Tokyo gaijin life

October 01, 2002

If your eyes are too wide open, you don’t see anything. You wander around in glazed bewilderment, overwhelmed by the sheer presence of Tokyo, unable to take any of it in. You stare blankly at the signs, so baffled by the sensory overload and the alien appearance of the Japanese characters that you don’t notice the three words of English that tell you exactly what you need to know.

It isn’t easy to be selective in a foreign language, especially one like Japanese. You have to read something carefully before you know whether or not it’s worth reading. You might spend five minutes doing your best to decipher a piece of paper that has found its way into your hand, only to eventually discover that it’s an advert for a wig. Sometimes it seems like Japanese can’t be a real language. These people can’t really need to use thousands of characters to write. There can’t possibly be a need to have seven different levels of politeness, complete with different verbs for the same actions and different nouns for the same things. Surely it can’t be that intricate. They must just be having a laugh at the expense of the foreigners.

Japan is full of things that you can do wrong. Having a bath, or some food, or a cup of tea; going in and out of the house;  There’s a correct way to do everything, and it’s usually unnecessarily complicated. Also, for all their mockery of the foreigners who get it all wrong, most Japanese ignore the correct way when it suits them to do so. So much Japanese food arrives at your table in an unfinished state to some degree, from a raw egg to whisk up and pour over your beef, to sesame seeds that you have to grind and add to your sauce, to nabe and shabu-shabu, where you have to cook the whole thing yourself.

The place can be overwhelming, and sometimes you just want to go somewhere where it’s all easy. At times you can see why the Costa del Sol is so full of fish and chips. For a work night out we were drinking in an “English pub” that was like nothing I’d seen back home. When culture is imported, something inevitably gets lost in the translation. Something disappears. In making faithful replicas, the essential imperfection that makes the originals so perfect somehow falls by the wayside.

One of my colleagues was taking centre stage, telling us about her adventures. It was obvious, even to an untrained eye like mine, that she had impeccable breeding. As she raised her voice to place the order, she somehow became more English. It was clear that she came from an illustrious line of Englishwomen abroad. Her family’s womenfolk had been upholding the honourable tradition of pushing the natives around for generations. In an earlier age, she would have been a memsahib in India or a grand colonial lady on some plantation in Africa. Now that option no longer existed, the obvious choice was teaching English. She was out exploring the world, and the world was going to fit around her.

As she went on, I began to find her more and more grotesque, her views offensive, her opinions unpleasant. She told us how much she liked Japan, how she felt protective of it as a mother feels about a child. I held back from asking her why, if she liked Japan so much, she hadn’t bothered to learn the language. It seemed that the thought of attempting to communicate in Japanese had never occurred to her. Then she set off on a tale of rude waiters in a restaurant. I imagined how rude the average London waiter would be to a customer who couldn’t even read the menu, let alone say please or thank you.

If we were in Britain, we wouldn’t have anything in common, and we’d be so aware of the differences between us that we’d give each other a wide berth. But in Japan the simple fact of both being British means we have something in common, and sometimes people need to feel similarities.

We define ourselves by what we’re not, and we’re always aware of contrast. It’s how we make distinctions between things. A sudden flash of colour in a field of black and white catches your eye. The tiny differences are more striking than the big similarities, and once we’ve picked up on those differences, there’s no going back. Once we’ve seen the image as a candlestick, we can’t see it as two faces anymore. Our minds become fixed on one idea, and refuse to see any others.

As my irritation levels rose, I was reminded of a question one of my students had asked me a few weeks previously.

“Do you have rice in your country?”

It seemed that there was stupidity everywhere. At the time, I had to keep reminding myself that British people were stupid too. It isn’t just Japan that’s full of idiots, it’s the world. But does that make me feel better or worse?

I was tempted to think that stupidity was the one constant, the one thing that was the same the world over. But it wasn’t. Japanese stupidity was different from British stupidity, just as American stupidity is different. British stupidity is born from a belief that the rest of the world is fundamentally inferior, not to be trusted but conquered. American stupidity is the same but more so; the American worldview is that the world wants to be conquered. Japanese stupidity comes from isolation; a cosseted experience of the world. In some ways it felt as if Japan was a country that had suddenly woken up and realised it was late to meet the world, rushing out of the house without any breakfast. It got to the meeting, but it had missed all the introductions, and so will never quite get it, no matter how hard it tries to catch up.

No, it isn’t stupidity, but a combination of ignorance and arrogance. People had no awareness of the world, beyond where they or their friends had been on package tours. Everything is a long way away, and very dangerous: overseas is a collection of beautiful things, surrounded by things to be feared. The ideal thing would be a way to copy the good things and bring them back to Japan, so everybody could see them without having to go through the ordeal of going out there into the big bad world. Hence the plastic pub we were sitting in.

The other side of the coin, according to this worldview, is that Japan is so utterly unique that no foreigner could ever hope to understand it. Things are the way they are, and that’s that. Everything and everybody had their place, and there was no point in trying to change that.

Except I was, by definition, out of place. My place was at home, in Britain, just as every Japanese person’s place was at home in Japan. For me to be in Japan at all was a disturbance in the natural order of things. It isn’t seen as rude in Japan to ask a foreigner why they came to Japan, and when they’re going back. You’re out of the place where you belong, and that must be a temporary state.