David Simon and Eric Overmyer's television drama on New Orleans

Exploring Japan with Back of Town

Here we continue the Back of Town OT conversation on Japan.

For a little background, I came to Japan in 1990 and, with the exception of a three year stay in Canada, I have been here ever since.  Currently, I am teaching basic computer literacy and English at a private high school.  I live on the Japan Sea coast of Honshu, the main island, on the Eurasian tectonic plate.  This means that while the Great Hanshin Earthquake of ’95 had me wondering if the bed I was lying on was going in head or feet first, I didn’t feel a thing in March 2011, when the Tōhoku Earthquake and resulting tsunami struck. Still, the ramifications of just the natural disaster (nuclear accidents aside) were, are, and will be felt for many years.  While I hold dual Canadian/American citizenship, my wife is Japanese.  Our three sons hold Canadian and Japanese citizenship.

I have been here in a non-itinerant capacity for long enough, that I no longer know the extent to which I have been influenced by the culture, language, and people.  When I hear people mentioning that they “don’t get” Japan, especially in the context of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, I find myself wondering what it is that puzzles them.

So, here we discuss.

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8 responses

  1. Anita

    I love your beautiful site. I have been for several years following a woodblock printmaker in Tokyo, David Bull, via his website and this has fueled my interest in learning more about Japan. Several students at the university where I worked before my retirement studied Japanese language and travelled there, as well as a friend or two so occasionally I would get a first hand report from a traveler. My own experience is limited to the lovely prints I receive in the mail, the reading I do, and the films and travelogues I find here and there.

    The plight of the people affected by the tsunami and the difficulty and dangers of dealing with the nuclear plant disaster were so heartbreaking. I think being a New Orleanian, even if not a native, made me and others very aware of what many Japanese are experiencing. The more catastrophic damage is beyond my imagination. I was already inclined to respect and like the people there and this year has really assured their place in my heart.

    This documentary is a favorite. I hope you will post somethng of your experience there.

    Thank you for this.

    (I am not at all confident about how to post a link so please excuse me if I have failed.)

    June 17, 2011 at 3:51 am

  2. Hi 3Suns. Nice place you’ve got here.

    What I mean by not understanding the Japanese is that I, as a brown person of Indian origin, feel like a second-class citizen when around them, or maybe even third-class considering I’m not even “gaijin.” Even close Japanese friends have acted unconsciously superior around me and it tends to make me not want to empathize. Of course, a) that may just be extreme cultural pride and a certain measure of self-defense and b) not all are like this. I love Japanese music (the entire Japanese DJ scene, in fact, especially Krush), food and watching Shinto rituals, but that’s like eating gumbo and listening to brass bands on CD while sitting in Calgary.

    Short of it: I easily get most cultures but the Japanese one FEELS inaccessible to me, not that it really is. See what I’m saying?

    See you here or at BOT.

    June 17, 2011 at 6:50 pm

  3. 3Suns

    Anita and Maitri, thank you for your compliments on the site. I find the home page very handy for jumping to my favorite Treme/David Simon reading. I set it up over a year ago, and this is the very first post – finally found a purpose for it! Glad you like it.

    Anita, I’ve never seen that NHK show and look forward to watching it soon. Thank you for the heads-up, and also for the introduction to David Bull. Thank you for your gentle words of love and well-wishes. They are moving and I am grateful for them.

    To both of you, thank you for being so open about your experiences. My mind is racing.

    As we are talking about culture, nationality, and race, and since I have already mentioned my marriage to a Japanese national, perhaps I should add that I am not Japanese-Canadian/American but have Dutch ancestry, which is to say, I burn easily in the sun and when I had hair, it was blonde. LOL

    Pride and racism is an insidious thing and like an onion (though I do not say that everyone suffers from it). Over the years, I have unpleasantly surprised myself with stereotypes and flash judgments; I look back on my childhood with horror. I also have moments of sheer joy when an interaction comes and goes and I find that I acted spontaneously in a way that demonstrates I have finally shed another point of past narrow thinking. I never know, however, if I have properly dealt with “stinkin’ thinkin'” until there is an event in which unpremeditated actions reflect true love and acceptance free of any judgment.

    Maitri, I understand completely everything you wrote above. I know that I have a different experience here, than do those who are “foreign” yet not with white skin, as if there are hierarchies to our alienation. This makes me sad. I am curious to know, are the interactions you speak of, with Japanese in Japan, or Japanese-Americans? (I can hear Wendell Pierce as Bunk/Antoine saying “Japanese Japanese?”).

    Within a month of moving here, I decided that I would do everything I could to make the stay at least 7 years (I had that number in my head as some arbitrary time that would be needed to learn the language and understand the culture). Also, within a month, I realized that I would never try to “go native”. I knew that even if I mastered the language, adopted the culture and attitudes, and took on Japanese citizenship, I would still find myself walking into a restaurant and being complimented on how well I used chopsticks, or how well I could say thank you (to point of the more positive forms of exclusion). I would never be “in”. In a television interview, I was actually given the opportunity to say as much, and now I smile to myself when that exact thing happens, 18 in-country years later.

    Your comment* on individuals vs groups/concepts on BOT is so profound, and it is just as applicable to the Japanese as to New Orleanians. I think Americans’ ability to deal with or “get” Joplin, MO and Alabama, as Sam put it, is their familiarity with it. Racism is racism, and all the worse if it is violent, or even just seething in its hate – it is palpable in Central Alberta – you could have heard a pin drop one afternoon when I walked into the MacDonalds in Rocky Mountain House with my Japanese wife and our little boy – the silence and stares are something I have never experienced even in Japan.

    I think the only way out of bigotry is through personal knowledge and exposure (i.e., intimacy with the target population), love, and a desire to change your own attitudes. The difference between bigots in Japan and bigots in North America is that those in Japan have far less opportunity for the personal knowledge or exposure – hence my question about with whom you have had these encounters.

    Towards becoming a better person, as one constantly peeling back yet another layer of the onion, I have found that the only way I can change is through being embarrassingly open. I think I was a little bit misunderstood over at BOT when I said “on occasion it becomes a barrier to empathy and respect”. But at this stage in my life, I would rather be thought a bigot when I am not (or at least when I am trying to change), than be thought loving while harboring ignorance and fear/hate.**

    *Maitri, for my own reference I have quoted and sourced your original BOT comment. Clear, concisely written insights on the human condition are rare, and I like to keep them at my fingertips. 😀

    “New Orleans isn’t a concept, as much as many try to romanticize/reduce it so (stumbled upon a girl’s comment recently that one of her “current obsessions is New Orleans”). It is an old city and a rich culture full of real live people with real live problems and dreams. I think that when you start to see the place like this, it becomes more palpable, easier to understand.

    And, baby, there are a lot of cultures I don’t get (the Japanese being a particularly insular and cloudy one for me), but I don’t begrudge them their cultural quirks and need to be themselves. That is the beauty of the heterogeneity of the world; there are many things I will never understand and be a part of, but they are worth cherishing and saving, just because of that.”

    **At some point, I want to talk about “Trouble The Water”, too.

    Ok, that is just a crazy long post.

    June 18, 2011 at 3:21 am

  4. People never cease to amaze me, and you never know when or how they will. This comment of yours is why I fell in love with computers and the internet, lived in New Orleans and set up a very conversation-friendly Back Of Town. You’ve got to be able to reach out, have honest discussions, learn a lot and live life to the fullest, or it’s all just a big waste of time.

    The Japanese are the same as us: Like I said, it’s not that I don’t want to understand the Japanese, it’s just not as easy for me. For example and for some unknown reason, I get the Chinese more. Of course, the Japanese are humans like you and me, but going beyond that, I think my barrier comes from the simple fact that I haven’t had as much interaction with Japanese people as I have with those of other cultures. The friends I mentioned are Japanese Japanese (heh) who moved here for graduate school and ended up staying.

    The Japanese are different from us: And then there is that the Japanese culture is another old and rich one but one that flourished on an island. You don’t have to be a population dynamicist or social psychologist to understand how cultural homogeneity and social perceptions form and evolve in that situation. And I think that’s amazing and beautiful.

    I really have to visit Japan.

    Oh, and I live in Houston now and have only visited Calgary once, just used it as an example of as far removed from New Orleans or Japan as it can get. Also, I married someone of some Dutch ancestry from northern Wisconsin. You should have seen the looks I got when we’d walk into bars and restaurants in his county together … until I opened my mouth (and, wonder of wonders, spoke American English) and, again, reached out to show that I wasn’t as different from them as they thought. We’re all old friends now.

    June 18, 2011 at 9:14 pm

  5. 3Suns

    Maitri, (big grin) I am not making this up. I was born in Minneapolis, MN, and had cousins living in Wisconsin at the time. I rafted down the Apple river with my parents on several occasions. I don’t remember a lot of the details of the places because it was all before I finished grade 1, at which point we moved to Canada. I do remember loving the country though, and I have since been back for brief family visits (though all have moved away now). As for Calgary, I have lived there, and about four other cities in Alberta (and also British Colombia).

    For such a big place, it sure is a small world! Cheers!

    P.S. My childhood friend from MN with her Indian-Canadian husband and their three children, are stopping by to stay with us in Japan for a couple of days on their way through to India. Haven’t see her in 20+ years. I have no reason to mention this, except that it almost seems relevant. I am half expecting you to tell me when they will arrive! LOL

    P.P.S. I am hoping they will teach me how to make Naan without a tandoor – or, if impossible, how to make a tandoor in my front yard! ha ha ha

    June 19, 2011 at 10:43 am

  6. 3Suns

    Anita, I finally got to the video. Great stuff! As a teacher, watching exceptional teachers work with their students of any culture is always a pleasure and blessing. I don’t know if you meant for me to comment over on the Google video site or here, but I am going to comment here and hope that you have notifications turned on. 😉

    That classroom is not the norm from what I have seen, nor would it be in Canada or the US, still I work with some wonderful teachers.

    I think the proudest moment I’ve had so far was when our school received a thank you phone call from the parent of a high school girl who had been receiving unwanted attention on the public train. The girl was from a different school, yet one of our high school baseball club students stood up for her and told the older man to leave her alone. In this instance, it was the teaching of the baseball club coach (and good parenting no doubt) that gave the student the presence of mind and courage to protect the girl.

    It is all not roses and teddy bears, however. The academic pressures which have been covered in western media for decades, is still alive and very powerful, as is the bullying (though that is nothing unique to Japan). There are estimates that 1.5 million school age boys are suffering from very severe social anxiety disorder. There is an excellent book on the phenomenon called Shutting Out The Sun.

    I am personally convinced that this phenomenon is a direct result of the over-dependence on playschools and daycares from x months of age. That is not to say that these institutions are badly managed or staffed. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I have spent many days in several local playschools and I can testify first hand that the teachers are lovely, loving, and the facilities are bright, cheerful, and the activities entertaining and educational. However, no matter how well intended, 1 adult per x number of children, is not always enough, especially when the days are 7+ hours which is the case for many. To just give you a notion of the “over-dependence” that I talk of, when our boys were little, the very first question any and every stranger would ask me (or their mother) without exception was, “What playschool does he go to?” With the exception of the recent trend (in its infancy – literally across Japan there are still only hundreds) of homeschooling, there is not one family that I know that does/has not sent their child to their local playschool for extended hours daily since they were pre-two years old.

    Changing topics, I wonder if you have seen this:

    It is true, not exaggerated, and is another moment of pride and hope in the human race.

    June 21, 2011 at 7:31 am

  7. 3suns, your page is a great resource and your contributions to our little community are wonderful. Maitri you should stick this up in the links section.

    Thinking of disasters and their aftermath, have you read Murakami’s After The Quake? It’s a delightful collection of stories in which the ’95 quake places some tiny but crucial part in otherwise unrelated tales. A great book (but I’m a Murakami fan boy, as is fellow BOTer Ray Shea, who introduced me to the author.

    Ray will kill me for saying fan boy, but I feel like I get a glimpse inside the contemporary culture from Murakami you would not from Soseki or Kawabata. (Not a scholar; had to just go check those author’s names). Also from some of the excellent work published by Chin Music Press, which Oddly publishes gorgeous books about Japan and New Orleans.

    Hopefully the lottery ticket will hit someday soon and I can stop by and say hello on my bucket-list pilgrimage of Japanese Gardens.

    October 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    • Mark, thank you. I haven’t read After the Quake, as I wasn’t even aware of it, but now I must. I have read many of his works, though none recently. Thank you for the heads-up on that and the Chin Music Press.

      If you do make it to Japan, let me know you are coming so the carpet can be unrolled. 🙂

      October 16, 2012 at 9:08 pm

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