Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why do I always have to be the bad guy?

On multiple family-based comedies produced in the U.S. (The Simpsons and Roseanne spring to mind), there is a theme of one parent wanting to be popular or well-liked while the other, usually the mother, has to mete out discipline and try to instill a sense of balance rather than cater to their children's raging ids. In such cases, the mother has to be the bad guy who talks about unpleasant realities and consequences while Dad gets to be seen more as one of the kids.

As of late, I've started to feel a lot like my role when talking about Japan is one of being the bad guy. I try (very hard) to be balanced about life in Japan and to present both the yin and the yang of life here. When I talk about something positive, it doesn't mean that I see Japan as a flawless paradise. When I talk about something negative, it doesn't mean I hate Japan and see it as all dark and terrible. Unfortunately, my experiences with my former blog (and as of late, as a commenter on Digg) leave me with the impression that no matter what I say, someone is going to see my comments as painting things in black or white. Every comment or post is viewed in isolation rather than as part of my overall dialog about life (which I just happen to live in Japan). You'd think that my former blog readers would have known better, but some people seem to only focus on points they can argue with rather than on what is actually being said in an entire piece (or an entire blog). These people used to bug the hell out of me and I'm glad to have left them behind when I abandoned my old blog.

In most instances (particularly on Digg), I run across people who have never been to Japan or have only been here as tourists and have a fantasy image of it. In fact, sometimes I think that they cling to the notion of it being a superior society because it fulfills some need to believe there's a Utopian existence somewhere in the real world that they could live in if they just could find a way. I think others just enjoy imbuing Japan with whatever personal narrative suits their favored image of it. Because the overwhelming view of Japan is an unfairly positive one, I more often than not play the bad guy. I'm the parent who says the tooth fairy and Santa Claus aren't real. I'm the one who says that Japanese people aren't all polite and refined and that its not a safe place where you can leave your wallet lying around and no one will steal it. I get to be the one to break the news that the socialized medical care program is frequently abused and on occasion women die or give birth in ambulances because they are refused at hospitals.

I've realized as of late that the overwhelmingly positive (and exceptionally naive) view that many Westerners have of Japan forces me to one side of the topic when I get involved in discussions. That is, by others being polarized in a highly positive fashion, I can only add balance by focusing on the negative. I don't add such comments to discussions to harsh anyone's Japanophilic buzz, mind you. I do it because I think holding an idealized notion of any real place on earth tends to make people dislike their current circumstances and demonize their own culture's weaknesses more. Ultimately, those fantasies which are fueled by tons of pro-Japan PR doled out by news agencies both in Japan and abroad, are adding to an imbalanced view of life in general. The truth is that things are both good and bad in nearly every developed country.

Americans in particular seem inclined to focus excessively on America's bad points and Japan's good points. I'm guessing this is both a counter-balance to the rhetoric of neoconservatives and their ilk and buying into the heavily prejudiced world-wide view of the U.S. a dangerous place full of fat, stupid, mono-lingual, unworldly, materialistic people. This is a view which is espoused by those with no or little first-hand experience of the U.S. for the most part, though disillusioned Americans say such things as well. The irony is, of course, that Americans bad-mouthing other Americans never see themselves in the portrait of the ugly American that they themselves assist in painting. If every American can't see himself or herself as a part of these stereotypes, exactly who is fitting into them? The answer is no one.

Talking about both the positive and the negative is important so that people accept that life is never perfect and that the grass is always greener thinking is ultimately defeating and fruitless. Also, any discussion which is polarized lowers the discourse on both sides and fails to educate or be meaningful. For instance, those who badmouth the U.S. are only polarizing the discussion in the same way I noted earlier. If you see the U.S. as all negative, you force its defenders to talk about the parts that are all positive and invite jingoism and nationalism into the discussion. And finally, in regards to the way I comment about Japan, from a practical viewpoint, I'm also hoping to mitigate some rude awakenings for the handful of dreamers who ever actually make it over here to live for an extended time.

I've decided, however, that I don't like playing the role of "balancer" when it's frequently forcing me to focus on the negative because it in turn makes me dwell on the negative. I've spent years actively (and sometimes painfully) cultivating a less pessimistic character and a balanced spirit and I believe I'm undermining my efforts by trying to educate people who are not only ignorant of reality, but unreceptive to talk of it. In other words, if they want to keep believing in the Easter Bunny, I'm not going to fight them about it anymore. In retrospect, I have to question why I ever even tried. I'm guessing it leads back to some issues I've had for a long time regarding feeling it's somehow my responsibility to toss the ice cold water of reality into people's faces. However, I do believe it also has a lot to do with a sense of disliking polarized and ignorant views, but that sense isn't serving me very well, so it's time to stop catering to it.

To this end, on the Internet at large, I'm going to stop commenting on the highly-skewed articles that are present in abundance and coaxing people out of their romantic notions of Japan. On this blog, I'm going to do what I've always done which is talk about both the good and the bad and try to view things in a balanced fashion as it suits the sort of person I want to be. Of course, not every positive has a serious negative and not every negative has a serious positive so some posts will skew one way or another, but, on the whole, I'll endeavor (as I always have) to neither glorify nor demonize life in Japan, or anywhere else.

And, I guess I really should stay away from Digg.


Roy said...

I think a good rule is to treat Internet discussions as you would if you were talking to the people in real life.

You wouldn't just go up to a bunch of immature teenagers on the street and force your opinions of reality on them and expect them to understand, right? So why bother trying to do that online. Likewise, if someone you were talking to was obviously opinionated and obnoxious, chances are you would just walk away and not waste your time.

Orchid64 said...

You make a good point, Roy. However, I would make the same points in a discussion with people who I were having a conversation with (though I wouldn't make such points to strangers...and, this is where I make my mistake, as you have pointed out so well) and I never make my points or offer my opinion in a rude or obnoxious manner. I certainly never make ad hominem attacks or deride someone's viewpoint.

That being said, and I didn't make this clear, I tend to respond to the article's content more than the other comments. Some of the articles are absurd propaganda pieces. I do, however, get swayed by the tone of the comments.

Thanks for commenting, Roy. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Emily said...

Well, I always think you do give a balanced picture of Japan. You clearly like it because you've lived there so long - what country is totally perfect? I love the UK, but I'm the first to say that our city streets are filthy, we practise negative-politeness rather than being inclusive, Londoners are apt to forget you and focus on their own problems and that we're an insular bunch of feckers. Many people have a romantic view of here too and it would certainly help if they knew that it wasn't Utopia.

I also enjoyed living in Japan, but I'd be a fool if I said it was all plain sailing. But I knew that this would be the case before I went. It doesn't stop me wanting to return though.

I also know that many westerners have romantic views of Japan which do need addressing of someone is thinking of settling there for any length of time. I certainly knew the type who wouldn't hear a word said against Japan, all the while banging on about the Bad Old US of A. Ironically with this particular specimen, he found that his lifestyle choice was far more supported in the vast majority of states and he could be open about who he was rather than hidden in the inlaid closet he now finds himself in.

I wonder how many people who attack their own British/American etc culture in favour of one that is different from their own aren't actually experiencing their own identity problems.

Orchid64 said...

Thanks, Emily, for your kind words and for taking the time to comment.

If I'm reading into your comment as I believe you mean it regarding the fellow in the closet, I think that a lot of people in that lifestyle like Japan because they don't have to fear violence against them for their orientation. However, I'm not sure that having to hide your lifestyle all the time for fear of losing your job or being censured in some other way is a good trade-off for that. I'm pretty sure that in America, if you hide your situation, you also have nothing to fear in terms of violence. Somehow, Japan gets credit for something, but it really makes no sense.

I think you make an excellent point about people who attack their own countries who have identity issues.

Wally Wood said...

I once heard Donald Richie say in a meeting that in his experience people who first come to Japan fall in love with it. It's so different! So safe! The trains run on time! Etc., etc. If they live in the country long enough, said Richie, they tend to fall in hate with it. The Japanese are duplicitous! The trains are a nightmare! Everyone smokes! If they continue to live in the country, they (may) come to the understanding that you've reached.

I would not be concerned by what a former vice president called the nattering nabobs of negativism. Be true to yourself and you'll be fine.

Anonymous said...

Nice article.

Speaking as an American about Americans specifically, there is a contingent of Americans who are self-loathing, and who are also unhappy and unsuccessful in their home country.

They don't have much experience outside the States, so they create a fantasy abroad. If they could only get to X country, they'd get a girlfriend, a great job, be popular, unique, etc. They fail to stand out in their home country, so they want to stand out somewhere else.

Added to this is an innate American sense of political-correctness among "liberal-minded" people, where anything American is shyte and anything foreign is to be revered and respected, otherwise you're a racist.

Some of these people end up overseas. I think eventually they come to face reality.

Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with ragging a little on Japan to help strike a balance. I've been to China a couple times and although it was fun traveling there, half the fun is letting all your friends know what sucks about China. :D

Orchid64 said...

First of all, thanks to both of you (Wally and anoymous) for commenting.

Wally: I've heard the same thing about coming here. I don't recall falling in love with Japan, but that's because I had other fish to fry when I got here initially. I do recall hating it, then getting over that. Maybe one of the reasons I never became one of those people who wants to act and turn Japanese in every way is I never had that infatuation. However, I always thought it had more to do with being married to a fellow foreigner and not needing to incorporate myself extremely deeply with the culture.

anonymous: thanks for your comment. You're my first anonymous commenter on this blog.

You make some interesting points about Americans feeling they have to dislike America or sounding racist. It would seem to be a form of insecurity or neuroses about looking racist by being too proud of their own country. I don't know that this is unique to America, though I do wonder if it may be more common because of all of the time spent raising awareness of racism.

Kelly said...

Hey Orchid, one only has to watch the japanese nightly news on nhk every night to see that Japan is not utopia!!

I tend to think those japanophiles on the forums are only mostly single guys/gals looking for japanese partners, but with no actual deep experience with the place.

I've noticed that alot of western guys, once they get a japanese girlfriend, they think they become gods who know everything about Japan, and think of Japan as right, and every other country wrong.

I have come up against a few of those guys because they think their experiences with Japanese women are far more above any western women's experience with japanese men, and they think of themselves as superior when it comes to Japanese culture.

I don't care if they want to make an idiot of themselves.

I have a love-hate relationship with japan. I see it's flaws, i also see it's good points.

I've never lived full-time in japan, but nor would i want to. Even if i'm married to a j guy, it doesn't mean i automatically have to turn into a japan-lover.

I've never thought of you as coming across as either for or against japan, i've always thought from reading this blog you are pretty balanced in your views. In no way are you the "bad guy", you're a sensible lady, with some good viewpoints.

The people who think of you as the baddie are just narrowminded eager-to-jump-on-the-japan-bandwagon type people. Thanks for a great post!