Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Discombobulated Gaijin: Serial Extrapolatahs!


A recent encounter with immigration control at Narita Airport in Japan saw so-called journalist Chris Johnson lose his mind and his credibility in an online reputation feeding frenzy. Johnson’s claim was that Japanese immigration, staffed with foreigners improperly detained him, at gunpoint at one point, forced him to buy a ticket back home and impugned upon his human rights. What was fascinating about this whole affair was the degree to which he publicized his encounter with enough hyperbole, exaggeration and slippery almost-truths and somehow believed in this day in age that people would not notice. The usual suspects noticed, of course, the one time activist, now one sided crusader Debito did. So too did the Asian branch of The Economist online. They furthered his cause, consoled his burnt soul and cried against the injustice perpetrated against him. A circle of “gaijin” news watching friends and allies tightened around him and lent moral support. And then a few skeptics dared to chime in. Writers at Tepido and Fucked Gaijin and later again at Japan Probe noticed some inconsistencies, a number of the almost truths alluded to above and fatally, a number of outright lies that might at best be called distortions and obfuscations of the truth. Johnson did not help matters by creating multiple user handles at at least two different comment sections on different websites and exacerbated matters by embarking on a stunning self-censorship campaign: re-calibrating facts, removing claims and deleting tweets in order to smooth out a very lumpy, malodorous narrative.

As it stands, whatever the truth of his encounter at Narita, his multithreaded online exposition made very liberal use of a very broad definition of truth as what appears to be an exercise in self promotion. But I want to talk about something different.

Dipping back into the online “gaijin” world for the first time in years was a troubling experience. But first some context. There are numerous expatriate type support sites throughout the internet and each presents its own uniquely configured take on the reality of life in Japan for the foreigner. In the past this writer had daily frequented some of them and has cast an eye on many more. In addition to a wealth of information pertaining to daily life, these forums and blogs often have areas for venting, where expats have a chance to express their frustrations with cultural difference, linguistic isolation and in some cases, their first experience of being an ethnic/cultural/religious club member.

What has happened over the years is that some locations have come and gone, yet whether in presence or absence, the knowledge created within their boundaries has congealed into what I call “gaijin gospel”. Gaijin gospel refers to the body of knowledge created predominantly by non-Japanese speaking, most frequently Anglosphere, foreigners.

You will notice that I did not use the more formal or “correct” Japanese term for foreigner, gaikokujin. That is because the more informal, exclusive version gaijin, meaning “outsider” more accurately gels with the perspective that has been created over time. While not exactly on par with the word “nigger”Gaijin gospel is a peculiar phenomenon in that many of its proponents are transient, yet as a knowledge it continues to live on, quoted, ricocheted and tossed around the internet. Long after the gaijin gospeller has packed up and gone home his (usually male) perspective lives on and shapes future gaijin mindsets in the bodies of real, live, actual humans coming to Japan. Wave after wave of similarly inscribed or soon to be inscribed gaijin turn up every year to experience a particular version of Japanese culture which they then bring home with them. Rinse and repeat.

What I particularly want to touch on is the gaijin propensity for unproblematic transfer of uncritical universalism to a foreign cultural context. Put your knives away, modernists and post- haters, I’ll have none of that here, thank you. Accusations of relativism will not be permitted. You’re gonna need more than slogans around here.

What I mean is that there is a tendency for the gaijin to bring his (yes, him again) concepts of Law and Justice (admire those uppercase initials!) to Japan, as universal givens. That’s right, the West is best and to hell with the rest, right? No, wrong. You see, while elements of Japanese law and justice may well draw on Western tradition, the law and more importantly its application in the Japanese context could not be further from the truth. So when a gaijin finds himself on the wrong side of the law, for whatever reason, he (yeah, that guy) frequently appeals to the system/logic that he knows best: his own. The only problem is that his own, wherever it may be from and in spite of its protestations of universality, simply ain’t the law of the land. His usual range of responses, from bickering, violent confrontation, physical threats just do not work. Not only do they not work in a legal sense (try getting into a street/bar fight in Japan and just see who gets into the most trouble, regardless of “who started it”), they are also culturally inappropriate and serve only to land him in deeper trouble.

Distilled? You lose your cool, you lose.

Gaijin do not like to have their rights to liberty infringed. They can be very vocal (in English of course) in spite of remaining for the most part ignorant of the whole context. Remember when you were a child and in a dark room you could convince yourself of seeing a ghost if you tried hard enough? Just like that.

Occasionally you see signs like “Japanese Only” or “No Foreigners” in Japan. To the gaijin, these are red flags, a profound experience of segregation and discrimination on par with what happened in the lead up to the civil rights movement in the US and Aborigines being classified as human in Australia. He is outraged and emboldened to act, he steams, rants, boycotts and challenges the owner. Growl! Roar! But if he is sensitive enough, he might just notice context burbling up from a manhole nearby. Context is the history of action and actors in space and time. And context says that surely, there must be a reason for this sign. In fact, that reason can be most effectively summed up by a term found in the urban dictionary: gaijin smash.

Indulge me some cut and paste (edited for spelling).

Gaijin Smash

A technique used by foreigners, or gaijin, in Japan in order to impose their will on the Japanese.

"he upgraded himself to a first-class seat by using the Gaijin Smash"

The willful breaking of Japanese convention rules by one who is not Japanese (a foreigner cf. a gaijin)

I know its a red light, but I'm going to cross the road anyway, gaijin smash style.

I'm going to gaijin smash that red light.

To art of getting away with douchebaggery in Japan and being an ignorant obnoxious foreigner by simply pulling a gaijin smash on their Japanese asses when the shit hits the fan

"I was supposed to give up my priority seat on the train to that old bag but I totally gaijin smashed her ass and acted like I didn't know what the fuck she was bitching at me about"

The gaijin smash, coming to a bar, restaurant, convenience store, rented apartment, car dealership, school, workplace and even MacDonald’s near you. When you have one gaijin do his smash in a bar of twenty people once. That is an unpleasant evening. Then another one or even the same one does it again next week. Ninety-five percent or more of your paying customers are Japanese who have never once in your ten years of operation felt the need to do a “smash” of some sort, no matter how inebriated. They pay your bills, feed you, put the kids through school. That loud-ass gaijin on the other hand? Fuck ‘im. More trouble than he is worth. Let’s just ban them, then?

The sentiment is understandable. Unfair, but not impossible, even for the most ardent, pig-headed gaijin to accept. Now, if said smashing gaijin were to speak Japanese, return to the scene of the crime and sincerely apologise, the ban might well be lifted. After all, it was just a big misunderstanding. Who knows? But it is context that matters, not random events in a vacuum interpreted through a lens of universalism.

Indeed, it is this appreciation of context that endears me to living in Japan. So too the wiggle room in the law which places more emphasis on out of court reconciliation and less on minute encodings of acceptable practices into legal precedent. Japan might appear a very orderly society and that is because it is. But what the gaijin has failed to realize is that while social convention in Japan is overcoded, the law is not. This writer is not saying that Japan is problem free, or that it is some kind of utopia. This writer does, however, argue that a different concept of human rights and discrimination operates that differs from that created by the West for the rest.

So next time you get all red faced and angry, go home and study some kanji. Talk to the neighbour and take some knitting lessons at the community centre. You just might find that there is more to life in Japan than getting your rage on.

Here it is again, as an equation:

Engagement at a distance utilizing exclusive universalism demeans the recipient and diminishes the actor.

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