Just relax and ignore it, I’ve told myself umpteen hundred times since my arrival here and today was no different. It was just too blatant! The empty seat beside me, on the crowded train, exclaimed what the people and the culture would find unseemly to say verbally: we don’t trust you, we don’t like you and we don’t want you here.

I thought of ways to avenge myself, to appease my fury…a gesture both satisfying and effective. I thought hard. Many wicked thoughts went through my mind. Thoughts so venomous and downright malicious that even contemplating them should’ve brought the Thought Police crashing into that train car brandishing weapons with orders to shoot to kill. Just thinking such thoughts made me feel a whole lot better. You might ask, why the hell am I so angry? Well, I’ll get to that later, if it’s necessary. I mean, I’ve always had anger issues, ask anyone who knows me well. But, these people had no idea what kind of explosive they were tampering with. I almost warrant their fear, epitomize their stereotypical image of my kind. Only a couple of obstacles stood between me and really anti-social acts, almost sociopathic behavior: My wickedness was held in check by an awkward mixture of curiosity as to what makes this system work, envy of a people who managed to maintain their culture, somewhat, against incredible adversity, fear of the consequences of following through on these thoughts (not only to my person, but to my soul as well) and, ironically, a little shyness.

The train pulled into a station and many people got off as many others filed in. Some seats had opened up and, with a maniacal surge were snatched up. It’s like an aggressive game of musical chairs (only imagine the game if there were dozens of contestants, one chair, and they were not allowed to touch one another). Two businessmen and an Office Lady were on a beeline for the empty seat beside me…all were focused on the seat. The woman was in trouble: chivalry hasn’t passed away here…it has never lived here. In fact, the opposite of chivalry has been the order of the day since time immemorial. She noticed the two guys and stopped short. Then, one of the Salarymen looked up, at me, and rather startlingly by-passed the seat in favor of a pole a good distance away-from me. The other rushing Salaryman noticed the first’s behavior, and then, peeping at the cause of it- me- briefly showed his true feelings on the matter, with just the barest momentary eye contact with me. I’m not great at reading the emotions of these people…or any people for that matter, but I’m pretty sure I saw shame. What he felt ashamed of is a mystery, but I’m not above speculation. Maybe it was the flagrant rudeness and/or bigotry of his countryman…but that would just be wishful thinking on my part. It was more likely that he was ashamed of his countryman’s fear. His body language all but hollered, “I am not afraid of you (even though I should be as everyone else clearly is)…not even a little bit! I saw that footage of flood-ridden New Orleans and the behavior of those “people” in a time of crisis. I’ve seen you coaxing my fellow Salarymen into those Yakuza hostess bars. I’ve seen what your people have done to one another in Nigeria and in Los Angeles, on TV. Hell, everything I’ve seen and heard about you reeks of un-civilization and danger, or at the very least unpredictability, which is almost as bad. Yes, I know you and yet I refuse to be afraid of you- Not here; not in my fine country, arguably the safest country in the world until we started allowing your kind in.” And, with swollen chest, and masculine care-free gesticulations, with chin thrust forward and with a violent plop, he landed in the seat beside me.

People were aghast, and by aghast, in the “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil,” or more appropriately “the outstanding nail that gets hammered down” cultural context of the people here, I mean he drew attention to himself! At least the people whose glances I managed to catch looked aghast. But, every time I tried to gauge the other passenger’s reactions, the eyes of the quicker people, those who’ve become quite skilled at avoiding eye contact through a creepy intuitive anticipation of movement, suddenly seemed to find the ubiquitous cell phone, Manga comic book, appointment book or make-up mirror of immense interest, and the slower folks awkwardly found things in the vicinity of my person of immense interest…like the advertisements just above my head, or the window behind me- the one with the shade pulled down to ward off the sun’s glare, or the pattern on the tiles of the floor near but not quite beneath the tips of my shoes, or the hand of the man standing nearest to the standing room in front of me that noticeably remained vacant, or hell the atomic particles in the space between us, the vacuum of air that encircled their heads, eyes glazed in a Zen-like state. It’s really something to see.

Well, with the seat beside me now taken, as well as the extra room I take for granted most of the time, distracted by my humiliation and rage, I’d had to unfold and close my legs. A child nearby was playing with his father’s hand. Oblivious to the annoyance of overcrowding, a glee that I presume was derived from the fact that his rarely seen father was on his annual summer holiday and foregoing the chaos of traveling abroad during this peak season, opted to spend this precious father-son time fairly locally at a water park or some such a place. He hadn’t noticed me yet, I knew. It was the rare child who could resist gawking at me…they are simply the most honest people in this as in any culture. He must have sensed my eyes, because he suddenly turned around and looked. His shock was open. If he had a heart condition, he would be a goner. If an octopus was climbing out of my nose, he couldn’t have looked any more frightened. He grabbed his father’s leg so suddenly and fiercely that it triggered a protective instinct in Dad. He turned, prepared to defend his child’s life against what obviously had to be a clear and present danger. When our eyes met, there was instant understanding, for I was nowhere near his son, and the alarm subsided a bit, and suddenly Dad, too, found the advertisement for a new breath-freshening chewing gum, the one just above my head, most mesmerizing. No more mesmerizing than his son continued to find me. Not hard-wired into the matrix of cultural do’s and don’ts, he stared unabashedly. I tried to extend a smile that as much as said, “I won’t bite you, I promise. I might look different than you, or than anyone you’ve ever encountered in your short life, but underneath this unusual exterior beats the heart of an Ambassador. I’m here in your neck of the woods on a humanitarian mission of sorts to introduce your culture to the outside world. And give you an opportunity to grow up in a country that doesn’t view difference or change as dangerous, but simply as natural. So, reward my efforts with a smile why don’t you? And show these grown-ups that the next generation won’t be half as xenophobic as they are…” But, maybe my gap-toothed, tobacco and coffee coated smile was a little too much for the tot, or maybe my subliminal message went over his head…I don’t know, because he didn’t smile. He seemed to get more comfortable staring, however, so maybe I had successfully transmitted my conflicted and contradictory message of Unity, Peace, and the dental hygienic consequences of caffeine and nicotine addiction.

I needed a distraction desperately. And, then I remembered my Kanji cards. Kanji is one of the three written languages, not including English, used here. It’s an ancient written language, used by the Chinese for centuries before it made its way across the sea separating these two historical foes some time ago. I find studying Kanji very gratifying. The only thing more aggravating than the shit I have to put up with on the train on a daily basis is the loss of my independence. Back home in New York, of course, I was very independent. And why shouldn’t I be? I could read, write, and speak fluently- three capabilities I’ve added to my long and growing list of things I’ve taken for granted that I’ve been keeping since I’ve been living here in the land of all that is cute and small. The truth is, that little boy who couldn’t stop staring at me if there was a gun to his head was more literate than I. I couldn’t even read that gum advertisement behind my head that everyone seemed to find so compelling every time I looked around. I’d stared at the various characters, the 3 written languages used to concoct a message oh-so-subtly associating sex with fresh breath, (if I was reading the message in the eyes and smile of the slightly suggestively dressed girl in the ad correctly,) and I couldn’t understand it for the life of me. So, I’ve undertaken the fairly insurmountable task of studying a foreign language, spoken and written, so completely different from the Romantic, Germanic, Greek and Roman based languages I was reared on and exposed to as a youth that I literally have to change my way of thinking, the goddamn polarity of my brain just to comprehend it. It’s a challenge, to say the least. But, I love a good challenge, sometimes.

So, I whipped them out.

By the way…need I mention that everything I do, every move I make, every thought I think, every feeling I feel, what I wear, what I eat, where I live, how long I sleep, and in what position, what I do in my free time, what I did before I came here and most importantly why the hell did I come here in the first place, is in the forefront of nearly every mind in my vicinity? I do? Ok, consider it mentioned. I should also mention that in addition to speculation I’m not above exaggeration, either. Hell, I’ve always been a little on the dramatic side, and accused of thinking too much, so speculation and exaggeration suit me. However, I don’t believe I’ve exaggerated thus far and don’t intend to exaggerate moving forward, but I might. I know what they’re thinking because I’m asked these questions and many other similar questions so often that I’ve taken to playing with the answers, flirting with absurdity and even with brutal honesty depending on my mood, just to see the reaction:

“Well, I came here because I’m infatuated with your women…they’re so damn cute. Everyone back home wants one but they’re virtually inaccessible or completely Americanized, and who needs that shit? But, here, I can’t keep them off of me!” “I came here because you’re country is so friggin’ safe! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t live in constant fear for my life back home in NY. Thank god for Guiliani! He really cleaned it up, but there’s still too much crime for me.” “I eat Macdonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner…sometimes I make Macdonald’s microwavable meals at home, when I’m feeling lazy, which is often as you all well know. By the way, how is the Mickey D Corporation doing in this market?” “Well, I like all Japanese food except two things: Natto and Goiya. Oh, you love Natto? You eat it everyday? It’s very healthy, is it? Well, as we say back home, if it smells like shit and taste like shit…” “On my days off I go to strip bars and pay inordinately large amounts of cash for pretty girls desiring Louis Vitton bags and cute doodads for their cell phones to drink and do karaoke with me, and treat me like a king after a day of long hard slave labor…and then I go home and whack off to mosaic-ized censured videos of these same girls dressed in schoolgirl uniforms performing fellatio on farm animals. You, too? Stop lying!” “Actually, it’s about a foot long…sorry I don’t know metrics. My country is one of the few remaining metric-free societies on earth, for some reason. Like a baby’s arm I suppose would be the best image…No, a Japanese baby’s arm, I’m afraid.” “Yes, I can speak a little Japanese and I’m studying Kanji. It is difficult, isn’t it? Yes, the English ABCs are much easier. And, I’m pushing my limited attention span and intellect to the limit just to be able to read at the average Japanese child’s level.”

Yes, like Natto, Kanji is one of those Asian things that is held up as virtually indigestible by western minds and taste buds, which I gotta tell you, motivates me all the more to tackle it. Whipping out the Kanji always causes a stir. I can only feel the tension around me, thick as molasses. I wish I could view it through a hidden camera. So powerful in fact that the businessman who’d so fearlessly claimed the seat beside mine felt compelled to take it further than anyone had in my 2+ years.

“You’re studying Kanji, aren’t you? How wonderful!!” he said in Japanese, presuming I must be able to speak it if I was endeavoring to read it.

I smiled and nodded, “yes, I am,” in Japanese. “But, I’m not very good.” Humility is the rule of the day I’ve long since learned. But, by using Japanese I’d made a mistake. Maybe I was in shock that someone had actually spoken to me, in Japanese. It was the rare occasion that a stranger spoke or even replied to me in any satisfactory fashion. But I’d forgotten my golden rule; a rule I’d set for myself, which should have made it all the more memorable: Always speak English in a confrontational situation. Language is power, and in Japanese I remain essentially powerless. But, in English, in this English-crazed society, lay my power base and I had stupidly forfeited it.

He proceeded to tear into me in Japanese, at natural speed. And though I could grasp the gist of his speech, and the soft reprimand in his tone, I certainly hadn’t comprehended enough to reply substantially. He was talking about how foreigners usually don’t try to do something, and how very few are able to do something, and how he used to do something, etc…You can probably tell where my weak area is in Japanese. It’s my vocabulary, especially nouns. Subjects and objects get entangled in a web of complex sentence structures, honorifics, and a whole host of particles with multiple meanings. Yeah, I was caught in a web and he knew it. He’d humbled me, I felt, though I doubt anyone else in listening range felt gratified aside from him. I’m sure my face said “I’m embarrassed that I don’t understand a goddamn thing you’re saying,” but my mouth said, “Yes, that’s right, isn’t it?” A typical non-confrontational response I’d picked up from listening to conversations on the train and what-not. And, in doing so, I’d broken my golden rule #2: If you don’t understand, by no means should you pretend to understand. And from his smile I could tell I’d given a totally inappropriate response to what he’d just said, illustrating my ignorance for all to see and hear, or that I had confirmed some stereotype about westerners he’d proclaimed in all ignorance.

Now, I felt like shit, and was angry enough to eat glass. But, I held fast to golden rule #3, which is to smile at all times, which was a mistake as well, for after breaking rules 1 and 2, rule #3 became a moot point. Smiling was a way to alleviate the uneasiness Japanese have with communicating with foreigners. Our propensity to display emotions, especially anger, disgust, or confusion, went totally against the basics of Japanese communication methods. The smile is an essential communication tool. A Japanese person could be talking about anything from root canal to the recent death of a loved one after a 10 year painful battle with cancer, and smile through the entire story. And if they did have a lapse and exposed their true feelings on the matter, would apologize profusely for upsetting the listener. One of my students had brought this to my attention when I explained to her my frustrations with constantly being misunderstood when I tried to speak Japanese…she suggested it was because I was displaying too many emotions and should try to default to a smile at all times. Not a crazy shit-eating grin like some kind of puppet but just a look of pleasant interest, or unperturbed tranquility, or just plain good humor. But, this was not the time for any of the above. This asshole had just tried to humiliate me and I should have come at him with both barrels blazing…but I didn’t. Why? Because I really don’t know what he said…for all I knew, he’d said that he really admired me for undertaking the study of Kanji, something most foreigners would never attempt. Maybe my studying had changed his whole view of Westerners and from now on he’d be able to see foreigners as individuals rather than as a group. Maybe he’d spend the rest of the day re-evaluating all of the judgments he’d made about westerners, questioning the stereotypes he’d held up as truths, and actually share his thoughts and this experience with his co-workers or family. Maybe one day when his teenage daughter comes home talking about her new gaijin boyfriend he won’t kill her, only beat her senseless, then disown her…

And, that, I decided, was why I was angry. It was because, after 2.5 years here in the Kawaiiland, living among these cultists, I still don’t understand a goddamn thing! (Now, that’s an exaggeration…)

At the next stop, there was another mad revolution of passengers, incoming and outgoing, including the man who’d been sitting beside me. He bowed to me a bit on his way out, extending me a courtesy that I found to be both exhilarating and ironic. And, once again, the seat next to me was free. I waited to see who the next brave soul would be. It turned out to be a girl this time. She was tall, in heels, and mulatto tan, possibly from the beach but more than likely from the salon. She gave me “the glance-” a once-over where the dangers of coming near me are pondered. She stumbled a bit in her pumps in her hesitation, but, to her credit, at least she didn’t jump out of her skin (watch “Scooby-Doo meets the creature from the black lagoon” for an illustration of this) like most people do. She peeked around to see if there were any other seats available, and upon finding none, and with the body language equivalent of “Fuck it, I have a long ride and I want to sit down,” she gingerly planted her sweetness beside me. And I do mean sweetness. She could have been 16 or 32, there’s no way of knowing for sure…unless you’re Japanese. White silk ruffled mini-skirt riding high on her upper thighs, long, slim, hairless legs down to there (knees locked, to the point of buckling, which was the norm,) hanging from the crook of her arm- the ubiquitous Louis Vitton mini duffle handbag overstuffed with shit, mostly pink, mirror and cell phone jutting out of it, Pikachu or some weird cartoon character dangling from it, tiny pictures of her girlfriends posing, flashing the “peace” sign surrounded by tiny pink flowers and Kanji (I couldn’t fucking read) all over it, designer shopping bag from “Pinky Girls” in her other hand…super–padded wonder-bra enhanced cleavage peeking from beneath a barely-enough pink blouse that matched her pumps. Hell, she even smelled pink.

Her skirt rode up so high when she sat down that she had to place her bag in her lap to keep her panties from becoming part of the spectacle that she obviously wanted to be. At least in the NYC subway she could accurately be described as seeking attention. Hard to tell what the girls here have in mind, drawing attention generally speaking being such a cultural no-no. And this kind of style and dress- so prevalent here in Tokyo- for some reason, (as a full-blooded man, I can’t explain,) often goes ignored.

The flesh of her thigh was against mine, and lusty thoughts entered my mind. I peeked at her sideways. I could just barely see her eyeball peeking at me from the corner of her socket, for she was looking down, and when people look down here it often appears their eyes are shut. I always wonder why the Manga characters in the cartoons and comic books always look all big-eyed while the life-like characters on official stuff, like post discouraging public drunkenness, and request for courtesy for the elderly and pregnant, always had eyes that looked closed. The latter seemed more accurate while the former seemed to be the goal of the younger girls. She was digging through her LV bag pulling out little pouches of make-up and utensils to apply it, and then began doing so. She planted a mirror, that seemed too big to have fit in her bag, on top of her bag, and got to work. Teasing eye brows, attaching false eye-lashes, applying powder, and sprinkles, and lip stick and liner. All under the scrutiny of passengers displaying little or no emotion. She obviously didn’t care what people thought. This was the style of late. And she was definitely in-style. She could’ve been a spoiled rich girl or a hostess going to spend last night’s hard earned loot. Office lady or student seemed unlikely.

She reminded me of one of the two “Pinky Girls” I’d been able to pick-up since my arrival here. One, Tomomi, I had had an episode with last year. She wasn’t a hostess, but a spoiled, rich girl. She could speak English enough to understand and use some chosen erotica I’d taught her to use when we were together. I’ll never forget our first date. We went to dinner. She insisted on paying. Then we went to an internet café, with private booths, so that I could show her some pictures of my family and hometown, and wind up staying there all night- me, watching movies with headphones, drinking coffee and smoking Black & Milds, while she performed fellatio on me until I was drained several times. This girl could be a carbon copy my erection informed me. I tried to keep my lascivious thoughts at bay, and focus my mind on penetrating this written language, but the warmth of her thigh rubbing against mine and her periodic surreptitious glances at me through the reflection in her mirror were distracting me from my Kanji study.

Finally, I couldn’t hold back anymore and, driven by visions of another Tomomi moment in an internet café I turned and asked her could she help me out for a moment.

“This Kanji is so difficult,” I said, in formal Japanese.

“It is, isn’t it?” she replied, turning red and smiling, exposing what had to be the most busted set of choppers I’ve seen in this land of busted choppers. She had the triple threat: Egg-yolk yellow, crooked and those double layered numbers that are so common here.

I pressed on…I wasn’t going to let those choppers stop me. Shit, even Tomomi had the back-up choppers, but they didn’t affect her oral skills whatsoever.

“Can you speak English?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, but my English is terrible,” she said.

I couldn’t tell if she was being modest or trying to hold on to her power-base. The women here may be cute and shallow but what they lack in imagination, they more than make up for with- hell, I don’t even know what to call it, but it’s as effective as anything I’ve encountered in the US. There’s really no way to tell what they’re thinking…I wonder if it was the same in the US. I really can’t remember. But, one thing is for sure. Talking to a stranger on the train- especially a stranger from another planet- an uncivilized planet at that, where people carry guns and steal from one another, and have strange, deadly diseases, and openly show their emotions and have no shame whatsoever- was definitely not on her to-do list. Well, maybe definitely is too strong a word. Of course, the order of the day is politeness and tolerance of my flagrant rudeness so I just capitalize on that notion and sometimes it pays off. Politeness can lead all the way to the Internet café or a Love Hotel here, and has on several occasions.

“Really,” I said. “Well, my Nihon-go is terrible too.”

“You are really skillful at Japanese,” she said, exposing those choppers again. “How long have you lived here?” she asked, pressing on herself.

“About 2 years, but I still can’t speak.”

“You are mistaken, I wonder,” she said, I think. “And you are studying Kanji, too? That’s wonderful! I can’t read Kanji well.”

“Seriously?”

“It’s the truth.”

Everybody says the same thing when they learn I’m studying Kanji. I found out what it really means through my constant questioning. What that means is: I can only read and write the essential Kanji, roughly 2000 or 2500 or so. Or, it means, I don’t write Kanji very often because I’m always using a cell phone or the computer, and I’ve forgotten many because I seldom read books. Only magazines and newspapers which pretty much stick to the essential Kanji. In other words, it’s a bit of humbleness. Only being able to read 2500 Kanji is like a New Yorker saying I can only read anything you put in front of me but I may need a dictionary for some of the technical jargon or rarely used words.

“Well, do you know this one?” I asked.

She glanced at it and was about to tell me when a cell phone started playing a cute little J-Pop jingle. “Please excuse me for a moment.”

She answered the phone and started talking a mile a minute in muffled tones to a girlfriend about something I couldn’t quite catch. I did hear the words “foreigner” and “cool” several times, however. Abruptly, as we pulled into Shinjuku, she leapt up and begged my forgiveness. “I am very sorry, but I get off here. Do your best with the Kanji! Take care, see you again, maybe.” She gave me a little bow and made her way, heels clopping, knees knocking, to the exit, along with most of the people on the train. I was headed to Shibuya, so I didn’t get off, as tempted as I was to follow her and get her e-mail address.

I sat there a moment mourning yet another lost opportunity.

 


43 Responses to “An empty seat on a crowded train”


  1. 1 jusuo
    October 21, 2008 at 12:31 am

    man, i can’t believe this has no hits? this blog is brilliant and i thank god that i found it while it was still fresh.

    you’re going to be big. and i hope i’m right.

    keep at em locohama! you got props from me!

  2. 2 Locohama
    October 21, 2008 at 2:09 am

    Thanks Jusuo, it’s nice to know I have an audience. I hope you’re right too (-: I was starting to think I was alone out her in cyberspace. Tell a friend why don’t ya. (-;
    loco

  3. 3 sputnik
    October 24, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Saw this on japundit.com, I hope it attracts some more readers for you!
    http://www.japundit.com/Gaijin-in-Japan/An-empty-seat-on-a-crowded-train

  4. 4 Locohama
    October 24, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks Sputnik! I hope so too. Come back and check me out again. I’ll be updating regularly. Japan always gives me something to talk about.
    (-:

  5. 5 Clive
    October 25, 2008 at 11:20 am

    Hey Locohama,

    I’m another referral from Japundit.
    This blog is great, and terrific writing. Keep it up man.🙂

  6. 6 Locohama
    October 25, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Thanks Clive! I’ll do my best(-;

  7. 7 Zen
    October 27, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Omoshirui, ganbatte ne!

  8. 8 Locohama
    October 27, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Arigatou! Ganbarimasu

  9. October 28, 2008 at 2:20 am

    Hey Loco,

    Did a quick round of my old blogs and came across Japundit. Glanced through a few posts and realised why I liked it in the first place. I thought I’d be able to get some insightful help on manners and etiquette through your piece, “How I learned to bow”, but I stumbled into a whole new world. I’m reading Gaijinsmash, 7:10toTokyo and a few others at the mo’, but although all insightful in their own way, there is something about your writing voice that holds me. Maybe it’s just me, but GaijinSmash will write the exact same thing, say a train episode, but the tone and voice just comes out slightly different to yours.

    BTW, I’m in online media {www.e21media.com}and a sometime writer. Check out my defunct blog sometime. I think I will sum up my experiences here in Disneyland in short story form or novella, as I can’t maintain a blog. Keep it up, and oh you might want to stick big fat juicy RSS icon on the top of the page. It took me a while to find your feed.

    Dude from the Dirty Smoke

  10. 10 Locohama
    October 28, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Thanks for the reply Paul!!! Dude from the Dirty Smoke…Is that like “Dances with wolves”? Cool moniker nonetheless. Thanks for the feedback. I try to keep my voice as honest as possible, everything else is just what’s in there. But thanks for the heads up. I will check all of the above including your defunct website. Please continue to visit. i will try to update regularly if not daily. feedback motivates me…

    loco

  11. 11 Low Frost
    October 29, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Awesome, another website about brothers in Japan. Represent, Loco, and know that back in the states, we’re rooting for you.

  12. 12 Locohama
    October 29, 2008 at 10:51 am

    Low Frost, good looking out! And thanks for hollering! I’m actually heading home this week for a spell to drop my ballot for the man the RNC loves to hate. So, a nuch overdue NY fix is pending. I can’t wait to get me some of Moms cooking. It’s been a minute. A loong ass minute. Holler anytime.

    loco

  13. 13 herve
    November 23, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Hi, I’ve just discovered this blog, this is brilliant🙂 Cheers and keep it on

  14. 14 Locohama
    November 23, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks Herve (-; I will indeed keep it on

    Loco

  15. December 13, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    Hey- did the long comment I wrote to this post get lost in the system Loco- or moderated out?

    • 16 Locohama
      December 14, 2008 at 12:03 am

      Hey Micheal,

      Must have gotten lost in the system…a thousand pardons)-; I have two long ones by you…there was a third? If you have a record of it, drop it again and I’ll post it. Can’t imagine why I’d moderate it out…

      Loco

  16. December 14, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Ah, it was really long, wish I’d saved it. Hmm. Was about getting angry about stuff in Japan, and how I think it gets you nowhere. What I’ve seen in myself and my friends- the more angry you get about the small things, the cultural things, the more you just exhaust yourself. It’s like beating your head against a brick wall. You may, through extreme effort, be able to dislodge a brick or two. But you can’t knock down the wall. And you’ll break your skull.

    My friends that get really angry about smokers on streets or in restaurants, about people brushing them in the street and not apologizing, people riding bicycles on the wrong side of the street- sometimes they take it to the person and get in their face about what they did. Hold up the dropped trash, or point angrily at a no-smoking sign. You’d think this might provide some catharsis- but it only ever seems to anger them further, as the J-folk targeted take it all in a non-plussed unapologetic way.

    Hence my belief- better to be a reed that bends in the wind than a tree that tries to stand up against it, because you’ll get ripped in half. You can’t change the Japanese character, and shouldn’t expect it to. Sure you may perceive some of it as anti-foreigner. (I don’t like to use the ‘R’ word about anything J-people do, it just doesn’t seem to fit. We are NOT victims here, cos we’re here by choice. We’re not being oppressed when we chose it of our own free will.) But we’ve got to live and let live.

    I think my 3 year stint as an ALT hammered this into me. The kids were impossible to control, cos the teachers had no power. That;’s the way the system is- and all the teachers suffered for it. Regularly one teacher or another would fall to their knees in the staff room to weep and beg another higher up teacher to do something about the kids in their class. In Japan you can’t send a kid out of the classroom, can’t give them detention or extra homework- you essentially have zero power over them. So those that run wiuld, run wild.

    I wanted to be the stiff tree in this system. I’ve handled kids before, and knew they needed discipline, so I was strict. Over a period of months this led to a rivalry between me and the worst kid, which culminated with us squaring off in the corridor, surrounded by teachers behind me, his friends encircling me, prodding me. And what could I do? I desperately wanted to headbutt the kid and beat the crap out of him- but that was clearly wrong, and reprisals against me legally could have been very strong. No teacher intervened to break us up. So I had to walk away. After that, I realized it was too much energy to try to make these changes. They’re changes that need to be made in the culture, at the highest levels- not by me on the fringe.

    And so, after that, I saw the costs far outweighed the benefits to try to make a change. Sure this won’t apply to everything- but you need the wisdom to know which things you can change, and which you can’t. That comes from experience.

    Siting on the train now, I squish myself up as tight as possible when it’s busy, to show J-folk I’m not threatening and it’s ok to sit next to me. It’s just what you do. Rarely do I have the seat next to me free, and if I do, it doesn’t bother me- I don’t even think about it.

    My thoughts.

    • 18 Locohama
      December 14, 2008 at 12:54 pm

      Well said…I’ve basically come to the same conclusion actually. Thus I’ve put together my top 10 list of ways not to lose the bricks in your head (-: or the few marbles you may have left. Number 1 deals with not being yourself. As in don’t take offense to things YOU would normally find offensive. Another tip dealt with smiling which another way of saying be a weed (I mean reed) not a tree. All the tips amount to not trying to fight the power but manipulate the power as best you can with the weapons at your disposal without upsetting the status quo so much that an altercation of the likes you described occurs (I’ve had several myself) etc etc. Thanks for the comment, Micheal. Thoughtful and pertinent as usual! And sorry the original got lost in the system.

      Loco

  17. 19 toranosuke
    December 17, 2008 at 12:45 am

    I agree with Michael. Well said.

    I’d imagine it’s tougher as a 黒人 to fit in and to not be discriminated against; or at the very least, it’s tougher to not imagine you’re being discriminated against than as a 白人。

    Sure, there are definitely times we all experience blatant, obvious, discrimination. But for the most part I have found (particularly in comparing my experience five years ago as a 留学生 to this past year as an older, more experienced, more knowledgeable 旅人) that a lot of gaijin’s discomfort stems from paranoia, overactive imaginations, and assumptions. Just because people are whispering and you think you might have heard the word “gaijin” doesn’t mean they’re talking about you. Just because they’re not sitting next to you doesn’t mean they’re horrible racist people. (Not that I’m arguing with your original post, and your right to be upset. By all means, when it’s a blatant obvious thing, you have every right to be annoyed.)

    In any case, whether the offense is for real, or imagined, it may often be better to be like the reed in the wind. I won’t say anything about how unchangeable or impenetrable Japanese society is; I don’t approach this from that head-against-a-brick-wall sort of attitude. Rather, just focus on the fact that being upset about it is going to accomplish nothing but to make you upset; you ruin your own day.

    Incidentally, I just returned to NY after living in Yokohama for a year. Where in the Hama are you living? Where are you working? What are you up to? I miss Yokohama terribly…

  18. 20 Cryptnotic
    December 18, 2008 at 2:53 am

    It seems most people didn’t get past the discrimination on the train thing. Too bad, that part is pretty boring. If you made it past the boring part you got to the funniest part of this post, the lustful encounter with the “Pinky Girl” and the reminiscing about an encounter with another similar girl. Freaking hilarious.

  19. 21 XO
    January 6, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    “alot of gaijin’s discomfort stems from paranoia, overactive imaginations, and assumptions.”

    I have been here 8 years, and trust me, it is not paranoia, overactive imaginations, and assumptions. There is almost constant fear and loathing about foreigners. And the hateful behavior is both large and small. Besides things like grabbing their children and saying abunai when you walk by, there are more serious offences. Have you tried to apply for a mortgage? How about permanent residency? And that is on top of the intense everyday onslaught of insults. I honestly do not understand the denialism. It seems like I live in a different Japan.

    • January 6, 2009 at 10:20 pm

      Denialism!!! Wow…Extremely well said my friend!!!

      Thanks again!

      Loco

  20. January 12, 2009 at 4:55 am

    Hello Loco, I recently discovered your site and am in the process of reading through it.

    I was wondering whether the Japanese dislike of foreigners is the same no matter what part of the world you come from, or whether there are different reactions. For example, a lot of the blogs about Japan that I read mention how the Japanese view the West and Westerners, however, would this apply to people from eastern Europe and Russia?

    I myself am part-Russian, part-Ukrainian, and grew up in London, and was wondering whether I would be included in the Japanese idea of the West, as it seems that I share a few of the stereotypes of the West with the Japanese, despite the fact that I know that they are mostly only partially true or exaggerations.

    I’ve always dreamed of visiting Japan but never had the chance, and it’s blogs like yours that at least give me an insight as to what it would be like to be there. Keep the good work up!

    SovietRussia

    • January 12, 2009 at 10:02 am

      Hi SovietRussia (-:
      Thanks for your comments…I will indeed keep it up.
      In short, the answer to your question is yes, in my opinion. I think their reaction to you will be based on your outside appearance, and if that appearance does not conform to what they feel “comfortable” with, which is invariably “Asian” (Koreans and Chinese may slide through the kimono curtain if they keep their mouths shut or if they’ve lived here long enough to conform their behavior so as to be undetectable on sight) they will respond as I have tried painstakingly to describe. Foreigners will receive the “outsider” treatment on sight. Of course, The Japanese people you get to know will accept you (or not) based on your individual qualities regardless of where you’re from (I’ve found). It’s just that the vast majority of people you will never know and will never know you and thus brace yourself for a bit of what I’ve discussed in my blog. You might want to check out my 10 ways NOT to go Loco in Yokohama for tips to reduce the amount of disruption your presence will cause here.
      I believe there’s a harmony to life here…You can feel it wherever you go. The Japanese kind of live in synchronism with one another, so “naturally” if there’s something in the environment that is “out of sync” it’s going to cause ripples of disharmony, and this is very upsetting to most people here. We are, or rather, we cause the ripples. And there’s not much that can be done except to minimize the dis-harmonizing affect you will have and ignore the reaction to the disharmony you cause. If you are able to I’m sure you can enjoy your stay here tremendously.

      Sorry I couldn’t give you any better news than that.
      Thanks for reading and please keep checking me out.

      Loco

  21. 25 XO
    January 15, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Loco-It’s a good post, and you answer his question well. But I would add that it is often said that the more you fit in, the more disharmony you cause. I am sure you have heard the famous quote that a hen na gaijin is one acting Japanese. My experience is that the more you fit in, the more they do not like you. Obviously, a large amount of not fitting in will also cause disharmony. But if you quietly sit there, not speaking Japanese etc, I think they prefer it. As long as you are safely constrained in your box of otherness, then you are not as threatening. So, how do you minimize the dis-harmonizing effect? More fitting in equals more disharmony, less fitting in means more otherness and a second-class citizenship. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…

  22. January 15, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Well, XO, I think you and I are having a VERY similar experience here in Japan. I’d be curious to know more about how you cope…you wouldn’t by chance have a blog or anything? I’d love to read what you’ve got to say…

    thanks again for shout, vote of confidence and the great responses (-;

    Loco

  23. 27 XO
    January 17, 2009 at 12:10 am

    One way I try to cope is to try to understand it. Here is my current theory, I would like to hear what you think of it.

    First, note the common misery amongst the Japanese, with the highest rate of suicide in the world etc. Lots of frustrated people here. And there is no need to wonder why they are so frustrated. If you watch, they intensely bully each other, such as mother-in-laws abusing their daughter-in-laws, for example. They have an intense power-based social structure that means that the pe-pe can only take shit and like it. And this happens at work, home, or at play. They do not have the verbal-based culture that allows them to get their frustration off of their chests. So, they walk around looking for someone to bully, just they have been bullied. Then they see you, and well why not attack the weak? So all of this over-reaction and passive-aggressive hostility is just a form of bullying. We are just easy targets for their frustration. The root cause is not really racism, but their internalised frustrations that makes them go on attack.

    That’s where I currently am…What do you think?

    • January 17, 2009 at 12:35 am

      Hey XO! Your theory is an interesting one that I hadn’t considered at all…and I’d thought I’d run the gamut in my attempts to rationalize their behavior…the idea of them passively-aggressively bullying me never even approached being an idea of mine. WOW. However I have noticed the extreme amount of socialized bullying that goes on in all age groups. And the psychological impact it has on the bullied. However, one of my theories, in regards to how this phenomenon affects us is that they are resentful and jealous that we are not subject to the same bullying they have to endure…that we can enjoy certain “fruits” of their society without having to suck on the Natto. And so their acting out and showing their asses is the result. Them seeing us as weak never occurred to me…the fear I see I couldn’t attribute to a person who saw me as weak. Maybe culturally inferior, but not weaker.
      And, while they don’t have the verbal based culture for venting, they do have what I’ve heard referred to as “Nomu-nication” which i’m sure you know basically means they can get shit off their chest after office hours after they’ve had a few nama biirus.It’s actually culturally allowed…even with a superior- within reason. Can’t slug him or cuss him out or anything.
      And I wholeheartedly agree with you that understanding is a key to coping. Man we are definitely on the same page….

      Thanks again for such thoughtful and thought provoking responses!!!

      Loco

  24. February 8, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    LOCO!

    It happens to me too. That empty seat. I thought it was funny at first but after 5 years you really gotta stop laughing.

    Japan ain’t for a foreigner who is a weakling.

    You and me think alike in a way.
    James

  25. 30 douglas
    February 13, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    nice blog…..wish i could write like that

    same empty seat thing happened to me today while 3 across from me squished together and I was all alone with empty seats to my right and my left

    the way i deal with things is thinking i am on another planet and also keeping a blog for people back home – and knowing i will return to the U.S. one day

    the longer i am here, the more i grow to love the U.S. even though it is not as dangerous here and not as noisy

  26. 31 Chantelle
    February 17, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    ZOMG….i’m reading this and finding it interesting….so far i’m by the part when he sat next too you!!! I then scrolled down the page saw the length of the post and chuckled…..this is going to be interesting….i guess you’re a writter!!!!

    brb🙂

    • February 17, 2009 at 10:39 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying so far!

      Loco

  27. 33 Chantelle
    February 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    ok..i finished it and it’s a nicely written piece. I’m hoping too work in Japan on the Jet Programme and what you’ve said hasn’t put me off….in fact i expect all of the above!!!! Great Blog🙂

    • February 17, 2009 at 11:16 pm

      Good, not trying to put you off. just my experience. Yours may be totally different…maybe heheh

      good luck to you and thanks again for the shout!!!

      Loco

  28. 35 Steve
    February 26, 2009 at 4:43 am

    Great post. I’ve had the empty seat experience as well.
    I try to turn it on them. With an empty seat on a crowded train, I’ll look and refuse to sit in it🙂

    I’ve had the henna gaijin experience as well. I was in a nice sushi bar in Ginza when a drunk chef came out, stood behind me, and ranted “henna gaijin.” With a packed counter, I turned and yelled “Baka Yaro!!!” The other chefs laughed and called him off. The customers were in shock.

    For the most part, I take the good with the bad and there is far more good than bad.
    There are far more women who go ga ga than idiots who say “henna gaijin.” That’s a win in my view.

    Otsukaresama.
    Steve.

    • February 26, 2009 at 10:34 am

      Hey Steve, thanks for the shout.
      Turning it back on them does offer a measure of satisfaction from time to time doesn’t it? (-;
      I wished the good outweighed the bad for me as well…you’re lucky! I’d be happy for 50/50

      Loco

  29. February 26, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    This is a great story. すきですよ! I want to go to Japan someday. わたしの大学で日本語をべんきょうします。もとかきますを 下さい。

  30. 38 BK
    May 18, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Well I live in metro downtown tokyo and have been experiencing this Japanese shell shocked, racist, behavior a long time. But what’s funny with all the media hype portraying blacks as evil, here we have barely scratched the surface of what was done to them in Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in one week.

  31. 39 roler
    September 9, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    it ain’t where u from it’s where u at, nice story yo, but here in osaka, where my japanese sucks ass and i don’t try and study to improve it, i just live, and not to just get by but to do me and fam… come ride the train with me and check how the folks act, none of that bullshit seat left open crap, u better get urs b4 obachan elbows u there, i’ve given my seat to the oldschool and was surprise to hear the old lady say “why don’t young japanese men do the same” i must admit when i first got here the stares where disconcerting, but after sec and a homeboy once said, u’d stare too if u saw someone green walkin down the street. there have been times when my oldest son did face bullying in school becuz he was the only african american in the place(sink or swim baby)! but after an agressive brooklyn style parenting conference in which fathers were threatened with “we tried it the japanese way of turn the other cheek, now we’ll try it the brooklyn way of after school special ass kickin, on the daily!!” well of course the gaijion go home chants morphed into thanks for takin a stance on behalf of the weaker kids, but really i can say thats really been the extent of my racist encounters here in osaka, i have to say osaka just seems different from other places here…kinda surface but real artisty!! more openess, friendly for the most part, even my yakuza homies carry themselves different and i’ve been in a room full of 30 so, and not once did anyone speak out the side of their face, even while drunk becuz nigga’s know it ain’t where ya from it where u at!!!

  32. 40 roler
    September 9, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    p.s. loco u also live in an area of high military bitterness, compound that with the way some gaijin act, u have a receipe for zenophobia!! remember this is a 3rd world country with 1st world money!! na!!

  33. 41 Oli
    November 16, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I just found your blog, and I have to say it is really really enjoyable and intriguing to read! I’ve started to learn Japanese myself, and it definitely isn’t easy to rewire your brain to comprehend it, or so it seems. Keep up the killer posts!


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Please know that this blog is my original writing and may not be reproduced in any way without the expressed written permission of the author (that's me!) Thanks!

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