Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Japan Anecdotes 1, The Informer

Most foreigners in Japan quickly learn that there are certain unwritten rules about what you do and do not tell Japanese people. These rules are motivated by two main characteristics: 1. Japanese people are not generally interested in foreign countries, or at least not interested enough to inconvenience you by asking. In 7 months in Japan I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been asked anything about the culture, history, politics, education, economic, or lifestyle of my home country America (and this during the time of the wars on terror, Obama’s election, and the financial crisis). For the most part questions revolve around my thoughts on Japan, which brings up the fact that 2. Japanese people do not respond well to anything said critically (or for that matter, anything not glowingly optimistic) about their country. The main purpose of foreigners I’d say – and I’m not the first to go this far – is to confirm the remarkableness and even superiority of Japan. Try telling them honestly that the education system is a little misguided, or that the temples start to all look the same after awhile, or that you actually prefer Korean food to Japanese, and... well, the short answer is that the subject will be changed faster than a samurai drawing his sword, the conversation will go downhill rapidly, and you will get signals (verbal or otherwise) that you clearly “don’t get it,” as no gaijin can, after all. Or perhaps the results of allowing a little real honesty to slip into conversation will hit closer to home, as befell one of my fellow American teachers here in Kansai inaka (central Japan countryside). He was riding the train one evening and fell into conversation with a curious (in all senses) old gentleman, who wanted to know where he lived in Japan, what he was doing here, what school he worked at, etc. After the standard introductory small talk, the man moved on to the standard line of questioning, which included “what do you think of Japanese students?” My friend replied that the elementary school students are genki (energetic), and in Jr. High the first graders were also pretty genki, second graders average, and the third graders sleep a lot. There’s nothing remarkable about this evaluation, it’s simply true, though probably not a truth we’d express to the teachers we work with; it often seems that we’re honestly expected to just not notice anything negative in the school. My friend might have also mentioned that he gets rather bored in school at times, and perhaps even implied that the students didn’t seem to learn much English overall, but he’s not sure how much of his opinions he let show. Soon his station arrived and he bid the man adieu. But apparently his opinions and lighthearted evaluations had struck a chord, or perhaps the old man was more disturbed by the audacity of a foreigner being allowed to experience anything short of heaven-on-earth for a single moment in Japan. Several days later my friend was sitting at his desk and got called to talk with the English teacher for the third graders. A few minutes ago, the teacher said through a nervous grin, she had gotten a call from a certain old man who had expressed severe concern over reports that the third graders were sleeping in class, which had made a certain foreigner very dissatisfied. This old man had in fact been a teacher himself, and proceeded to enlighten her as to what she had to do to fix this intolerable situation. My friend was informed of all this, and then the conversation was over. Of course all the details of the call were not divulged, and to this day he doesn’t know how much he told the old man, or how much was passed on. In any case the simple answer to both questions is “too much.” The work environment has now become noticeably awkward. My Dad, in response to this story, replied “so it takes a village, huh?” And yes, that about sums it up.


  1. I'm so honored by the mention. I hope this doesn't leak out!

  2. must be rather a strain to feel you need to ALWAYS filter what you say. (pun intended, btw) And a very fine mesh filter, too....
    Don't let on if you like Indian food better....
    Carrol Q

  3. I almost hope it DOES leak out! Yes, it's coming to that point.
    It is most definitely a strain (yes, in both ways :-). I mean, I usually filter, but according to the individual, not according to what truth I need to bend.
    I think I AM starting to like Indian food better! Whatever will I do?!?! Oh wait, maybe going to India would fix a lot of problems. :-D
    Thanks for the comments!