All Men Become Monsters In Asia
Wakarimasen | Phone Rule | SekuHara | Be A God | Skin Color | School Issues
After several months in Japan, you walk into the local branch of Some Generic Bank. The clerk you've dealt with for the past several months has been replaced by a fresh faced young woman (most bank clerks seem to be female). You pass over your yen traveller's checks only to hear a loud sucking of teeth from the fresh faced clerk as she examines them front and back. She looks at you, frowns and says "Wait a moment please." When she returns, she explains, in broken English, that they can't cash the checks here. You'll have to go someplace else. You explain that you've done this dozens of times at this very bank. She repeats "It can't be done." You walk out, frustrated and broke.
Congratulations. You've just encountered wakarimasen dekimasen.
Literally, this means "I don't understand. I can't do it." but your humble editor has expanded it to include the notion "I don't understand it. It can't be done."
This phenomenon seems to stem from the notion of "saving face." In the Some Generic Bank case, the fresh faced clerk doesn't know what to do, and rather than ask for help, she quickly looks for written instructions. Failing to find them, she determines that it can't be done. Or, the fresh faced clerk, not understanding what you want to do, explains it badly to someone in charge, only to be told it can't be done.
In such cases, all you can do is look frantically around for the clerk who used to handle your checks. Failing to find her, you might as well go away and come back later. Explaining you've done this before will only make the "face saving" more important to the fresh faced clerk and increase her denials. Once she's declared that what you want to do is impossible, it will be too embarrassing for her to backtrack. Also, if you ask to speak to a manager, the manager will, more than likely, side with the fresh faced clerk to save her further public embarrassment, or will drag out the process as long as possible in the hope that you will go away.
The next time you go to Some Generic Bank, the same fresh faced clerk will process your yen traveller's checks with no questions asked.
The Phone Rule
This is a subset of wakarimasen dekimasen. If you ever see a clerk or bureaucrat whose been handling your case get on the telephone, you should begin breathing exercises to calm yourself and help you control your temper. You should also gather your things and make ready to leave. In Japan, no good ever comes from someone getting on the telephone and asking for help.
In Japan, Sexual Harassment (Sekuhara) comes in many forms and occurs in many places. Foreign women working in schools have described suggestive comments from co-workers; co-workers who only talk to their breasts; and the occasional stray hand. Japanese women, especially the rare voluptuous women, are subjected to the same treatement.
The worst school and business sekuhara usually occurs during enkais (parties) held at various times of the year. Most notorius is the end of year Bonenkai which means, literally, "Forget Year Party". Both foreign and Japanese women describe being pinned in corners and groped by drunken male colleagues. The behavior is made more maddening by the tradition of never bringing up the events again after the party is over. Alcohol is often cited as the "acceptable" excuse for such behavior.
The other common area for sexual harassment to occur is crowded morning trains. In already cramped quarters (the unitiated have no concept how crowded a Japanese train can become) certain lecherous men press or rub their "naughty bits" against women and high school girls, or simply grope them from in front or behind, often while other people watch. Japanese women rarely complain about the behavior and men can often buy their way out of the police station in the rare instance when one is arrested. Law enforcement is sporadic at best and many train lines are opting for segregation rather than enforcement by offering "Women Only" cars during the morning rush hour.
At Last To Be A God
The pithy epigraph under the title was uttered by an English teacher who worked in Japan several years ago. She was recounting a much anticipated reunion between her and an old friend who had been working in Another Asian Country at the same time. The pompous, know-it-all attitude she encountered from her friend reminded her of many of her male colleagues in Japan, prompting the pithy epigraph. (Said, it should be noted, with a knowing look, as your humble editor was getting ready to depart for Japan.)
It's easy to dismiss the comment and the assessment of the encounter with the argument that there are two sides to every story and maybe she was just having a bad day. However, there is a general tendency for men to become monsters in Asia. It's a male dominated world with subservient women where foreign skin in general, and white skin in particular, carry a certain mystique.
It's a cliche to describe Japan as "The Land Where Ugly Men Rule" but there is a substantial nugget of truth to it. A man who is considered "plain" or "average" in his home country (your humble editor, it should be noted, is just plain average) suddenly finds, often much to his surprise, that he has attracted droves of adoring Japanese female fans. If nothing else, if he's teaching in a school, there are droves of teenage girls calling him "handsome" and lining up to have their picture taken with him. Japanese men seem intimidated by him, especially if the foreign man is tall, and it's rather easy for him to impose his will on others.
Much of this, however, is mere appearance bordering on bovine scatology. Although a great many Japanese women may find foreign men attractive and may be interested in adding a foreign notch or two to their lipstick cases, the truth is that a great many more will remain in a boring conversation long beyond the point when a western woman would have feigned death to make the man go away. The droves of high school girls are no more interested in him then they would be in a pet rabbit or pet dog roaming around the school. The men may be intimidated and may seem to be playing along, but they are probably just humoring the foreign man to calm him down and make him go away.
It's very easy for a foreign man to let all the attention and subservience go to his head and therefore it's very easy for him to become a monster. A few months in Japan, often before the first wave of culture shock has set in, also produces a number of Instant Asia Experts who are fond of pointing out the deficiencies in the knowledge of those burdened with several years of life in Asia under their belt. (Your humble editor once had a person two weeks off the plane give him a lecture about the nature of "the typical Japanese".)
Although foreign men can exploit the foreign mystique to a certain point, a man who looks around and actually sees what's going on around him, may see a completely different Japan. He may also find that "the typical Japanese" may be far less fond of him than he wants to believe.
What Color Is Your Skin?
In Saitama Prefecture next to Tokyo, an Indian man called a real estate agency to enquire about an apartment. The agent asked the man "What color is your skin? Is your skin an ordinary color?" When the Indian man asked for clarification as to exactly what the agent meant by an "ordinary color" she explained she meant "like a Japanese color."
The Indian man was awarded 500,000 yen from the agency in a subsequent law suit.
The above highlights an ongoing problem for foreign apartment hunters in Japan, not only are they judged by their skin color, but in the larger cities, they are also competing with horror stories of tennants who ran off with three months' back rent due and tens of thousands of yen in unpaid utility and phone bills. Many landlords refuse to rent to foreigners and, therefore, many agencies will either give foreigners the run-around or simply refuse to deal with them.
It's therefore in an apartment hunter's best interest, whenever possible, to stick with agencies used to dealing with foreigners.
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Copyright © 2003, Dwayne Lively
Created January 2003