Book Review: “At Home Abroad” by Adam Komisarof, a survey of assimilation/integration strategies into Japan (interviews include Keene, Richie, Kahl, Pakkun, and Arudou)


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At Home Abroad: The Contemporary Western Experience in Japan“, by Adam Komisarof. Reitaku University Press, 2012. 251 pages, ISBN: 978-4-892025-616-1


(Publisher’s note:  On sale in Japan through Amazon Japan, in North America through Kinokuniya USA)
Review exclusive to, January 20, 2013
By ARUDOU DEBITO (updated version with errata corrected and Robin Sakamoto’s photo added)

At Home Abroad” is an important, ambitious academic work that offers a survey, both from academics in the field and from people with expertise on living in Japan, of theories on how people can assimilate into foreign culture both on their own terms and through acquisition of local knowledge. Dr. Komisarof, a professor at Reitaku University with a doctorate in public administration from International Christian University in Tokyo, has published extensively in this field before, his previous book being “On the Front Lines of Forging a Global Society: Japanese and American Coworkers in Japan” (Reitaku University Press 2011). However, this book can be read by both the lay reader as well as the academic in order to get some insights on how NJ can integrate and be integrated into Japan.

The book’s goal, according to its Preface, is to “address a pressing question: As the Japanese population dwindles and the number of foreign workers allowed in the country increases to compensate for the existing labor shortage, how can we improve the acceptance of foreign people into Japanese society?” (p. 1) To answer this, Komisarof goes beyond academic theory and devotes two-thirds of the book to fieldwork interviews of eleven people, each with extensive Japan experience and influence, who can offer insights on how Westerners perceive and have been perceived in Japan.

The interviewees are Japan literary scholar Donald Keene, Japan TV comedian Patrick “Pakkun” Harlan, columnist about life in rural Japan Karen Hill Anton, university professor Robin Sakamoto, activist and author Arudou Debito, Japan TV personality Daniel Kahl, corporate managing director of a Tokyo IT company Michael Bondy, Dean of Waseda’s School of International Liberal Studies Paul Snowden, Tokyo University professor and clinical psychologist Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, politico and business executive Glen Fukushima, Keio University professor Tomoko Yoshida, and Japan scholar Donald Richie (photos below).

As Komisarof acknowledges in his section on caveats (pp. 11-2), these people have a “Western cultural heritage” (as nine are from the US) and are mostly Caucasian; he notes that he confines his analysis to “Westerners”, and does not “presume to address the experiences of Korean permanent residents of Japan or people from developing countries,” as “both deserve to have entire books written about their experiences, which are in many ways quantitatively different from non-Japanese who have moved here by their own volition from affluent nations” (ibid). To counter this, Komisarof taps into “other types of diversity among the interviewees in terms of ethnicity, profession, and gender” (ibid) (e.g., Anton is African-American, Murphy-Shigematsu and Fukushima are of Japanese descent, and Yoshida is a Japanese raised abroad; three — Sakamoto, Arudou, and Murphy-Shigematsu — were naturalized Japanese at the time of their interview).

Being self-aware of these caveats salvages the science, but the interviews (despite good questions from Komisarof) are uneven and do not always speak to the point. Donald Keene comes off as patrician and supercilious about his position in Japan (not to mention out of touch with the way that most NJ live in Japan) when he says: 

There is still a hard core of resistance to Japanese culture among foreigners living in, say, Minato-ku. […] All of their friends are non-Japanese — with the exception of a few Japanese friends who speak English fluently. They live in houses that are completely Western in every detail. They read the English newspaper, The Japan Times, and they know who danced with whom the night before. They are still living in a colony. But I think that colony has grown smaller than ever before and has been penetrated by new people who want to learn about Japan. If you read about Yokohama in 1910, it would have been a very strange family that thought it was a good idea to let their son or daughter to go to a Japanese school and learn anything about Japan. They would never think in terms of living here indefinitely. They would think, “When we finish our exile here, we will go to a decent place.” (23)

Donald Keene, courtesy of NHK

No doubt, this may have been true in Yokohama back in 1910. But that is over a century ago and people thought even interracial marriage was very strange; nowadays it’s not, especially in Japan, and I doubt many NJ residents see Japan as a form of “exile”. Keene remains in character by depicting himself as a Lawrence of Arabia type escaping his colony brethren to get his hands dirty with the natives (somehow unlike all the other people interviewed for this book; I wonder if they all met at a party how Keene would reconcile them with his world view).


Patrick Harlan also comes off as shallow in his interview, mentioning his Harvard credentials more than once (as wearers of the Crimson tend to), and claims that he is sacrificing his putative entertainer career income in America by “several decimal places” for “a good gig here”.  Despite his linguistic fluency to be a stand-up manzai comic, he makes claims in broad strokes such as “Ethnic jokes don’t even exist [in Japan]. People are treated with respect.” (36)  He also talks about using his White privilege in ways that benefit his career in comedy (such as it is; full disclosure: this author does not find Pakkun funny), but makes assertions that are not always insightful re the points of assimilation/integration that this book is trying to address. Clearly, Dave Spector would have been the better interview for this research (although interviewing him might be as difficult as interviewing Johnny Carson, as both have the tendency to deflect personal questions with jokes).

(L-R) Karen Hill Anton, courtesy of her Linkedin Page; Robin Sakamoto, courtesy of Robin Sakamoto; Paul Snowden, courtesy of the Yomiuri Shinbun;Glen Fukushima, courtesy of

Other interviews are more revealing about the interviewee than about the questions being broached by the book.  Both Karen Hill Anton and Robin Sakamoto, despite some good advice about life in Japan, come off as rather isolated in their rural hamlets, as does a very diplomatic Paul Snowden rather ensconced in his Ivory Tower. Glen Fukushima, although very politically articulate, and highly knowledgable about code-switching communication strategies to his advantage in negotiations, also sounds overly self-serving and self-promoting.

Daniel Kahl’s interview is the worst of the book, as it combines a degree of overgeneralizing shallowness with an acidulous nastiness towards fellow NJ.  For example:

I can read a newspaper and my [TV] scripts… I know about 2000 kanji, so I’m totally functional, and I think that’s a prerequisite for being accepted.  I hate to say it, but there are a lot of foreigners who complain, “I’m not accepted in society!”  That’s because you can’t read the sign that explains how to put out your garbage.  And people get mad at you for mixing cans with bottles.  Simple as it may seem, those are the little things that get the neighbors angry. (206)

Poster of Daniel Kahl courtesy of Ministry of Justice Bureau of Human Rights, caption courtesy of Japan Probe back in the day.

Especially when Kahl says:

I think that a foreigner who comes here and makes the effort can definitely be accepted. If you feel that you are not, then you’ve already got a chip on yours shoulder to begin with. […] For example, do you remember the incident in Hokkaido when the Japanese public bath owners had a “No Foreigners” sign up in front of their buildings? I guess two or three foreign folks got really upset about that, and they sued the place. Why would you sue them? Why don’t you go talk to those people? Tell the, “Look, I’m a foreigner. But I’m not going to tear your place up. Could you take down that sign?” Then the Japanese might have explained that they weren’t doing it to keep out all foreigners, but to keep out the drunk Russian sailors who were causing all the trouble in the first place. I don’t know all of the details, but these foreigners thought that they were making a political and legal statement. It could have been made very effectively, though, without embarrassing that city or the public bath owners. The foreigners were trying to change the law, but it was a pretty confrontational way to do so. I can almost guarantee that those foreigners are going to have a hard time being accepted by the Japanese in general. (100)


Kahl is exactly right when he says, “I don’t know all of the details,” since just about everything else he says above about the Otaru Onsens Case is incorrect. For example, it was more than “two or three foreign folk” getting upset (Japanese were also being refused entry, and there was a huge groundswell of support from the local community); one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit mentioned is not foreign. Moreover, as Arudou mentions in his interview, they did “go talk to those people”: they spent more than fifteen months talking one-on-one with all parties to this dispute, until there was no other option but to go to court (which millions of Japanese themselves do every year).  Moreover, at least one of the plaintiffs, Dr. Olaf Karthaus, is very well assimilated into his community, having graduated two children (with a third in junior high) through Japan’s secondary schooling, becoming Director at the Department of Bio- and Material Photonics at the Chitose Institute of Science and Technology, and participating daily in his Sapporo church groups.  In any case, Kahl’s lack of research is inexcusable, since he could have easily read up by now on this case he cites as a cautionary tale:  There are whole books written in English, Japanese, or even free online in two languages as an exhaustive archive available for over a decade as a cure for the ignorant. There’s even, as of 2013, an updated Tenth Anniversary Edition eBook downloadable for Amazon Kindle and Barnes&Noble NOOK, moreover for a very reasonable price of $9.99 or yen equivalent.  One can safely conclude that Kahl chooses to be ignorant in order to preserve his world view.

(L-R) Michael Bondy courtesy of his Linkedin Page; Tomoko Yoshida courtesy of Keio University; Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu courtesy of Stanford University.

The best interviews come from Bondy (who offers much practical advice about getting along in a Japanese-hybrid workplace), Yoshida and Murphy-Shigematsu (both of whom have some academic rigor behind their views of the world, and express their measured views with balance, deep thought and intuition). But the best of the best comes last with Donald Richie, who shows that old people do not necessarily become as curmudgeonly as Keene. Just selecting one nugget of insight from his excellent interview:

If I could take away the things that I don’t like about Japan, then it wouldn’t be Japan anymore. So I’ve always made an attempt to swallow Japan whole — not to discriminate so much between what I like or don’t. This is not as important as, “Does this work or not?” or “Does this serve a wider purpose or not?” These are more important questions than whether I like them or not. I’ve never paid too much attention to what I don’t like and conversely what I do like about Japan. […] But what I do like is the sense of interconnectiveness. […] When workmen used to try to make a wall and a tree would get in the way, they would make a hole in the wall to accommodate the tree instead of the other way around. This used to be seen on a regular basis. Alas, it is no more. A lot of the things which I like about Japan have disappeared. If this symbiotic relationship was ever here, it is not here anymore. The Japanese have down terrible things physically to their country. That would be something which I do not like about Japan. But if I dice it into likes and dislikes, and I have difficulty doing that, there wmust be a better way to see differences. Indeed, in my wriitng, I try not to rely on like and dislike dichotomies. I rely more on what works and doesn’t work. (172)

Donald Richie still courtesy of his film anthology

That said, Richie does careen into Keene territory when he carelessly compares NJ in Japan with autistic children in a kindergarten:

If an autistic child goes to a kindergarten, he becomes a legal member of that class, but he’s still an autistic child.  So he has double citizenship.  That is very much me — like any foreigner here.  He is put in a special class for autism, but at the same time,  he is given all of the honors and securities of belonging to this particular class.  He gets a double dose.  And if he is smart, then he recognizes this. (224)

This is not a good comparison, as it likens extranationality to a mental handicap.  And it also ignores the racialized issues of how somebody “looks” in Japan (as in “looks foreign”) with how somebody is treated (as a “foreigner”), when autism is not a matter of physical appearance.  It also assumes that people can never recover from or overcome a birth-based “autism of national origin” (this author’s paraphrase), becoming acculturated enough to “become a Japanese” (whereas autism is, as far as I know, a lifelong handicap).  This clearly obviates many of the acculturation strategies this book seeks to promote.  Richie may stand by this comparison as his own personal opinion, of course, but this author will not, as it buys into to the notion of surrendering to a racialized class (in both senses of the word) system as being “smart”.

In the last third of the book, Kamisarof takes these interviews and incorporates them into the following questions, answered with balanced input from all participants:

  1. When do Westerners feel most comfortable with Japanese people?
  2. How does Westerners’ treatment in Japan compare to that of immigrants and long-term sojourners in their home countries?
  3. Is there discrimination against Westerners in Japan?
  4. How does discrimination in Japan compare to that in Western countries?
  5. Is it right to play the Gaijin Card?
  6. Are Westerners accepted more by Japanese people if they naturalize to Japan?
  7. Can Westerners be accepted in Japan, and if so, what do they need to do to belong?
  8. Can popular public ideas about who belongs in Japanese society move beyond nationality?
  9. How are Japanese perceptions of Westerners changing?

After this remix of and focus upon individual strategies, Komisarof devotes his final chapter to bringing in academic discussions about general “acculturation strategies”, based upon attitudes and behaviors (both on the part of the immigrant and the native), putting them into a classic four-category strategy rubric of “Integration” (i.e., the “multicultural salad”), “Assimilation” (i.e., the “melting pot”), “Separation” (i.e., segregation into non-mixing self-maintaining communities), and “Marginalization” (i.e., segregation from mainstream society with self-maintenance of the non-mainstream community discouraged). In an attempt to choose the “best” acculturation strategy, Korisamof then builds upon this rubric into a sixteen-category “Interactive Acculturation Model” that may lose most non-academic readers. He concludes, sensibly:

“Merely increasing the non-native population in Japan without improving acculturation strategy fits is insufficient and may cause further problems. Instead, it is critical that a sense of BELONGING and PARTICIPATION, rather than mere coexistence, be shared between Japanese and the foreign-born residents in their midst… ” (237, emphases in original). “The underlying message of this book for all nations wrestling with unprecedented domestic diversity is that the inclusion of everyone is essential, but only through mutual efforts of the cultural majority and minorities can such inclusion become a reality. Creating living spaces where people can feel a sense of belonging and share in the benefits of group membership is an urgent ned worldwide, and it is happening, slowly, but surely, here in Japan. (239)

This has been a perpetual blind spot in GOJ policy hearings on “co-existence” (kyousei) with “foreigners”, and this book needs a translation into Japanese for the mandarins’ edification.

If one could point to a major flaw in the book, it would not be with the methodology.  It would be with the fieldwork:  As mentioned above, the interviews do not ask systematically the same questions to each interviewee, and thus the answers do not always speak to the questions about assimilation strategies Komisarof later asks and answers.  For example, Arudou’s typically rabble-rousing interview style offers little insight into how he personally deals with the daily challenges of life in Japan.  (For the record, that information can be found here.)  As is quite typical for people in Japan being asked what Japan is all about and how they “like” it, the interviewees answer in individually-suited ways that show myopic views of Japan, redolent of the fable about the Blind Men and the Elephant.  Not one of the respondents (except for, in places, Arudou) talks about the necessity for a sense of community building within NJ groups themselves, i.e., unionizing, creating anti-discrimination or anti-defamation leagues, or fostering the organizational trappings of the cultural self-maintenance that may be essential or is taken as a given within other non-Westerner transplant communities (although disputed by Ishi, 2008).  Instead, all we hear about (due to the lines of questioning within the fieldwork) are how atomistic people create their own psychological armor for “dealing with Japan”.

Another important issue remains fundamentally unaddressed by Komisarof:  How one must assume “good faith” and “reciprocity” on the part of Japanese society bringing in NJ to work, and how these assimilation strategies being offered must one day bear fruit (as the interviewee proponents claim they will.  Harlan:  “True acceptance comes when you are contributing to society as fully as anyone else.” (200)).  But what if your full contributions to Japan are not being fully recognized, with long-term friendships, promotions, equal access to social welfare, and even senpai status over Japanese?  As the links to each of these topics attest, this is not always the case.  Under Komisarof’s assimilation strategies, what do you do then?  Give, give, and give for many years and then just hope society gives something back?  What guarantees should there be for reciprocity?  There is only so much a mentally-healthy individual can contribute, sacrifice, and offer to “assimilate” and “integrate” into a society before feeling used and used up.

That said, if you want an insightful, thoughtful book that will introduce you to the global academic debate on transnational migration, assimilation, and integration, moreover tailored to the peculiar milieu of Japan, Komisarof’s “At Home Abroad” is it.


SOURCE:  Ishi, Angelo Akimitsu (2008), in David Blake Willis and Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, Eds., “Transcultural Japan:  At the borderlands of race, gender, and identity.”  New York:  Routledge, pp. 122-5.

Copyright ARUDOU Debito 2013.  All rights reserved.

82 comments on “Book Review: “At Home Abroad” by Adam Komisarof, a survey of assimilation/integration strategies into Japan (interviews include Keene, Richie, Kahl, Pakkun, and Arudou)

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  • Although I disagree with Keene in many aspects, he has a strong point when it comes to many people who just live in their colony and just don’t care about being part of the society as whole. I know many like them, most of them English teachers, who just complain all the time about how life in America is better (I’ve heard one once saying the NYC metro was better than Tokyo’s), how about people does not speak English and so on. The Eurocentic feeling of those people is strong and, yes, for them this is an exile. I am not sure if my acquaintances are significantly large in proportion of a Western born population in Japan but it seems that, for the book, it doesn’t matter since Western experience means, at least by the chosen interviewees, citizens or former US citizens or Japanese born/raised in this country. If one not consider this particular experience before making generalizations, the research as whole turns to be compromised. Because the experience of being born and raised in a country like the US is completely different than that one have in other Western countries. (BTW, although many authors in Japan do not consider Latin America as West, I do consider and since there are lots of Latin Americans in Japan it is strange also to not see anyone in the list of long interviews).

  • In journalism, just few things are worse than the uninformed opinion of a person who enjoys the trust of his community.
    I can only assume the latter for Daniel Kahl, but I know the former. His portrayal of the Otaru Onsen case is wrong. One of us was a naturalized citizen at the time of the lawsuit (he had been refused twice; before and after gaining Japanese citizenship). Before going to court, we did try all available avenues to solve the problem (speaking with the owner, starting a pubic debate through press and internet coverage, starting grassroots support, ministry of justice and city hall visits, etc). All of us are respected members of the Japanese society, with families and stable jobs. As a last resort to change the unbearable situation for our families we decided to sue.

  • Kahl and Keene both seem to be oblivious to the central question that bothers most (Western) people who are unhappy in Japan – “why”.
    Why would we want to make the effort to integrate or, what a big word, “assimilate”? I can see no motive for anyone to make the effort, with the exception of people like Richie, Keene, or Debito who have to be here because Japan is their field of interest and/or study.
    For the rest of us, *why* would we want to throw away our way of life and choose an objectively inferior way of life over it? Some think the money they make here will heal that wound, and give up their freedom and individuality in order to please the locals.
    The Western societies have their problems, too, but at least the basic direction, morals, and values are modern and there is critical thought and discussion about the aspects that still need work.
    Here in Japan, a society that is ripe with institutional and personal racism, xenophobia, bullying, chauvinism, and a way of life that as its highest duty sees to please others at the expense of one’s own well-being, the reward for a possible integration is existing in a pre-modern country with all those scary traits of nationalism, fascism, corruption, in-humanism, and shallowness that we in the West have worked so hard to overcome.
    I am sure Keene and Kahl wouldn’t be able to give any objective reason why someone would want to emigrate to Japan, other than the strictly subjective and anecdotal evidence along the lines of “it worked for me”.

  • It seems to me he could have chosen a much better word for these people than “Westerners”. It’s like choosing a sample of 11 people, 9 of which are from Japan, and calling them “Asians”.

  • Patrick Harlan can”t get a full time secure job with NHK. At least he couldn’t a few years ago. When I heard him complaining about this, it was the first inkling that long term life in Japan would be extremely difficult. If a “celebrity” couldn’t find secure employment, what hope for the rest of us? His talk of getting good gigs means that he is basically accepting discrimination and being at the whims of Japanese society as long as the money keeps coming. Sounds familiar to me!

    One point on Keene: How long has he actually lived and worked in Japan over his lifetime, prior to him being awarded citizenship?

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Ah, Don Keene! He’s pure comedy gold…
    In his head, we all still sip ice lemon tea on the verandas of our ‘western style houses’ whilst awaiting telegrams from London, whilst our wives chatter in hushed voices about that nice young man at the ball last night.
    Wrong century Don.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    While I am at it, Pakkun sounds like a fool.
    Manzai; this is another Japanese tradition that isn’t traditional. seriously, only started after the war, when the Japanese were exposed to Martin and Lewis- it’s the classic ‘straight man and funny guy’ routine that dates back to Victorian theater. the problem is, that as a format, it dried up with decades of exposure in the TV age sometime in the 70’s. What replaced it was the biting social commentary of ‘alternative humor’. You don’t need to be a genius to understand why that never caught on in Japan.

    As for Kahl, if I was being generous, I would say that his feigned ignorance and arrogance is merely to protect his employment; the niche he has carved out as that ‘odd gaijin who is just like an innaka O-yaji’. If I was being more cynical, I would propose that he genuinely doesn’t have a clue about NJ issues, and for all his alleged ‘2000’ kanji, would just regard any discrimination as ‘cultural differences’. Perhaps, in private, he is little but a sniveling ‘house gaijin’ begging for scraps from the masters table, and ever-so-grateful for it.

  • I can think of no better example of a “House Gaijin” than our Daniel Kahl 🙂

    Even many Japanese think he is weird. I was once watching one of those shows that come on about 4 pm with Spector, Lisa and Daniel riding in some virtual ride game and one of the Japanese comedians said Daniel was a “furui gaijin” Dan kind of tucked inside himself. Dan disses all of us NJ with the garbage seperation comment; as if it was so simple. I dont care how much pressure there is to conform, I will never find myself being a sellout like Daniel. He does speak good Japanese though.

  • RMax Says:
    January 19th, 2013 at 12:03 pm
    Although I disagree with Keene in many aspects, he has a strong point when it comes to many people who just live in their colony and just don’t care about being part of the society as whole.

    I don’t know what you do for a living, but unless you’re a banker on a ex-pat package or working for an embassy and living in Hiroo, then I don’t see how this is possible. It’s a bit like the flaw in Keene’s point.

    Everyday all other mortals here have to interact with the Japanese from the lonely neighbour, the NHK, to the shopkeeper down the road who after 6 months aknowledgement would think that the absence of a daily 3 minute conversation on the weather and the well-being of your family would seem as a personal slight.

    Sure they may limit that interaction with the Japanese, according to their own designs and tolerances, but this absolute of ‘all or nothing’ is a very unhelpful statement.

    Sometimes I want to spend the afternoon with my Japanese friends, sometimes I want to spend time with them and my non-Japanese friends, other times I really don’t want to interact with any Japanese and look for the companionship of anyone but the Japanese and sometimes I just want to be by myself.

    I really don’t know any people who you and Keene talk of as living in a non-Japanese colony within Japan and if you’re honest you probably don’t either.

  • Winning Gold in Dressage Doesn't Count says:

    So… Are there any high-profile foreigners who aren’t self serving? Is it possible to be successful in Japan without “selling out” to Japanese society?

    — My first vote would go to Peter Barakan, who has made a name for himself in the entertainment arena without ever pandering.

  • Winning Gold in Dressage Doesn't Count says:

    >Manzai; this is another Japanese tradition that isn’t traditional. seriously, only started after the war, when the Japanese were exposed to Martin and Lewis.

    Ummm. No. The claim is that it has much deeper roots extending to the Heian period. There certainly was word, “Manzai,” that appears in several pre-modern texts. Whether this is similar to the current conventions of manzai is unclear. Nevertheless, the Yoshimoto company began popularizing contemporary manzai as a product for a national audience as early as the 1930s, before which it was popular in the Osaka region. So definitely pre-war.

  • I read a book about people living in Korea. No person interviewed was famous and they all came from different backgrounds, like a Japanese, an Australian that divorced her Korean husband, an Iranian, etc.
    It was more interesting to read about people who learned the language and did well without looking down on others. One chapter was about the experience of English teachers.

    There should be a book about normal people who have spent many years in Japan. By that I mean Koreans, Taiwanese,
    people from South America, Vietnam, etc.

  • Markus#3
    “..For the rest of us, *why* would we want to throw away our way of life and choose an objectively inferior way of life over it? ..”

    This is the crux of the problem. I have been to many countties all over the world. Some very different from my own and some with rather radical cultures/views. However, despite being either a “tourist” a “business traveller” or “semi-resident” in these countries, not once, not once, has anyone said to me I must renounce my “British-ness” and be “one of them” to be accepted. Every single country I have been in, accepts me for being me..British, and all the idiosyncrasies that come along with it. Any Faux pas, is just that..and laughed off but never seen as a major transgression and a raison d’être for serious cultural division. Except in Japan.

  • Pakkun wasnt so bad when he first arrived on the scene. Once he received honorary house gaijin status, he started to play the role of “all is good” in Japan. Watching him on some shows, Id say he has gone native; it comes with the territory and hard not to become once your as immersed and commited as he is. Debito is right, Peter isnt a sellout, probably getting sprayed in the face with some obnoxious liquid snaps you out of that mode real fast )

  • @ Winning Gold In Dressage Doesn’t Count #11

    ‘The claim is that it has much deeper roots extending to the Heian period.’

    Yes, yes, of course that’s the ‘claim’. It’s a Japanese tradition with a long history that ‘connects’ present day Japanese, in an unbroken chain, with the Japanese of ages past (sigh). That’s the official narrative for all ‘invented’ traditions; sushi, kendo, judo, etc.
    Of course, the acid test is, if it really does date back to the Heian period, is it mentioned in the literature of the era? Answer is ‘no’. Even the great list maker Sei Shonagon doesn’t mention it at all.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    Interesting to learn about the representatives of NJ becoming a Japanese citizen and what kind of perspectives each person has in terms of cultural adaptation/assimilation strategy. Here’s my bottom 3(or best 3 in terms of your perspective, in a sense)

    #3: Patrick Harlan

    I learned from the past log that this tongue-in-cheek Pakkun man is a typical, show-off, ‘mean-spirited’ guy who wants to smack a nasty antic to humiliate the persons in order to entertain a bunch of young, naive, clueless Japanese folks. He thinks he’s a special, talented comedian. Nah. Only in his own fantasy. He’s not the same sort of comedian like Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien.

    #2: Donald Kneene

    It’s not so difficult for us to learn that this 89-year-old man still wants to live in his imaginary world—a.k.a. chrysanthemum fantasy– in the 19th century (or the age of Kojiki in 7th century, maybe). The way he frames English language sources as the relics of colonial product in 19th century is a typical of his mind-set that contradicts with the reality that Japan has maintained 160-year-long history of language relationship. A reason why he’s more liked by conservative Japanese folks, isn’t it? For many Japanese people, he seems innocent on the outside–but his apparent indifference to real problems that affect the lives of both J and NJ tells us that he’s a male version of Ayn Rand. “Chrysanthemum Shrugged.” Who’s gonna buy that?

    #1: Daniel Karl

    Perhaps the only person who can get ahead of Donald Kneene in the list. The reason: public accusation made out of ignorance (Ding, ding, ding!). And calling for human rights (Ha). He may be outranked by someone in the future, but this is the least model for NJ to become a naturalized Japanese citizen.

    Runner-up: Donald Richie

    His thought-provoking ideas on likes and dislikes have served as an offset to his poor comparison with autism. But, he’s still better than the folks in the bottom 3.

    I don’t know why Irene Mioko Smith (an environmental activist, half-Japanese/half-American) is not in the study? Also, the author should also add Japanese who are currently living outside the country, such as Kenji Yoshino (legal scholar) or Joi Ito (entrepreneur).

  • It’s funny that you would note Barakan as a model of integrity.

    A couple of years back I subscribed to his podcast, but ended up deleting it in disgust after two or three episodes when he defended a racially-charged joke against Barack Obama from someone in the administration (can’t remember who) as being merely “politically incorrect,” and expressed the hope that Japan would never become so sensitive that such humor would be problematized.

    While Barakan may be better than rest of the sycophants, he’s at the least tone deaf on matters of white privilege, which doesn’t do a lot to make him a moral authority on race and discrimination.

    — I would of course be interested in hearing that podcast. If that was what transpired, then I will change my mind. (And BTW, nobody was calling him a moral authority on race and discrimination. Just not a panderer in public to social science based upon stereotype, which I have never seen him do. Everything I’ve ever seen him talk about has been calmed, measured, and reasonable.)

  • How nice to see Karen Hill Anton again, after all these years! I so used to look forward to her column in the JT, and sometimes wondered whatever became of her. It’s good to know she’s still happily living in Japan.

    And … only three women? Why?

  • Bitter Valley says:

    While many respect Donald Richie’s writing, I think he has gone too far with the autism statement.
    Does this make my child, recognizably a “haffu” now half-autistic?

    Perhaps I am making 2+2 = 5. But think about what he said.

    Just because he’s written a bunch of books, it doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be called on when he delves into hack and very discriminatory sociologese.

    Am I missing something here? Can someone help me out and explain to me what he really meant or was trying to say?

    The premise is that gaijin kids are going to be discriminated against, and the parents ought to recognize that. That is cold comfort in itself. Some might praise him for his honesty. Perhaps he was indicting society here, by saying in effect skin color and racism effectively disables NJ children. They should be treated superficially as equals, but the reality is that they are regarded as disabled from really becoming full citizens, and this should be recognized. That’s the way it works in this country. This is what he seems to be saying. Many might say “fair enough.”

    That’s pretty damning.

    Personally as a father of a “haafu” the point I want to make is that I DON’T draw cold comfort for The Don’s realistic approach.

    I believe he deserves a slap in the chops for his own discriminatory language.

    By adopting a pseudo-language of hate, which is in effect what he has done- he is by default at least partially condoning the situation rather than shedding light on it, IMO.

  • @Brooks
    “There should be a book about normal people who have spent many years in Japan. By that I mean Koreans, Taiwanese, people from South America, Vietnam, etc.”

    Actually I remember the Hiragana Times put out of a couple of books about people who’d done well in Japan, mainly in business; most of the people featured were from non-Western countries, and none of them were native English speakers or teachers. The books were widely available in the English section of major bookstores about ten or more years ago. Does anyone else remember them?

  • I just checked and it says 現在お取り扱いできません。 Are there any bookstores in Japan that carry this?

    Here’s what the publisher says:

    For those wishing to purchase this book in Japan, copies may be bought
    directly from Amazon Japan through the following English link:

    For people ordering in the USA, try Kinokuniya USA:

  • As far as Richie is concerned, I guess the best is to follow his advice and swallow him whole. Like him or not, he has always been very coherent and never argued that it’s possible for a foreigner to be accepted in Japan; quite the contrary, he maintains this is impossible, whatever you do.

    Unlike Keene, who is a scholar living in an ivory tower, Richie is a writer, an artist, and is thus mainly interested in exploring difference, ambiguity and multivalence through thought-provoking – and often provocative – images. His way of relating to Japan is fascinating and moving and elegiac in many respects, but it’s simply not feasible for most NJ who seek a stable job, a decent family life, community involvement, etc. This is not Richie’s world nor his fight and, to my knowledge, he has never preached anyone.

    In his wonderful The Inland Sea, at some point he writes this:

    Japan […] allows me to like myself because it agrees with me and I with it. Moreover, it allows me to keep my freedom. It makes very few demands on me – I am considered too much the outsider for that […] – and, consequently, I become free. I become a one-member society, consistent only to myself and forever different from those who surround me. Our basic agreement permits an amount of approval, some of it mutual; our basic differences allow me to apprehend finally that the only true responsibility a man has is toward himself. […] I think if I didn’t feel like a foreigner, I woudn’t be here. If I were Japanese, I wouldn’t stay here ten minutes” (p. 42).

    In view of this, it’s almost ironic to see him featured in a study on assimilation strategies in Japan, because he is the non-assimilated foreigner par excellence – and has always liked it that way.

  • Hi Debito! I have another point of view, I think there are some types of emigration: by business, by studies, by jobs, by love, by need, by culture.

    I have never been in Japan, but in my country (spain) are japanese people living here, and reading this post and your commentaries, I think you are in similar situation like japanese people have emigrated to other countries. I think they have some problems for to integrate in other countries like us, first the language, second I can appreciate they live in closed grups, and they aren’t integrated in the new country. Does anyone why it happens?

  • @23:

    That’s an excellent post and analysis of Donald Richie’s approach. It is also very close to most people I know who have reached a fairly happy state of living in Japan: They do exactly what they want and when they want, unfettered by societal pressures. In fact, one could say that this attitude is being increasingly embraced by Japanese people too.

    I admire the honesty of these people for facing up to what they want from life and following through on it. Ultimately though, it’s a selfish attitude,and if too many follow this path, it fractures society through plummeting birthrates and lack of any large scale social or political engagement. The tradgedy is that it seems to be the only sane choice to make if one is to live in modern Japan

  • Bitter Valley says:

    @24 Sara,

    I think you raised the question innocently, which is refreshing to say the least. Japanese people are educated in a system whose philosophy is based on 19th century ideas. They are taught various mythologies, either directly or indirectly, and this is reinforced by a highly reactionary media. The beliefs and attitudes are taught are that Japanese are a unique race and culture that is special and it’s impossible for people not of the Japanese race to understand. The education system and media here has a default mode of building a huge wall between Japanese people and the rest of the world, who are gaijin. The language education system is set up to make learning English extremely difficult and is, IMO, deliberately impractical, so that many people who could have learned how to really speak and communicate are overloaded with memorization of vocabulary and complex grammar. The whole thing is set up to make everything as difficult as possible, IMO, reinforcing the constructed axiomatic “we are different, we are unique, foreigners and foreign languages are impossibly difficult to understand.”

    At the same time the social conditioning runs so deep and the barriers are made so high and profound that the default mode of many Japanese abroad is to treat even the societies they live in as human zoos. This is one of the reasons why you have so many Japanese communities who have minimal contact with the locals, who remain gaijin- fundamentally different, sometimes interesting, very often difficult and dangerous- even though it is the Japanese who are the gaijin.

    Of course, this also happens in many expat communities. I used to have a friend working for a major Japanese corporate company in New York. In the end I defriended him on Facebook. Over the years he was there, he loved living in New York and Jersey, was an avid eater of burgers, loved the sports culture, was full of his varied and active non-Japanese lifestyle. But the more I looked, the more apparent it became that he didn’t have a SINGLE non-Japanese friend. Year after year, he posted pictures of his BBQs, baseball practice, basketball practice, picnics, visits and holidays with his family and friends, colleagues and they were all Japanese. All the time. Very occasionally a non-Japanese person might appear on the margins in the odd photo or occasion. I looked at his friends list and out of several hundred people there were almost no non-Japanese.

    So while clearly enjoying the benefits of his U.S. experience, his entire social experience was almost completely isolated from the country in which he worked- while speaking great English and clearly very competent in his job, and clearly loving his U.S. lifestyle, his whole life was in a bubble. Japanese only friends, social activities, sports leagues, kintergarten for his children. Foreigners appear as helpers to be interacted with as necessary but actually no part of his or his family’s lifestyle.

    Many of these things could also be said about some expats living here, with their trophy wives taking Ikebana classes, living in Japan through the bubble of the Tokyo American Club and other such venues.

    There are many many Japanese who try to break through the programming, who go backpacking and really try to break through. But I unfondly remember going with my (Japanese) wife to “real” Japanese-owned restaurants in New York and London and being othered. Despite the fact I speak good Japanese, having my Japanese being ignored, me ignored, conversations aimed directly at my wife with me being reduced to becoming a gaijin, even in my own country!

    In Spain, because of many reasons, expat Japanese are likely to see the local Spanish people they don’t mix with as rather exotic zoo animals, to be petted and looked at and dealt with through the bars of a cage- the cage being the mindset and programming I mentioned earlier. Don’t get too close, the animals may bite/ behave unpredictably and may carry diseases.

    Of course when it comes to business and money, those same people will be exceptionally polite and nice- because it’s the money that they are after!

    I’ve deliberately been a bit cynical, but I hope this removes some of the scales from your eyes.

  • @Sara,

    The reason people dont assimilate can be reduced to 2 reasons in my opinion.

    1. The person doesnt want to assimilate. They fear the unknown due to what they have been told from others or group think.

    2. The country they live in doesnt allow for it. Japan, and some other countries, dont want people to assimilate here unless you accept what they ram down your throat.

    Some countries allow for assimilation while keeping your ethinic identity, while others will squash your identity and replace it with their own idea of what you should be.

  • @ #15 Jim Di Griz

    I haven’t a clue about the history of Manzai, but the history of Gendai Budo is pretty clear; classical schools were amalgamated and restructured into a format that embraced modern values and suited a nation-wide student body. It should be clear that for whatever purposes modern schools might have been appropriated by ultra-nationalists, they came after the fact, and that influence ended with the closure of the Dai Nippon Butokukai and postwar politics.

    Where exactly is it claimed that Judo or Kendo are unbroken traditions? The entire thesis of Kano Jigoro’s Judo was change to meet the needs of a modern era, and everybody basically copied him after witnessing the success and prestige of his creation. There are still classical schools around, in fact part of Kano’s ingenuity was bringing them on board with his idea for a national sport that made competition safe. It’s a crucial difference, and the most cursory of historical Judo knowledge. It boggles the mind that you might suggest the Gendai Budo establishment is somehow deviously rewriting history; the IJF is busy enough rewriting the rules as is!

  • @Sara, I think the elephant in the room is they look down on Spanish (or better, European) culture. They might genuinely like the local food and look at some of the tourist attractions, soak up the atmosphere of the old buildings or nice little villages, but ultimately they think it’s all dirty and dangerous, and they will get mugged if they stroll too far.
    As it happens, everything comes down to fear – fear of “the other”, which manifests itself in a fake, boasted superiority complex, or in complete resignation and rejection of another way of life, such as the Spanish one.
    The Japanese can’t help to feel this fear, because it’s like Bitter Valley said – it is, and always has been instilled in them by the thuggish powers that run Japan since hundreds of years, and it is very hard to deprogram yourself even if reality doesn’t match what has been told to you.
    Look up the “Paris Syndrome” on wikipedia – a medical condition specifically coined for the Japanese who came to Paris and found out that it is completely different from what they were told it is like. I don’t think this syndrome would have ever been discovered if it wasn’t for the Japanese going abroad.
    Having said all that, I do know some Japanese back home in who told me I was nuts to want to move to Japan and say that they’ll never go back, because Japan is a “kitsui” society not worth living in. They do exist – but it takes time, probably decades, to deprogram the delusion.

  • @ Markus #29

    ‘I do know some Japanese back home in who told me I was nuts to want to move to Japan and say that they’ll never go back, because Japan is a “kitsui” society not worth living in. They do exist – but it takes time, probably decades, to deprogram the delusion.’

    I agree with you. There are some Japanese living abroad who are that way, I have met some. But the vast majority of Japanese I have met who live abroad, were faking it. They loved the ‘Japanese bubble’ in the UK or Italy, and the kudos they received when they impressed other Japanese with their ‘cosmopolitan’ image when they went home, but ultimately were extremely careful to over-compensate as if to prove that despite living abroad, they were still ‘really, really Japanese’ when they went home again.

    I have also met Japanese that live abroad and profess to love it so much more than the stifling society of Japan; right up until the first time a drunk local mistakes them for a Chinese, and pulls his eyes into a squint. Then they hate the ‘racist’ country intensely, and rush home to tell NJ to go home.

  • @ John R #28

    I can only make the following response to you, and I must do so with caveats; since I am not able to reveal my true identity in order to protect myself professionally from those who would disagree with my opinions on various subjects, I will have to omit details without which you may find my answer unsatisfactory. It is a shame, but it is reality. For the sake of brevity, I will attempt to confine my comment to salient points also.

    Anyhow, my response.
    My first hand research regarding judo in Japan would be at odds with your statement thus;

    ‘the history of Gendai Budo is pretty clear; classical schools were amalgamated and restructured into a format that embraced modern values and suited a nation-wide student body. It should be clear that for whatever purposes modern schools might have been appropriated by ultra-nationalists, they came after the fact, and that influence ended with the closure of the Dai Nippon Butokukai and postwar politics.’

    The whole histories of budo are all Meiji-era inventions. This includes lies that ‘classical schools were amalgamated and restructured’. The abolition of the samurai class, and massive social upheavals of the early Meiji-era effectively put an end to the in-house training systems that existed in the daimyo’s house, and in any event, it is a modern invention (and a gross distortion of truth) to think of these structures for training as being organized into any formal schools.

    When you say ‘a format that embraced modern values and suited a nation-wide student body’, I think that it is important to be aware that this in truth represents one method of the Meiji-era effort to militarize the state (and in making this point, I will also protest your claim that modern judo came before nationalists; quite the contrary, judo was invented by, and was a tool of the nationalists).

    On the other hand, the ‘modern values’, whilst going down well with foreigners post-war, is exactly the kind of thing that Ishihara is complaining about when he says that foreign judo players don’t understand the true essence of judo. The paradox is this; Ishihara believes the lie that modern judo is a continuation of pre-Meiji-era practices, and that it’s ‘modernization/westernization’ is to it’s detriment, whereas the fact is that prior to Japan’s modernization, no judo as we would recognize it now existed.

    Like all ‘Japanese traditions’, it is a Meiji-era invention that serves to galvanize the concept of Japanese nationhood in the face of a massive (and scary!) outside world forcing the opening of Japan. As such it is forced to invent a heritage that is firstly uniquely ‘Japanese’, and secondly ‘ancient’. This is the function of the lie that modern judo is an amalgamation and restructuring of classical schools.

    You are yourself stating the existence of classical schools at the same time as telling me that no one is claiming that Judo has a long history!

    You are trapped in the same circular (il)logic as Ishihara and others. The inability to resolve these illogical conflicts is what leads Japanese to say that (insert Japanese cultural issue here) cannot be explained to an NJ because they are not Japanese. This is incorrect. The inability to explain the idea is not due to the NJ being NJ, but rather that the Japanese cannot, in explaining, resolve the contradiction they know they will utter. And they know it. But since they have been told constantly throughout their lives (and have heard others employ the technique effectively to wide-eyed NJ) that ‘Japanese and Japan are so unique that gaijin can’t understand’, they are afforded a perfect ‘get out’ from the crushing weight of having to accept that everything they think they know about ‘Japaneseness’ is wrong.

    I enjoy kendo. I have made many connections from my love of kendo, and it is good exercise for me. I find that satisfying enough. I do not believe in ancient schools, and I don’t believe that there is a little shinto god living in the little shinto shrine in the dojo. I do not believe that my sempai are better people than I, who should be obeyed without question, and I do not believe that my kohai are subordinate and should do all the cleaning because they are the most junior. I reject any mysticism or spirituality about kendo, and believe that it has nothing more than ping-pong does to teach practitioners what it is to be a ‘good man’. I do not believe that practicing kendo (or any budo) will enhance the practitioners inherent ‘Japaneseness’, or help them understand ‘wagakuni’ any better. Last year I attained third dan in spite of this.

  • @26 Bitter Valley

    Hi Bitter Valley, excuse me about my ignorance, and thank you for your explanation, it helps me to understand better why, about you said:

    “In Spain, because of many reasons, expat Japanese are likely to see the local Spanish people they don’t mix with as rather exotic zoo animals, to be petted and looked at and dealt with through the bars of a cage- the cage being the mindset and programming I mentioned earlier. Don’t get too close, the animals may bite/ behave unpredictably and may carry diseases.

    Of course when it comes to business and money, those same people will be exceptionally polite and nice- because it’s the money that they are after!”

    In last decades, in Spain have comming so many immigration from so many countries, and now with economical crisis so many people are leaving and going to other countries. Japanese people in last decade have opened so many japanese restaurants, shops, and other type of business, and they are (as you said) polite and nice, also I could appreciate that they don’t want to mix with poor and lower class, and they only mix with rich class, do you think is it true?

    I have another question, I don’t understand, why japanese students come to spain (or other countries) to study a degree unknowing the language of the country, for example if I go to Japan to study a course, obviously I must to learn japanese language for to understand teacher’s explanations, I ask you, because I could appreciate it in my country and I don’t understand why they do.

    @29 Markus

    Hi Markus, I understand your irony, japanese are proud to be japanese, I suppose like everyone is proud about their own country, about Spain I am not proud de bad image about my country, but catalan people we are different, for this reason we want the independence from spain, but while Catalonia is still belonging to spain, the bad image is with us. and

    It is a pity because in my country there are so many great scientists, economists, writters, artists, designers, humanists, football clubs… and now we have the worst generation of politicians with a great corruption, and citizens we are living the worst moment of our lives.
    I said we have great artists for example Gaudi, and japanese tourists always loved gaudi architecture, Sagrada Familia is the monument more photographed by japanese, did you know why?

    I think Japan and all countries need to make self-criticism for to get a new evolution.

  • Markus made an excellent point. For NJ in Japan, danger comes when you find yourself trapped in a zone created by Japanese who are trying to persuade you that gaijin have issues with Japan; Japan doesnt have a problem with gaijin. This is one of the struggles of NJ living in Japan; trying to stay sane while being immersed in this type of enviroment. Most of us NJ came here already deprogrammed, but because we are from the “oustide” we must be programed to believe the deliusion. I admit, I have, for the sake of survivability or acceptance, allowed myself in the past to become programed. Sara, in order to understand Japan, you must understand that many Japanese feel Japan is unique and anything that enters Japan must be changed or removed. In order to start to understand Japan, you must first stop comparing it to Western societies like your own.

  • @Bitter Valley #26

    I can’t speak as to expat communities in big cities like New York, but I must admit it has not been my image or experience that Japanese outside of Japan only stick together.
    When I lived in a mid-sized city, the Japanese I met were basically immersed in the community. I actually did a project during my graduate school work where I interviewed a number of Japanese residents. One of the questions I asked was along the lines of “do you take part in the local “Japan society” events or spend much time with other Japanese?” and most answered “no”. Among reasons such as “no time” or “haven’t had the chance” was the answer “it’s too mendokusai or troublesome”.
    This answer interested me and although it had no relation to what I was researching, I asked the people who answered that way to explain. What I gathered was that for them associating with other Japanese in the community was troublesome because it would immediately thrust them back into the social rules and necessity to figure out a hierarchy. Meeting other Japanese was socially “mendokusai” so they avoided it.

    I don’t know if they viewed their gaikoku experience as being in a zoo, but they were certainly not insulating themselves within a Japanese community.

    Like I said, this could be very different in a city like New York where there are many more Japanese who may be thrust together through the business environment and so on.

  • Bitter Valley says:

    Hi Sara,

    Thank you for your reply. I am sure you can draw distinctions between different types of Japanese people who are staying in Japan. Some of those on corporate packages (expats) may take an genuine and disinterested interest in Spain. Many students who go over may just want a holiday and don’t study or care about Spain deeply, they have just dropped out temporarily. I am sure there are some Japanese people who have moved and assimilated to a greater or lesser degree.

    I don’t agree with all the points of all the people who harshly criticize “the Japanese” (whoever they are?!). But you will find that most of the people critical of the many failings of Japanese society (it has many great points too), are mainly focused on institutional, educational and government/ media reinforcement of attitudes. These arouse extreme discomfort , and as you can see, a good deal of hostility and even hatred some of us who have lived here, especially those of us who have lived here for an extended period, and many of us who have Japanese skills ranging from high intermediate, advanced (someone like me) to bilingual.

    Generalizations always throw up plenty of exceptions, and I am sure you can meet many Japanese people who are not “insular” in their attitudes. Many Japanese people break through their programming, most don’t care, have no need to, and are totally unaware that the world view they are given by Japan’s institutions is sometimes absurd. Of course elements of this apply to all countries, the myths and the lies taught by education systems to foster a sense of nationalism and identity so as to make sure we all should be fundamentally on the side of our “nation.”

    How many people in the U.S. would look at the Vietnam war and feel a sense of dread and shame that a superpower invaded and carpetbombed a poor agricultural nation, murdering between 3-5 million people in three countries? Mainstream history sees the whole thing as a “terrible tragedy” (50,000 U.S. killed, many of them poor) and/or a “big mistake.” Or the rape of Iraq- up to a million extra dead and 4 million displaced after decade of sanctions that effectively broke a country that was originally one of the cradles of civilization? The UK was still committing barbarous acts jungles not so far away from Tokyo as late as the 1950s. How many Chinese are aware of the criminal and psychopathic policies of Mao in the 1960s and 1970s (mass starvation of the “Great Leap Forward,” murderous paranoid lunacy of the “Cultural Revolution” that led to the deaths of tens of millions and the suffering of many tens of millions more?

    I guess most English people are aware to a great or lesser extent of the ills and evils of British Imperialism, and I guess that even many conservatives in modern Spain who are sympathetic to the Franco Dictatorship at least recognize the barbarity of the thousands murdered (extra-judicially executed) after the Civil War and later.

    While revisionism in Japanese history vs progressive thinking is a fluid battle, and there is a great tendency for the default mode to see war as terrible and actually the Japanese as victims (many non-Japanese would disagree with me in regarding the atomic bombings as obvious war crimes, I suspect) many Japanese people are aware of the rape and conquest and the criminally stupid state fascism that caused the deaths of more than 10 million in Asia.

    The point is that, and correct me if I am wrong, that the Spanish government, while probably whitewashing or skipping some elements of Spain’s history (the British, French and the Canadians, then mainly ex-Brits basically committed genocide in North America, while the Spanish and Portuguese raped and looted South America) doesn’t encourage Spanish people to believe that:

    (a) Spanish people are a unique race and that
    (b) to be Spanish, you must belong to the “Spanish race”
    (c) in theory all people in Spain share the same fundamental human rights, even non-citizens [although in reality we all know that the richer and more connected you are, the more chance you are likely to get a better form of “justice…”].

    Which leaves the question, do you have anti-discrimination laws? I am sure there is prejudice and discrimination in Spain, but are there official laws to counter this.

    The state-sanctioned/ encouraged myths created by the Japanese government and the development of deep barriers between Japan and the rest of the world go a long way to explain why so many of the Japanese people you might meet ultimately stick to themselves, their own communities etc.

    Of course I’d hope that there would be many intercultural marriages and a lot of people settling down from Japan who assimilate and get on with their new lives and ignore some of the really pernicious bullshit fed to them when they were younger.

    FYI, I have a old friend (a Japanese woman) very happily married to a Spanish guy and quite happily integrated into her Spanish family- what is more she gets on well with that all important figure- the mother in law. The husband is a bit of a dead beat and spends far too much time drinking wine and watching soccer in the local bar with his friends but basically she is very happy.

    …which is why I took the interest in replying to you initially!

    I hope all this makes sense.

  • @ Jim di Griz #31

    Thanks for taking the time to reply, Jim. You can rest assured that I intend to make no such demands of your identity; I am interested in the facts, and if you can back up a few controversial statements I would be more than glad to hear what you have to say. I think some questions are in order:

    1. Can you clarify your usage of “nationalists”? Jigoro Kano was surely nationalistic, but I know of no information that describes him to be an ultra-nationalist that intended to turn the country into a war machine. Protest away, I would love to read more about this person.

    As I understand it, we both agree that Judo is also an invention circa 1882(?), and prior to that shiai were more or less unarmed duels that often resulted in grevious harm or fatality (it’s shi ni ai, after all), and that Kano’s idea for modernization was what made Judo different; it adopted an effective standardized training regimen and competitive format that shed the nasty thuggish image associated with Jujutsu and simultaneously rode the bandwagon on western science and style. To paraphrase British journalist E.J. Harrison’s account, Kano aimed to form a grassroots sort of movement; non-profit, to benefit the common person. Obviously things changed after 1937 when he died.

    To be clear, when I say Judo I mean Kodokan Judo with Dan-i and Ippon and so on. I don’t mean the Judo or Yawara no Michi or what have you of Ryoi Shinto Ryu. I mean the modern sport. Classical schools are pretty individualistic, but for the most part they offer basic training for conflict. They also have esoterica like kiaijutsu and nairiki, which have parallels elsewhere in East Asia (e.g. internal Chinese arts like Xingyi). Much like fine arts, they demonstrate subtle and powerful nuance in their execution. There are prominent Koryu that have been declared national treasures (e.g. Tatsumi Ryu in Chiba) and their are obscure ryugi practiced only in rural communities (e.g. Shosho Ryu). They’re mostly quite different to Judo.

    2. Further, how are “all” Japanese traditions Meiji era inventions? Shakuhachi flute? Mikkyo? Teriyaki? Kabuki? They’re all just a conspiracy to dupe the sheeple? This would completely alter my understanding of Japanese history, where can I verify it?

    It might be because I am trapped in an idiot continuum or whatever, but I think if you use smaller words you can better explain to me what the Ishihara-esque fallacy is here. How can you claim Koryu are some kind of after the fact conspiracy to galvanize nationalism when they’ve only continued to decline since the inception of Judo? How does it make sense to make classical schools a vehicle for nationalism when they exist to teach on a small scale and serve their own particular ideologies? They have more in common with Al-Qaeda than Wimbledon. I am not sure we’re on the same page about what you’re saying here.

    Your opinions, however informed, are not the subject of my inquiry. I am asking you about your claims. It’s pretty extraordinary to indicate that the entirety of koryu practicioners are frauds or dupes. Academic and semi-academic publications by the likes of Dr. Karl F. Friday, Meik Skoss, Diane Skoss, Donn F. Draeger, William M. Bodiford, Dave Lowry, Liam Keeley, Ron Beaubien, and others describe at length various historical analysis of classical schools aka Koryu Budo. For example, Dr. Friday’s book Legacies of the Sword examines the phenomenon of the ryuha and describe it as originating in the fine arts and later influencing budo schools. He’s a professor at the University of Georgia and the head of Kashima Shin Ryu in the US, under Fumitake Seki Shihanke in Tokyo, and he cites his sources. Which brings me to the most important question:

    3. If you know anything about the state of publications for classical Japanese martial arts, you should appreciate the position you put me in. Your claims, particularly with the historical veracity of Koryu Bugei, are radically divergent with every source of integrity I have been able to consult on the subject. They’re extraordinary, bizzaro, cosmic-horror-inducing claims, and you will have my thanks and admiration if you can substantiate them with scholarly writings or whatever such equivalent evidence may be available to a member of the ignorant masses.

  • I have to agree with John R on this. One of the reasons classical Japanese arts of all shapes and sizes can be traced back pre Meiji is the huge amount of documentary evidence verifying names of kata,etc the ryu’s history etc. Japan has been a society obsessed with paperwork and documentation for centuries. You don’t have to rely on anyone’s word for it, just look at the makimono. (This is not to say there was not wholesale revisionism post Meiji).

  • Bitter Valley says:

    Paul2 @#34

    Hi Paul2; snap; yes with all generalizations there are certainly many exceptions and I don’t mean to slam-dunk everyone.

    I’ve had mixed experiences; I have Japanese friends who don’t believe in the BS they are fed/ or it never washed/ were independent thinkers. I guess there must be many Japanese abroad like that. My friends certainly are. Some returned to Japan with dread at having to knuckle down with mendokusai stuff, others found their experiences abroad very life enhancing but appreciate many of the comforts of returning.

    I’ve had many experiences that support my point too, for example being “othered” in my own country! One of the most intriguing things about Japanese treating anyone they do not consider Japanese as gaijin is that it is not dependent on or education levels. If anything, my rule of thumb is that, in general, sometimes it seems that the more people are extremely highly educated, the more they have to loose and all the more to gain by toeing/ not toeing the line.

    In academia I have met academics who are bilingual but monocultural, and many top officials who are highly fluent in English for example, but are constantly putting up real barriers. In fact as many people who are fluent in Japanese find, with some people it makes the barriers all the higher. I fondly remember a time at work when I was having an interesting debate with some new colleagues, and the department boss, who was fluent in English looked at the whole situation in alarm. We all had to have lunch together and I was put well in my place- baby Japanese, him showing off his English, retelling the newbies what I was saying in his own Japanese, and turning the conversion into a series of infantile topics, asking me where I was from, praising me on my Japanese, my use of chopsticks, asking me what the weather was like in my country for this time of year (and YES the FOUR SEASONS TOPIC DID COME UP).

    The whole thing was designed to put me firmly in my place, and the newbies got the message immediately. Stopped talking to me in Japanese, chatting about this and that, and started treating me like the office gaijin! One of hundreds of examples I am sure many of us on this board could share.

    At the same time I have Japanese great Japanese friends cool about things, chatting away in Japanese, and I am sure there are plenty of cool Japanese people abroad, especially youngsters.

    I feel these are caveats that don’t invalidate my experience and general point. Every day here I have relaxed interactions with someone or a few people, I also have a bunch of comic BS from somebody else. Our mansion has a new building superintendant (kanrininsan) who treats me like some sort of exotic pet. He’s very haughty and conscious of his position, and it’s going to take a while to get to him that I am not some sort of friendly alien. And I’m a bloody owner of a manion. Yes, the gaijin owns the place in his own name. Whatever is the world coming too? It must be sort of OK as obviously it had the wherewithall to buy a place in this building. I can sort of understand what it talks about. These gaijin, they must be pretty smart. They can talk a bit of Japanese. They can even buy a room. What is the world coming to? Whatever next, you know, my word, perhaps I should study English. There might be more of them moving in…you can see the cogs in his poor mind going…

    …it was a bit like the previous-previous superintendant, who when I bought a place stuck up bunches of signs everywhere in hack Engrish to “help” me. He got the boot and the next guy was absolutely fine- we got on really well. But back to square one with the new superintendant.

    It doesn’t help his understanding that the only other gaijin in the mansion is a cruising gay who seems to come back with a new/ different Japanese muscle-man boyfriend every other week. I don’t mind, personally (I don’t give a fig about peoples’ sexuality) but it’s really going to blow the mind of the new superintendent when he figures it out. Perhaps I’ll be the good gaijin!

    Was laughing about it with the cleaners of our manion (especially old Iida san, who seems to be far more intelligent and socially intelligent than his new boss) as we had a chat about it on Monday.

    Where did the new Kanrinin san’s attitude come from? He’s obviously not stupid, because he’s running a big mansion. For every Mr. iida there’s another Kanrininsan. It just shouldn’t be that way…

  • No doubt this has hit the fan in Japan…or has it? If this is how a ‘servant of the people’ thinks of the people, then NJ have little hope of the situation improving.

    — Well, gaffes are the hallmark of Abe Cabinets. Didn’t take long for them to start…


    Japan should let elderly ‘hurry up and die’: finance minister Taro Aso
    By Agence France-Presse
    Monday, January 21, 2013 7:03 EST
    Topics: National Council on Social Security Reforms ♦ Taro Aso

    Japan’s finance minister Taro Aso said Monday the elderly should be allowed to “hurry up and die” instead of costing the government money for end-of-life medical care.

    Aso, who also doubles as deputy prime minister, reportedly said during a meeting of the National Council on Social Security Reforms: “Heaven forbid if you are forced to live on when you want to die. You cannot sleep well when you think it’s all paid by the government.

    “This won’t be solved unless you let them hurry up and die,” he said.

    “I don’t need that kind of care. I will die quickly,” he said adding he had left written instructions that his life is not artificially prolonged.

    During the meeting, he reportedly referred to “tube people” when talking of patients who cannot feed themselves.

    The 72-year-old Aso, a former prime minister, has been in his current job less than a month, but has a long history of planting his foot firmly in his mouth.

    In 2001 he triggered a furore by saying a successful country was one where “rich Jews” wanted to live.

    After Monday’s mis-step, he tried to backtrack, insisting he had only been talking about his personal wishes when he said the elderly should shuffle off quickly.

    “I said what I personally believe, not what the end-of-life medical care system should be,” he told reporters.

    “It is important that you can spend the final days of your life peacefully.”

    Aso was born into a blue-blooded industrialist family but his often crude verbal slip-ups stand in marked contrast to his heritage.

    He is the grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, one of Japan’s most influential prime ministers who helped rebuild the country from the ashes of World War II, and he is married to the daughter of another former premier.

    Ageing is a sensitive issue in Japan, one of the world’s oldest countries, with almost a quarter of its 128 million people over 60. That figure is expected to rise to 40 percent within the next half-century.

    At the same time a shrinking number of workers is placing further strain on an already groaning social security system, with not enough money going into the pot to support those who depend on it.

  • @JDG (#31) “You are trapped in the same circular (il)logic as Ishihara and others. The inability to resolve these illogical conflicts is what leads Japanese to say that (insert Japanese cultural issue here) cannot be explained to an NJ because they are not Japanese. This is incorrect. The inability to explain the idea is not due to the NJ being NJ, but rather that the Japanese cannot, in explaining, resolve the contradiction they know they will utter. And they know it. But since they have been told constantly throughout their lives (and have heard others employ the technique effectively to wide-eyed NJ) that ‘Japanese and Japan are so unique that gaijin can’t understand’, they are afforded a perfect ‘get out’ from the crushing weight of having to accept that everything they think they know about ‘Japaneseness’ is wrong.”

    Very well observed and put. This a very basic truth about the Japanese society. If a Japanese person comes to an obvious contradiction in any matter, they are trained to just stop looking or inquiring, while we are trained to probe further and find the facts. JDG, it’s gems like these that make the comment threads on here so valuable.

  • @35 Bitter Valley

    Hi Bitter Valley about you said:

    “The point is that, and correct me if I am wrong, that the Spanish government, while probably whitewashing or skipping some elements of Spain’s history (the British, French and the Canadians, then mainly ex-Brits basically committed genocide in North America, while the Spanish and Portuguese raped and looted South America) doesn’t encourage Spanish people to believe that:

    (a) Spanish people are a unique race and that
    (b) to be Spanish, you must belong to the “Spanish race”
    (c) in theory all people in Spain share the same fundamental human rights, even non-citizens [although in reality we all know that the richer and more connected you are, the more chance you are likely to get a better form of “justice…”].”

    First, I am not lawyer and I can’t explain you about spanish laws, and my opinion is as catalan not as spanish, catalan people always make self-criticism, and spanish people need self-criticism too.

    In response: (a) and (b) is yes, an exemple is spanish goverment wants to delete catalan identity, you can find an exemple reading “Wert education reform” where they want to “españolizar” catalan people, you can read here and here

    This reform also affects to foreign people who are studying in Spain.

    — We’re getting off track. If we want to expand on this thread further, please keep relating it back to the topic of this blog entry: assimilation/integration strategies.

  • Paul2 makes a good point; some Japanese when traveling and residing abroad want nothing to do with other Japanese. I have met Japanese like this, but once returning to Japan, do they recongnize and challenge anything about their own society? I have never met a Japanese who is critical about Japan. Why should they be? Japan is for the Japanese; a safe zone to always return to. I will challenge and complain allot about things in America having lived abroad. Its been a good experience to see the U.S. from outside its borders. I feel the opposite about Japanese, however. Most seem to feel that Japan can be excused for being xenophobic and racist.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ John R #36

    I’ve gone down with flu, so I’ll make this much briefer than my last post.

    To address your points in order;
    1. Definitions of nationalism. That’s a tricky one, isn’t it? I would describe any member of Meiji-era Japanese society who endorsed creating the concept and endorsing the implementation of Japan as a modern nation state by choosing to believe that filling the peoples minds with imperial ideology (or any activity that endorsed that) as a nationalist, rather than a patriot. It is in the Meiji-era nation building that we see the idea of Japanese uniqueness spawned. Kano at no point made any public protest against the use of judo in schools as a means of indoctrinating Japanese youth into the imperialist world view.

    I am glad that we both agree that judo is a Meiji-era (modern) invention.

    Describing Harrison as a ‘journalist’ is rather misleading, since he was an avid pre-war judoka, and the first NJ to attain shodan whilst living in Tokyo. I would view him in rather the same light as Don Keene; largely in the dark about what the people around him really thought, and being cynically manipulated into a pro-Japan ‘poster boy’ to go back into the world and proclaim one aspect of Japanese uniqueness. It is interesting to note that (like Keene), even after the war, he was able to rationalize the horrors carried out by the Japanese army with his ideas about ‘Japanese specialness’, and continued to knock out books about judo and ‘the Japanese spirit’, and what not.

    2. All Japanese traditions, as we understand them today, are Meiji-era (or newer!) inventions. They are Meiji-era simulacra of what people at that time thought was happening in the Edo-jidai, or earlier, embellished with enough Japanese uniqueness by way of fake heritage, to serve as ‘proof’ that Japan is modern, but not Western. I imagine the poster Baudrillard could explain that better than I. however, lets take a quick look at the ones you mentioned. Shakkuhachi? Chinese. Mikkyo? Indian. Teriyaki? Chinese. Kabuki? Chinese. I’ll give you a couple for free if you like; sushi? Vietnamese. Sado? Korean. Shodo? Chinese. Nikujaga? British.
    The idea that these are ‘Japanese traditions’ is a Meij-era invention for the sheeple, so that they could understand that wearing suits, ties, and top hats did not make them any less ‘Japanese’.

    I think you misunderstand my point about Ishihara and Koryu. We understand (for I honestly believe that you do) that the koryu and modern judo are not the same, but the myth is that they are connected, and it is this myth that enables Ishihara to get his facts wrong and make stupid statements that go unchallenged by the vast majority.

    I actually met the Diane Skoss briefly when I was doing research. I am full of admiration for her efforts to collate and conserve the knowledge of the koryu. I believe that she would agree with me that there is a distinction between ‘classical’ practice and the popular understanding of what is traditional Japanese martial arts. friday wrote an excellent book about the shoen system, very good, but I couldn’t comment on his veracity as a budoka. as for all the self proclaimed NJ budo experts who popularized budo in the west on behalf of the Japanese, I would be reaching for my Don Keene analogy again.

    3. You seem to have a substantial understanding of all the major (and indeed the less perused) publications by NJ on budo. I doubt that there is anything left on the subject that you have not read. However, this reading has to be placed in the greater (and much wider by far) context of Meij-era nation building and the creation of Japanese nationalism as an institution. I would recommend Hobsbawm and Ranger; The Invention of Tradition (1983), and Vlastos; Mirror of Modernity (1998) (with excellent chapter by Gluck re: the modern idea that the Edo-jidai is the imaginary ‘store house’ of everything properly Japanese), as starting points.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @Mike, #42

    I think you are mixing up with sojourners and Japanese living abroad for a long-term. (I am the latter, as you can guess.) I have seen many Japanese folks coming to the States as an ESL or an exchange student, business trip, or a tourist. In my experience, most of those who intend to live in foreign country for a short to mid-term period seem to feel comfortable making connections with other Japanese friends through student organizations or Rotary International. For those living abroad for a long term, I think it depends because many Japanese folks don’t live in a foreign country for so long. It’s quite hard to find one for those if s/he lives in a small town or rural area. In such case, they just can’t find one within the area–so instead they will likely talk to local people most of the time–or move to a cosmopolitan area like DC or NY for more ethnic/cultural diversity.

    It’s the matter of choice–and I personally don’t think it’s a serious problem. I don’t blame some Japanese who prefer to choose NJ for daily communication over Japanese, as far as living area and life styles are highly concerned(NOTE: I wouldn’t say it’s ok to avoid Japanese intentionally while they are visible in town.) I remember when I was in the Starbucks, I saw one Asian girl sitting on the table right next to me suddenly talked to her partner in Japanese. I had no idea what the heck was going on until I learned she was privately teaching Japanese language to her American friend. I felt so annoyed that I was almost yelling at her in my psyche like, “get the heck outta here!” It’s right next to my table. I just wanted to focus on my stuff.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    Regarding the perspective on Japan, I agree that vast majority of Japanese people don’t feel comfortable having someone talking problems within its society. I haven’t seen those very often in my eyes, so all I hear about Chrysanthemum lovers only stays within the internet community or YouTube. Maybe I am one of the exceptions to that since I was already aware of Japan’s problems and very critical of my country even before I came to the US many years ago. The things are getting from bad to worse in the last decade and a half, as if Japan’s problems are corresponding to the problems I see in the US. It’s a pity to see national leaders in the central government squandering opportunities, screwing the things up, and wasting the billions of dollars on unproductive public projects and free pass to greedy J-corporations running into corruption. The powers-that-be are out there to intentionally delay a post-disaster re-construction project by ostracizing the affected community from the public sphere to the detriment of local people suffering in agony for land contamination and destruction of their life. Educators and adults are throwing the kids into the abyss of a corrupted school system where no one would bother to take any responsibility for protecting their life from bullying and violence; providing sufficient mental health care; and counseling to good teachers and students who are getting demoralized from overwork and exhaustion from examination ordeals. Some people defend Japan from moral corruption by saying “they’re not the only one in this mess.” Maybe not. But state’s inaction toward the systematic failure to take responsibility for the interests of common goods (or any political attempt to shut down any voices in this regard), in the face of mounting public accusation, well deserves the attention. It will make some of us to conclude that Japanese uniqueness is indeed characterized with what Dr. Jennifer Mercieca describes “ironic partisanship”– the characteristics of nation state that went deadlock in the meaning of active citizenship at the consequence of ideological dichotomy between state v. civilians–in Founding Fictions (2010).


    At this time, we are not sure how Japanese fiction of cultural uniqueness can meet with Jacksonian view of American democracy and departs in respect to relation between state and citizen—if we borrow Dr. Mercieca’s thesis on political philosophy and apply it the Japanese context(Super radical, isn’t it?) But it may give us a good counter-argument to those who still insist Japan’s cultural uniqueness is authentic, unchanging, and ever-lasting throughout the centuries, not a fiction. Here’s an open-ended question. Does it lead to homogenization of assimilation/integration strategies and hence affect the choices of future new comers to Japan?

  • @Loverilakkuma (#45) You write, “some people defend Japan from moral corruption by saying “they’re not the only one in this mess.”
    Actually, this is the only defence I ever hear from the Japanese, which will you hear every time that you refuse to accept the “Japan is unique” argument. They’ll use the most childish defence and say, “ok, maybe Japan has a couple of racists, corrupt politicians, and questionable freedom of the press, but so does any other country in the world.”
    In a way, they’re trying to play down all criticism by saying, “Japan actually is not unique, but like any other country.” I never pointed out this obvious contradiction to them.

    The thing is, Japan is definitely unique – just not in the positive way that is being perpetuated by the Japanese. While it is true that if you look long enough, you can find racism and corruption, and organised crime in most countries, the systemic, institutionalised nature of these negative aspects is unique to Japan. As is the Japanese mentality to value appearance over essence. A society that is culturally trained to self-censor critical thought on a personal as well as public level while criminal elements abuse their powers in the background out of monetary, or worse, nationalist motivation, might very well be called “the most dangerous country in the world.”

    — Hyperbole diminishes arguments. Please refrain.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Markus #47

    I have often thought that at it’s worst, Japan functions as a ‘post-industrial banana republic’. It has been the veneer of industrialization that often gives, and allows Japanese to believe, that Japan is a modern country in the western sense of the word. But it is not modern in that sense; where is the accountability at all levels? Where is the civil society? Where is the struggle by workers to protect themselves from exploitation? Where is the healthcare for those with mental health needs? And that is by no means an exhaustive list! Where? Absent! Why absent? Because this is Japan! And herein lies a terrible truth; the Japanese have willingly accepted social deprivation cloaked in the lie that to accept these things would erode some sense of Japaneseness.

  • I think the author would have done better to interview lay people that do not have a “face” to protect. Did they really think Keene, Kahl, or Pakkun would say anything off the beaten path?

    I was happy to learn about Donald Richie for the first time! I was really impressed with his experience, thoughts, and writing. I went on to read some of his stuff on the Internet – articulate, insightful, and brutally honest!! I found myself ageeing with his (paraphasing) “the stages you go through after coming to Japan are like the three stages of an ordinary marriage: first europhia, then disappointment, lastly indifference.” As for his autism comparison, clearly bad analogy but nobody’s perfect. I agree with DK’s awesome post (#23) that you have to swallow him whole.

    I also liked DeBourca’s post (#25). I agree that the best way to enjoy Japan is to be “in it but not of it.” Enjoy what you like about it but don’t expect anything from it nor commit yourself to it in anyway. Now having said that, as DeBourca points out, not everyone has the luxury to enjoy Japan on their own terms. It’s easy for a guy like Richie, a single, independent, famous artist to do so. But not so easy for the anonymous NJ who is married, trying to hold down a stable job, and is looking to be treated as an equal. Ultimately it’s those people that Debito and others are fighting for.

    Other great posts: Bitter Valley (#26), Markus (#29), Jim Di Griz (#30), Mike (#33), Bitter Valley (#38).

    I have also found that Japan is the only country I know where education levels are NOT a benchmark for open-mindedness. I remember on a TV program a while back young Russian girls in Moscow were being interviewed about why they wanted to marry Japanese men. One said “I hear they are highly educated!” I remember thinking, “Oh, the poor girl associates ‘educated’ with ‘cosmopolitan’ and therefore assumes that Japan, where education levels are high, must be filled with open-minded cosmpolitan men!” Hope she didn’t have to learn the hard way…

    I also agree that the “othering” that goes on in this country is one of a kind. I can take idiotic racist comments. But the “othering” that goes on here is so subtle, making it difficult to counteract! Of course the majority of Japanese are kind and considerate, but almost every group has one guy (yes, usually male) that takes it as his role to “other” you. “We Japanese” act this way, and I know as a fact since I saw it on TV that “you” gaijin act that way. Usually they don’t make eye contact with you. And they’re not interested in having a one-on-one conservation with you – you’re simply a tool for them to build themselves up in front of their fellow Japanese. Aarrggh!

  • Whether martial arts, tea ceremony, etc. were cut from whole cloth during the Meiji era or merely embellished and packaged for their role in an emerging national consciousness, perhaps what we need to question is the assumption that it is appropriate to take pride in such things to begin with. Even if a minority of tea masters had secretly been perfecting what would lead to the modern art of tea ceremony since the Yayoi period, what would this mean to the descendants of the 99.99% of people who weren’t tea masters? Even if everyone had been somehow involved in the tea ceremony 200 years ago, would it be appropriate for their descendants to claim that this says something positive about them?

    The same goes for cowboy culture in the US and whatever it is Brits are proud of.


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