Sunday, November 2, 2008

We Don't Need to Be Paragons

Some time earlier this year, I decided it was in my best interest to stay away from the news-based or impersonal English language sites that cater to people living in Japan. The reason I made this decision was that most of those sites seem to be ran by and commented on by people who are so deeply steeped in being a foreigner in a foreign land that they have a worldview entirely shaped by it. Many of them have extremely rigid views of what a foreign person should do while living in Japan and have disdain for anyone who doesn't fit their definition.

A recent discussion with a student about the Yamanote line Halloween party compelled me to revisit one of those sites (it ends with "Probe" and starts with the name of the country it's about). For those who don't know, the Yamanote line is a train line which travels around central Tokyo in a huge loop. It's often packed with commuters, shoppers, etc. and trains arrive at stations at very frequent intervals (about 3 minutes apart). She told me that she'd seen on the news that police were gathered to deal with the party this year, but she was unclear as to why that was the case. In the interest of clarifying the situation for her, I ventured into hostile territory.

I'm not going to debate whether or not the party is a good or bad idea, because I've never attended one of them and only have second hand information about how disruptive or festive it is. And frankly, I don't care. Just because I'm a foreigner, it doesn't mean that the actions of other foreigners have to be of paramount interest to me.

When these sorts of controversial situations come up, there are always people who assert that the people who behave in ways they view as inappropriate for Japanese culture are making us all look bad. Their viewpoint is that we should all be paragons so the natives won't generalize the bad behavior of one person or party to all of us. They say this knowing that this standard doesn't apply to Japanese people, who are far from all acting perfectly in public (very, very far).

The notion that we must behave well so as not to make others look bad by association is based on a very real mindset among some Japanese. That is, they see one foreign person causing trouble and nod their heads and say that's what you have to expect from foreigners. Many of them already believe we're all ill-mannered and bad behavior from one person confirms their prejudice. The crux of my point is that people who already hold a prejudice and are just looking for confirmation are never going to view foreigners differently, no matter how perfectly mannered they are.

Being the most obedient foreigner you can be isn't going to change any one's mind about how foreigner's in general behave. They'll see you as an exception to the rule, not as an example of the rule.

7 comments:

Girl Japan said...

The crux of my point is that people who already hold a prejudice and are just looking for confirmation are never going to view foreigners differently, no matter how perfectly mannered they are.


---- So glad someone finally gave words to this, I wonder when the other idiots will get in tune!
This is NOT a difficult assumption/assessment, it is just mere common sense, I don't see why WE have to try SO hard to change anyone's prejudices... against the Ole' might Gaijin, no matter how nice or how much of a GREAT citizen we are, in the end we are still Gaijin. This is similar to "stay out of my JAPAN" syndrome.

Orchid64 said...

The "stay out of my Japan" thing has always puzzled me. Only 2% of the population is foreign. I'm pretty sure there's enough to go around. ;-)

Thanks for reading and commenting! :-)

Emsk said...

We get plenty of folk here in the UK as well, though we're a lot more accepting of different cultures given we've got more experience. There's the "one of my friends is black and he's very nice" syndrome as well as the "they're taking all our women" one as well. I have a couple of friends who ask me if there are any white folk who live in my part of London. It drives me nuts to hear this because we're actually in the majority, although there is a high Carribbean-origin population here too.

And, like Japan, there are enough "indigenous peoples" on this island to go around!

A bit off the point, perhaps - more of a reply to Girl Japan and your comments.

Sherry said...

I know what you mean about some of those groups. They seem to think that their way of living in Japan is the only way to live and everyone else must follow their lead or they are a failure at life. Because of that I often find other foreigners, at least those on the internet groups, far more annoying than any Japanese person I have dealt with.

I live my life and I don't care what anyone else thinks of it, foreign or Japanese. I also don't particularly care how someone else lives their life in Japan. I often wonder if the people who do care so much what others do or don'd do have way too much time on their hands.

Dateline Osaka said...

That works for me! ^_^ I just want to be able to frequent the businesses in my neighborhood and not immediately be assumed to be (and thus treated) as some kind of gaijin jerk before I even say hello.

I'm certainly not of the opinion that if I behave myself in public (which doesn't take effort), it'll make everyone love foreigners, but as long as I do my part to be a respectable person in my own neighborhood, I have a better chance of being treated well by others. Wouldn't that apply to anyone, anyway? What I've noticed, is that the Japanese I've come to know so far have at some point made a comment along the lines that they thought gaijin were like "this, this and this," but once they got to know me, at least, they realized the negative stereotypes are not true about all foreigners. Making a good impression just as one person, even *though* I'm only one person, really can make a difference in that regard, thus far! ^_^

Orchid64 said...

If you're assumed to be a "gaijin jerk" before you visit, it's not because someone actually was a jerk but because the people who run the shop were already prejudiced. Magazines like "Gaijin Crime File" are far more responsible for negative impressions of foreigners than actual foreigners.

The whole notion that we have to be regarded suspiciously merely because we are foreign is an idea based in prejudice. If you consider that any shopkeeper in America who automatically regarded someone poorly because they were a member of a minority would be lableled a bigot, you can see how the same standards ought to apply in Japan. Somehow though, the Japanese are let off the hook for their prejudices by foreign people.

While I agree everyone should prove they're good people by being well-behaved, the difference is that the Japanese are regarded as behaving well as the default and we are regarded as behaving poorly as the default. This is the very essence of prejudice.

Sherry said...

"at some point made a comment along the lines that they thought gaijin were like "this, this and this," but once they got to know me, at least, they realized the negative stereotypes are not true about all foreigners."

I can't help but wonder whenever I hear some foreigner in Japan make this comment, or one very much like it, what they would do if they were told this or overheard someone saying this in their home country. Would they recognize the speaker as a rascist idiot full of prejudice and possibly confront them? Or would they go on congratulating themselves, or the person spoken about, for being such a wonderful example of humanity and continue to think they have somehow made the world a better place and changed someone's heart. Nothing has changed. You just get to be the exception to that person's rule.