Like all people, the Japanese will be amused and delighted to hear the gaijin say something in their language. But when you start to get fluent, you will meet the opposite reaction with strangers. Somehow they feel it is an intrusion on their privacy when they meet a gaijin who speaks fluently. In fact, they really don’t know how to react. – From the company-required reading Culture Shock! Japan.
As I have previously stated, I really don’t intend to learn Japanese, despite the fact that I am living in Japan. It’s not so much that I don’t care, it’s that I’m too lazy. I’ve never really had a knack for learning languages. And besides, when I factor in the amount of social interaction I do outside of my English-speaking workplace, it seems to be an unnecessary expenditure of resources. I could spend my time in a classroom somewhere, hunched over Japanese texts, or I can get outside and look around. So far, I’ve been able to battle off the taunts of “blood-sucking parasite” and “apathetic bastard.” But, recently one label has been applied to my attitude that I feel I must respond to. That label is “culturally insensitive.”
This label was applied to me by Randolph, one of my fellow foreign teachers here in Kumagaya. It was a few months back, we were just getting to know each other, and he was flooding me with questions about my reasons for coming to Japan. As I recall, he just casually asked me how my Japanese was coming along, and I responded with my usual argument against learning it. His reply was, “Well, dude, don’t you think that’s just a little culturally insensitive?”
I will admit that most people over here tend to be consumed with an overwhelming desire to learn the language, and the Japanese government has responded in kind. One of the things that most English schools teach is preparation for the TOEIC. This is a government-run test that Japanese people write, and at the end they get a little certificate saying they can speak English. It’s actually quite important, because how high your score is sometimes dictates if you can live, work, and study abroad or not. Well, for all the foreigners who live in Japan, the Japanese government also offers a test similar to the TOEIC that’s for people learning Japanese. It’s called the Nihongo Noryoko Shiken. If you pass, you get a little certificate stating that you can speak Japanese, and that you are cleared to work and study in Japan. Many foreign teachers take it. Randolph took it and spent a month’s worth of free time studying for it. Hell, even Chuck’s own girlfriend has taken it. Once their scores come in, they’re going to get a little certificate showing how well they speak Japanese. Or, if you’ll forgive my sarcasm, how culturally sensitive they are.
When Randolph first labelled me as culturally insensitive, I forget how I responded and how the resulting debate went. I must have lost my argument, or else I wouldn’t feel compelled to write a paper defending myself several months after the fact. It was a few days after this initial debate, though, as we were walking the streets of Kumagaya and there was something that Randolph wanted to show me. He pointed down this darkened alley to a bar that was at the end of it. He then told me about this Japanese friend of his who plays in a band and how, one time, he went to that bar to see his friend play. “As soon as I stepped through the door,” he told me, “I knew I was no longer a tourist, because that’s the kind of place a tourist would never find!” We continued our walk, and we soon passed another bar. “That,” he said, with disdain in his voice, “is a gaijin bar. Only gaijin looking for a one-night stand hang out there.” (“Gaijin” is the Japanese word for “foreigner,” in case you didn’t know.) Not being a drinker, Randolph’s knowledge of the local bars seemed lost on me, but a little later, I couldn’t help but start thinking that Randolph may be a case study for the typical foreigner in Japan.
It seems to me that the typical foreigner working in Japan has this strong desire to go native, especially those who teach English. They want to forever lose those moments where they feel like a gaijin, and reach the point where they can speak the language and know of all the little out-of-the-way local hangouts. Now, is that really being culturally sensitive? It doesn’t strike me as much as being culturally sensitive as it is about looking for acceptance from another culture. When the average foreigner living in Japan first steps into those dingy, out of the way places, do they really think, “I am no longer a tourist!” or is it more in the vein of “Japan has accepted me!”
A person should never forget their roots, and I still believe that the vast majority of foreign teachers here in Japan share a common history. They were overachieving high schoolers who evolved into overachieving college students and are now looking for some place to overachieve in the real world. For some reason, the culture of Japan has always appealed to these overachievers. Perhaps it is a common work ethic, I am not sure. But we can’t forget that these overachievers also tend to develop an outer shell by their ways. They tend to become alienated somehow, and always exist on the outer fringes of high school/university society. So, when they look to Japan, they finally see a way for their overachieving tendencies to be an advantage. They bury themselves in books trying to learn the language. They explore all of the mainstream stores which are out-of-the-way specialty shops back home, and finally, they feel as though they belong. So, when these overachievers finally get into one of these local hangouts, no wonder they feel as though they hit the jackpot. It’s as though the cool kids have finally let them in. What they call “cultural sensitivity” I call finally finding the acceptance they were denied throughout their educational career.
Now, I will admit, as long as I’m not striking up conversations with complete strangers and looking for genuine natives to mingle with, I am, perhaps, squandering an opportunity. If I want to do some ground-level exploration of the culture, then that’s the way to do it. But I am certain that I am still fulfilling that goal, if only in a somewhat different way. I’ve already shown my sensitivity in the workplace. Some of my workdays begin at noon, others begin at 1, but I always show up at noon. One day, my boss pulled me aside, pointed at the schedule, and said, “You know you don’t have to come to work until 1 on these days, right?” I nodded. “Then why are you always here at noon?” she asked. I pointed at the schedule and reminded her that, on everyday I’m not supposed to come in until 1, I have to teach a class at 1. “I come early so I can get prepared for that first lesson, and the day.” She just looked at me and said, “That’s very…Japanese of you.” Randolph, on the other hand, has occasionally sprinted to work at 5 minutes to 1, screaming, “Oh my God, I’ve got nothing prepared for 1!”
I also seem to be one of the few foreigners who can actually get into Japanese television. Even most foreigners who’ve learned Japanese brand Japanese television as “the most annoying television on Earth.” They survive by buying a VCR with their first paycheque, having their parents send them some movies, and then watching them endlessly. One of Randolph’s greatest achievements has been finding the Star Wars trilogy in a video store discount bin. Plus, I’m still trying to get out and physically explore the Japanese countryside as much as I can; take in as many of the ecological differences as I can. Whereas I did hear Randolph say, “I’ve been to Tokyo. I’ve been to Kyoto. There’s not much else to see in Japan.” I beg to differ.
Everyone has their own reason for coming to Japan, and mine just happens to fall out of the mainstream. True, I’m not learning the language, and that may make me a “blood-sucking parasite.” But I’m not running around screaming, “DOES ANYONE HERE SPEAK ENGLISH, DAMN IT?” Yes, not ingratiating myself into the life of the locals may be a squandered opportunity, but at least I’m not a complete shut-in in my apartment. I may not be at the little watering holes that only the locals know of, but I’m also not out at the gaijin bars shamelessly chasing Japanese tail. Missing out on a few adventures? Yes. Culturally insensitive? No.
A Japanese comic strip I recently saw: Two foreigners are sitting in a bar, calmly drinking. A third one enters the scene. He is very exited and bouncing around the bar. He is loudly exclaiming, “Hello hello! How are you! Nice to meet you! Let’s eat sushi! Let’s sing karaoke! Let’s see kabuki!” One of our foreigners at the bar turns to the other and says, “New arrival.”