Imagine small, square dishes spread out on the black lacquer table, their white porcelain framing the slimy greens and reds of the usual Japanese delicacies. You’ve folded your legs, seiza-style, on cushions of gold-and-blue flowers. Your co-workers grab chopsticks and, with an “itadakimasu,” begin to eat. You join them. And then, almost as ritualistically as the tapping of beer glasses, someone turns to you and asks:
“You can use chopsticks?”
You can, you say.
I usually find myself pointing with sarcasm at the chopsticks, but regret it. I feel guilty for exposing the pointlessness of the question, as if it’s my fault that I’ve been asked.
This is the complicated world of the dreaded “microaggression,” a buzzword popularized in Japan by Debito Arudou in his The Japan Times column (blah blah).
Microaggressions, according to Arudou, are small, near-invisible reminders that I am Japan’s “them” and everyone else is “us.” They’re stresses that come from the gradual build up of tiny, repetitive actions from Japanese people, a carpal tunnel syndrome of the human spirit.
But “microaggression” is an odd word, given that no one’s claiming that there’s any hostility involved, just a perpetual “othering.” The idea that “othering” is an act of aggression is a very Western concept – diversity being a Western (even American) value, albeit, I would say, a totally awesome one.
It’s hard, though, to tackle the idea of “othering” in Japan through a Western lens. Japan has a lot going on.
The Tyranny of the Stupid Question
“Can you use chopsticks?” is the most referenced stupid question, but I’ve endured or heard of countless more, ranging from the unforgivable “You can eat onigiri?” (unforgivable because I was eating onigiri) to the geographically ignorant, “Do you have snow in America?”
Yes and yes, thanks for asking. At first I addressed these questions with goodwill. After all, I don’t know if Japanese people can feed themselves or have rain. I’d hate to be presumptuous.
Under the microaggression microscope (microaggressionscope?) these questions are dreamed up by Japanese people because they are ignorant of the outside world, xenophobic, and blissfully unaware that non-Japanese are capable of doing anything Japanese people do. It’s what we call a “lack of imagination.”
Perhaps this is true, but it seems a bit mean and unproductive not to discuss this stuff in a broader cultural context. I’ll lay these out and let you decide if this contributes to, or detracts from, microaggression theory.
Point One: It Would Be Weirder If They Didn’t Say Anything
In his masterpiece book, “Language in Thought and Action,” SI Hayakawa discusses the phatic role of language, where “the focus is not so much on what is said as on the interpersonal, communicative function, on the faculty of language to … reach easy agreement through relatively insignificant small talk.”
Hayakawa uses the example of a driver coming across someone struggling with a flat tire. The passerby pulls over and tells the stranger, “Looks like you’ve got a flat tire.”
We ask if the tire is flat because our language is a way of offering our voices to each other. Dogs sniff butts, human monkeys listen to tones and inflection. When we say dumb shit like “Can you use chopsticks?” to a person using chopsticks, we’re expressing a need to share our tone, in this case, a tone of curiosity.
Imagine standing at the side of the road, struggling with a flat tire, and being approached by a stranger who stands there saying nothing. Silence is awkward.
So why is talking to a foreigner a communal national effort, in which the same set of questions are the proper ones to ask? Well, you tell me. That’s what the comments section is for.
Point Two: All Japanese People Always Say The Same Things
If you sit at a restaurant long enough, a gaggle of Japanese women will eventually start picking apart a piece of food shaped like an alien baby. All of them will announce that it looks oishii (delicious), then, once eating the alien baby, they will declare that it is, in fact, oishii. Then they will ask each other, “Is it oishii?” after everyone has eaten it.
If a kitten unexpectedly arrives in a top hat and monocle, sneezing rainbows, everyone will shout “kawaii!” and then they will ask each other if it is kawaii, and then declare, afterward, that it was a kawaii thing that happened to all of them just then.
I have a wild theory that Japanese people aren’t as stupid as these conversations make them sound.
But there’s a social element to saying the same thing in Japan: The alien baby is being shared. Sharing food is a communal experience and demands a communal response.
Going the extra mile in that communal response – going beyond the phatic use of language into the communicative, such as improvising a short list of top 5 best meals ever eaten – is showing off. Everyone says it’s delicious? OK, go along with it. Join the commune. Don’t draw attention to yourself. That’s not the Japanese way.
The same instinct kicks in when the foreigner is around. Ask the same stuff everyone else asks out of the officially approved Questions for Foreigners Handbook, or you might shake the boat. You have no clue how to address this person from UnJapan. You might offend the foreigner, and that disrupts the wa. So, protect the wa – keep it phatic.
Point Three: There is Only One Way To Do Anything, and It’s Japanese.
Innovation is hard to come by. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, there was a law: “No one shall create anything new” (This sounds like a joke – it’s not). If anyone attempts to break tradition, it had better work. If it fails it was the fault of a cocky innovator who didn’t know their place.
So everyone in Japan is pounded like mochi with the same values in school – taught to write kanji in the same way, to play musical instruments the same way, to shoot bows and arrows in the same slow, painstaking, repetitive way.
When you’re trained that everything has a specific way of being done, you subconsciously tune into cues about things that have no rules and feel your way through what seems to be the consensus. This includes the Japanese Way of Meeting Foreigners.
The first thing to do with a foreigner is avoid them (the taint of the foreign being something I’ve addressed before).
If you have to entertain a foreigner, assume that they are guests. This means you won’t accidentally pick up any interference from the outside ways.
There are protocols for how to treat guests.
You make sure that they’re comfortable. You don’t raise controversial questions. You ask them if they can eat with chopsticks, because if they can’t, maybe they’ll bring you a fork. You bring them an English menu, because they’re probably embarrassed that they can’t read Japanese. It’s hospitality.
This mindset explains why Japanese people have occasionally felt obligated into extremely unnecessary acts of kindness. Upon picking up a 100-yen coin for an elderly woman in a train station, she asked me where I was going, then rode the train with me to get there, showed me the temple I was looking for, found an English tour guide, and bought me the local snack (for 500 yen). Then she left.
Was I being microaggressed? Was this woman punching me in the face with her tiny, tiny fists? According to Arudou, the default belief is that foreigners are guests (a position many foreigners agree with). The idea of the foreigner being “Japanese” is a paradox. You’re either nihonjin or gaikokujin, Japanese or “foreign,” and you don’t get to pick sides.
This old woman, whose kindness is indisputable, was also operating on a lot of heavy assumptions: The assumption that I needed someone to show me how to ride the train or find a giant shrine. The assumption that I was a visitor, a tourist, and not a resident.
Help, Help, I’m Being Microaggressed!
So, what does it all mean? If we look at these phenomenon through the micro-aggression lens, we can see them as independent pieces of a cultural puzzle, or pieces of the puzzle that fit together to make “microaggressions” inevitable. I’m curious to know what readers think of how these concepts interact. Where do you stand?
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