Friday 4 November 2011

7 Deadly Virtues – General Prologue

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a westerner in Japan in possession of half a brain will not be in want of an opinion on race. This is a good thing – race, ethnicity, and national identity are all big, important issues and need to be thought about. Of course in an ideal world they wouldn’t be issues at all, but to ignore it is to bury your head in the sand like the stereotypical bleeding-heart liberal, insisting that ‘we’re all one race - the human race,’ and incidentally that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Trouble is, as with all big, important issues, they are very difficult to pin down. I’ve had several goes at getting my thoughts onto paper (well, hard disk) and they’ve invariably ended up as slippery, tangential, caveat-larded messes. Even the usually concise and infallible Orchid over at 1000 things loses her way a bit when expanding on these ideas.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying though. At heart these are all issues about our place in the world, and that’s certainly worth consideration. And much as I hate to play into the self-imposed conceit that ‘Japan is a Unique Country,’ there are some (relatively) unique factors at play over here. My A-level geography teacher once told us that Japan is one of only two countries which actually comes anywhere near fitting the concept of a Nation State. Significantly, this means that wherever you’re from, when you come here you’ll be in a minority. For a lot of people that’ll be a novel experience, and for many it won’t.

For reasons which now elude me, I used to waste my money buying the Daily Yomiuri (it has a crossword, I think that had something to do with it. Certainly nothing to do with the actual reporting). Periodically brief spats would flare up in the letters column. Someone would write in complaining about racism in Japan, and others would pile on with the usual nonsense; ‘You’re a guest here, don’t complain,’ ‘But life is so good in other ways,’ ‘Shut up white-boy, you don’t know what real racism is’. On one occasion I remember the original writer responding, ‘Actually, I’m Hispanic. I’ve got a pretty solid frame of reference on this one.”

Even if he had been white, I don’t see how that makes the racism he experienced ok. A broken nose is still a bad thing, even if a broken leg is worse. As a white, educated, middle-class European male I’m certainly in the ‘novel experience’ category. I’m only too aware that there’s a whole freight of cultural and personal experience which doesn’t affect me here in the way it does, say, Burmese refugees, or the descedents of slaves in America. I realise how fortunate I’ve been through the accident of my birth, and that there’s a real risk of anything I say coming across as ‘first-world problems’; the bleatings of someone who doesn’t know how good he’s got it.

Believe me, I do know. But, again, that doesn’t somehow make the racism I experience a good thing. Perversely though, quite often that racism is actually beneficial to me. People think I’m cool simply because I’m white and tall. I’ve been compared, without obvious sarcasm, to Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Now, I am cool, but not because of my skin colour. And I’m much taller than Tom or Brad.

How do you complain about supposed compliments without seeming churlish? How do you turn down preferential treatment which may be fully deserved (because I’m clearly great) but is offered for the wrong reason (because I’m white)? How do you take issue with desirable outcomes spurred by questionable motives without coming across as a dick?

I once had girl come up to me after class and ask me if I knew any black people, because, “black people are very cool!” What do you say to that?

“Well, some are, but some are twats.”

True (of everyone, please note), but that’s not really going to change her view about anything, except whether she wants to talk to me again.

At least it’s a positive image, right? Better then the opposite at any rate. I still genuinely don’t know how to deal with these types of situations. Answers on a postcard to the usual address please.

Which is all by way of saying that I’ll write more about this over the next few weeks and months. I’ll justify the whole ‘7 Deadly Virtues’ conceit by saying that for someone in my position, racism in Japan is exactly that – it can often seem harmless enough, but actually stems from something incredibly corrosive. Really though it’s just an effort to impose some sort of structure, in a vain effort to avoid the ‘amorphous mess’ problem. We’ll see how it goes.

For those of you who can’t wait (I know, the anticipation is killing me too), you should head over to the consistently thought-provoking Loco and gasp in awe at his far bigger back-catalogue.

Wow. Was that just a ‘black men have big cocks’ gag? Did I use sufficient irony? Is there sufficient irony in the world to allow for that? I once saw a bad Japanese cover band do a version of Pretty Fly for a White Guy. That must have used up quite a lot.

Now I really am trying to have my cake and eat it. It’s probably better if I just stop there.


  1. It's something I've often thought about. If you go into a bar and happily accept free drinks courtesy of being white then you can't really complain when the locals trot out the sterotypes. You can't have the good without the bad.

  2. Yep. Except I'd happily pay for my own if it meant not having to deal with all the bullshit. It's hard to decline without seeming up yourself, kinda linked with the way you're not meant to turn down refills at enkais.

    And there's all the times cute girls have come up to me in bars and asked me to buy them drinks, though that's a whole other can of worms...