Bloody foreigners

nippongo Certain quarters of the expat community are up in arms over a new advertising campaign by McDonalds in Japan that centres around the exploits of Mr James – a geeky, westerner with broken Japanese and a singular lack of decorum. In short, a stereotypical gaijin (foreigner). Some long-term residents have reacted angrily to this, claiming its portrayal of westerners is both offensive and racist. McDonalds has issued a statement saying that no offense was intended, and there’s no serious suggestion to the contrary. But nevertheless, it has rubbed a few people up the wrong way and once again raised the question of how Japanese relate to foreigners in their midst.

There is no doubt that had McDonalds decided to run a similar campaign in the UK or US featuring a buck-toothed Asian with thick-rim glasses asking for “orliental chicken burger”, it would be banned instantly as unacceptable. And rightly so. Why then is such a characterisation permitted in Japan? The answer – simply – is that the Japanese do not consider such portrayals of foreigners as offensive. To westerners, this seems a puzzling point of view. But examining it closely reveals much about what it means to be able to fit-in here.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions for racism:

  1. The belief that there are characteristics, qualities or abilities specific to each race.
  2. Discrimination against, or antagonism towards other races.

To me, I think the first definition of racism is a bit of a misnomer. The Japanese are of course famous for their homogenous society and traditionally insular attitudes. For a long period of its history, Japan was closed to the outside world and as such has developed in quite a unique way. Thus, the Japanese think of themselves as a unique people, quite distinct from other races. And personally I feel they have every right to do so – just as every other culture is entitled to feel they have a distinct cultural identity. By the textbook definition, this makes everyone a racist! But that’s not really what we’re talking about when we talk about racism: What we are discussing is the second definition; discrimination against other races that you believe to be inferior.

The Japanese do not necessarily consider themselves superior amongst the world’s races, but they do consider themselves uniquely bound together by a common set of values and beliefs; a creed developed over countless generations that it is all but impossible for a foreigner to penetrate. From the outside, this looks like racial discrimination. But in reality, it is simply another manifestation of Wa – an invisible, unspoken harmony that allows society here to function effectively.

Western racial prejudices are based on skin-colour,language or religion; in Japan, it is the foreigner’s ability to sense Wa that determines how well they will be accepted and how far they can integrate into society. It is actually this ability – or lack of it – that McDonalds is parodying with its Mr James character. And it is something that you see all the time here. For example, just the other day as I was passing through Tokyo station in the early evening (an extremely busy place to be) I noticed a westerner standing absent-mindedly on the right side of an up escalator. The right side is for people walking up – the left side is for standing. He was completely oblivious to the 30 odd people quietly fuming behind him. Or a British colleague visiting Japan stepping up onto the raised floor of a restaurant in his shoes – an absolute no-no. This is classic Wa-breaking behaviour. The Japanese see it everyday, and so do I. It is therefore no surprise that people – myself included – tend to develop a wariness of green-horn foreigners because we expect them to be ignorant of Wa. That sounds very arrogant – I don’t mean it to be; I’m sure I’ve been just as guilty many times.

Where I’m going with this is that it is a mistake to slap the racist label on Japanese society, because the second dictionary-definition simply does not apply. Where discrimination does occur it is not based on race, it is discrimination based on attitude: While you can’t change your race, you can change your attitude. We British have a phrase – “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Yes it happens that foreigners get refused for flat rental or banned from public baths. But it’s not because they are foreigners per se but typically because of a lack of faith in their ability to act with decorum. The famous case of the public baths that banned foreigners came about because the regular patrons were fed up with having to share their baths with Russian sailors who didn’t know how to use them properly – i.e. the bath is NOT for washing your socks in! While I might be personally aggrieved to be tarred with the same brush and refused entry, I do understand, and sympathise, with the reasoning behind it.

For a final word, I shall quote from a very eloquent and perceptive gentleman named Kerry Berger who I think hit the nail on the head with regard to the whole Mr James racism debate:

“Japan has so much to offer if one accepts the reality that exists rather than trying to change it from day one. Things are different on Mars. What is different isn’t necessarily good or bad; it just different and it IS the way things are! Take it or leave it, the choice is up to those who adventure outside the confines of their home countries.”

And in case you’re wondering, the title of this blog is my rendering of the phrase “Bloody Gaijin” –  much used by Mrs Beerhound and I on our travels.