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Visible Minorities: Japan’s Cult of Miserable Happy

SNA (Tokyo) — This column marks one full year of writing a monthly column for SNA, so let’s take a break. Instead of writing about current events, let’s focus on something more cultural about life in Japan.

These are sobering times for Japan fans. Thanks to the pandemic, even the most starry-eyed and enfranchised foreigners are having their bubbles burst, realizing that their status in Japan, no matter how hard-earned, matters not one whit to Japan’s policymakers.

As covered elsewhere, current immigration policy dictates that Japanese citizens can leave and re-enter the country at will, as long as they subject themselves to testing and quarantine upon return. But that doesn’t apply to Japan’s resident non-citizens.

Despite widespread protest (and some token revisions), they still generally get barred from re-entry, meaning thousands of foreign workers, spouses, and students are either stranded overseas, watching helplessly as their Japan livelihoods and investments dry up, or stranded in Japan unable to attend to family business or personal tragedy, at a time when thousands of people worldwide die of Covid daily.

Targeting all foreigners only as vessels of virus makes it clearer than ever that Japan’s requirements for membership are racist. It strips yet another layer of credibility from the “Cool Japan” trope, such as the overhyped “culture of hospitality” (omotenashi) during Japan’s buildup to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Since this is an opportune time to remove layers of lies from Japan’s narrative, let’s address another one: That Japan is an unusually hospitable place.

To study and live in Japan requires a perpetual quest for a superlative. How “unique” Japan is, how “kind” and “courteous” the people are, how much better life here is than anyplace else, etc. You hear it quite frequently in lazy reportage and crappy social science grounded in anecdotes.

For example, a friend posted on social media how Japanese farmers in Hokkaido sell their produce in unmanned roadside booths. Brilliantly connecting the dots, he then gushed how Japanese are more “honest” than the rest of the world because they can rely on an honor system. (Well, er… so did farmers where I grew up in New York State.)

Or consider the agog witnesses who moon over how lost wallets are turned in to the police (yes, because turners-in get a percentage of the value inside), or how valuables in plain sight are not stolen (good thing it wasn’t a “finders keepers” item like bicycles or umbrellas; the most frequent crime in Japan is in fact theft).

Or the occasional tourist, so impressed by the kindness of some random Japanese going the extra mile to give directions (of course giving the gaijin guest a good impression of all Japan), that he writes a letter to Japan Times thanking The People of Japan for showing him a good time. (More amazingly, sometimes the JT publishes them.)

Yes, “kindness of strangers” happens in Japan. But I argue that is not a superlative. It happens anywhere where the baseline of human kindness and empathy meets your good luck, especially when you’re not expecting it.

And here’s where Japan enhances your gratitude: Japan as a society has an ingrained habit of not letting you get what you want without a struggle. Things aren’t supposed to come easy. That’s because Japan (like other societies) has a strong “culture of no.” Where the default answer to a request is “no,” or some delaying tactic like “let me think about it” that eventually means the same thing.

After a while, when you become inured to being constantly refused over months and years, your expectations change. This has an interesting psychological effect: When the default is denial, then a surprise fulfillment feels that much sweeter, like how food tastes so much better when you’re starving.

I’ve lived in several countries and several regions of North America for more than a year at a time, so in terms of immersion I have a decent sample size of experiences. I’ve noticed that when you’re living in a place with a culture of plenty — like, for example, California – people grumble more about what they couldn’t get because they’re used to getting it. It’s more a culture of “yes.”

On the other hand, when you’re living in a place with limited resources and opportunities (Hawaii, for example), or where deprivation and gaman (perseverance) is seen as a virtue, people expect less because they’re used to being told “no” by people in power. Officially it’s justified as a “lack of precedent,” but more often it’s just a bureaucratic reflex.

This means that when someone is determined enough to file the paperwork, jump the hoops, petition the government and courts for years, and otherwise expend enormous energy and money to get what they want, it’s all that much sweeter when they succeed, and they treasure more what they already have. You start “counting your blessings.” In contrast, the people in power in Japan, such as Japan’s rich and hereditary elites, have high senses of entitlement, and get pissy when they don’t get what they want. They’re used to hearing “yes” and won’t settle for less.

So why are we talking about this under our Visible Minorities column? It is because Japan’s “culture of no” goes double for foreigners. They don’t fit in, and they face the constant alienation of “you don’t deserve equal access” in addition to the regular reflexive refusals.

So here you are in Japan going through life, hoping for a decent job opportunity without normalized hazing, an apartment without a racist landlord, an everyday social interaction that doesn’t trigger culture shock in someone, or even just a seat on a train where you don’t get stares or quivering social distancing. Suddenly, when you do somehow get treated normally like everyone else, it’s an enormous relief. It comes like rain in a desert.

It could even be misinterpreted as kindness. However, equal treatment isn’t supposed to be a favor. Foreigners demanding equality sounds like they’re asking for special treatment, not just equality, like some sort of exemption from the “culture of no.” “Regular people” regularly being denied opportunities themselves don’t take too kindly to that.

The point is that your search for a Japan superlative shouldn’t obscure the fact that you’re in a desert of human interaction, as is everyone else. It’s going along to get along. You are just trying to eke out some space, some free time, some disposable income, some good food, some personal pleasure in a culture that goes out of its way to make things difficult for people, depriving them just out of habit.

There’s so much potential for plenty in Japan, especially given how rich it’s been for two generations, and yet people are so hammered down by the “culture of no” that they just eke by.

Foreigners, however, aren’t supposed to eke by until achieving equality. Why are they here anyway? What hard-earned thing might that gaijin over there sitting in a bar cradling his beer deprive me of? An unperturbed space in a crowded train or restaurant? A girlfriend? A job opportunity? Welfare benefits? Predictability and peace of mind about my future in a changing world?

That’s what you face as a foreign resident of Japan: Extra deprivation in a culture that specializes in it. So when you receive unexpected generosity, be grateful, but don’t translate that into a superlative about how exquisitely kind Japan is towards people.

See it for what it is: Happiness psychologically enhanced by unexpected kindness, despite the culture of denial.

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