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Monday, June 21, 2010

Seen the Elephant — It's Not All Sweetness and Light

This former Air Force serviceman and long-time resident of the Tamagawa district in the Ōta ward of Tokyo, Japan, describes his dilemma of not really fitting in anywherethe fate of many long-term expats. One way he keeps sane is by writing a blog, Japan without the sugar.

How did you end up living in such a far-flung corner of the globe? I was in the Air Force and sent to South Korea twice, even though I had never wanted to go overseas. After I got out of the Air Force, I went back to college. The Japanese economy was very strong back then, and every news report emphasized how vital understanding Japan was for the future of American business. I switched my major from wildlife management to business administration — and then to East Asian studies. After graduating, I went to Japan to work for a Japanese company. I also taught English at one point.

Did living in Japan alter your perspective? What I find interesting is how much of the stuff written about Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s — Japan as Number One, by Ezra Vogel; Theory Z, by William Ouchi — has proved to be half-truths at absolute best.

In brief, how were they wrong? Were they right about some things? Many of these books maintained Japan had gotten it right in about every way — without examining how much Japan benefited from the the unique circumstance of having the United States provide its security for example. There was little mention of the darker side of things here either. These authors got it right insofar as Japan's economic rise was also the result of smarts and hard work.

How well have you adapted to your new environment? Tokyo is not a very green city. What I now consider to be "nature" I would have laughed at back home in Montana. In other ways, though, I've failed to adapt. Sometimes, when talking to Japanese people, I just want to know: are we really connecting or is this a façade? Tatemae/honne is in all the travel guides, but to read about it is one thing; to live it can be frustrating. Something else that sets me apart is my interest in politics. Japanese people tend to take the point of view that nothing can be done about politics or that "it has no connection with my life." Likewise, the positive, "can do" feeling that I associate with the US contrasts very sharply with the Japanese tendency to list all kinds of reasons why something can't be done without seriously exploring it.

Your blog title, Japan without the sugar, suggests that you haven't gone native. The longer I live in Tokyo, the more I realize how American I am.

But can you go home again? I returned to the United States for six years in the 1990s, after living in Japan for two years. I had a harder time re-acclimatizing than I had getting used to Japan. As is frequently noted by returning expats, Americans place little value on overseas experience, knowledge of foreign cultures, or foreign language skills. Meeting someone like me is nice for a short chat and some entertainment — but not much else.

Tell me more about your blog. I started Japan without the sugar in 2004. I was teaching English at the time and hoped my more motivated students would use it as a forum for discussion. Since few students bothered, I begin posting on Japan-related topics. Later, I started focusing much more on politics. A major catalyst was the publication, in 2006, of The Dignity of the State by Masahiko Fujiwara, a classic work of Nihonjinron. It quickly rose to number two in sales in Japan. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe incorporated Fujiwara's ideas into his book, Towards a Beautiful Country, setting forth his vision for Japan's future.

Define Nihonjinron. It's when Japanese claim that normal human feelings, thought, tendencies, characteristics — even body temperature — are unique to their culture or race.

I've noticed this syndrome before: the longer people stay in Japan, the more disillusioned they become. Why do you think that is? I don't know. I once considered Nihonjinron to be a cute, quaint oddity of Japan. I now consider it to be borderline — if not openly — racist. It's also an indicator of how little the Japanese educational system stresses intellectual curiosity. How could so many Japanese people believe, for instance, that Japan is the only country with four seasons? I often make fun of that, but it tells you so much about Japan and the way people here aren't encouraged to ask questions.

Who are your readers? Many come from other Japan politics blogs. A few are experts in the Japan field, which makes me try to keep from posting something completely loony, but I don't always succeed in that.

I have a theory that one of the reasons many of us travel is food. Have you gotten to know and like Japanese food? At least it's not overly sugared! Yes, in the summers I have grilled eel (unagi) and a cold beer every Friday. I wouldn't think it was summer unless I could enjoy that.


Simon Mackie said...

It's almost impossible to fathom the depth of complexity that surrounds tatemae/honne and maybe 'gaijins' shouldn't themselves try to live it but live with it. For the Japanese I think it's almost Zen; when one instictively knows when something is right.I lved in Japan for a couple of years and I go go back on a regular basis. Personally, I was delighted to be challenged by so many differences when living there. I know thay if I ever go back to live on a permamanent basis I'll always be an outsider. said...

I've written about the similar phenomenon a while a go: We don’t fully know about our adoptive country, yet when we go back to our home country, we missed out on too much of the local aspects to say something about them. Dr Anne Copeland, director of the Interchange Institute, agrees that expatriates will find that they have more in common with others who have been through the same thing. The ‘marginality’ – being an onlooking bystander – becomes comfortable and something to be shared with others who have the same kind of experience.

ML Awanohara said...

David, I find your perspective very interesting. Like me, you were part of the "gold rush" that occurred during the era of the Japanese bubble economy, when Japan had never had it so good and all the experts (Clyde Prestowitz, Ezra Vogel) were hyping it up as the promised land. They confidently predicted that Japan Inc. would dominate wide swaths of the global economy by the 1990s. As a result, people like us flocked to that country in droves, hoping to pick up a nugget or two of Japanese gold for ourselves--only to find the sun was already setting on Japan and rising on China. Not for the first time (nor the last), the experts got it wrong.

In a sense, expats like us are the true descendants of the California Gold Rushers who traveled West in hopes of striking it rich. Likewise, our experience was in some ways gratifying but also disappointing.

(In one of our exchanges prior to this interview, we talked about how all the young people are now flocking to China. One wonders if they will meet a similar fate?)

On a personal level, I'm also glad you felt comfortable expressing disgruntlement with the expat life instead of coating it with sugar. Your description took me back to how I felt during my last couple of years of living in Japan, as the novelty wore off and I became more cognizant of the less appealing aspects of Japanese life. When I first got back to the USA, I worked for the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, putting on Japan programs. My very first program addressed the "dark side of Japan," as I'd become so preoccupied with the underbelly of Japanese culture by then.

After a few years back, however, these feelings of disenchantment wore off, if it's any consolation… Nowadays, I think my Japan experience provides a colorful prism for looking at life in the US--hence this blog.

I'm curious, however, about one thing that you said, which is that Japanese people aren't especially interested in politics. I find that to be true in the US as well. In fact, the only place where I've felt comfortable having political debates was in the UK, where political discussion was woven into the fabric of everyday life--during nightly visits to the neighborhood pub!

Simon, I happen to know you are a Brit. Don't you think that made it easier for you to cope with Japan's honne/tatemae distinction, as you were already accustomed to British reserve? An American childhood, by contrast, hardly prepares one for this sort of thing. Here, strangers will approach you with their honne, having completely dispensed with the need for tatemae.
Finally Woken, I'm intrigued by your point about marginalization. When I left Japan and England and started working in this country, I was magnetically drawn to the African Americans, Latinos, and Asians in my various offices. I deeply identified with their marginalized status and perspective. A pity I had to see the elephant to develop such empathy. Actually, I think I was halfway there before I started my travels, but at that point my knowledge of what it means to be marginalized was highly theoretical. It wasn't until I lived in Japan for many years --and found out what it was like to be marginalized myself--that I finally "got" it.

D said...


"It's almost impossible to fathom the depth of complexity that surrounds tatemae/honne and maybe 'gaijins' shouldn't themselves try to live it but live with it."

I don't mean to sound harsh, but I don't really know what that means. You state that it's almost impossible to fathom the depth of complexity..." but then somehow expect those "gaijin" to "fathom it" enough to not "live it" but "live with it." I understand the concept of tatemae/honne very, very well, but living it---or living with it---is entirely different. (By the way, you state it is almost impossible for gaijin...why? Is Japanese society and its people so unique and weird that it is inscrutable to outsiders? I don't know of anything that is "nearly impossible" to understand in Japan any more than it is anywhere else. The concept of tatemae/honne certainly is not.)

If you are living in Japan and in this society, you don't get a choice of "living it" or "living with it." You have to live it if you are living and working among the Japanese. How could you speak in Japanese and not "live it?" Tatemae/honne is a part of it.

I knew before I came here---as anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of Japan would--- that I would always be an outsider, but actually living it long-term is a lot different than living it in theory from afar or living it for a few years knowing that you are leaving. In many ways you are denied being human---you can't have this and that emotion, or this way of thinking for only Japanese have that. You can't have this job, because, well you aren't Japanese. You can't rent this apartment because foreigners are noisy and cause trouble. People are reluctant to sit beside you on the train because you are a foreigner.Being an outsider means that you will be at time subtly discriminated against, and at other times openly discriminated against. On the other hand you get special foreigner (Westerners only) treatment which further alienates you and often irritates Japanese around you.

ML: I know that there can be apathy on the part of people in the US towards politics, but it is nothing compared to Japan, although there was a short burst of enthusiasm and optimism in last falls election when people looked at Hatoyama and the DPJ as Japan's first real chance at "change" in 5 decades.

I believe that interest and participation is picking up---though I could not prove it---since the DPJ came to power. I think the Futenma issue is an example (maybe even a catalyst) for this. We shall see. Democracy is very much a work in progress here after 55 plus years of one-party rule.

ML Awanohara said...

On honne/tatemae: I'm wondering if China is any different from Japan in this respect? I've heard China scholars in this country say they prefer China to Japan as Chinese are much more direct, you know where you stand with them. Whereas they never know what Japanese people are thinking or saying. (One such scholar said the Chinese reminded him of people in Brooklyn, where he was from--for him, the highest of compliments!)

Small island people are peculiar. No doubt I found it easier (as did Simon) to cope with honne/tatemae because of having lived in the UK. During my first year in East Anglia, I remember an occasion when I accompanied my bf to the home of friends of his, whom I'd never met before. The woman answered the door, and before she and I had been introduced, started leading the pair of us on a tour of their house, showing off their latest home improvements. From that time on, I was often struck by (and resentful of) how much more comfortable English people were communicating on a superficial, vs personal, level. I often wondered, can such people really be my friends?

But that was then and this is now. These days, I find myself getting nostalgic for the English sort of friendship--the inevitable fate of the long-term expat who comes home again?

HyunSook Yun said...

Two weeks ago, I was asked whether I feel at home in Japan after living here almost 10 years. My answer was to give an anecdote that happened recently in Kyoto.

I joined a piligrimage to various temples and shrines in Kyoto with monks from Mt Hiei and their devotees on June 6. Realizing that no one would talk to me unless I initiate a conversation, I joined a casual discussion among ladies who seemed regular participants of the annual event. I said that we were lucky to have mild weather for the harsh walk.(The walk/run was from 5am to 8pm.) After hearing what I had said, one lady looked at me coldly and said in Kansai accent,
"You don't sound Japanese. Are you from China? I wonder. Perhaps....from Korea?"
Belive me. This was not the first time that I heard this (and this won't be the last). Usually I don't bother to be angry over this kind of comment, but on that day, I was upset by the insensitive remark. I said to her with a smile,
"No, I am from Tokyo."

ML Awanohara said...

HyunSook, my experience of being a foreigner in the UK perhaps gives me some inkling of how you must feel as an Asian in Japan… I looked the same as Brits did so could blend in easily. But at some point, usually when they heard me speak (though not always as my accent changed over the years), they would detect something different about me. I dreaded having to say I was American as I knew I'd be bombarded with questions that I'd already answered five million times: Are you here with the military? Which part of the States are you from? What do you think of your president, American imperialism, etc.

At the same time, I remember thinking that, although I looked the same as everyone else, I was different inside--and some part of me wanted them to notice that. I didn't necessarily want to be like them...

Talk about feeling conflicted! In any case, I think you've pinpointed one of the main reasons I came home: I got tired of talking about where I was from. What's worse, I got to the point where I wasn't sure how to answer that question!

Kathryn Allison said...

"From that time on, I was often struck by (and resentful of) how much more comfortable English people were communicating on a superficial, vs personal, level."

I'm not sure that's entirely true. It's just that the journey from superficial to personal takes longer. But once we Brits have moved past the superficial and are telling our life secrets to a friend, then we really are friends. The US tendency to tell personal stories straight away is perceived by Brits -- this Brit -- as superficial in itself, because the friendship hierarchy, at least in my view, is defined by how much personal stuff you tell someone.

Having said that, I haven't noticed that particular US tendency much -- I can't work out if it's because people hear an English accent and assume I'm foreign and reserved, or if it's because I'm surrounded by New Englanders who are even more reserved than the Brits are supposed to be...

Kathryn Allison said...

P.S. "I got tired of talking about where I was from. What's worse, I got to the point where I wasn't sure how to answer that question!"

How right you are! Often, now, if I'm asked that question, I'll answer with the name of the Connecticut town where I live. This results in a brief look of confusion, and also it's a great diversion from the inevitable questions about the Royal Family. Most Americans seem mildly offended when I say I couldn't care less if William marries Kate or not...

ML Awanohara said...

Kathryn, thank you for making the point. It's true that English friends take longer to make but then are friends for life. I eventually learned that lesson, you'll be happy to hear (guess I had to be there for a while!). Learned it to the point where I'm now nostalgic for English-style friendships. Maybe I should move to New England?!

To be honest, making friends in NYC is not dissimilar to the process in the UK, only people here are much more transient. And once Americans move away, they aren't always good at keeping in touch. I find Brits much better at that. I wonder why--centuries of letter writing?

I find it interesting that when David describes the friends he makes w/ Japanese at his office, he does not resent the facade so much as the fact that he can't tell the difference between facade (tatemae) and genuine feeling (honne). I, too, remember that sense of being out at sea with Japanese office colleagues, but I also remember the moment when I became of aware of having crossed some kind of line into acceptance. I thought to myself, this is similar to how friendships work in England. By the time my colleagues embraced me, I had proved myself worthy of their trust somehow.

But there was something unfamiliar about the Japanese process as well: 1) it had a sudden, irrational element, rather like falling in love; and 2) the group embrace was like nothing I'd experienced before (it was almost as though I could commit murder and my colleagues would still defend me). Though flattered, I also felt overwhelmed. I rather doubted I could prove myself worthy of such intense loyalty, and saw it as something of a burden. I wonder if this is what Japanese mean by the weight of their personal obligations...and their need to escape that sometimes... (David, be careful what you wish for!)

D said...


I would not say that I cannot tell the facade, I almost always aware that the circumstances may call for it, but yet still sometimes let down my guard and tend to take what is said as true when it comes to long-term personal relationships. Unfortunately, it almost never fails that to do so is a huge mistake. I actually do---or have come to---resent the facade.

The tatemae/honne problems---which actually have only become a real irritant to me in the last year or so---go further than just coworkers or acquaintances as it often occurs in marriage. I know that we are playing the window-dressing game, the wife knows that I know, but we am still expected to pretend we believe to avoid "confusion." Just like at work. And real problems linger with no attempt at resolution. Just like at work.

As far as personal obligations, that loyalty can turn in a heartbeat too. I had this happen in my company in Toyoma due to something my wife did (quit her job at a different but connected company)---which was naturally my responsibility. The word frigid does not begin to describe the treatment I got. I had no choice but put up with stuff that would darn near justify a punch in the nose elsewhere because we had to have the money.

I know what you mean by the burdens of personal obligation. Those personal obligations in Toyama (lesser felt in Tokyo, at least for me) were something I would describe as being stuck in a spider web. Every which way you pull you are bound by some obligation to somebody. Folks don't forget that you are obliged to them either. Tends to make one very cautious about doing anything that would result in any hint of owing someone.

Tough yes, but not as tough as being considered some sort of outcast who is unable to comprehend unique, mysterious Japan---when in fact my, and many other immigrants, knowledge of the country, its society, its political system, history, religion, etc easily surpasses that of the average native.

Just today, I was on a forum---a moderated forum intended for scholars and other "Japan specialists", when a Japanese scholar defended Japan's foreign policy by stating "Japan's foreign policy is not understandable by Westerners." In addition the the insult to Japan's diplomats, (what kind of fools would undertake diplomacy that others could not understand?) this shows just how frustrating it is to have any sort of discussion with those who believe that Japan is some sort of mysterious incomprehensible place.

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