There was a time, and not all that long ago, Americans were so ignorant about Japan, its culture and society, it would be no exaggeration to say many thought this country (its age measured in millennia) could be summed up as a land of geisha and manga, anime and sushi.
This was highlighted for me the time my son, returning to our home in central Japan after spending a month at a summer camp in Pennsylvania, told me: “We have to learn about the United States, but American kids don’t have to learn anything about Japan.” Then in junior high school, he declared it was “unfair”. He went on to amuse me with stories of his fellow campers confusing Japan with China and Korea, asking him to do a “karate chop”, and wanting to know if he knew any samurai or ninja.
Unquestionably, this ignorance goes both ways, and in my four decades living in Japan I’ve had numerous occasions to dispel misconceptions and disabuse friends and neighbors of the notion America is all Hollywood and hamburgers.
When asked what’s the biggest change I see in Japan since arriving here in 1975, I don’t hesitate before answering: There are many more foreigners. They’re not in my rural neighborhood, but when I venture forth, to the shopping center or, perhaps the bank, it’s possible I’ll see one. Whereas years earlier we would’ve accosted one another (“Hello! Do you speak English? Where do you work? Come to my house for lunch!”) these days everyone is as cool as you please.
No longer do you need to know the kanji (Chinese characters) for ‘withdrawal’ and ‘deposit’ at the ATM, the instructions are in English; acceptance, at last, of English as an international language. And signs in Portuguese acknowledge the many Brazilians of Japanese descent who in recent years have made this area of Japan their home. The linguistic assistance now offered is not so much a concession as a recognition Japan has crossed a bridge: foreigners living in Japanese communities are not as unusual as they once were.
Naturally, it’s a necessity of communication to have a handle on the language of the country where you live. Nevertheless, it must be noted that in Japan, where so much that is ‘said’ is not spoken, even if you’re fluent in Japanese you may not be aware of all that transpires. Many a hapless foreigner has found, to their dismay, failure to observe and pay attention to cues that are non-verbal has resulted in failure to communicate. Then there are the modes of behavior and rules; some are written, codified almost as in stone, but many are not. As a consequence, it is guaranteed you will have done the wrong, improper thing, any number of times. Even after all these years, I sometimes cringe when I think, in retrospect, of some misstep I’ve made. And it’s rare to be corrected. Often that’s out of politeness, but also because a foreigner is not expected to know. We are, after all, considered “gaijin” (literally: outside person).
But one does not always want to be considered on the outside; it’s nice to be let in, allowed to cross the two-way street. It was with welcome relief that the foreign residence card was changed from “Alien Registration” to “Residence Card”. We appreciate not being thought of as so strange, certainly not “alien”.
Ordinary encounters also point to the current acceptance of foreigners’ in Japanese society. I often buy vegetables from a stand operated by local farmers. I like that none of these old farmers ever asks me if I know how to prepare goya (bitter melon). They express no curiosity when I put a large bunch of shiso (perilla) in my basket and seem to assume that if I buy mitsuba (trefoil) I’ll know what to do with it.
And I see it is through everyday relations that I and my fellows who live cross-culturally are called upon to do our part to maintain this two-way street. For example, in Japan, where the majority of the populace avails themselves of an excellent public transportation system, manners considered common are adhered to. That means no feet on the seats, no speaking in loud voices or talking on cell phones. It goes without saying if you have a cough or sniffle, you’ll wear a mask. You stand in line and wait your turn, whether at a bus stop or receiving rationed water after an earthquake. It’s rare to see graffiti, and the everyday sight of a New Yorker walking down the street eating a slice of pizza or a hot dog does not happen here. Adults walking and eating is not just seen as gauche but screams “I’m a barbarian!”
Yes, as foreigners, we’re required to pay attention and respect the norms of other cultures. But if we were to be castigated every time we slipped up, it would ensure there could never be an entry into other societies, no chance for cultural exchange. This two-way street that requires maintenance, also requires mutual goodwill to remain open.
Karen Hill Anton wrote the column “Crossing Cultures” for The Japan Times for fifteen years. Her memoir The View From Breast Pocket Mountain is the winner of the SPR Book Awards Gold Prize, and the Book Readers Association Group Medallion. Originally from New York City, Karen has lived in rural Japan since 1975. KarenHillAnton.com
goya or nigauri: Bitter melon or bitter gourd. This vegetable, true to its name, is inedible if not properly prepared. A regular part of the Okinawan diet, it’s said to be the reason Okinawans are among the longest lived people in the world.
shiso: Variously called beefsteak plant or beefsteak leaf, is an herb in the mint family – but does not taste anything like mint. Some say the taste is similar to basil, and indeed it can be served in place of basil for the classic Italian Caprese salad of tomatoes and mozzarella. The red variety of shiso (akajiso) is never eaten raw.
mitsuba: The name translates as “three leaf”. Trefoil is also called Japanese honeywort, Japanese chervil, and Japanese parsley. Can be added as garnish for light soups and is indispensable for the Japanese savory egg custard dish chawanmushi.