Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 67 Sept 10 2013 “If you’re jozu and you know it, hold your ground”


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JBC 67 for the Japan Times Community Page, September 10, 2013
By ARUDOU Debito
Courtesy http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/09/09/issues/if-youre-jzu-and-you-know-it-hold-your-ground

It’s been a long, hot summer, so time for a lighter topic for JBC:

A non-Japanese (NJ) friend in Tokyo recently had an interesting experience while out drinking with coworkers. (For the record – and I only say this because how you look profoundly affects how you are treated in Japan – he is a youngish Caucasian-looking male.)

His Japanese literacy is high (which is why he was hired in the first place), but his speaking ability, thanks to watching anime in America from childhood, is even higher — so high, in fact, that his colleagues asked him whether he is part-Japanese!

That kinda harshed his buzz. He wondered how he should respond. Should he abide by Japanese manners and deferentially deny his jouzu-ness? Or accept the praise with a “thank you” and a smile?

I commented that he should not only say thank you and accept the accolades, but also claim the part-Japaneseness. Yes, lie about it.

Why? Because this simple-looking interaction involves several issues, such as social hierarchy, bad science and privacy. And if not handled well, this episode could end up eroding his standing within this group

First, hierarchy: Long-time readers of this column are by now aware that I see most social interactions in terms of power relationships.

Especially in Japan, where just about everything from politeness levels to porn is a matter of power. There is almost always some element of social stratification, e.g., by age, gender, educational level, kohai/senpai status etc. involved.

One’s social standing naturally affects expectations of how people should behave, and what manners one should adopt. But manners get really screwy if NJ are involved.

For example, consider the expectations behind international communication strategies. It’s pretty much axiomatic that NJ who don’t “look Japanese” can’t possibly speak Japanese. NJ must speak and be spoken to English!

Which means that if somebody has the courage to address an NJ (overcoming the group psychosis of English instruction in Japan; see “Don’t blame JET for Japan’s bad English,” JBC Sept. 8, 2010), he will often take it as a personal affront if the NJ defies expectations by clicking into Japanese.

Even if no umbrage is taken, the Japanese-speaking NJ is still treated as deviant. You see that in frequent microaggressive behavior like “hen na gaijin” snipes, or the occasional public figure candidly wishing that “gaijin” weren’t fluent (see “Newscaster regrets anti-foreigner quip”, Asahi Shinbun, Dec. 21, 2006).

That’s one issue. The second is the bad science. Do people seriously believe that having Japanese ancestry makes you better at Japanese?

Actually, many do. But that’s quite unscientific. Admittedly, growing up where people are speaking Japanese around you is helpful for learning what I call “Kitchen Japanese,” i.e., unaccented speech but limited literacy. However, not all people with Japanese blood grow up in a Japanese-language environment, so the connection remains tenuous.

In any case, bloodline doesn’t account for my NJ friend’s Japanese literacy, which rarely happens without structured and disciplined study. He accomplished it, hence the compliments. But the praise is still entangled within a “blood = ability” narrative.

Fact is, Japanese language is a skill, which means it can be learned by anyone able to learn a foreign language, regardless of bloodline or background.

Which leads us to the third issue: privacy. What business was it of my friend’s co-workers to ask about his background?

That’s why he should feel free to lie about it. After all, everyone else in Japan lies about things that are nobody’s business.

Consider the single young lady with the ring on her finger. Ask her where she got it and she’ll probably say she bought it for herself. Even if her kareshi gave it to her last night at the love hotel. Why? Because personal matters are kept private.

Lying is nothing controversial. I’ve talked before about how not telling the truth is a standard practice of adult life in Japan (see “The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit,” JBC Nov. 1, 2011).

But in this case, lying might actually do some good. By confounding expectations.

Confounding expectations erodes stereotypes. And an excellent way to do this (as comedians and satirists throughout the ages have done) is by poking fun through absurdity.

Naturally, there will be some resistance. Critics of this column essentially believe that Japanese society can never be satirized, i.e., using humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to criticize societal stupidity and folly. That’s what this column has done for years, engendering howls of “cultural insensitivity” etc.

They’re missing the point of irony and satire within social commentary. Since Japanese humor doesn’t have much sarcasm, avenues are limited for pointing out foibles. Fortunately, you can still be absurd and get your point across.

Let’s play this out. Consider what would happen if my visibly-Caucasian friend were to (falsely) claim Japanese lineage in this setting.

The dogmatists will be pleased to have their expectations confirmed – quite possibly bloodline is the only explanation they’ll accept.
The critical thinkers may pause and say to themselves, “Hang on, really?” And maybe, just maybe, a few will realize that the question is patently absurd, and that blood is irrelevant to learning skills.

But what if my friend instead went the route of humility and showed deferential manners? He’d lose. Because, again, Japanese manners are not applied equally to NJ.

For example, even if a Japanese says, either as a response or a disclaimer, “My language ability is no good,” it is usually taken as pro forma humility. People pretty much know “he’s just saying that” and don’t take it all that literally.

However, if a NJ does it, it reaffirms the narrative and expectation that NJ don’t speak Japanese.

But there are knock-on effects for NJ, especially if they have acted deferentially to their juniors: They’ve cut themselves off at the knees and taken themselves down a rung on the social hierarchy.

Never do that. As I’ve written before (“Toot your own horn – don’t let the modesty scam keep you down,” ZG Sept. 2, 2012), once you drop down a peg, the group is probably not going to give it back. Hierarchy is not only something you earn. It’s something you claim.

After all, most native speakers of Japanese cannot appreciate what non-natives have gone through to reach fluency. As I’ve said before, communicating in Japanese is not all that difficult. What’s difficult is communicating with Japanese people.

You have to get over the Catch-22: People not speaking to you in Japanese because it’s not good enough, yet it’s not getting good enough because people won’t speak to you in Japanese. All the power relations and ingrained prejudices accompanying just about every social interaction work both as a barrier and a subordinator for NJ.

So when complimented, say thank you. You’ve earned it, so own it. And if they ask you to play to their expectations, only do so in a way that is to your advantage. Because it’s only going to get more difficult as you get older, and all the young pups who have trouble accepting NJ as senpai will happily enforce stereotypes, and police you back into the Dumb Gaijin category. Then you will languish as a permanent subordinate, unrecognized for your herculean efforts.

Defy disempowering expectations, or ultimately it will be your expectations – of equal and respected treatment in Japan after all your investments and sacrifices – that are defeated.

17 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 67 Sept 10 2013 “If you’re jozu and you know it, hold your ground”

  • I would suggest the opposite.

    Firstly never play “to their hand”. Secondly, if the NJ is complimented on such fluency, s/he should remark “why it is easy, it is just another language” (as you have also pointed out). Which then leaves the questioner 1) dumbfounded and then 2) To resort to the usual deflection of “cultural manners” etc. The s/he would say oh…you mean learning the language is not enough to communicate and get on in society…..of course comes the reply. To which s/he retorts, ahh, you mean it is a cultural thing, not a language thing…yes comes the reply. So the NJ then says…so, why do Japanese not reciprocate when outside their own country and conform to the social manners of the country they are in then? When in the US or UK or EU…we answer questions and answer them directly in black and white, yes no, binary format, we do not deviate or refrain from any attempt at answering as that is considered very poor manners in our cultural manners frame work of society. And wait for the reply…now being boxed in by their own myopic expectations of others being turned on them…the silence shall be deafening.

    I always feel one must stand up against such stereotyping and ignorance. Expose it for what it is, using satire, as you also note. The more this occurs the more it raises awareness and may be even raises debate. Just playing to their hand, brushes it under the carpet and the J will breath a sight of relief. Japanese lie endless and continuously….fine let them. If lying is considered cultural unacceptable in our society, how morally satisfied would one feel doing so else where, just because of a different geographical location? Breaking a Law written down by society is one thing…and all must comply, whether a good or bad Law, it is the Law of the land. But to comply with an unwritten society norm that screams at ones moral fibre is totally wrong simply to “blend in”…I would say what morals does one have to begin with then? If ones life does not depending upon living and dying, by a gun etc..lying is never acceptable to conform, that is the cowards way out…and plays to their hand. Stick to your principals and expose the lying, which of course is generally ignored. But the more exposure of such blatant rubbish that can be shown and picked up by other NJ’s starts to create the seeds of doubt and expose their own discrimination; like M.Woodford of Olympus. Look at the French magazine who printed the cartoon yesterday…have they decided to lie to appease others, or have they remained true to their principals? Which has gotten the greater publicity?

    Lying is lying….do Japanese suddenly stop lying when outside their own country..of course not!

  • … lie? I’m sorry, but while I find opposing stereotypes and mixing things up a bit in regards to expectations and power relationships, I’m not going to become something I am not, a liar. Once you are known as someone who isn’t telling the truth, that sticks in any nation.

  • @ Gman #2

    Why worry about being thought of as a liar? You should know by now that NJ are automatically ‘criminals’, which is by far much worse, don’t you think? Give them your thumb prints at the airport and shrug your shoulders?

  • By all means be confident in being able to speak good Japanese ,but speak it with a polemical (dare I say Western) attitude .Question ,seek valid responses ,debate .You will be like a fa*t in a spacesuit but that’s OK …. after all , you don’t have an insular mindset .

  • Jim #3

    So, when you leave Japan and head back “home” (as you stated in here previously you shall be doing soon), you have no objection to your colleagues at work and your friends thinking of you as a perpetual lair?

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I like the illustration above the article headline. It’s so hilarious!

    We need to hold our horse(s) to get off our high horse! No?

  • Good advice to lie in Japan, “uso mo houben” after all! I personally am one third Japanese, due to the time I have spent in Japan. When it suits me. Just so everything goes along as expected, the evidence of the eyes are backed up with verbal confirmation, even if a lie.

    “A life that holds no surprises” (Max Weber) – that is rationalization and that is the preferred life in Japan. Think how abnormally “surprised”or even “shocked” Japanese are if you suddenly ask a stranger a question, like startling a timid rabbit, or you don’t confirm to the way you, the NJ look like. BIKKURI SHITA!!!! Debito’s daughter looks foreign, so she cannot be Japanese.

    Japan is a great opportunity to re-invent oneself constantly, both for Japanese and NJs. Its the ultimate postmodern “relationship between images” as Guy Debord would no doubt confirm.
    Thus daily we see interactions between “gyaru” and “surfer”. All is predictable, all is as it should be.

    “Whats he like?” “He is sportsman/Surfer/DJ”” (this answer should be an automatic fail in any English class, but its a sign of the postmodern times). This means he is a bit hunky/he has a tan (Oka Surfer) or wears a baseball cap. For DJ mode, simply reverse the cap!

    “Good girl”Sakai Noriko and her “Self professed surfer” (quote from media) husband come to mind here. They are treated according to the images they project.

    Ah yes, creation of an identity through clothes/possessions. Commodity fetishism to its ultimate conclusion. One is expected to dress the part.

    Japan is a country where completely fictional name cards are not only acceptable, but desirable.Without some kind of material or visual representation, how are people able to judge you and your rank in society?

    Me: This “Creamy sports corporation” on the top of your card, is this your side business run from home?
    Housewife: (after much obfuscation) No, it just makes my card look good!
    Me: so there is no company…
    her: …..

    Ah, Japan’s Theater of the Absurd. It makes actors of us all.

  • If a group decides something, it must no doubt be true- they have decided you are part Japanese due to your language ability. Your acting role is of course to concur, to flatter, to say “yes, you are right” to go along with the flow of the group.

    In my previous comment, I was referring to Debito’s Onsen case and how racial stereotyping dovetails with “Relationship of Images”. Debito’s daughter who looks Japanese can come in, as no doubt she “acts” Japanese as well as to the correct use of soap in an onsen.

    The Onsen owner perceives himself as an arbiter of who is worthy to enter the traditional Japanese bath house, he perceives himself as having this right in the hierarchy, which is quite rude as it seems in this case looking an NJ in a traditional Onsen trumps “Okyaku san wa kami sama”.

    What was that IMAGE about Japan having great service again?

    “Fukushima is under control (so give us the Olympics)” – now that is the ultimate “Uso mo houben” from Abe. Shame this one is rapidly falling apart, with even Tepco saying that is not true.

    Shame. Shame on Abe.

  • @ Gman “I’m not going to become something I am not”

    Then how are you going to ever survive in Tokyo or any place in Japan, for that matter?

  • How I am viewed is one thing, the actions I choose to take is another. Your actions define who you are, and no matter the way you might be viewed through racist eyes, you have control who you choose to become.

    Lie and deceive? No thanks. I’ll take John K.’s advice or similar.

    — Lying and deceiving in certain situations, as argued in this column, is also part of controlling who you choose to become. As it is for the rest of the Japanese adults around you who know full well that this is an essential part of life in Japan.

  • “.. As it is for the rest of the Japanese adults around you who know full well that this is an essential part of life in Japan….”


    However, rather than lie without blinking a moral fibre of “should I”, as the Japanese do, I simply elect not to tell the whole truth. I don’t lie, never have (why start now??), I just don’t tell them everything, I’m selective with the truth. In situations where i must of course or have little choice. Since in general, I tell Japanese exactly what I think…since why ask me a question if they know the answer or want and expected reply? I don’t conform, never have, it is not illegal to be a non-conformist.

    It polarises me to the Japanese, which doesn’t bother me one bit. It is who I am, not what they wish me to be.

    Has this created problem..of course. Notably after being asked to teach/assistance in English (I’m not an English teacher BTW). I tell them where they are wrong and why…slowly over time I get asked less and less. Bothers me not. But those I know who must teach and the way they are told to teach, they hate it, and having to conform and lie simply to survive.

    I value my morals and sanity….what about you?

  • @ Gman #10

    You sound like Batman; “it’s what I do that defines me”!

    Get real. As Debito has pointed out, lying has been formalized into Japanese culture- what do you think honne/tatemae is? Or did you buy into the idea that it’s one of these unique Japsnese concepts that is beyond the grasp of the western mind? The rationalization of the cultural uniqueness of honne/tatemae is just a lie to rationalize lying! If any one buys into that, then they have hit the lowest low already; lying to themselves.
    You should watch some Slavoj Zizek; “I don’t believe in it, but I was told it works even if you don’t believe”.
    Japanese honne/tatemae lie culture is one of the structures of bullying that this vertical society uses to oppress the people; can’t admit you are being bullied and demand some action, you have to hide the truth and save face, especially in front of the NJ. After all, what do you think Abe was doing at the IOC? Telling them the truth? Can’t speak out against him though, you’ll be letting the side down, and you’ll get bullied for being a traitor! Don’t you see? This culture of oppression facilitated by lies is extended to you automatically. Being ‘honest’ does not make you immune, and suffering bullying all day only to be able to look at yourself in the mirror when you come home, and say to yourself ‘at least I’ve still got my honesty’. Who cares? You’re being bullied and oppressed, prioritize your dignity.

  • Baudrillard says:

    “since why ask me a question if they know the answer or want and expected reply?” Gman says.

    Actually, this is EXACTLY what and why Japanese often ask questions- to get the expected reply. All is well, they checked.

    Ever overheard a conversation in Japan between 2 Japanese and noticed how often they say “So desu ne”and so rarely “Chigaou yo””? I am also mystifed by the number of conversations between Japanese about “what We Japanese do and would do”.This is all about CONFIRMING information.

    I have often said that Japanese language is in fact the art of Obfuscation, not Communication.And the resultant language learning issues that result. If you are or were a teacher, think of the hundreds of reticent students you have taught, how rare and pleasant a surprise it was when you met one who was actually outgoing. Think back to how that lesson called “Stating your opinion” or “agreeing and disagreeing” was like pulling teeth and stilted at best.

    Similarly, Japanese meetings are not usually for decision making, the decision was reached in private one on one discussions behind closed doors months ago and the boss is just announcing it and often taking the credit for it. This happens in China/Taiwan/HK too, and is very infuriating for the westerner (me) who was 1. not involved in the decision making and 2. realizes the folly of whatever crackpot idea they ve come up with and 3. expect me to implement.

    But hey, boss looks good and everyone’s face is saved. Except mine, but I dont matter. I didnt go to that late night Chinese noodle restaurant where the decision was made.

    Similarly, note the Japanese sales penchant for not getting to the point, but instead just presenting endless information about the venerable history of their company. This is because
    1. they think this is nicer for the customer, who can choose to take what he wants from the info
    2. they are gutless and dont want to point out weaknesses/needs of potential clients
    3. They are trying to build trust and obligation slowly

    This is all to CONFIRM information, not to find out new stuff or to directly challenge. This happens in other societies too on a much more limited basis, I recently posted about how when things dont follow the expected narrative about, eg.Japan, westerners may not be too happy.

    Especially if they had been sold on an particular illusion.

    “I don’t conform, never have, it is not illegal to be a non-conformist.”

    Yet. But they re working on making that illegal, with the constitutional changes about loving the country. Already the force teachers to sing the national anthem, tho I suppose one could mime.

    But we do not need to think in nasty Orwellian terms which would be to punish your INCORRECT behavior. Rather, Japan is a postmodern society much like in Huxley’s “Brave New World” where CORRECT (conformist) behavior is rewarded.Shut up and Consume, and the Dreamy Day is yours.

    However, as an NJ you might be let off as the “funny gaijin” so long as you stay the perpetual outsider, forever in the “genkan”of corporate decision making, or in a specialist/IT role and planning to leave Japan in 3 years when the expat deal expires.

    Even so, when I was in Japan there was pressure on me to conform the gaijin stereotypes and it was very very hard to just be me and relax. Usually I would let me guard down a bit too much after Xmas holidays back home, then come back and act abit too outspoken for Japan, and someone would get offended and complain. Especially in teaching early on, they very clearly wanted a super genki gaijin clown who was happy go lucky, who ate meat and was tall, muscular, etc and looked/dressed a certain way.

    There was even a sub trend up to the late 80s of doubting any NJ who didnt have blonde hair or blue eyes was a “true” westerner. One middle aged American Jewish professor I knew, a bit swarthy, said he felt people were looking at him as if he was a terrorist and so he was thinking of dyeing his hair blonde! This was about 10 years ago.

    Ditto the Iranians who pass themselves off as Rumanians or Italians; they are trying to reinvent themselves and survive-thru lying- in order to conform to the expectations of Japanese society, which rewards correct, conformist behavior.

    A society where stereotypes are nurtured and cherished. Uso mo houben yo.

  • Dice Carver says:

    I don’t agree with Debito’s conclusion about accepting the praise of your Japanese ability. If you do this, you are violating the cultural norm of humility that most Japanese accept. This suggests to your listeners that you are not culturally literate and reinforces the stereotype that you are an outsider who does not (and can never) adequately grasp the culture. Following customs in your speech-acts is as much an important part of sounding natural when communicating in a particular language as grammar, word-usage and so on. Defying cultural norms only makes it sound like you have not mastered the Japanese language (and culture), and you’re right back where you started.

    In short, what I’m saying is, there’s no way to turn the praise to your advantage. However you respond to it, you are marginalized and alienated. Japanese culture is always lose-lose for you.

    — So play along even though you lose either way?

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ Dice Carver. What is “Japanese culture?” Is it forever fixed in stone? Could you, the immigrant, not change it a little bit, just as e.g. immigrants in Britain over the last 2000 years or so have, ever so slightly and for the better, changed it?

    Is there no Japanese person who is fluent in Japanese, a native speaker, who dislikes tatemae, fake flattery and other arguable cultural control mechanisms of pre-Meiji era/Imperial Japan?

    Must everyone act a role from one of the same, narrow few stereotypes? Is Japan really the Theater of the Absurd that I keep saying it is? E.g. The overbearing Ojisan, The kawaii but dizzy/dumb Gyaru, The demure OL? Ah yes, everything as it should be in a perfectly ordered society. The endless sumimasens, the enforced humbleness and false modesty, the unwillingness to speak out?

    Is this what you mean by “Understanding Japanese Culture?”

    I hope I am wrong on this point. Let a thousand individualist Japanese cultures and sub-cultures bloom….

  • “Get real. As Debito has pointed out, lying has been formalized into Japanese culture- what do you think honne/tatemae is”

    Lying isnt so much a part of Japanese culture, its manipulation. Some call it “grey” but its just manipulation


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