Castle Gaijin.


What’s new in Japan these days?
Tsunami, earthquake, radiation, criminally incompetent electric companies, thousands missing and thousands living in shelters almost 3 months later.
To top it off, if this summer turns out to be as hot as last, Kanto area is going to cook without enough power for Air Conditioners.

Lots of change, lots of angry people. But also a lot of people just continuing to live their lives.

One of the most interesting phenomenon to come out of this was all the foreigners fleeing Japan like rats from a sinking ship.
I was frankly a little embarrassed at the tales of North American business men and women rushing the  airports buying tickets on the first plane heading ” anywhere else”.

Fear of radiation is a strange thing, and pulls out and separates people very well, those who stay and those who flee.

A student of mine, who works for a large company here had a friend, an American, who has a japanese wife an children. The kids go to school and have friends, the wife works. They visit each other for parties and holiday events, dress up like Santa for the kids, and is, in most ways, a regular working member of japanese society.

After the initial reports of the Fukushima reactor problems, he packed up the family and fled the country, and so far has no immediate plan to return. Leaving behind a life, a home and friends.
I suppose it may be different if you have children, and can afford to throw your regular life out the window for “just in case”.
But for those left behind it’s a bit of a cold shoulder.
He stays in contact and all, but I don’t think it will ever be quite the same feeling, as even if he returns, all his neighbors and friends will remember him as ” the gaijin that ran away” while they all stayed.
Most people in Japan are too polite or too socially tactful to ever mention it, but it’s still the kinda of thing that will  define  your character in the eyes of others for ever.

Many of my friends and family asked me after the initial news started coming out ” So when are you coming home?”.  
To which I answered ” I’m not”.
Unless there is a real confirmed danger, there is no way I could think about leaving my family and friends and students, while I ran away on a rumor.

Sure I could grab my wife and make a run for the airport, but how could I leave without my sister in law and 4 year old niece?  Both who have work and school respectively, asking them to give up a leave their friends and home,  dislocated their life.

It all made me wonder how different foreigners think and feel about their japanese friends and acquaintances.
If this happened in their home city, would you leave behind your friends, every man for him self, or is it different because it’s your country?

For my self, the relationships I have built here over the last two years are just as real an meaningful as those I made in Canada. In fact I think I’v made better friends  here then I ever did during my extended stint at university.

Take for example one of my favourite students.
12 years old, smart kid, almost fluent English. So in stead of just teaching the ABC’s, we talk about books, plots, themes, fantasy and history. As always, I feel the great responsibility of being one of the people who will mold and influences the ideas of someone in a way that will effect the rest of his life.

How could I worry about this responsibility, and then say ” Sorry, I’m afraid of the possibility of radiation so I will run away and you have to stay here”.
He’s a smart kid, he could figure out the meaning of “my health is the most important thing to me, and I don’t care you are staying here.”

How could he respect my teaching, or all we have done, if I run away?How could I respect my self?

The conclusion I’v come to is, when people travel, or live abroad, there are two different attitudes they can take with them.

1. No other country is as great as their homeland, and seeing things that are different only confirms that.

2. There is so much in the world I don’t know, but I’m willing to learn and live with different people.

Frankly, if you plan to live long term in a different country than that of your birth, only option 2 will be successful.

I am occasionally  guilty of throwing out the odd ” well, back in CANADA, this and that are so much better because….”. (cough education and healthcare cough)
But the big difference is I make the attempt to learn and see the Japanese point of view.
In this way I rarely think ” Me vs Them” .  Surviving in a foreign country, especially one as famously exclusive to outsiders as Japan, it can be difficult not to feel like your  under siege, defending your way of life as you were taught.

If you keep your inner self separated from those around you, nodding politely but still believing you know best because your home county is better, then getting out of Dodge might almost be a relief .
If you wish to live here, however, at some point, you must lower the bridge and open the gate on your fortress of western culture, or you will never be able to feel at home or secure.

Flying Banana Men, and Japanese Society.

Most popular Japanese media that makes it to western consumers these days, if not the newest anime series, is what one would call “Weird videos from japan”. It filters through all the rest of the boring western media to stand out as exciting, strange and bewildering.

This strange land of shouting, samurai, sumo, sushi and, multicolored hair helps us form a picture of the fantastic and bizarre land of the rising sun, from Godzilla to miniskirts on 10 year  olds, and it is all available on your computer today!  The options of what to watch are endless.

This could mean anything from TV commercials to variety TV spots, to bizarre game shows. The often short, absolutely incomprehensible segments, especially commercials, lend itself well the recent boom in viral video culture on the net.

"Word of mouth" or word of msn, email, twitter and Facebook give some of the most bizarre creations more air time and exposure then any advertising devised pre year 2000 could ever hope to conceive.

The rule of viral videos is it must either be clever, laughably stupid, or so strange and crazy that ” You just gotta see it”.

 The Japanese advertising culture fits the last requirement perfectly.

First we should try to understand a little about the Japanesepeople, not just their media.

 Japanese people, as an interpersonal society, are incredibly subtle.

For example, your average father and husband here would very rarely hug, kiss or tell his children they love them. This is true of the older generation at least, although western influence is starting to change it. I stress, however, that the love and affection is there, it’s just not displayed the same. Weird gaijin like me are too free with talk of love and affection.

 The Implication of the feeling is what’s important, and from what I understand in my still shallow relationship with Japanese conversation, the ART of that implication is also important.

A great compliment implied by a man who never actually says it can have more weight and feeling than a compliment given every day.

 If you ever wondered why the samurai in the old movies never smiled, it wasn’t because their top knots were too tight, they were just being men, as hard as possible.

 This is true not just for grumpy old men though, and is represented in the mechanics of the language.

For example, two or three girls at a cafe talking about  " a boy".

In Japanese, words like ” him, her, he, she” don’t exist to the same extent as English. So our three girls need to either talk about their subject by name, or by implication. To name the person right out might be seen as a little tactless, or maybe they are embarrassed. Or maybe they are sitting next to another table of giggling girls, who would just die if they knew Miki-chan liked Kazuma-kun.

So instead, the actual subject of the sentence might just be omitted, leaving you to only understand what’s going on if you are aware of the context. “Did you…with … after? Really? You lying, no way!”


What does this have to do with Japanese media?

 Well, TV commercials, most game shows, comedy and variety shows are the complete opposite of subtle.

 It’s as if all the art of careful innuendo and implication gets tossed out the window for the spectacle  of grown men dancing and singing in the living room to a tune about how gloriously happy your life will be with the fresh new scent of you carpet cleaner.

This is the general format you will find on your regular free Japanese TV.

The jingle is alive and well here, and EVERYTHING has one. Nearly everything also has some form of mascot, or face, or smile. Something you can identify with a cute name like, eg Hello kitty.

One of my favourite examples was a commercial running last winter, in which a ” salaryman” ( the title given to the average 9-5 office worker), is sitting at his desk in the standard suit and tie by a window, hacking and pounding on his chest, obviously suffering from a serious cough.

Lifting a cough drop to his mouth, the camera suddenly zoomed back across the office to follow a giant torrent of water, crashing in to his chest, arms spread as his shirt is ripped off under the pressure of the cooling blast of relief.

This is the kind of stuff that would give any of the super bowl commercials a run for their money, If they made any sense.

The truth is the bizarre world of screaming laser cats and flying banana men shooting bananas out of their nose at someone is so common here, that they illicit very little reaction from the general public.

I am still caught off balance in a startled laugh weekly, but I can feel an immunity growing.

 Being a celebrity in japan or “tarento”  is a different world in itself, with many different degrees of the job.

First there is the famous actor, more rare and respected as both Handsome/beautiful and talented as an actor. They can actually ACT. Think Ken Watanabe.

After that, it gets kind of confusing.

There is a vast sea of idols, often pre-rendered boy bands, girl bands of j pop fame, which either have their own variety show, or are attached to one.

Normally they have some experience acting in TV dramas. I’d use the word ” acting” with them lightly.

After them are the “Baka idols”. These tend to consist of pretty/cute girls in their 20’s whose contribution and talent end at looking pretty. Baka means stupid, by the way. Google “AKB48” for an eye full of useless.

Then there is an odd assortment of singers who used to sing, sports stars, and other talking heads.

 Then there is the “comedian”. This is not a stand up comedian, no George Carlin or Russell Peters here. The Japanese comedian is more reminiscent of a vaudevillian affair, the straight man and the funny man, smart guy dumb guy, always with a comical misunderstanding that requires one or the other to shout as loud as possible and slap the other on the forehead.

The audience then roars with laughter, every time. The slap is almost the literal “punch line”.

 Now you might think “I’ve seen bad comedy groups before, nothing to get excited about”, and you’re right.

But when you realize someone gave that same two man comedy shtick a TV show on every channel and prime time competition game show, eg “King of Comedy”, it all starts to get a little weird.

You suddenly realize one day that the laughable (in a bad way) sketch comedy your friends used to do in high school and university is a form of national entertainment and it’s on every channel.

Again, at the of generalization, not all of it is terrible, there are some really talented people who make it on TV here, but the sheer volume of comedians makes the good ones a rare relief.

So, in watching the latest anime, funny video or strange commercial of 30 men in suits dancing and singing in an office while holding boxes of jock-itch relief cream an accurate depiction of the Japanese people?

In my experience people don’t yell at each other here. Despite what TV might tell you, people don’t spend the day shouting and looking furious at each other in the office. As one of my Japanese students said “Japanese are very quiet”. There are no spontaneous dance numbers and no flying robots (yet).  The only people I see with blue and purple hair are old women.

Anime, manga and its culture are represented, but in a rather low key way. People read on the train, collect figures at home, but in public it’s all kept out of view, not from embarrassment, but so you don’t bother the person next to you.

Japanese TV acts largely as a national form of catharsis. It relieves the stress and worries of the day, of making sure you say the right thing and didn’t trouble the boss, that you got the work done on time, and you didn’t piss off your father in law by not going to drink with him, because you had to drink with your co-workers whether you want to or not.

Comedy and commercials basically capitalize on stress, by making the most extreme opposite of what you experienced in that day. Thus the creepy signing sheep children selling house insurance become normal.

This has been going on for years though, and as any advertising does over time, it escalates its zaniness to try and stand out, everything from milk to other TV stations.  The survival of the fittest mentality for business here does produce great entertainment.

So, what we watch online and base our understanding of japan is rather skewed, as it was filtered through all that repressed emotion, all that bizarre extremism, to come out on top so that even the mostly immune Japanese people go “huh that’s funny and post it on the net.

Being aware of this doesn’t make any of it less hilarious though,  but hopefully , if you should ever come to Japan, you won’t be disappointed when Arnold Schwarzenegger  does not actually pop out of your energy drink laughing manically.

Some of the videos mentioned:

A clown on stilts at a funeral.

Living in Japan as a foreigner is a constantly educational experience.

First, before you walk, talk, move, blink, you will be labeled first and for most in the mind of the Japanese as “gaijin”. Gaijin is the non-formal way, and thus the most common way, of describing anyone who is not Japanese.

Gaijin means basically outside (gai) person (jin). This is a very important thing to understand. If you are not born of Japanese parents, you are not Japanese. It’s not malicious, and it’s not really meant to be derogatory. Some consider it racist, but I think the average user doesn’t recognize it as that.

The proper term is Gaikokujin, the “koku” meaning country, is basically outside country person, or person from a country outside. This, I believe, is meant to be less…. arrogant, as if acknowledging that other countries exist is more polite then saying “you’re not Japanese”.

Whatever the case, I accept “gaijin”, and use it in reference to myself.

As a Canadian who spent 5 years in Toronto going to school and working in the customer service industry, I have experience dealing with strange cultures, accents, behavior, and every form of English imaginable. Yet I think very rarely did I look at someone and think “He’s from another country! He must be different!”.

In Canada, if you live there, were born there or work there, you are Canadian, in spirit if not legally. My Canada is made of Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, African, European, South American and Native peoples and more. I would consider them all part of the Canadian community, shopping at Canadian Tire, drinking Tim Horton’s, scraping ice of their window shield while swearing in February. This is possible, I believe, as Canada was built by Immigrants, which a majority of Canadians and North Americans in general, are descended.

Not so in Japan.

Japan, as an identity, dates back 3000 years (arguably), and since its unification and definition as a people, have done their best to keep gaijin off their island. Only in the last 160 years did western influence start to seep in, and only since the end of World War 2, 65 years ago, was it really forced to accept the influence of the rest of the world.

So what’s 60 odd years of modern concepts and culture compared to 3000 years of tradition and class systems? Not much really. Despite it being one of the most technologically advanced countries, it still holds tight to its roots.  Considering the current Emperor is still thought to be descended from the Goddess of the Sun all those 3000 years ago, I’d say tradition is alive and well here.

The point of the history lesson above is that Japan is an island, physically and culturally. Japan is Japanese, it is nothing else, if you are not Japanese,you are not Japanese. Never in the way the newly immigrated family in Canada could consider themselves Canadian, or even their children, who by law would be Canadian. In fact, to be a citizen of Japan means you must give up any other citizenship, passport, and connections to your previous country and not until you master the language and have lived here for a very long time. But even after citizenship, it won’t change the opinion of the average Taro on the street.

Considering that where I grew up, I heard many times “Japanese/ Chinese whatever, same thing, them Asians”, from students who really didn’t know better, but thought this was generally acceptable. I wonder what they would say if I mentioned some people here might say the same of American/Canadians.

6 feet, or 180 cm as they do it here, is not so tall back in Canada. Here it is well above average. I have seen Japanese taller than me, but not on a regular basis. Considering if I see… 200 people a day, minimum, in the station, on the train, on the street, and each day I remember that one or 2 guys who were taller than me, I’d consider that as standing out. Many of the women are absolutely tiny in comparison. So small to the point I don’t know if someone is 13 or 30 until they turn around, and often they end up being closer to 50.

As a tall, large nosed, broad shouldered Anglo Saxon text book photo candidate, I stand out like a clown on stilts at a funeral. Hair is always an interesting point here; mine tends to emulate a chia pet for a while before it falls over. Once described as a “reddish broccoli” by a Japanese friend, I think hair that stands up by itself is also a rarity here.

So, if you are white, or black, or brown, or purple, have strange hair, or in any way come from another place, you will be focus of some more then curious glances. Kids are the most open and forgivable, they often don’t know to be as embarrassed as their parents obviously are when they see them staring at me, or me sticking out my tongue and waggling my eyebrows at them. Most young to adult people will leave you alone, but older people, 60-80, do sometimes just sit across from you on the train and stare at you.  When you’re old, you feel entitled to do what you want, and I believe that is a common feeling around the world. In japan, it stands out more, since doing whatever you want is normally reserved for comedy TV.

So, picture yourself sitting on the train, salary man elbows in both your sides, facing an old lady sitting across the aisle. This lady is staring at you, constantly, like you’re a TV commercial, trying to figure out where you “fit” in her world. If you look at her, she might look away for a second, before sliding her gaze back to you when she thinks you don’t notice. This can be a typical train ride, and largely based on how “gaijin” you look.

At this point though, you are still something separate, incomprehensible, entertaining and not their problem, like a funny looking cartoon on the wall of the train in a different language. Also, in that last second of decision, some people will not sit next to you if they can do it without being rude, just in case you do something …. “gaijin”ish.

Interesting thing, if you really want to get people’s attention go have an obviously romantic relationship with someone Japanese in public. I can remember many time where myself and my wife, who is Japanese, would sit on the train, maybe my arm would be around her, maybe she would sleep on my shoulder, maybe we would be laughing close together, and suddenly I realized oba-chan (grandmother) over there was goggling at us, like I was some sort of demon stealing women for my nefarious designs.

It seems to me that in japan you can be ignored as a curiosity until you have a relationship with someone Japanese. This means change, means traditions that change, old ways that have a thousand year old comfy butt-groove in the cushion and then gets thrown out, kind of change.

 The manga (English title) "My Darling is a Foreigner" , which recently became a movie of the same name, details the interest in having a relationship with a gaijin. This concept was so popular that it became a movie of the same title.  I found it a good read, and opens a small window on the Japanese view of gaijin.

Now, if I decided to make a movie in Canada called “My wife is Japanese” first I’d have people calling me down for perceived racial stereotypes, and second, no one would actually fund my project as the target audience would be rather dismal.