Monday 4 June 2012

Monday to Friday

Part One went up on Friday, for those of you who missed it. Up to speed now? Right then, on with part two…

In my first month at uni I found myself talking to a girl* at a house party. Freshers’ week was over, so I was actually having to put in a bit of effort in my attempts to get her into bed. Small talk and the like, you know the drill. I asked her what she was studying (oh yes, I had all the moves).

“Medicine.” She responds.

“Cool,” says I, “So you’re going to be a nurse?”

She gives me a look which, I’m not ashamed to say, actually makes my balls retreat back into my body cavity, spits out the word “Doctor,” in a way which somehow manages to make it rhyme with “You Cunt,” and turns to find another conversational partner.

Now, I like to consider that I’m nicely brought up middle-class boy, with my fair share of white liberal guilt and right-on opinions about equality and tolerance. Once I’d coaxed my bollocks back into my scrotal sac (and if I’m being honest, gotten over my disappointment at not getting laid) I was justifiably appalled at how casually my prejudices had been exposed.

Not even that, because it’s not like I was making a concerted effort to keep my galloping misogyny under wraps. I genuinely thought I was completely fair and open minded about all things. To have that illusion shattered, and in such nut-crunchingly humiliating circumstances to boot, was something of a reality check.

Because we all have prejudices. Whether they’re learned or innate is pretty much moot, frankly. They’re there inside everyone and as we all know, the first step to fixing a problem is to admit that there is one. And this is why reading about monkeyfighting is such a disheartening, spirit-freezing experience. The same accusations and denials being kicked around again and again. It’s cold out there today. It’s cold out there every day.

I’ve previously talked about the Japanese penchant for binary viewpoints, the division of the world into distinct sections, regardless of the mush of grey in between. As usual, this just the Japanese extension of a common global idea. When I referenced Descartes on Friday I wasn’t doing it to make myself sound smart.

OK. I was. But I was also doing it to make the point that these artificial dualities have a firm hold on people’s perceptions the world over. My man René got himself hung up on the whole Body/Soul question, and I’ve already mentioned Nature/Nurture, but the list is endless: Masculine/Feminine; Physics/Metaphysics; Science/Nature; Right/Left; East/West; Jacob/Edward; Spit/Swallow. The best of times, the worst of times. And as Dickens understood, often these opposing views are nothing of the sort, and are purposefully exaggerated for less than noble reasons.  

There’s a reason I presented a continuum on Friday. Attitudes exist on a sliding scale and parcelling them up into discrete little quanta of perception does nobody any favours, yet it happens all the time. In the little bunfight concerning monkey- fighting that we’re currently discussing, the false dichotomy principally concerns assimilation/accommodation. Is the onus on foreigners in Japan to assimilate, or on the Japanese to accommodate?

The correct answer is C, a bit of both. It’s always fucking C. What’s the point of moving to another country if you don’t expect to learn new things about yourself or for people to do things differently? You can’t seriously plan to move halfway round the world and expect everything to be exactly the same, if so you might as well have stayed at home.

While we’re at it, what’s the point of inviting foreign workers if you don’t expect them to provide anything new to your country? You can’t hire people expecting them to provide something different and then be surprised when they do exactly that, if so you might as well have hired at home.

Clearly the middle ground is the place to be, and while we all might think that’s where we are, we’re not. We’re constantly exposing our prejudices and crashing and burning amidst many others who are also performing knee-jerk auto-cock-blocks. We divide ourselves up into opposing little camps, primarily because that’s what we think is expected of us, and then we hide behind our barricades and throw rocks at the other side because we’re all so very angry about chopsticks.

No. We are angry about the chopsticks. Not...
Never mind.

I’ve noted this tendency before. Wasn’t I prescient? Well no, obviously not. Noting the chopsticks thing is like observing that the water is wet and fire is hot, and I think this is the reason it all kicks off. The more serious, undeniable acts of racism in Japan are mercifully uncommon. The refusal of admission or service, the price gouging, the straight-up abuse from strangers in the street. It certainly happens, but not that often and not to everyone. I could easily believe that a pretty blonde girl could spend a year in a major city and not witness or directly hear of anything like this.

But we’ve all been complimented on our skill with chopsticks. We’ve all been asked if we can eat sushi or natto. We’ve all been partnered by the empty seat on on our work-day commutes, Monday to Friday**. And because monkeyfighting is something every foreigner in Japan has experienced, it’s that much more tempting for everyone to say something about it, however ill-considered that something might be.

For my own part, I feel that questions born of genuine curiosity, or even genuine ignorance, are fine. Hell, I’m constantly trying to encourage my students to ask questions if they don’t understand, so I can hardly object when it actually happens. Actions born of a genuine desire to help are also tolerable; the unasked for English menu, for example. It’s when these questions, comments, and actions occur not to provide new information but to confirm existing prejudices that problems start. That's where the line is crossed from curiosity or stupidity to monkeyfighting. But as ever, there's often a degree of overlap and no clear divide.

You got your fancy diagrams last week. Don't get greedy

A Chinese-American friend visited a couple of years back. We went to a restaurant and of course I get the English menu and he gets the Japanese one. We laugh and swap. Then for the rest of the meal the waiters continue to address him whenever they come to our table. My Japanese is far from fluent, but his is non-existent. A point we - I - made several times, yet still they talked to him and not me.

OK, yeah, that one’s pretty clear. How about the guy I talked about in the chopsticks post? Remember him? In the same conversation he went on to talk about a trip he took to Kyoto and the fantastic Japanese restaurant he went to there. He advised me against wasting my money on it though, because the flavours were very subtle and foreigners like strong flavours. As I sit there eating exactly the same bento as him with no obvious displeasure. I have no doubt he genuinely thought he was being friendly, but I’m not sure how that squares with telling someone you barely know what they should be thinking.

In that vein, at this point some of you may be thinking something like, “But Japanese food is pretty bland,” or, “Natto is disgusting. It doesn’t bother me if I’m told I won’t like it.” If that’s you then you’re missing the point completely.

I can’t stand onsen. They make me feel, by turns, both faint and bored off my tits. But just because I have no need for them doesn’t mean I’m fine with other people being denied entry because they’re not Japanese. ‘Not Japanese’ is a pretty big, pretty diverse group, comprising as it does almost everyone in the world. If you see fit to say treating foreigners in a certain way is OK because you specifically are OK with it, then you’re unilaterally electing yourself proxy for seven billion people. I’m pretty full of myself on occasion, but even I wouldn’t go that far.

And if you're thinking, "Well, that chopsticks guy was probably just a bit insensitive. It doesn't mean all Japanese people are. Now you're electing this one guy proxy for all of them. Hypocrite." Then you're both partially right and still missing the point. He was insensitive, but it's not just 'one guy,' it's many, many monkeyfighting incidents over a period of time. I'm using this guy as an exemplar, but he's part of a far larger picture.

A larger picture

The fight-path of an individual starling might seem random in isolation, but seen in the context of an entire flock definite patterns clearly emerge. The distinction between anecdotes and data is one of the central ontological concerns of the social sciences, and of course it's very, very fuzzy and has taxed far better minds than mine or yours. Our individual attitudes are inevitably shaped by our societies, and it's a dangerous game to play them off against each other as excuses for poor behaviour. The answer, as ever, is C.

And so I keep revisiting this discussion. That’s why I’ve devoted a few thousand words, and hours of my time, to writing this. Almost everyone involved in this discussion would benefit from having their real, personal, attitudes exposed to their own view, as I experienced at that house party. These microagressions (there, I said it) serve to expose prejudices at the cultural level, if only people are willing to recognize their own as individuals. Many won’t be, but for those few that are it’s an incredibly important discovery. I have to believe that at least some people will be able to get it eventually, even if many won't. That’s why I keep coming back, despite the seemingly endless repetition and aggravation it causes.

*/strong, independent female adult
** Yeah, I know it's tenuous, but that clip was too absurd not to use.


  1. Great post but I have to disagree with one point. I reckon a pretty blonde girl living in a big city would cope more than most. I've heard of a lot of salarymen who equate pretty blonde girl with Russian hostess with will put out for $$$. I've coped a bit of that myself and I'm not pretty or blonde and prolly not still considered a girl :)

    Actually as a woman, the whole microagression thing is kind of amusing. You think being told you are good with chopsticks gets annoying -- we get told the same 2-3 lines over and over again from puberty. Is that microagression? From the guy's point of view maybe not but you could argue as a woman that's a constant reminder that you are on display & being put in a sexual context regardless of your intention. By the way, did you tell the not nurse she had a nice smile?

    1. I was thinking more in terms of the clear-cut stuff, y'know, stuff which would be technically illegal in other countries. It's still a fair point though, being propositioned (especially for cash) when it's unwanted is another flavour of the same thing. A pretty unpleasant flavour, at that.

      Are those displays microaggressions? Honestly, I don't know, there's a reason I 'dubbed' most of them out in this post. I'm not sure it's actually that helpful as a description. You could certainly make a very convincing case for it though, if you were of a mind to.

      Nice smile? I honestly can't remember anything else I said to her, but I was 18 and horny so it was undoubtedly pretty stupid. I'd like to say I've got better at it, but it's been so long since I've dusted off the old charm-pants it seems unlikely :(

    2. I know you've addressed this in a later post, Kamo, but I had never thought of the parallels between microagression toward foreigners in Japan and toward women in general. It's really solid. I mean, when I think over the last 10 years of my life in the US and Japan--
      "So are you quitting grad school after you get married?" (What. What. What.)
      "She has to go home because her husband's waiting." (What?!)
      "YOU'RE the head of house?" (Your system is bullshit.)
      "Did you not change your name because you don't love your partner?" (How. Why.)

      Nevermind that vagina's not to be said in MI, being a woman was a pre-existing condition until recently, male politicians get to decide if I live or die, and yay, 77 cents to the dollar if I return to the US. (Not that it's better here, but I don't have that issue at my current job.

      Related more to the topic, if my husband (also white and English-speaking) and I go out, people often address him, not me. Even when I am doing all the conversing as the Japanese-speaker in the relationship.

      Also, the other day I stopped in the street after a kid called me a gaijin and gave her a lecture on the proper terms and ended with "I'm human, too!"

    3. For the sake of completeness, and my own sense of self worth, I should link forward to that post where I recant of my slightly hasty dismissal of Kathryn's comment.

      It is, as you say, rock solid. But like yourself I'd never really thought about it in those terms before so when I first read it my initial thoughts were, 'No, that's not what I meant.' Once my knees had had time to stop jerking though then yeah, bang on the money.

      And because I'm all about half-formed thoughts right now, one more for us all to consider. While the examples you cite certainly do have definite parallels, thanks to the efforts of feminism over the past few decades we already have a generally (but sadly not universally) accepted word for them, 'sexism'.

      The whole 'microaggression' thing is fairly new. I'm not yet convinced as to it's actual worth, but a lot of it seems to rest on being able to identify a specific set of actions and attitudes and flag them up as undesirable. In casting the net wider isn't there a risk in diluting whatever utility the term may posses?

      That's not a rhetorical question. I genuinely don't know, but is seems worth asking, somehow.

    4. Oh, and thanks for commenting!

  2. My nuts felt sore after your too long discussion about the abuse of said nuts ;)

    I'll tell you a secret....


    One of the reasons I really get on folks nerves is that I take away their keys. Their talking points. I admit my failings and issues and complexes and embrace them because good and bad all makes me who I am. I like me...I love me...I sometimes hate me and I project those feelings on others.

    Another secret...


    We ALL do that, the problem is that a great majority see admitting fault weakness or just being wrong as some terrible discrediting thing when the reality is the EXACT opposite. It builds credibility. Admitting your wrong or uninformed.

    We talked about debating before and the best way to get out from under a conflicting point based on fact is to admit it and move on. Debating the "givens" is a sure way to lose the crowd and look like a fool. I knew Bill had sex with Monica...I didn't care...I just wanted him to own his mistake his humanness and so did most everyone else.

    We all got issues.

    1. Yep. Acknowledging your weaknesses doesn't excuse them, of course, but it's still further than a lot of people get.

      Sometimes it's almost funny. You can see people geeing themselves up for a fight, then a simple 'Yeah, I know. You're right,' pops their bubble completely. It's almost like they wanted the argument more than reaching a conclusion.

  3. Ah, yes... the IAT. Was surprised to have "no bias" results. I'm fine as long as I don't have to sit through another one of Nicolas Kim Coppola's movies again, except for maybe Raising Arizona. Beautiful scenery.

    And Lee was brilliant funny... with an edge.

    Starlings are as beautiful as Elbow and the beloved ensemble. People used to go downtown just to watch them do their thing over the water before sunset. A real show... those birds.

    And your comments are bonus.

    A bird.

    I remember being politely asked to sit. Yes, it was polite, but urgent, the request to 'cock-block' someone in a way that shielded a woman who'd most likely been put through hell. The 'outstanding' community member was perhaps a little drunk and obviously not aware of his imposition. But he was 'authority'. The move was carried out in a way that could be described as nuanced. A simple gesture and I understood what was being asked of me.

    Only thing was, I kind of knew the impact of what she'd gone through, this slightly older woman. A sensitive and expressive being who eventually had to go somewhere safe. Yeah, those starlings and that orchestra. Fucking beautiful.

    1. Glad to know the links amuse someone else as well. More often than not it feels like they're for my own amusement. Which they are, so it's all good. Nic's got his many flaws (see above), but he does do 'losing his shit' with a certain panache. Got to give him that.

      Yeah, I've been there with the human barrier. That's something else which is truly multi-cultural and universal, sadly; the way alcohol causes some people to act like dicks.