I carry my Japaneseness in my shoulders.
Two years in Japan and I’m already compulsively bowing. I’ve developed an aversion to looking relaxed in any circumstance, having permanently adopted the paper-shuffling manner of Japanese bank clerks.
I didn’t realize how assimilated I’d actually become until a recent jaunt to Korea, where I saw something confusing while drinking a latte at the “Angel in Us” coffee shop: A Korean barista leaning against the counter, absent-mindedly spinning a towel around in her hands.
I go to a lot of boring coffee shops in Japan. They have terrible coffee and decent pastries (a controversial claim, that!) but they do not have absent-minded baristas.
The Golden Rule in Japan is that there is no downtime. Employees always look like they’re busy – it’s part of the job. There is always something that hasn’t been cleaned yet today, and some customer who will tut them for failing to be on top of it. As a result, customer service is completely neurotic.
Appearing to make tremendous efforts in the most mundane activities is a rich Japanese custom. Women in my office are constantly running from one side of the room to the other to make photocopies. This stresses me out. I imagine it stresses everyone else in the office out.
So all of us have become very good at constantly shuffling papers around, even when we’re checking Facebook on our iPhones.
If you leave Japan and come back, the pressure and stress of keeping up the wa (the ol’ social harmony) is clear on people’s faces, even in the way that they walk. Everyone in Japan participates in a vast social conspiracy to keep up social order – the polite word is “harmony,” and it’s more than peace and quiet. It’s preserving the “way things are done.”
All that repression becomes perfectly visible if you leave Japan and come back.
This is such an accepted phenomenon in Japan that some people actually avoid leaving the country out of the fear that they’d lose their “Japaneseness.” Forbidden fruit, and all that. It’s a greater problem for people who have lived abroad long enough to adopt foreign ways.
“They look at my background in Chicago and then they look at me and they say, ‘Mo Nihonjin ja nai,’ (‘You are no longer Japanese’),” says the 29-year-old Muranaka, a professional jazz pianist, composer and arranger. “Then I usually don’t get hired.”
Granted, that’s a 22-year-old story, and you’d think that Japan’s “internationalization” has picked up some acceptance along the way. But I still know Japanese people reluctant to talk about how long they’ve been abroad, because they’re worried about the social stigma they might face from other Japanese. Kids who have picked up English skills when their parents went abroad come back and pretend they can’t speak English – until they’re alone in a room with English teachers.
There’s pressure among peers to act monolithically. I have a coworker who refers to herself as “We Japanese,” who has no interest – not even curiosity – in hearing about how “We Americans” do it, or anywhere else, for that matter.
The Squirrels of Harvard Yard
I think of Japanese tour groups – buses filled with Japanese tourists in foreign lands. When I was taking classes in Cambridge, Mass., I’d see the tour groups come. The bus would park and release rows of identically dressed men with the same camera.
If it was summer I’d be reading on the library steps and they’d take a picture of me from about 15 feet away. Not the library – me.
But mostly they took pictures of squirrels.
The squirrels that year had learned a trick in which, if you held a nut over their heads, they’d do a backflip. At the time I assumed MIT kids had taken several wild squirrels hostage for behavioral experiments before releasing them on the Harvard campus.
The Japanese tourists were rightfully infatuated. They’d gather around the squirrels, hold up the nuts, take photographs of themselves making a peace sign at the squirrel and get back on the bus.
Those buses are an easy way to get around, and certainly some of it appeals to the Japanese love of good customer service and enjoyable experiences.
But they are also a kind of “Japan on wheels” – a bubble that makes scheduled stops, limiting real interaction with foreign culture, eliminating the possibility that a squirrel from Harvard Yard might do a little back flip and scamper off with your Japaneseness crammed into its cheeks.
The Japanese tour bus isn’t just a way to travel, it’s a way to protect yourself from travel.
The Korean Way
As an expat, it works in reverse: I start to see that Japan has made me all sorts of crazy. It’s not just the vacation – it’s being taken out of a very specific set of behavioral rules.
To some Japanese people, Korea is a dystopian Japan, Japan with all the Japan taken out.
When I crossed back through immigration on the way home, it was nice to know the protocol for the airport, to speak a bit of the language, to know how to comport myself around strangers and authorities and taxi drivers. I felt a sense of relief about fitting in.
In Korea, no one gave a damn if I was fitting in or not. I didn’t know the rules, but no one cared. You could spit on the street, elbow your way off of a train car, use a cell phone on the subway, walk and chew food at the same time, and shout at the guy who steps on your foot.
It takes a few years in Japan for all of that to sound relaxing.
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