Becoming the other: Japan, 1986

With a fellow student at Kansai Gaidai, 1985Perhaps you’ve read about how foreigners (gaijin) get treated in Japan: with a mix of deference, admiration, condescension, and occasional outright hostility, depending on the circumstance. During the year I lived there, I experienced all four, and I must admit that at times my drunken, loutish behavior warranted far more hostility than I actually encountered. I sometimes resented the stereotyping of gaijin in general and Americans in particular, but I also liked the way it let me coast on my imperfect language skills, since everybody tended to ask the same questions and make the same observations at first meeting, and it didn’t take long to figure out what kinds of responses would satisfy them. And such was my desire to be liked, it never once occurred to me to try to rock the boat a little by taking exception to some of the standard, polite generalizations about our two countries. (“Yes, America might look more spacious [hiroi] than Japan, but are spaciousness and narrowness [semai] really a function of physical geography alone, do you think?”)

Only country people and children ever broke the mold much, and I didn’t have too much interaction with either. One exception: a week-long stint as language tutor and counselor at a summer-camp type thing for primary school students in the Japan Alps. Until then, my main experience with that age group had been the endless hellos shouted at me across the street by exuberant kids on outings with their teachers. That always made me feel like the most popular beast at the zoo: thanks for the attention, but please go away.

When I met the summer-camp kids and their teachers at the bullet train platform, they were initially more respectful, no doubt having been told in advance to behave. But after about five minutes, their high spirits prevailed and they began horsing around and jumping all over me, boys and girls alike. The beast was out of its cage, and it wasn’t too scary! This was going to be O.K., I thought. I can play fun-loving American for a week. I remember teaching them how to make a piercing whistle with a blade of grass and how to make music by turning one’s mouth and cheeks into drums. We sang songs, told stories, rode ski lifts — the usual summer camp stuff.

One thing that’s kind of hard to express is how odd it did feel to see other foreigners in Japan. After a while I kind of understood the strong reactions to gaijin, I thought, because I began to feel them myself. When a Western face appeared suddenly in a Japanese crowd, after hours or days of seeing nothing but Japanese, it could be shocking, even a little embarrassing — not because of the obvious physical differences, but because of their unguardedness, the naked emotions stamped on their features as plain as day. And the primary thing I saw on Western faces — you’d see it in any face so unguarded, I suppose — was self-absorption.

As I said, I wanted to be liked. It wasn’t a fully conscious thing, but I must’ve worked hard to develop the kind of face that wouldn’t produce an auto-xenophobic reaction when I looked in the mirror. At the very end of my stay, when I met my parents at the Osaka airport for a brief joint vacation, my mother walked right by me twice without recognizing me. I finally mustered the courage to say hello.



Japan Alps, 1986

In the thick of it—
primary school kids on furlough
storming my back, pulling
at my arms & whirling
me around—
a pair of brown eyes in
a grave ten year-old face
makes me lose my balance,
land under a laughing pile.
Like someone bent against a gale
toppled by a sudden calm.

Her face full
of my outlandishness
finds me again every time
I catch sight of a mirror—
you know that look.
Like the glance we give
a stranger when umbrellas
come down, the rain
just past & already
a clearing wind.

From Spoil: Selected Older Poems, one of ten poems there about my time in Japan.


This post was written for the >Language >Place blog carnival (deadline: March 20), this time at Parmanu.

12 Replies to “Becoming the other: Japan, 1986”

  1. A small confirmation here of something I’ve noticed during the current crises:

    And the primary thing I saw on Western faces — you’d see it in any face so unguarded, I suppose — was self-absorption.

    When another blogger questioned, “Why so little fund-raising for Japan? Why so little in the news about the consequences of the earthquake(s) and tsunami?” the answer seemed obvious to me. Earthquakes and tsunami “there” will not affect us “here”. We are obsessing over the nuclear plants because there is a possibility we will be affected.

    It’s been most instructive to compare US television coverage with that from Japan. The Japanese coverage is noticeably more evenly divided between the consequences of natural and nuclear disasters.

  2. Glad y’all enjoyed it. I look at that photo as if at someone I used to know slightly. That was almost the only time in my adult life when I didn’t have a beard.

  3. Fascinating post, observations and poem. And you actually look Japanese in that photo, Dave!
    I wonder how it *feels* to a Japanese (or Chinese or African) person to see a foreign face for the very first time – do you know of any poetry or stories written by someone who had that experience?

    1. Good question. It seems to me Chinua Achebe wrote about that in Things Fall Apart. It’s been too long since my last prolonged encounter with Japanese fiction to remember if there was anything about it there.

  4. Dave,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your story and poem about the time you spent living in Japan. I’m sure it is hard to recapture in words the depth of self-understandind and knowledge you gained through this experience, and you did a great job.

    Please take a minute to view my piece from Language Carnival, room 19.


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