Japan: Living Journal Life In Musings

Big Bother Goes Digital

Sluice hatch
Sluice hatch along the Noh River near my home

Oh great, this news (via On Gaien Higashi Dori) just drove another nail into my emotional casket over whether to leave Japan. After dealing with discrimination almost daily, especially with such things in just this last week as muttered comments between two high school girls on the train about my looking like a terrorist (because I am olive-skinned and look Middle Eastern to those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern traits… always a strange and blind prejudice, considering the disproportionate number of terrorists hailing from Japan), or my newly-moved-in-next-door-neighbor closing the curtains and window to her apartment every time I walk to my front door, or a group of young men in a coffee shop blowing smoke in my face and when I asked them to please stop they, assuming that I can’t speak Japanese, even though I just spoke to them in perfect Japanese, sneered and, in insolent and insulting language told me to my face, “Go back to your stupid little country and play with the dogs like you did before you came here. You’re stinking up my space.”, now learning that very likely I will start to be required by the Japanese government to carry some sort of tracking device so that my potential terrorist activities are constantly monitored, well, the rising of the outrage meter is ticking awfully close to the red zone.

Just hope something can be done to stop this. Of course, the Japanese themselves will, as usual, not be required to participate in the whole thing.

Nothing like xenophobia and paranoia to spice up a perfectly splendid morning, eh?

21 replies on “Big Bother Goes Digital”

No, it’s not really. To a lot of Japanese, you and I “just wouldn’t understand, because we are not Japanese“. When I first moved into my apartment and I had to argue with my neighbors who constantly stopped in front of my bedroom window at five in the morning to have loud conversations, I asked them why they couldn’t honor my request to either be quiet or move somewhere else to talk, they replied, “You don’t understand Japanese culture, because you’re a foreigner.”

“What does being a foreigner have to do with waking me up at five in the morning?”

“Foreigners are lazy and wake up too late. Japanese always get up early and start the day while it is still fresh.”

I didn’t reply to this, just peering around me at all the silent apartment windows with not a single other person up yet.

“Besides, foreigners are scary,” said the matron of the apartment next door.

“Scary?” I echoed. I rather fancy myself as having a gentle voice, except when I get angry, and not a few people have flattered me with comments about my soft brown eyes and long eyelashes.

“You never know which one of you will steal something or turn out to be a terrorist.”

“I’ve never stolen anything in my life!” I protested. I didn’t bother to comment on being a terrorist.

“You never know,” the woman continued. Before the conversation could continue and without apologizing for waking me up so early, she trundled off to her apartment.


I dunno. I still find it crazy, in the sense that these people clearly have an underdeveloped sense of empathy. Just because it’s cultural doesn’t make it less solipsistic. Now, if they were able to simultaneously talk about the stereotype and distinguish your individual example from the whole, I wouldn’t react this way, though I’d still disapprove. It’s this sense that the stereotype IS reality, no matter that evidence to the contrary is standing right in front of their faces.

For what it’s worth, I find such attitudes appalling in this country, too.


(I will add that these incidents you describe go a long way in explaining why my brother probably decided not to marry the Japanese mother of his son, despite his sorrow at their being apart, given that such a marriage would be based on the assumption that he would come live with the family for as long as the marriage lasted.)


Rana, *grin*, I was being facetious… sorry. It is crazy! In this day and age, with Japanese as well-informed as they are, they should know better, but in many ways they are like privileged kids who have been locked away in their room for too long; they think all the world revolves around them and no one else truly exists or matters all that much. (though I can’t say Americans are much better in this regard).

The marriage thing… sadly that happens often with marriages to Asians, though it is strange that your brother would have been expected to live with his wife. In Japan it is traditionally (though this is changing a lot these days. I know few young Japanese who would now tolerate being subjected to living with their families after marriage) the woman who goes to live with the husband’s family.

Japanese are empathetic, just as long as the trouble doesn’t affect them personally and they don’T have to take responsibility and actually do something about it. They even do it among themselves, restricting themselves to the code of “meiwaku” or “consideration for others”, which requires that they sit idly by and tolerate what goes on around them without acting. In some ways this is a good thing, in that it ensures that people get along peaceably amidst the vagaries of human behavior, but in another way it is a bad thing, in that often injustices are simply ignored. I still can’t get used to sitting on a hot train in the summer after the air conditioning has broken down and no one gets up to open a window, because they feel they would be impinging on other people’s privacy and inconveniencing them by assuming too much. All the while half the people around will be wiping down their faces streaming with sweat. Stoic, but nuts!


Well, my nephew’s mother belongs to a pretty close-knit, traditional Okinawan family; the family’s pretty important in the local community, and everyone just assumed that my brother would happily go along, work for the family business, move into the family compound, etc. No one ever asked him, not even his girlfriend, and then it just all came out one day around the time he was looking to switch to a new job in another country; they broke up, he moved on. About a year later, he learned that she’d given birth to a son. The family still wants him to be a part of his son’s life — the mother even went so far as to give birth in the US so the baby could be a dual citizen — but they simply can’t imagine a scenario in which she or the child leaves Okinawa for any significant length of time, let alone for life. (Of course, my brother bears some blame for the situation, too, in that he didn’t think through the issues of a trans-national relationship, but it does seem like they were operating on a lot of hidden, unspoken assumptions that he never knew about at the time.) It’s all kinds of awkward for both families, which is sad, because my nephew is an adorable child caught in the middle of it all.

I find the “inconveniencing” thing a bit odd; it sounds, from the examples you give, that it only applies to Japanese relative to other Japanese. Inconviencing foreigners seems to elicit no such qualms.


Laughing Knees may consider moving to a more rural setting in Japan. I lived in Hokuriku (mostly Fukui) for ten years or so, and I never encountered any sort of hostility in regards to being a foreigner. Sure, I turned a lot of heads, and sure, I got plenty annoyed, but nobody ever called me a terrorist, and I spoke to the police on only two occassions the whole time – once, when I got stopped for “speeding” (a long story) and another time when when we experienced a breakin at our house.

Sure, I didn’t always appreciate being singled out as being a foreigner, but there are a lot more nice people in the world than there are idiots; it’s just that we tend to remember the idiots.

High school girls and boys can be pretty obnoxious…

The identity-chip thing is pretty humiliating, but other countries, notably Canada, are doing the same thing. However, in Canada landed immigrants don’t have to carry identification at all times. As well, the Canadian government is using the identity chip as a not-so-gentle way to persuade landed immigrants (i.e. long-term residents) to adopt Canadian citizenship.

Alas, in Japan it seems the government is using the identity chip as a not-so-gentle way to remind foreigners they don’t belong in the country!

Finally, I wonder how we can classify people from different countries as being “empathetic” or whatever. I currently live in Canada, and I don’t see people here as being more empathetic than Japanese people. If anything, people are more aggressive and volatile, and I would think long and hard about how I would ask a neighbour to be more quiet, etc.

There are nasty people everywhere, and one thing nasty people tend to do is find a weakness, such as one’s foreigness, and exploit it. And one thing I’ve learned from a career as a junior high school teacher is to pick the battles you can actually win, and let the others alone.


Rana, I’m sorry about your nephew. Not only did I grow up caught between cultures (Germany, America, and Japan), also a lot of the people I went to school with went through the same thing. It can really mess up a child’s sense of identity, as happened to a lot of my high school friends, and perhaps me and my brother, too. I’m afraid I know little about Okinawa and how families are there, so I have no background or right to comment on what happened with your brother and his girlfriend. It’s very unusual these days, though, for families to be so caught up in traditional family roles, except perhaps for the rural areas. For the most part, Japan is a very modern country with a very modern outlook, so the story of your brother is not one that I hear too often from Japan. I do hear it a lot from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malayasia, and Singapore, especially when Chinese are involved.

Rodrigo, welcome! You suggest that I come home. I’d love to if I could. Unfortunately it’s not that easy. You see, I grew up in Japan (and also the States and Germany). In more ways than not it is my home. A lot of my thinking (though few Japanese would truly acknowledge it) is Japanese. Almost all of my friends when I was younger were Japanese.

The problem with Japan is not that there aren’t a lot of really nice people, but that people here live under the concept of “nakama“, or “inner circle”. It has a similar feeling to “clan” or “clique”, but without the negative connotations. Basically you start relating to certain groups of people from when you are very young and cultivate the relationships throughout your life. Most Japanese make only a certain few friends and colleagues and relate almost exclusively to them. They will usually go out of their way to take care of the others in this circle and pretty much ignore people outside the circle. The circles come in layers, too, from the very personal circle of family members and close friends, to school mates (which tends to be lifelong), to company mates, then the neighborhood, the town, and finally the country (which nowadays is pretty much dormant among most Japanese, who tend to look askance at anything smacking of politics). When you’re on the trains you can see nakama at work, as people in a group will watch out for one another, be polite and friendly, but as soon as they are alone suddenly a lot of this friendliness disappears, often to the point of outright rudeness. When you watch any Japanese animation you can see the nakama concept taken to stereotypical extremes; whereas in American hero movies and animation the hero nearly always conquers the odds alone, in Japanese animation you will nearly always see five archetype characters: the intelligent and gawky boy with the glasses; the beautiful, sympathetic, and motherlike girl who is in love with the main hero; the main hero who is usually thin and very handsome, strong, not the strongest, but with great leadership abilities; the main leader’s best friend who is also thin and good-looking, but tends to be quiet and prefers to be alone; and finally the huge, not-so-intelligent, often loud and obnoxious, and physically very strong, third best friend. I bring this up because I think it expresses how Japanese see groups and individuals. I strongly believe that Japanese only think in terms of groups on the nakama level, but tend to tolerate, within the circle, individual variation and quirks and weaknesses much more readily than, let’s say, Americans do. Japanese don’t believe in heroes (and neither do I), preferring to approach problems with the joint minds and abilities of flawed individuals in a bigger group.

KokuRyu, thanks for a very thoughtful response. You are right, there are nasty people and governments everywhere, but most people in the world are good people and good to talk to. You just have to give them a chance. Sometimes all it takes is a smile on my part, to relieve their tension of meeting a foreigner. Yesterday, after posting my first reply and went to work, I fretted over the fairness and prejudice of my last words. Japan has caused a lot of trouble for me and others that I know, even in the countryside, so I’m a bit perplexed when you say that you’ve had nearly no negative experiences. For the most part, though, it has been good living here and I have to be honest and say that aside from rudeness, there’s been little of anything frieghtening. In almost no incident have I ever felt I was in danger from anyone (except once). I’ve been all over the country, including the area that you lived in, Hokuriku (Fukui, Ishikawa, Toyama, Shiga, Nagano, west Niigata), and it is those places that keep calling me to stay, especially the mountains, which are truly sublime. And you are right, I need to move out of the city and get back to the country, where I might just find the balance I’m looking for. I’ve been thinking hard about Nagano, Fukushima, and Yamagata. I also like Toyama and Hokkaido a lot. i do tend to find life as a foreigner in the countryside here in Japan pretty lonely, though. I am still a foreigner, after all.

I’m surprised about Canada. Really? IC chips, too? I had no idea. I always thought of Canada as being one of the most tolerant societies in the world. It always seemed that way every time I have traveled there. Guess I have a lot to learn and experience.


I’m not saying people are terribly sohisticated in inaka, and there is that thing that happens when people just don’t believe you can speak Japanese, but it’s just a minor irritation.

Okay, okay, negative experiences: anything to do with city hall. The petty bureaucrats who worked at the city hall in the town I lived in were generally unpleasant to deal with, and not just for renewing my alien registration card.

And a certain branch of the local bank used to drive me nuts.

But what do you want? For everyone to be nice to you all the time? It ain’t gonna happen.

However, even though you can’t control the colour of you skin, it does help to master Japanese and learn to use language and colloquialisms appropriate to the context of the situation, and, most importantly, body language.

People just aren’t used to what they consider kooky body language or kooky behaviour so they tend to not take you seriously. Once I mastered that stuff, I experienced fewer snags.

I also learned not to vent at people when I was annoyed – they just laugh at you.


Oh, yeah, I’ve also learned that I prefer Hokuriku to anywhere else in the world. It sounds strange, but Fukui is really home to me now, and I hope to return soon. If anybody has any translating work they need to contract out…


May I ask what it was about Hokuriku that you love so much? For me, since I am a mountain walker, the area has some of the best mountain walking I’ve ever done. I also find the people quite a lot friendlier than in Tokyo. And the food is great. I’ve been thinking about Nagano because the whole prefecture seems quite a lot more dedicated to environmentalism than the rest of the country, due to the governor. And it’s near enough to Tokyo that I can easily make the city trips for shopping and theatres and bookstores when I need that.

I hear you about venting your anger here… people just rarely do that in public (though company employees getting shouted at by their managers and bosses would beg to differ), no matter how pissed off they are. It’s probably one reason why you see so few Japanese commenters in the American oriented blogs, where criticism and letting off steam is almost par for the course. People consider you pretty immature if you are prone to too much opinion-letting. And when you do throw a tantrum (which most Americans would consider just stating an opinion) they inevitably stay silent as they listen to you and then laugh quietly. There is a lot of wisdom in such dignity.

How about you? What makes you love Hokuriku so much?


Hokuriku is just a pleasant place to be. The food is good, and there’s plenty of hiking – three mountains were just fifteen minutes’ drive from my house. Hakusan was about two hours away.

The downside to Hokuriku is that there isn’t a lot of work in the region for foreigners, and most long-term residents opt to be self-employed.

And, Japanese or non-Japanese, if you’re in your twenties, inaka isn’t particularly stimulating.


It seems you’ve been unhappy there at a core level of values for a while. I know your hands are tied on leaving, but it sure does sound like the sooner you can manage, the better. How can anyone live in an environment where they are told they are unwanted on such a regular basis? Hugs.


Unfortunately I think you are right about the level of xenophobia, but a lot of it seems to be of the type that I can find too in my small hometown in Nova Scotia, i.e. ignorance and lack of sophistication mixed with just not enough exposure to different sorts of people, especially ones with minds that don’t automatically think the same thoughts. It’s pretty stubborn, this kind of prejudice, and I think the only answer is to expect better of the next generation. I guess there are some pretty rude teenagers, but a lot of the younger folk seem more curious and open to people who look different, perhaps from their getting to know ALTs at their schools. A lot of people seem to be travelling these days, and hopefully that will broaden their perspective some. I want to remain hopeful, but have to say some days it gets the best of us down. I think you have the advantage of good Japanese, though, so while you may understand more of the abuse, which I might be oblivious to, you at least are armed with the ability to say something back, which MIGHT make them think twice.


OnceWritten, another Japan dweller, I take it? Whereabouts are you?

I think you have the advantage of good Japanese, though, so while you may understand more of the abuse, which I might be oblivious to, you at least are armed with the ability to say something back, which MIGHT make them think twice.

Actually I find that not letting them know until after they’ve made fools of themselves that you can understand everything they are saying helps in throwing would be xenophobes off balance. I pretend I can only speak English, mumble a few things at them that they can’t understand, in which inevitably they will throw back with surly regularity, “Can’t understand a word you’re saying, dumb ass.” or something to that effect, at which I reply, in Japanese, quietly and looking them straight in the eye, “Ah, but I can certainly understand everything you are saying. Not too bright, are we?” I just love the effect it has, sort of like watching milk curdle when you throw in a pinch of vinegar.


Thanks, I get a little vicarious satisfaction that you do that. Wish I could. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been insulted in public by everyone from drunks to school kids. Usually people are quite kind one to one. I live in a small town on Shikoku Island. I like the farmers here; they are pretty good folk with solid values. But people who say Japan is a polite culture miss the mark, I think. It is not so much polite as cautious.


OnceWritten, you should hook up with Sasane from OnMyMind. He doesn’t blog much lately, but he lives in Shikoku (though I don’t know if it is near you or not). He might appreciate a little English-speaking company. I’ve met him twice when he came up to Tokyo. Really nice guy from the States.


Thanks. I could use some English-speaking friends too, but have no idea if he (or anyone else ) is interested, and don’t know how to get in touch with him/them. I could really use a week-end walking partner too, beginner level or quite patient :). I also have laughing Knees, but in my case closer to “crying”. Apologies for turning your comments section into a “bulletin board”. If you want to give my email to anyone interested, I’d appreciate it.


The identity-chip thing is pretty humiliating, but other countries, notably Canada, are doing the same thing. However, in Canada landed immigrants don’t have to carry identification at all times. As well, the Canadian government is using the identity chip as a not-so-gentle way to persuade landed immigrants (i.e. long-term residents) to adopt Canadian citizenship.

What effing identity chip? It’s a bleeding ID card, fer cryin’ out loud! Mind you, I wasn’t thrilled about its introduction, but I think maybe some terms are confused here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.