Japan from the inside out

You say Oasso, I say Wasshoi!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 4, 2007


DON’T BELIEVE your eyes. They’ll fool you into thinking this photo was taken in Korea.

It wasn’t. It’s a scene from last fall’s Wasso Festival in downtown Osaka held by Shitenno-ji, a Buddhist temple, whose name translates to the Temple of the Four Heavenly Kings. The annual festival commemorates the interaction between Japan and the countries of northeast Asia that dates back at least two millennia.

One festival highlight is the recreation of Prince Shotoku (Shotoku Taishi) welcoming a delegation visiting from Korea. The prince, who died in 622, was an early Japanese version of a Renaissance man—he was a regent for the Empress Suko, historian, diplomat who initiated diplomatic relations with the Sui Dynasty of China, creator of a constitution—the “splendid law”—that emphasized the emperor’s importance, and proponent of Buddhism.

The festival’s name—Wasso–is derived from the Korean word oasso, which means (we) have come. Some scholars think oasso may have entered the Japanese language when Korean seamen unloaded their cargo from merchant ships and carried it to shore along the docks. These scholars suggest it is the origin of the Japanese expression Wasshoi, which is vigorously shouted during festivals nationwide throughout the year by the people carrying mikoshi, or the portable shrines that house a divinity.

Don’t believe what you read or hear, either. Trust the mass media and observers spouting second-hand, superficial knowledge, and they’ll have you thinking the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese get along like dogs and monkeys, or the Japanese version of cats and dogs. Take it from this foreign resident of Japan–it’s codswallop.

The Japanese are just now sliding down the backside of the crest of what they called the Korean wave. During high tide, it was impossible to turn on the TV without seeing a Korean drama or movie. Bus stop signage and recorded on-board bus and train announcements are now provided in Korean in Fukuoka City, the largest city in Kyushu—which is closer to Seoul and Shanghai than Tokyo. Korean men flock to Kyushu golf courses, and entire families make the short hop across the Korean Strait to soak in the island’s hot springs.

The Nishinippon Shimbun, a Kyushu regional newspaper based in Fukuoka, regularly devotes space to articles about Korea and local events with a Korean connection. In an article today (in Japanese and only on-line for a week) their Seoul correspondent Masataka Harada notes that in 2006, the number of South Koreans traveling to Japan exceeded two million for the first time. He compares this to the roughly 2.4 million Japanese who head in the opposite direction every year, observing that since the population of South Korea is 37% that of Japan, it is safe to say a Japan wave is now flooding South Korea.

Harada relates a conversation he had with a male university student in Seoul at a year-end party. Here’s my rough translation of what the student told him:

“The South Korean government and mass media are still stuck on the idea that unless they continue to clamor for ‘a settlement of the past’, we’ll lose our identity. But the ordinary South Korean has already been liberated from those anti-Japanese feelings…Most young people are able to separate the ideas that what’s history is history, and what’s good about Japan is good. It’s surprising that you too (the Japanese mass media) are just like our government and mass media in failing to recognize this reality.”

The story is much the same for relations between Japanese and Chinese, the political demagoguery and media misrepresentation in China notwithstanding. As this article in the Japan Times (registration required) on foreign nationals in the Japanese workforce notes, Chinese account for the largest percentage of registered aliens (25%) as well as the largest number of foreign permanent residents—a figure that has nearly doubled in the past five years.

Says Zhang Shi, senior editor of the Chinese Weekly Review:,

“Many of (the Chinese) came as exchange students, got hired in Japanese companies, and as they get used to living here they like it and decide to stay,”

The article profiles Eika Ma, an exchange student who found it difficult for Asians to find work in Japan in 1988, the year she came. The Tiananmen Square massacre (which the left-leaning Japan Times refers to as a “crackdown”) and the opportunity to study commercial law, not available in China at the time, prompted her to stay.

Ma persevered, and now finds the time to run a Tokyo elevator maintenance company with 25 employees while practicing law. She reflects on her experience:

“I came to realize that even if you are a foreigner and a woman, Japanese will accept you if you continue to make efforts to meet your target.” She also feels that being a foreigner helped because she was unshackled by old business traditions.

There’s a budding Eika Ma in my neighborhood. I chat regularly with a young Shanghai woman who works part-time at a nearby grocery store and a wedding banquet facility while attending a local university. Fluent in Japanese after only a year in the country, she tells me her ambition is to become a company president.

With her ambition and intelligence, I’d bet on her success, and I’ll bet that success comes in Japan. And her success will continue to open up what is already the most foreigner-friendly country in northeast Asia.

Some people—and governments and media outlets–will have you believe Japan still suffers from a blinkered, ethnocentric island mentality.

Don’t believe them.

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