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.
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.