Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Japan's Communists on Piracy in Somalia

Japan has agreed to send navy ships to the coast of Somalia to help combat pirates who are attacking cargo ships. This is good. Japan needs to do more of this. If you are a first-world nation that benefits from international trade, you need to help keep shipping lanes safe. Yet Japan's communist party doesn't see it that way.

A statement from our Japanese comrades:

"Japanese Communist Party Chair Shii Kazuo at a news conference on January 8 expressed opposition to the move to establish a new law to send a Self-Defense Force unit to waters off Somalia ostensibly to take part in anti-piracy operations to protect Japanese ships. "


"Ostensibly" to take part in piracy options? So this is all a ruse? I suppose Japan is really planning on colonizing east Africa. I see.

Our friends in red continue:

"The government has never attempted to dispatch a military vessel overseas for policing activity under the Self-Defense Forces Law. Shii said, 'Piracy is a criminal act that should be solved through police activity. It is wrong to call for Japanese warships to be deployed abroad.'"


Yes, piracy is a criminal act. Correct. So what's your point? This should be handled by Somalian policemen? Should we send Tokyo street cops in fishing vessels to handle things? If you thought that mainstream Japanese politicians were lost, you can take heart that the communists are really confused. Japan is trying to act like a responsible global citizen here, and forces within the country want Japan to stick its head back in the sand. Not good.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

North Korea to Launch Rocket Over Japan

Here's one important consequence of the constant political instability of Japan - other nations stop taking you seriously. Case in point: North Korea has announced it will launch a satellite-carrying rocket that will cross Japanese air space, and then land in the Pacific.

This is a provocative move by the North Koreans, and we learn that Prime Minister Aso's reaction was:

"The prime minister stopped short of demanding further U.N. sanctions if North Korea goes ahead with the launch."

All he can do is say: "If you do this, I might think about telling the UN." We know from experience with Iraq and Iran, that the UN means nothing to a country like North Korea. The sad reality is that Japan can't do anything. It doesn't have the military, economic or political muscle to do a single thing.

China, now that's a different story. If China wanted North Korea to back down, they could do it.

Another sign that Japan is fading into Geo-political irrelevancy.



Friday, March 13, 2009

Is Japan Closed Again?

After 150 years, is Japan closed for a second time? The fundamental tension in Japanese culture has always been between isolation on one hand and an undiscriminating love of all things foreign on the other.

(Photo courtesy of Toby Forage)

According to writer Gavin Blair, isolationism and an inward, domestic focus is now winning out in Japan. He writes about a new Japanese isolation in an article titled “More Japanese Shunning the Outside World” in Japan Today.

He begins:

“Today, it appears that Japan is increasingly looking inward and walling itself off from outside influences — a trend that’s showing up in everything from movies to music to learning languages.”

Okay, let’s see how he proves this thesis:

“‘When I was a university student, courses like English literature, German literature, French literature and foreign languages were difficult to get into, they were so popular,’ said Takashi Koyama, a professor at Akita International University. ‘Nowadays, those courses are struggling to get students.’”

Interesting. I know a Japanese woman in her 40s; she is quite literary and artistic. She knows the great books of western literature and, of course, plays the violin and loves western classic music. I wonder if she is a dying breed…It makes me think of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who has been largely influenced by American writers, but of course was born in 1949 to a very different generation.

Mr. Gavin then reminds the reader that it was only 150 years ago that Japan opened its borders to the outside world after being literally closed for 300 years. And then, of course, by the 1930s the problem with Japan was that it was all too interested in foreign countries, more specifically in invading them, and making them puppet states.

Gavin then focuses on the recent Oscar victory of “Okuribito” (Departures) in the foreign language film and what this might tell us. He mentions that Japanese films are doing better domestically, while Hollywood films are declining in popularity. He quotes a film distributor:

“‘Younger Japanese audiences don’t connect so strongly with Hollywood films recently,’ said Yusuke Horiuchi of Toho-Towa, which distributes overseas films in Japan.”

I’m not sure that proves much. I’m a 30-something American guy and I don’t connect with Hollywood films either. Maybe the Japanese can detect fluff and stupidity when the see it.

The writer then contrasts the strength of Japanese films, with the sad state of J-Pop, while still noting that Japanese pop music is outselling international pop music…That’s interesting, but not terribly shocking news.

He then jumps into some weightier matters regarding Japan cultural issues:

“The causes of this increase in parochialism are somewhat hard to identify. A sense of cultural pride, particularly among young people, has certainly developed regarding the popularity of Japanese manga, music and fashion.”

Okay, but can we logically conclude that “cultural pride” is what has lead to this inward, navel gazing now underway in Japanese culture? The French people, for example, are quite proud of French culture, but they are not easily described as parochial.

Continuing on:

“The 'hungry spirit' that drove Japan’s development from post-war decimation to economic superpower, has inevitably faded, and with it, the notion that interaction with the outside world is a necessity rather than a wish.”

The first part of this idea is spot on. Rebuilding Japan after World War II gave the Japanese people a real purpose for sure; and we should marvel at what Japan was able to achieve by the ‘60s and ‘70s. But I’d argue that this in and of itself, was all about Japan and not about being some engaged global citizen. I’m not sure that we can describe exporting Toyotas as a dramatic “interaction” with the outside word. It’s trade. The U.S. trades with China, but it’s hard to argue that China is having a great cultural influence on the U.S.

I think the next sentence is where Mr. Gavin is actually going with this:

“But whatever its roots, some are worried a rise in nationalist sentiment is mirroring this loss of interest in foreign languages and foreign affairs.”

And then he ends with…“Some observers in Japan however, no longer see creeping isolationism in a globalized 21st century as a laughing matter.”

Among many politicians in Japan, as well as foreigners with a progressive bent in Japan, there is the fear that any hint of Japanese cultural pride is a prelude to nationalism. This is irrational. There is a big difference between nationalism and Japanese patriotism, which must be fostered in young people.

Young Japanese people are taught to be weary of flags and national anthems and there is no way to justify this in the year 2009. A healthy Japanese national identity will not develop unless Japanese young people are first taught the truth about Japanese aggression in WW II, but then Japanese society was seriously reformed after the war. You don't think so? Look at the Emperor today - instead of being a god - he is treated more like the assistant deputy of agriculture, a nobody really.

I think the real danger for Japan, is not that it will once more become a global military bully (for it does not have the human capital or the natural resources to do so), but that it becomes a country forgotten by the 21st century economy, or perhaps even a victim of Chinese or Russian aggression.

Anyone who loves Japanese culture wants to see Japan have a role in Asian geo-politics, global economics and the cultural give-and-take of the great nations, but it seems instead that Japan is setting itself up for a slow, cranky retirement from the first order of nations.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Complaining Foreigners in Japan

I just ran across a great blog entry on complaining foreigners in Japan. Many of you who live (or have lived in) Japan have met just such people. They certainly aren't bad people, but they do make you wonder why they decided to live in Japan of all places. The entry is titled "The Profile of a Gaijin Whiner."

The writer describes this breed of gaijin (foreigner) in Japan:

"As I have established, the Gaijin Whiner is always looking to feel slighted by Japanese people. It fuels their self-centered world with quiet assurances that they are special and are being treated unfairly. So even when some unsuspecting Japanese person tries to help them out, in any fashion, but usually by speaking to the Gaijin Whiner in English, they have to turn it into a negative and complain."

This point is similar in some ways to observations I made about western feminism and Japanese women, where you have gaijin who want to "reform" Japan so that it is more western. Or more accurately we can say they want to decide what is "nice" about Japan, and also what is sexist, old-fashioned, boring, dull, annoying, etc.

Which begs the question, are these gaijin in love with Japan warts and all, or are they reformers and revolutionaries?...Maybe they are a bit of both...or maybe they are simply lost souls as many expaitriates truly are.

Japan Suicide Rate at Crisis Levels

The world has a basket full of problems right now; yet when 30,000 people take their own lives each year - as they do in Japan - you have to wonder what's going on in Japanese culture. The Japanese suicide rate now has seen 10 straight years (97-2007) of 30,000 suicides a year. So what's up with this tragic reality?

You want to be sensitive with a subject like this, but there are times when silence is itself a form of malice...Is anyone in Japan paying attention to Japanese suicide! Your neighbors, co-workers, grandfathers and nieces are killing themselves, do you wonder why?

And part of the problem in Japanese culture is a kind of overly-bureaucratic, sociological view of Japanese suicide. I cite a recent editorial in the Japan Times Online as a perfect example a certain view of suicide in Japan:

"It is likely that poor business conditions, overwork, unemployment, debts and depression lead people to contemplate suicide. Government and non-government organizations should work together to establish an efficient network in which unemployed workers can easily obtain counseling and advice."

Oh, gee thanks for this sensitive, empathetic analysis! Are we talking about municipal budget shortfalls here, or are we talking about human beings deciding it's better to be dead than alive? It's precisely this kind of dull, press-release sounding response which typifies the Japanese approach to Japan suicides.

And then, of course, the solution is that more "government and non-government organizations" should help out. What does that mean? How can a government give people hope? Is the UN supposed to come in and distribute self-help books and schedule counseling visits? I don't want to be glib, but the point must be made that we're not talking about tax issues here, but real spiritual and moral problems in Japanese culture.

I'm not a mental health professional, but I suspect that a bad economy, unemployment and debts don't generally cause people to kill themselves - these are 'final straw' issues if you will - but it is a long embedded despair which is the real culprit. A bad economy and severe unemployment describes the daily life of millions of people in Africa, Latin America and India, but we don't see the despair that we do in Japan.

Despair is the absence of hope. And hope is something that buffers people during hard times. When you have hope, you naturally look toward the future. One byproduct of hope is choosing to have children. Is it any surprise that the population in Japan is plunging, because Japanese people have stopped having babies?

I believe that this Japanese despair has much to do with its profoundly material and secular view of life. All of this makes sense coming out of the wreckage of WW II, but once people achieved great materiel wealth by the '70s and '80s, it was like, now what? Then came the bursting of the Japanese financial bubble in the '90s, and now the global recession that is starting to hit Japan. Money comes and goes, but hope, virtue and faith is something no economy can steal from you.

Though personally not a huge proponent of psychology as it's practiced these days, there certainly needs to be more acceptance of this tool in Japanese society. People should be able to say, "You know, I need some help here," and be able to get counseling without all the cultural taboos. But the larger survival of Japanese civilization involves having faith in something beyond themselves and material prosperity.

Let's hope and pray that the Japanese suicide rate starts plunging downward faster than the Japanese birth rate. And who knows, perhaps tough economic times may bring back an appreciation of family life, children and more simple pleasures; for only with family changes, can you expect significant changes to the society as a whole.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Japanese Business Culture and the Applogy

We’ve written about the Japanese apology culture in the past, and a recent article by Tomoko Otake in Japan Times Online beautifully chronicles how this plays out in Japanese business culture when a corporation gets into trouble.

The article on Japanese business etiquette describes a tragic incident involving a faulty elevator that led to the death of a young Japanese boy. The parent elevator company was Swiss, while the manufacturer was Japanese.

Ms. Otake correctly notes:

“A closer look at the company's handling of the event provides a cautionary tale for businesses operating in Japan, where a swift public apology after being linked to a scandal — regardless of who's chiefly to blame — is generally expected and taken for granted.”

Now this is part Japanese business etiquette and part Japanese culture. Apologizing in Japanese culture isn’t generally about guilt, but more about protocol.

In the west, with its Christian heritage, there is a close link between doing something wrong (sin) and personally repenting for it (confession); And this important aspect of western civilization is still practiced today in the Roman Catholic Church, which has never been a major cultural influence in Japan.

She quotes the executive of the Swiss elevator firm on his experience:

“‘I would say that our reaction was typically Western, especially an Anglo-Saxon type of reaction,' said Schindler… ‘When you are educated in, let's say, a multicultural environment as I was, and mainly in the United States, apologizing is always the admission of guilt. So not only by training as a lawyer, but genetically we are preprogrammed never to apologize until it is clear you are guilty."

Yes. I’d say that’s spot on – although I’m not sure what the U.S. being multicultural has to do with anything – and as far as saying it’s an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ reaction, I’d say that’s too narrow a perspective. I believe, as I've stated, that it’s the Christian underpinnings of western morality: admitting your sins before God is a serious act with eternal implications. It’s not strictly a sociological act as it is in Japan.

Ms. Otake continues:

“Indeed, in Japan, every time bad news breaks executives wearing uniformly dark-colored business suits meet the media, bow deeply and apologize profusely 'for causing a clamor' — though they are not always forthcoming about the details of the problem...Some even go as far as openly crying in front of television cameras to express remorse."


So true! And so Japanese! Can you imagine the c.e.o. of Enron, for example, crying and apologizing to the American people? No way! American executives are more likely to be found at a Jimmy Buffet concert in San Diego than prostrating in front of a camera crew.

I Like this writer very much! She doesn’t seem to be pro-Japanese or anti-Japanese in all the predictable ways – she’s interested in the truth of Japanese modern society. She then writes:

“Not that Japanese companies across the board are genuinely remorseful or have perfected the art of apology, either. Tatsumi Tanaka, in his 2004 book Sonna Shazai de wa Kaisha ga Abunai (Such Apologies Would Ruin Your Company), offers a long list of scandal-management flops by Japanese executives, who, despite apologizing, reinforced through their manner or response to subsequent questions their image as unrepentant, evasive or even antisocial.”

There is much about Japanese culture that is revealed in this paragraph! To make a great effort to publicly apologize, yet to not be particularly contrite. How human, of course, yet also how Japanese in particular ways.

And this kind of Japanese behavior can't be dismissed off-hand as phony or superficial - things are never that simple in Japanese society. Life in Japan - as wild as this will seem to westerners - isn't fueled by people's personal feelings. There are customs, traditions, expectations, taboos and other people to think of. This is a broad generalization, but how other people think of you, still matters in Japan. There is indeed something to all the fuss about Japanese group behavior and its affect on Japanese people.

Navigating Japanese society for the Japanese is no easy affair (we foreigners are exempt from this dance); by way of comparison, we might say that navigating all the expectations in Japan is akin to playing Chess while being blindfolded. While in contrast, making your way in American society is more like a rough and tumble game of dodge ball.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Travel to Japan Tips

If you plan to travel to Japan, here are a few tips to help your Japanese travel experience; the tips are highly personal and particular to my traveling in Japan experiences. But you may find them useful to ponder before taking your Japan trip:

(photo courtesy of bernardoh)
  • Food: Japanese food is something of an art in Japanese culture; learn some Japanese adjectives to describe your food. Why? Whereas food is fuel in America, food is central to Japanese society and interpersonal relations. After each bite of food make sure you say oishii, which means "delicious"
  • Shinkansen Bento: When you're on the Japanese bullet train (shinkansen), make sure you buy a bento lunch (box lunch) on the train platform; like in an airplane, there is a pull down tray on the seat back in front of you. It's great experience to munch on rice and beef while watching the countryside fly by
  • Book Store: If you go to a Japanese bookstore - and you don't speak Japanese - be prepared that the you'll be asked a question at some point by the cashier; don't worry, she is simply asking if you want a cover on the book; just nod yes
  • Courtesy: During your Tokyo trip, you might see a mother with a child in a stroller down in the subway; often there is no escalator, so she'll have to lug the stroller up the stairs. If men want to be real gentlemen - help her! You'll shock everybody, because people rarely do those kind of things in public in Japanese culture (the blinders are real thick in Japanese cities)
  • Japanese Ramen: You must have Japanese ramen, and ramen is like pizza or BBQ in America: the more local, greasy and obscure the ramen place, the higher the probability that the ramen is good.
  • Chopsticks: If you don't know how to use chopsticks, practice before you arrive. Even if you are terrible at using them, the Japanese will be amazed that you're even trying
  • Canned Coffee: There are tons of Japanese vending machines that sell everything from beer to coffee. I recommend getting canned Japanese coffee - preferably hot - it's already got sugar and milk in it, so it's good to go!
  • Mister Donut: (You can tell I love coffee) Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks have nothing on Mister Donut in Japan; it's an old fashioned New England coffee and donuts chain that somehow ended up in Japan. It's the best! Great coffee and simple, sugary donuts. While you're traveling in Japan - and have some time to kill in a big train station - look for it!
  • J-Rail Pass: Buy a Japan Rail Pass before you arrive in Japan; it gives you unlimited travel on Japanese trains for set amount of time - a great value

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Japanese National Identity

Japan exists in a geo-political bubble. Part of this is the reality of its geography – an island nation – and part of this is a result of having the U.S. military taking care of its defense for the last 60 years. One writer suggests it's time for Japan to have a more "flexible" Japanese national identity.

Author John Haffner, who just wrote a book on the Japanese global reality called Japan's Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship recently wrote an essay for the Huffington Post. He sets the stage for us:


“Japan's population is dropping, but the country is not so keen on immigrants to counter the decline.”

Quite true. Japan is apparently keen on being a very empty country in the future. He continues:

“Looking beyond its borders, some of Japan's leaders have felt nostalgic for the simple rules of the Cold War.”

Yep. How nice it was! The U.S. worried about defeating the Soviet Union and communist China, while the Japan self defense force did push ups, and Japanese businesses focused on making the most efficient compact car in the world. We resume:

"Japan's political leadership, meanwhile -- already long seen as mediocre or incompetent by the Japanese public - has lost all credibility, both at home and abroad. In a recent article describing Japan's (now resigned) trade minister Shoichi Nakagawa at a G7 press conference as 'incoherent, floundering, sleepy and confused.'"

Yes indeed. Think what happens when you give your adolescent son too much money, too little responsibility and then, you suddenly ask him to grow up. What happens? He becomes "incoherent, floundering, sleepy and confused." You might call it a Japan United States codependency issue (which the U.S. has been happy to nourish, for sure).


“So where should Japan go from here?...And when it comes to Japan's triangulations with the United States and China, should Japan simply hope to 'hug the US closer,'or should it cultivate a stance neither too hot nor too cold towards the United States and China, like Goldilocks?”

I don’t have a clue really, though somehow will need to check Chinese power in Asia. Can the Japanese help the U.S. with such a project? In twenty years will Japan have enough young men to form a Japanese defense force of any merit? Japan’s plunging birth rate keeps getting in the way of future plans.

For the author, the solution to Japanese cultural and political problems is to become a lot less like Japan, and more like England.

“If Japan wishes to escape a future of decline and irrelevance, and if it wants to take meaningful steps towards a more secure, contented and prosperous future, it needs to think big. Japan really has only one sustainable option: to become a more open, dynamic, conscientious, engaged, globally integrated country.”

Okay…but this doesn’t sound like anything Japan has ever been. I have a great fondness for Japan and Japanese culture, but this sounds more like America than Japan. The author proposes how Japan can move forward (or at least beyond Japanese history):

“Moving beyond a rigid and inflexible conception of its national identity, by opening up to trade and immigration, by learning to communicate more effectively, including with the English language as the global lingua franca, and by undertaking a much more spirited commitment to global development and security.”


It’s idealistic, I’ll say that. Let’s go point by point on this critique of Japanese culture:

  • An inflexible national identity: Huh? This is fine progressive talk for a pluralistic society, but in Japan? How are the Japanese supposed to become less Japanese? No one seems to be asking the Chinese to become more flexible in their Chinese national identity?
  • Immigration: I think Japan would benefit from measured immigration (more doctors and other heath care folks, for instance), but it’s not an easy question. Japan is Japan because it’s homogeneous. In England, for example, immigration from Muslim countries is profoundly changing that culture. Now you can argue whether that’s good or bad, but that’s a big step.
  • English: I suspect that many readers of this blog are English teachers in Japan and have a lot of ideas about the state of English in Japan. What do you all think?
  • Global Security: I think if Japan wants to have a “spirited commitment” to the world, they better send combat soldiers to Afghanistan and start fighting terrorists with NATO. And if China ever invades Taiwan, Japanese Chinese relations should sour and a Japanese United States alliance may have to combat China. I wonder if that’s what the author means, or is he talking about a resurgence in Japanese patriotism?

Our Author concludes:

“To pursue this path, however, Japan must think beyond isolationism and the US security alliance. Japan must begin to see itself as a global citizen and as an Asian country, and it must walk the walk on both counts.”

On this last point I’m in total agreement with the author. Japan will actually have to do more than send tourists out into the world if it wants to be a leading world citizen.

You can purchase Mr. Haffner's book at Amazon.com:

Japanese and Christian?

Is it possible to be Japanese and Christian?

Of course the answer is yes, but statistics show that only around 1% of the Japanese are Christian. And while no one thinks of Japan and Japanese culture as even remotely Christian, there is a substantial Christian presence in Japanese history.

It's been observed that there really is no Japanese religion to speak of right now. If you're in a cynical mood you might even suggest that materialism is the Japanese religion of choice, but certainly there is much more to the Japanese spirit.

To speak of Japanese religions that have impacted Japanese culture, you would have to note the native Shinto religion, Japanese Zen Buddhism (Chan Buddhism in China), ancestor worship, the Confucian ethical code and Christianity.

It's interesting to note that Japanese Prime Minister Aso is Catholic, which makes him a minority of a minority in Japanese culture, for Catholics in Japan are only a small sliver of the Christian population. Most Japanese Christians represent various Protestant denominations. And while there was almost nothing said about his being a Catholic in the Japanese media, it was noted in many American media outlets that he was the "first Catholic Prime Minister in Japanese history."

Christians in Japanese history go back to the Japanese arrival of Catholic priest St. Francis Xavier in 1549. He seems to have had a fair amount of success preaching about Jesus Christ and making converts. St. Xavier paved the way for a Japanese Catholic saint named St. Paul Miki, who met his death when political actors in Japan started worrying about the loyalty of Japanese Catholic people. From Catholic online:

"(St. Paul Miki) was crucified on February 5 with twenty-five other Catholics during the persecution of Christians under the Taiko, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruler of Japan in the name of the emperor."

Despite many persecutions, the disciples of St. Xavier and St. Paul Miki, continued in their practice of the Catholic faith - even without priests - most notably in and around Hiroshima.

There is an excellent blog on what Japanese Catholic people are doing today, written by a "twenty-something ex-pat", who uncovers fascinating items about Japanese worship and Catholics practicing their faith in Japan.

Yet the question remains, why has Christianity failed to find fertile soil in Japanese culture?

I think part of the issue is that the Japanese see Christianity as a foreign religion. And though Christianity began in the Middle East and is today vibrant in Asia - most intensely in the Philippines, South Korea and now China - it's still seen by Japanese people as a European religion.

I think the main development to watch regarding Japan and Christianity is China and its experience with Christianity.

Right now Christianity is spreading rapidly in China, and is the spiritual force behind Chinese efforts to oppose the Communist government's human rights abuses. Much of Japanese history and Japanese tradition has been influenced by Chinese religion, art and philosophy....So stay tuned.

Monday, March 2, 2009

'Haafu' and Japanese Culture

If you ever been to Los Angeles or Vancouver, you'd have a hard time deciding who is an American or a Canadian and who isn’t. In Japan it's easy. If your ethnically 100% Japanese, you are Japanese. If you're not, you’re something else. In the West this is racism; in Japan it’s called reality. So where do “half-Japanese” people or “haafu” fit in Japanese culture?

Haafu is a Japanese japlish word that meas a person who is half Japanese and half non-Japanese. Normally the child of an international marriage.

Corey Gaskins wrote about his life and this issue in Metropolis Magazine. He begins:

“I am Japanese. In fact, I had been Japanese for 21 years before coming to Tokyo to live for the first time in 2006. You might not consider that very Japanese, but I think I’ve passed all the tests.”

I can tell him one thing: nobody in Tokyo, Japan will think he's Japanese. Just as I don’t think that people in Uganda think that a black man from Florida is really African.

“For instance, when I was 10 and living in Portugal, I endured hordes of people shouting ‘Hey Chinese boy! What are you doing?’”

These people were clearly ignorant, but their ignorance doesn’t make him Japanese. Being Japanese means that you’re part of a tribe of "mind and blood.” That’s the best way I can put it. You may have Japanese blood, but if you weren’t raised in Japan – and learned the way to be and think like Japanese people – you aren’t Japanese. Again, one can label this Japanese racism, but I think this would be a mistake. The writer continues:

"I expected that when I moved to Tokyo, I would finally be able to blend into Japanese society. How na├»ve I was!”

Yes. It’s true. Many Japanese-Americans who thought of themselves as “Japanese,” have received a great shock when they went to Japan to work or live. I have sympathy for the disappointment he must have felt in Japan, he goes on:


“Some people, namely celebrities, do capitalize on their biracial origins, wearing the ‘We’re different’ sash proudly. But that’s not me. I don’t get paid for how I look or how much I stick out in a crowd. When I moved to Japan, I was simply a recent college graduate struggling to fit in.”

The first problem, again, was trying to “fit in.” This can’t be done. Japan is not an open, pluralistic society; traditional Japanese culture has never been pluralistic, and modern Japan has no intentions to go that route. And if we’re honest, we as foreigners in Japan must admit the attraction of Japan is precisely its “closed” homogeneous quality.

The second mistake was thinking that “being different” in Japanese culture was an admirable quality. In the West, with the notion of free will, human rights and individual liberty, “being different” is often respected. Not in Japanese culture! (unless you’re a wacky Japanese comedian, of course, but then being wacky is actually what’s expected of you).

The writer then talks about how in the West he felt like he couldn’t share his Asian roots with people. He writes:

“Just once in a while, I wished I knew somebody else who could understand how great it is to drink warm green tea after eating the undulated sweetness of azuki-filled mochi.”

The Japanese will drink Japanese green tea with you and eat Japanese mochi, but they’ll still will be amazed that you – a foreigner – like to drink green tea and eat mochi. You won’t be amazed, but they will. It’s reality.

Maybe the Japanese people should welcome the writer home as a “long lost brother,” but that would be fake. We in the West often accuse the Japanese of hiding their true feelings, but when they treated this man like a foreigner, they were being sincere.

“After the 1,000th time I was asked “Are you haafu?” and after repeating the same set of answers three or four times a day, I’d had enough. Not only that, I started feeling pangs of indignation when the locals seemed eager to point out how much I didn’t belong here — the very country I’d identified as my homeland since birth! I wondered how other haafu coped.”

In this disappointment, we must feel great empathy for the writer. Yet I don’t think it’s the fault of the Japanese. I believe the real fault are those in the West who make so much of the ethnic backgrounds of so-called “minorities.”

We go on and on (particularly in America) about how so and so is the “first Chinese-American elected to the so and so school board” and so on. Instead of letting Americans be Americans, we make them “special.” I suspect it was this endless multicultural dialogue in the West (along with real instances of racism as he suggests) that got this writer so convinced he was Japanese.

In the end, the writer found a kind of “haafu” community in Japan, which seems rather nice, yet aslo a little sad:


“Hanging out with half-Chinese, -Peruvians, -Greeks or -Palestinians, my race never became an issue — none of my new friends made a fuss when I was able to belt out a popular B’z song at karaoke. By befriending other haafu, I was able to be who I truly was, and not what my race was.”

The writer is fine man, who is sincere in his feelings and experiences. And in his honest telling of this experience as a haafu in Japan, we can learn quite a bit if we're listening.