Friday, October 21, 2011

Random Thoughts: The Big "E's"

Some time ago, I attempted to have a dialog with someone whose experiences in Japan and opinions as a consequence of those differences were rather different than mine. The exchange ended at an impasse because it was clear that we would never agree. It wasn't that there was fundamental disagreement, but we couldn't settle even on a basic structure on which to reach conclusions.

As an example of the kind of thing that brought us to an impasse, I'll share a summary of an exchange. He contested the often asserted statement that "Japan is a racist country". He asked how we could measure such a thing objectively. I said that, while it is hard to measure cultural aspects and human behavior objectively, we can look at the way in which society treats it's minorities. I suggested that the laws a country puts in place to protect or repress "outsiders" are a reflection of the values the citizens hold. He rejected this as an objective measure of the racist tendencies of a country. Since you can't rely on individuals to possess the self-awareness or honesty to say they have racist thoughts or carry out racist actions, it would seem that that would never work, but how much or little they cared would be reflected in laws. At that point, I knew that no matter what issue we discussed, there would be no way to agree because we'd spend all of our time arguing about where the bar should be placed rather than whether or not Japanese society was jumping over that bar or pretending it wasn't there.

One of the things which he said which I never responded to (for the aforementioned reason) was about equal treatment. That's the first of the "big E's" that I want to ponder. I said that I wanted to be treated like Japanese people treat one another rather than treated in an objectified or special fashion. His response to this was that we don't treat different people in our lives the same even within our culture, so why should the Japanese do so? This is true. We do not treat people the same all of the time. However, the basis upon which we decide to treat someone differently is of paramount importance.

I treat people differently based on role and familiarity. My family is dealt with more casually and with less emotional control than my students, who I have a formal business relationship with. "Customers", who are paying for your time and assistance, receive deference when their needs conflict with yours. This isn't a personal prejudicial choice or an arbitrary matter. It's the difference between being paid to assume a role and treat the other party as if they occupy the role they are spending their money to be in. Life is not a 100% equal experience, because relative roles and emotional and physical intimacy define the way in which we interact with people regardless of culture.

One thing that should not define the way in which we interact with people, in my opinion, is superficial observations and prejudicial thinking. I treat a customer as a customer regardless of the native country of that person, their eye or hair color, their skin tone, or beauty. The role of "customer" defines the relationship, not my personal judgment of that person based on some arbitrary aspect that I have an opinion about. Once that defines how someone is treated, it becomes an act of prejudice. In Japan, it has been my experience that I am treated differently based on nothing more than my appearance. People don't know if I speak Japanese well or poorly. They don't know my needs, character, or economic capacity, but they treat me differently simply because I am an "outsider". This is racism.

The reason that most white males (and the fellow I had the exchange with was a young, white British male) are often the target of criticism by minorities is that their status in nearly every society in which they dominate is one in which they have little to no experience with actual discrimination. Those who are advantaged and are rarely getting the short end of the stick when it comes to unequal treatment believe that it is inevitable and natural for there to be inequality or simply deny that it exists at all. After all, if they don't personally experience or witness it, it can't possibly exist. Is it any wonder that those who benefit from the status quo would prefer that it remain in place and defend it as a "natural" condition or claim that prejudice isn't real, but rather the oversensitive responses of minorities. The favored majority have nothing to gain and could lose much. It is only the people who suffer disadvantages who demand equality and advocate an egalitarian society (the second big "E").

In Japan, many white folks don't protest being treated differently because much of that treatment is favorable. They don't mind being pandered to, given special attention, or treated like mini-celebrities based on superficial characteristics. The status quo generally favors them, so they get angry when the issue of equality and inequality in Japan is discussed and wish to silence those who even mention it. They actively wish to repress those who advocate equal rights, because they're afraid of losing the advantages they get with their precious white skin or favorable nationality (North America, U.K., Australia, N.Z.). They fear the Japanese will get mad and stop treating them like darling poodles that deserve pampering if they are educated to treat foreigners less as exotic beasts from strange lands and more like normal human beings. What is more, foreigners may have to conform to the same expectations as Japanese and follow the same spoken and unspoken rules if there is a shift to equality. Most people would rather sit on their silk pillow, be fawned over and be forgiven for piddling in the corner (socially speaking) on occasion than be regarded and treated as equals. The reality is that sometimes the Japanese don't treat each other very well and equality would change the gaijin (foreigner) experience in negative ways for the most valued (i.e., occidental and white) ones, though it would likely improve it for those who are seen as less desirable (i.e., blacks, other Asians).

Though, I also have "precious white skin," I don't celebrate when people value me for it. I like people to value me for less arbitrary reasons because I've been in Japan long enough for the shine to have seriously dulled on being treated like a cute souvenir someone picked up when visiting a foreign land. I don't care how I'm treated differently (favorably or unfavorably) because of my appearance. I simply don't want to be objectified, defined, and prejudged at a glance. A lot of people don't mind this as long as it gets them favorable attention. This is like being the prettiest girl in the class for the first time in their lives, and many people see nothing wrong with it. I think that's an ego issue  and is at the root of the "Charisma man" image and personality. Having that sort of validation without effort for the first time in their lives is powerful and addictive, but it is also hollow. For many, empty validation is better than none at all, especially when they don't have to work for it and believe they "deserve" it. Is it any wonder Japan is such a magical place for many foreigners? It can bring about epic and life-long ego stroking and if you live in that head space long enough, you start to believe you're as special as they think you are. Of course, most people are thoroughly unaware of what drives them to fits of hostility when people advocate for equal rights for foreigners. They only know that they feel they have it pretty good and don't want any boat rocking.

In terms of expectations of an egalitarian society (another "E"), I reach my final "big E" and that is "ethnocentrism". There are those who would say that the expectation that Japan should be an egalitarian society, particularly coming from Americans who have constantly struggled to evolve into such a society (with debatable success), is merely a reflection of their applying their cultural expectations to another country. The oft-stated "it's their country" is supposed to silence voices which proclaim that Japan should do better by its foreign residents. How arrogant are we to expect that every country should treat all people equally just because America aspires to do so?

The argument that Japan should not be expected to treat people equally would hold more water if it weren't a democracy. What is more, it would be even more powerful if women were still walking nine paces behind men and equal opportunity and rights laws hadn't been passed (though not necessarily observed). And, even further, it would be more valid if Japanese people who traveled abroad and were treated with discrimination felt it was reasonable and to be expected when they are treated with prejudice. It is this final point that is quite interesting to me because if the Japanese expect equal treatment in other countries when they are outsiders, then clearly that means they believe strangers in strange lands should be dealt with equally. They may not exercise such behavior and their laws may not reflect it, but that is their expectation when they are the ones on the receiving end.

I've spoken with Japanese people who have been singled out at immigration for searches and questioning. I've also talked to people who have lived, studied, and worked in the U.S. for stretches of time in rural areas or areas in which Asian-looking faces are few and far between and who have been talked about, stared at and treated in an objectified fashion. Not one of those people talked about this experience with resignation or any notion that this was a reasonable manner in which to be treated. None of them felt that it was just fine to be treated differently based on their appearance, language, or native country. They were all mad, sad, and uncomfortable. They felt humiliated, demeaned and embarrassed. It is the height of hypocrisy and courting severe cognitive dissonance to say that it's okay for Japan to do this to foreigners, but not okay for it to be done to Japanese when they are the "foreigners". Not one person who defends Japanese prejudice (and there are plenty who do) would similarly defend such mistreatment of Japanese traveling abroad.

So, I don't believe it is ethnocentric to expect to be treated in the same manner that Japanese people treat each other when living in Japan when they expect to be treated like Americans in America. I also think that it's not unreasonable to believe a democratic society which is aspiring for equal treatment between its own citizens and is currently having a population problem and may need immigrants to solve it should be ready to work out a more egalitarian approach to "outsiders". The ethnocentrism argument and any talk about how "it's their country so they can do what they want" are little better than attempts to end the conversation with a note of finality because one has nothing better to offer. The world is shrinking and more interconnected than ever and the notion that Japan as a country (I'm not talking individuals here, I must be clear on that because I'm sure I'll be mis-read) gets to sit in its little corner treating the rest of the world like purple aliens from outer space the minute people step onto their soil is a destructive one. It only encourages the Japanese to embrace their specialness to the point of isolation and increases ignorance. In the end, with the continually sinking economy and almost certain increased reliance and interconnection with other countries, this will be to Japan's detriment more than anyone else's. Apologizing and making excuses for their racism isn't doing anyone, especially the Japanese, any favors at all.