Himeji-jo and Acclimatization

As mentioned in a post a while back, my friend Am came to visit last week, all the way from the deep farm fields of good old freezing Wisconsin. She chose a fortuitous time of the year to come, as Autumn is probably the most wonderful and easy time to travel in Japan. Not only is it cool, cheap (off season for many attractions), and reasonably free of crowds, but Autumn also provides you with a backdrop of brilliant red momiji fall leaves almost everywhere you go. Finishing up a major conference and a few assorted dramas, I was looking forward to a nice, long relaxing week long vacation lazily wandering the greater kansai region and playing “tour guide” for my adopted country.

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We had a lot of interesting adventures, but a cohesive narrative doesn’t seem to want to flow today, so instead I’ll just give a series of pictures of Shirasagi-jyo – the “White Heron Castle” located in Himeji. The oldest original castle in Japan to date, it is also considered its most beautiful and wandering around the grounds, it’s easy to see why. Unlike reconstructed tourist trap monstrosities *cough osaka-jyo cough*, when you walk the premises or ascend the frighteningly steep polished wood steps inside all the way to the top, you can actually catch a sense of a fleeting lingering of the Japan of old. It doesn’t hurt that the grounds are remarkably free of drink machines, the skyline devoid of power cables, and save a single loudspeaker by the entrance, the entire area mercifully removed from the presence of the blaring inane noise pollution that seems so ubiquitous at most other Japanese tourist attractions.

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If you ever happen to be in Japan, I definitely recommend you all go to visit this lovely castle – this has to be one of my favorite sights to date!.

Now, the loveliness of the castle and the beauty of the day not withstanding, Am’s recent visit inspired me to do a lot of soul searching within myself, causing me to reflect on several things I’ve been thinking about for a while, but haven’t gotten around to writing down yet. For the next series of entries I’d like to try and cover some of these things against a backdrop of pictures from the week. The topic I suppose I’d like to deal with today is “acclimatization” and the process by which we adjust to a foreign culture….

Acclimatization

A while back technocolorfille – a girl who I wish would update more, as her writing is nothing but a pure pleasure to read, wrote the following:

beige-boy accosts moi. he offers me a drink and segues into the failure of his marriage, his two kids, working in a warehouse, and how much his little bro has grown since he last saw him. we share a joint. he asks what’ve i’ve been doing etc.

i explain that i’m relatively just back from japan and not doing anything in particular. he compares his equally relatively recent relocation from anaconda, montana to mine from tokyo. and, he’s wrong. tokyo isn’t no anaconda, fucking montana and i just get so angry at him for making that ill comparison. sometimes people don’t want to hear an, “i know what you mean.” i didn’t want him to know what i meant, to feel what i felt. i just wanted to state a fact about myself and have it left at that.

[link to technocolorfille]

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At the time I posted the following comment:

At first read through, this seemed like such a perfectly normal and plausible conversation to hear over the course of a party, but only after I read through it again did I really realize how ridiculous it sounds. you’re right – people do that all the time, try to relate to others, or at least pretend to, to smooth over those gaps, get at some ulterior motive or what i don’t know.

I can’t how many times I’ve had people from back home, back in the deep inaka of the midwest, good people who just sadly have never left the state they were born in, try and relate to the so-called “Japan experience” by relating it to something that happened in a suburb of some-small-town Wisconsin or what have you. It’s not even like the “japan experience” (and there’s a played out term for you) is something that is special, or unique or even like I’m trying to claim it as such or even as “mine” and it’s not like they’re being unreasonable for trying to build bridges across the gap between us by relating an unfamiliar to the familiar, but it is false and contrived and we all do it.

I do it too, of course. i’m probably one of the worst offenders. I hate that gap, that awkward rough edge or silence, always want to fill it with something. I’ve been told that sometimes I’m almost too eager to please, something that really drives me up the wall, because who wants to be a sycophant, or worse yet, a wishy-washy eager-to-please caricature? But still, I always want to make people feel like I’m listening to them or that I understand them, even if I don’t, because I think one of the most frustrating things in the world is wanting to say something but not having anybody understand.

himejijo

These entries seemed relevant after the last week spent with my friend. It got me thinking what an odd thing it is, the process of trying to acclimatize to another culture. In my current job I get to see dozens of foreigners slowly try to adapt, change and (hopefully) accept the countless differences and idiosyncrasies that living in a foreign country entails. Every time I answer the phone, help smooth over an acrimonious workplace relationship, give advice on dealing with the mind numbing inefficiencies of the Japanese system, talk someone through a difficult time or convince them not to break their contract and go home mid-year, I can’t help but feel like some part of me should have a better understanding of the acclimatization process as a result.

I’m sure that this is true, at least on an intuitive level, but every time I try to write my thoughts on the subject down, tip-tap out a few paragraphs or observations to help guide my successor in their duties, I find that words elude me, logic fails me, and the narrative fails to form. I have a sense of what needs to happen, the process, can give advice relevant to a situation, but I find that my comprehension of the flow of such adjustment does not transcend to the conscious foreground. Invariably, whenever I try to force it, the results come out strained and with a negative air which disappoints me and to the casual reader seems to suggest that I’m a bit cynical about the entire affair.

himejijo

One thing that stands out to me, however, is that the very first step in the acclimatization process is the direct comparison of the foreign culture to your own. This is the fundamental basis of observation and the root from which all other things issue forth. We walk along as we have all our lives firmly grounded within one paradigm and then suddenly we are face-to-face with another entire different set of rules and perceptions. When taken in small amounts, trickled slowly into our lives – for example, the opening of a store selling “Asian lifestyle goods” in a Western neighborhood, or a foreign exchange student in our university class – I find that “foreign culture” fails to elicit the same kind of comparative approach or trigger the acclimatization process – rather than perceiving these things as a representing a complete alternative paradigm to our own, we tend to treat them as curious bits of a nebulous sense of “other”, but wrap them in layers of our own understanding and interpret them away safely within the confines of our own perception of the universe, much like a clam wrapping a bit of dirt in pearl. Because we never leave the safety of our majority shared paradigm, we have no need to draw comparison for there is nothing to acclimatize – just interpret the minority in the context of our understanding, with our perceptions rarely challenged as a result.*

*(incidentally this is why I happen to think that in terms of “internationalization” it is much more effective to send people abroad rather than bring foreigners into a country. The former tends to produce a rapid and dramatic paradigm alteration in a few people (the ones who went abroad) while the latter tends to produce more suffused, slow and incremental change over a larger portion of the population. Unfortunately, the latter tends to require a certain “critical mass” of foreign influence (which takes a long time to build) before it can start creating change – a change which is often fiercely resisted by members of the native population.

On the other hand, the radical paradigm shift undertaken by individuals who go abroad tends to be self-perpetuating and while not necessarily resulting in the creation of “evangelists”, changes suggested by such individuals tend to be met with a less hostile reception since the “messengers” themselves are not foreign. I have no real basis for these statements, other than just my own observation, so take them for what they’re worth. As an interesting aside, you can clearly infer my position with regards to the efficacy of the JET program from these statement as well, at least in terms of its oft-stated goal of achieving “grassroots internationalization”.

himejijo

On the other hand, when we are abroad, in a foreign country where we (and our paradigm) are in the minority, comparison is inevitable because we need to understand that which we are now a part of. How we compare is critical: whether our attitude is defiant (“that’s wrong because it’s not how we do it in my country“), sympathetic (“This foreign way is different than my own, so it must be better!“*), logical or so forth – determines in many ways the attitude we will take in reference to our host country in the years to come.

*Presumably this is the genesis of such counter-intuitively oppressive memes such as the notion of “ancient eastern wisdom”, “Asian mysticism”, the myth of “the Asian in touch with the earth” and the lure of the “exotic orient” all of which some consider simply to be a rehashed form of orientalism.

From this direct comparison, we can go several ways. One is the way of “relation”, which is similar to what Technocolorfille wrote about above. Comparing two cultures, we try and create bridges to commonality by referencing aspects of the foreign in terms of things familiar to us. This can be a useful technique to an extent, but the danger comes when we try to create commonalities that simply do not exist. This can be as literal as trying to create translations for “untranslatable words” to good intentioned, but woefully misguided attempts at forcefully relating things that have nothing to do with each other – for example, beige boy’s attempt “to compare his recent relocation from anaconda, montana to mine from tokyo.” As technocolorfille communicates so aptly, this is liable to engender hostility from those who are being forced to fit into an inappropriate reference: “and, he’s wrong. tokyo isn’t no anaconda, fucking montana and i just get so angry at him for making that ill comparison.

himejijo

My friend did this sometimes while she was here – kept trying to relate things about Japan that were most pretty unrelated to things back home. I couldn’t get angry of course, because her reaction was perfectly normal and natural but technocolorfille’s words kept repeating in my head over and over: “Osaka japan isn’t no inaka f-ing Wisconsin!“. I find that many of the newly arrived foreign teachers in Japan are prone to “over-relation” as well – I think that in part it must be a defense mechanism to help deal with the overwhelming crush of new everything that suddenly picking up and moving to a country you know nothing about brings. Left to their own devices, I think that most foreigners here generally wean themselves from this crutch over time and develop a more finely tuned sense of what is and is not a “valid” relation, however for those abroad attempting to use this mechanism, I feel there is often the possibility of strong over-simplification and misapplication.

There is another way we can go from comparison other than “relation”, however, and that is “judgment”. We all do it to a certain extent – look at something in the foreign culture, compare it to our own frame of reference then pronounce judgment: “that’s good.” or “that’s bad” or “that’s disgusting”, etc. Like relation, judgment can be useful in moderation – we mustn’t abandon ourselves and dive into a foreign culture rudderless and without direction. This I feel is the painfully amateur mistake of so many wanna-be open minded “progressive” folks back home (often university students) who in their rush to become “global citizens” blindly abandon all frame of reference and place their host culture on a “can do no wrong” pedestal (in the case of Japan I feel this is the classic genesis of the Japan apologetist). We need to retain our ability to think critically and analyze that which we encounter in a foreign country with the same level headed approach we apply to things in our everyday lives “back home”.

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The problem comes when we start passing too much judgment, a fate which I was sure Am would avoid since she was only here for a week and I figured she’d stay in the glow of the “Japan is great” phase for all that time. That thought came to a screeching halt on about the third day when we were walking down the streets of Osaka and she casually announced that “Japanese girls don’t respect themselves. They don’t seem like the have any morals.”

Cue panda’s stunned expression.

“Why would you say that?”

“Look at the way they dress! And the fact that they all carry name brand goods!”

Many Japanese girls wear short skirts and carry Louis Vuitton bags, that is true, but it goes without saying that one cannot simply conclude from that that they have “no morals” or “don’t respect themselves”. Looking at this in retrospect, it is easy to criticize Am as being overly judgmental and more than a bit hasty in her approach to foreign cultures, but taken within the situation as it occurred, I find myself being a lot more sympathetic. For those just coming over without background or context with which to interpret the culture they find themselves immersed in, the urge to draw unsubstantiated conclusions from passing comparison – and to pass judgment as a result – is hard to avoid.

himejijo

On the local message board favored by the ALTs in my prefecture, a fresh off the boat young teacher posted the following about a difference in opinion between himself and the Japanese teachers at his high school regarding a student’s speech for a contest:

Those weren’t sufficient reasons to let her do it her way. I was dismissed and they called her in. They (Japanese staff) took turns in destroying her speech and telling her what to say. Moments before this, she was very proud of her speech and eager to get down to practice it. After all that bashing, she re-became a timid, erased Japanese girl with no will to fight. I could feel her repressed anger and see her hidden disappointment.

…I am certainly not going to sit down and do nothing when they gang up upon a frail little girl and take turns at brainwashing her, making her do stuff against her will. The least I can do is check up on her to make sure she’s okay, and that she hasn’t lost her hopes in a brighter future, no matter how disappointed she is with the lack of freedom she’s just been confronted to.

…I get a feeling you [in reference to another poster on the thread] fully embrace the repressive system she’s fighting, and therefore you’d rather teach her how to be a good, submissive housewife for your personal prickly enjoyment (“I’m doing her a favour” I hear you say).

Now while many of us might read the passage and nod along in agreement at what seemingly is well intentioned – if a bit self righteous – anger on the part of the poster, for myself at least, this paragraph sets off bright red alarms and sirens. The key points to note are the casual insertion of controversial – and thus judgmental – adjectives into the narrative. Specifically of note:

  • she re-became a timid, erased Japanese girl with no will to fight
  • I could feel her repressed anger and see her hidden disappointment
  • I [won't] sit down when they gang up on a frail little girl, brainwashing her
  • [check] that she hasn’t lost her hopes… no matter how disappointed she is with the lack of freedom [she's encountered]
  • embrace the repressive system she’s fighting
  • teach her how to be a good, submissive housewife

himejijo

While this may very well be a case of oppression and the stifling of the human spirit by the system, what is important is that the poster – who doesn’t speak Japanese and has been in the country for just over three months – simply lacks the context or background to correctly comprehend everything that transpired before him. The system of Japanese education – and the relationship between teachers and their students – is incredibly complex and a cursory examination (which is all that can be undertaken in three months) fails to elucidate the myriad of intricate – but fundamentally important – nuances that must be considered before passing judgment. The situation can be understood on several levels.

The situation as it stands in Japan

1. Student writes a speech for a contest talking about a given topic

2. ALT (foreign teacher) agrees with her topic and thinks it’s excellent and “thought provoking”*

3. Japanese staff disagrees and deems topic “too controversial”.

4. Student is made change topic and speech contents.

himejijo

Our intrepid teacher compares this process to the one they are familiar with back home:

The situation as it would transpire back home
1. Student writes a speech for a contest talking about a given topic

2. Teachers correct grammar only.

3. Student presents topic “as is”.

himejijo

Now comparing the two situations on the factual level (as they are presented above) is good and can actually be instructive in illustrating differences in teaching/expression methodologies between the West and Japan. The error however, is when the teacher takes the comparison to the next level and passes judgment upon the basis of these differences despite lacking sufficient background or context to do so:

Process of Judgment
1. Students “back home” are allowed to present whatever they want in speech contests.

2. This one student here in Japan was asked to change her speech by the Japanese staff.

3. This means the Japanese teachers must be oppressing her.

4. Since this is Japan that must mean the Japanese system is repressive.

5. Consequently, this means this poor girl must be beaten down.

6. I can just see her repressed anger and hidden disappointment

7. She has been brainwashed. She is a timid and erased Japanese girl with no will to fight

8. Because she didn’t stand up and shout for her “rights” as I seem them, it must mean she is small and frail (and deserving of pity).

9. The system is designed to turn her into a good and submissive housewife

10. The system needs me to act to “save” her and “right” this “injustice”. I must “fix” the “Japanese system”

When put like this, it is (hopefully) clear that the teacher over-reacted. What starts as a simple comparison of differences between cultures quickly spins out of control into a series of increasingly disconnected judgments, finally culminating in a bizarre tangent about the supposed submissive role of women in Japanese society! In the process a fully painted – yet completely falsified – picture of moral drama unfolds, complete with villains (Japanese teachers, “repressive Japanese system”), heroes (“I’m not going to sit down and do nothing”), treacherous deeds (“brainwashing”), and the archetypal damsel in distress (“this frail young girl”/ “timid and erased Japanese girl with no will to fight”/ “a good and submissive housewife”).

That someone who has been in Japan less than three months and doesn’t speak the language can leap to such dramatic and over-wrought conclusions on the basis of one single experience – and pass judgment on massive swaths of the society at the same time – is both frightening and slightly ridiculous. Yet as ridiculous as it may seem here, laid out in black and white list form, the transmutation of “comparison” into “judgment” is something that happens all too often during the process of acclimatizing to a foreign culture.

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I don’t know that there’s any good ward against the twin traps of unsubstantiated relation and inappropriate judgment other than to always encourage those around us – as well as ourselves – to be ever mindful not to slip in either direction when making the comparisons that form the initial stage of the acclimatization process. This is not to say that either “relation” or “judgment” are “bad” but simply that we must have the proper context, and background before we start drawing conclusions. That this experience takes time and patience to build cannot be stressed enough – I am of the opinion that for the first few months of our stay in a foreign culture, the only comparisons and observations we ought to be making should be strictly factual. Conclusions – as well as relations and judgments – should only come much, much later.

During her stay, my frienddelved into all three of these things with abandon, and by the end it seemed to me that she had “uncovered” a number of questionable similarities between Japan and Wisconsin, passed a few judgments and drawn a series of immutable “conclusions” as a result of her weeklong tour of Japan. I don’t begrudge her these things – we all do that in the beginning – thinking about the first time I went abroad, I am embarrassed at how many “snap” judgments I passed back then – and even still now I am sure I still do that from time to time. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed in myself as a “guide”. I tried to present a “fair and balanced” cross-section of Japanese life, tried to nuance a factual approach to comparison making, dissuade unsubstantiated relation building and discourage fallacious judgments, yet in the end it was all for naught.

himejijo

As I said in the beginning, the process of acclimatizing to a foreign culture is a very, very odd thing indeed. Tasked with the responsibility of ensuring this process goes smoothly for the dozens of fresh-off-the-boat foreign teachers who arrived earlier this year, I wonder how I can successfully achieve this goal given my relative failure with my friend and inability to codify my experiences in writing. In an ideal world, I could just jot down all my thoughts (which would hopefully have some merit) into a single “how to” book which people could just follow in order to become happy, well adjusted foreigners living abroad. Of course, things don’t work that way, and at the end of the day, I’m left sitting in my office contemplating the murky nebulousness of the “gaijin experience” in Japan, and my friend is streaking back to America in a jet plane, head filled with a jam of inscrutable ideas that I can only hope contain some semblance of an accurate impression of Japan.

bennie k pic
Now listening to: “BENNIE K – Dreamland”
This is the song accompanying the latest Coca-Cola CM (commercial) here in Japan.

The official BENNIE K homepage

Torrent file for “Japana-rhythm”, the latest album from BENNIE K

Torrent file for a video of “Dreamland”

(a large file, and the swarm is currently slow as hell, so be patient)

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59 Reactions

  1. andrew

    __________________________________
    incidentally this is why I happen to think that in terms of “internationalization” it is much more effective to send people abroad rather than bring foreigners into a country.
    __________________________________
    Sadly the fact of Japanese international travel is group tours. Rarely do Japanese actually interact with people of the countries/ cities they visit.
    There are few (more than America sends) exchange students who do get out and get to know people of other cultures where they are.

  2. Marty

    Torrents!!! I can’t beleive you’re condoning the use of the evil file sharing underworld! Oh, my dreams of all that is right and good in the world are shattered!!! ;-)

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