Dear Molokidan: Can we talk about Japan?

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Nekogami
 
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Dear Molokidan: Can we talk about Japan?

Unread postby Nekogami » Mon Aug 27, 2007 9:22 pm

Dear Molokidan,

Though I do not know the circumstances of your being in Japan, already I feel humbled by the potential knowledge that you carry. I, myself, have only been there once and but briefly. As such I feel as though, I have only scratched the surface of a puzzle that I should like to piece together.

Japan has been an interest to me since high school. You might also know that I have studied the language, history, and culture extensively though my skills are lacking in the first aspect. (I have read your translations and I am still in awe that I should know a non-native Japanese speaker such as yourself. I'm humbled.) A friend of mine, who I might invite to join our discussion, has also spent some time in Japan and has gifted me with the knowledge that she has obtained in her limited and also a brief, albeit twice as long as my stint, time in Japan.

We have many cultural questions that I feel you might be able to answer or at least shed a kind of light that we do not have on the subject. In many ways, the nature of our queries are anthropological. Still, I wonder if you could and would engage in a discussion with us?

I will patiently wait for your reply.

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Molokidan
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Unread postby Molokidan » Wed Aug 29, 2007 10:23 am

Hey Nekogami! I was surprised and humbled to see this message here, and of course, I'm happy to answer any questions you have.

Currently, I am not actually in Japan, although I've been there for a total of about a year and a half so far. I'm going back in '08 for a year, to do some graduate work and stuff. However, here, I'm studying the language pretty hard, and have even produced a translation with a Professor of a samurai fiction story. (It's by the author of Tasogare Seibei/The Twilight Samurai, if you know the movie)

I appreciate the comments on the translations...I work hard on those. Recently I just did my 100th translation of Bleach, which has been a long labor of love that's certainly taught me very interesting vocabulary words I wouldn't otherwise know. I love translating. I could do it day and night, forever. It's just one of my ultimate loves. So I think that's what I want to do.

Anyway, about the questions, send 'em! I live with my girlfriend right now, who's Japanese, and I've learned a lot of unusual stuff from her as well since she comes from a family of buddhist monks (who I'm going to visit for New Year's! ...Fun times!!)

I'll do my best to answer them!!
"Well slap a dead fish on me and call me Molokidan!"

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Unread postby Nekogami » Wed Aug 29, 2007 8:16 pm

I'm not surprised that with your approval I've suddenly forgotten everything that I wanted to ask! Suddenly every possible question has fled from my grasp and I'm left gaping at the screen.

Perhaps, I'll ask and "easy" question.

"How well can foreigners fit in in Japan? Is the illusion of homogeneity so strong that one can never be Japanese unless genetically so?"

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Molokidan
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Unread postby Molokidan » Wed Aug 29, 2007 10:14 pm

Well, before even approaching that question, you have to ask "Why do you want to fit in? What kind of benefit are you seeking to gain from doing that?"

It may sound like I'm beating around the bush, but the point is, if you are just seeking to get along with Japanese people, then that's quite easy to do as long as you're a nice, personable being who isn't an asshole. (And you'd be surprised how many people who travel to Japan can't pass for that.)

It's true that racism exists in Japan, just like in any other country around the world, and there are going to be people who treat you like a foreigner no matter if you lived in Japan your entire life, if your appearance doesn't match that of a Japanese person. But then again, there will also be the people who, if they hear you say something as simple as "Arigatou gozaimasu" will assume you speak fluent Japanese, understand the customs perfectly, and will both trust you with their lives as well as cut you no slack if you make a perfectly simple error.

Trust me. I've met TONS of people in both categories. And tons more who were a mixture of the two.

Another important thing to touch on regarding this topic is the "trying too hard" aspect. Most Japanese people are very keen on the way they do things -- you may think it's natural when you see all those little Japanese high school girls acting so cutesy, but I assure you, all their actions are planned and on purpose. If you try too hard to assimilate, it will only backfire. Again, I've been victim to this in the past, sheerly out of my own overzealous nature.

But if you want me to answer the question straightforwardly, I'd say it depends on a person. No one in the world is going to get an entire nation of people to actively regard them as "something," whether it's Japanese or even simply a "good person." It's just not possible. Instead of worrying about fitting into society, I'd focus on making lasting friendships with people you care about in the country and actively getting involved in social events, therefore cementing yourself as a part of Japan.

I mean, my girlfriend thinks I'm more Japanese than she is, but there are plenty of other Japanese people I've met who have shrugged me off as another tall white gaijin. Then again, one of my professors is a tall white male, who has fostered a family of two kids and lived in Japan since his college years, has saved an ancient samurai house from being destroyed, translated tons of ancient texts that not even native Japanese historians could decipher, and is also an overall awesome human being. So, how well can foreigners fit in Japan? I'd say pretty damn well if you have the heart (and the lack of sanity) for it.

That got pretty long-winded. But you started me off with a hard one :P
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Unread postby Nekogami » Fri Aug 31, 2007 11:53 am

I apologize for the late reply but I was thinking about this post in the interim. I'm now ready to address it, I hope, intelligently.

Molokidan wrote:Well, before even approaching that question, you have to ask "Why do you want to fit in? What kind of benefit are you seeking to gain from doing that?"


This is an interesting question and one I have pondered. I suppose it deals mostly with my perception that by 'fitting in' I can create a harmonious atmosphere in which I can truly observe people as themselves. Perhaps I clarify further. I don't want to betray who I am and be something different but if there are preexisting roadblocks to communication, I feel those must be overcome first in order to truly reach the essence of the "noun" (Person Place or Thing).

I think that if I were treated as a foreigner, it would be a disservice to the culture and people I'm trying to understand. Yes, the sums it up nicely.

It's true that racism exists in Japan, just like in any other country around the world, and there are going to be people who treat you like a foreigner no matter if you lived in Japan your entire life, if your appearance doesn't match that of a Japanese person. But then again, there will also be the people who, if they hear you say something as simple as "Arigatou gozaimasu" will assume you speak fluent Japanese, understand the customs perfectly, and will both trust you with their lives as well as cut you no slack if you make a perfectly simple error.


What is the Japanese opinion of racism? How is the topic treated? I'm very fascinated by this aspect as it goes back to the illusion of homogeneity that the Japanese seem to hold. This might end up being a separate topic for us to explore but if you could just touch on it, I'd be grateful.

Also: Why do the the Japanese jump to the conclusion that "You can speak Japanese" after a word or so? Furthermore, why do they assume you know the culture? This is something I haven't encountered yet and I'd like to know more about.


Another important thing to touch on regarding this topic is the "trying too hard" aspect. Most Japanese people are very keen on the way they do things -- you may think it's natural when you see all those little Japanese high school girls acting so cutesy, but I assure you, all their actions are planned and on purpose. If you try too hard to assimilate, it will only backfire.


I don't know where to begin on this paragraph. It's pure gold. Now the trying too hard I can understand on a human level. People that try too hard I think give people a bad feeling because there's a natural feeling that the person is perhaps disingenuous, or "perpetrating a fraud". I know people on this side of the ocean that give me that feeling at least.

But let's talk about this deliberateness that you mentioned in regards to, I hesitate to classify it like this but, subculture you belong to. I have noticed this and it's fascinated me. I need more time to collect my thoughts but this too might warrant a space all its own. I think we can really uncover something fascinating here.

I mean, my girlfriend thinks I'm more Japanese than she is, but there are plenty of other Japanese people I've met who have shrugged me off as another tall white gaijin.


I've been accused of being more Japanese than the Japanese and what fascinates me about that is that ... it's not just about behavior. My knowledge AND my Americanness accentuate anything "Japanese" that I do. A Japanese person with my same abilities perhaps would be faced with a "Sasuga nihonjin desu ne~! but never with a "You're so Japanese!" Somehow I don't see that being said, but I could be wrong. But someone once said to me that the Japanese assume everything for a standpoint that it's different so when something foreign (not only geographically but culturally) and it's the same, it's instantly Japanese not "hey, this is the same". For example, she gave the example of how she was hosting some Japanese people and her politeness was construed as "Japanese" but American's can be polite to so was her behavior nation-specific? No, but interestingly enough the Japanese considered themselves the source of the comparison. Does that makes sense?

You know there's just so many place we can go from here. Where would you like to proceed?

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Molokidan
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Unread postby Molokidan » Mon Sep 03, 2007 1:46 pm

Well, I guess I'll begin by addressing your questions/comments, hopefully in a sensical manner...


Nekogami wrote:What is the Japanese opinion of racism? How is the topic treated? I'm very fascinated by this aspect as it goes back to the illusion of homogeneity that the Japanese seem to hold. This might end up being a separate topic for us to explore but if you could just touch on it, I'd be grateful.

Also: Why do the the Japanese jump to the conclusion that "You can speak Japanese" after a word or so? Furthermore, why do they assume you know the culture? This is something I haven't encountered yet and I'd like to know more about.


Alright, well again, that first question, I don't think I, as a human being, can accurately answer that, because I'd be classifying an entire nation of people into one thing. It's varied, of course. I mean, I once saw a Japanese commercial with big black men jumping around eating bananas, and one person laughed while the other one said it was tasteless racist garbage. Some kids will say "Hey, you're white, you must be great at sports!" while other Japanese people would shake their heads. I think it just comes down to an issue of intelligence/exposure.

There are a lot of Japanese people who have never met a foreigner -- which is easy NOT to do in Japan -- or who go off simply by stereotypes portrayed to them by the media. Then, there are others who have traveled and have a better knowledge of how to, well, basically treat people who look different from yourselves.

About people jumping to conclusions, again, it's different with every person. Most of the time people just like to categorize things, so they will categorize you as a "fluent" gaijin or one who doesn't speak anything at all. Again, it comes down to lack of exposure/experience with foreigners. And I'd say you would probably get a lot of this from older individuals or young kids, but again, I don't want to generalize.

Nekogami wrote: I've been accused of being more Japanese than the Japanese and what fascinates me about that is that ... it's not just about behavior. My knowledge AND my Americanness accentuate anything "Japanese" that I do. A Japanese person with my same abilities perhaps would be faced with a "Sasuga nihonjin is (this service provided by Japanese auto-translator!) ne~! but never with a "You're so Japanese!" Somehow I don't see that being said, but I could be wrong. But someone once said to me that the Japanese assume everything for a standpoint that it's different so when something foreign (not only geographically but culturally) and it's the same, it's instantly Japanese not "hey, this is the same".


You kinda lost me here, I'm not really following your train of thought, and the parenthesis and stuff confused me...sorry. But I agree with you that getting those comments is indeed not about behavior, I was just making an example. The way you look, your status, whether or not you have a Japanese girlfriend/wife, etc...people judge judge judge, and most of the time they do it without even knowing.

Nekogami wrote:For example, she gave the example of how she was hosting some Japanese people and her politeness was construed as "Japanese" but American's can be polite to so was her behavior nation-specific? No, but interestingly enough the Japanese considered themselves the source of the comparison. Does that makes sense?


That's a great example of what we're talking about. Heck, for all they knew, she could have been exercising some kind of European politeness or something...then again, how do you even categorize types of "politeness?" This comes back to people who don't have the experience traveling, or who always look at things through the eyes of their own nation, rather than taking things into an international perspective.

Honestly, if you ask me, I think that Japan encourages this selective nature of "being accepted into Japanese culture" and "seeing how Japanese you are." It's not something automatic, it goes back to tons of history of pride and honor in the island country -- which I'm not saying is a bad thing. But it's like there's this huge game, or competition, or whatever, for people to be accepted into Japanese culture, and then when someone says "Oh wow, your Japanese manner is so great!" they feel like they're a superhero. You can't really blame them, because there's all this pressure coming out from Japan about their "millions of unwritten cultural rules" and all the little hoops you have to hop to to be considered "proper." It's a lot of made-up hype, if you ask me. Go out into the Japanese countryside and you'll see rude farmers that could give the dirtiest American trucker a run for his money.

I wrote too much as usual. :P
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Kai
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Unread postby Kai » Mon Sep 03, 2007 4:28 pm

Some of the perenthetical confusion came from the fact that there are joke word censors for "kawaii" and "desu" that censor it to cute/is (this service provided by Japanese auto-translator). While it's funny to watch it happen to people who speak pidgin internet-Japanese, it was interfering with discussion here so those two have been removed.

Back to discussion! Things should be somewhat clearer now.

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Molokidan
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Unread postby Molokidan » Mon Sep 03, 2007 6:25 pm

Thank you Kai. That part is indeed clearer, although the paragraph as a whole still confuzzles me.
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