On a recent trip to the near-abandoned coal mining town of Tagawa, I took the wrong train three times, taking me into the true inaka – Japan’s rural backwater.
The sight of a foreigner in these parts is rarer than where I live, which is a moderately cosmopolitan city of about 5 million.
In one station, seemingly positioned to bring rice farmers to another, more far-away rice farm, I sat down with 15 minutes to spare before departure. People trickled in and formed a bubble around me. The seat at my side remained unoccupied until a Junior High School boy sat down, staring absent-mindedly at a cell phone screen.
Realizing what he’d done, he leaned forward and nodded at the next guy, who slid over. The boy followed, and I was left with five inches of extra space on my right.
This is the “Gaijin Forcefield,” a foreigner’s super power in which we are given extra space on public transportation to accommodate our enormous frames, even if those frames are the same size as a typical Japanese guy.
Amongst the expat bitterness brigade, this superpower is a go-to example of casual racism in Japan. Japan apologists say it is simply hospitality run amok, the generous Japanese spirit toward foreigners runneth over into giving Westerners the space that they are said to want.
The answer, of course, is somewhere between – it’s just one example of the constant hum of “otherness” that buzzes around foreigners, a frequency always off-kilter from what I presume are the bright harmonics otherwise felt in a train car full of Nihonjin.
This isn’t to dismiss actual racism against any group of people in Japan, whose real gripes include landlords refusing to rent apartments to foreigners, banks denying credit cards, police administering random inspections of ID cards or passports. I’ve heard stories of inaka school girls calling out the smelly foreigner to their friends.
This kind of direct racism has consequences beyond people feeling left out, and of course all of you are smart enough to know that this kind of racism is reserved for stupid people and the elderly.
First-World Problems Aren’t Racism
When it comes to “microaggressions” such as the barrage of chopstick compliments or the extra space left next to you on a train, I’m always a little skeptical about interpreting this as a sign of discomfort or agitation on the part of the perpetrators.
Being a foreigner in Japan is inherently disruptive. It goes against Japanese etiquette and harmony, which emphasizes that you don’t stand out, don’t make people uncomfortable, don’t impose. Your existence shatters these ideals before you even open your mouth.
I am an unknown thing in Japan, a country with 99.8 percent ethnic homogeneity. People react to novelty in different ways. The idea that the Japanese should ignore my ethnic distinction is incredibly unrealistic.
I may as well be a polar bear on a train, and it’s impossible to expect people to treat a polar bear like an everyday occurrence, at least until polar bears start riding the subway with any degree of regularity (and undoubtedly with better navigation skills than mine).
How you choose to internalize microaggressions is up to you, after all. I’ve come to see it as an opportunity to practice thoughtful behaviors instead of embracing instincts and gut feelings or declaring that, woe is me, someone on a train doesn’t think I’m an amazing, wonderful person.
Since we aren’t likely to force the Japanese into being accustomed to polar bears, we may as well adjust how we react to their reactions.
When I start to imagine that there’s hostility hiding behind some arbitrary actions, I remember high school.
I Am Outside
If you went to a public American high school with any degree of intelligence, you will begin to understand what life is like as a foreigner in Japan.
There is an in-crowd – the Japanese – and there is an out-crowd: The nerds, the less-than-88-percent-assimilated-ethnic-kids, band geeks, theater nerds, punks, etc.
There were rivalries between those groups, but there was a small group of kids who were simply ignored. They tended to join forces and quietly observe the nonsense going on around them, occasionally making jokes or pithy observations, but rarely stepping up to challenge anything because they were too detached to care.
Perhaps detachment is the lingering symptom of an alienated smart kid in recovery.
Perhaps this kind of detachment is what leads a person to uproot and move in the first place. People who feel particularly drawn toward foreign places, those who trust their own tolerance to handle perpetual outsider-ness, often have some training and that training, I’d bet, is the social space that occupies public schools in America.
Oddly, few of us seem to stop to acknowledge how much of our attitudes and beliefs about the world outside of us were rules written by a dumbass 16-year-old in reaction to the behaviors of a bunch of dumbass 16-year-olds.
I’m comfortable with living as a passive and detached observer, which is why I’m comfortable as an illiterate foreigner in Japan. If you get detached enough, you start to see the active role you’re playing in events because you are shaping the story of those events.
Much more than home, I often have to remind myself that I am interpreting this culture through a paranoid lens – I’m being stared at, I’m being ignored when I say hello, I’m being talked about on trains. It’s the realization of all fears for self-obsessed neurotics: In America, I comforted myself with the realization that, in fact, everyone is too busy thinking about themselves to notice anything I’m up to.
But in Japan, that just doesn’t hold up. I actually am being stared at, inspected, and judged.
So you decide how you’re going to handle that. You can look at the five-inch-wide patch of blue cloth between you and the junior high school student, and you can decide if it’s racism or cultural accommodation, you can decide if he’s uncomfortable with you or being polite, you can decide you smell bad or that he’s worried that he smells bad.
You can ask him, you can ignore him, you can relax because you have the space, you can laugh because his ignorance has made for a more comfortable train ride, you can wonder if, maybe, just maybe, you actually DO smell bad.
But we’ll actually never know. This mystery in the chasm between you and the consciousness of a boy in the sailor uniform is just as unknowable as the chasm between you and the consciousness of, like, God.
I can decide to dismiss all those perceived indignities I’m being forced to endure. Or I can sit there and make up a story, pretend that story is the world, and then go ahead and live in the world that I just invented, like a crazy person.
But we have a choice – and we don’t really have to care what the 15-year-old sitting next to us, or inside of us, thinks about us now.
Can you use chopsticks? Oh, wow! That’s really impressive. Can you use Facebook, too? Oh wow! You’re so skilled. Can you follow This Japanese Life? Oh wow! You are practically Japanese, huh?!