Parallel to Society

Please note the disclaimer.

Japan, as a society, is organized much more hierarchical than I am used from (West-)Germany. In every area of life there are superiors and subordinates, there are teachers and students, and there are senpai’s and kouhai’s. This goes so far in that you’d use different words in Japanese for your older and younger sister, for example.

A very essential concept of social life is belonging to groups. The distinction is between uchi (being in the group), soto (a known, but outside person) and tanin (strangers). Another big difference to the west is the concept of a group itself. At least in West-Germany I’d connote with the word group a … more like an … accumulation of persons with the same interest. Which more or less meet on the same level. Contrast that to Japan, where there tends to be a very strict hierarchy even within the group, which very much acts like a mechanism to control access to the group. That is, to join one, both the group leader and the whole group itself have to agree in joint consensus. Again this is visible in all parts of society, from company divisions, sports clubs down to simply, a group of friends.

Of course, all these concepts exist in Germany as well, but certainly not to such an extent. And even then, considering western countries, I’d rate Germany amongst those where hierarchy plays a rather big role. Thus, being a (visibly white) foreigner, quite likely without native fluency in Japanese, you’ll be classified as soto or tanin. And for someone fresh-off-the-boat that might actually be a suitable classification. However even after living in Japan for more than five, ten, or fifteen years it’s quite likely that you’ll live socially rather isolated. Because you are still soto. Or tanin.

Japan is not a nation of immigrants. I am not sure where I heard the next metaphor first, but the concept of cultural exchange in Japan can be expressed kind of like this: Foreigner comes to Japan, sits on one side of the table. I, Japanese, on the other side. And then we’ll throw to each other small bits of culture. I, Japanese, explain to the foreigner about my unique, unique culture (did I point out that it’s really really unique and unmatched anywhere in the world? It might be even a bit superior to yours…). And you’ll tell me how great Japan is and how much you like it and I’ll be so surprised that you can even eat raw fish and use chopsticks – despite the fact that you are a foreigner, and thus have to fight and overcome your inherent disabilities – and then we are finished, and afterwards, PLEASE GO HOME! [1][8]

After all – and this really is not unique to Japan – nobody likes guests that invite themselves to stay indefinitely.

This concept of cultural exchange and the inability to even consider the possibility of immigration is deeply engraved in the Japanese society. So deep that Japan ships thousands of foreign ALTs (Assistant English Teachers) each year to Japan only to send them back after three years – when they finally begin to settle. Without even taking into account that one could use the same money to properly train Japanese teachers of English and send _them_ overseas instead.

I always experienced how tanin I am when visiting the family of the SWMBO. It’s actually not the family itself who, for once is incredibly nice, welcoming and open-minded [2], and moreover simply got to know me better over time. I am experiencing this however whenever I meet not-so-close friends (why is there no word in English to distinguish between Bekannte and Freunde?) or distant relatives. For example, one of the SWMBO’s friends gave birth recently, and we wanted to visit her. Or rather the SWMBO wanted to. I already got a bad feeling when reaching their home and advised the SWMBO on the inherent danger of an involuntary Gaijin-Smash and the associated embarrassment [3]. Such advisories went to deaf ears, and the SWMBO scolded me for being such a pussy.

We enter the enemy ship their home. Whole family’s there, including the mother-in-law. Who wants to put a chair in the tatami room the whole time during that embarrassing visit, so that I throne over ‚em little people. Apparently I am not able to sit in seiza … at all, since I am a foreigner. Living there for only four years… surely one cannot expect! And it’s nothing I can hold against her. She just tried to be really nice. Same thing with the compliments. Stressed several times how good of a catch I am for the SWMBO, as she only recently heard on TV how smart Indians are when it comes to computers [4].

Being soto or tanin isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a nice video from a J-vlogger and Jap-vet, Hikosaemon about this called „It ain’t easy being Japanese!„. After all, in such a hierarchical society, it’s not easy for Japanese to gain access to their desired groups, either. That requires a lot of bending and eating dirt, and quite often is far from being a pleasure. Moreover, gaining access to some groups is virtually impossible. Japanese prime ministers and politicians for example tend to recruit themselves from political dynasties that lead back to the Meiji-period to an extent that is simply unthinkable in Germany. Concepts like fairness and equality of opportunities do exist, but they are far different from their western counterparts.

Now, living parallel to this world means not having the same chances, but it also means you are not subject to the same rules and obligations. And since persons who are soto or tanin are usually treated in a courteous and polite way – like a well-regarded guest – that can be quite pleasant. This is what most tourists or newcomers experience, and they usually fail to understand the bitterness often found among „vets“. You can even exploit your status as a foreigner in certain situations. For example when dealing with any kind of government agency, I found it best not to be recognized as too knowledgeable; better come off as a little bit too stupid than too smart. The former will give the person in charge the chance to _once and for all_ _really_ explain it to that naive and simple-minded foreigner. Which in overall, even though it might seem slightly counterintuitive, will usually result in a much faster and more efficient process [5].

Asian foreigners by the way are not subject of this whole scheme, at least not if they have a will to assimilate. Because, they can assimilate optically and thus become virtually indistinguishable. A good friend, Korean and trilingual, is not treated first and foremost as a foreigner, but rather measured with Japanese standards. And that can be a problem as well: While people congratulate me as soon as I say „Konichiwa“ – since apparently my Japanese is awesome; I mastered to say „Hello“ – in his case, people consider him a little bit like a socially rather awkward and linguistically slightly clumsy Japanese (people usually consider him Japanese, and when he reveals to be Korean they think he is zainichi), and scold him for that. Discrimination has a completely different meaning for him – and I am completely skipping here all the extra issues of Japanese-Korean relations.

And is that discrimination? Is there discrimination in Japan? Well yes and no. Certainly not in the sense of Germany or other parts in the western world where, if you have the wrong skin color and are at the wrong place at the wrong time, will have problems to get home in one piece. The whole thing in Japan is more subtle and usually only starts to become apparent when you consider immigrating for real and living the rest of your life there. In contrast, foreigners who just arrived in Japan often won’t notice a lot of things at first. Because you will never come in touch with all that stuff if you come to Japan as an expat or as an exchange student. Housing will be taken care for you, and you won’t even realize that a large amount of apartment owners won’t rent to foreigners [6]. Blocked career paths‘ are not an issue if your position has a specified shelf-life and going back to your home country after some time is fixed in the first place. Or if you work in an area, say as an English-teacher or as a translator, where you simply don’t compete with other Japanese workers in your professional life, since it is an area where Japanese cannot (or are perceived as not being able to) provide the same service.

And to provide some kind of evidence, I am surely not the only one who looks at it that way [7].

But it’s incredible annoying to live like that in the long term – parallel to society.

[1] I have to say, that this kind of attitude is probably found in Germany as well. Nevertheless this article is not about comparing things.

[2] (The SWMBO however simply refuses to acknowledge this fact, and continues to reassure me that „we are like any other family in Japan“)

[3] The whole „losing one’s face thing“ – seriously, I still haven’t worked out its true meaning in Japan, but at least I can say: It’s completely different than being portrayed in western media. For example to my surprise, you’ll apparently never lose face if you scold an inferior in the harshest way possible.

[4] biggest. WTF. evar. And in case you’re wondering: I am as pale as a nerd can be.

[5] btw, that _so_ holds for Germany as well.

[6] on the other hand, probably still easier to get a flat as a foreigner in Germany than as a German in Germany, considering some cities like Munich

[7] and while we are at it: even though not directly related, give this a try as well.

[8] There is one phenomenon that I find quite interesting. When talking in English about things Japanese, most native Japanese speakers will resort to the first person plural. „In Japan, we don’t tip.“ „We use chopsticks.“ „We go to the Shrine on New Year’s Eve.“ Apparently I’m not invited. I am not part of that group you’re referencing. You guys, the Japanese, go. I don’t. Should I? Should I not? May I not? But then again, could just be one of the typical quirks when learning English, and I am interpreting way too much into that.

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