Friday 1 June 2012

Apes on a Train

I tried to be strong. Truly I did. But, lord knows, I’m a weak and venal man and the temptation was just too powerful. I was never going to make it through forty days of the devil whispering sweet nothings in my ear and so I’ve caved. Caved. Collapsed. Folded like a dead-beat poker hustler watching his final chips disappear in an illicit Chicago speakeasy.

Here are my mandatory microaggression posts. I hope you’re fucking happy now.

So it all started, as it so often does, with a Debito article in the Japan Times. Debito starts off fairly coherently, as he so often can, and then to my mind loses his way a touch when coming to conclusions, as he so often will. The tiny corner of the internet we call the Anglophone Japanese Blogosphere got this between its teeth and went batshit. As always.

It’s both funny and dispiriting to see how people react to this. Human thought is all about false dichotomies (I blame Descartes) so let’s set us up some straw men and knock them down, shall we? Everyone else is doing it and I don’t see why I shouldn’t join in the fun.

Reactions seem to exist on a continuum, with a fair degree of overlap (which is what the word ‘continuum’ suggests, really). Here’s a basic taxonomy for your consideration. I had planned to link to examples but fuck it, I’m not trawling through all that ignorance, bile, and hate – again – just to make a few more words turn orange.

1. The Deniers
“There is no racism in Japan”

Cloud-Cuckoo-Landers who deny that any form of discrimination exists in Japan whatsoever. Mercifully few.

2. The Solipsists
“Well, I’ve never experienced any racism in Japan. I think you’re over-reacting.”

They are the world, the world is them. What they experience is the truth and the truth is only what they experience. You know what though? I’ve never met the Queen, but I’m still very willing to acknowledge that she exists.

3. The Guests.
“You’ll never really belong, so why let it bother you?”

Mostly Harmless, but... Guests are the next level up from Solipsists. Less bad, in a sense, because they do at least acknowledge that these things occur and that it’s undesirable that they do. They’ve reached their peace with things by being content to float along on the outside of Japanese society. The perpetual, literal outsider.

People reach their own accommodations with their conditions. That’s perfectly acceptable, in fact it’s the only way any of us can survive from day-to-day, and as long as they’re not actively damaging other people then I’m in no position to have a go. But by accepting the status quo, even though they realize it’s flawed, they are passively perpetuating those flaws.

Many people (myself included) are here for the long term with all the associated commitments. I let ‘small’ things bother me because I want the world my children grow up in to be better than it is now. To say nothing of the fact that, its demographics being what they are, the Japanese are going to have to reach a better accommodation with foreigners in the very near future if they want to maintain anything like their current standard of living. By which I mean my standard of living.

To say nothing of the fact that very often Guests have been ‘invited’ to Japan with the overt intention of exposing Japan to other cultures; by failing to engage they are doing their ‘hosts’ a serious disservice.

4. The Excusers
“They just don’t know any better.”

Trying to see the other person’s point of view is always good. Excusing the other person when they’re in the wrong is not. These guys come in two flavours –
A.          Saitama Syndrome
              So eager to assimilate that they’ll happily concede that, yes, foreigners are an uncouth, uncivilized bunch of apes who don’t know how to behave in public and all smell slightly of milk. We should be thankful for the unspoken forbearance of the wise and inscrutable Japanese nation.
B.           Orientalists
              So wise and inscrutable that it must be genetic, right? They’re just so different from us! It’s not their fault, they just don’t know any better, so it’s not really racism. This proud, noble, martial race is so unique, so distinct from the regular world that it would be unfair to judge them by the same standards we apply to normal people.

5. The Playground Lawyers
“In America, people are still murdered because of their race.”

When I was six years old, I pushed Emily Clarke into the school fishpond. I got in trouble, as you would expect. The day before, however, Barry Connor had bitten Jamie Worthington. This was clearly much, much worse (Jamie had bleeded). Somehow, though, the teachers didn’t feel the fact that some other boy had been naughtier was sufficient excuse for my slightly less naughty behaviour. Even though Barry was in the year above me and so was a far bigger boy.

It’s worth noting that in any given discussion, Playground Lawyers will normally be the first people to use the word ‘America’. And it’s always America, which leads me to a subset; The ‘How D’you Like it Now?’ Squad. These are people who feel that, due to the lengthy and unarguable history of white men fucking over non-whites, this somehow means that it’s impossible for white people to be the subject of racism, or that if they are, that it’s somehow justified. They will always assume that any complainers are Caucasian, despite any evidence to the contrary. These guys get classified here because, as I’m sure your mother always told you, ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’ These weren't acceptable arguments when you were in play-school, and they sure as hell aren't now that you're an adult.

6. The Proportionalists
“There are more important issues to worry about.”

The frustrating thing about The Proportionalists is that they’re right. Obviously there are more important things to worry about. Obviously being serially overcharged is more serious than being asked if you can use chopsticks. Obviously being denied access to important services, or any services for that matter, is more worthy of attention than having a bit of extra breathing room on the train. Obviously.

It’s so obvious that in all the years I’ve been exposed to these discussions, I’ve never read or heard anyone say, “You know what? I don’t care about racist landlords charging double key-money because I’m foreign. It’s far more important that they stop asking me if I can eat natto.” Never.

A broken leg is obviously worse than a stubbed toe, but stubbed toes are far more common and in the split-second after they happen they are very painful. Acknowledging that doesn’t somehow mean I think stubbed toes are worse than, or even comparable to, broken legs. I’d far rather cope with the former, but ideally I’d want to avoid both.

Both Proportionalists and Playground Lawyers will occasionally dismiss complaints as ‘White-guys Whining’ or ‘First-world Problems’. Pouring a bowl of cornflakes before realizing you’ve run out of milk is a First-world Problem. Being treated differently solely on the basis of your ethnic origin – regardless of whether that treatment is preferential or detrimental – is not a First-world Problem; it’s racism. And while we’re at it, so is using skin colour to belittle any grievances people may hold.

7. Me/[Your Name Here]
The only sane man. Clearly.

8. The Broken Window Brigade
“Little things are symptomatic of bigger ones.”

I’ll tend to fall into this category. When I’m not in Number 7, of course. The BWB believe that all racism is bad and deserves to be discussed and opposed. Not all instances are equally bad, obviously (for fuck’s sake), but none are good. The more rational will recognize that The Empty Seat and Chopstick Compliment are symptoms, not the cause, but believe that because they are so prevalent they are worth addressing. The less rational just really fucking hate natto. Both will occasionally forget themselves and lapse over into…

9. The Racist Anti-Racists
“Japs are racist.”

Sometimes I think these guys are being ironic, more often I think they’re just moronic. Truth be told though, I often just can’t tell anymore. RARs have no trouble in making hideously sweeping assumptions about Japanese people which are just as offensive and wrong as the actions these people are supposed to have committed. Failing to heed my warnings about the Ecological Fallacy and thus assuming that every Japanese individual is an exact scale reproduction of Japanese society as a whole, and talking about both as if they were the same thing.

Just because Japan has problems with racism, it doesn’t mean that any given Japanese individual will be a racist. It’s wrong to assume so until proven otherwise. That’s kind of the whole point, no?

10. Debito
If you don’t know by now then good for you, in all honesty. I have neither the space nor inclination to get into half of it. The man is an outlier, thankfully, and I mean that sincerely.

So those are the basic tribes. You’ll of course have noted one significant group who aren’t invited to this particular party, but let’s not let that bother us. Talking behind people’s backs is just so much fun

Part Two on Monday.


  1. Great post. It was more thought out, well written and entertaining then most of the other people writing on this subject. not to mention them others being of the tldr variety. I hate the fact that the main offenders are just complaining instead of helping the issue, imo of course.

    1. Thanks. Part 2 is still under production, but it's definitely a struggle to avoid straying into tldr territory. I've already had to junk half of it. The exorcised stuff would probably make a decent post in itself, if I could make it less humourless and ranty. Easy trap to fall into.

      Of course if the 'main offenders' were helping in any way, they wouldn't be offenders now, would they? ;)

    2. Once, during my callow JET ALT days, I read something about how the Japanese treated WWII POWs. The next day in the staff room I looked around and thought, 'yup, they'd do it to me too if they were told to'. I thought about the Japanese teachers and was certain. I thought about the English teachers and was quite sure. I thought about the PE teachers and realized they would not do it to me, as we had drunk together, but other PE teachers who had not clanked mugs with me would. Then again, so did Rwandans, and so did ex-Yugoslavians, and so did Stalinist, and so did Germans, and so did Americans... The horrible punchline to the twentieth century:

    3. I see your Sturgeon's Law, and raise you one Stanford Prison Experiment -

    4. I cash in with Milgram:

      More on the same cheerful theme:

    5. I fold. Fold like a... No, wait, I've already done that, haven't I?

  2. My most recent look into this concept involves Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the entry under 'race'. I even started looking for Japan's history of the concept in order to understand where people might be coming from. Lots of borrowing from the German's occurred leading up to the Second Big One. And, as you are familiar with Bix, the post-Second Big One occupation left that-which-was-there-before pretty much intact (minus a few loyal souls) in the name of stability.


    1. Ahh, 'Stability'. That's always worked out so well for the Western Powers. Just look at our old friend Assad.

  3. In a sad testament to how poor the Jblogosphere is....This post will not be the most commented thought engaging post on the topic despite it being the best written in quality and scope.

    I ....I'm starting to get annoyed.

    1. Thanks, that means a lot. I also think "Jblogosphere" is far better way of describing it than the awkward mess I came up with.

      Thanks for the RLS add, too. On the subject of comments, I've noticed that RLS doesn't really increase traffic all that much, but the ratio of comments to views really jumps. Of course, it's a really small sample and I have no idea what it means, but I thought it was interesting. And by saying that I'm clearly jinxing it...

    2. It's a link catch and it will require a full view of you as it contains no...anything or comments itself. If you get comments from it I imagine it will be later down the road. When I abandon my site I will still update the RLS cuz I can do that from Hawaii...and I will :)

      The whatever it's called it really fucked right now. It's awash with hyperbole and recycled shit. Seems like the whole expat nation moves in weird ebs and flows and that's not a good thing me thinks. The collective I.Q. must hover around..Oh...I dunno....#dumb.;)

    3. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not ungrateful. It's just given how much importance you place on comments it seemed appropriate that it'd attract a higher proportion of those. I found it interesting, at any rate...

      Yeah. It's all a little Groundhog Day, isn't it? I really thought about whether to say anything about it. When I started to write about it I didn't have to force it though, which is normally a good sign. Hard not to veer into 'rant' territory however.

  4. Have to say this is the one issue in the expat blog community that has more poo-flinging going on than any other I've seen in years. Like the categories thing, though. Will have to work on figuring out which one I fit into...

    1. Know Thyself...

    2. I will definitely figure it out before I tattoo myself...

  5. What do you do about the chopstick comments though really? I figure at least my extreme jouzu-ness will help alter their picture of foreigners in a small way.

    1. It's a koan, I'm sure. I've said it before, but I'm convinced there's no right answer and it's some sort of nationwide zen hazing ritual.

    2. I really did want to tell a chick in Gusto that she was jouzu with her fork the other day (she really wasn't).