Years ago, I went on a bus tour of Nagasaki with a group of Japanese friends. One of our stops was at the Atomic Bomb Museum and surrounding Peace Park. The museum was unexpectedly moving and I found myself rather shaken as we strolled around the park after our visit.
A couple of high school girls came up to me armed with pens and paper. They were on a school trip and had been instructed to find a foreigner and ask for a peace message. Considering where we were and where I’m from, I smiled and wrote a couple of words. Unfortunately, there were about six busloads of kids there that day, all armed with pens and paper, and I was the only foreigner in sight.
Word traveled fast.
In no time, hundreds of thundering feet were headed my direction, pens waving, paper flapping in the breeze. My friends made a human circle around me and whisked me, doubly shaken, back to our bus.
I am reminded of this because Kate Elwood writes a brilliant column for the Japan News called Cultural Conundrums. In it, she recently wrote about the term “gaijin” (literally, “outside person”) and how the Japanese “proclivity to cultural pigeonholing” (love that expression!) leads to expectations that we foreign types behave in a certain way, and there is discomfort when we don’t.
I understand this phenomenon. I can’t count the number of awkward times a Japanese person has tried to shake my hand when I’m trying to bow, or when I get a joke I was not expected to understand, or worse, make one myself.
Kate gave the example of some middle school students asking her, “How many days will you stay in Japan?” When she answered, “I live here,” the students understood her words but could not process that information.
And it can happen the other way around, too. Japan used to be much less foreigner-friendly that it is now. There was a time when even at places where you’d expect English, there wasn’t any. This has changed. I was at Narita Airport not long ago, waiting in line to board a plane, when an official approached and asked for my passport, then in perfect English asked, “How long have you been in Japan this time?” It was so unexpected that I stammered, “Um…uh…twenty-six years.” We stared at each other for a moment, both flummoxed, then she walked away.
And once I was at Kaminarimon, a very touristy place, waiting for some people with my niece. A man in a suit approached and asked, “Do you mind if I speak to you?” I smiled politely and said, “Yes, I do,” and walked away. My niece was appalled, but I was annoyed. “There are a gazillion tourists around and I’m not one of them. I live here. Let him pester them and leave me the hell alone.”
How’s that for a peace message?