Monday, September 7, 2009

Mr. James and Mr. Debito

McDonald's in Japan has recently launched an ad campaign featuring a doofusy-looking Westerner dubbed 'Mr. James', who apparently is quite keen on certain types of recently launched burgers. This has kicked up a minor fuss in the foreign community in Japan, a small fire whose flames are being fanned by a man named Arudou Debito, who is a Westerner who married a Japanese, has kids in Japan, and became a Japanese citizen, which I gather is no easy task for a non-Japanese.

He has become the most prominent advocate for foreigners' rights in Japan, and he has an excellent website that features, among a lot of other useful information, all of his activities and investigations of discrimination against foreigners, or maybe I should say, those who weren't born in Japan. He, after all, strictly speaking is not a foreigner, as he's a Japanese citizen, but he definitely wasn't born in Japan. And that's the rub.

Having lived here for twenty years, I am sufficiently confident in my understanding to say that being a Japanese is like being a member of a very exclusive club. The only way to enter this club is to be born here (to Japanese parents), grow up here, and fit basic societal expectations. If any one of these is absent, you can't really be considered Japanese.

I don't want to speak too broadly, but let's say that a Pakistani comes to America. He accepts the culture enthusiastically, he loves America, he tries to learn the idioms perfectly and minimize his accent, he adopts an American-style nickname (let's say, 'Mike'), he learns the social expectations, he makes friends, he becomes a fan of the local sports teams, he watches American Idol. I believe it is safe to say that within a few years, he will be accepted by most as an American. They'll think of him as 'Mike,' not 'that Pakistani guy.' Sitting with four white guys around a friend's living room watching football on Sunday afternoon and drinking Budweisers, they won't think of him as an outsider. He's an American.

I do, however, believe it to be the case that a Westerner who does the equivalent things in Japan, even for a much longer time, will not be considered by those around him to be a Japanese. Now, it's not as though the Japanese aren't nice or welcoming people. He'll have friends, they'll like him, they'll be happy to spend time with him, hang out, and if he needs help, they'll do their best to assist him. His life will be far from bad. But because his face is different, and he wasn't born or raised in Japan, he will always be at worst a 'gaijin' (foreigner), and at best, a little bit different from a Japanese. He can never be the same. I recall reading–I can't remember where–an American writer named Donald Richie, who has lived in Japan for over forty years, saying that he felt a lot better when he finally gave up hoping that he would be considered to be like a Japanese, and accepted the fact that he never would be.

Now, I don't want to get into the question of why this is, because that's at least a long blog post, if not a book. The point is that I believe Debito is, bravely and valiantly, fighting an unwinnable battle. (At least, I believe, it won't be won in his lifetime.) But he may pave the way for others, and he has my respect and admiration. But he has joined a society most of whose members do not want him to join, and will not consider him an equal. On the surface, maybe, but not deep down. Being a very homogenous society, Japanese don't do well with the concept of 'minorities.' Part of Japanese social expectations is that you should be like everyone else, don't make waves, respect your elders, do what society thinks you should do. If you're a misfit, try harder to fit in. If you're gay, stay in the closet. If your parents treat you badly, visit them once a year and be polite anyway, because it's your duty as a child. If you don't want to have kids, don't tell people that; let them believe that you tried and failed. These are the old-fashioned values. Yes, Japan is changing, but slowly, and I'm far from sure that increased acceptance of minorities is one of the ways in which it's changing.

Debito, however, is leading a crusade. When he finds an injustice, he quietly and politely asks the perpetrators to change. If they don't, he makes a public issue of it. And I say, good for him. But here's the problem: he refers to himself as 'Japanese.' I want to say, sorry, dude, but you're not! Yes, you have a piece of paper that says you are. You have a passport. But even the Japanese who know you, and your citizenship, I'd bet if I asked them, 'Is he Japanese?' they'd hesitate and say, 'well, he's a Japanese citizen.' That would be the best they could do. They simply couldn't look at a Western face and unselfconsciously say 'he's Japanese,' like I could with my American friend Mike. And after all, you don't act like a Japanese! You're a shit-disturber! No offense! A terrific shit-disturber! But real Japanese don't do that! You're not supposed to point out other people's wrongs, unless you're a socially-sanctioned entity. You're not supposed to create grass-roots organizations that press for change. That's not what Japanese do.

I link here to a great piece Debito wrote in the Japan Times about Mr. James. He makes a lot of good points; I could disagree with him on a few points around the margins, but basically I agree with him. Any reasonable big company shouldn't do an ad campaign that even comes close to making fun of a minority with stereotypes, and this campaign, while far from horribly offensive, does at least come close. I, however, cannot get myself to be offended, or even to boycott McDonald's Japan. I believe that to the extent that the campaign is offensive, it is so accidentally, not deliberately. Japanese just can't understand the perspective of a minority unless they've lived overseas and been stereotyped, which most haven't. I choose to live in Japan, but it isn't my country, and I can leave if I want to. I don't agree with those who say that as 'guests' in the country we have no right to protest discrimination; I simply have no interest in knocking myself out trying to change the views of those who discriminate. Maybe I'm just lazy. Debito has decided that it is his country, and he's trying to make it a better one. More power to him, but I would rather be Mike, and adopt a country that wants to have me.

No comments:

Post a Comment