"CULTURAL SENSITIVITY" PART THREE
HOW THE PRESENTATION WENT
(Click here to go back to the start of this series)
(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Fri, 10 Jul 1998)
"You don't need to worry. We'll be listening to you."
so spake Haba-san, the middle-aged person in charge of the committee. She and her assistant, Saitou-san, were smiling and sitting in my office, having taking the trouble to drop by about a week before the event to allay any fears I had. It was a degree of painstaking that left a deeply positive impression.
But still I decided to get a few reservations out in the open:
"Yes, I'm sure YOU will be listening to me, but you are not the whole committee [although inside myself I knew if the leadership was on my side, nearly all the battle was won already]."
I continued: "How many of the group are old ojisan with PhDs, confident in their abilities to 'understand foreigners' because they speak English and have lived abroad a few years?"
They sighed as if found out. "About a third."
Aha! said my eyes. But they were ready: "But that's why you should talk. We don't want the old men to dominate this committee. We want young people and young input. And as this is the first event we will be sponsoring, we want your input before..."
"...before this committee becomes a 'prisoner of precedent' (zenrei no toriko)?", I said.
They jumped at that image: "Sou sou. Sono toori! That's exactly it. We need you to guide us in a better direction with new ideas!"
"Because I'm a foreigner?"
"No. Because you have ideas first, ideas from outside second. We want your ideas regardless of origin."
"Hokay, well, here they are." And I sight-translated my proposal for how to build a better international gathering (again, available in English here, and in Japanese here) I then sat and waited for their reaction.
"A lot of what you say really hurts (zukin to kita). But we should hear about it. Please copy it and we'll distribute it to people at the meeting and in the city goverment."
It was because of this advance tete-a-tete, over an hour long and full of laughs and brainstorming, that I realized I had found precisely the right types of people on which I could rely upon for assistance in building a better Japan: intelligent, thoughtful, resourceful, gutsy, and willing to break with convention if the situation warranted. We were on the same wavelength, and I felt the wind at my back as I prepared my presentation.
JULY 8, 1998
EBETSU INTERNATIONAL CENTER
I got there early and milled with the leadership, getting used to the feel of the room and the roundtable seating arrangement. A few of those frosty PhDs walked in and started using their English on me, and I responded in cordial English, no more. One of their undergraduates (who was brought along because, I found out later, that every attendee was requested to bring a foreigner. Apparently he'd do.) came up to me and started telling me in excellent English that he had spent time in Canada and had an English name and all that.
"I'm sure you do. Now let's talk in Japanese, please."
And that changed the candor of the whole meeting. It was a risk in that people might have interpreted me as a snob or a standoffer, both of which were probably accurate at the time, given my uncomfortable position as the new, young nondeferential kid who wanted his own modicum of respect. But in the end, it helped. Once it was apparent to the filtering-in crowd that I was talking in nonhesitating, friendly, but firm Japanese, people either talked to me in Japanese or did not talk to me at all, sniffing me out instead. Awkward but fine. I was not going to be slipped into a conventional role if I could help it.
ATTENDING, in addition to Haba and Saitou, were a total of eight men (of proud professor or business organization leader bent) and eight women (mostly upper-middle aged, which meant they had gotten rid of their kids and put on their obatarian muscles). Organizations attending were mostly universities, i.e. academics with comfortable lifestyles and the respect accorded to the intelligensia in Japan, or friendship organizations, i.e. a means for older, bored people to make friends and create perhaps philanthropic projects. Just about everyone there was the leader or the representative of their organization--cogs of separate societies fitting into this one particular committee for a few hours a month--and they were mostly movers (without being shakers) in the local community.
Those were the parts. Here's how they fit together: The head (riji) of the committee was a man, apparently the senior in age, but he was fortunately open-minded enough to drop his shaggy-dog tales of Scots English when he saw my intentions. The Chair was a woman, who controlled the meeting well enough to keep business moving smoothly but openly. Half of the members attending had never attended this committee before, so they were chary of saying anything for fear of appearing namaiki. The other were laid-back old men or muscular women, which meant that there was a reasonable balance in terms of gender, age, and organizations represented. Hence the elements were working to make things workable and promising.
After a quick roundtable self-introduction of everybody present, I was allowed to speak from my chair and read aloud from my handout, for which I was allotted twenty minutes. I got to work.
I started off about how I had been invited to this meeting, but honestly had many reservations--the non-talking token spiel. I illustrated with the hoary story of being the steamrollered judge at the English contest. But once I had finished, I had most of the room nodding in appreciation.
So then I directed their attention at my handout. I gave the standard excuses for my frequently-stuttering reading (honestly, I had been up till 2am the night before typing the handout, sleeping at school, then getting my disheveled self through 8 student oral exam interviews, a school meeting, an interview for the university's advertising pamphlet, and two live satellite broadcast classes which lasted for three hours. I would be lucky if I got through this presentation without another migraine.). Fortunately, I said, I'd had meat for dinner and would probably have the stamina. This got a couple of titters and hopefully some empathy.
So I read my points through swiftly, pausing to give an anecdote here and there on experiences which created personal policies towards certain cultural quirks (such as the nurse who, despite my having been laid up for over two weeks with pneumonia, slapped my hand upon seeing how I was holding my chopsticks). Some stories received quite hearty laughs, other looks of consternation, others just "Omigod, I've been guilty of doing this to foreigners too. But I didn't mean it in a nasty way." sort of thing.
And that was it, out. Twenty minutes were up. The Chair opened up the floor for comments and I awaited the response.
A one of the more fiery obatarian from Organization A made the correct assessment: "Don't we have an agenda tonight? I appreciate Debito-san's comments, but we didn't come here just to listen to him. Shouldn't we do our business first?"
So the Chair read off the business to be accomplished, which was only a few points. The main topic was how to steer the committee into doing useful works for the city, and that was why my presentation was germane to the agenda.
"Fine," said Organization A, "but let's get feedback from all members in turn about the topics on the agenda before we focus on Debito-san."
So on it went Japanese style, with each member given the compulsory chance to offer his or her own feedback. A couple hummed and hawed about nothing I could get the gist of. Half demurred because, as I said, they were first-timers, and thus felt they had no right to say anything.
Then one of the women in Organization B opened fire:
"I thank Debito-san for his proposal. It's very instructive (sankou ni narimashita). But not all of it is something we can put into effect. There is of course a Japanese way of doing things. So we should decide: What is this committee for? Is it for Japanese people, or is it for foreigners? If it is for us Japanese, then doing things Japanese style is important."
The Chair said that the committee is planning something that would be of benefit to all city citizens, Japanese or foreign.
B: "Then we should make sure we use both styles. We should have events planned, not just alcohol and a free-agenda party, as Debito-san seems to suggest. This is, after all, Japan."
Emboldened, the next person in line, a middle-aged professor from University C, let fly a salvo with even more napalm:
C: "Debito-san's suggestions are very interesting and are worth studying. His writing style, however, is very American. Maybe that is why I am having so much trouble with it. He keeps talking about meeting people as individuals, not countries. But isn't this an international gathering? And aren't people products of their countries? His suggestions that we throw aside our cultures and ignore differences is nonsense (nansensu). It can't be done. We are Japanese and they are foreigners. What can we talk about with foreigners if we can't compare our societies?"
Another person echoed the same sentiment:
D: "Yes, when we had an international gathering like this, there was a lot of dancing and I could see how different their cultures were by the differences in the way their feet moved. It was very instructive."
I could see the cluelessness metastasizing. When it came my turn, I passed, taking notes and saving up a salvo of my own until the end, where I could put a lid on it with the power of the last word. Then on came the young undergraduate student I mentioned before, in very brusque Japanese:
Student: "Look, I lived in Canada for several months, and had a very good experience. NOT ONCE was I ever called a foreigner. Not once did I feel like I pointed out as being different from anyone else. I think that is a very important feeling that we should try to include in this committee's undertakings."
That was lucky. Eventually it was my turn to talk, so here I went:
"I thank you for all your feedback and it has been very instructive [love that mantra]. But I must tell you that if you are not careful, you are going to fall back into the old traps that eventually make foreigners not want to attend events like these.
"The first is doing things 'Japanese style'. A-san, you talked about this, and yes, Japanese style is very important. But I am worried that this party will just become like a Japanese wedding, where every minute is planned and some ojisan neighbor takes the mike and starts talking for about thirty minutes about how he's had his eye on the bride's mom for several years. [D-san really belly-laughed at that. Believe me, I've been to some incredible Japanese weddings.] Meanwhile everyone is just sitting down hunched over their food, not listening but not talking either. We cannot communicate under circumstances like that."
A: "Debito-san, do you know anything about the place where we will hold this big gathering?"
Me: "No, actually, I don't. I'm imagining it as one big room with a stage and everybody staying put. Like a Japanese wedding."
A: "Well, we're renting out the whole Ebetsu Community Center. Two floors and all. It's not going to be as centralized as you imagine."
At that point I capitulated. "Yes, if that is the case, and we will not all be confined to one room, then that's a different story. I agree then that we should have some meetings planned. Thank you."
On I went: "As for Professor C, I understand his concerns. However, I do think it is possible to stress similarities, and not focus on cultural differences. You called it nonsense, but remember that a person is not just a country. He or she is a collection of individual experiences, unique to each and every individual. Countries and societies affect those individual experiences, yes, but it is possible to talk and compare experiences before talking about countries. For a person is not a country. He is a bunch of interesting, unique stories. Not just dancing feet with differences. Get to know the person by his stories, not by his flags."
[I've been watching too much PBS: Sesame Street or Alphabet Soup, I think.]
Me again: "The most important thing I want to stress to everyone here is that if you want to keep foreigners comfortable, friendly, and participating, you should deal with them as friends, not foreigners. These suggestions are rather discomfiting, I'm sure, but international relations in its most basic form is never easy. It requires a lot of care and concentration. If you are not willing to put some effort into this now and produce results, this committee will end up just like all the others I've seen in Japan--full of Japanese who keep trying to get to know foreigners who just keep moving on.
"Ima ga shun. It is time to seriously consider my proposals, because if just do things as they have always been done, there will be no improvement. Then next year we will use last year as a template, ultimately becoming prisoners of precedent. Strike while the iron is hot. You don't have to like my ideas, but please give them your full and honest consideration. Please don't just dismiss them because they are 'American'."
[And I will whisper here and now that I had readied my ultimate weapon: If I was going to be dissed and/or dismissed, as Professor C was threatening to do, I was prepared to bow out. When asked if I would be attending the next meeting, I simply plead busyness, knowing that people would get the idea. Fortunately, it didn't come to that.]
It was remarkable. The subsequent (I would like to claim "consequent") atmosphere was surprisingly cordial, despite the mutually frank exchange of views anaethma to much of Japan's interpersonal relations. We began brainstorming over a name for the gathering, and came up with several, mixing components of "world" (chikyuu, sekai) with "friendship" (yuujin, tomodachi, shinboku) and "meeting occasion" (tsudoi, kai, hiroba). Not one person suggested including "international" (kokusai) or "communication" (kouryuu) in the title, as they to everybody sounded pat and meaningless. We adoped seven potential titles and would be meeting in two weeks to decide on the final title.
My favorite: Ebetsu Sekai Shimin no Tsudoi (Ebetsu World City Citizens Gathering), because "sekai "has the image to me of the world without borders (as opposed to "kokusai", where lines are drawn between countries) without being the "environmental world" (chikyuu) and sounding like a Green political party. More to the point, the world is sandwiched between Ebetsu and Citizens, making them integrated and belonging. Maybe I'm thinking too much, but as a wordsmith, image is everything, and I think there was some progress in eliminating at least the image of exclusivity.
That will do, for a start.
The meeting broke up on time, all missions accomplished, and people hung around to talk. The first person I addressed was that student.
"Thanks for your help," I said in English.
"No problem, man," he replied. He clapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, I appreciate what you're doing. Somebody's gotta push or else Japan is not going to change. We need somebody like you here pushing in Japanese and getting the word out. Good job."
"I couldn't have done it without you turning the tide."
Student: "I only said my opinion. It was you who gave me the opportunity to say it. There are many Japanese out there who think the same way but are always quiet. You should help us get a voice to speak. I won't be at the next meeting, so I hope you'll be able to continue this push."
"I'm always pushing. Even if I'm alone. That's the way I've always been."
"Okay, ganbatte. See ya." And he was off.
Others passed on some regards and we exchanged meishi. One asked me out for a cuppa but I wasn't in the mood. Things settled down as they started, with only me, Haba-san, and Saitou-san in the room. They made me a cup of tea and we chewed the fat for a half hour or so.
Me: "So how did I do?"
Haba: "You did fine. You said plenty. I think our committee is heading in the right direction."
Maybe I'm looking at this through rose-colored glasses, or else the flattery is getting the better of my recollection. But I think that progress, even if it is on a micro-level, has been made.
Progress? Yes, progress. Call me ethnocentric because I am trying to change the minds of others to reflect the lessons of my American background. But there is a lot to be said for the results, however imperfect, of the ways that I've learned to do things. Not the least of them are tolerance, inclusion, and assimilation.
If Japan wants to have a secure future, with a healthy welfare base despite its aging population, short of forcing women to breed it will have to import foreigners. And if it wants to make them stay, Japan will have to make them at least feel like they are welcome, even if they are not always, with the ability to effectively contribute. Or else they probably will not stay. This may be the opinion of only one overzealous, noisy, white-bread American. But it is an idea whose time has come even for a society as intransigent and mistrusting of outsiders as Japan can be. Ima ga shun.
Somebody has to push. It might as well be me.
(EXCLUSIVE TO THIS WEB PAGE)
A lot went on before the final Gathering (eventually entitled "Ebetsu Sekai Shimin no Tsudoi", thank you. "Ebetsu WorldFest" in English), and I didn't have the stamina to write up a full report. However, be it known that
1) The dynamics of our group, believe it or not, continued on the track we started off on, i.e. frank but cordial, and people got used to the idea that one can disagree and still be friends. Surprisingly, the antagonistic middle-aged prof from University C and I eventually reached a rapprochement. After the obatarian from Organization B and I were thrown together to work on things (we got along really well once we agreed to disagree), he was invited along as a surprise to me. Neither of us were happy about it, but eventually after enough discussion we saw eye-to-eye. He even became my interlocutor for my Workshop.
2) What's all this about a Workshop? I actually got so involved in this event that I put on (as a volunteer) a Workshop entitled, "Towards a Society Sensitive towards Cultural Differences" (Ibunka ni kanjusei no aru shakai e) for the just-folks. It went very, very well. I surprised everyone in the organization, who was used to seeing me in shorts and sandals on the hot summer nights, by getting a haircut, wearing a suit and tie, and being a sunny Dr Jekyll instead of my forever crusading Mr Hyde. And it worked. The forty plus people who showed up read through another special handout (much like the presentation I put on for the organizers), and gave, with no lulls, lots and lots of comments. They ranged from quizzical to frank, but *all* of them were extremely constructive and thoughtful. Nobody shut me out, nobody raised their voice, nobody got angry although they did dissent. And I spent some of the most marvellous two hours I ever had with Japanese, everyone speaking their mind about things that had long been on their mind, and damn well enjoying it. It was videotaped, and if I ever get the time to translate the debate I'll put a transcript up for all to see.
3) The Gathering went with no noticable glitches. Well, maybe just a few. Due to the Workshop I was hardly ever in the party gymnasium proper, where a bluegrass band played as people milled around in a cocktail-party-style atmosphere. But from what I could see, I had no qualms. Things went very pleasantly until the very end, where to my consternation a) the elderly president of the organization made a speech celebrating the success of this event by the degree of foreigners present, and went on to draw lines between Ebetsu citizens and foreigners all over again; b) the main organizer called up everyone for a group photo, as is normal, but asked the foreigners to come up first--as if again to display the success of the event as "how many gaijin came", not "how many *people*" (on the spot, I made it clear that I was displeased by not entering the photo until everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese, were present, and until I was literally dragged on by a stubborn "lets-not-spoil-everything" attendant whose fingers dug into my wrist most painfully); c) the same person brought up an embarrassed-looking African in kimono on stage for his photo taking pleasure (I later learned that this was one of his exchange students, so the connection ran deeper, but her embarrassment on the stage I still considered genuine). All of these situations could have been avoided if people were thinking a bit more carefully about it.
To that end, I made all these feelings clear in a follow-up meeting (hansei kai) with the organization. People seemed like they were expecting something like this from me, so they took it in stride, explaining the African-in-a-kimono situation but honestly admitting (from the president--the main organizer was not present) that they hadn't thought about it. I concluded with an apology for being such a ball-buster all the time, but that there had been a greater purpose: of just being aware of the other side of the looking glass from somebody who has the language abilities to make it a little clearer. If anything, this gathering taught us all about culture and the resultant shocks, and it had to be done now--the first year of the event--before themes and mindsets become mindset in stone next year. It wasn't always pleasant for any of us, and I was sorry for that, but I think we had the most flexible, most responsible, most educational, and moreover the most successful international local event I've ever seen put on in Japan. I would be proud to be associated with it again next year, if people would have me back, putting on the Workshop again (there were good reviews of it in the guest feedback books), and helping to create an organizational atmosphere where people can disagree quite vociferously, but still keep in mind the overall goal and click together when the time comes.
I am glad I was a part of this. I will continue being one as long as I am invited to join. It makes me very hopeful indeed for Japan's future.
"CULTURAL SENSITIVITY" IN EBETSU REPORT SERIES ENDS
Copyright 1999-2005, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan