On the outer/out on the town
Gaijin experience life here as a kind of overlay - we are positioned on the top of the culture, clinging to the small latches and hooks and access points we find. Jennifer Poulson, a half-Japanese, half-American woman who I interviewed for my Cub Story writes that:
The term ‘gaijin’ is despised by some foreigners. It reminds them that they can never be on the inside in a society which is governed by an “us-and-them” mentality. The Japanese flag depicting the rising sun is telling. A small, tightly knit, radiant core of insiders as represented by the sun, floating amongst a sea of outsiders that will never stain the cloth pink.
But for a culture which supposedly abhors foreignness, and only accepts new, external ideas once it has made them uniquely Japanese, cleansed of taint, there is much kindness and much interest in foreigners. I spent two nights this week with people who I did not know at first, but their good humor, willingness to laugh and their interest in the other has no hint of antagonism, no hint of comparison or superiority. But these were people who reached out to me; perhaps Poulson is talking more of the older generation, like the lurking Hansonites in Australia who are irked by 'Asians' and conveniently forget that in the fifties we invited millions of Southern Europeans (who were then counted as 'non-whites') to Australia to work and that we are much the richer for it.
Thursday night, I got drunk with a Welshman and a Japanese science teacher, A. It was an unexpectedly good night, which I paid with a hangover at work the next day. As an extra bonus, the drunken middle aged couple from two weeks ago were there. They were up to their old tricks, but in a different bar. They had unfortunately positioned themselves on bar stools, rather than kneeling on the ground, and were teetering dangerously on the edge. It was the same dynamic as before - the man wooing the woman with loud witticisms, drunken sloshing of words. They swayed in and out of each other's orbits, eyes caught and held. Before we sat down, we were snagged by a couple of drunk salarymen who had spotted a chance for a gaijin chat.
They tried out their fledgling English, immensely proud when meaning was communicated. One had a giant black growth on his cheek, like a colony of moles - it seems that this often happens to men over the age of fifty, they begin sprouting these cheek mushrooms. Also, in my relentless pursuit of Difference, I've uncovered the fact that most of the toddlers' backs are covered in what looks like old bruises, a greyish pattern. J, the head teacher said that when she first got here, she thought they were real bruises, but not so; no-one seems to know what causes it, but it departs before teenage body-image paranoia.
A. took great interest in us, flexing his impressive English, but gradually the conversation moved towards centre ground; as the beer flowed freely (he paid for our drinks all night), so did the conversation. Most Japanese don't seem to like talking about politics. Perhaps that's because it isn't particularly interesting; the centre-right LDP has ruled since WWII with the aid of the big zaibatsu, ('financial cliques' - think diversified mega-corporations like Mitsubishi) except for a minor upset in 1993, after the bubble burst in 1990. Akira had no such reluctance, even daring a couple of unorthodox jabs at the Imperial Family, still largely sacrosant. A little in his cups, he gathered us in conspiratorially. "You can't tell anyone I told you this," he announced, "but some of our Emperors were probably Korean". (This, if true, would be a Definitive Blow against the rising neotraditionalists and nationalists who hold the Emperor and Japan's brief imperial history as near-holy articles of faith). How did he find this out? His voice dropped another notch. "Because inside several imperial coffins are Korean artifacts. But the truth will never get out." That wasn't all, either. "Did you know that Hirohito was a Freemason, and that's why he started a Japanese empire?" We didn't know that one either. Actually, it was surprising he knew who the Freemasons are, considering I recently had to tell someone what a Pope is. Different worlds, I spose.
From there, it was an easy road to religion, and he confessed to being a Buddhist who didn't believe in Buddhism. "Buddha said, do not worship me and do not follow me. Do not trust any ideas too much, even mine," said A, which was all Zen to me. Here, Huw (the Welsh connection) chimed in. "I've started meditating twice a day to try and still my mind," he said. A had been meditating for thirty years, and testified to its power. The two started talking technique and clarity and peace and I walked unsteadily to the little boy's room. Returning, the conversation had somehow metastasized into violence, and the peaceful Buddhist was demonstrating the Five Ways to Kill a Man that he knew. He was the most interesting science teacher I've ever met, that's for sure.
Saturday night, Row and I went out to dinner/drinks with three Japanese girls, one Japanese guy and an American woman. Embarassingly, I met them through an ad I posted for 'language exchange', which is code for I don't know anyone here, please help me out. After initial awkwardness was overcome, the night became really quite good. Our
hosts guided us into a Japanese take on Chinese restaurants, which was all you can at. Conversation proceeded in fits and bursts, assisted by amusement at mispronunciations and double takes and I took frequent refuge in the American woman. At first a bit leery of us, the Japanese guy eventually warmed up to us and came and sat next to me, peering at me quizzically. He told me that he was about to start work as a marketeer, which (according to him) consisted of bowing and handing out of business cards in a particular manner. The method of card handing had to be with full eye contact, corner first, a 15 degree bow. (He was gently mocking himself for my benefit, which was great). Then tragedy struck - he noticed my chest hair, protruding a little over my tshirt in an elegantly understated way. I have a reasonable rug of chest hair, and this was of great interest to him. He began gesticulating rapidly, and I was led to believe through this that Japanese men had no chest hair, but reserved their hirsuteness for their pubic region (this required an interesting sequence of gestures). He then gestured to my groin, with a wondering look. This was much too personal for the first date (what would that be? Somewhere between second and third base, mentally speaking?) and for the rest of the evening I had to bat him away from tugging out my arm hairs and worse. It was bizarre, but great. We talked about religion again; the American woman was a Christian Scientist (I always thought that was a joke) but I didn't get to probe; the Japanese girls were a little taken aback at the question. Shinto Buddhist, one ventured finally. She said she prayed sometimes at the family shrine, but when I asked her who she prayed to, she couldn't answer, and I had to suggest her ancestors (this was right). What a place - an entire country of people who never needed a fleshed out afterlife, a culture living as transients, accepting their impermanence. I suppose on an island chain of volcanos, plagued by earthquakes and typhoons, it's hard to believe in anything truly solid. The night ended with re-enactments of Saturday Night Fever (sadly, American cultural imperialism had neglected to instill them with the Greats), miming, large drink bills and the last train home, shared with N, one of the Japanese girls. Although she'd been my initial contact, she'd been a bit standoffish during the evening, and I was beginning to suspect her of being a princess. She had the lips of a pouter, the reluctance to work a part time job which indicates a moneyed family, and a habit of mentioning her ex-boyfriend, and then pouting. On the train home, she loosened up a bit and proved herself to be much better company. But she did say one very interesting thing - we were talking about Korea, and she said she didn't like Korea at all, too racist - she got pointed at in the streets and ostracised. I bit my tongue and Didn't Mention the War and the invasion of Korea and death and all that 'old' history. And as for the way the Japanese treat Koreans who live here (many of whom are the descendants of indentured labour in the Japanese colonial period), well, I didn't mention that either. Losing face = bad.
For all that, and for all my mentions of Japanese dislike of outsiders, in my experience, the fabled Japanese xenophobia has been non-existent; a few direct looks from old men, but nothing like one of Hanson's 'Asians' could expect in deep suburbia. On the whole, I've been treated with more kindness and friendliness than I had any right to expect, more than in any Western country. Perhaps this is partly the lingering exoticism of Whiteness, still a novelty in a country where novelty reigns, but I think there is also genuine interest, especially amongst the young.
On the train home, a salaryman collapsed out the door at one of the stations, blind blotto drunk, and a random stranger gathered him up in a heap and lugged him back on the train. I've heard it said that the younger generations of Japanese are steering clear of alcohol out of embarassment of the drunkeness of their salarymen fathers, forced into virtual servitude to recreate Japan as a force and a proud nation and allowed rare outlets for their long, long hours of wage-slave labour. Oh, and at a station, I saw a well-dressed young man standing against a wall, looking for prey; girl spotted, he homed in, talking fast, herding her into a corner but she broke free and made it to the ticket machine and safety.
Today, I witnessed my first Right Wing Sound Truck. While most people aren't too interested in politics, the nationalists and traditionalists certainly are. They drive around in large buses, with an entourage of smaller cars, and blare loud slogans, which I believe are all about Patriotism and Japan as a Unique Nation and Japanese Power and all that kind of scary pre-militarist shit which seems kinda hip right now. Maybe the political fashion cycle is rolling round to fascism again, or whatever the Japanese equivalent was. The men in the buses wore uniforms, and proud flags were harnessed for platform building purposes, tacked to every possible surface. It's more than a bit scary.