My Take (7)

In addition to the ambivalence the Japanese harbor towards foreigners, I believe the answer lies in the Japanese identity, but first I’d like to look at the roots of its American counterpart. In the ancient Western world, people derived their identity from which god they believed in. This belief was a unifying factor in defining not only membership, but the allies and enemies of the tribe. (Tribes with different gods warred, while those with a common deity coexisted.) This identity was not dependent on or affected by physical locale. Hunter-gatherers were nomadic; they retained their identity wherever their search for food took them. If a member became separated from his tribe, he kept his membership as long as he remained loyal to the tribal god—loyalty which could get him imprisoned, enslaved or killed by believers of other gods. The only way to lose his identity was to join or “defect to” another tribe. That is, to accept another god.

Japanese identity, on the other hand, derives from physical, geographical locale. It is dependent upon one’s area of residence, which, due to the limited movement within agrarian cultures, in the past usually meant his place of birth. Each locale features a unique identity based on and including everything animate and inanimate within its physical boundaries—gods, wildlife, weather, geophysical features—and these coexist as a delicately balanced, interdependent whole. Individuals are a part of this inclusive identity; they do not carry identities of their own. If they leave the area, they relinquish this identity since it is defined by and therefore remains with the locale. If they move to a new place, they adopt its ways—that is, assume its identity.

From the locale’s perspective, any additions, subtractions or other changes throw the equilibrium of this whole out of balance. New elements—people, objects, technologies, natural disasters, discovering a hot spring—bring change. Dealing with this change—assimilating it, controlling it, preventing it from degenerating into chaos, restoring balance—requires two things: time and rituals. Rituals make change less frightening, more controllable, by structuring the transition to a new equilibrium.

When Japanese move into a small rural neighborhood from out of the area, there are rituals for gaining acceptance— restoring equilibrium—in their new society. First, gifts must be presented to residents as tangible signs of deference and tokens of “apology” to redress the upset. (From the giver’s standpoint, gifts start leveling the playing field.) This concrete acknowledgment of lowly position in the neighborhood hierarchy must be reinforced with a complementary ingratiating attitude toward residents, asking for their guidance and wise council.

It takes time for Japanese from distant locales to gain acceptance in a new neighborhood, but it’s qualitatively different for foreigners. Correctness in neighborhood entry protocol counts for little compared to the almost visceral discomfort having an alien among them. (See attitude toward foreigners in Chapter 5.) And every mistake I made served to amplify that antipathy. Bottom line? There was little hope for a happy outcome from the beginning.