Thursday, April 1, 2010

Can I bigot? Yes you can!

Or, 'I want to be a minority'.

Happy new fiscal year! I'm currently wearing my suit, as we had the hyper-formal welcoming ceremony this morning. I'm used to seeing schoolkids do the elaborate sequence of bows before taking the floor, but then schoolkids are made to do lots of dumb things, like PE. Watching grown men (and women, Adrianna) shout "Hai!", stand up, walk to the stage, bow left, face forward, bow right, bow centre, bow to the empty stage, take the stage, bow to the lectern, then speak, is pretty strange. All I had to do was stand up and say "yoroshiku onegaishimasu", thankfully. There are lots of people coming and going now, so I have to keep standing up and bowing. It's just like playing thumbmaster - I'm in a constant state of paranoia that I'll look up and everyone else will be on their feet. And then once I'm standing, it's very hard to know when I can sit down again.

I'm enjoying this blogging-to-order concept. Today, as suggested by 'Karoushi'-sensei (to explain to my Edinburgh friends, he's a family friend who works as a secondary school teacher), I shall discuss regional rivalry and bigotry in Japan.

As he points out, the UK is home to an astonishing variety of factions, between which exists anything from friendly rivalry to barely-contained hatred. There's not so much of that in Japan, and I think there are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, Japan is a very homogenous country. Around 98.5% of the population is Japanese, compared with 85.7% white British people in the multicultural UK. While ethnic minorities may receive some fairly rough treatment here (more on that later), it's just not so visible because there are so few of them. Just as in Britain, what immigrants there are tend to live in the big cities, so to a first approximation, everyone in my town is Japanese. Furthermore, everyone has dark hair and brown eyes, so there isn't much scope for activities analogous to the British national pastimes of mocking gingers and blondes.

There are two dominant religions in Japan - Shinto and Buddhism - so coming from the UK, one might expect them to be locked in an eternal bitter feud. But no, I am continually impressed that the two co-exist peacefully; a person can be Shinto and Buddhist. The key to this is that no-one takes religion very seriously, as I've said before. Shinto is a primitive polytheistic faith that's a bit too fanciful for anyone to actually believe in (actually, saying that, it doesn't stop the Abrahamic religions), and Buddhism is fairly laid back, offering more guidelines than rules, such that many variants of Buddhism are probably better understood as philosophy rather than religion.

Of course, your average Old Firm football thug doesn't give a great deal of thought to the theological issues surrounding transubstantiation. 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' are just convenient labels for 'us' and 'them'; if it wasn't that, they'd fight over belly button convexity or something. This brings me to my second point. The Japanese mindset seems more based on co-operation and harmony than competition. I notice this in school a lot; less emphasis is placed on rewarding individual performance, and more to achieving things together as a class, or a year, or a school. As a concrete example, my high school back home had a prizegiving at the end of the year where the best students were showered with glory and book tokens. Here they have a graduation ceremony at the end of junior high, where they recognise the achievements of the departing year as a whole. Being a functional part of society's machine is reinforced every day at school through the various ceremonies and extra-curricular activities. In some ways this is a good thing - people are generally much more respectful and considerate - but it makes me quite uneasy. If you're looking for a reason why Japan could do such terrible things in the war, I would suggest that having a populace conditioned to unquestioningly do what they're told is dangerous indeed.

The point I'm rapidly drifting away from is that Japanese people don't seem to feel such a strong need to have an 'us' and 'them'. While Japan is split into 47 prefectures, rather like the American States, I think everyone feels Japanese first and foremost. There is a much greater sense of national pride and unity here. Outside the window I can see a fluttering hi no maru (Japanese flag, literally 'circle of the sun'), and there was another one in pride of place at the ceremony this morning. This doesn't sit entirely well with me either.

However, the Japanese aren't a Borg-esque hive mind, and the different regions do have some fairly good-natured stereotypes about each other. Foremost among these is the divide between Kanto (the eastern part of the main island (Honshu), around Tokyo) and Kansai (central Japan, including Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe). This reminds me a lot of the divide between the north and south of England. People from Kanto are said to be stuck-up, pretentious and unfriendly; while those in Kansai are accused of being common and uncouth. I think Kansai, like Scotland, Canada, New Zealand or any other underdog region, deliberately plays up its differences from Tokyo. They are very proud of their food, particularly takoyaki (octopus dumplings) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), and bizarrely, they stand on the right of escalators, whereas people in the capital stand on the left.

Analogously to England, 'Standard Japanese' is the Tokyo dialect, from which Kansai dialect differs quite considerably. Incidentally, Japan is more like the UK than the USA when it comes to accents, in that geographical neighbours can speak in radically different ways. I am told that it is possible to tell from someone's speech whether they come from Nanyo or Yonezawa, which are less than 20km apart.

Pushing the UK analogy further, I would say that I live in the Japanese Somerset. Somerset is in the south of England just as I am in the east of Japan, but no-one would accuse either of us of being flashy city slickers. No, Yamagatians have a (not entirely undeserved) reputation for being backward yokels, and their slow, lazy style of speech is roundly mocked by the rest of Japan. Yamagata-isms that I've learnt include appending an 's' sound to certain words for no real reason and using the tricky-to-pronounce nda as a sound of agreement, a bit like the Aberdonian inhaled "aye". There was a 2004 movie called Swing Girls that was set in Yamagata and milked these stereotypes for comic effect.

Ok, let's get into the nastier territory of persecuted minorities. Like most places, Japan has indigenous peoples that it has screwed over pretty badly. The Ainu people are from the remote northern fringes of the country (and eastern Russia), and from what I can gather they were historically treated as second-class citizens, and it could be argued still are. The indigenous people of Japan's far-flung subtropical outpost Okinawa have faced similar problems. Slightly stranger is the case of the Burakumin. Though Japan ceased to have a caste system when the feudal age ended in 1871, these people are the descendents of the outcast people. They were considered unclean due to their professions: undertakers, executioners, butchers, etc., forcing them to live in ghettoes. A lot of that stigma seems to persist today. If you're looking for an equivalent of the much-persecuted Jewish, it would probably be the Burakumin.

That last paragraph is all based on book learnin', as I have never knowingly come across any of these people. The only foreigners not here to teach English that I have met are Asians, mostly from China and Korea. The vast majority of these are women, coming here to marry their way to financial stability. As you might imagine, this leads people to have a somewhat negative view of them.

I think Asian immigrants get quite a hard time from the famously insular Japanese. One Korean woman I chatted to (very slowly, in Japanese) said that while Japanese people give the appearance of being very kind and polite, she felt that a lot of them didn't actually behave that way towards outsiders like her. However, I suspect that Koreans probably have an easier ride than most. From what I can gather, Japan feels a certain empathy with Korea (I mean South Korea; no-one even talks about the North). Both countries are democratic and capitalist, and a little like Scotland and France in the past, are united by common enemies, specifically the dangerous loose cannon that is North Korea and the Death Star-like menace of China. Japan and China really don't get on well. They seem unable to put the unpleasantness of the war behind them, and China's recent Google-hacking, dissident-suppressing antics just add fuel to the fire.

So what about my experiences as an ethnic minority? I have to say that everyone is very nice to me. Japan seems to have a kind of weird Stockholm syndrome thing going on with America in particular, and the rest of the Anglosphere by extension. America inflicts untold carnage on Japan during the war, then comes in and rewrites their constitution, essentially denying them the right to an army, and plonks a bunch of military bases on the strategically-handy Okinawa, and yet Japan seems to love them. In fact, Japan seems to want to be America, even more than the UK does. Baseball is the number one sport here, and Disney characters are second only to the unstoppable Kitty-chan in the school pencil-case popularity stakes. The timing of my arrival gave me a unique opportunity to compare British and Japanese reactions to the death of the King of Pop: Japan seemed a lot more bothered. Of course, the very fact that people like me are paid by the government to come here and speak our native language demonstrates that Japan welcomes the influence of the West.

Consequently, I feel that my white skin gives me a kind of minor celebrity status here. Some old people seem reluctant to talk to me, possibly because the remember the war, but probably just because they never learned any English at school. Everyone else treats me with real warmth.

Finally, you'll have noticed that I frequently use the word gaijin, which literally means 'outsider' (gai = outside, jin = person). My dictionary lists this word as 'sensitive' - it's not an out-and-out racial slur, but you won't hear it used on TV or see it in the newspapers. I've noticed that Marie-san avoids using the word, substituting it for the more neutral gaikokujin ('foreigner'), but I detected someone in the office today referring to me as a gaijin. My take on this is as follows: if I were a Japanese-born Caucasian who could speak fluent Japanese, I might resent being called 'gaijin'. But as I am indeed an outsider by any sensible definition of the word, I have no objection to it. Plus, I like the idea that I'm taking it back.


  1. great blog finlay.

    how is gaijin pronounced?

    i think it's a fantastic insult that would definitely catch on in this country. I'll start by using it on the (no disrespect) science teachers in the school the vast majority of whom I can safely say after 30 plus years are "outside people". Do they have a word for 'outside loo'? Or are the concepts so similar that they dont differentiate?

    Anyway, one of them is a bit of a nipponissimo (she's teaching japanese to senior kids from a book) (and a complete mup) so it'll be interesting to see if she understands me.

  2. Rhymes with 'hygiene' (a concept that your science teacher colleagues might also struggle with?), but with equal stress on each syllable.

    I suspect the muppet in question will understand the word - it's composed of two very basic kanji: 外人.