Next month it will be 9 years since I first moved to Tokyo and over the course of those 9 years I’ve met a lot of great people. I’ve also met some truly awful people and also probably more than my fair share of people I wish I had never met.
However, for budding amateur psychologists such as myself, the chance to meet and to learn from new people is always fascinating.
As in any kind of experiment, be it social or scientific, I have noticed various repeating patterns. In this context I am referring to those conversations we find ourselves having over and over again, and the types of people we continually encounter. Of course, generalizing people can be dangerous, however I think most of you who have been in Japan for any length of time will have encountered the types of people.
From my own experience, here are some of the most common scenarios, conversations and people I have encountered and I how I chose to deal with them. You may of course totally disagree with what I say here, but in the end debate is healthy, and hopefully we can provoke some discussion today.
The “Oh your Japanese is really good” conversation
If, like me, you work in a predominantly Japanese working environment, you’ll come across this one quite a lot. The minute you utter a few barely coherent words of broken, heavily accented Japanese, suddenly your coworkers fawn over you and tell you your Japanese is excellent. Quite why anybody would find this irritating is beyond me, but from what I have read and witnessed down the years it seems that quite a few foreigners in Japan take umbrage at this. They find it patronizing and condescending. In order to get some perspective, let’s see what happens when you reverse the roles.
Imagine you’re working in an office in your home town, and they bring in “the new guy”. They tell you he’s from some far away country and that he doesn’t speak English. Yet, he makes the effort to try and engage you in conversation. Despite the fact he can barely string a sentence together what are you going to say other than “hey, your English is really good”?
Your colleagues will compliment your Japanese for two reasons. First, because they want to encourage you to speak more, and secondly because they are probably feeling awkward and aren’t really sure how to engage you in conversation and, lacking any source of common interest, have taken an easy option. So I say lighten up, see it for what it is, a compliment, and take it as such.
The “My Japanese is so much better than yours” conversation.
This one is one that really gets on my nerves I have to be honest. Language learning, like all kinds of study is easier for some than others. Some people can pick up Japanese in no time and be basically fluent in 2 or 3 years. Others, like me, take longer.
I was inundated with a barrage of “you’ve been in Japan for so long, you should have level 1 by now!
I took the level 4 Japanese exam last month, and hopefully I’ve passed it. But if not, I’ll go back in again in December. And yet, I recall when I made a post last year about taking the level 5 test, I was inundated with a barrage of “you’ve been in Japan for so long, you should have level 1 by now!” type comments.
I’ve seen this similar kind of bullying, superior attitude on numerous other comment boards too. Anyone with even a shred of educational know-how should see that this is not helpful. I see it in daily life too. People who rather than be grateful for their own language abilities and supporting those who wish to ascend to their level seem instead to be determined to put down anyone they perceive to be below them.
It’s elitist, it’s arrogant in the extreme and I have absolutely no time for these kind of people. Let people learn at their own pace, and support them where you can. Remember when you were in the same position they are now. Does putting people down actually help anyone?
The “Japan is not as good as it used to be” conversation
As I mentioned in a previous blog, from my own experience long term residents in Japan seem to break down into two types. There are those who have fully embraced life here and have set up a home, a family, a stable job and they seem very content and happy in their lives. Then, conversely, there are those who have become jaded, cynical and bitter about the whole experience, yet as much as they gripe about life here, they never seem to want to leave.
When I first arrived in Japan, of course practically every foreigner I met was more experienced in living in Japan than I was, so I listened to everything they had to say. Now, some year later, I find myself approaching the conversation from the opposite side. Now, I am the senior, the “sempai” as it were, whom these new arrivals look up to. I love Japan, and whilst I can see its various flaws, my impression of the country is still overwhelmingly positive.
This is the image I try to convey to any younger people who ask my opinion. This flies in the face of the people I am talking about now. They will tell you how back in the 80s and early 90s English teachers used to earn double what they do now, and how Japan’s economy is collapsing and prices are ridiculously high now, Japan is such a racist country, etc. In all honesty, these days I do my best not to engage these people in conversation. Hyperbole about wages aside, the entire world is in an economic slump right now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Provided that you avoid the less reputable companies, Japan still offers a competitive entry level wage to new teachers, and the standard of living is amongst the best in the world. There are of course some unscrupulous operators out there, but if you educate yourself about what to look for and what to avoid, then you’ll be fine. Other industries in Japan also offer very competitive packages to newcomers.
As for racism, well I hardly think anyone form the UK or USA is in a position to lecture anyone about racial intolerance, given some of the rampant anti-foreign extremism currently manifest among a very vocal minority in those countries.
As someone who has had issues with depression in the past, I don’t need the kind of negativity these people bring, and as such I honestly think they are best avoided. Japan is not the land of milk and honey, but neither is it the barren, desolate wasteland these people make it out to be.
As with all things in life, you’ll get out of your Japan experience what you put into it. Quite frankly, a lot of these types I have met seem to be blaming the country for their own personal failures and social inadequacies.
The “if you don’t like it, go home” mentality
Ok, so this may sound contradictory based on what I’ve just said in point three about those who whine incessantly about Japan, yet will never leave. However, what I’m talking about here is their polar opposite. Those who are so wrapped up in their perfect fantasy of life in Japan, that they take any comment or critique on Japanese culture or lifestyle as some kind of personal affront.
Their predictable response to any argument they are losing is always: “well, if you don’t like it, go back to your own country.” Apart from the fact that this sounds painfully like something a US Republican presidential candidate, or UKIP member would say, complete with its uncomfortable racial undertones, it is also a totally pointless and instantly refutable argument.
Anyone who chooses to live in Japan has as much right as another to express their concerns, their complaints and their worries. As I have said several times, I love living in Japan, but I will not delude myself that this place is perfect. It is certainly not above criticism in a number of areas.
There are various aspects of Japanese law that are discriminatory, there are numerous flaws and loopholes in Japan’s employment regulations that I don’t like, and there are also some social behaviors that although widely practiced in Japan, I find objectionable. Highlighting these, and challenging them in a constructive and progressive way is, I believe, a vital part of the acclimatization process.
The “how do they do this in your country” conversation
This last one is, on the face of it at least, far less problematic than my previous points. However, it’s still a difficult one to address. My colleagues and Japanese friends often ask me things like “Is (insert generic untalented musical act of the day here) popular in your country?”, or “Do people in your country like this Japanese food?” and so on.
For starters, I haven’t actually lived in Scotland for almost a decade. I have spent more of my adult working life abroad than I have in Scotland. In many ways, I identify myself as more Japanese then Scottish these days, if not in terms of nationality then certainly in terms of outlook and attitude to daily life. Again also, I am wary of applying a generalization. “Do people in Scotland like Okonomiyaki?”
In all honesty, most of them probably don’t even know what it is. So instead, of just making up an answer, I try to be honest. Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t see a problem with sometimes saying, I don’t know or I don’t understand. Instead of answering the question, I instead sometimes try to take it in a different, and hopefully enlightening direction. For example: “I don’t think okonomiyaki is well known in Scotland, but many people there like haggis. Have you ever heard of haggis?”
Overall, Japan has allowed me to meet all kinds of people, good and bad. As someone with an ongoing fascination with how the human mind works, that is something I will always be grateful for. Long may it continue.