What Japanese exclusionism?
Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 19, 2007
YESTERDAY’S POST described how a foreign university professor tried to use a conversation between himself and a local cab driver as a way to expose Japanese insularity and their lack of knowledge of the outside world, but instead unwittingly revealed the academic’s own lack of understanding of Japanese culture.
It reminded me of another story I read some years ago about foreigners in Japan being denied admission to commercial establishments or refused service by taxicab or bus drivers. The story appeared in the early 1990s in the JAT Bulletin, the monthly publication of the Japan Association of Translators, of which I was once a member. I spent a lot of time today digging in my stack of back issues of the Bulletin for the story, but couldn’t find it. (I know it’s in there somewhere!)
The article was written by William Lise, a technical translator who often does patent translations and also has worked as a court interpreter. Mr. Lise has spent all but a handful of the past 40 years living and working in Japan. At the time of the article’s publication, Mr. Lise was an officer of JAT and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
I got in contact with him by e-mail, and he gave me permission to use the story. Since I can’t find the text version, however, I’ll have to retell it and hope I do justice to the original.
As is the case with most of the resident foreigners of this country, Mr. Lise has frequently heard non-Japanese complain about getting stiffed by the Japanese service industry. One of the most frequent gripes is being ignored by cab drivers with an empty back seat. And of all the complaints about cab drivers, many involve the tendency of cab drivers working in Tokyo’s Roppongi district on weekend nights to ignore foreigners flagging them down for a ride home at the end of the night. (Roppongi is known for its night clubs, eating and drinking establishments, and popularity with foreigners.)
Mr. Lise would be the first to admit that he was something of a bon vivant and frequently visited Roppongi to socialize on weekend nights. He was puzzled by the stories about being ignored by cab drivers, however, because it had never happened to him during his many years in Japan. Cab drivers always picked him up. There was a sharp divergence between the stories other foreigners told him and his own experience. Naturally, he began to wonder why.
He finally grew curious enough to ask the cab drivers that picked him up on weekend nights in Roppongi if they had ever passed up a foreigner hailing them for a ride. Many freely admitted they had done so, and this prompted Mr. Lise to ask them why. Their answers were very revealing.
As Mr. Lise described it, the cab drivers explained their refusal in several different ways, not always lucidly. But he detected a common thread in all the drivers’ answers: they sensed from the body language of the people they chose to avoid a lack of confidence in their ability to communicate in Japanese with the driver.
I’m sure some of you will scoff—how could a cab driver gauge a foreigner’s fluency by a glance on the street? It’s preposterous!
Well, it doesn’t pay to be too cocksure about that, for two reasons. First, there seems to be a consensus among researchers that as much as 80% of all communication between people is non-verbal. People can sense either confidence or its absence, particularly when their livelihoods depend on it. There’s plenty of information about this on the Web, so I don’t think I have to reinvent the wheel here.
The second reason is my own experience in Japan. I studied the Japanese language at the university level for three years before coming here in March 1984. Mr. Lise’s story rings true to me because from the day I arrived here to the present, I have never—never!—been ignored by a cab driver or a bus driver, or refused service in any business establishment.
I do not mean to claim that I was perfectly fluent in Japanese on the day I arrived in the country—I wasn’t. Still, I had spent a lot of time in language labs at school and with homemade kanji cards at the kitchen table, so I knew from jump street that my Japanese ability was functional. If I stood on the corner and caught a cab, I would be able to explain to the driver where I wanted to go. If I walked into any commercial establishment, I knew I would be able to explain to the proprietor or employees what I wanted. If I went looking for some fun at an eating or drinking place, I knew that I would be able to get along after a fashion with the other customers without using a word of English.
The closest I ever came to having a problem was circa 1985. I was living in an apartment with a small bathtub, so I used to go to a nearby public bath instead. I became a regular customer for several reasons. The public bath was bigger and a lot more relaxing than my facilities, it had a sauna, I love baths and hot springs anyway, and it’s easy to have a lot of interesting conversations with guys when you’re all naked and sitting in hot water. Besides, having conversations with Japanese people was exactly why I came to the country in the first place!
One night, two semi-tough young guys came in and saw me sitting on the couch outside the bath. They were upset about my presence there and demanded that the lady at the front desk throw me out. It seems they were concerned about catching AIDS, which the Japanese were just beginning to find out about in those days.
The woman, who ran the bath with her husband and children (it had been in the family for a few generations), just laughed and informed the two men that I could understand everything they said. They told her they would never return to that bath again unless they refused me service. She laughed again as she turned back to the portable TV set on a ledge mounted on the end of the wall dividing the men’s and the women’s baths. The two men left, and I stayed.
I also do not mean to claim that some Japanese have not behaved badly and arbitrarily refused service to foreigners, even some perfectly fluent in Japanese. It’s just that I wouldn’t know about it. It’s never happened to me—and I live in a provincial town of 180,000 people, which one might think would be more likely to shun foreigners than a supposedly more sophisticated metropolis.
I’ve also never been turned down when applying to rent an apartment or get a credit card. In fact, I’m now a homeowner with a mortgage from a Japanese bank, and those arrangements presented no problem either.
It does seem that some people run into problems more frequently than others. I can’t say for certain why that happens, but I do have a few sneaking suspicions. It has been a tenet of esoteric religions of the East (and of the West, for that matter) that people tend to attract their own circumstances. It might be that some people, for whatever psychological reason, expect (or even want) to have those problems—so of course that’s exactly what they get.
Some might also argue that language ability notwithstanding, the Japanese service industry has the obligation to deal with those foreigners, based on their right to receive service. They won’t get any agreement from me. No one in his or her own country has the obligation to speak a foreign language, nor do they have the obligation to deal with people who don’t speak their own language. Nor do foreigners have the right to expect that they can go to a foreign country without knowing the language and interact with people in the same way they would at home. (Obviously I’m not talking about people on short-term business trips staying at major hotels with on-site restaurants.)
I’m sure many will disagree with me (and with Mr. Lise’s observations), and we could all argue about it until we’re blue in the face, with no productive result. Undoubtedly others have had unpleasant experiences, but it is also a fact that in more than 23 years in Japan, I have yet to be denied service even once. I’m also certain that the main reason for this isn’t luck, or a fluke—it’s that I knew I was functionally fluent in the language from my first day in the country, and was somehow subconsciously communicating this to other people without even trying.
And here’s another sneaking suspicion–I was probably communicating that I was willing to accomodate myself to them and their customs and practices instead of demanding that they accomodate themselves to me.
And that brings up one last question–are the esoteric religions right when they say that people attract their own circumstances?
I’m a believer!
Mr. Lise e-mailed me with his comments on this post, and promised more later. Here’s what he had to say:
“There are some things I would like to change and add. One is that it is probably more accurate to say that I am not refused any more than a Japanese would be refused. Taxi drivers refuse people for a number of reasons. Fearing not being able to communicate is one. Another is fearing that they would pass up a long fare for a shorty. Although it is less true than it used to be, this is the reason that some taxi drivers think twice before stopping for women, since they are less likely to be hard pressed to get home to a suburban home 1.5 hours (and 10,000 yen) away as would be a well-dressed 55-year-old bucho type. They can read those signs pretty well also.”