The ‘Outsider’ and the ‘Other’ in Japan

The feelings upon awakening from reality are no different: A profound sense of disappointment and displacement. For a split-second, the disconnect between where I think I was and where I am inserts a sharp sliver of icy confusion between my shoulder blades that raises my head from the pillow. Osaka. Yes, Osaka. That’s where I am.

I focus my gummy eyes and recalibrate my radar. The scenery has changed (there are blue skies all year around), and the special effects have improved (the toilets are space age), but the narrative remains resolutely the same. The years’ pass, the characters I encounter and love or loathe are ciphers of previous incarnations, the problems I cannot overcome remain, and mistakes are repeated. Any hope that living in a distant country magically recreates you as a more worldly and cosmic Eat, Pray, Love mystic should be thrown in the same trash can as all copies of said novel and movie. Unlike the heroine of Eat, Pray, Vomit, I did not have a successful but unfulfilling life (mine was both unsuccessful and unfulfilling), and nor was I seeking to escape an unhappy marriage, go on a journey of spiritual enlightenment, or wishing to learn to love myself. I simply saw an advert about working overseas as a teacher and thought it looked less boring than my then dismal existence.

Living overseas in a country that would rather you were not there, forces the adoption of an ‘outsider’ status, or renders you helpless in a losing battle of striving for acceptance. Not fitting in back home as I did, was therefore perfect training for living somewhere where there is zero chance of ever being considered anything other than an ‘outsider’. Though of course, by merit of my ethnicity and class, my romanticized view of myself as an ‘outsider’ positioned me in reality on the ‘inside’ of my own country, inhabiting what could more accurately be described as a ‘self-realized conscious absence of leave to a space situated on the periphery of society’, which is a label I refute as it does not sound half as sexy and dangerous as ‘outsider’.

As a child, I was neither popular nor unpopular, and in my teens the distance from my peers increased as I failed to conform to the requirements of the dominant group. I had a few friendships with others who lived outside the circle, and likewise plotted their paths back home from school through complex strategies of avoidance of the hazardous crowd, and upon arrival, our disappointed parents. My teens became a bedroom temple of books and albums and furious masturbation, spiked with bouts of draining depression and listening to The Fall (which some may consider one and the same). It should come as little surprise that these formative years have since emerged as recurring motifs in middle age.

This commitment to the solitary was to be the pattern that would prove a successful blueprint for long-term escapism. If you have been locked into flights beyond your suburban English bedroom from an early age, you remain suspended mid-air in the same bedroom thousands of kilometers away. When, after several years of living in tiny one-room apartments, I moved into a two bedroom palace, it took a year before I tentatively spent an evening in the lounge, unnerved by it’s spaciousness, ill at ease with the absence of books, my lifeline computer, and my temptress bed.

As Anthony Storr notes in Solitude, his classic work challenging the psychoanalytic dictum that fulfilling interpersonal relationships are the only measure of a successful existence, we live in an age where for the privileged, freed from the demands of poverty, hunger and disease, combined with a decline in religious belief, the interpersonal has become paramount:

‘ … modern industrial societies are unstable and lacking in structure.
Increased mobility has undermined the pillars of society. Because we
have more choice as to where we live, what society we should join, and
what we should make of our lives, our relations with the other people
who constitute our environment are no longer defined by age-old rules
and have therefore become matters of increasing concern and anxiety.’

This ‘concern and anxiety’ becomes amplified when people from this climate of the primacy of the interpersonal, and possessing a specific and highly culturally nuanced, western perception of how relations should be conducted, are transplanted to countries like Japan. It should logically follow that a country with a culture that bears no resemblance in its history, understanding of how people interact, or how society is structured, is under no obligation to conform to essentializing western ideals. But, of course, the colonial mindset is slow and resistant to change, and Asian countries continue to be viewed through the westernized filter of ‘normality’ and judged accordingly.

  Lost and Found? No Mind, No Worries

A recent article in Japan Today rehashes the perennial favorite of expat discourse – the seemingly insurmountable differences between ‘the Japanese’ (a codified pejorative collective noun) and ‘us’ (the ‘common sense’ control group), with ‘the Japanese’ being the implied illogical and irrational ‘other’. However, what occurs in these discussions is an appropriation of the role of the ‘other’, which attempts to create a white, stigmatized ‘other’ battling against relentless institutional and culturally disseminated discrimination:

‘No matter how hard you try to assimilate into Japanese culture, you
will forever be a perpetual “other.” The word gaijin, in fact, is a slightly
derogatory but universally accepted label for foreigners in Japan that
essentially means “outsiders”, and the Japanese will never stop calling
you one no matter how close your relationship or how long you’ve been
a resident … Comparatively rare … is the Japanese person who
will treat you like just another human being. Foreigners must constantly
endure having their “outside-ness” discussed openly in conversation’.

From the ‘[rarity of being treated] like just another human being’, it suggests that white foreign residents in Japan suffer the indignities of being stopped and searched by the police at a significantly higher rates than Japanese people, are incarcerated at an exponentially greater percentage than Japanese people, and find themselves confronted by all manner of exceptional and demeaning daily indignities that persistently reinforce a perpetual ‘otherness’.

Suffice to say, this interpretation of what the term ‘other’ means is in complete contrast to its sociological and highly charged colonial studies definitions, yet is relied upon by many expats to explain and justify what are viewed as discriminatory or exclusionary practices and policies. The more prosaic reality is that what is happening is their first minor, inconsequential, and impotent encounter of a mild marginalization by the dominant group.

Though there is the existence of the classification of ‘foreigner’ (i.e. all non-Japanese), the treatment of white expatriates is one that is diametrically opposite to the experience of ethnic minorities living in countries where the dominant group is white. Any attempt to make comparisons are laughable, and reinforce an inverted version of what cultural theorist Stuart Hall terms the ‘Floating Signifier’, to describe the ever changing use and classification of race and power as a means of ‘maintaining an order of classification … which stabilizes the culture, knowing who the inferiors are and who the superiors are and how each has a rank …’ which is only broken by a disturbance to this order by what he describes as ‘matter out of place’ (a classification that appears where it should not be). This ‘matter out of place’ in the Japan Today article is Japanese people in Japan not conforming to ‘common sense’ definitions of how interpersonal relationships should be convened, managed and maintained to the satisfaction of their racial superiors. Ironically, of course, this is all happening in Japan, which it is commonly agreed upon to be the home of Japanese people.

The further irony is that in Japan, the white expat is treated exceptionally well, moving seamlessly through society with a privileged status, being largely exempt from cultural norms, and residing in a gilded position outside the fence. A luxury not afforded to non-white residents, such as those of Korean or Chinese origin, whose ‘outsider’ status is both legally and culturally a correct application of the ‘other’.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that I have not noticed and/or experienced differences or different treatment in Japan, but since I enjoy being on the periphery as it affords the best view, I freely admit that I exploit my privileged position with full awareness that it is borne out of difference that works in my favor. Being by choice an ‘outsider’ in my own country, and being signified as an ‘outsider’ in a country in which I feel fortunate to live, has therefore had no debilitating impact upon me whatsoever. I am an ‘outsider’, not an ‘other’, so there has been no change there, and I still Eat, Drink, Fuck the same as I ever did, just in a different place with different people.

J.E. Gardiner teaches literature at a university in Osaka. He dislikes many things.