From Chu-hi to Yorkshire Tea: Thoughts on Re-Entering Britain

So in almost a week’s time I shall temporarily leave Japan, the land of chu-hi and AKB48, for Britain, the land of Yorkshire Tea and drizzle. I have mentioned my concerns about returning to Britain before here.  I am still apprehensive, but now I am still really looking forward to it.  As I think about returning, if only for a month, I thought I would make some predictions about what I expect to experience on returning to the UK after almost eighteen months of being in Japan.

I must confess that I am still concerned about Britain disappointing me, for want of a better word.  As I detailed here and here, when I left Britain in late August 2012, I felt it had become an unkind place.  My concern is that I am so nervous about it even now (after all I was beaten up in broad daylight after being told I was a ‘f**king srounger’) that I shall be simply unfair on Britain as a country.  Maybe it is not that really that bad, but after being away for so long, I shall look at every small problem, every minor social infringement with undue emphasis.  And yet, at the same time, part of me thinks that even if I am unfair, that I am entitled to do be so, not just in here in Japan, but in every country, people, whether or not they have a disability, should be able to get around without fear of violence.

My other concerns are what you might call ‘re-entry issues’.  Britain is a very different place from Japan; the natives do things differently there. When I first arrive, I expect to be saying ‘sumimasen!’ instead of ‘sorry!’ when I bump into people on the bus or street, or forget that on said bus, one must make one’s way to leave before the bus stops, as buses in Britain never wait for you, unlike in Japan.  Maybe I will bow instead of say thank you if someone helps me in the street with shopping or the like, which did, despite what I said above, happened reasonably often last time I was there.  Maybe I shall also wonder why most convenience stores are open for business for almost twenty-four hours, as opposed to around twelve to fifteen (In Japan, apparently things can be too convenient!), but that no one greets you with ‘irrashaimase!’ or ‘Come on in!’, when you enter that convenience store.

I certainly expect a sense of the uncanny, of the world being strangely familiar as well as familiar but strange, maybe a sense of disconnection, of not being quite there. However, it would be mistake to think that such a feeling would be bad, a negative facet of being back in Britain.  As a disabled person, I have always felt an outsider, even in Britain, but yet I am still bemused that people often view the outsider perspective as not just being a lonely place (a party is far more enjoyable from within after all), but also somehow deficient, as if the view from that lens reveals no good exposure, as after all (and forgive the trumpet blowing), but it produced this.

I shall certainly report on this blog what I actually experience, as in one week’s time, I won’t need to wonder, I shall be in Britain.  And it certainly should fun and interesting.  And Japan, I’ll bring you back some Yorkshire Tea and English Mustard, you keep the chu-hi on ice.


Sometimes I Am So Western…

Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978

As a young doctoral student, and for that matter, before that, a young undergraduate studying philosophy in Britain, I used to be hugely worried about failing to heed Said’s warning.  Being taught at school about the British Empire, and in fact, I can dimly remember primary school teachers of mine referring to ‘Empire Day’ instead of ‘Commonwealth Day’, usually held in the second week of March.  Britain had in the past according to some, enacted a physical and cultural rape of certain countries, and those who held this view usually had India, Singapore, Afghanistan, and China in mind, to name but a few.  It is was now our duty, as ‘good Westerners’, not just to have no interest in colonising, (that at least was understandable), but also to be very careful how we approached other cultures, even geeky adoration of a strange and far away culture could be mistaken for an act of violence against a belief system which should be respected at all costs.  If only my History teacher could have seen Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’ in 2013 A.D., such an act of cultural violation would have no doubt put her in a catatonic state of shock.  

Still, such views were very much in vogue at the time.  Gone was the world of T.E.Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling, replaced with the new enlightened understanding of Edward Said and his students.  This time we were going to get it right apparently, be interested in other cultures, study other cultures, but we would avoid any violent appropriation of another’s culture.  I tried really hard to be a good disciple of Said, but I stopped soon after I came to Japan. Japan offers me many experiences, which convince me that Said is simply wrong when he says that it’s a ‘distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident” ’. Japan has taught me instead that everyone, of all nations, indulges in the practice or something similar.

Where are you from? A young woman, asked me in convenience store in Ome-shi, Tokyo, the first city I lived in when I moved here.  Britain, I say clearly.  Doko? (Where?), she responded, looking confused.  Britain, I reiterateI look at her face for a light bulb flash of recognition, there wasn’t one. I reached into my pocket for my smartphone and consulted Maps.  I turned the screen round to her, the British Isles enlarged on the screen, hai dozo (there).  Ah, she exclaimed with relief, England.  Initially, I was simply confused, did I? Thankfully she explained it thusly:

If you are from Britain, or in fact from the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, well then you are from England. The term, also upon occasion covers parts of Éire, unless you are talking to a Post Office worker, they understand ‘United Kingdom’.  It often confuses me, half my family is Scottish, and much of ‘English side’ has Irish heritage only one generation old. The term English is often appropriated by far right wing political groups with which I do not want to be associated. I always see myself as British, and yet this young woman of Yamato, had confidently assured me that I certainly was from England, and no other country. My grandmother being born in Galway was born in England, my grandmother from Aberdeenshire, was born in northern England, as was my brother who was born in Aberdeen itself.  All in England you see, it’s really very simple.

I give you exhibit B, ladies and gentlemen, once in a while, and usually, although not exclusively, I manage to illicit from female colleagues and friends this response: Wow, You understood that? I thought you were Western.  I am not always quite sure what it is I am doing or not doing that impresses them.  It appears to be connected to the surprise that I can use chopsticks, or know about any Japanese cultural artifacts, such as manga, anime or J-Pop, as if to be from the West, was to also be from a place that had no restaurants, books or devices to play music. After all, you are from the West, how can you possibly know about such things?  People from the West should not be able to use chopsticks, drink nihon-shu or speak Japanese, as that is what we Japanese people do. If you experience this reaction of happy surprise though, you should be proud, it means that you are beginning to follow the Japanese Way of Doing Things, and your hosts will be impressed.  It starts with the surprise, that you can use chopsticks, or have basic tourist level Japanese.  Maybe then you graduate to level two, you demonstrate that you are aware of the convention of pouring drinks for friends in restaurants, or can also order your own food.  Be advised though, once you start along the Japanese Way, any straying from the path, any failure to follow the establish way will be swiftly met by Yappari I Knew It, you are in fact a foreigner, as your gaijn-ness re-asserts itself through failure.  You may have fooled us into thinking you were something else with your chopstick use, sake drinking and language, but we have seen you using a fork, so we know the truth.  When you walk along the Japanese Way, let’s just say it is good to take a guide.

Which brings us nicely to exhibit C, the recent All Nippon Airways campaign, which some believe is racist; in fact ANA has apparently pulled the advert.  I don’t believe the advert is racist, although part of the campaign, does make use of stereotypes that British media, at least could not get away with.  One poster for example has a photograph of a Japanese person, dressed in the apparently traditional attire of one the many destinations ANA can take you.  So the person from Frankfurt looks like she just stopped singing Edelweiss with Christopher Plummer, and the London representative , who wears what I have come to call ‘The Full Van Dyke’, shall certainly ‘av a loverly time with Mary.

So I lay this challenge to those still overly concerned with Said’s charge of Orientalism, what about Occidentalism?  And with that question, the defence rests, and is off to drink chu-hi, eat natto and do all manner of un-western things.




Home Thoughts from an Ingurisshu Abroad

So today I bought airplane tickets for Britain, leaving in early February and coming back in March, as mentioned in previous blog posts, the idea of returning to Britain, has at a times, troubled me, for details I suggest reading by this and this.

And yet there are things I miss about the UK.  Not necessarily particular places, although I do miss the City where I went to University, Hull, where I began my academic and married life, as well as my home town of Rotherham. It wasn’t a simple longing, I certainly cannot even picture a full-time return to the UK for some time yet, and, to speak truthfully, in my heart of hearts I don’t think the economic situation will improve enough for me to live there.  However, I do miss my parents, friends, some aspects of academic (as a Brit for example, it would be nice not to use American English or Ingurish to explain one’s thoughts) and Mars Bars.

What’s that you say, Mars Bars?  One of the things you miss most about Britain is Mars Bars? Well in a way yes, I miss Mars Bars, you can’t get them here, or Twixes, or should that be Twix’s or Twixi?  Either way I’ve never seen them, Snickers yes, Mars Bars and Twixi, no. 

Obviously it’s not all about Mars Bars, although it is often the little things, things like Mars Bars, a pint of Carling, and Yorkshire Pudding, that I miss most.  I probably would not actually eat the Mars Bar, they rot the teeth, I shall simply know they are there to be possibly devoured, but Yorkshire Pudding shall definitely be consumed.  Why the country that has the city with most Michelin stars (Tokyo in case you wondered) can’t have one restaurant that can produce a passable Yorkshire Pudding at decent prices is beyond me, and the same goes for the holy grail that is an oven that can heat up twelve inch Pizzas.   

And it is not all about food of course. It’s the ability to talk in English without needing to speak at three quarters of the rate you usually speak a minute, even if the person you addressing have stayed for an extensive time the United Kingdom or America. And when you do speak to the locals (strangers in a pub, old grannies and taxi’s drivers are especially good for this) not to have the first question be When are you going home? I also have a nephew I’ve never actually met, and would like to see him.

If such a list of things genuinely bothered one that much, one would of course, never really leave one’s country of origin, if you really want English, ultimately, I recommend staying in Britain, I hear the Yorkshire Pudding is tasty there. I’m certainly not ready to go back for good, but I have been in the Land of the Rising Sun since August 26th 2012, and that’s been feeling like a long time recently. So I was coming to the end of the teaching part of the University academic year, and lacking any administrative duties, with the academic year re-starting in April, I decided to temporarily leave the land of rising suns, chu-hi and ramen and re-visit the land of drizzle, cuppa teas and Yorkshire puddings. 

At least my visit will make three quarters of my local watering hole, obaa-chan and taxi driver very happy! I shall blog and make videos about my time as the prodigal son, and in the words of another famous resident of Japan, I shall return.

How did you get to Japan?

Michey, how did you get to Japan? Some of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances back in Britain have all asked me this question.  And I have always found it expressed rather oddly, not How did you come to move to Japan? Or how do you find living in Japan?, but very particularly how did you get to Japan?’ sometimes just how did you do it?, added for emphasis.  I’ve always found the question a bizarre one.  My friends certainly are aware of the existence of these machines called airplanes, with them, when can travel 5937 miles and more, all the way from Britain to Japan.  Can it be that many of my acquaintances are in fact time travellers from the 19th Century, possessing the technology of time travel but not flight?  Maybe, they are mostly academics, they generally live in pre 20th Century world, but it’s unlikely.  Thousands of miles are only an obstacle in world where you have to travel by row boat. 

I jest, but many who ask this question do seem to be truly concerned about the distance.  It’s so far’ they say.  How do you do it?

The temptation at this point is to simply say: You go to an Airport, if you’re coming from the UK, make sure it has international connecting flights. Buy a ticket for a city in Japan, so maybe Tokyo or Osaka.  Be prepared to change flights in either a European city, or city in China or Korea.  Japan is just a bit to the right of Korea.  It’s a very thin country so be careful not to miss it.  I’m sure Tokyo will have left the lights on just in case you miss it.

Of course, I don’t actually say this (although I guess now I have), it’s just my friends’ occasional incredulity quite honestly baffles me.  Planes fly here, you get on one and one day later you here.  It’s easy; we’ve been doing it for decades.  Those satisfied with that answer (although they rarely seem to be absolutely satisfied, often move on to a supplementary comment and question:

But it’s so different from here, how do you deal with that?

I am never sure how to answer that, maybe this is a British thing, almost as if xenophobia or at least a fear of the different is a national trait.  Is it just that ‘we British’ like the familiar, or at best lacking the openness or perhaps even the curiosity to experience new things?

To be honest, I don’t think the British are especially any of those things.  We like the new, odd, and possess the curiosity to experience the unfamiliar the same as any other culture. And yet many, if not most of the people who ask me this question are British, I have in fact never heard it from someone from a European country, the Americas or Asian subcontinent.  I wish I had the courage to give this response:

You were expecting life almost six thousand miles away to be the same as here?  Why would you want to travel that far, losing a day and getting jetlagged just to experience some place that’s just like home?  Just go walk down the street instead, cheaper and you’ll enjoy it more.  I know that you’ve visited a European country, were you hoping that it would be just like here.  No.

I don’t give this response, but as I try work myself up for this rant, I realise something.  For some people, there is something about the distance between Britain and Japan, the time, money and effort that takes to get here, that makes one hopes its worth it, and the promise of something familiar is comforting to some.

I just don’t share that response.  Maybe as disabled person (and now a foreigner too), I’ve always appreciated, if not purposely embraced the outsider perspective.  And I like new experiences.  I am only just realising that in Britain at least, this makes seem even weirder than I was before I came to Japan. 

And that’s an unsettling thought.


Times are bad: A prologue to a disabled foreigner’s life in Japan

Times are bad.  Children no longer obey their parents.  And everyone is writing a book. – Attr. Cicero

I wish it could write that it was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were just striking thirteen.  Or at least, that it was a dark and stormy night.  But quite frankly, it was none of those things.  It was April though, but not the cold bright kind that Orwell wrote about, but the post-April-showers drizzily kind that most residents of Britain actually experience.

I had arrived in Hull, where I was – in fact still am, an honorary staff member for a talk on philosophy.  I was really looking forward to it.  I knew that in about four months I would be moving to Japan, and was very much treating every visit to my Alma Mater as if it were my last.  This would be my tri-ultimate.

I came through the ticket gate, about ten to three, dying for a pee.  I delve into my pockets; and extract the requisite twenty pence and ten pence.  I stumble towards the turnstile that precedes the entrance to the toilets.  And it’s a long queue.  About ten people in front of me, and not a typical April day, it is rainy and warm.  So about four minutes later I am at the front of the queue, and about to slide my money into the turnstile slot.  The queue behind me was already growing restless – it was quite a long queue and uncommonly busy.  As I bent down to put the money into the slot I tripped and dropped the money, as I bent down further to pick it up, the man behind me, about six foot tall, booted me on the backside. And continued kicking. I managed to get to my feet.  Turned round to see a fist coming my way.  I ducked.  Unsuccessfully.  Thankfully, but this point, the Transport police had noticed, and a boy in blue pulled me over the ticket barrier and bundled me in to the toilet reserved for disabled people.

Where at least, I got relief.

A few minutes later I emerged.  Still shaken, but at least with an empty bladder.  The policeman asked me if I wanted to press charges.  I said I did not.  He looked surprised.  ‘Why not, sir?’  I responded, by say  that this was the third time I had been attacked in five years, and that I no longer saw the point in pressing charges.

It was four months before I left for Japan.  I would be attacked twice again.

The philosophy talk  was really good.

Is England past its sell-by date?

So I just heard that ex-footballer and sometime actor Vinnie Jones left the UK because ‘England is past its sell-by date. There is nothing to go back to. It’s not the country I grew up in…If someone blindfolded you and put you on a plane and you landed at Heathrow and they took it off, you wouldn’t have a clue where you were.” 

Well ladies and gentleman, I’m here to tell you that Mr. Jones is correct – it is not the country I grew up in either.  I didn’t grow up in a country where there were 1,492 hate crimes against disabled people – up 14% from the last recorded average.  But don’t take my word for it, take, The Independent’s.

I wish I could say that I left the UK for Japan because of this reason, but I can’t.  I left because I love my wife and my wife lives in Japan.  This has been no real hardship for me, I am in the land of Sake and Sushi and Girls Bars.  However, I was attacked twice before leaving the UK  – once in broad daylight by two people at Hull Train Station, once in Rotherham.  I like Mr. Jones’ don’t really want to go back to the UK, but am sad that I feel that way.  It is only fear of being attacked again, or worse, of being useless, I could get no employment in the UK,  that prevents me.  And I do miss friends and family.

I doubt Mr. Jones, has ever been attacked for merely existing – I have.  And I doubt that the immigrations concerns, truly concern him that much.  He says he is no poster boy for UKIP – but why else make such a statement?  I truly want to go back someday to the UK – but statements like is convince me that I am right to stay here.