ban on foreigners overturned? Apparently not. Poor old Dave must be smelling pretty ripe by now ….

In another well-documented incident a Brazilian resident did get a court ruling in her favour. Japan has a fairly significant immigrant population from Brazil and Peru, brought in during the boom years of the 1980s to do jobs the Japanese no longer cared to do themselves. Anna Bortz was a reporter on a local Brazilian newspaper/radio station in Hamamatsu, a city about halfway between Tokyo and Osaka on the Pacific coast. Hamamatsu is a blue-collar town with one of the largest concentrations of South American immigrants in Japan, largely because of its many manufacturing plants. One day Anna was turned away from a jewellers shop in the city simply because she was non-Japanese (the shop blamed foreigners for shoplifting losses) and promptly took the shop to court After a protracted legal case she finally won damages and this was regarded as a great victory for the anti-discrimination lobby.

But has the situation really changed? Not really, at least not in terms of landmark legal decisions (Anna was a one-off) and certainly not in terms of political legislation. Foreigners remain a very small percentage of the total population and many of them are on short-term contracts. Their numbers are simply not sufficient to arouse any significant political action which tries to either extend or reduce their rights. There are periodic rabble-rousing attempts to stigmatize foreigners by the lower end of the political food-chain in which the rise in crime statistics is directly related to the increase of foreigners in Japan. This may frighten people and garner a few votes but it has no connection with the reality of the situation.

In gradual terms, however, there has been a noticeable shift in Japanese attitudes. I have lived in this country for 25 years off an on (mostly on) and even though I jump at every chance to go home (Ireland) there is nothing strange or unusual about that. So do most Japanese living or working overseas. I certainly wouldn't have stayed so long had I found the country oppressive or hostile. It isn't. I have very fond feelings for this country.

After a year or two without a long visit home, I find it is the little things, not the elephant-sized differences, that can really get on my nerves (Can you use chopsticks? -- Can you eat sushi? -- No foreigner can really learn Japanese -- We Japanese can communicate without words [this, from the most wordy people on the planet !] whereas you people blather all the time -- "We Japanese" this -- "We Japanese" that -- Our children take ten months to be born but your children take only nine -- We Japanese think with the other side of our brain, etc., etc) but it's nothing that a holiday can't cure.

Being a resident gaijin is a bit like working in a submarine. It's not so bad when you get the routine down, but you're on duty 24/7 and you can't help but look forward to coming up for air. It's the simple little things you miss -- speaking your own language, not standing out in a crowd, understanding all the jokes, just being another anonymous ordinary person. What I miss most about Ireland -- apart from the music -- are the quick flashes of wit (they draw blood) and the sheer speed and inventiveness of even the most casual conversations. Then there's the falling-down helpless laughter in place of polite giggles. Ah well.

But there have been changes in Japanese attitudes, very significant changes. When I first arrived here in the late 1970s kids actually did follow you in the streets pointing and shouting "Gaijin!!". Their parents smiled indulgently and never said a word of reproach. You felt you were in a zoo, on the wrong side of the cage. But that's all behind us. Touch wood.

Japanese people then couldn't get their heads around a gaijin talking Japanese. It wasn't on the menu. No matter how fluently and grammatically we spoke they would look at our faces and do this windshield wiper movement which is the Japanese gesture for negative intake/ incomprehension. Then they would say something like "Eigo wakarimasen" (I don't understand English) because they were totally unprepared for some round-eye speaking to them in their own language. That's all behind us too -- now people walk up and EXPECT you to speak their language, the normal approach in most countries.

Back then it was a different story. We talked about it at the time (unabashedly "gaijin" -- and that's what we called each other) and came to the conclusion we would have to do some "channel-changing operations". An ordinary Japanese person in a shop or at a petrol pump or wherever just took it for granted that we couldn't speak Japanese so you had to give them some warning -- change the input channel.

"Hello. Hello. Japanese language on the way. Get ready!!"

What we decided (and it worked) was to start all communications with Japanese filler words -- things like umm, and err, and emm -- just to let them know that Japanese was on the way. The two favorites were a long drawn out "Ettooo …" and three carefully spaced "Ano ne" … "Ano ne" … "Ano ne". It worked like a charm. Their eyes would flicker, you could almost see the channels changing, and then you could launch in. They would look at you, amazed. But no windshield wipers.

Those early days are gone and I can't say I'm sorry to see Japan move on, although I have to say I was filled with delight by the strangeness of this country back then and the sharp-edged and freshly-minted awareness that seemed to surround every new encounter. Living in Japan was an adventure, never ever seen as a hardship. It was like landing on another planet. You used roll out of bed in the morning (roll off the futon, in actual fact) and think, "Well, what's going to happen today?" It was great.

Changes have come about not because of government ministries hiring thousands of untrained foreign ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) and pushing "English By Osmosis", nor by directives from on high to harried and already overworked local teachers to instill international consciousness in their students (how, exactly?). What changes have come about have been set in motion by the simple and effective means of more and more Japanese travelling overseas. The first and possibly second trip was usually with a group (total Japanese-speaking bubble) but the third, fourth, and fifth (and so on) was more adventurous and generally a lot more fun.

This is particularly noticeable among people in their twenties and early thirties but it begins even earlier now with the popularity of homestay trips abroad for junior and senior high school students in the 13-18 age group. The outside world has become more familiar and is no longer viewed as a menacing and threatening counterfoil to national purity in the home islands, and this has had a knock-on effect when the travellers come home.

This is a process still very much in its early stages, much like a child in its early adolescence. At least infancy is behind us, but the process is still not particularly rapid and almost glacially slow in its trickle-down effect on the society as a whole. Think of a multi-megabyte download using a 56k dialup modem. It takes a huge amount of time but with a lot of patience you get there in the end. The last 25 years have seen enormous changes, imperceptible on a daily basis, but impressive in their overall accumulation.

You can't force an historically isolated society into new perceptions overnight. Technologically, Japan is at the cutting edge of the 21st century. Psychologically, it is still coming to terms with the gap between Edo and the Meiji restoration. That's a huge psychic leap that still hasn't been resolved. You can shape and distort reality by political and media overkill, as happened here in the 1930s -- and the military adventures in China and the Pacific War which followed were both logical results of Meiji expansion, and not the aberration that some historians would have us believe. Editing the news at source is a method of controlling thought employed by all authoritarian states. China and North Korea come to mind these days, perhaps even Cuba and Vietnam. Among the democracies we have the less than shining example of Singapore and perhaps (the jury is still out) post 9/11 America.

Japan has followed a business model since the defeat of its military ambitions in 1945 but even that is now in decline. Material success, heady as it was in the 1980s, when Japan overtook Germany and even the USA, never really captured the spiritual aspirations of this intensely competitive and self-absorbed nation. It is never a good idea to let governments control a nation's means of expression. To begin with, they don't know how. They don't understand the powers they are dealing with.

The political establishment in Japan is, in any case, pretty feeble. The parliamentarians here are far more intent on pursuing intra-party factional feuds than they are in providing any blueprint or cross-party united action plan to pull Japan out of its decade-long recession. While small businesses go to the wall and bankruptcies increase -- and along with them business-related suicides -- we are treated to a spectacle of backroom power struggles as the political elite indulge in a replay of the "sengokujidai" (period of civil wars of the 16th century) without the flashy swordplay and assassinations.

One worrying trend is the rumblings offstage of a newly confident and xenophobic right wing.

These are the hardliners who revere the Emperor, still see Japan as the Land of the Gods, deny the Nanking Massacre, recoil from any foreign contacts, and put pressure on schools to use sanitized history textbooks. According to these guys Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened out of a clear blue sky. ("One day the American President decided to drop atomic bombs on Japanese schoolchildren" -- no, this is NOT a direct quote of any kind. But that is the message. Japanese schoolkids are often visibly perplexed about the bombings because they haven't been taught to connect the dots with Pearl Harbour).

For years we have had right wing nutters in paramilitary uniforms trawling through cities in huge camouflaged sound trucks blaring out marching songs from the Pacific War and spreading messages of hate. Every democracy has its lunatic fringe and people generally sigh and put up with them. So too with Japan.

In recent years, as the recession has continued to bite down hard, the mainstream politicians have been cautiously beating the same tribal tom-toms. The Japanese force in Iraq is one sign of these changing times. Sending troops overseas is a total non-starter under the post-WWII Japanese Constitution (1946, enacted 1947) so this is widely seen as a test case for future deployments abroad, either with or without UN sanction. It is significant that the USA called for help from other nations -- a call to which Japan decided to respond -- without any UN support. The government is playing a rather dangerous game because any Japanese troop casualties could lead to an instant and furious backlash from a (so far) indifferent and apathetic electorate. (It is a constant source of amazement to see how tuned-out most Japanese are to the actions of their government).

So now we have the SDF (Japanese Self-Defense Force, with the fourth-largest military budget in the world )deployed as a military force overseas for the first time in 60 years. One careful move on the chessboard.

We also have the personable and decidedly sinister Ishihara Shintaro re-elected in a landslide as the Governor of Tokyo. Here is a man who dislikes and distrusts other nations (particularly the United States) and who has made a career of playing upon local fears of encroaching foreign influences which dilute the sacred spirit of Japan. He has proposed a Rapid Reaction Force to suppress and control foreigners in the event of a natural disaster in the Tokyo area. No, I am not kidding.

Most Japanese laugh these things off. Oh, none of this is serious, they say. Maybe not. But I have lived in this country long enough to realize that even the strongest, kindest and gentlest people suddenly jump to attention when the Voice of Authority barks.

To be fair, most Japanese who can still afford it these days carry on their carefree consumer existence without a thought in their heads about the government or the outside world. But they did the same in the 1920s.

Painful as it is to say this (I have really grown to love this country and have made many good friends over the years) once the government cracks the whip, the majority will immediately come to heel. There will always be a few wild and glorious exceptions but the word "few" is the one to keep in mind. The alternative to instant blind obedience would be ostracism and expulsion from the tribe, a condition worse than death for most ordinary Japanese.

We have already seen the effect over the last three years of fear and compulsion and "patriotism" (nationalism viewed from the inside) on the multicultural open society that was the United States. It would be foolish to say it couldn't happen here where the social pressures and historical traditions are so much more conducive to conformity.