Thursday, December 30, 2010


Imagine a country where everyone is good at his or her job. Imagine a country where everyone has respect for elders and teachers. Imagine a country where every shop clerk treats each customer like an honored guest. Imagine a country where everyone wears expensive clothing, the food is slurpy, and there aren't any napkins because apparently nobody needs them. Imagine a country where everyone has good taste.

You've imagined Japan....The climate in Tokyo is similar to that of New York City.

Ahhh...another year ends in the Lake Wobegon* of the universe. On the day after Christmas, the 3rd day of winter of 2010-2011, as I walked around weird but wonderful Meguro trying to avoid being hit by mama-chari-ists with good taste dressed in expensive finery while I hoped that other pedestrians would allow me some sidewalk, I was able to enjoy the autumn leaves of the world’s most clearly distinct winter season which is similar to that of New York.

I must finally admit that I have been wrong for years and years. Japan is uniquely unique in some ways, one being the ability of non-Japanese (and the occasional Japanese trying to polish Japan up for the naive) to suspend all trace of common sense about Japan and the Japanese. To say anything less than complimentary about Japan is evidence that one misunderstands the country and is probably a racist. (Does Japan have a separate race from say, China? What is a race?) On the other hand preaching nothing but out of this world goodness about Japan is acceptable. Remember what CIA agent Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) said in Syriana: “It’s not racist if it’s positive.”

I have spent too much time looking at Japan-related sites and blogs (especially Tumblr) and found that this imaginary Japan is the Japan that many desperately hope exists, for if they were to actually come here and find that it does not exist, they would lose all faith in nirvana. Folks who spend time on those sites/blogs looking at the best architecture, art, manga, cute girls in Harajuku and Akihabara, believe they are seeing Japan. And many whose fantasy comes true and are able to visit see nothing to dispel them of the fantasy.

Just after 9/11, I put an ad for a private Japanese teacher in the magazine Metropolis Tokyo. Some Japanese fellow answered, not to get information about the job, but to try to instigate a fight saying things like: "I am glad that America was attacked. You people come to Japan and think it is Disneyland. I hope you get attacked again.” (paraphrased). He had sent the e-mail to dozens of people who had placed ads. He wrote in English, but his English had tell-tale signs of a less than fluent Japanese person's English. He was certainly correct about many foreigner's views (not only Americans by far) of Japan being Disneyland.

I guess the imaginary Japan is needed as the extreme "other," not an other in the sense of a bad, sneaky, devious, unscrupulous other (at least not until the next trade/whaling etc dispute), but as the "perfect" other.

*The Lake Wobegon Effect as pertains to Japan is not something that Japanese are guilty of, it is foreigners who tend to be.

Impossible in Japan

Edited 2:10 and 2:29pm


  1. Imaginary Japan is so much more well-publicized than real Japan by the English-speaking community. One of the reasons I will never read blogs written by people who have not lived here for more than two years (and many have never lived here, but just visited) is that they have nothing but dreamy-eyed fantasies about life here and wholesale reject any contradictory information.

    Every place on the planet has pros and cons, many have more cons than pros, in fact, and Japan is in absolutely no way special in this regard.

  2. Good lord. Often it's these kind of people who end up going the other way when the fantasies are unmet after actually living here. When Japan doesn't meet their imaginary expectations then clearly the only other option available is to evaluate them by the 'universal' standard of home, wherever that may be. How dare Japan betray them by being imperfect! They deserve all of the scorn one can pile on!

    I have often thought one of the most problematic parts of Japan's soft power/cultural export policies is what happens when things don't live up to the propaganda. Nz is already getting some blowback for it's 'pure' NZ tourism campaign. Yeah it's a nice place to visit...if you have realistic expectations and don't get gouged by the tourist companies. I can't imagine what would happen if they actually lived here after buying the PR.

  3. Anonymous3:50 PM

    I'm an American studying at Kyoto University for a year long direct exchange. I came to Japan earlier as a high school exchange student, and lived with a host family and attended Japanese high school for a year between 2007 and 2008. In both times living in Japan, I can't help begin to feel as if Japan is one the last places on Earth an English speaking person can go to and experience what it must've been like for British and Americans to travel into the heart of empire in Asia before Asia changed totally following WWII.

    This has been gnawing at me for quite some time. One cannot help but feel that many people on both sides treat each other in ways that are akin to colonial relations in the past. The "Exoticism" of the orient, etc. Whereas white people are often treated specially or given breaks only because they're exotic foreigners. To the eyes of many people I know from Europe and America here, Japanese are often the butts of jokes because of a sense of superiority felt by many towards them. I admit, I am guilty of having felt these feelings before. These moments are usually born out of frustration or encounters with the unfamiliar, but they're also endemic of nascent racism, perhaps of a very subtle type which most wouldn't realize exists within themselves, no matter how much one thinks of them self as being educated and broadminded.

    As an American, going to Japan is still in many ways like going to the colonies. It is after all an American client state, dotted with major US bases all across its landmass. As an American, perhaps more than other Westerners, one feels like you have a privileged place here. Of course these feelings are absurd, but then again 46,000 US soldiers soldiers and many warships of the US Navy safeguard the four islands of Japan. So perhaps one is vindicated then in feeling such a silly sense of entitlement, especially when many Japanese offer one unwarranted treatment and attention simply because you are a Westerner.

    Japan is then perhaps a playground for some, a place of grand amusement filled with quirky Japanese. And thus it is us who see them merely as an "other" even in the midst of their own country while maintaining a wall of disconnect between ourselves and the Japanese. I think one can say that certain Westerners in Japan behave with an air of entitlement that would not seem so foreign to the British colonists of India or East Africa. It is an air of haughtiness which proclaims that one is here to enjoy the land's fruit: be it Japan's arts, culture, women etc. But it in no way is one to be accountable for their behavior, transgressions or lack of impropriety because you can always pretend you did not know, or that those rules were just silly in light of one's own values and cultural background.

    Imaginary Japan is a nation populated by a silly, peculiar, and amusing people who go about their lives in such odd ways that boggle the mind of the poor interloper. And for these Japanese, foreigners are bewilderingly strange, even objects of potential worship even for the simple fact alone that they are strange and foreign.

    Both sides view each other in ways which diminish the merits of the other side while also reinforcing stereotypes that interfere with both Japanese and foreigner alike in actually viewing each other as fellow humans.

  4. It's Orientalism, pure and simple: "Orientalism" by Edward Said.

  5. Well said, Sugarless. Indeed, the bright-eyed young idealists who come over here expecting magic and loving every experience (oh a bird shit on my head - that means good luck!) can be just as frustrating as those who come here and just complain about everything. Although time does tend to cure the former condition for most people. Think my "honeymoon" phase lasted a couple months - not sure how some people go for years.

  6. Orchid64: I try not to read fantasy world stuff either, but sometimes I can't help myself. Once I found a site that had something like: "The Japanese are so polite that even when they are being rude they are polite."

    sigma1: "...what happens when things don't live up to the propaganda..." They could ask the US about that.

    By the way, when she was a kid, my wife dreamed that she'd grow up to "be living in New Zealand chasing sheep." I don't have to tell her that New Zealanders don't live that way do I?

    Anonymous: I think you captured it perfectly.

    Blue Shoe: I guess I was lucky to have been close to a Japanese before I visited here to keep me on planet earth. My wife prevented me from having much of the honeymoon phase by saying things like, "People don't care about you (foreigners), they don't have time to mess with you." Or, when it was common for foreigners to be refused service at business hotels and the common excuse was that they did not want us to feel uncomfortable, she'd say "They don't care if you are uncomfortable, they only care if they are."