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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Gripes About Japan

Along the many other blogs written by current and former foreign residents of Japan, quite a few people have written about their gripes about the country, it's people, society and culture.

I'm sure I have ripped Japan a new one in this blog, as well.

Granted I was in Japan between 1990-1993... and one would hope that things would have progressed a bit... still, many foreigners continue to experience the gripes listed below, while others have few gripes at all.

Despite being called 'gripes', I don't feel that for myself they ever were 'gripes'. It was Japan... and there were simply some people in my tiny city that had simply never had personal dealings with a stranger before.

I think THAT is important to consider when looking at gripes about Japan (or another country). Is it in the big city? Small city? A rural village? What is that person's level of Japanese language communication? Are they perceived as being a friendly or scary foreigner - and why?

In any country, regardless of one's sex, skin-tone, age or social standing, how one puts themselves across will determine who you are perceived by the locals.

Matthew had excellent language skills, was/is funny, intelligent and caring. He was easily a part of the community.

Myself - smiling always, trying (physically, mentally and emotionally), funnier (than Matthew - just a bit!), intelligent and caring. For myself, I will also state that I asked a lot of questions, was extremely open about myself, and answered every question thrown my way. I was a part of the community.

Ashley - shy, reserved, accepted (she was with me), funny after a few drinks, intelligent and caring. Accepted.

Matthew and Ashley could speak and understand Japanese far better than I could/can. I never studied past the first few months. It was difficult, I had no aptitude for learning Japanese. I quit. My problem. But I still survived thanks to surrounding myself with foreign Japanese-speakers, Japanese native speakers, but really with the Japanese ability to try and understand what the hell I was talking about.

Others... we never saw them get out and try and become 'Japanese' - preferring their own private adventure in Japan. I could not say if they had gripes (as below) or not... but I'm sating that people are different... both you, the Japanese you encounter... and when they are being encountered.

I might snap at someone here in Toronto because of what happened to myself earlier. I will, however recognize that, and go and apologize. If that was your one and only meeting with me, people would think I was a jerk. They might never have seen me apologize. 

I have copied over the main list of complaints, and have added my own comments below them.

Gripes About Japan - sorry... used the wrong image above! LOL!

1. Been stared at in public
Sure - it happened all the time at first, and less and less the longer I stayed... though I would say that my Japanese girlfriends got stared at harder by the older generation, and also by the young men - because in all cases they were quite pretty.
Did it bother me to be stared at - because I was foreign? No. I knew what I was getting into from the get-go.

2. Been refused entry to a hotel, bar or restaurant due to race
Nope. I know it happens.
I will say that a bunch of us gaijin were denied entry into a dance club - it might have been because of race, but it also might have been because the place was full and there were 50 of us. It was Day 3 for me in Japan... so I couldn't say for sure.
Not once was I ever asked to show my passport or Alien Registration Card - except when official documents were being signed and officially required.

3. Been complimented on chopstick use
Yes... I did find it frustrating considering I could used them better (quicker) than most Japanese. But... I did have a slight variant on the classic Japanese grip that I preferred. I would often shoot back a "You use a fork very well." comment when the opportunity. I think in many cases, they are not amazed by my chopsticks skill, but use it as a conversation piece like others do with the weather. Whatever... this is a pretty damn weenie gripe.

4. Been complimented on great Japanese after uttering a single word
Not a single word, but yes - after a sentence or two. I just take it as the Japanese are being polite - not amazed that you can speak Japanese. How is a compliment turned into a gripe? Ya can't make everyone happy.

5. Been refused entry to hot spring
Been there - enjoyed the hot springs. Sorry about leaving all that hair matted together in the water. No... not a problem for me... but I suppose it could happen - depending on where one travels to.

6. Had someone in a hot spring get out of a bath because you entered
Do women count? Kidding. Nope... I've had good Japanese-English conversations with Japanese people in there.

7. Had people leave an empty seat next to you on a crowded train
I have that happen in Toronto... then again... I'm wide... but really, I rarely traveled alone... so I always had another foreigner with me. As well... since I only ever traveled on a subway maybe 10x - and it was always busy, I never got a seat, but once.... and that was because it wasn't busy. On the regular inter-city lines and shinkansen - no... not a problem at all. Then again... I look happy, wear deodorant, and try not to take up much room, actually shrinking myself so as to not look imposing. Unless there was some woman I was trying to look impressive to. Never worked on a train.

8. Been stopped by the police and asked to show your alien card for no reason
Nope. I was a minor celebrity in my small city. The police knew who I was, and would greet me when seen. Outside the city - no... I have stopped and asked for directions in broken Japanese-English and have been cheerfully helped those few times.

9. Been talked about by strangers in public within earshot
Probably. But in truth, it was actually: "Blah-blah-blah An-do-ryu- sensei!" That's cool. They knew my name.
The one time I was talked about and called "gaijin-no-sensei", my boss at the Ohtawara Board of Education cut the man off immediately and tole him I was "An-do-ryu-sensei" and not a gaijin. That was maybe three days in to my stay in Ohtawara. That man looked chastised, bowed first to me - even though I was about 10 feet away and not directly a part of the conversation, and bowed profusely to my boss Hanazaki-san. I was one damn lucky guy in Japan, to have people like Hanazaki-san (and Kanemaru-san) stand up for me. It wasn't like the guy was being mean when talking about me - but the guys still wouldn't have any of that 'gaijin' crap. The Ohtawara Board of Education people were great!  
But strangers - to be honest... I paid the chats of others no mind. If it was women talking, I would already have smiled at them before hand, so perhaps I drew it upon myself for them to talk about me. At my local bar, I was a fixture, of sorts, so it wasn't like they didn't know foreigners would be in their bar. All the foreigners in my bar... were welcome.
At the shopping markets - no one ever talked about me while I was near them. I lived in a very polite city that was actually quite used to foreigners.
Again... upon my arrival - my picture was in the local community newspaper detailing where I was from and what I was doing in Ohtawara.

10. Had people comment directly to you about your appearance
Sure... but does this mean about clothes or my physical looks? Clothes - yes; Hair - yes... in almost 99.9% of the times, it was a compliment. One girl in a junior high school class did not like my hairy arms, for example, and told me so. The rest of the students smacked her on the head. And this was at my one tough/bad school.
I was told I looked cool. I grew my hair out down past my shoulders, growing that samurai tail. I wore suits, off the rack from Toronto and made for me in Thailand and Singapore - silks; I wore ties. When I was out in public with a torn tee-shirt, I received two replacement shirts in my mail box the next day. Anonymously. They were small for me - but the thought was awesome. Poor foreigner - having to wear such crappy clothes. In retrospect, that should have been embarrassing for me... to wear such crappy clothing in public. It was a wake-up call.
If not clothes - no... just that one comment from the one female student. Others, did comment about how soft my arm hair was - which was creepy because it was 13-year-old girls attempting to stroke my arm.
Others would comment about how my hair band holding my pony-tail matched my shirt or tie... and that was a conscious effort on my part, to purchase hair bands of differing colors.
Did anyone comment on my big nose or dark complexion or anything else? Not to my ears.
The junior high school boys used to joke around about my big penis (stereotype to be sure), while point to their own and saying 'small-small' (probably a stereotype).
My girlfriend Ashley was asked about what her three sizes were - Bust-Waist-Hips - but she told them that was none of their business.
I'm a guy... we always add length when asked about such private matters. As women know, apparently EVERY man is part pony. LOL!

11. Had people shout random English words at you in public
No... only in Saipan, where a prostitute shouted "Hello Joe!" to me from across an empty street. Must have thought I was a sailor on leave, or something.
Where the heck are people living that the Japanese would do stuff like that?

12. Had people ask you if you have / do (fill-in-the-blank) 'abroad'
Sure - what's wrong with that? It's curiosity. It shows ignorance on a global scale - not stupidity. What the fug are people doing in Japan? Teaching English and ticked off that someone asks a question that you think they should know the answer to? Grow up, gaijin.

13. Had people tell you that Japanese snow, seasons, sea or whatnot are ‘different’
No. But, they are. Every country has different types of winter - like in Canada. Heck - even in Toronto, if you drive north past an east-west street, the weather becomes as bad as it is in Buffalo to the south. Toronto, versus Halifax, versus Winnipeg versus Calgary versus Vancouver weather - all different. Don't the Inuit have something like 40 different ways to say/describe snow?
Now... when Japanese used to tell met that Japanese rice is very special, well... we do get Japanese rice in Canada... but yes, there are different tastes to Japanese rice from different parts of the country. I do not possess tastes buds that are that discerning, but then again, some people can.

14. Been asked by a stranger if they can practice their English
Nope, but occasionally someone will insist on speaking bad English when we could do much better in Japanese. (This was someone else's answer, and I'm keeping it stock, however...)... I was aware that in Japan people might want to practice their English on me. What's wrong with that? I'm glad someone is taking an interest in speaking English. Holy crap - are the griping gaijin the same one's who wish they could find someone to speak English to when they need help because their Japanese sucks?

15. Had people just look blankly at you when you speak passable Japanese
Yes. It does bother me. But I believe that's because they aren't expecting to speak their language and have already steeled themselves for a difficult time.
I used to ask for an oki-saizu (Large size) cora (coca-cola) at Mosburger or McDonalds... and I'd get a blank stare until they ask me if I want an Erru-saizu... that's L-size... a large. Isn't that what I asked for? Yes... but that's NOT how it is done in Japan. Despite my wonderful Japanese language abilities (I can't say that with a straight face), I did not ask for the drink the correct Japanese way.
Holy cow - have you ever asked for your coffee in a foreign way at Starbucks? You order it their way or confusion reigns.
And... for the record, in the U.S... Chicago and Las Vegas, as two examples, I asked for a large Coke at McDonalds. My speaking voice is loud and clear, but they had no idea what I wanted. Now, to be fair, the person serving me was a Spanish speaker - perhaps South American or Central American - I don't know... but they had no clue... so I tried to order: El grande Maco; el grande fries and el grande Coke and still got a blank stare - so I just walked away.
Not everyone understands me... and that's fine. I have no idea what the hell I was saying anyhow. I assumed grande is big/grand... and Maco sounds like I imagine Mac would sound in Mexican. Kidding... in Spanish. I tried. My English wasn't working, so I tried pigeon Spanish. Failed. Leave. I have no idea why a non-English speaker was at the cash, but maybe the McDonalds I was at in Chicago and Las Vegas catered to more of a Latino community. No idea. It was cool. The Vegas one was in a hotel on the new strip, however.

16. Been on the good end of discrimination and been treated to things just because you are a foreigner
Probably. I assume so. I've had it happen in Toronto... where a gas station run by guys from India offered me free donuts, but when my White wife came in 20 seconds later - nothing. That sucks.
In Japan, I was treated well because I was a minor celebrity in my city of Ohtawara. I'd go and get a flat fixed on my bicycle at a small family-run bike shop and not be charged anything... I don't care for that, and believe in paying fair prices for goods and services performed. Fair is fair, right?

17. Been refused an apartment or housing on the grounds of race
Not applicable. Never tried because I didn't need to because my housing was set up by the Board of Education... and... I bet that discrimination on rental refusal happens in every single country.

18. Had someone go through your rubbish and complain (unjustly) about something
Nope. Then again... I was there in Japan before we had to separate garbage. But... there are people who do that against gaijin and nihonjin, from what I have heard. Don't take it personally and ensure you are doing the proper garbage separation. Hells, my wife does it to me all the time. I'll never learn, I guess.

19. Had someone complain about you to somebody (police, boss etc) rather than to you directly
No... I was a good boy. If there were complaints about me, I never, ever heard of it from my bosses, and certainly not from the police.

20. Been called ‘gaijin-san’ by someone in customer service
Yes... they call me Mister Foreigner. It didn't bother me then, and if I was there now armed with 6 years of blogging about Japan, it wouldn't bother me either.
People really seem to be bothered about being called a gaijin. Whatever. At least they aren't calling you Whitey or Round Eyes or Big Penis. I don't think the Japanese use the word to mean outsider... they mean foreigner. Now... if I was married to a Japanese woman and was living there, and could speak jozu (good) Japanese, then maybe I would feel ticked off. I know there are many foreigners who can speak Japanese than some natives... but it goes back to the cultural thing where... no matter what... you will never ever be Japanese. I've been told by what I would assume was a White Canadian, that I can never be Canadian because of my skin color. The fact that I have more knowledge of hockey than most people on the planet, have seven years post secondary education, could have caught that person on six different grammatical errors and spellers... well... sometimes you can't win with a bigot.

21. Had a server or shop assistant direct all conversation at your Japanese partner / friend
Yes - and very much glad of it. I'd rather get the order right. Of course, when with other foreigners, I would go over to the fake food and point to what I wanted. That's what it is there for. I don't care... sometimes in Toronto, people talk just to me... other times to my wife... other times not at all. Guess which one I hate the most?

22. Had shop staff give your change to your Japanese partner / friend
Nope. Never. Maybe it's because I was the guy, and maybe they just figured the guy was paying? No... that wasn't it... maybe they did that because I was the one who gave them the money. That partner-money thing has happened in Canada, too... and I tell that I don't know that lady, so why did they give them that change? They feel dumb, but really, we all have a laugh about it. Sometimes, because people aren't paying attention they have no idea who paid and thus no idea who to return the money to. I'd chalk it up to an honest mistake.

23. Had someone ask questions about you right in front of you
Sure... I'm not very good with Japanese - understanding or speaking. Knock yourself out.

24. Been refused a credit card or bank loan on the grounds of being a foreigner
Not applicable. Never had a either. I had my Canadian Visa card over in Japan. It worked. No hassles. I only ever used it to buy antiques such as ukiyo-e.

Bonus Question: 

*25. Have someone do a double-take and say ‘bikkuri shita’ when they see you
Nope... not really. I don't sneak up on people because I'm pretty loud and visible. But really... maybe you just surprised them. Some people - the wife - are really easy to surprise.

Anyhow, to me the whole thing is akin to Mad Magazine because these gripes via questions were apparently things that ticked off some foreigners in Japan.

From a Mad Magazine, originally circa 1974 - this reprint is from Mad Special #23, 1977. This one always stuck in my memory... and was luckily in the fourth magazine I looked through in my collection. It's from the 2-pager: You Never Can Win With A Bigot! Pretty strong language... then again... Mad Magazine used to have a strong social commentary in their stuff. I haven't read anything recent, so I can't say if they still do.
I don't mean to belittle your pain and suffering for those complaining via these gripes, but none of these gripes is particularly irritating to me. Yes, I am aware that time heals all wounds, and I've spent a lot of time away, but I am 100% sure that sort of stuff  didn't bother me when I was in Japan because I have never felt like there was any malice behind it.

I'm sure the two things I was not answering were perhaps loaded gripes towards racism... which I am sure exists in Japan and elsewhere (trust me, the rest of Asian hates Japan for what it did to them in WWII and before)... but I don't feel like it's rampant in the country. No one is going to get lynched for being a foreigner in Japan.  

I just wanted to show that gripes are gripes... but for foreigners in Japan... if you don't like how you are being treated, you can: attempt to alter the way people think; ignore it and hope it doesn't drive you crazy, or; leave.

The gripes about Japan are gripes, and I know that every situation is different... but neither should anyone read that stuff and think these gripes are rampant throughout Japan. 

Andrew Joseph

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