Playing for keeps

I must apologize. The On The Couch series has been postponed.

My intention was to give a blow by blow account of my sessions with my…well, with myself. I have not actually gone to a therapist in Japan…not yet. I didn’t write that post especially for entertainment purposes, though. It was an earnest attempt to self-analyze  through writing. My therapist persona is an amalgam of all the therapists I’ve ever seen, including the real therapist I went to for a brief period back in NY, as well as the ones in Woody Allen (IMHO the cleverest, funniest, most astute screenwriter alive today) movies, TV shows, books I’ve read, and  comments I’ve received from readers that I have found useful. Oh, and of course, a whole lot of me.

I was really getting into it, having a ball writing it, when I ran into a few snags. What happened was, as I was writing parts 2 and 3 (both are nearly complete) I realized something I thought ought to be addressed before I continue. So you can think of this post as a prelude or introduction to the On the couch series (should I resume it.).

At the risk of being redundant and over-stating what might be obvious, let me say this: When your life consists of hundreds of people a day looking at you as if prudence dictates that you should be watched carefully (not with curiosity-which would be annoying but, here in Japan, well within reason- but, with suspicion and fear-unreasonable and unacceptable under normal conditions, which these are not), when virtually no one (Japanese, that is) can relax in your vicinity nor can ignore you whatsoever, and engage in the most bizarre behavior as a result of this inability, or, though you haven’t caused them nor intend to cause them any harm, they behave as if you have indeed previously caused them harm and intend to do so again, or move away and/or evade coming near you in a manner that suggests they believe you carry a contagion that would render them dead or dying if direct or even indirect contact was made, and this fictional infection has been known to even take to the air, so it’s best to not even breathe the miasma you release when you exhale…when some variation of the above responses to your presence occur on a daily basis, it’s bound to have some effect.

What do you imagine that effect could be?

Before I go there, let me go here. And  please bear with me…

For me, rationalization of Japanese behavior has been a priority, a daily requirement. In order to do it effectively it requires a certain amount of desensitization. I have to close my mind and heart to the world around me and lock them away soundly several times a day or risk serious damage.

For example, when I see that empty seat beside me or the Japanese-free bubble around me on the crowded train I must rationalize it. I must tell myself convincingly something that doesn’t cast my Japanese hosts in a dark light. I must tell myself, “That’s just the way they are…it has nothing to do with me personally or racially. They’re completely unaware of any offense I might feel. They don’t mean anything by it. I just look strange to them, like a circus freak. Hell, I wouldn’t want to be near a man with 3 heads, either.” And I read my book, or play Tetris, and try to luxuriate in the bonanza of leg or breathing room on a Japanese rush hour train. Or, I tell myself, “Every society has its good points and bad points, highs and lows. Here I have some very high highs and some very low lows…and that’s balance, therefore my life here is for the most part pretty good.” Or, I tell myself, “this behavior of theirs is like a social tax, a levy on the quality of  life, and like they say nothing is certain but death and taxes!”

I rarely rationalize the  way most Japanese I know (and surprisingly a good number of foreigners as well ) persistently suggest I do. That is, to tell myself that they are a homogeneous people unaccustomed to foreigners, or that they can’t speak English thus they freak out when they see someone who they presume cannot speak Japanese…these types of rationalizations always leave me wanting.

Depending on my mood, I might tread on dangerous ground and ask myself if what I’m seeing is real or imagined. Am I paranoid? Am I delusional? Have I created a nemesis that does not really exist because interesting stories require genuine conflict? Is my perception of what I see distorted by my sensitivity?

Truly dangerous ground.

Sometimes I can’t help but enter the danger zone and tell myself, “they’re just ignorant.  It’s perfectly natural for them.” Or, “Grandma would be so disappointed at me for getting all worked up and bent outta shape over this foolishness. At least they’re not trying to throw a rope around my neck and string me up on a tree. Just ignore these…people…and live your life.”  When I catch a whiff of something foul in the air, something not so innocent, not so naive, something proudly ignorant, flagrantly insensitive, almost aggressively so. Something seemingly intended to offend. That’s when I get all bent and I may slip and stumble into the danger zone .  At these times I really have to batten down the hatches and steel my soul…These are the really perilous moments. The moments that make or break a person.

It’s funny. There was a time when I thought of my life here as ultimately inconsequential, at least  in the long run. Just a collection of memories and experiences…something to impress friends and thrill (or bore to tears) grandchildren with someday. I thought my essential self was safe from Japan because I truly don’t get to be me that often here anyway. I felt like my essential self  was back in NY waiting for my adventure abroad to come to its inevitable end and upon my return home I’d be back to my regularly scheduled programming. But, somewhere along the line…maybe on that third trip to NY for a visit, I realized that the essential me hadn’t wanted to be left behind. It would not endure neglect any longer. It would not be forgotten and abandoned. It realized that significant changes were occurring and it would be part of this change, for better or for worse. It wanted to be with me, so it had stowed away and made the trip back to Asia with me…

Not good.

So, whatever mental, emotional or spiritual damage I may incur as a result of my life here will be permanent, now, I realized while I was putting together that On the couch series. I realized with a certain amount of alarm that I’m playing for keeps and so I had better proceed with due caution and diligence.

My soul is truly on the line.

Those thoughts, like the ones I described on the train, aren’t perilous in and of themselves but because of what lurks  in and around and between the words. That’s where the peril resides. If I, for example, think of Japanese people as ignorant, then aren’t I, in effect, raising myself above them, condescending to them? And by thinking of them as a them, as an entity with little variation,wouldn’t I be guilty of the same thing I feel is being done to me unfairly? And, if I evaluate Japanese people’s behavior in comparison with the behavior of the racist whites my grandmother endured in Savannah Georgia in the 1940s and 1950s, wouldn’t that allow me to transfer some of the feelings I have held about those white people who abused and humiliated grandma to Japanese people, whether or not they deserve it?

VERY perilous territory, indeed.

And that was just the shallow shit! I hadn’t even gotten deep into the side effects of rationalizing the irrational, yet.

…to be continued.


16 Responses to “Playing for keeps”

  1. October 26, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    “when virtually no one (Japanese, that is) can relax in your vicinity nor can ignore you whatsoever, and engage in the most bizarre behavior as a result of this inability,”

    Ah. the things I’ve seen for that very reason. I got stories…my stories got stories know what I’m sayin 😉

    Great writing!!!

  2. October 26, 2009 at 8:22 pm


    I think I have a good understanding of how you feel as I observe similar behaviour in reaction to my presence from time to time.

    To my mind there is nothing wrong with saying that the “yamato” ethnic group are the vast majority of the population of Japan, and as the dominant ethnic group face little penalty for being satisfied with the implicit assumption that they not only constitute the norm, but the normative; and that this assumption causes some to behave in ways that are unquestionably wrong.

    It need not imply a hierarchy to call it ignorance, or privilege to be ignorant granted by the mere accident of being born into one ethnic group in Japan and not another. The people you encounter may be ignorant of some things, you are ignorant of others. There is no shame in calling someone to account for their moral failing. Yet that moral failing does not need to be abstracted and taken for all that person or the group they are a part of has to offer.

    • October 26, 2009 at 8:46 pm

      Rubi-san, thank you for taking the time to reply and so thoughtfully!
      I hear you but i think we have to be careful with that kind of thing. VERY careful.
      And clearly you have taken some care but I’m sure within that Yamato group there are enough exceptions to make at least some statements made about them as an ethnic group null and void.
      …But I might be wrong (-:
      This is truly dangerous territory…

  3. October 26, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    I’m not sure if this is an adequate response but I certainly feel you, Loco. Even within the Yamato group there are myriad structural inequities. On my way home, through the narrow streets of the Tokyo bedtown that is my temporary home, I see numerous indicators of quiet, subtle oppressions that do not directly affect me.

    My perception is that you can hold a person individually accountable for their behaviour, while recognising the structural dynamics behind that behaviour. Namely that there are a number of discourses floating around in their society that they have drawn on. I think in this way you can recognise that not all Yamato, or Japanese you encounter will draw on these discourses. You can keep open to the complexity and flux of Japanese society, and the humanity of the people who treat you as a problem without rendering language useless to describe what you experience.

    It’s a constant struggle, because you have to ask yourself if you are being chauvinistic, and be open to others pointing out your mistakes. It’s hard to recognise when you are taking advantage of your own privileges vis a vis other people. It’s even harder to actively fight against them.

  4. October 27, 2009 at 10:57 am

    I’m reminded of the lyrics to an old song (a before-my-time song):
    “Paranoia strikes deep, into your heart it will creep.”

    I’ve realized not only that perception is everything, but paranoid thinking becomes almost impossible to reverse if you indulge in it long enough. I have to engage in mental exercises almost every day of my life just to push paranoia away into the dark cobwebbed corners of my mind, where it belongs.

    My goal is to never let it ruin another relationship for me again.

    Very nice post.

  5. October 27, 2009 at 11:09 am

    This is a VERY good post, and refreshing to see someone speaking so frankly and coherently on an issue that affects all of us expats. You seem to have got a good grip on things – well done! I see so many people here that are either gripped with anger and hatred, totally miserable, or just outright insane! Look forward to reading more. In fact I might just add you to my RSS feeder right now.

  6. October 27, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Food for thought, seriously!!!
    You got me scratching my head!

    Billy-san, thanks! Yeah, paranoia belongs in cellar. Hard to keep it there though. Ganbarimasyou!

    Gaininja-san, thanks for the shout. Yeah, this issue plagues me

  7. October 27, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    There is a great book by John Shors that you might really like – it is called Beside the Burning Sea and it is about how two men whose countries are at war, whose governments have decided should be enemies, come together as comrades – when they get to know each other on a one on one level – they find they actually have tremendous respect for each other and like each other a lot – even share many of the same values. Maybe if you focus on the individual relationships you have – how you are really changing how some Japanese people feel about foreigners – making a connection with everyone in Japan is a very ambitious task, it might cause you to spend too much time on the couch and not enough time out there enjoying the friends you have made. And something is keeping you there – in spite of all of the stares and empty seats – you clearly aren’t done changing Japan yet! 😎

    There is another book called I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb and it is about how twin brothers cannot find a connection – even though they are supposed to be bound by twinness. Interesting contrast.

    Anywho, they are both fiction but both great books about not expecting connections to be there that are “supposed” to be there and not being surprised by connections that are there even when they aren’t “supposed to be.

  8. October 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Reason2, thanks for the reply and the suggestions, They sound like interesting stories. I’ll check them out! As far as my focus, I know I’m changing the few Japanese people. They’ve actually told me that they were scared of black people until they met me but now they aren’t. I don’t know if that was my goal…sounds like more of the same to me. I am not black people no more than my friend is japanese people. There are black people out there that they should be wary of and there are Japanese people who would never befriend me because they think all foreigners are uncivilized especially blacks. That’s how it is! My goal is not to show Japanese people that black people are not all bad people or that we’re just as human as they are, with all that entails. My dignity won’t allow me to. They’ll figure it out someday or they won’t.
    thanks again
    PS, and I do like it here…the highs are realllllly high


  9. October 29, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    You might also like – Same Different as Me – it is a quick read – unfortunately it doesn’t delve too deeply into the topic of differentness as it could – but it is a fabulous story of finding friendship where you least expect it and, actually, where it has been resisted the most.

    I hope you are doing ok – your journey has been fascinating to me and lots of others (as you can tell by those stats that keep kicking butt) – so even though it is very hard to have that empty seat next to you as a constant reminder – remember that you have created a format for discussion and exploration and you allow differences to be accepted and celebrated – that is something indeed. You have also given those people who will not sit by you something to think about. Just by being there, you are forcing them to make decisions – to embrace their thoughts or reconsider them.

    When I first started reading your blog, I thought you were so angry – but I kept reading and found that you seem to be one of the most open minded people I have encountered – you certainly have your opinions and express them wonderfully (and I love that about you too) – but you also really listen to what others say – there is no way that level of acceptance (not necessarily agreement) won’t change the world in initially small ways but ultimately in large ways. You rock Loco!

  10. October 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Coming from you, Reason2, a writer and person I admire a great deal, that means a lot! and I thank you. You rock as well. I still remember when we were both starting out on blog journeys and we bumped heads by chance, and look at us a year later, still doing our respective things. Isn’t it wonderful? As far as the count is concerned I suspect it’se inflated a bit by the number of japanophiles out there just dying to learn something about Japanese girls (which i talk about rarely)judging from the keyword hit stat. My number one and two keyword hits are “Japanese Girls” and “Chikan” (which is a subway pervert) so I stay grounded and don’t delude myself that the issues I discuss are the sole attraction of my blog. (-:
    Can i be both angry and open minded? Or is anger supposed to shut down the reasoning areas of the brain?
    Well, better get back to my writing…been slipping lately haven’t I? Thanks again Reason2! You made my day!

    • November 8, 2009 at 11:50 am

      Please remember that I said at first I thought you were angry – but your words drew me in and I didn’t dismiss you as just another angry guy – really, I have changed that to reflective – deeply reflective. I think you digest the world more than most people ever will. And that can be extremely painful and frustrating. Like looking thru a kaleidoscope – it is different every single time and your view comes from broken pieces – never anything whole – it is especially hard looking for answers when really there are no concrete answers – the conversations/perspectives always change depending on who you are talking to and what they have experienced. I was thinking about this the other day – the fact that the school has hired you and kept you for this long must mean something right? Something big. Them hiring you does not seem to fit the overarching Japanese philosophies that you describe. You must not be a typical teacher in Japan. And you are changing young people, I know you are. And unfortunately, for the most part, that is the only place real change can happen. And you will never see the full content of the change you are bringing – but those students will share their new views of the world with their kids – and then their kids – they will say, “I had this great teacher – Loco was his name”. And they will smile great big smiles and stereotypes will crack.

  11. 14 Jim
    November 1, 2009 at 5:07 am

    Loco –

    I have been reading for a long time your stories of Japanese put off by your “Other-ness” and scared of you or your presence. I have certainly (even as a white American) experienced a lesser version of this aversion to “gaijin” on travels in Japan myself.

    I am curious as an African-American living in Japan for so long how often you experience the opposite reaction, of Japanese both female and male, approaching you and wanting to be around you or get to know you precisely FOR your “otherness” and difference from their “norm” or what they have grown up with and are expected to embrace.

    I am really curious about this. Clearly Japanese youth obsessions with Western rebel culture in the forms of Punk, of Gangsta Rap, etc… are manifestations of this, but I am curious about deeper inter-personal interactions related to Japanese “rebel” individuals reaching out to embrace what they are expected not to.

    Does it happen? How often? And can you tell us a few stories about that phenomena and EITHER its superficiality OR depth?


    • November 2, 2009 at 8:48 am

      Thanks for the shout Jim-san.
      Good question! I think I have touched on this a few times though.
      As you call it, the Japanese obsession with rebel culture, is intense, but- from my experience- it does not include actual fraternization or contact with foreign people. Just imitation. love from afar. They like to appropriate culture, fashion etc…but not appropriate the people behind it. That would be too extreme! The ones bold enough to cross that line are rare, I’ve found. MOST would never go that far. Depends on their exposure to foreigners. They won’t run away but they still exhibit the same fearful behavior…and they stare if they can ( meaning if you’re not looking) and theywill dissect me visually, take mental notes (you can see it in their faces) and maybe they’ll discuss me among themselves, but rarely with me. Besides I’m not a rebel and never was. there is nothing punk or gangsta about me so maybe i hold no interest for the rebel types anyway

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