Monday, April 09, 2012

Three Phase

Easter reminds me of Japan, kind of, I mean it is a stretch.

It's because of chocolate, remember when you were a kid and you went to your friends parties and at the end they gave you a lolly bag to take home that contained lollies? And you played games like the chocolate game and literally had a nervous breakdown as you tried to roll a 6, then scurry into some ridiculous costume, then cut individual blocks of chocolate with a butter knife before the next kid managed to roll a 6? (A game that in hindsight seems needlessly cruel).

These were the days where our parents controlled our chocolate intake, and chocolate had some kind of novelty value. Then remember your uni days when you bought like $16 worth of chocolate, snickers, M&Ms, cadbury blocks and kept them at your desk to prevent you from leaving some godawful assignment? The chocolate lost all flavor made you sick, it became your baseline.

The same is probably true of McDonalds, when I was a kid, mum capitulating and buying us McDonalds was a big deal. A really big fucking deal. (Once my mother diagnosed the onset of appendicitus because I couldn't finish a quarter pounder, needless to say, once my appendix was removed this never happened again).

Yet there have been times in my life where I ate McDonalds so regularly McDonalds became my baseline. It was simply just 'food' to me. No big deal.

This is what Japan is like, I suspect. Most people fetishise the nation, the culture, they are like the kid at the birthday party, or at McDonalds. Unlike growing up where all the easter chocolate feels like a liability rather than a priveledge, our geopolitical sphere is such that there is no obligation to 'grow up' on Japan. With sufficiently limited exposure it can remain the candy store to your inner kid, or it can become 'just another fucken country' with enough exposure.


yes, I feel Japan has three distinct phases. In my view the most enjoyable phases are 1 and 3, the most painful and hardest to observe is 2. I actually don't have enough experience to know how optional 2 is to get to 3. But here they are.

1. As described, this is the phase where you are an enamoured tourist, with fetishised views of these exotic uber-oriental culture that seems mysterious and magic. You can breeze through Japan marvelling at the retro-futuristic blade-runner-esque efficiency of Japan's technology without understanding how something so dated can still seem so advanced to a western mind (like trains running on time).
You shop in Harajuku blown away by the tribes and the clothing, buy some shit in Akihabara, titter at the titalating pornographic flyers handed out in Roppongi then hop a bullet train down to Kyoto where you marvel and meditate at the stillness of the temples, then try and snap obligatory photos of girl in Kimono's using mobile phones.
Then depending on your age you go to Osaka and get completely fucking hammered and then you fly home. Or if you are too young or too poor to drink, you go home.

Phase one is great, you are just an observer, soaking up the delights Japan's foreigness and uniqueness has to offer, oogling girls legs and skoffing at the Bon Jovi stylings of the effeminate 'cool guys' of Japan. Japan is like candy to you.

You boldly declare 'I could live here!' and...

2. You do, you try it. You try to go deep, to go into the inner workings of Japan. Everyone seems so welcoming, so accomodating, you unpack your bags in your homestay and relish the dinner your hosts take you to on the first night. This is the sun setting on your first phase. Because the dinners don't stop. The tours don't stop. The sightseeing and organised activities don't stop. Months pass by and you are scratching your head as every Japanese person you come into contact with spends an increasing amount of time scratching their heads trying to come up with some planned activity to fill your every waking hour.

You have a few embarrassing incidents where you discover that some friend of your host taking you around for a day takes you to a bunch of stuff you've seen already. You study hard, you start noticing things that you never did before you decided to live there, like entire trees made out of concrete and you ask yourself 'why?' and the young girls in the clothes shop work 11 hour days saying 'irashaimase!' in an annoying tone and folding t-shirts for almost no money.

Very few people your own age can hang out with you. Those you do get to hang out with corner you with poorly spoken english and they refuse to speak in Japanese. Your every attempt to integrate into Japanese daily life, to see Japan through Japanese eyes is rebuffed offhand.

Despite your best efforts and intentions, frustration grows, every time you try to break through to the other side of Japaneseness, and be accepted by this community you love, you just smash your head against a wall.

Even dating a local, you find that you are on the outside, an accessory some how. It is easier for your partner to be rejected as 'really truly japanese' than it is for you to be regarded as one.

Then one day you sit down with those other, sad, loser expats you've been so diligently avoiding and just lay out your frustrations with Japan and the Japanese and thus enter...

3. Which some people seem to get straight away. This may be controversial, but I suspect racism actually helps. Some people I theorise can enjoy Japan but never feel any desire to integrate. But more often, people do.

Here suddenly you accept that you aren't Japanese and simply never will be. The Japan club doesn't want you as a member. As an english teacher sure. As an exotic and handsome/beautiful partner, yes. But as a Japanese. No.

It isn't malicious, just incomprehensible. How can YOU be Japanese? This is a rhetorical question, and despite there being seemingly endless reasonable rebutals (that will only trap you into phase 2) to the Japanese the question has no answer.

Beyond accepting that you are 'gaijin' and it isn't your doing. You hopefully have learned enough if you did/do indeed pass through phase 2, to one day realise, you don't want to be.

Because being Japanese sucks. It isn't the worst thing in the world, and all the charming things that lure us in in the first place are very real. But imagine being judged by your productivity and not your face time at work? Imagine if your boss listened to your ideas and acted on your input? Imagine if you recieved a promotion and were able to manage people older than you? The Japanese more or less cant. The only way you would get promoted ahead of your seniors is if you are the progeny of the company's boss, and it's a family business.

Imagine having two whole days a week off? Imagine eating breakfast with your family on a sunday morning? Imagine taking 2-4 weeks a year holiday and going to a foreign country and seeing things and eating things?

Phase three is where you accept and embrace the secret nation that exists within Japan. The nation of foreigners. The Gaijin, the outsiders. This is where you know enough of japan to not merely be a tourist but to be a highly skilled consumer of Japanese culture. You play the gaijin card when it works to your advantage, yet know how the locals roll when that is in your best interest. And sure there's a few perks of 'being Japanese' that you give up, but they were never obtainable anyway.

I guess phase three is where an adult graduates and learns to self moderate their chocolate and McDonalds intake. Thereby maximising the pleasure and convenience they derive from it.

I have passed from 2 to 3, I spent an embarrassingly long time in phase 2, but I eventually learned. I kind of envy and kind of resent those in phase 1, but Phase 3 is the fucking shit.

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