Friday, June 22, 2007

Logic is something Westerners invented to win arguments with Japanese

Had another one of my rare, but still not non-existent, encounters with Japanese-style racism today.

Usually Japanese racism is defined by ignorance of outsiders (no surprises here), a healthy sense of contempt and self-superiority, followed with an active desire to exclude outsiders. Like much of Japanese aggression, its extremely passive-aggressive. For a tiny taste, here's a link to a famous case that came out a while ago, on the blog of the somewhat controversial anti-discrimination activist Arudou Debito.

So after applying to renew my "Spouse of National" Second Class Citizen visa for another 3 years, I was returning with a very pregnant looking M. on the subway. We went to use the elevator -- usually reserved for people in wheelchairs, carrying heavy luggage, or otherwise having some disability -- so M. could avoid the taxing climb up the 2 or 3 flights of stairs. I noticed that a 12 year old boy and a 40 year oldish Salary man had just walked inside the otherwise empty, largish elevator (which can easily serve 20 people). The salary man looks up at me, quickly looks down, and presses the button to close the door immediately, almost shutting it in my face.

The context of this is, you have to recall, Japan. The standard for public etiquette is rather high, even if it isn't always observed. Especially, any situation that might result in conflict is carefully handled. Conflict, in Japan, is BAD. The opposite of conflict is Wa - harmony, and its the first Chinese character for the name that Japanese call themselves. Very central. In the case of accidentally bumping into someone, or stepping on their feet, or poking them with your umbrella, one must always apologize, however brief or insincerely, in order to head off any potential conflict.

So as the door was closing in my face, because this selfish git of a salary man decided neither my wife nor I needed to take the elevator, I quickly reached out and stuck my hand in the car to stop the door from closing completely. After I got on board, I snorted in the sort of contemptuous manner that Japanese males often use in such situations, and put it out of my mind on the ride up. However, next thing I know, when the door is opening, this salary man comes riding up my ass as I'm waiting for my pregnant wife to waddle off the elevator, and proceeds to stick his umbrella into my legs. The first time he pokes me in the right heel, I write it off as an accident -- ignore it; but when he does it again, on the left, with pin-point accuracy. I spin around to confront him.

If this was all really just an accident, or even if he just didn't want the confrontation he started, he would have simply let off a gruff "oops", and sauntered off before I could do anything. But when I turn around he just stares at me with contempt.

Anyone who knows me knows I don't spoil for fights, but neither do I suffer assholes gladly. So I tear into him in English. That always puts them on the defensive.

"Whats your @#$%ing problem pal?! You wanna tell me something?!"

I was greeted with the ever-present reply to anything spoken in English: "huh?"

[English has no symbol for a gluttal-stop, you'll have to imagine that sound has an abrupt end, and the speaker has a slack-jawed blank stare that mixes mortal fear of English with utter incomprehension.]

After a few preliminary pleasantries of this form, lets say about 4 or 5 "huh?!"s worth, he regains his footing and gets into the Japanese curses. Unfortunately I don't really get what he is saying because he appears to be using some new foreigner-handling code I haven't yet seen before, that consists of either using words I don't know, or just mumbling quietly enough that I cannot actually hear them.

Sweet, now I get to use "huh?!" as a reply, in mockery. I also ask him what his age is, "5 years old, Mr. Umbrella-poker?"

I next fall back to the good old trusty "deteike" (get the @#$% out of here), and a few others that came too fast and furious to recall. Everyone is now staring at us, at rush hour. Probably hundreds of people. I don't care. I want to smash his head into the wall.

In order to understand my some of actions, you have to understand the Japanese practice of "Ijime", which is bullying, but also so much more. It is the culturally sanctioned form of forcefully establishing social hierarchy in many cases, and can be found among adults in the form on Sempai-Kouhai. Its used heavily in all Japanese pissing matches, and mostly consists of brow-beating someone until their Wa takes over, and they submit.

Next he asks me if I want to go out and see the police (I'm assuming he thinks this will scare me). I misunderstand him, because he's mumbling his words under his breath, and I think he's asking me to go out and fight. Now, I don't want to be arrested for beating an older (but not small or weak, mind you!) man, and the thought does occur to me that he's eager to fight because hes a karate master or some such; so initially I decline. But after the Nth challenge, I say "OK, yeah. Lets go!" He then suddenly drops the whole idea without so much as a mumble.

M. Doesn't know whats going one because she was facing away, so she is busily trying apologize for my brutish behavior and calm me down. I explain to her that he poked me in the legs, making sure to invade this guy's personal space as much as possible during my graphic demonstrations. She begins the laughable, but admirable job of translating my words from ape-@#$% to Japanese. He's not surprised to hear it though, because he did it on purpose, to get this reaction.

He then takes a new tack, and starts to try to say things directly to my wife. I think he realizes this is dangerous territory, because he won't speak loud enough for anyone to actually hear him clearly. I take a decided disliking to this idea, and get back in his face. "No, you'll talk to me, #$%^head." He says something that was probably meant to insult me and turns to leave, but since it was mumbled all I got was the intent, which was all I needed.

I smack him once, upside the head. This is ijime. You can see some of this on Japanese slapstick comedy shows. Its meant to be more demeaning than painful.

He turns, outraged, and tells me I just hit him. I explain that in this regard he is quite right. He tells me to "Go home, scumbag". He means go back to "America". All white people are from "America" in Japan. I misunderstand, and think he means my house, so I tell him to do the same. He seems legitimately confused and insulted that I implied he doesn't belong in Japan. Score another one for me.

After pointing towards the exit and commanding him to leave, in the same manner as one would command a dog, he seems to tire of the spectacle, and unhopeful of his chances at winning the pissing contest he started, leaves as commanded. I played the game and won.

It was very much a hollow victory though, as it was immediately followed by M. lecturing me in front of the rush hour mob on how to speak to people without literally sounding like a gangster. And then me being thoroughly angry about the matter, what truly little control I actually had over it, and wishing some form of moderated hand-to-hand combat was in fact a socially accepted method of dispute settlement among strangers.

If you managed this far, just be glad I never bothered to relate the time we were almost run-down by hoodlums on scooters while walking on a park footpath at 10 at night (M. insists they weren't real Bosozoku). That time I was physically attacked.

I didn't hear it very well at the time, but I'm told the guy making a valiant attempt to appear to be beating me up was shouting the distinctly uncool, but never the less nationalistic phrase "Are you making fun of Japan?!"


OJ said...

Wow! I know very little about Japanese culture, but I have seen and heard enough to know that what you describe is pretty crazy!

I had a good laugh at the story as I read it :) I probably would have behaved the same as you, as I don't really take too lightly to anyone being an arse for the sake of being an arse.

R. McDougall said...

Glad it entertained. I harbor secret desires on becoming a nerdy Dave Barry. ;)