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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Question Everything: A Guide To Surviving Japan

Despite the headline begging YOU to question everything, I am instead, more correctly, encouraging you to reverse it. To look at every question and question HOW you will handle it.

In Japan, from the moment you are separated from the herd of foreigners in Tokyo and are taken out to your posting village, town or city, you will be inundated with questions from the Japanese.

There are various reasons for this, none of which I could conceive of when I was there in 1990-1993, but thanks to time, wisdom and an anal retentive need to write a blog every day, I have come up with possible reasons as well as some entertaining examples (in my mind) about questions you can be expected to be asked.

I made it a personal rule, that if a Japanese person asked me a question in English, regardless of the embarrassment, I would answer it honestly.

That seems fair, right? I'm in Japan to further internationalization and maybe even get the Japanese to speak more English, if not better English... it seems silly not to answer a question from them asked in English.

I know, I know... sometimes the buggers will ask embarrassing questions... give them an answer... in English... but just note that it doesn't have to be the truth. You'll see why below...

First off... why the questions?

As near as I can figure out, there are a few possible reasons.

1) The Japanese are really curious about you. You may indeed be the first foreigner they have ever had the opportunity to interact with.

2) They simply don't know the answer.

3) It's to ensure their superiority. This one is a bit more difficult to explain, but essentially, thanks to Japan being quite homogenous with next to zero immigration, Japan has always looked upon itself with a smugness... that no one other than a Japanese person could possibly understand what it is like to be Japanese. Their questions to you are meant to maintain that illusion - and it is an illusion to everyone not Japanese... and yet, considering how weird Japan often seems to the foreigner, it is also a harsh reality.

4) It's not superiority, but pride. Numbers 3 & 4 are easily confused... it depends on your perspective, after all... In Japan the Japanese want YOU to learn all about how great their country is... no biggie... that's what you do when people visit your town, right? Let me show you the sights...
As such... they want you to know as much as the deem possible about Japan... the rest you'll have to figure out yourself... and you never will, what with not being Japanese and all... I do think, however, that if you are able to let go of your home country, you can become more Japanese... but it is tough to do that.
I don't even know if it is advisable.
I was born of parents from India... I was born in London, England... I was raised in Canada from the age of 3 on up. I might have been a citizen of Great Britain... but I was hardly English. I might have the correct skin tone to be Indian, but having never been there, have zero knowledge of its culture, language or history (pretty much), people from India would known immediately that I am not one of them. In Canada... I might not look like a 'typical' Canadian, but I sure act and talk and dress like one.
I lived in Japan for three years... I lived in their society... I followed the rules... I dated their women, ate their food, and even tried to study the language... but... just like everything else... I could fit in... but I lacked a single identity... at least in Japan I knew I would never be Japanese... even if I married a Japanese woman... I'd be the gaijin with a Japanese wife, and she'd be the Nihonjin with a gaijin husband.
In Canada, 30 years ago... maybe even 20 years ago, in the big cities, interracial couples would get a stare... I would even do it... but now... most of the people I know are interracial couples... which I actually find odd, but NOT disconcerting. It's change... and one that happened... and I don't think people saw it happening.

It's what will happen in Japan, one day... but, owing to a lack of immigration, it's going to be damn slow. In the mean time, who can blame the Japanese is they pride in being Japanese? ... uh, as long as they don't foist it upon anyone else.

Anyhow... let's look at some questions the Japanese will ask you, and perhaps a bit of what is meant by such question. As usual... these are merely my opinions. I offer advice for women here, but I'll admit it if I have no clue.

Actually... all of the answers to the subjects below are merely opinions and are not answers written in stone. The answers are based on my experiences and thoughts.

These are some of the thousands of I was asked pretty much right through all three years I lived in Japan:

1) Are you American?
As a Canadian, this tends to upset us... but really, there is very little to separate a Canadian from an American... except that with such a melting pot of humanity in North America, what does an American or a Canadian even look like? There's the stereotype of White skin, Blonde hair, Blue Eyes... but really, wasn't that the Teutonic ideal Hitler wanted?
Hell... I was born of parents from India, born in England, and raised in Canada. I have little to nothing in common with anyone from India except the color of my skin, eyes and hair color. I don't speak with a London accent, but I was named after Prince Andrew. But... I do have a love of maple syrup, hockey and redheads. So... Canadian, right? Sure... but even in Canada no one sees that... they see a foreigner. As such... I was quite used to being a foreigner long before I set foot in Japan and continued to be a foreigner there. No big deal for me.
In my JET personal exam, I was asked: "In Japan, the Japanese are not used to foreigners and often gawk and stare and call people a gaijin (foreigner/outsider). How would you handle it?" I answered: "The same way I handle it in Toronto." I explained more, obviously, but the point was made.
Anyhow... just as you Irish hate being called English or Kiwi's being called Aussies, and maybe you American's hate being called Canadian... this is an opportunity to tell them a bit about yourself, and where you are from and about the differences that make you a Scott or French Canadian.

2) Do you like Japanese girls?
Of course I do... I had never actually seen one until I arrived in Japan. But, when asked this question by co-workers, students and strangers on the street, rather than pandering to Japanese superiority where they want to ensure that everyone knows that Japanese women are 'very beautiful', I would answer: "No."
I would explain (once they picked themselves up from the floor—shock because I was either gay--Horrors! he says sarcastically, or that I don't like "Japanese" girls) that I don't really care where a person is from. If they are attractive to me and smart and funny, then I like them. I don't care if they are Japanese or Canadian or Russian. I just like women. Definitely women over girls. Feel free to correct that part of the sentence.
That, folks, is how you educate and internationalize all at the same time. Of course... some of you guys really only do like Japanese women.
For you women out there... I have no idea how to properly answer this. If you are asked if you like 'Japanese men", and you answer "yes, I like men", will you suddenly be labeled a 'slut' or worse, suddenly make yourself available to every pick-up line from Japanese guys?
No idea...
It might be best, if you are interested in dating on your own terms, to say that you have a boyfriend back home. It's my opinion.... but as mentioned, I have no real idea what you should say...
Now... as for being gay, lesbian or other... dammit... Japan is making strides, but they are still backwards (as a whole) in acceptance... just as every other country on this planet is... some care, some don't.
It's up to you, of course... I'm just saying the Japanese may not be as tolerable of your sexual predilections as what you are used to back home. Fair warning, okay?
Now... having said that... my wife has a cousin who has been living in Japan for over 30 years. Gay dude living somewhere in Japan with his gay lover. Happy? I hope so. Safe? I hope so. Hassled? I hope not... but his parents couldn't handle his being gay, so he left and really has avoided all contact with them. Why Japan? Well... that juts happened to be where he had traveled first to teach and met someone special...
Is he out of the closet in Japan? No idea. I never met him... only learning of him after I left Japan...

3) Do you like Japanese beer?
This only sounds like a stupid question. Beer is beer, right? D'uh. No. For six years prior to arriving in Japan, I had been legally drinking beer. I would go to a bar I knew in downtown Toronto and would order their beers from around the world.
As such... I could honestly answer that: "Yes, I like beer. Japanese beer has an interesting taste and not all Japanese beers taste the same, of course. I prefer Lager over Ale... and like Kirin Lager... though I am looking forward to trying as many different Japanese beers as possible." Here I was diplomatic, but I want them to know that the term "Japanese Beer" is pretty open-ended. I will also tell them about all of the different beers from around the world that I have drunk. I guess I'm pretty worldly after all...
And... for goodness sake... while Bud Light is certainly an enjoyable beer, try a Guinness or a Stella Artois or a Blanche De Chambly or a Heineken or an Elephant Beer, Bishop's Tipple, or Jamaican Red Stripe or El Diablo or Steamwhistle... expand your taste buds. You're going to need to do that in Japan anyway.

4) Do you like Japanese rice?
It's rice. It's rice-flavored. How is Japanese rice better than any other rice? Despite my India heritage with ancestors rolling over in their grave, I was a rice neophyte.
I ate it, but wanting to be considered Canadian, I didn't eat a lot of it for fear of being lumped into a stereotype curry eater. I sure missed out on a lot of good food while growing up.
But... apparently there is Japanese rice, American rice, Indian rice, sticky rice and non-sticky rice and short-grained, medium-grained and long-grain rice, as well as puffed rice and wild rice and who knows what else.
But really... the Japanese do NOT want to know your answer. They don't. They already know what they are going to say... that Japanese rice is very delicious and better than ever other type of rice.
Yeah... like they would know. The Japanese, to a man, have probably only ever eaten Japanese rice. How could they compare it to other rice varieties? They can't. It's just them trying to maintain some Japanese superiority.
It doesn't even matter to them that countries around the world grow the same variety of Japanese rice... or that it is often exported to Japan... I think the Japanese know this even if they don't want to know this.

5) Can you use Japanese chopsticks?
No. No I can't. Japanese chopsticks? WTF? I had never used chopsticks in my life, but after two weeks in Japan, my boss Hanazaki-san taught me how—first training me with pencils before allowing me to move up to the real thing.
Me or you not knowing how to use chopsticks helps perpetuate Japanese superiority. The Japanese really do like to think they are better... or at least an individual race...
It really pissed off or confused them all when I could say that "yes, I can use chopsticks... can you?"
I even learned how to use chopsticks to pick up dry beans and soup. You'll figure the soup part out yourself... but the dry beans... that takes skill. And I can use chopsticks to eat faster than most people on this planet, though the indigestion tells me I should slow down.
But... Japanese chopsticks? Yup. There are even Korean and Chinese chopsticks... and I bet there are Vietnamese and Cambodian and Thai and Laotian chopsticks... So... the question is technically a good one... but you can before that it is being asked to see if you have any of the skills of a Japanese person.

I should state that my bosses at the Ohtawara Board of Education office were not aghast that I couldn't use chopsticks... they were smart enough and cool enough to note that I wasn't Japanese and perhaps had never developed a need to know how to use chopsticks. That was true. They simply taught me. No one made fun of me. They already knew that I was a recent college and university graduate with a degree in political science and one in journalism and had worked as a reporter with one of the top papers in North America... granted only for three months or so... but being a reporter... that meant respect... and respect that I would give that up to come to their country to work with their youth. I was told that. They were impressed that I would give up a possible career to work in Japan... that's something I think Japan no longer is impressed by... though I think that has more to do with the fact that the people going to Japan nowadays more often than not do not have any work experience.
Personally... I do think that having some work experience is necessary in being able to work effectively in a foreign country. But... sometimes, the right person with the proper skills, can get away without the work experience.
Anyhow... my bosses were very keen on helping me become acclimatized to Japan... and they were very helpful early on... and as the months turned to years, I was afforded more and more autonomy.
You have to realize that I arrived in Japan without any knowledge of how to live on my own... this was my first time for that... so I didn't mind the help... still... even from the get-go... my BOE offered me a lot more freedom to do my own thing... they gave me the rope... and it was up to myself to not hang myself with it. The more I proved willing to do things the Japanese way (with honor and respect), the more I was left alone...
I think.
It's possible someone was charged full-time with watching me...

6) Do you like Japanese crackers?
It's food, right? So... yeah. Japanese crackers are made with... surprise... rice. Whatever, man. "Yes, I like Japanese crackers."

7) Do you have a car?
Being from Canada—as opposed to the U.S.— certainly 20 years ago owning a Japanese car was no big deal. Japanese brand cars in Canada and the US are now made in one of those two countries, so you are 'buying local'. But I owned a Mazda 323 (white of course), which was originally a Mazda GLC but is now rebranded as a Mazda 3. In Japan, that car (only available in white - so I achieved instant superstar status) was known as a Mazda (Matsuda) Familia. Zoom-zoom.
My father's care was a Toyota Camry wagon... not white, which when I showed a photograph of it caused all sorts of fun rumblings within the various school classrooms.
My point in telling you this question is to show off a Japanese prejudice... an honest and for real prejudice.
I described the Hyundai car a girlfriend owned... a car that is Korean... and man... it was quiet in the classroom... I was pulled aside after class and informed that a Korean car is not something any Japanese person would want to own because it is an inferior vehicle. And... I was told, the Japanese do not like anything Korean.
Wow... you could have knocked me down with a bowl of kimchi. I never could understand why there was this hatred of the Koreans amongst the Japanese, because I always read history whereby the Japanese were the ones who always seemed to be starting crap with the Koreans... wars, battles, murders... it was the Japanese hating something foreign to themselves...
I restored order when I mentioned that a previous vehicle owned by my father was a Nissan Stanza. I was told that Honda and Toyota were the two better class car companies, though I'm not convinced of that statement at all.
I will tell you for free, however, that my 2005 Mazda Tribute SUV (what I call the SUK for reasons you will soon understand) died last week after I took it in to the mechanic's garage and discovered that the left rear shock tower holding the wheel to the car had rotted away from the body.... the garage said the car is undriveable and unfixable. It is ready for parts and the junkyard. I should note that there is no rust anywhere else on the body... just this one crucial place on the car... a car that never had an accident... it is obviously a defect in the manufacture of the car. Thanks for a piece of crap, Mazda.

8) What do you like sex?
Pretty much every foreigner has heard this question in Japan. Of course I know what they mean... but don't you love the way it is phrased? I do correct the question with a smile, but I always answer it honestly: "Yes!"
The Japanese love honesty, and I think this question is just a feeling out question to see if you are a prude or not. I'm no prude... and since it was more or less an English question, I answer it truthfully. Now... owing to circumstances or religious sensibilities... or simple moral prudence... you may not wish to answer the question... instead... tell them why this is an inappropriate question to ask. Do so honestly and with dignity. I bet you will get a bow and an apology from whomever asked it.

9) Do you play swim?
Damn... "Do you play..." soccer, golf, baseball, basketball... damn near every sport... that question works... but not swimming. Not wrestling. And not sex.
I would get the "Do you play sex?" question at least once a week for three years. I know what they mean... but how do I answer the question?
"I don't 'play' sex. It's very serious to me.
None of your business.
Yeah, I play sex. Got a sister?"
You have to at least teach them the proper sentence. I would do that... they would ask the question and because I was a pal of my students, I would tell them the truth... you guys have read my blogs... what the fug do I have to hide?

10) How big?
They mean the size of one's penis... and the only ones asking this were the male junior high school students.
I would always laugh and say "Big". It's all relative, right? They would then point to their own crotch and say "Small-small!"
Why would you do that? Whatever... I appreciate the bonding experience... but this sure as hell doesn't show Japanese superiority.
It's all quite strange, when you think of it. The Japanese are these fierce economic masters... war machine makers in Asia... and yet... when they come up to a 'westerner' (I'm including you Aussies and Kiwis, here, of course), the Japanese appear humble... like our imposing size frightens them... and here I am talking about stature, not penis size. I only wish I could have scared them with that. Then again... time, like size, is all relative to the observer. Einstein more or less said that.

Obviously any question a Japanese person asks you that has the modifier 'Japanese' in front of an object(?)... (Fug, I can read, write, speak and spell English better than most people, but I have no idea how to explain grammar, because I simply don't know it very well)... anyhow... citing points #2-6 as examples... you can see that those types of question are meant to show Japanese superiority... even if they don't realize it.

Sometimes what seems like a stupid question is just meant to bridge an awkward moment or shows the limited scope of their English-speaking abilities. Think about it... pretty much the first thing everyone learns in a foreign language after 'hello' or 'goodbye' are all the naughty words. I can even get my face slapped nine of out 10 times in Swedish! Ahh... but that 10th time... that's magic (Det är magiskt). Even I can't believe who I've dated, sometimes...

11) Three sizes, please.
This is not a question... or even a complete sentence... but I have heard Japanese students walk up to a female AET and ask for this information.
What are the three sizes being requested?
Why the little perverts want to know your measurements: Bust-Waist-Hips.
Interesting, eh? You see the kids as being so grim half-the-time, and then they come out and ask such
a personal question.
Hell's bells! I can't even begin to tell you how many women I have dated (truthfully), or if I ever knew their measurements. I can tell you I never asked... and perhaps aside from one exotic dancer and maybe one prostitute I actually dated without paying for, they never offered to tell me.
Maybe I was able to guess a cup size and perhaps I was playfully chided for my skill in doing so, but... it's so personal, isn't it?
Now... just so you recall... in Japan, measurements are done using the Metric system... so even if you have the chutzpah to say you are a 36C-22-36 (and we should meet!), the kids will laugh because this is a country where inches don't mean anything to them... and you have just given the measurements, in their mind, to a rather curvy kid's doll.
Regardless... this is the opportunity to internationalize, not to show your moral outrage and disgust. Internalize those things and tell other AETs this... but you... you are a teacher. Teach them that in (add country here), and even here in Japan, it is rude to ask such personal questions about one's body. You can ask a woman about height, but certainly not about her weight... unless that is someone you are dating... and even then... you may never get a straight answer. Some women I have kissed are upfront and honest, others, despite having kissed simply feel it is none of my damn business.
And besides... I think for women... they are afraid to tell men what size they are (re: clothing) for fear that their man will purchase clothes for them. Aside from a terrycloth robe, a man should probably never attempt to purchase women's clothing... if it's for yourself, however, go for it... I don't judge. But for a woman... us men simply have no clue. Even when they drop us a clue, we will screw it up somehow. Yes... I am speaking from experience. How to survive women...

12) Do you like Japanese judo?
Is there any other type of judo? No. But when I answered 'Yes' and explained that I play judo, I mean, I learned judo as a boy for a couple of years, I'm was invited to join every school's junior high judo club, where every fricking 12-year-old is a blackbelt and could kick my ass by breathing on me. Still... it's good to see which kids you should not pick on in class.
The same question was asked about Japanese kendo (fencing) and Japanese sumo (wrestling) and Japanese kyudo (archery)... which are all quite different from western forms. Excluding sumo, I spent three years learning the other two sports... for the Japanese, being a multi-sport person is not done really... maybe some track and field and a team sport... but that's when they call you a 'sportsumahn' (sportsman).
Again... why the need to ad the modified 'Japanese'? It's also to instruct YOU, the foreigner, that certain things are Japanese. It's a pride in ownership, as well as superiority... you can take it any way you wish...

13) Do you like Japanese kimono?
They are bery beautiful. Sure... I suppose they are... but again, I didn't really think that there might be a form of kimono in Korea or China... China, sure... they don't call them kimono, though... and Korea? They do have some for weddings.
But I'm a guy... what the hell do I know about kimono? I know that when a woman wears a kimono and I want to have sex with her, that I will spend about 20 minutes trying to unwrap her.
The question is meant to determine a bit of your knowledge of Japan. I don't think it has anything to do with superiority. I think it's to establish whether or not you, the savage gaijin, possess any of the gentle arts that the Japanese are so fond of.
The Japanese enjoy viewing hanami... cherry blossoms (and getting drunk under them), as well as watching the leaves change color in the autumn... it's a way of communing with nature. To show your gentler side... something I bet the Japanese feel we foreigners lack.
Oh... the compliments I received when guests would see how I arranged some cut flowers in a dish (with a spiky base to hold them erect)... they wondered where I had learned the Japanese art of ikebana (Japanese flower arranging).... where did I take the classes... who was my master? I'm a gaijin... I just know what looks good to me.
So... either my guests were being exceeding polite at praising my ikebana skills (a very distinct possibility), or they figured no foreigner... certainly not a male foreigner... would show such deft skills with flowers.
I like beautiful things.
And... if, as a man I have to go out and slaughter some weeds to make my apartment smell nice and look nicer, than I will gladly pay some merchant good hardly-earned money to go out and kill some pretty little innocent flowers on my behalf.
Death to flowers. Long live beauty. For a week, I hope.   
The Japanese spend decades mastering the techniques of sado (the Japanese tea ceremony) or shodō (Japanese calligraphy)... in an attempt to achieve perfection that they know in their hearts is unattainable.
The Japanese crave beauty... but I'm sure we do too...but while I can appreciate clothing and its aesthetics, I'm hardly an expert on Japanese kimono and wouldn't know a good one from a bad one, but I do know when one is beautiful. In my own opinion, of course. I hardly need a discourse in kimono to know what I like... but perhaps the Japanese do?

14) Do you like Japanese sushi?
I had only eaten sushi for the first time three days before leaving for Japan... but it's food... so I like it.
But... the Japanese have heard that many foreigners do not like Japanese sushi, thinking we believe it is raw fish. Sashimi is sliced raw fish. Sushi is something different. You can look it up.
My friend Jeff hated Japanese food. Why he wanted to marry a Japanese woman (and did) confuses me, because he was a guy who would bring his own deli meat sandwiches wherever he went or would eat at Dunkin Donuts everywhere in Japan. In his defense, I ate at a lot of Japanese McDonalds... but I would have the Teriyaki burger...  
This is a Japanese superiority question... Trust me... The Japanese love it when you say you love anything Japanese. It just proves that they were right in being born Japanese. But, they understand when you say you are unable to do something Japanese. It's because you are a foreigner... and not Japanese.
This is your opportunity to show them that you can do whatever a Japanese person can... it's why I ate and learned to enjoy natto (rotting fermented soy beans). It's why I eat eel (unagi) whenever I can. It's why I did a lot of things in Japan... to try and fit in... and even though I never would (and you won't either), the Japanese appreciate the effort. Make the effort.

15) Can you use Japanese Chopsticks?
Yes... I already had this question up above... but it bears repeating.
As mentioned, when I arrived in Japan I could not use chopsticks (hashi). But by the time my school visits started, I certainly could.
I should state for the record, however, that every single time I was asked this question, I was using Japanese chopsticks!
So... is it a dumb question? Or is it someone making conversation? Are they just surprised that I can use chopsticks? Sure to all three... but I think they really are surprised to learn that foreigners can use their eating utensils with the same dexterity as themselves. I think our use of chopsticks weakens the Japanese resolve that they are special.

The Japanese are special, or there wouldn't be so many people writing and reading about them. But, the Japanese... well... they really do like to feel special...

So do you.

We may not be as upfront regarding our bragging, but trust me... you see other cultures and peoples and you want to scream at them sometimes about why they are wrong and you are right... about why your way of life is better.

Look... the Japanese education system had identified some 40 years ago, that its students lacked proper English skills, figuring bringing in some native speakers would help everyone involved get better.

But, the Japanese education system is rooted in strict protocols and no matter what you do, it won't make a huge difference in changing their behavior... at least not one you will see... but maybe years from now... perhaps the then-adult junior high school student will recall the impression you made on him or her and will slowly affect changes within Japanese society.


In my opinion, this is the best we can hope for.

You will not go to Japan and change the way they think... even Gandhi and Hitler had their nay-sayers. I can't believe I put those two in the same sentence to make my point, but really... it's true.

But... perhaps you can add to the way they think.

That old adage is correct... there are no stupid questions... just opportunities to learn and teach.

It is an Exchange programme, after all.

Andrew Joseph
PS: Did I really use 'Hitler' twice in this blog to make a point? 

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