When in Japan, do as the Japanese do?
Most English speakers are familiar with the phrase, 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do' (si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre). People use it in reference to all forms of assimilation: cultural, religious, linguistic etc. But with rising globalisation, is the phrase becoming outdated or has it in fact found a new resurgence?
Reading through my work contract for my teaching job, I spied the words ‘the teacher agrees to […] get accustomed to the Japanese way of living’. I found it funny at the time, but I was desperate for a job, so I signed and thought nothing more of it. Later on, once I'd settled into Japan, I started thinking: what if all job contracts for foreigners worldwide stipulated cultural assimilation as a requirement? Would it help protect tradition and culture in the face of mass globalisation? People from all over the world love Japan for its traditions and its unique cultural heritage. It's why so many people come here as tourists. Is Japan's cultural beauty because of its resistance to globalisation?
Since moving to the Far East, I have found myself increasingly preoccupied with what my role as a foreigner ought to be. Japan, much more so than China, is a coded society, underpinned by an array of unspoken rules. The question of my place in the social hierarchy and how I should therefore interact with others never fully leaves my mind. I am acutely aware of how easy it is to misstep, misunderstand, or make a social faux pas. Hilariously, the word I say the most is sumimasen, meaning ‘excuse me’ (though perhaps on second thoughts it could just be my inner Brit coming through).
As a foreigner in Japan, I make up 2% of the population. In Nagoya, where I live, Europeans aren't even in the top three most common foreign nationalities (Chinese, Korean, and Philippine according to City of Nagoya statistics). I really do stick out like a sore thumb. But that doesn’t mean that the residents are any less kind or helpful; rather, I’d say the reverse is true. Japanese people are some of the most helpful and welcoming people I've ever met. They are incredibly patient with my awful beginner-level Japanese and often make considerable efforts to communicate through gesture. In China, by contrast, my attempts at Chinese were often met with blank stares or even laughter. I would often hear them mutter laowai (rude term for 'foreigner') at me.
But of course, not all foreigners are viewed equally. While a white, educated woman in her twenties such as myself is welcomed by the Japanese, the same cannot be said of refugees. In 2017, for example, Japan accepted just 20 out of 20,000 applications for asylum, according to a Guardian article. From the various visa application stories I've been told, it seems the government has an almost arbitrary approach to length of stay and whether the application is accepted or rejected.
So, can assimilation help combat prejudice against foreigners? In my own case, there's an extent to which I have made conscious decisions to be 'more Japanese'. I dress much more modestly, for one (I've actually found that wearing loose clothing is better than my tight shorts in hot weather). My diet consists almost entirely of Japanese food. I wait in line for the metro and I never push through crowds, even when I'm in a rush. I am much more softly spoken than I was in China or the U.K.
But there are also ways in which I refuse to assimilate. For example, the more I learn about the Japanese education system, the more certain I am that my role as an English teacher is to open my students' minds to other ways of learning. Here, learning by wrote and regurgitating information is the common practice. Students are very uneasy when asked 'why?' or 'what do you think?' Questioning the system is not deemed an important life skill. Getting 100% in every single exam is the Number 1 educational goal. The streets of Nagoya are filled with places called 'cram schools', where children can revise for school entrance exams and other tests. I don't see this as a healthy upbringing for Japanese children and as such I am happy I chose to work for a private English school.
As a foreign minority, challenging or resisting the education system realistically has very little effect. But there are cases where it has been done - not here, but back home in the U.K. Now that I no longer require a VPN to access Facebook, I can receive my regular stream of news articles. I was devastated to hear about the parent-led campaigns in Birmingham against LGBT teaching in schools. The parents, in an interview with Sky News, said that they felt the school was 'imposing' its beliefs on them. They saw homosexuality as being in direct opposition to Islam. Unfortunately, the school gave in and cancelled the lessons that taught acceptance and diversity. Ironically, it is now the parents who have ended up imposing their beliefs on the school.
The area where this happened is a Muslim-majority area of Birmingham. Similarly to many foreigners, these people chose to segregate themselves. It got me thinking about my own role as a foreigner. To what extent do I try to fit in? In 6 months' time will the majority of my friends still be European?
The Former French Concession in Shanghai is teeming with Westerners. Staff in this area generally speak English, shop signs are in English, and Western products are available to buy everywhere. It is very easy to forget you're in China. The older generation of Shanghainese probably wouldn’t recognise it as their own country. I knew that if I lived there, it wouldn't really feel like I was getting a genuine experience of China. I put up with the stares so I could have those special encounters with locals, find out their stories, and practice Chinese.
It is difficult to ascertain whether the Birmingham parents' clash with the school resulted from their act of self-segregation. Perhaps their anger was in reaction to wider U.K. Islamophobia. Admittedly, assimilation is harder for some than it is for others. In many tight-knit religious communities, it can lead to ostracisation from one's own people. Luckily, this fear of being ousted doesn't apply to me.
But whose responsibility is it to bridge that gap between foreign and native cultures? Is it down to the government, the people, or the foreigners themselves? I am yet to decide what my role as a foreigner here in Japan is. For now, all I can do is learn as much as I can about my new home, its culture, its history etc. and to try to remain open-minded.