Do any of you remember Max Danger? That was the pen name of Bob Collins, a popular humor columnist in the Tokyo Weekender 30 or 40 years ago. In one essay, he likened the life of a foreigner in Japan to an onion: it has layers. Yes, he beat Shrek’s description of an ogre by several decades! The longer you live in Japan, the more layers you go through and the deeper your understanding becomes, both of Japan and of yourself, with Japan acting as a sometimes unpleasant but quite necessary foil.
Twenty years ago, my mother-in-law died. At that time we had been living in her house for 12 years, and the house was ever so gradually becoming mine, though she never would have admitted it. (In one of our quarrels she said, “Zettai ni makenai kara ne”, which roughly translated means, “Be warned, I will never concede defeat”. I didn’t even know we were at war.) She had determined that the best thing – certainly for me as well as for her – was to make me into a pliable, respectful, efficient Japanese wife, as soon as possible. Of course, she never had a mother-in-law of her own; her husband had joined the family, and she had been born into the house and never left it. So perhaps she was unused to the necessary give-and-take of such a relationship. In any case, she was the large unmoving thumb under which I spent my days.
After her death, I was angry with her, having nightmares and muttering to myself, for three years. Finally I wanted to change, so I went to a counselor in Kyoto. She was fantastic, very inventive, incorporating yoga and Tibetan Buddhism into her methods. Among other things, she said she wanted to explore the reasons why I made myself stay under that woman’s thumb with little or no respite all those years. In other words, what was the payoff?
Of course, as a Japanese scholar, I wanted to learn about traditional culture, and it was excellent intensive training for that. I wrote down the knowledge and experiences I gained in my book At Home in Japan, published in 2010. I discovered that as I was writing all these Japanese details down, the emotional charge, the hold they had over me, was loosening. I would realize later that I had transferred most of my feeling about Japan into the book. At the same time, Japan started to be, for me, no longer a place of wonders, rife with inexplicable restrictions and potential for embarrassment and regret, but simply a place where I lived. My neighbors and friends lost their mystical superiority and shrank down to life-size human beings, with problems, sorrows and joys similar to my own. I had reached another layer of the onion. Now, Japanese culture is no longer an unreachable godlike ideal for me. It’s a way of life among many on this planet, with both positive and negative aspects.
There was, however, a deeper reason for my concession or resignation, the full ramifications of which have become clear to me only recently. When I first came to Japan at the age of 23, it was straight from my parents’ home. I had never lived by myself or been financially responsible for my own life. So when I got married in 1981, to the scion of this old country family, I realized (subconsciously) that here I would be protected. In this bubble of traditional culture I didn’t have to make the kinds of adjustments people usually make as they mature. I gave my free will over to this traditional life, much as a novice in a monastery hands over his autonomy to the system. The payoff, for me, as for the monk, was severely limited engagement with the “real world”, which to me felt like safety.
Something else I recently realized was that by living in Japan, I was reliving my childhood. My mother was repressed, quiet and outwardly pliable, whereas my dad was spontaneous, artistic, loud and free-spirited. Why didn’t I realize sooner that my Japanese part is my mom and my gaijin part is my dad? Of course, to us kids, my scary, loud dad was the bad guy and my quiet mother was the good guy. But my mom knew ways of inflicting pain that my poor dad just couldn’t match. Japanese people are so “polite”, and you feel like a total boor around them. But being a “boor” in Japan is just being ordinary in our home country. Why do the Japanese get extra points just because they have internalized the benefits of quietness and repression? There is plenty of passive aggression there, as we can all attest.
As I felt the pressure of the thumb disappearing, I began to chafe under all that Japanese-ness. I started to realize what I had lost, and set about getting it back again. I was bolstered by a confidence that came with age and experience. I could figure out to what degree, in any situation, I could “be a gaijin” – a necessary determination, as I was the only gaijin for miles around for most of my life here. I valued the good opinions of my neighbors and didn’t want to freak them out too much… but at the same time, I felt a small amount of freaking out once in a while would be good for them. Being able to gauge how much the market would bear became an interesting exercise.
That’s where I am today, and I’m much happier for it. I’ve reached the point where, in most cases, I feel I can “be myself”, a free-spirited gaijin who can also walk the Japanese walk when necessary. And from this has come an unexpected bonus. Being more confident in myself as a human being, I have begun to feel much more poignantly the humanity of those around me. Huge revelation!! – their journey to “being Japanese” has actually been much like mine. All babies are born with their quota of spontaneity, curiosity, enthusiasm, and joy; it is only later that this is restricted. Some Japanese people rediscover their true selves and start to give themselves permission to express what they feel, as I did when the repressive thumb of traditional social mores was lifted. But for most of them, it’s just too scary out there by oneself – they prefer the safety of the group and the traditions. However, the largely unconscious sacrifice of the self to the larger society never pays the kinds of dividends that can be gained by allowing oneself to learn to ignore the “seken no me” or “Eye of the World”, in other words others’ judgment, and take some risks. Seeing this, I began to feel sorry for the Japanese people, sacrificial lambs systematically stretched out on the altar of a smooth-running society, and to cheer the ones who managed to break free. It’s taught me a lot about how this society works, and its incredibly strong instinct for self-preservation. Cracks are appearing now, be they ever so small, and I like to encourage these wherever I can. Awareness of oneself as a free individual is a precious gift, and one people can only give themselves.
At the same time, on a purely personal level, I am comfortable in Japan because of the discipline involved in being part of this society. I believe that discipline should come before freedom, and structure before spontaneity – it’s simply better to know the rules before you decide whether to break them. For children, structure is a proven plus in education (yes, of course, the Japanese tend to take it too far, because that’s what they are comfortable with, and most of us with children have struggled to give our kids more spontaneity in their home lives to offset what they get at school). And who hasn’t been grateful to some Japanese workman who went above and beyond the call of duty on a Sunday evening when the pipes burst or the car broke down? Dedication to the well-being of the group is often laudable, and there are times when I’ve done the same. But there are also times when I feel free to say, “Nuh-uh, no way” when an unreasonable request is made or something happens that rubs my sense of fairness the wrong way.
So – balance? For me the question of when and where to “let the gaijin out” is somewhat weighted on the side of the gaijin right now; I guess I’m still compensating for all those years when I was forced, or forced myself, to be as Japanese as possible. I probably wouldn’t be having so much fun with my gaijin-ness now if I hadn’t had to keep it under wraps for so long. Perhaps a perfect balance is impossible – balance is movement, after all, an eternal attempt to compensate as circumstances change, moment by moment. As I wrote at the end of my book, the Japanese part and the gaijin part are both me. There’s no need to throw away either one. Both are hard-earned, both are necessary, both are enjoyable.
Max Danger said of the onion-like layers of gaijin experience, “Tears are not mentioned, but someday somebody will work that in.” I’ve shed my share, and I’m sure you have too. But I for one would not trade my 40 years in Japan for anything easier or even happier. This is the life I’ve made.
By Rebecca Otowa