Over the past 2 years I’ve met quite a few foreigners. Some of them were just visiting Japan without any knowledge about the language and culture whatsoever (though they did have a strong desire to have ‘Japan’ explained to them), some were Japanese in all but nationality. I’ve met quite a few people who were only here to get girls, and I’ve always thought poorly of them and avoided future contact, but it wasn’t until last week that I finally met the kind of foreigners that the textbooks warn us about, and finally it made sense.
I’ve always thought that the way people teach Japanese etiquette is Orientalist, exoticising even the most common forms of interaction (‘don’t be rude’ is universal etiquette, goddamnit, it’s not special that you use different language with friends than with teachers). But meeting this one bloke made me realise why the warnings exist.
It’s because some people are socially incompetent. And these people seem to fall for the ideal Japan that is portrayed in anime. Much like the poor blokes who are socially incompetent and start dreaming about a Manic Pixie Girl who will rescue them, they genuinely think that Japan will magically fix their problems. And this issue is exacerbated by politeness. Not real politeness. Basic politeness mixed with a complete inability to read basic social cues.
This bloke had the social etiquette of an amoeba which had magically started talking one day. He genuinely thought that his language skills were amazing. He genuinely thought that he was making a lot of friends everyday. He would walk up to people and start talking, and they would put on a terrible grimace which I’m sure any cultural background would prepare a person to catch on to. He would exchange LINE contacts and the people would politely agree. He would complain about Asian culture in which people don’t tell you what’s wrong and just suddenly block you, and he attributed it to cultural difference. I was flabbergasted.
‘When people ask you “what are you doing here”, what do you think they mean?’
‘What brings you here to Japan! They want to know more about me ^_^’
‘No, they mean “why are you here, go away!”‘; I would point out that it’s the same in his native language.
‘But they say it while smiling!’
‘Please learn to tell apart a smile from a grimace.’
This person would claim that he was doing everything in the name of cultural exchange. I’ve learned ‘cultural exchange’ is often a blanket term for ‘I am uninteresting and have nothing better to offer than being born in a certain place’. It’s why I am bored to tears by any event that has ‘cultural exchange’ in its name: you meet foreigners who want to meet (or bang) faceless Japanese people and Japanese people who want to offer some foreigners the magical opportunity of talking to a native in their own country, or who want t get cultural credentials for having made small talk with (or banging) foreigners.
As he was bothering my friends and all of us were apparently to polite to explicitly tell him to fuck off, I sought out my friends for advice.
‘Oh, yeah, they’re quite common.’
‘Yeah, I used to teach 1st year Japanese, and there were always a few people like that. They think that being foreign and starting to learn Japanese is enough to guarantee them God status in Japan. If they’re rich enough then they manage to get to Japan somehow and somehow never really face reality. Basically they just think that there’s something wrong with their society, rather than with themselves. Anime caters to them and they just fall for it.’
‘I thought that was a stereotype…’, I say, remembering how many of my colleagues wanted scholarships and praise for knowing N5 level Japanese back when I was in my 1st year; almost all them dropped out. And then there’s all those people who want Japanese girlfriends.
‘You’ve never been to a gaijin bar, have you.’
‘Not really’, I shrug gratefully.
As the foreigner in the group the responsibility fell on my shoulders to tell the bloke to fuck off. I realised that people who have trouble grasping politeness in Japan also have this issue in their native culture.
‘Look, I think it would be best if you’d stopped coming here.’
(what wasn’t clear?) ‘Well people are here to study.’
‘But they can study and talk at the same time!’
(is he playing dumb?) ‘Nono. They need to concentrate.’
‘But they take breaks to chat to one another all the time!’
(whyyyy) ‘… yes. To their friends.’
‘But that’s how you become friends, right?’
I was stupefied. I had to explain that when people say ‘I think it would be best’ it is a polite way of saying ‘do this’ in English. He didn’t understand why people don’t say things upfront. I was confused. Eventually I had to say mean things and felt bad about saying them. He left, but deep down inside we knew that he would just find another person who doesn’t like to feel shitty by insulting him and fall for the ‘politeness illusion’. And I knew that every person he would meet would probably attribute it to his culture, not his person, because we like to believe that there is an explanation for people’s shitty behaviour as a means to maintain faith in humanity. And that’s an important reason for which the stereotype about foreigners exists: because it’s sometimes true.
Sure, I’ve had some problems with people in Japan. I’m not the most socially adequate person, and I never was. If anything, I noticed that it’s easier to be awkward here as people are more forgiving if you’re a foreigner – though I make sure to tell them that I am quite socially incompetent and too brusque in my home country as well. It’s something that I’ve always appreciated, but now I’m starting to wonder. Sometimes when I get particularly heated during a debate I’ll hear things like ‘I love teaching foreigners because they say things that Japanese people would never think of saying’; I’ve always felt like it was a bad thing, but now I’m starting to wonder how much I’m contributing to the negative stereotype.