A note on ex-pat life: Re-learning the joys of dependency

[T]he virtues that we need, if we are to develop from our animal condition into that of independent rational agents, and the virtues that we need, if we are to confront and respond to vulnerability and disability both in ourselves and in others, belong to one and the same set of virtues, the distinctive virtues of dependent rational animals. – Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals

As a foreigner living in Japan and a person with a disability, I think a lot about what it means to be independent.  Most would agree that independence is a desirable state, and that achieving independence, whether it is in a physical, emotional, intellectual or financial terms is moral good.

In a recent article for The Japan Times, Tokyo resident William Bradbury opines about being dependent on others as a foreigner living in Japan, saying  “[a]t the outset, moving to Japan makes an infant of us all, regardless of race, sex or creed. “ (Japan Times, March 12 2014).  Being robbed of language, when we first move here, we are dependent on native others:

“If a Westerner happens to have a Japanese partner, it’s easy to become dependent on them when it comes to dealing with problems, translations, ideas for where to go, phone calls with Japanese-only services and so on. When I took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) I saw a colleague, an architect in his home country, struggling to figure out the way to the test hall without the help of his wife. It’s pathetic to complain about being helped, but with requiring assistance in everyday tasks comes a feeling of discomfort — emasculation, even.”  (Japan Times, March 12 2014)

As a foreigner, still relatively new to Japan, whose Japanese language ability is still somewhat lacking, I share Bradbury’s concern. It would obviously be nice to have better understanding of the Japanese language so I could let me intentions, beliefs and desires be known. And yet I can’t quite envisage what independence would look like, and if it is truly a desirable state of affairs.  Is it merely just that, the ability to speak and move around if I wanted?  Quite frankly, I have always been suspicious of the word ‘independence’.  What is it exactly?  Webster’s defines it as “freedom from outside control or support”, it is the idea of self-governance, that at its most basic, we all have the ability to move and think and feel how and what we want.

The reason for my suspicion is that some of us  do not have the ability to control our own body physically, having cerebral palsy means that my body is prone to spasm and shiver whether I want it to or not.  We can of course think what we want, but do we really have emotional self-control, the point of emotions like happiness or sadness is that it can creep up on you.

We forget sometimes that as human beings we are always reliant on other people, even hermit requires that people leave them alone.  No matter how isolated or solitary you think you are, you are in fact dependent on a network of other human beings.  Take, for an example, the activity of cooking a meal for one.  Even if you grew your own vegetables and reared your own cattle, your meal was only made possible by a history of human interaction.  Someone built your cooker for example, made your cutlery, perhaps wrote the recipe, no human being is completely independent.

I suggest that dependency is not merely something that disabled people have to endure, but is a pleasure that everyone, although maybe in particular expats should learn to enjoy, the pleasure of being supported.  It is surely good to communicate with other people?  It is not a sign of weakness to be dependent on others, being dependent is in fact, an essential part of being human.


‘There’s Only One Debito Arudou’: On Football Hooliganism in Japan

The way I see it, he said, foreigners are perfectly all right.  I know lots…Many of my friends are foreigners. And yet, and yet.  When it comes to inner feelings, well then, I just wonder, you see. After all, we Japanese understand each other. – Donald Richie, Tokyo Nights

On Saturday 8th March 2014, at a football match at Saitama Stadium, the match between Urawa Red Diamonds or ‘Reds’ and Sagan Tosu, some fans of the Reds hung a banner over the entrance to the stadium.  The banner read in English ‘Japanese only’.  The banner was taken down relatively quickly, and on March 13th it was reported that the J-League ordered to play one match without spectators as punishment.

As Debito Arudou notes in the Japan Times, none of the Japanese media outlets were quick to express distaste at the banner:

“None of the initial reports called out the incident for what it was: racial discrimination (jinshu sabetsu). News outlets such as Kyodo, Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri, AP, AFP, Al-Jazeera — even The Japan Times — muted their coverage by saying the banner “could apparently be considered/construed/seen as racist.” (Well, how else could it be construed? Were they trying to say that “only the Japanese language is spoken here”?) Few ran pictures of the banner to give context or impact.” (Japan Times, March 12 2014)

Perhaps, it is because I hail from Britain, where such distasteful incidents at football are more common that my approach to this is a tad more pragmatic then Arudou’s, but it certainly didn’t surprise me that news outlets did not unequivocally call it out for the racism it so clearly is. News journalism, at least decent news journalism, should not really be in business of making moral judgements, yes it was distasteful, but is it being distasteful actually news?  Maybe, but I much prefer the news outlets focus on establishing the facts of what happened, rather than on expressing moral outrage.  Arudou is quite right, there is no non-racist way to use the term ‘Japanese only’ the phrase has indeed “long been the exclusionary trope for Japan’s xenophobes”, there is no argument against that, but a news organization has to be concerned with establishing facts, as the people who put up the banner could quite easily sue for defamation.  It is frustrating but ultimately wiser to cover all the bases.  Ultimately, the banner-erecters condemn themselves with this from the Yomiuri:

“The three Reds’ supporters who made the banner were quoted as saying during an investigation by the club: “The area behind the goal post is our domain. We don’t want to see other people, especially foreigners, entering that area.” (Japan News, 14 March 2014)

Was it is simply team pride got out of hand?  I agree with Arudou that the intentions of the author of the banner do not matter.  That phrase ‘Japanese only’ has too long a history, and, if it was just meant to be a psycho out for the opposing team why not go with ‘Reds only’? Ultimately, the Urawa Reds faced sanctions from the J-League, condemnation in editorials from the Yomiuri and the Japan Times followed in its wake.  So it’s all good.  Well almost, Arudou would like to see condemnation from FIFA:

“Anyplace else and soccer governing body FIFA would probably take swift action to investigate and penalize offenders in line with its policy of zero tolerance for racism, as has been done in the past, most recently in China. In January, the Hong Kong Football Association got fined for shirking its responsibility to stop racial discrimination against Filipino supporters by Hong Kong national team fans during a “friendly” match.” (Japan Times, March 12 2014)

I not aware of the facts of that case, but I can offer, I believe a comparative case, that of the player Nicolas Anelka, a striker for West Bromwich Albion, who in December 2013, celebrated a goal by performing a Nazi salute.  The Football Association of Great Britain imposed a five match ban, and has sent a request to FIFA that the ban be applied to world matches; FIFA is considering the request as of March 18th. If the request is accepted, Anelka would be banned from playing for the French national team for five matches (he was a regular player, but has apparently retired).

However, it is mistake to view FIFA, as I feel Arudou does, as some kind of UN for football teams.  Yes, it is a governing body; it ensures that the football played in one national league is played according to the same rules as another.  J-League players can’t start picking up the ball unless FA players can also.  Each national football association can request that their sanctions should also apply to the international game, but they do not regularly intercede on deciding sanctions for national games, it relies on the judgement and action of national associations, interceding only where action is lacking, as in the case of Hong Kong.  And what could FIFA do in the case of the Urawa Reds anyway?  Ban the crowd at further games, but that would ultimately not be in the interest of the national game, unless players were to start using the term ‘Japanese only’, it is difficult to see what sanctions would be appropriate.

And truly, as racism goes, if you want to see how it is done properly, I suggest paying close attention to the British Premier league, and the European game, where for example, players Luis Suarez and John Terry have served bans for racist abuse.  At the time of writing this, both are still players in a national team.

Ultimately, I take solace in the fact that Sagan Tosu beat the Urawa Reds by one goal.

Feel Good Inc, or being happy in Japan

Certain novelties peculiar to our age sow doubts. One is the primacy of individual happiness. Happiness was always desirable, always hoped for, but it was secondary. Obligations deemed sacred, conventions considered “natural,” came first. They no longer do. Michael Hoffman

A melancholy town where we never smile.  – Gorillaz

I learn only to be content. – Inscription at Ryonaji in Kyoto

As an academic philosopher, I’ve always had issues with the concept of happiness, as much of that debate reduces happiness to a numbers game, where the sum total of good feelings minus all the negative feeling equals happiness.  That idea always seemed unsatisfactory to me.  I used to believe though, if it was to be something more than contentment with one’s life and work, that happiness was elusive. 

At least I thought it was elusive until I came to Japan, where happiness can be found in your local convenience store, you’ll find it in bottle next to the vitamin water and cola.   Happiness, as you see is peach and raspberry water, although it can sometimes contain pineapple. Happiness can be yours for less than two hundred yen.  It is a bargain, I’m sure you agree.  As a philosopher, this for me is truly a ‘Eureka’ moment, I now have something I can point to and see ‘this is happiness’; it’s a liberation of sort. And I can drink happiness at work and on the train, so that’s all good.

I’m only half joking, the ‘Happiness drink’ prompts an interesting question, one that is very difficult to answer, what does it mean to be happy in Japan,? As Michael Hoffman asks:

What is happiness? We seem to know it when we feel it, but a definition is elusive. Is happiness boisterousness? Gaiety? Quiet contentment? Resignation? Religious awakening? Freedom? Security? Prosperity? Love? Sex? A feudal lord’s favor? Death in battle? (Hoffman, Japan Times)

Try to define happiness, attempt to capture its essence, and happiness will always escape down a back alley beyond your reach.  No philosopher has every really managed to define it.  For Buddha, it was the avoidance of suffering.  For Aristotle it was to acquire a medium or mean, to never be at the extremes of life, never too courageous or too cowardly. Kant, being a stick in the mud, doesn’t even think it is a moral good.   Is happiness the acquisition and enjoyment of hedonistic pursuits such as sex or love? Or is it just contentment with work and your home life?  If it is the latter as Hoffman also notes, Japanese men at least are certainly not happy, as many are choosing the single life:

Marriage traditionally was a matter of course, more or less forced on people who felt unsuited to it. You could resist, but it took very strong character. As recently as 1990, a mere 5 percent of men and 4 percent of women in Japan were “lifetime singles,” defined as people over 50 who have never married. By 2010 the percentages were 20.14 and 10.61, respectively. By 2030, demographers say, they will be 30 and 23. Nearly a third of all men and a quarter of all women, never marrying! The exclamation point seems warranted. From a historical perspective, it’s an astonishing development. (Hoffman, Japan Times)

It is perhaps astonishing, and worrying if your job is to monitor the population, worried about how Japan is getting smaller in those terms.  But is truly surprising?  Surely post 1992 and the recession, it is generally accepted there has been a change in values all over the world, not just in Japan, the more recent recession in America and Europe has produced not dissimilar cultural shifts.  Times have changed and people with it.  I’m sure that most Japanese people basically want the same thing that all people have since the dawn of time, to be loved and to be happy, and the occasional bar of chocolate.

And there’s that word again.  I’m afraid to say that a definition of happiness is beyond even my philosophical abilities.  I can tell you that here in Japan I’ve found happiness in a bar of Ghana dark chocolate, a can of chu-hi, a pitcher of Asahi, and in a measure of Suntory whisky.  I am however no closer than any other philosopher to a definition of happiness, so in that regard, I cannot help you.  But I can give directions to the nearest convenience store.  There’s a good chance that some ‘Happiness’ can be found there, I’ll lend you the Yen.



In praise of Japan Lite & Amy Chavez

Before I moved to Japan almost eighteen months ago, being a good academic, I got on the Interweb and began reading.  I quickly came across Amy Chavez and her ‘Japan Lite’ column in the Japan Times.  If you’ve never come across it, I urge to check this out  and then order ‘Japan, Funny Side Up’.  My review of her book on the Shikoku pilgrimage will be made as soon as my copy arrives and is read.

After the March 11th disaster, much writing about Japan is the print media, is understandably serious at times.  Amy Chavez’s work, reminds us that there is much literary mileage to be found in a light hearted look, and that such gaze can often produce funny and enlightening results.  When I wrote my blog article ‘Concerning the Smartphone in Japan’, I intended it very much as a homage to Amy’s work, so please do check her work out.

 Amy Chavez on Twitter: @JapanLite

Japan: An Attempt at Re-imagining (or how I write about Japan)

A thousand books have been written about Japan; but among these, -setting aside artistic publications and works of a purely special character,- the really precious volumes will be found to number scarcely a score.  The fact is due to the immense difficulty of perceiving and comprehending what underlies the surface of Japanese life.  No work fully interpreting that life,-no work picturing Japan within and without, historically and socially, psychologically and ethically,-can be written for at least another fifty years.  So vast and intricate the subject that the united labour of a generation of scholars could not exhaust it, so difficult that the number of scholars willing to devote their time to it must always be small. Lafcadio Hearn, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, 1904

It is has become obvious to me in the last few weeks that the world of Japan non-fiction writers, has altered much since Lafcadio Hearn wrote his seminal Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation in 1904.  Maybe it is just that Hearn didn’t have the luxury of blogging, and the delight of having dozens upon dozens of people throughout the globe writing to him personally, and sometimes in public forums to tell him how closely his book resembles faecal matter of the loosest variety.

Recently, I have been getting emails about my Japan Times article on having a disability and living in Japan.  Most has been positive, along the lines of ‘nice article’ and ‘write more’.  A minority of readers, however, seemed to take umbrage with my offering, not just saying it was badly written, it may well be, but that I had misrepresented Japan in some way. My critics divide into two camps, let me introduce you to them.

One camp thought I had been too positive, that surely life in Japan for a foreigner with a disability cannot be that good.  Surely, the pointing and staring must get to you; surely life is not really that sweet.  You must have made this is up, Japan can’t be that positive an experience for someone like yourself.  The second camp, somewhat bizarrely in my view, thought I’d been too negative, that in writing about being a disabled foreigner, I had somehow failed to attempt to integrate, to become part of Japanese society, as if in Japan, I should set aside such categories as ‘disabled’ or ‘foreigner’.

My direct response to the first chorus of disapproval (a woefully large portion of which seem to be disabled, and oftentimes disabled and living in Britain) I can simply say this: I made no claims that Japan is perfect; indeed it is certainly not perfect.  Japan only recently ratified the UN Declaration on the Convention of Rights for Disabled Persons, and was the 140th country to do so, instead of say, at least in the first hundred, and there are only fifty-three member states left to sign.  The experience of being disabled would be different for someone like my wife, a Japanese citizen who, like me, has cerebral palsy.

I am not quite sure what to say to the second group to answer their criticism except this.  Both groups, in different ways raise the issue of my being a foreigner, a gaijin, as something which acted as a lens in my understanding of Japan, both seem to see the ‘gaijin lens’ as offering a distorted and inaccurate view, even if it is a positive vista that one sees from behind the lens.  And there is an interesting question about the duty of a non-fiction writer, writing about Japan.  Is it to simply report ‘the truth’, what is ‘actually there’, or is it to report what she or he sees, thinks and feels and hears, even if it is from a perspective that may not be shared by all?

I am of the latter school of thought.  No one can simply abandon their pre-conceptions and prejudices, nor perhaps should they do so.  Whilst a good writer, native to Japan like Haruki Murakami may help me understand a point of view that could be called ‘Japanese’, I cannot look at Japan except as a foreigner, as that is what I am, a British subject, who has cerebral palsy, living in Japan, and I report what I experience in these blogs.  The mistake though, is to assume that I think that reportage is an innocent process, and simply ‘true’, that Japan is ‘simply’ how I describe it, it isn’t of course, even Hearn titled his book Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation not Japan: A Description. A journalist’s first duty may be to the truth, but a writer’s is not by necessity. Writers, even non-fiction writers, are telling you a story, much like impressionistic painters they are telling you about the world they see, not the world that is ‘actually’ there. Why is such a world, when presented to some, seen as the opposite of the ‘true’ or ‘real’ world? My being a foreigner, and being disabled, is the only perspective I have, something that Donald Richie understood when he wrote ‘On being a foreigner in Japan’, after he had been living in the country for forty-six years.

One could report events that did not happen, or describe people that did not exist, that would certainly be lie, but when did it become a writer’s job to simply describe what is ‘actually there’, to avoid ‘misrepresentation’ instead of also utilising their imagination to try and bring their subject alive to an unfamiliar audience?

And, oh, sometimes Lafcadio was lucky not to have to deal with the Internet.