Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column, August 2, 2011, “The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner”, about the difficulty for NJ to make long-term J friends

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The Japan Times Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011
JUST BE CAUSE

The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner

Courtesy http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110802ad.html

A few months ago I had beers with several old Japan-hand guys (combined we have more than a century of Japan experiences), and one of them asked an interesting question:

News photo

“After all our years here, how many close Japanese male friends do you have?” (Excluding Debito, of course.)

We glanced amongst ourselves and realized that none of us hadany. Not one we would count on as a “friend.” Nobody to whom we could talk openly, unreservedly, and in depth with, about what’s on our minds. Or contact for a place to stay because our spouse was on the warpath. Or call at 3 a.m. to announce the birth of our latest baby. Or ring up on the spur of the moment because we didn’t want to drink alone that evening. Or who would care enough to check on us in the event of a natural disaster. Not one.

This occasioned much discussion and theorizing, both at the table and on my blog later (see www.debito.org/?p=8933)

(A quick note to readers already poised to strike with poison pens: None of the following theories are necessarily mine, nor do I necessarily agree with them. They are just to stimulate further discussion.)

One theory was that Japanese salarymen of our age group are generally boring people. Too busy or work-oriented to cultivate outside interests or hobbies, these one-note-Taros generally “talk shop” or resort to shaggy-dog stories about food. We contrasted them with Japanese women, who, thanks to more varied lifestyles and interests (including travel, language and culture), are more engaging and make better conversation partners (even if, my friends hastily added, the relationship had not become physical).

Another idea was that for many Japanese men, their hobby was you. By this, the speaker meant the culture vultures craving the “gaijin shiriaiexperience” or honing their language skills. This was OK in the beginning (especially when we first got here) but it got old quickly, as they realized we wanted to learn Japanese too, and when they weren’t willing to reciprocate. Not to mention that we eventually got tired of hearing blanket cultural explanations for individual issues (which is how culture vultures are hard-wired to see the world, anyway).

Another theory was that after a certain age, Japanese men don’t make “friends” with anyone. The few lifelong friends they would ever make were in school; once they entered the job market, all other males were treated as rivals or steps to promotion — meaning you put up a mask and didn’t reveal potentially compromising personal information. Thus if Japanese men were going to make friends at all, they were going to make them permanently, spending enormous time and energy imprinting themselves on precious few people. This meant they had to choose wisely, and non-Japanese — generally seen as in Japan only temporarily and with unclear loyalties — weren’t worth the emotional investment.

Related to this were issues of Japan’s hierarchical society. Everyone was either subordinate or superior — kōhai or senpai — which interfered with friendships as the years marched on: Few non-Japanese (NJ) wanted to languish as kōhai, and few Japanese wanted to deal with a foreign senpai. Besides, went the theory, this relationship wasn’t something we’d classify as a “friendship” anyway. Conclusion: Japanese men, as opposed to Japanese women with their lifetime coffee klatches, were some of the most lonely people on the planet.

Another suggestion was that this was just part of how life shakes down. Sure, when you’re young and carefree you can hang out willy-nilly, spend money with abandon and enjoy the beer-induced bonhomie (which Japan’s watering holes are very good at creating) with everyone all night. But as time goes on and people get married, have kids, take on a mortgage and a nagging spouse (who doesn’t necessarily want you spending their money on your own personal fun, especially if it involves friends of the opposite sex), you prioritize, regardless of nationality.

Fine, our group countered, but we’ve all been married and had kids, and yet we’re still meeting regularly — because NJ priorities include beers with friends from time to time. In fact, for us the older the relationship gets, the more we want to maintain it — especially given all we’ve been through together. “New friends are silver, but old friends are gold.”

Still another, intriguing theory was the utilitarian nature of Japanese relationships, i.e. Japanese make friends not as a matter of course but with a specific purpose in mind: shared lifestyles, interests, sports-team fandom, what have you. But once that purpose had run its course — because you’ve exhausted all conversation or lost the commonality — you should expect to lose contact. The logic runs that in Japan it is awkward, untoward, even rude to extend a relationship beyond its “natural shelf life.” This goes even just for moving to another city in Japan: Consider it normal to lose touch with everyone you leave behind. The thread of camaraderie is that thin in Japan.

However, one naturalized Japanese friend of mine (who just turned 70) pooh-poohed all these theories and took me out to meet his drinking buddies (of both genders, mostly in their 60s and 70s themselves). At this stage in their lives things were less complicated. There were no love triangles, no senpai-kōhai conceits, no “shop talk,” because they were all retired. Moreover they were more outgoing and interesting, not only because they were cultivating pastimes to keep from going senile, but also because the almighty social lubricant of alcohol was omnipresent (they drank like there was no tomorrow; for some of them, after all, there might not be!). For my friend, getting Japanese to lower their masks was pretty easy.

Fine, but I asked if it weren’t a bit unreasonable for us middle-aged blokes to wait for this life stage just to make some Japanese friends. These things may take time, and we may indeed have to spend years collecting shards of short interactions from the local greengrocer before we put together a more revealing relationship. But in the meantime, human interaction with at least one person of the same gender that goes beyond platitudes, and hopefully does not require libation and liver damage, is necessary now for sanity’s sake, no?

There were other, less-developed theories, but the general conclusion was: Whatever expectation one had of “friends” — either between Japanese and NJ, or between Japanese themselves — there was little room over time for overlap. Ultimately NJ-NJ relationships wound up being more friendly, supportive and long-lasting.

Now it’s time for disclaimers: No doubt the regular suspects will vent their spleen to our Have Your Say section and decry this essay as overgeneralizing, bashing, even discriminating against Japanese men.

Fire away, but you’d be missing the point of this column. When you have a good number of NJ long-termers saying they have few to no long-term Japanese friends, this is a very serious issue — with a direct connection to issues of immigration and assimilation of outsiders. It may be a crude barometer regarding life in Japan, but let’s carry on the discussion anyway and see how sophisticated we can make it.

So let’s narrow this debate down to one simple question: As a long-term NJ resident in Japan, how many Japanese friends do you have, as defined in the introduction above? (You might say that you have no relationship with anyone of any nationality with that much depth, but that’s awfully lonely — I dare say even unhealthy — and I hope you can remedy that.) Respondents who can address the other sides of the question (i.e. NJ women befriending Japanese women/men, and same-sex relationships) are especially welcome, as this essay has a shortage of insight on those angles.

Be honest. And by “honest”, I mean giving this question due consideration and experience: People who haven’t been living in Japan for, say, about 10 years, seeing how things shake down over a significant portion of a lifetime’s arc, should refrain from commentary and let their senpai speak. “I’ve been here one year and have oodles of Japanese friends, you twerpski!” just isn’t a valid sample yet. And please come clean about your backgrounds when you write in, since age, gender, occupation, etc. all have as much bearing on the discussion as your duration of time in Japan.

Above all, remember what my job as a columnist is: to stimulate public discussion. Respondents are welcome to disagree (I actually consider agreement from readers to be an unexpected luxury), but if this column can at least get you to think, even start clacking keyboards to The Japan Times, I’ve done my job. Go to it. Consider yourself duly stimulated, and please offer us some friendly advice.

———————

Debito Arudou’s new novel “In Appropriate” is on sale (www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Twitter arudoudebito. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp

65 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column, August 2, 2011, “The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner”, about the difficulty for NJ to make long-term J friends

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  • Yuta#48 – Excellent insight. Thank you. To add a NJ perspective, allow me to paraphrase your fantastic points from my viewpoint:

    1. Cultural Proficiency – Many NJ’s cannot ‘get’ the flow that’s going on here, because the cultural tone is constructed and upheld by hyper-sensitive anal types who won’t deal with you unless you get it right. So get it right or forget it!

    2. Open people – most Japanese guys are not interested in the rest of the world. Japanese culture is the only thing worth learning, so … yawn to you and your foreign BS.

    3. Culture specific barrier – Japanese don’t want to make new friends: why should they? It’s too much work, anyhow. Might have to develop actual social skills or (shudder) talk to a stranger.

    4. Discriminations – Kinda hate NJ’s when it really comes down to it.

    5. Do you really HAVE TO make local friends after all? – Do you really HAVE TO move away from Mommy and Daddy when you grow up? Do you really HAVE TO talk to someone when you leave the house? Do you really HAVE TO behave like adults do in almost every other country of the world?

  • @Yuta

    Your post no. 48 expresses all the things I’ve been thinking for many years (15 years in Japan). 🙂

    I think you are absolutely correct. There’s more to it, of course, but you are on the right track in investigating this problem.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Come to think of it, Yuta, you do not get “patronizing”. Perhaps you are the one who need to “get” Cultural Codes, as you call them.

    You are patronizing NJs who have bothered to learn Japanese but not bought into what you think is “The Japanese Way”. Time and again I have said that what your generation *thinks* is the Unique Japanese Way is nothing more than a postmodern, post war, American rebranded “Fake Japan”. A propaganda tool to make you think you stil have a country capable of independent action, other than abusing NJ individuals at home.
    You ll be telling me Key Money, Lifetime Employment and Tempura are Japanese traditions next!(Hint, they arent). You remind me of an old J-GF of mine who meant well but wrote a very patronizing letter to me about how “foreigners” were well treated in Japan. (Sure, as guests with a definte leaving date).

    You say “Please note that I am not saying that Japanese is a ‘difficult’ language since I believe every language has its own difficulties. And I am BY NO MEANS saying that only ‘Japanese’ can speak Japanese; it simply isn’t true. I have met people who get both the language and the culture right. I particularly remember two guys (French and Italian) who are not only great Japanese speakers but also highly intelligent and have interesting jobs. I have a huge respect for then.”

    WOW, THANKS! (sarcasm mine). Your message here is “Japanese is a uniquely difficult language” but it frankly isnt, what with limited grammatical forms, only a few Kanji compared to Chinese and no “tones”.

    And you respect people for having “interesting jobs’? Do they get bonus points on the immigration scale? Yep, westerners. These are the “good gaijin” you want to come here. I suppose if they look Japanese, they might blend in and we cant have that can we?

    You say”But there seems to be certain number of people who just doesn’t get it however long they are in Japan (or any other country). It seems like they are somewhat incapable of getting out of their old way of thinking and open their eyes to the different perspectives of people. Those people may be linguistically proficient in L2, but not culturally proficient.”

    I will let you into a secret. I am (or was) one of these people. Twenty years ago I made a choice to stop acting Japanese. I learnt the Japanese language, I use it in my job, which was to replace a Japanese person in fact, but there was NO WAY I was ever going to take on what you call “different perpsectives of people” but what you mean is a Borg-like way of accepting outdated ways of thinking of Nihonjinron type “what it means to be Japanese.

    I am the westerner you love to hate. The fluent Japanese speaker who will not accept any of the myths of the “unique Japan”.

    Japan is just another Asian country.Language is a tool for communication, not for making excuses for retrograde behavior or whale hunting. Thats it.

  • I wrote the below, but then I found an academic article in Psychology Today that makes my point 2 below better than I do: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual/201111/change-language-change-personality

    1. Yuta is I think close to the right concept, but if we are talking about individuals truly fluent in the language and immersed in the culture for some period of time, I don’t think the cause is most often a lack of cultural proficiency as much as a choice not to adapt based on personal and cultural factors (which choice can change both directions over time) as demonstrated by Baudrillard. My anecdotal experience with NJ in Japan is that some people are more ingrained or enchanted or identified with their particular culture so that they rebel against this force (Baudrillard I imagine, as well as most culturally non-integrated but linguistically adept NJ I have met in my reckoning, and perhaps many Japanese learners of English too).

    2. I don’t accept myths of “unique Japan” either, but when speaking Japanese I adapt to the local cultural reference frame, just as I adapt my English subconsciously when I speak with different people as well as other languages I speak. It is natural that one’s personality be shaped by the language and cultural reference frame one speaks in, and there is a growing body of academic literature supporting this relationship post-Chomsky “universal grammar.”
    I do not see cultural reference frame as a part of my identity as an individual human. There is a significant impact on my thought process and who I am, particularly when I speak English, but I do not see that as something that I have ownership of and would be giving up by accepting a new and different cultural reference frame. Instead I see that cultural reference frame as the window dressing for my unique personality, with a core self that appears differently in different cultural and linguistic settings but remains underneath. I believe that it is this view of culture/language, this lack of cultural attachment to my home country, that makes it easier for me to make male Japanese friends than for some others.
    Baudrillard’s post adequately summarizes another significant view of culture and identity, philosophically more aligned with Chomsky’s theory of universal language, which was a fad long enough to get Chomsky famous but has been largely discredited since most every universal principle researchers tried to identify has been violated by some language elsewhere in the world (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.html).

    3. I do not think it is so terribly rare for foreigners to be culturally integrated in Japan as Yuta’s experience would suggest. Instead, I think it is more rare for culturally integrated foreigners to hang out with English-focused Japanese such as Yuta than culturally non-integrated foreigners who have a limited selection of Japanese people to associate with, however shallow or deep the association (language partners, activity partners, etc.). Among long-term resident fluent foreigners I know, I’d say it’s closer to 50-50 than as rare as Yuta (or Debito and others who identify with the trend laid out in this article) thinks, and reflects a deeply personal decision as to what one’s identity is.
    I don’t blame those who see their birth culture as part of their identity like Baudrillard or think such people are losers, as Baudrillard portrays those stumbling on the way to becoming bicultural. Some foreigners in Japan (or elsewhere) choose to become bicultural (which can be a painful, error-ridden process), and others for whatever reason choose not to. “That’s it.” Live and let live.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Bob, thanks for the well-spirited reply. My experience was that for a year I really tried to fit in, but as a young and naive NJ this meant being bullied and pushed around, so then I rebelled against this but at the same time was determined enuogh to stick in there and just decided to learn Japanese as a tool, as a means to achieve what I wanted in Japan and “cut thru the bull” that I was invariably being fed in business situations. So I could push for faster decisions rather than rely on middle men (who might have their own agendas in any case).

    I had approached Japan with an open mind, but after so many negative experiences got turned off but at the same time, did not want to completely waste my time. So I use Japanese ability to achieve my aims, state my point of view, and right wrongs or correct misconceptions as I see fit.

    Quite often I know I am breaking cultural taboos. Sometimes I break them anyway, if it benefits me or people I want to help. I set boundaries. If I sense these are being broken as a form of exploiting me as a Japanese speaking foreigner, then I walk.

    Just a couple of examples; I often get asked to “help” on radio shows etc because I can speak Japanese, but they want a “foreigner”. I immediately ask if this is a paid job-maybe this upsets some people but if said people want to claim that asking for or about money goes against “The Japanese Way” then I beg to differ! If it isnt paid, I turn it down. Sometimes they try to say this is “good promotion for me” but I do not see why I would want to promote myself! One time they wanted me to interview Ken Ishii (who?), “because he is famous you can do it for free”. I hate Ken Ishii’s bland techno and think he is a has-been, so I just said “Sorry I dont like his music, no thanks”.

    Saying “sorry” and “no thanks” is polite enough in my code of ethics. Some anal Japanese have told me “you cannot say you dont like so and so because you will upset someone who does” which explains why radio in Japan is so bland and offers mere information giving, and no opinions.

    There is more than one view of what “The Japanese Way” is. I dont think there even IS one unified Japanese way, and it would certainly be unhealthy to have just one way.

    Lets push for pluralism in Japan and Japanese. The Japanese WAYS.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Yuta]

    Look out everybody! Here comes another great Japanese myth!
    There is a ‘code’ embedded in the language that only the Yamato people can understand (oh, and ‘good gaijin’ too, by the way).

    There are cultural codes in every language, or rather, the codes are social constructs that are reflected in the language (hence all the subtle differences of nuance between British, American, and Australian English, for example), yet millions of immigrants into those countries seem perfectly able to pick up those codes with some time.

    However, here we have the ‘unique Japan’ myth rearing it’s ugly racist head and telling NJ that if you don’t want to ‘umm’ and ‘ah’ in Japanese (or rather ‘ehhh’, ‘to’) then your directness is a linguistic failure! WRONG! Japanese inability to be direct, say what they mean, and be clear and efficient communicators is is not due to some mythical ‘unspoken understanding between we Japanese’, but rather a failure (on a massive scale) of inter-personal skills. It is one of the reasons why J-men are so boring to talk to.

    My advice? SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, AND DO WHAT YOU SAY! Japan is not particularly good at either of those things.

  • Baudrillard #55 & Jim Di Griz #56,

    The line of action both of you suggest – outspokenness and pushing for pluralism – sounds great, but I suspect it works better for NJ men. After almost two years trying to behave “in the Japanese way”, I adopted it in my final two years in Japan and the results were disastrous, esp. in terms of my interactions with J male “friends” and acquaintances.

    I was not only cold-shouldered but also the object of character assassination, backstabbing, and “mura-hachibu” to a degree I had never witnessed anywhere else before. Truly appalling (and yet a sobering experience, which has made me much more radicalised).

    I realised that, as a woman (and an Ibero-latin one “;o)), I would never be able to express and be myself and at the same time maintain healthy, meaningful interactions with most of my J “friends” in Japan, so I just left.

    This is to say that, based on my experience and perceptions, what Baudrillard calls “an impossible and in fact outdated or even minority held stereotype that a woman must be subservient, quiet, etc.” is actually still rife in Japan and that it is virtually impossible for a NJ woman to do anything about it. The personal cost is way too high.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @Yuta #48/49

    I know what you are talking about. There’s always a devil in the details. As Jim Di Griz say, every language has its own cultural code which constructs socio-cultural norms of community. Sitting at your desk to pass the qualifying exams is one way to demonstrate the mastery of language, but it’s not enough–much less for nurturing cultural literacy. That’s why many people look for opportunities to practice their communicative skills in L2 context through cultural exchange program, study abroad, international business, immigration, etc.

    While I agree with you on the complexity of cultural code within Japanese language, in general, I find your statement that attempts to separate cultural code from language misleading. Contrary to what you say, most NJ living in Japan for a long-term period generally understand cultural norms and values pretty well. The blogger and some respondents on this site are living evidence of this. Language and cultural codes are not mutually exclusive.

    Beware that I’m specifically referring to your statement: “It seems like they are somewhat incapable of getting out of their old way of thinking and open their eyes to the different perspectives of people. Those people may be linguistically proficient in L2, but not culturally proficient.” If you stick to this bias, you can count me out from what is so called “wa-jin” or conventional Japanese. This is more like a general reflection of many Japanese people who have difficulty in sharing an idea or perspective that is different from their own–i.e., Christianity, living experience in foreign country, genuine critique of Japanese society. Yes, fluency and eloquence in English often become the sources of conflict–which is the reason why many Japanese expats are having a hard time fitting into traditional cultural norms of Japanese companies.

    Just like you, I was born and raised in central Japan. I have encountered tons of moments that frustrated me with its rigid cultural norms and values. Any argument that essentializes vernacular cultural norms exclusive to a specific ethnic/tribal group–which is “wa-jin”—is unconvincing and untenable.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ DK, I sympathize. Time and time again I have heard comments or complaints from NJ wives of Japanese along the lines of “my husband is cool but the in-laws expect me to act completely “Japanese”, demure, observant, obedient to the mother in law etc”

    I think Japan is a man’s world and us male NJs can therefore get away more with “being ourselves” to some extent. I say to some extent because if you have ever taught English at a chain you will soon realize that you have to play a part as some customers expect NJs to look and act in a certain way, and that is what they have paid for.

    After a while it is just too tiring to try to be all things to all people and to second guess what it is they want you to be, so in the end you just HAVE to be yourself. A trainer said to me “Dont put on an act, be yourself as otherwise they will see through the act and think who IS this clown?” Like the NJ trying to act like the stereotypical indecisive Akiba geek going “eeh, to, sumimasen, bow deeply”.

    So I completely sympathize you 1. getting tired out playing a role 2. being yourself 3. Feeling you had to leave. What I did though was move into a gaijin house and put myself into a deliberate bubble, just to maintain a distance. I speak Japanese, but I do not want to “become” Japanese, except on my own terms. Maybe some J-cons think this is “wagamama” but hey, tough- I dont need to naturalize.As you all keep telling me, Watashi wa Nihonjin ja nai yo! (^-^)/

    I think if they cannot accept you for who you really are, good riddance. These “fair weather friends” bought into your initial role of NJ Geisha” which you clearly tried hard to maintain for a while, but they didnt like the change when you loosened up a bit. In a way it might have been better to start off as yourself, the respectful westerner who still acts western, rather than “fake” demure obedience and then make them all disappointed later, but hell, SHOGANAI.

    I know of another Japanese manager who acted like “a clown” in the words of his French boss. He got on well with the junior staff. They wanted him to be promoted to director level and deal with the international board as he had the financial knowledge,but the board just did not take him seriously because he would do the old “err, eeto indecisive clown” act. He put on an act and maybe he thought this would “break the ice” but the serious busness minded board just thought, “who is this clown wasting our time with cliches, national stereotypes and pleasantries?” They even closed the door on him.

    So his boss paid for a training course, but he didnt stay the course and actually resigned the company! Guess he thought working for an NJ company was too hard, or he preferred to stay as a manager of junior staff at age 55.

    Can one actually see now what damage this lack of behavioral pluralism does to Japanese business prospects in the international market?

    I wish people would stop acting fake; it really is a J Theatre of the Absurd which makes actors of us all….until, as you say, DK,, the personal cost gets too high.

  • giantpanda says:

    @D.K. I’m also an NJ woman in the “man’s world” of Japan but I find I can work my “foreign-ness” to my advantage. My appearance (NJ), combined with Japanese fluency, is enough to fluster people who don’t know what box to put me in. Japanese businessmen don’t know how to deal with this kind of person, who doesn’t have a clearly defined “place” in Japanese society, so I define my own place.

  • @Baudrillard

    >Of course NJs who speak fluent Japanese are going to bring a different perspective, a different usage, a different behaviour of the language. This is known as “enrichment”.

    Interesting, because I’ve been thinking about similar things. Like, if Japanese had been spoken many other countries too, Japanese language today would have been different and maybe spoken as an alternative international language to English. In this hypothetical situation, I think Japanese would have been less contextual and more transparent. And I think it’s more fun that way!

    >And there is nothing more pathetic or disgusting, in my view, as an NJ bowing and apologising, trying to act more Japanese than the Japanese (or what he/someone thinks is Japanese) to a Japanese audience laughing at him, not with him.

    Guess what, I don’t like to bow and apologize constantly neither.
    I don’t think that you have to ‘act like Japanese (whatever ‘Japanese’ means) to get along with the majority of Japanese though. Just showing some consideration in your own way is enough most of the time.

    >Perhaps you are the one who need to “get” Cultural Codes, as you call them.

    I don’t deny the possibility. I always think that however well I think I get certain culture, person etc. there are always things I don’t understand yet.

    >Your message here is “Japanese is a uniquely difficult language” but it frankly isnt, what with limited grammatical forms, only a few Kanji compared to Chinese and no “tones”.

    Ah, I don’t really think Japanese is a ‘uniquely difficult language’, as I clarified. Here I would have to say you are too much second-guessing. The truth is, I don’t really know how to measure if certain language by itself is ‘more difficult’ than other languages or not.
    That is to say, without the information of speaker’s L1 language. If your first language is Spanish, Portuguese seems certainly easier to learn than English. (Even to this, there may be exceptions though.)

    Also, I don’t believe that Japanese is a ‘unique’ country as many people here want to believe. Like you said, it’s just another Asian country.

    I may sound ‘patronizing’ but the thing is, I have a kind of mixed-feeling about this issue. While I don’t agree with a lots of beliefs/customs/values/sentiments that are present here in Japan, I can’t be as harsh as, and, to some extent, as contemptuous as you towards Japanese people because I think I can understand to certain extent where those things are coming from. Besides, I grew up with those discourses in Japanese society. I also had very bad experience with Japanese people… which I don’t even like to remember.

  • @Curious

    OK, I appreciate your ‘point of view’. Well, let me just say that I can totally picture that a person who has a certain background would feel the way as you.

    And think if those ‘hyper-sensitive’ Japanese guys who think ‘Japanese culture is the only thing worth learning’ and ‘have to develop actual social skills’ will go to where you are from and live for a long time. They will surely have a pretty hard time 😀

    @TJJ

    Thank you for letting me know!

    @Bob

    I really appreciate your comment and careful explanation.

    > I don’t think the cause is most often a lack of cultural proficiency as much as a choice not to adapt based on personal and cultural factors

    This makes sense to me.

    >I don’t accept myths of “unique Japan” either
    Me neither.

    >I do not see cultural reference frame as a part of my identity as an individual human…this lack of cultural attachment to my home country, that makes it easier for me to make male Japanese friends than for some others.
    This is a very interesting point and makes perfect sense.

    >I do not think it is so terribly rare for foreigners to be culturally integrated in Japan as Yuta’s experience would suggest. Instead, I think it is more rare for culturally integrated foreigners to hang out with English-focused Japanese such as Yuta than culturally non-integrated foreigners who have a limited selection of Japanese people to associate with, however shallow or deep the association

    That’s not wrong.

    Actually, I think that the using the term ‘foreigner’ or ‘NJ’ can be quite misleading. I have the impression that in this blog, only a certain, specific types of ‘NJ’ is referred to most of the time.

    For example, I personally know a lots of Spanish or Portuguese speaking Latin people here and they seem to have very different experience than many of the people who are active in this blog. I would say that a lots of they are quite well integrated in the society in their own way while preserving their cultural heritage. (NOTE: that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have their own difficulties.) Well, it takes a whole book to go into this kind of demographic, so let me just say that their way of integration (or non-integration in some case) is often much much more nuanced than just ‘I hate/love Japan’ attitude.

    @Jim Di Griz

    >There is a ‘code’ embedded in the language that only the Yamato people can understand (oh, and ‘good gaijin’ too, by the way)

    This is NOT what I’m trying to say. And I find the term ‘good gaijin’ quite offensive. Just because I’m Japanese doesn’t mean I don’t get offended by the way some Japanese refer to NJ.

    >There are cultural codes in every language, or rather, the codes are social constructs that are reflected in the language (hence all the subtle differences of nuance between British, American, and Australian English, for example)
    I agree with this.

    BTW, if you look into closely, you will often find many different kinds of code set in mini-societies in the same country.

    >However, here we have the ‘unique Japan’ myth rearing it’s ugly racist head and telling NJ that if you don’t want to ‘umm’ and ‘ah’ in Japanese (or rather ‘ehhh’, ‘to’) then your directness is a linguistic failure!
    I don’t even believe in ‘unique Japan’. And again, calling not speaking in a certain way a linguistic failure is EXACTLY NOT I’m trying to establish.

    >Japanese inability to be direct, say what they mean, and be clear and efficient communicators is is not due to some mythical ‘unspoken understanding between we Japanese’, but rather a failure (on a massive scale) of inter-personal skills.
    I’m looking for more nuanced understanding of this ‘inter-personal’ skill.

    Everybody knows that communication is not all about verbalized, spoken words right? Maybe, Japanese tend to communicate with more on non-verbalized way than verbalized way but I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with that AS LONG AS it works. (And it had worked because Japan is still quite efficient country in many ways. But yes, I know it doesn’t work well in an international context.)

    Communication failure occurs the ways they are using to communicate are incompatible. I know you are more on the low-contextual side but I don’t understand why you have condemn other styles because they are different than yours.

    >It is one of the reasons why J-men are so boring to talk to.

    Let me get this clear. To me, indeed, many of the Japanese guys are not really interesting BECAUSE I have very different interests and different way of socializing from them. But I wouldn’t state in public that they ARE boring. It’s just not fair. I mean, what if they said that you are boring? The discussion gets nowhere.

    Having said this, I kind of think I’m not ‘effectively’ communicating with you Jim Di Griz.

    Anyway, time to go to bed. Good night everyone 🙂

  • OK, yet another reply. Now you know how much I am obsessed with this topic 🙂

    @Loverilakkuma

    > I find your statement that attempts to separate cultural code from language misleading. Contrary to what you say, most NJ living in Japan for a long-term period generally understand cultural norms and values pretty well.

    I hope so.

    Although I find the term NJ far too general. There is just so much possibility.

    I have the impression that the people here are ‘predominantly’ North American (and British, Australian etc.), which, by the way, makes sense since it’s a blog in English. But they just make a tiny part of the diverse NJs in Japan.

    Also, while I have rather rich experience with certain kind of NJ population (like Central/South American, European, North American, South-East Asian expats etc.) I have rather limited personal connection with Chinese and Korean in Japan, who account for a very large percentage of NJ population in Japan.

    >Language and cultural codes are not mutually exclusive.
    No not exclusive at all. Language and culture tend to be highly connected. However, a language can be spoken in many different places (like English, French, Spanish etc.) and while those countries that share the same language have some cultural similarities, there can also be significant differences. I wanted to emphasize this because Japanese language spoken by Japanese people should not be (and is not) the only form a Japanese language can take.

    >If you stick to this bias, you can count me out from what is so called “wa-jin” or conventional Japanese.

    Note that I don’t really see this as J-NJ specific matter because anyone who lives in a different ‘culture’ can face the same kind of situation. (Even within the same country. Think of an example where person from Tokyo goes to Osaka.) That’s why sometimes I use more general term like L2 or target language. I’m just trying to keep the thing relatable to people here using J-NJ examples.

    >This is more like a general reflection of many Japanese people who have difficulty in sharing an idea or perspective that is different from their own

    You don’t have to remind me of this. Japanese are not particularly known for being good at expressing their own idea in a clear and concise way to the rest of the world. If people who read the blog find it difficult to have mutual understanding with many Japanese, there’s certainly a huge lack of attempt to understand diverse cultures among Japanese people.

    >I have encountered tons of moments that frustrated me with its rigid cultural norms and values.
    I know. When they see that you look like and speak like Japanese, they use all kinds of way to make you conform to the social norm and the pressure can be pretty high. And you can’t even play NJ card…

  • Baudrillard says:

    Yuta-san

    You certainly have become obssessed with the topic and answering everyone personally who comments, but then Debito tends to make compulsive reading. Sometimes it is the only source for what we are thinking as there is a media blackout on certain unsavoury aspects of Japanese society not deemed important in geopolitics (witness the latest article on China Debito has posted, but rarely is Japan ever discussed in e.g. “the police profiling of foreigners is a holdover from the WW2 imperialist days of the Kempeitai, recalling the murder of Aizawa Ryo etc etc”)yet I digress.

    Anyway,you knocked Jim Di Griz’s best comment when he called out the emperor for having no clothes (Not the J emperor, rightists, calm down!Its an expression (^-^) when he said

    >Japanese inability to be direct, say what they mean, and be clear and efficient communicators is is not due to some mythical ‘unspoken understanding between we Japanese’, but rather a failure (on a massive scale) of inter-personal skills.

    This is in fact the reality. Why there is such a demand for training courses (not just for overseas). I know whats going on. Its ACTING. Playing the clown or the indecisive so as to not appear a “show off” or to somehow cause the other person to “lose face”. Also, its a good way to opt out of more work and responsibility. So the majority dumbs down to have a quiet life.

    And you replied, somewhat naively in my opinion
    ” Maybe, Japanese tend to communicate with more on non-verbalized way than verbalized way but I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with that AS LONG AS it works. (And it had worked because Japan is still quite efficient country in many ways. But yes, I know it doesn’t work well in an international context.)”

    Err, Maybe not. And it is not working. I argue it never has-the bubble was really just a result of America’s sweetheart arrangement and trade deficit with Japan. A Japanese friend of mine in 1993 said “tatemae and indirectness just causes confusion in Japanese society”. This was a very straight, average businessman, not a leftist freak or “dropout”. A good friend of mine, so perhaps I am not as contemptuous toward the Japanese people as you think. It is the society, and the Ojisan elites, their mindset I am contemptuous of.

    But to paraphrase John Lennon, “only the people can change the people”. So seeing nuclear demonstrators surround the diet the other day is an ecouraging sign.

    “Japan is quite an efficient country in many ways?” Oh do tell us the ways. As it seems increasingly backward. JR is often late, my tax returns take months, Tepco maintain faulty nuclear reactors, Govts cannot decide anything, laws are contradictory, corruption is entrenched, how Ichihashi Tatsuya easily evaded the police when they first came to his apartment,(“ooo, chotto!”) blah blah blah.

    The whaling industry seems quite efficient though. So ok then, you could be right!

    — I think we’re going to have to start reeling in this conversation. It’s getting off track.

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