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Racism for the Weekend

March 26, 2007

Right now, I'm at work on Monday morning with quite literally nothing to do. I've been plunged into a bit of a bad mood, so I'm going to bring up something that happened this weekend.


Japan has a weird attitude towards foreigners, mainly because there are none of us here. Way back in the day, the country suffered alot of social upheaval. There was alot of civil war between different tribes and factions. It was all finally settled and peace came about under the Tokugawa Shogunate in around 1600. In order to maintain this peace and balance which had been brought about, the ruler cut off the country from the outside world and made the country a self-contained environment. Japanese could not leave, and foreigners could not enter, save for a few merchants to trade at the only port available to them – Nagasaki at the very bottom of the country. Thus, as the rest of the world got to know each other and travelled and broadened their horizons, the Japanese turned ever more into themselves until around the 1850s when the ordinance was lifted. Even then, however, people were stuck in their ways. Japanese mentality has remained mostly ignorant and uninterested in travelling outside their country, and foreigners often view Japan as a strange and unknown place.

Which it is. Although there is alot more travel in and out of it these days, it is still very hard for a foreigner to get along here. The bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka, and the tourist haven Kyoto, have become a little more accepting and tolerant of foreigners, and you could get along without too much trouble if you just wanted to see the surface of the society and do some sightseeing. Actually immersing yourself in the society, and living here, especially out in the remote countryside where I am quite literally the only foreign male half of these people have probably ever seen, is another thing entirely. Especially without being able to speak fluent Japanese (or, really, any. They speak too damn fast).

The attitude towards foreigners is almost like that towards some kind of exotic beast. People are interested, and everyone wants to have a look, but nobody wants to get too close. One example where this manifests itself is on the trains. The trains are usually set up with rows of seats down each side – usually in 2s, but sometimes with two rows facing each other at the end of a row, making a booth of four. And whenever a foreigner is sitting on a train, Japanese people will not sit next to them. This isn't an absolute rule. Some people will. Usually either the younger people, who don't have such an innate wariness of us, or people from the city, where there is greater exposure (and therefore understanding and tolerance) to foreigners, or sometimes the very old, who I guess just have to sit somewhere.

However, more often than not, I will be sitting on a busy train and there will be loads of people standing, rather than sitting next to me – even in a four-man booth. It's always interesting watching someone come down the aisle to a seat that they see empty, then seeing me sitting there next to it, and then turning around and going back to stand at the other end. People will squeeze in next to fat, dirty, mental patients; or young girls will sit next to lecherous-looking old men and pull their tops tightly across themselves to cover themselves before people will sit next to me. I've gotten used to it, and don't really care anymore – at least it means that if I can find a seat in the first place, I usually won't be annoyed by having some freak sit next to me (except for actually, the freaks are usually OK with it).

But, I did get annoyed the other day. I was relaxing in my four-man booth while everyone around me stood, and a mother and her daughter (probably about nine or ten years old) got on the already-crowded train and started casting their eyes around for a place to sit. The little girl saw my booth and pointed to it, took her mother's hand and started to lead her towards it. But the mother wouldn't move. She pulled her daughter back, bent down, and told her something quietly and confidentially in her ear. The little girl put her hand down, looked at me, and didn't make any more moves to come sit near me. The mother straightened back up and just stood there, looking out the window.

Now, if people don't want to sit next to foreigners, that's one thing. People can sit where they want. But when they start passing their prejudices onto the next impressionable young generation and filling their heads with ideas which they will never (due to the extreme lack of foreigners they will be exposed to) get a chance to challenge, then that really pisses me off. I don't know what the mother told her girl, but I can only assume that she told her that foreigners carry disease, or like to molest small children, or something along those lines; whatever it took to make the girl go from being an open-minded, accepting human being, and start to turn her into a wary, prejudiced member of the Japanese public. Most likely, if she ever gets any other chances to be near a foreigner, her mother (or maybe someone else) will warn her off again, and soon she will have to believe it, and will never make the effort to find out otherwise for herself, and will eventually start spreading the propaganda herself. There's a cycle there which needs to be broken.

Which is, they tell us, why we're here. To try and give the Japanese public that little bit more exposure to the otside world, and to try and get them interested in places beyond their own shores. But that's difficult when your own co-workers don't even believe in it. While they've been tolerant of me being here, I've never really felt particularly welcome. And that brings me to today, when I've been annoyed again, twice in quick succession.

The final day of class was last Friday. After the weekend, today is the first day of Spring Break. However, being a teacher and not a student, it's not a break for me. I was told that it's basically business as usual for me, and since I'm still employed, I still have to come to work every day, despite the fact that as an assistant language teacher, if there are no lessons to do or plan, there is quite literally nothing for me to do here all day but sit at my desk and write things like this. But, annoying and irrational as it is, at the end of the day, it's a job, so I don't really have alot of ground for complaint.

Yesterday evening, I got a visitor from Osaka. That's about a 3-4 hour train ride away. I was very grateful for the visit, as it's so far away, and this morning I felt bad kicking them out and sending them back home at just before 8 in the morning (especially since the infrequent train from my area wouldn't be leaving for another 45 minutes) to start their long trek back. But, I had to go to work. Also, I wasn't feeling very good, so had to rush out of the house myself feeling pretty crook. I got to work, turned the corner, and pulled into a practically deserted carpark. I came into the building, and there were two people here. I asked what was up, and the person looked at me like I was an idiot and said that obviously, since it was Spring Break, they weren't here. Apparently it's super-lax over the break. People are still more or less expected to turn up, but it doesn't really matter when. After all, it's not like there's much for them to do, right?

So I was pretty riled up about that, when other people started turning up, and being given little envelopes. They opened them up and started oohing and aahing over them. I went to see what was going on, and they were looking at a bunch of photographs. Of a whole host of the teachers off at some famous tourist spot, enjoying themselves immensely on their little staff outing. I asked when that was. Yesterday, Sunday, they said. Of course, the fact that I've been constantly talking about how I want to go see places, and explore Japan, and asked for good places to go, and told my coworkers I want to do things with them, still wasn't enough for them to consider telling me that they had all decided to go off to this lovely spot on the weekend.

Goddamit. How annoying is that. It's just the latest in a long run of things that have made me feel like I'm not really valued here at all. I don't think they're trying to be mean. It's just that I'm foreign. I'm not one of them. We work together, but outside of that, I'm on my own. Whoever said countryside Japanese were the most friendly clearly didn't know what they were talking about.

I've been here about two hours now, and still only about a third of the staff have turned up. Guess they're all having a nice sleep-in. After all, they're probably all tired from their big day out yesterday.

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