Imagination without action is dreaming. But, my imagination is my life and sanity preserver. Without it, I’d drown for sure. For example, take this morning. When I got on the train it wasn’t very crowded, so I was able to find a seat easily. There are about 10 stops between mine and Shibuya, my destination, and at each stop the train gets more and more crowded. And, as each passenger enters through the door nearest me they are presented with the option of sitting beside me and sitting elsewhere. The latter is taken. Even if the other available seat is at the far end of the car, and the choice is a sure bet next to me and a low percentage chance of capturing another seat, you better believe they go against the odds. But, actually, the people with options are not much fun. They don’t stop and think…it’s a no-brainer, and so it’s clear that the only thing that occurred to them was to find a seat elsewhere. It’s when all the other seats are filled that it becomes interesting, and that’s when I really begin my daily game and my imagination gets its daily workout.

I don’t know exactly why Japanese people are afraid of me, but I have some ideas. And that’s how I entertain myself these days, which is a vast improvement over the anger I felt everyday last year. Based on my observations, the limited knowledge I’ve accumulated through teaching and getting to know students over the past three years, various conversations I’ve had over that time, and, admittedly, my utter frustration at not being able to affect change, I can imagine the conversation some people are having with themselves upon seeing me seated beside the coveted seat:

Enter: Salaryman (Japanese office worker (male)- Wow! There’s a seat! Oh no, this old bitch besides me sees it, too. Must hurry! If I can sit down then I can review the documents for the presentation I have to make today to those representatives from Fujimoto company. If we don’t get this account it’s likely that there will be no bonuses and…what the hell?! A foreigner! And, a black one, at that. Great! He’s probably one of those pull men, like the ones I read about in the newspaper. They pull unsuspecting honest hardworking Japanese, like me, into Yakuza controlled establishments of ill repute and we leave about 200,000 yen lighter, with nothing to show for it. Best I sit elsewhere. Shit, there aren’t any other seats. Shit, he’s looking at me! He knows I want to sit down. Let me pretend to find this advertisement interesting. I should sit down. After all, this is my country. And he doesn’t look so bad. He is wearing a suit and tie. Maybe he’s a Salaryman like me, just trying to make a living. Or, it could be a disguise! Some of these foreign guys are pretty treacherous, people say. No, I’d better not risk it. Safety first. Just keep my distance…

Enter Office Lady (female office worker)- Damn, crowded again! I hope I don’t wound up next to a pervert again. Last week, that guy’s hand was all over my ass, and his nasty breath clung to my blouse all day at work. I’m sure my co-workers smelled it. If that happens again, I swear I’m going to scream. You always say that, Yoko, but you never do. You’re such a…wait a second! Is that a seat? Why the hell aren’t those people in front of it sitting down? It must be something wrong with it. But, I don’t see any…oh! A foreigner. Poor guy, no one will sit next to him. Now, this is embarrassing. Shit like this makes me ashamed to be Japanese. I can’t imagine how he must feel. I wonder? He looks kind enough. Not like those foreigners I met in Roppongi last weekend, hanging out with my girlfriends. They were so aggressive and their Japanese was so crude. But, they were cute, especially that British one with the blond hair and those blue eyes. Like a British Brad Pitt! Perfect! I can imagine what our baby would look like. I should’ve gone to the Love Hotel with him when he proposed the idea. But, Yuuko’s prudish ass did it again. His black friend was coming on to her but she was afraid because of his size. He was big, though. I should’ve taken him, but I’m not into black guys. My family would never accept that. Never. Maybe a white guy, especially British. At least their manners are comparable to ours, and they speak proper English. And, I could teach him to speak Japanese more politely. But, a black guy…Oh well, I can’t sit down now. I would be a spectacle, too. Everyone will think I want to be special. No, I’d better keep my distance, too. Oh no! It’s that pervert from last week again, and he’s recognized me and maneuvering towards me. If I sit down he won’t be able to touch me but…oh, what shall I do? Life is so unfair, sometimes.

Enter: Another Salaryman- There’s a seat! I can’t believe my luck! I never get…wait…oh, a foreigner! Great! Maybe he’ll speak to me and I can practice my English a little. All of these pathetic people, afraid of a foreigner just because he can speak English and they can’t. Well, I can! I’m gonna take that seat…wait a second, Hideaki. Be honest with yourself, for once in your life. Your English sucks. Even your private teacher has trouble understanding that gibberish you call English. Your grammar is atrocious, your vocabulary’s low and your listening skills are as limited as a monkey’s. If he has trouble understanding me, then everyone will laugh at me. But, my teacher told me the only way to learn is to make mistakes, to be confident and…oh, nonsense. I can’t walk up to a perfect stranger, especially a foreigner, and start a conversation. My teacher is a foreigner, a westerner. He doesn’t understand Japanese people at all. His ideas are all based on western sociological principles which are as alien to my culture as a Shark’s is to a salmon’s. Don’t be too proud. Best to keep your distance until your English improves. But, one day, I will sit beside anyone, anywhere, and be able to communicate in the international language.

Enter: Male University Professor- …Now, how do I answer that question? The difference between Japanese society and Western Society? That’s a difficult question, Yoshi…yeah, it would probably be Yoshi who’d ask a question like that. He’s such a precocious young man. He’ll be a great professor someday. Not better than me, but damn good. Well, Yoshi, first of all, you must keep in mind that all western cultures are not the same. Secondly, I think it’s important to note that we, Japanese, have an understanding. An unspoken understanding. 99% of us want to live in a society where, for example, one does not have to worry about petty crime. Where one’s belongings can be left, say, on a table in a café, when one goes to relieve one’s self in the restroom, and return to find one’s belongings undisturbed. But, as everyone knows, while some foreigners would love to live in a similar kind of society, unfortunately, they do not…Oh, wow, A seat! Interesting! A foreigner, and a black man at that…and no one will sit beside him.

See, Yoshi, this is as clear an illustration as I can make. Now, the other passengers on this train are afraid of the foreigner, not because of his skin color, or his country of origin. They do not even know where he’s from. He could be an African monarch’s son studying abroad, or a Hip Hop artist from New York, or a Businessman from Europe. No, they are afraid of the ideas he represents, Yoshi. He’s no physical threat to anyone. If he tried anything physically he would be overwhelmed and subdued easily. Of course movies often portray people that look like him as uncivilized gun-toting maniacs, but most people know that that’s merely an image and nothing more. No, it’s his ideas that represent the threat. You see, Yoshi, because he comes from another society where the harmony we have with one another does not exist, chances are he may not have due respect for our harmonious existence. And without harmony, the soul is constantly restless. There is no peace within or without. And a restless soul is dangerously unpredictable. Chances are he will not have the same kind of respect for life and nature as we do. Not to mention the belongings of others…In fact, in most western societies, it is considered stupid, or at least lacking in common sense, to think as we think, behave as we behave, trust as we trust. So, as a result of this deficiency, or out of ignorance, or spite, or maybe even envy or jealousy, they might commit acts that Japanese would consider virtually unthinkable. Now, with that understanding in mind, is it peculiar that no one sits beside that man? Of course not. Only a fool would.

But, Yoshi, you must also understand that that fool who sits beside him may very well be the savior of our culture. Cultures must adapt and grow in order to survive. Like plants and animals and humans, cultures are alive, and need nourishment in order to survive. All cultures that have been unable to acclimate to the changes in the world are dying or have died. Our culture, our island nation, was safe from the outside world, protected by our natural ocean borders, and by certain gods some believed. Now, people tend to believe that if we remain meek and small, that we will fly under the radar, that our culture will avoid destruction because it is a modest culture. Some of them believe that if we disguise our culture in a western mask, it will go unnoticed, and the foreigners will let us be. But, Yoshi, those people are sadly mistaken.

The fool who sits beside the foreigner is a revolutionary. He’s placed himself on the front lines of the Cultural Revolution that’s well underway, whether we like it or not. He is placing himself in harm’s way for our sakes, whether he knows it or not. The dangers are real, and real necessary. Our way of life needs more than harmony and peace. Risks are essential for growth. The only way to defend oneself against a threat is to first face the threat head-on. Then, maybe you can begin to understand that threat. Why is it a threat?
And, look who the fool shall sit beside: A black man. Who better to learn from than the black man? He has been through what we will have to go through one day, and has come through it all, and survives, even thrives. Yoshi, do you not know about the black man? I do not know this particular black man’s origin but he belongs to one of two groups of black men on this planet. Either he is a descendent of slavery or a descendent of imperialism. Both have had their cultures devoured, diluted and/or poisoned by the Europeans. And, both have shown a resilience that is at once remarkable and tragic. We can learn much from both.

Especially the African-Americans; they were stripped of almost all conscious awareness of their traditional cultures. They were torn from their kingdoms, their villages, their land, their families and friends, and brought to another country, in chains, where they were forced to live according to another man’s rules, forced to build another man’s country, forced to be an asset in another man’s economy. Their religion, their languages, and their identities were stolen, and replaced with the European’s religions, languages and identities. They were naked, virtually defenseless, fit to die. But, they didn’t. Far from it. No, Yoshi, they have done more than survived. They have taken what was given to them, combined it with bits and pieces of their old cultures- integral parts of their make-up, spiritual and psychological contraband that the Europeans simply couldn’t destroy, as hard as they tried, because they couldn’t truly conceive of it, and they have created a new culture, a new identity, and some might say even some new languages. They have taken all the ingredients available to them: anger at their oppressors, pain from their brutalization, sorrow from their losses, joy from their survival, love of God and of each others strength, passion for life, and they’ve made a cultural gumbo.

Look at America, Yoshi. What do we honestly admire about America? Their military might? No. Their so-called freedom? I don’t think so. Their technological advances? Certainly not. Their New World Order? Hell no! Their resourcefulness? Perhaps. And, perhaps their variety of choices, too… But, Yoshi, what we truly admire about the Americans is their creativity: their ability to make something out of nothing. Their music, especially; most of it created by African Americans: Jazz, Gospel, Blues, R&B, Rock, even Hip-Hop and House music, which our children love so much. These are all world renowned African-American creations. And, even though they do not receive all the credit nor, god knows, the money for their creations, they just keep creating. It is their nature. They are creators. We can learn from the creators. Not exploit, as the Europeans have done for centuries, but truly learn to create. We, Japanese, specialize in taking what has been done already and tweaking it, Much of our culture was acquired from China and India. We altered it and fine tuned it, but we didn’t create it. The Europeans specialize in stealing, conquering and exploiting the creations of others for financial gain. And, if all else fails, destroying it, for their main motivation is power. But, the Africans, and their illegitimate offspring, the African-Americans, they have been and continue to be creators.

The African American has suffered much, and that suffering has caused him to grow up quickly. While all of the other races and cultures in the world are old, The African American is essentially a new race, and their culture is new, too. It is something the world has never seen, created in a vacuum of violence, pain and suffering that most people, including myself, cannot imagine or even begin to understand. They have no country, truly, for the US has always been and shall always be the white man’s land- at least until it tears itself apart. But, when we think of the evil that America represents, we think of the white man. But, when we think of the beauty that America has brought to the world, we tend to think of things that were created by African-Americans, Yoshi. The world owes them a debt of gratitude, but doesn’t truly know it yet. We are blinded by the images we see. Blindness is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Our culture is too powerful, and too influential to go undetected. It has to evolve. It tends to shy away from outside influences. We must do more than engage foreigners and their ideas. We must devour them. If we remain exclusive, if we continue to shut out the foreigners, it will become intolerable to the other powerful nations of the world, and they will come after us, guns blazing, and our culture will certainly perish. Nuclear bombs were just the beginning. The damage resulting from 2 nuclear bombs is nothing compared to the decimation resulting from a cultural war with the west. A war that, mind you, has been underway for nearly a century and it’s a war we may have lost already.

By the time I get to Shibuya, I’d written a book in my head.

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5 Responses to “By the time i get to Shibuya…”


  1. 1 Pixelate
    October 27, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    FWIW – even as a rather nondescript, petite, white female, people tend to avoid sitting next to me on the subway, and the seat next to me is generally one of the last to go.

  2. 2 Locohama
    October 28, 2008 at 12:05 am

    I feel you Pixelate! Thanks for the shout.
    I’m curious, how do you deal when it happens?

  3. 3 ItAintEazy
    October 28, 2008 at 12:37 am

    Ah, the good ole gaijin perimeter. If someone took a dump in the middle of the train, people would choose to sit across from that shitpile than risk being talked to (touched? kidnapped? raped?) by a big, scaaaaaaaary gaijin.

  4. 4 B
    October 29, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    I wish I could remember the blog but years ago I came across the blog of an African-American guy who was teaching English in China. He encountered xenophobia on an everyday basis as well, but because of cultural nuances, they were variations on a theme. For example, rather than pretending to look at the nearest inanimate object, people in China simply stared at him with a combination of bewilderment, fascination, and a healthy dose of fear.
    He too, was reminded on a daily basis of just how ‘alien’ he was and ruminated on the subject. What made it worse was that locals took it for granted that he was deaf, dumb, and blind and therefore had not learnt any Chinese. If I remember correctly, even with his limited grasp of the language he could understand them when they said things – at normal volume – like, “Wooooaaahhh, an an African!”.

    What cracked me up was that one day, just for shits and giggles, he let himself have some fun. He was walking down the street when a woman looked up and saw him and just kind of froze on the spot and stared at him, he could feel her gaze following him so just as he passed her he turned around quickly and yelled something like, “OOGGGGAAAA BOOGGGGAAA BOOOGGGGAAAA!!!!” and she freaked out and ran.

    I know it would probably confound the problem exponentially (“You see son, I experienced it first hand, black men are still wild at heart! If you see one on the train, use the bullet-proof distraction technique I taught you. That’s right, stare at the breath-mint advertisement – he won’t suspect a thing!”) but god it must be tempting sometimes!

    Apologies, my post is almost as long as yours but give yourself a pat on the back for seeing out 5 years as well. I have quite a few friends that I would describe as pretty “happy-go-lucky” who didn’t suffer the same degree of xenophobia that you’re enduring (they’re caucasian, still not accepted, but not as feared) and they still only lasted a year before they became bitter and twisted by it. So, well done! Keep writing!

  5. 5 MarkD
    November 1, 2008 at 4:27 am

    My first impression of Japan was that this is a very strange place. It couldn’t have been more different than if I had arrived on Mars. I didn’t know any of the language, and couldn’t even read katakana or hiragana.

    I ended up loving it, but I can understand why people hate it as well. I was stationed there long before there was a JET program and taught a couple of volunteer English classes in some cities far away from the base. I had a good time and got to meet a lot of good people who treated me well. In fact, it was so good I ended up staying for 5 years. Other guys hated it. Some never left the base. Many never got beyond the bars.

    One of my fonder memories is of going to a sports day at the kids’ school and having some little kindergartener come up to me all shy and showing me her name written in katakana. When I read it, Kaneko, she grabbed my finger and tried to take me away. A gaijin who can read Japanese! My class had to rescue me.

    How’s this for a change? I remember getting off the train at my then fiance’s town, going to meet her parents for the first time and getting the finger pointing “gaijin” exclamation. At the time, Saijo was very much a country town. (This is the Saijo about 45 minutes by train toward Tokyo from Hiroshima, not the Saijo on Shikoku.) About 6 years later, we went back to visit, kids in tow and didn’t even get a second glance. Hiroshima University had relocated out there, and there were foreigners all over the place. Later, walking from her parent’s house to the station, she had to ask directions because there were so many new roads.

    I’ll always be an outsider, as will you. That’s not necessarily all bad, although it gets old at times. Thanks for sharing – it brings back a lot of memories.


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