Tag Archives: gaijin

The seven stages of gaijinhood

Like Douglas Adams’ deadlines, recently the milestones keep making great whooshing noises as they go by.  This is both my ninth month in Japan and my 200th post on ten minutes hate and, although it has been a mad rush of a week after the previous serene holiday temple wanderings, that seems to offer enough of a reason to stop and survey the scenery.

So already pondering my navel, this excellent post on the seven stages of gaijinhood* perfectly chimed with the mood.  It also includes a handy chart, to map your progress on the descent to something even your closest friends will take pleasure in shunning.  It was intriguing to wonder where I might fall.

On the one hand, I am happy to be a ‘wide-eyed wonderer’, still ticking off the firsts: first trip on a shinkansen, first visit to Kyoto, even (slightly shamefacedly) the first faltering steps towards learning some Japanese.  Yet at the same time, perhaps not so wide-eyed.

Often I struggle to answer the question of why I came to Japan when people ask, because the reason seems quite mundane.  I was tired of London and looking for something new, afraid of slipping into the dread routine and worried I would never make it out.  People told me I was crazy to give up a secure job and although I know they were rooting for me, I don’t think even my best friends thought it would really happen until we were celebrating at my leaving do.

In spite of that, and even though just before I left the UK I was writing that Haruki Murakami was about 68% responsible for the whole adventure, maybe not having a clear obsession, with manga or martial arts or anything else, helped.  Hopefully, my lack of a clear reason for choosing Japan meant that I managed to side-step some of the notions that set people up for rapid disillusionment soon after the plane lands.  The real, if slightly dull, reason I came here was that I wanted to see it for myself.

But if the ‘wide-eyed wonderer’ stage is the most self-aware of them all then it is important not to get too self-congratulatory.  It is essential to keep a handle on how gauche you are, still wet behind the ears, so required to bow (like a rice stalk in the wind, according to one guidebook I brought with me) to the superior knowledge of others.  While running counter to the spirit of adventure that got you onto the plane, on arrival, it is both safer and easier to walk in the footsteps of those who have trod the path before.

As a writer in Japan, it is inevitable that writing about Japan would rear its sometimes-ugly head.  Our Man in Abiko skewers some of the more terrible afflictions of the genre in this post:

Do not use pictures of Japanese people behaving normally, such as shopping at CostCo, walking around IKEA or eating a hamburger, as this will imply to potential readers that you don’t know the real Japan.

The Westerner’s fear of the neonsign also offers some words of caution:

Every blog about Japan – and there are too many to count – reveals a dossier of prejudices that the author either held already or nurtured during that vital first year in the country. It’s no surprise that blogs are appended so innocuously – ‘a blog about my life in Japan’, ‘thoughts on Japanese society’, ‘visual culture in Japan’ – since this is all the author believes himself to be doing.

Maybe because this site existed before I arrived, it was easier to resist the urge to document every new thing I stumbled across in those early ‘barely able to get on the right train’ days.  My posts from that time are notable either because they don’t contain much Japan, or because they don’t contain many words, although that last does include not one, but two strange flavoured Kit-Kats.  I could die of shame.

I started ten minutes hate to vent spleen at the utter uselessness of the UK’s politicians and at first it was difficult to resist the lure of or foresee an end to that topic.  That was until the time difference and distance began intruding, when it didn’t seem like I could offer any new perspectives on the cuts and the protests against them.  My last post on the subject, written on 10 March, was largely unloved and unread.

I wasn’t sure what else to do, but I knew I wanted to avoid writing another ‘weird Japan’ blog.  As an English teacher I couldn’t feel comfortable mocking attempts to use the language, especially not with six words of Japanese to my name.  The seedier aspects of life might have boosted the hit count, but apparently there are others out there making a much better fist of that, so more power to their elbows.

Maybe in the end, your subject finds you.  As with so many other areas of life, the Tohoku earthquake must have altered the gradual progressions noted in the chart.  Perhaps it has made me jump a few steps to ‘ill-informed activism’ as, horrified by the UK media’s take on the situation, I determined to tell the ‘real’ story.  That this has proved popular shows that people are keen to hear from other perspectives.  My posts since 11 March have often strayed far from what I would consider ‘newsworthy’, seeming to endlessly concern the tea I have been drinking and accompanying cakes.  Maybe there is a ‘keep calm and carry on’ nature to such posts that make them comforting to read.

I am aware of Japan slipping down the list of stories, at the worst possible point for those affected, when they need assistance and attention more than ever.  All I can do is, in a small way, keep the stories of survivors, their needs and the relief efforts directed at them, in the thoughts of people around the world who may be able to help.  To keep plugging Quakebook and other fundraising efforts and to report on efforts being made in other countries, so that Japan doesn’t feel alone, as one of my students said it did in March.

I hope that will keep ten minutes hate going for another 200 posts, although on the way there will be times when I am just as unsure of the right direction.  In Gakuranman’s post he notes that:

self-doubt and questioning is at least a step in the direction of humility.

I would argue that a little – not too much – self-doubt is an essential part of a writer’s arsenal.  You want that small voice whispering in your ear ‘it’s not good enough’, to spur you on to better things.  When strolling around new cities, as well as when writing, getting lost is usually the best way to find your way to something unexpected but ultimately more rewarding.

* A gaijin is a foreigner in Japan, lovers of wordplay will note that this was recently amended to ‘flyjin’ in response to the numbers of foreigners who made arrangements to move elsewhere when faced with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown.

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Cause: earthquake

Teacher, where were you… when big earthquake…?

In case I’m not sure what they mean, the student helpfully makes a motion to demonstrate the shaking with their hands at this point in the question.  I was only halfway through my first week back at work when I began to run out of new ways to tell the same stories.  Friday 11 March was like a terrible film on almost constant loop in my head.

The students are lucky, in a way, because they only have to tell theirs once.  Japanese stoicism being what it is, I suppose this might be their only opportunity to speak out loud and I don’t begrudge them taking it at all.  I reflect that I am also in quite a privileged position, being able to listen to voices that aren’t often heard by gaijin.  Students have voiced criticisms to me that I doubt they would tell a spouse or a parent if the normal rules hadn’t been suspended for a short time by the crisis.

They tell me of having to sleep in the office, on a piece of cardboard or in a family restaurant because of suspended trains.  Of taking in family members from the North who have left everything behind.  Of their disbelief at US news outlets thinking Sendai is located in Kyushu in the West.  Or they speak of how business is being disrupted, the usual routine thrown into disarray by colleagues relocating, shipments being delayed and a thousand other factors.  Everyone is busy, working hard, worrying about the future and where it might lead.

Japan feels alone…

…one student tells me, fearful that tourists – rare even in better times due to the yen’s strength – will no longer want to come because of the radiation.  So I mention that I have family about to arrive and they are so happy to hear the news, we talk of places my relatives should visit while they are here and it is a relief to turn to a less fraught topic of conversation for a short while.  It seems such a small crumb of comfort to be able to offer when what is needed is a feast.

Picture from the Yamanote line, Saturday 12 March

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Rough day

Yesterday was tough.  The first full day back to work since the earthquake was always going to be something of a shock to the system and naturally there was only one main theme of conversation for the adult students.  Where were you, what did you see and exactly how long did it take you to get home?

There was also a genuine curiosity as to how a real live foreigner is reacting to the crisis.  Maybe they have read about the ‘flyjin‘ and are surprised to see that some of us have stayed, but there was also genuine concern for my safety, some checking that I knew what to do during a quake and enquiries as to how my family felt about me still being here.

It felt slightly strange to be providing reassurance that I felt safe, knew that I should open a door and duck under a table, that I had huge faith in Japanese engineering and building technology after seeing how little damage there had been in central Tokyo.  I am not entirely sure if I was trying to comfort those listening or myself.  As students told me that they jumped every time they heard a strange noise in the office, that they were buying bottled water as a precaution for their daughters or that a 30-minute commute home had taken seven hours to complete, I wondered whether we would ever be able to return to ‘normal’.

I also wondered what this was accomplishing, feeling equally powerless to assist in the face of such devastation or a student’s sudden tears.  So I came home, opened a bottle of wine, heard from some amazing people on Twitter and then regained a sense of perspective.  I didn’t have a tough day at work.  It was perhaps a little rougher than usual, but not in any way tough.  If you want to see some people who had a tough day at work yesterday, click here.

The Fukushima 50 are risking everything to keep everyone in Japan safe.  So next time I feel like having a whinge, I will be thinking of everything they are going through and lifting my chin a little higher.

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Are you ok?

So how are you?  Are you doing ok?  How is everything there?  What’s happening?  You alright?

These and other variations on the same theme have been pinging around the world into the inboxes and ears of many residents of Japan since the earthquake of 11 March.  There is no easy way to answer such questions, it seems, because every time I try I come up with something different.

Just as I wrote those words, the earthquake alarms that many people have on their mobile phones sounded, before my table in the cafe shook lazily, almost soothingly, as if a giant foot was somewhere trying to rock a cradle holding Japan to send us all to sleep.  It only went on for a couple of seconds, so can’t have been very big or must have been located far away.  Once I was sure that my cup of tea wasn’t going to spill I returned to my writing.

Such complacency must seem incredible to Westerners, faced with images of the devastation in the North and worrying about us here in Tokyo.  If I stop to think I am also incredulous at how quickly I have become used to aftershocks and alarms, how swiftly I can now calculate levels of immediate danger and decide if they are worth getting out of my chair for.  Similarly, it feels as if we have all become armchair experts on all things nuclear, discussing levels of radiation exposure,  possible side-effects of iodine tablets and the relative impacts of micro- and milli-sieverts in the same way that we once engaged in more idle chatter.

Yet, in spite of the essential rescue efforts still going on in the stricken areas, continuing attempts to save the power plant from meltdown and the reintroduced programme of rolling blackouts, life is returning to a semblance of normality in the capital.  People are commuting and shopping and eating and drinking, as they were before.  I will be back at work later on today and the return to the familiar routine is soothing to the nerves, if likely to prove detrimental to the writing schedule.

The decision to stay in Japan and in Tokyo was the right one for me, I feel sure.  However, that should not be taken as criticism of anyone who made an alternative choice.  We all had to make a decision we were comfortable with, in the face of rapidly altering facts and opinions from an array of experts located around the globe.  We all had different factors to consider and it would have tested the judgment of Solomon at times to know which were the deciders.  Only someone who was here would know the agony of that choice, which is why I am saddened this morning to read this from the Japan Times:

I have seen some nasty stuff written by some (foreigners) who stayed about those (foreigners) who have left

Shame on anyone engaging in such nastiness.  Was it worth it to move a family out of possible harm’s way, to head home to give loved ones a hug or simply to sleep one night in a bed that was unlikely to be rocked by that giant’s foot?  Of course, I recognise the pull of such concerns as I was almost swayed by them myself.  Although in the end other factors won out for me, I don’t have it in me to condemn anyone who chose to answer the question ‘are you ok?’ in person instead of via email, Skype or status update.

But many people in this fantastic country that I am lucky enough to call home are unable to answer that question positively and will not be in a position to do so for a very long time.  Please send as much help as you can, the British Red Cross appeal or Second Harvest Japan are both doing sterling work.  My answer to your question?  Yes, yes I am and thank you so much for asking.

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