Monday, November 20, 2006

Gaijin Smash

I'm not a Japanophile. Japanophiles love everything Japanese regardless of quality, like crappy anime that foresakes story telling in favour of flashy visuals and screaming, unthinkably bad game shows that look like they dredged Microsoft's Tokyo office to cast American Gladiators, and candies shaped like poop. (I'm not saying all anime is like this. Most is not. Some is, and it has its ravenous hordes of non-Asian fans.)

(And I'm not kidding about the candies shaped like poop.)

I am greatly interested in Japanese history, and have been for at least 15 years. Most people who know me think of me as a "Civil War buff", not realizing that until the late 90s I'd actually spent more time studying Japanese fuedal history. I've always wanted to run a roleplaying game in Japan, or in a fantasy version, though it's unlikely I'll ever get to do it; none of the gaming groups I've been with have been particularly interested.

As a techie, I dream of visiting Tokyo. I know it's never going to happen, but I can still dream. Of course I couldn't just stay in Tokyo. I'd have to visit Kyoto, Osaka, and several battlefields that even the Japanese have pretty much forgotten. Many of these places are in areas where hardly no one speaks English. Even with four years of forced French in junior high and high school, I would much, much rather explore rural Japan than metropolitan France (though I do one day want to visit Normandy; another dream).

So, I'm not a Japanophile, but I am a very interested outsider. For one thing, I love samurai movies. I appreciate some aspects of Japanese culture, but I'm also very much aware of Japan's shortfalls. My Dad had an uncle die in a Japanese POW camp. I wonder if Japan will ever come to grips with the shame of how it treated POWs during World War II, and fear that it never will. At the same time I have an idea of how their mind set brought them to brutalize thousands of Allied prisoners.

In fact, it is learning the Japanese mind set that most interests me. For instance, we think of Japaese samurai as fighting to the death, and yet there are cases where samurai turned and ran when heavily outnumbered. Their morale seemed to break just as easy as Europeans, though they also seemed to rally much more readily. The 4th Battle of Kawanakajima (1561) saw the winner take 72% casualties. (I once e-mailed the Japan scholar Stephen Turnbull about this. He agreed with my assessment in a short e-mail. It was pretty cool uncovering something in history and have an actual expert agree with you!) That's just a taste of the Japanese military mind set from 445 years ago. The modern civilian mind set is equally fascinating.

For an idea of the latter, see the web site The writer is an American teaching English as a second language to junior high school students in Japan. The site is his blog. It is updated semi-regularly. Apparently it was on another site until earlier this year. He is reposting his old entries instead of posting new ones. Today's entry, for instance, was originally posted on October 31, 2005. If you haven't seen his old site, though, it won't matter.

His take on Japanese culture, as mirrored by the kids he teaches, is excellent. Example: I always assumed that Japanese education was superior to that in the West. I didn't realize that Japanese school kids will receive a passing grade regardless of whether they even show up! He talks a lot about the physical violation of his body by his students while marvelling at the Japanese penchant for keeping their emotions to themselves (except for crying, which they do a great deal). He also describes what it's like to be a gaijin, both the negatives (being stared at on the subway) and the positives (his friend skips train fare simply because the booth attendant is too scared to come after him for the money). This is where the term "gaijin smash" comes in. I'll let the author explain it...

Reading his entries you realize just how much of what we take as "human nature" is actually a learned response based on Western culture and society. At the same time, we see that at our most basic we all want the same things: love, sex, friends, self esteem, and a decent future for our kids.

I highly recommend you go straight to the archives and start at the beginning. He does not spend a lot of time explaining terms and situations in an entry if he's already explained it in a previous entry. It will make far more sense to start at the beginning.

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