Giving Japan a Break

I think that I give the impression of being overly critical of Japan.  When visitors to a foreign country first arrive, they filter everything through a veil of novelty.  After more than a few years, however, what was once ‘quaint’ seems backwards or reactionary.  Quirky idiosyncracies evolve into one of two beasts: constant irritations or baffling mysteries, both of which serve to remind the expatriate that they are not-of-this-place.

After returning from Korea, I wrote about my first impressions (interpolation based on a few scattered cutural data points) and qualified them as a type of generalization.  I think that informal impressions are as valuable as academic discourses about a country or culture; each form illuminates a subject in a different way, but both forms reflect the personality and prejudice of their authors.

There is a third type of generalization that applies specifically to my critiques on Japan.  It is the generaliation born of an outsider’s long-term observations.  When you are part of a culture, you live inside its walls.  You are fully enclosed.  Changes to your reality come from within this enclosure because you have no other tools or materials from which you can work.  The walls of these cultural wombs are one-way transparencies, however, and semi-permeable ones at that.  An outsider can see everything that is going on within, and is seen in return as a foreigner to the natices.  Tourist’s rarely attempt to step inside this bubble; they can rarely find an opening.  I doubt that any such openings exist.  Even if I were to live in Japan or Canada or Europe for the rest of my life, I would still feel slightly out of place, alien.

Live as an outsider for long enough, however, and you will find  that you can approach this enclosure, even press against it or move around inside it, but you will find that there is a limit to how thin that membrane can really stretch.

A cultural condom.

An outsider is in an advantageous position.  They are afforded an arial view of the workings within that an insider may never achieve.  They have another dimension of perspective which they can apply to the inner workings of a culture.  Whereas an insider might be blinded by infinite variation, the outsider paints his observations with a broader brush (for better or worse).  Natives work with the resources they have within the bubble of their collective context, but an outsider has a whole other set of tools and schemas.  Trouble arises when the outsider tries to mend with his particular toobox what he sees as a weakness in another culture.

This year marks an idealogical threshold for me.  As of December 31, 2006, I will no longer have spent the majority of my recallable life in any one country: 11 years in the USA, 3 years in Canada, and 8 years in Japan/Taiwan (since age 6).

I feel the effects of this personal milestone already.  When I travel in the USA, I feel very similar to the way I feel travelling in any other foreign country.  I have the advantage of mastery of the language, but I have to make as concious an effort at adapting to the local customs and attitudes as I do in any other country.

There are different standards of dress, of decorum, of conversation, of discourse. There are a whole new set of ideaologies, mythologies, and assumptions.  It is a whole world view, and one that is as backwards and strange as any other country’s.

My point is that I am not overly critical of Japan; I am just as critical of Japan as I should be.  I am as critical of Canada and the United States; I just haven’t had the occation to write about such criticisms here.  I admit that my descriptions of Japan have been a little bit negative and general; I will be fixing that balance in my last six weeks here by focusing on those aspects of modern Japan that still make me happy to live here after all these years.  I also want to write about my exceptional Japanese friends who have helped me understand more of what it means to be Japanese and where I fit into this often counterintuitive society.  They are the kind of people that make me happy to be proved wrong time and time again.

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