Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another Grievance If I May

It would appear that I am continuously grieved. Not so. Yesterday I enjoyed both soccer and cricket in the park. In the morning I watched the fights and I watched yet more fights in the evening. The day before I was taken to Nara by the principal of my school, whom I like very much, and was treated to a wonderful lunch. I will start my story there, and, lest there be any confusion, I think the principal is an upstanding guy and have no issue with him. The story is merely representative of a larger mindset and problem that I have been trying to expound on for a while here.

Nara, for those who don't know is the ancient capital of Japan. The Nara period(710-784) which shares its name with the city saw an influx of Buddhism and Chinese culture into Japan. I was fortunate enough to be a city planning major near this ancient metropolis when I was an exchange student in Osaka. I was able to partake in several field trips with a severely capable teacher who could identifies the names of the artisans scrawled into the stones used to build the base of a wooden gate. Due to my familiarity with Nara we tried to find some places to go that I wasn't familiar with so that the principal could "show me around."

We ended up visiting the home of turn of the century novelist Shiga Naoya, which was impressive. As usual in historic buildings one puts their shoes into a vinyl bag and carries them as they travel through the structure. In a small tea room with a nijiri guchi that opened onto a garden with a path of stones leading to the larger garden, a Japanese women sat down, put on her shoes and walked on the stones disappearing around a corner. Her cellphone had fallen out of her pocket and was laying in the doorway. Being fairly familiar with Japanese teahouses and other historic structures I could see that this wasn't the normal tour route. I could also see that it wasn't forbidden either. I decided to put on my shoes and take the woman her phone rather than yell "someone dropped their phone!" through the quiet, afternoon tea-garden. The principal sees me with shoes on standing in the garden and yells, laughing "Come back! That is the tour route!" I like the principal very much. He is gregarious and good hearted. He confirmed with the lady behind the desk that it wasn't the tour route and then said jokingly "Ha ha, he is American. How could he know? Ha ha." I actually felt compelled to answer this time, "No. It wasn't a matter of nationality. I was following the Japanese person who went in front of me." The lady behind the desk agreed.

I don't think there was anything malicious in the Principal's statement. I think most of it was harmless joshing. However, how many actual government policies and personal prejudices are based off of this viewpoint. How many foreigners are denied housing because they won't know how to sort the garbage while Japanese mistakes are chuckled about.

Let me continue. In Shiga's salon, once used for receiving notables writers, we were lucky enough to meet an older gentleman who volunteered giving lectures at the house. He was discussing how the building had recently been renovated to its original state. The crux of his story was about how, during the occupation, the house was the residence of an officer of the American military. His lecture was very informative and well put. The strange thing about it was the understanding built into his explanation for a Japanese audience. Of course the changes that were made wasn't because the American officer was a bad person. He did his best to take care of the house. However, owing to his nature as an American, he wasn't able to appreciate the Japaneseness of the house and widened doorways and refurbished the kitchen and bath. As a brief appendix to this long explanation, our gentlemanly volunteer added that after the occupation the house was sued as the local general welfare office for the next 30 years, and to facilitate the lines, the parlor had been ripped out and made into a big waiting room. Everyone nodded that off quickly and went on to the next room. Now, you might be wondering what the problem with that story is. The volunteer included the relevant information. None of it was a lie. No. But the tone and how the story was received, both of which are somewhat nebulous in the retelling, struck me as significant. The story of the American officer was slightly pitiable. He soiled the house not knowing any better, as I had earlier attempted to do. No mention was made of other houses in the area with Japanese occupants who surely updated their kitchens and baths from 1930's technology to that of the 1950's. Of course no mention was made of the Japanese bubble period when vast tracts of traditional housing was leveled so that cheap apartments could be made with a bad mixture of concrete with salty, beach sand. No mention was made that a good number of volunteers working to maintain traditional Japanese houses are not Japanese while the absolute, overwhelming majority of the forces working to replace these houses with cheap rental properties are Japanese. Just as Japanese as the construction companies that place tetrapods on 90% of the coastline. Just as Japanese as the people who decided to make the Shiga home into a government office with a waiting room instead of a salon. But of course we know what would be made of anyone not Japanese who tried to preserve things that are traditional in Japan. They would be "strange foreigners." And if they didn't work to preserve anything? They would be just foreigners, which is far more pleasing like the poor, misguided, American officer.

I only tell you this story to try to explain a small part of the framework that non-Japanese in Japan live with everyday. It may seem trivial, but it is persistent. I work in a school were I am not legally allowed to be in a room alone with students. Where I can't have a stable salary and job security. Where I am encouraged by foreigners higher up within my own company that my job is as an "entertainer."

People who aren't ethnically Japanese have a role to play as citizens and taxpayers in the Japan of the future. But fulfilling that role require discarding a silly and counterproductive mindset.

I thought Arudou Debito put things well in his rough draft of his upcoming speech to the UN rep.

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attempting to silence the voices in my head.