Friday, October 6, 2017

Japan and White Entitlement

A friend referred an interesting blogpost to me the other day about Japan. It is from a British photographer who goes by the handle Uchujin. He had lived in Japan for many years and in the post, he explains in detail his disillusionment with the society and his reasons for ultimately leaving.

Storey is clearly a very smart and creative guy. His bio reveals a number of successes in film making and photography. Thus I cannot help but feel a bit bad being critical of his post on Japan. I was bemused by it. It is a fascinating read in so far as it really exemplifies many white people's incredible sense of entitlement when they go to foreign countries. Here is the short version of his complaints: He is annoyed that Japan does not have a western style criminal justice system, a western style work culture, a western belief in gender egalitarianism, a western belief in multiculturalism, and so on. Why he should expect a non-western country to hold western cultural values is a mystery.

Do foreigners have a right to live in a country for years and then aggressively criticize it? Sure. As I wrote in my piece 'Standing,' foreigners have every right to their opinion. Hell, I even agree with a lot of Storey's complaints. The work culture in Japan is pretty awful. There is an underbelly of racism. The criminal justice system does not have the same protections as in America. The country is so safe that I don't worry about it much, yet if I had to choose between getting arrested in America or Japan, I would definitely pick the former.

Another point I made in my 'Standing' article is that the views of expats need not carry much weight. And Storey is an expat not an immigrant. By his own admission, he only speaks, "a reasonable level of Japanese," after living in the country for 10 years. One might think it praiseworthy that a country is able to allow foreigners to thrive for decades even if they don't bother to learn to communicate with natives. I don't dispute the specific facts and observations in his piece. However if you haven't spent hours drinking with Japanese coworkers after a hard day's work - if you haven't had several lengthy social experiences exclusively speaking and understanding native level Japanese - then maybe people need not put much stock in your opinion when you call an entire race ignorant (as Storey does of the Japanese).

Storey isn't the first case of this. Three times I have met foreigners that have lived in Japan for more than ten years yet did not speak the language. All were white. I have seen tourists in Japan loudly complain about the lack of English signage or the fact that a restaurant only has chopsticks and no forks. Always whites, usually Americans but also sometimes Australians. It never ceases to amuse me - this assumption that western culture is some sort of international default. It is a natural consequence of globalism. Hell you could even call it white privilege - this taken for granted idea that they can fly anywhere in the world and expect to feel at home.

I specifically call out white people here because I almost never see people of other races do this stuff. In Japan I have met Filipinos, Mexicans, Indians, Arabs, Africans, and all manner of nonwhite men and women. Not once have they ever lamented Japan’s lack of progressive values. From the Thai waitress to the Brazilian street musician to the Indian IT worker – every one of them busts their ass to assimilate and make a good life for themselves and their families.

They tend to master the language much faster than white people from wealthy countries, often because they have no choice. They don't have cushy office jobs where people will try to speak to you in English and kiss your butt because you correctly pronounced konnichiwa. The Vietnamese dude working 12 hours a day in some kitchen getting yelled at by a Japanese boss learns real quick how to properly conjugate honorific forms of verbs because he's out on his ass if he doesn't. But even middle and upper-class nonwhites do a better job of acculturating. Nonwhites may not care for a few specific Japanese customs. They may miss some of the foods and traditions of their homelands. But they adapt and thrive in Japan without complaint. Their attitude is generally, “This is Japan. They do things their own way here. It is on me to adjust and get used to it.”

So where does this specific form of white people entitlement come from exactly? At first I thought maybe it was because white countries are wealthier. Perhaps all people from wealthy countries have a kind of arrogance about the superiority of their own culture. This seemed to make sense as it explained why whites from poorer countries tended not to complain as much about Japan in my experience. For example, I have met several eastern Europeans who have lived in Japan for years and absolutely love it. Yet immigrants from wealthy nonwhite societies (South Korea, Singapore, UAE, etc) tended to thrive in Japan. So if the cause isn't economic, could it perhaps be cultural? Is it perhaps something about the nature of societies that value multiculturalism and diversity?

Many predominantly white countries make tolerance one of their most fundamental values. They define themselves by their lack of a norm-imposing identity. This I think gives them a confused understanding of precisely what a culture is. A culture is, at root, a series of norms. Norms can be small or large. A small norm in Japan is that people slurp their noodles loudly when they eat in restaurants. A bigger norm is that women are expected to quit their jobs once they have kids and become housewives.

When your cultural identity is defined by a lack of norms, it can be jarring to try to live in a place where norms are taken for granted. It isn’t merely that you disagree with the specific norms. Rather you are outraged that the people have the nerve to try to impose any sort of norms in the first place. It makes sense that people coming from a culture defined by its ability to accommodate foreigners would find it difficult to live in a place that expects foreigners to adjust themselves. I think this is also part of why we are seeing more ethnic tension in western countries, be it racial division in America or Muslim and migrant populations in Europe. The only culture white western nations can impose is a judgment-free non-culture that leaves a void nonwhites will inevitably fill with their own values.

So in a way the entitlement of white foreigners is kind of sad. It reflects just how thoroughly modernity and globalism have gutted their heritage and shared identity. It's as if they have forgotten what it means to have a culture in the first place. Good immigrants recognize norms in their new homelands and try to either copy them or at least tolerate them. They do this in part because they have an implicit understanding of the importance of norms having come from a homeland that imposed its own.

I have no illusions about Japan after three years living here. I recognize many of its flaws. I don't love every cultural norm. I accept that as a black man I will always be an outsider. That didn't stop me from becoming fluent in the language (not really native level yet, but trying) and assimilating as much as possible. It doesn't stop me from bowing in social situations, buying cheap souvenirs for coworkers when I'm on vacation, and ending meals by saying, "Gochisousama deshita." Japan is my home after all. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Don't get mad that the Romans aren't acting like Egyptians.