Monday, 20 October 2014

Gaijin Myths About Japan: The Salaryman

No one type in Japan earns as much discombobulated Gaijin ire as the Salaryman (sarariman). Salarymen are frequently referred to as uncreative, mindless, drones, grunts, alcoholic, misogynist and all that is wrong with Japan. Perhaps there is some measure of truth to these observations. But before we go there, let us shine a light on social-cultural context of the gaijin casting such aspersion in an attempt to understand the behind-the-scenes "how" and "why".

First though, let me be clear about my terminology. I use gaijin as a mildly offensive insult. As you likely know, gaijin is an abbreviation of gaikokujin, "foreigner". Most urban Japanese understand that the contracted version is somewhat abrasive but still use it. In every day conversation, the word is not quite a "nigger", "gringo" or "beaner" but nor is it completely inoffensive. In the right/wrong hands, however, it does become a derogatory term.

My usage is somewhat more specific. In my context, gaijin refers to a stereotypical, willfully ignorant, Anglo-colonial steeped in internet lore on Japan, lacking Japanese language skills, Japanese peers, friends or community and who feels a strong sense of "us versus them". The gaijin is a type of cultural chauvanist, primarily though not exclusively in his early to mid twenties, s/he is always right, Japan is always wrong, his/her country is the epitome of democracy, human rights and social justice and Japan is a racist hotbed of extremism, thought control and repression.

Sigh. This would not be so depressing if it were not so common.

So gaijin hate salarymen. But why? To me, the salaryman represents everything that the gaijin cannot and will not ever be. As an outsider, suddenly injected into Japanese society the gaijin lacks the educational and social context that his same age peers share. Certainly that is a disadvantage but it is not unique. While the sane viewpoint might be for one to work hard at integrating into the community, establishing friendships and other meaningful relationships, the gaijin scorns these connections as merely obligatory, lacking the organic roots of his/her own experience of community building... 

Which took place in another country and to which s/he is no longer a part...

Irony much?

But for what other reasons does the gaijin hate those besuited office workers? The gaijin, frequently resentful as a result of ongoing culture shock, a lack of language and social skills and limited employment prospects finds him/herself positioned in a field with little prestige or vertical movement. This is not inherently negative, everyone has to earn a living and not everyone is ambitious. Some people just want to pay the rent, have enough food and have something to do everyday. But for the gaijin the salaryman's world is so foreign, governed by obscure sempai/kouhai (senior/junior) rules, mandatory parties, inefficiency, subservience and... sometimes... good pay and twice yearly bonuses. Politics of envy, perhaps?

Next comes the gaijin assertion that salarymen are uniform drones, they all dress the same, have the same haircut and abide by corporate dress policies. There are two problems with this: first, have you ever seen how gaijin dress?

Yeah, that's right, fish out of water, often over-sized, no-currency foreign brand names two years, too late. Have you seen the shoulder pads, mis-matched shirts and ties... have you seen the "hilarious" gag ties, tank tops in late Autumn and sunglasses on subways? I have. And so have the salarymen. Be careful to notice that the object of laughter may well be capable of subjecthood, in spite of being Japanese...

The second problem is that gaijin aside from lack of linguistic proficiency also tend to be context blind. A black suited salaryman is a black suited salaryman, right? Look again. Did you notice the angle of the cuts, the fabric type, thickness, durability? Did you have a close look at the stitching on the shirt, the weave, the pattern? Did you notice that all check is not created equal. Can you distinguish between this and last year's check? See overstated the entry level brand name watch on that guy? New to money. See the well made, understated, subtle elegance of the smart phone cover that guy is using? He has been at this a while. 

But the gaijin sees none of this. Even within salarymen there is more diversity than the black suit. Many smaller companies or specific branches of larger companies encourage more creative dress styles as they try to create an image of desirability a means of attracting new recruits. Gaijin frequently do not know how to intperpret such data and assume such salarymen are freaks, hosts or something else other than what they are.

Foreigners in Japan don't have to be gaijin. The first step to giving up gaijin sensibility starts with questioning not only stereotypes but the propensity toward adopting them as valid knowledges. Stay tuned, more on the way.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Gaijin Myths About Japan: An Introduction

A long time ago, scholars and students in “the West” studied East Asia and the Orient. Large quantities of important knowledge were produced by dedicated researchers well before the existence of the internet. The greatest blow to this body of knowledge - ironic since it was steeped in liberal tradition - was its democratization. This occurred in two steps.

First, rising levels of wealth in the west resulted in greater numbers of people began to travel, for pleasure, for new experiences, for commerce and further research. Newly made travelers began to write new narratives freed from the constraints of academia and more in tune with the self discovery spirit of the age. Autobiographical accounts trickled into mainstream media and began to shape the West’s image of “the East” with a speed and reach far exceeding that of traditional academe.

Next came two phases of what we call the internet. The first phase - still relatively obscure, its content limited to those with the money, infrastructure and skills to produce and publish content – developed into a fusion of scholarly knowledge and autobiography as an increasing volume of information became available. These early internet pioneers had a profound impact on the not only the quality of real and useful information but also in developing pseudo-legitimate mythologies.

Without peers, without a community to immediately be challenged by and answer to, such early virtual locales were invested with a weight of authenticity at times somewhat disproportionate to their veracity.

This phase (the Geocities Daze) gave way a common experience of the internet built on social networking technologies and eventually liberated from the desktop by smartphones. This new phase distributed information at a rate and breadth completely outstripping its now rather archaic ancestor. In the first phase, the creation of knowledges, however (im)perfect required a significant investment of time. So too did their acquisition and utilization. However, in the second phase (the Smartphone Daze) as a result of converging technologies (improved search engines, twitter, facebook, aggregate readers etc) new information can be widely disseminated in moments.

Given the capacity for instant feedback/critique it is possible to assume that quality of information may be guaranteed through crowd control. Not unlike Wikipedia. However, as is repeatedly seen, in multiple locations on a daily basis, the sheer volume and variety of information, coupled with an increased tendency toward laziness has resulted in a form of critical blindness. In other words, because of information overload, because of homogenized social communities built on superficial connections, confirmation bias is an all too common feature of contemporary public knowledge production processes.

So what does this have to do with Asia? And what does it have to do with Japan?

I recently read an article in the trash known as Japan Today. A news re-publisher with an extremely toxic and immature comment feature. The article in question can be found here: JT Trash About Teaching English.

A location in which commentators with little to no local language ability or formal/trained educational education experience reheated dated arguments about why “they can’t learn English”.

So why do I care?

I have been living in Japan for over ten years. I have said, read, heard and seen the same trash stereotypes over and over. And the thing is, with so many foreigners orking and living in Japan, you might think that these out of date, at times verging on unbelievable knowledges would have been thoroughly disproved. But as I wrote above, confirmation bias, lack of depth and failure to engage with local communities has seen not only the continuation of these knowledges but their amplification through contemporary internet technologies.

This little feature series is an attempt to address some of them from a long term resident’s perspective. Brace yourself because it is not going to be nice, feelings might be hurt and fantasies popped. Part One: The Salaryman coming soon.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Corrosion of Conformity - Deliverance

This review started out quite different to its current form. But it
read like something on Metal Archives or Angry Metal Guy so I had to
kill and reincarnate.

Take two...

It must have been the end of a southern-hemisphere, sub-tropical
winter in an insignificant rural town. I say "must have" because I
remember it being cool and comfortable as I lay on my bed, listening
to Deliverance. I know I was "comfortable" because I fell asleep and
had one of those precious dream sleeps influenced by music seeping in
without me being conscious.

Twenty years later, I am still listening.

I used to think I owned this album, however, truth be told,
Deliverance owns me. First on CD, later on cassette, mp3, CD again and
soon, in the trail of crackling energy of its just passed twentieth
anniversary of release... at long last... on deluxe vinyl reissue.

I have in quiet moments, fantasised about which albums crucial to the
development of my musical personality I would do a special vinyl
release for, should I ever win the lottery. Deliverance has been at
the top of that list.

More than almost any other album, I have puzzled over the lyrics,
unpicked the riffs, replayed the solos in my mind while riding through
dusty dusks. I simply can't wait to start doing it again.

Deliverance is available for pre-order at Prosthetic Records.