text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
I must be lucky –although I insist that it is less a matter of luck and more a matter of choice: I haven’t experienced a cultural shock living in Japan and since I made it until now, I can assume I am safe. From what I hear and read, though, I belong in a small minority since most foreigners who come here, experience it rather early; the reason being that any way you look at it, Japan is not the friendliest country for the non-Japanese. What makes things more complicated is that it is hard to define why because in Western cultures, the concept of “racism” suggests very specific notions that are not present in Japan. In other words, the Japanese are not racist in the way we have learned to realize the idea in our cultures but in a much more deep and diffused way.
The Japanese’s racism rarely presents itself in the superior-inferior way we know from the racist groups in the West, although it springs from the same basis: suspiciousness and doubt against diversity. What most critics of Japan overlook though is that the Japanese are not only suspicious when confronted with foreigners: they express the same feelings towards their fellow countrymen when they attempt to act outside the accepted boundaries –foreigners express this diversity in the most extreme way and this results to the Japanese perceiving them as completely outside their reference matrix. This is, I believe, the reason behind the awkwardness in their interaction with them: they understand that they are human (they have two hands, two feet, one head etc.) but they feel that their physical similarities are not enough to counterbalance their enormous cultural differences.
On one level they are right, too. As I have written before, it takes an awful lot of work to become a Japanese, that is to learn all the complicated models or “kata” (方/型) that will allow them to function in this society without disturbing it so it is only natural to believe that someone who wasn’t born here will have even more difficulties doing it. Furthermore, after having spent centuries of, often suspiciously motivated, indoctrination by their various authorities regarding their uniqueness (the infamous “nihonjin-ron”/本人論) they believe that even if the foreigner works as hard as possible they will still be unable to make it. And that is why even the most trivial “Japanese” dexterity (e.g. being able to eat using chopsticks) from of a foreigner is met with amazement: when you applaud a dancing bear, the applause has nothing to do with the quality of its dance; it is for the fact that it is, indeed, dancing.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.