American Questions, Asian Answers

After a year in Japan teaching English, one young teacher learned about the country and its culture-and something about herself.

During my last month in Japan, I bought my first Japanese T-shirt from a store in a crooked alley in Nagoya. The shirt has a die on the front, with three faces visible: two boasting the stars and stripes of America, the other bearing the proud red dot of Japan. America covers the front and side; Japan is on top, slanted. Across the back, in forty-eight-point Times New Roman type: "I played at some game of chance." I scooped it up and walked to the cashier without even stopping to finger the fabric.

Moving to Japan had definitely been a gamble.

I spent one year teaching English in a small town in central Honshu as a participant of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. I knew almost nothing about the country before I arrived. In fact, the one thing I knew was a sense of mystery: Japan is different. Not merely that they eat raw fish and remove their shoes, but that their judgments, their values, are different. I craved the unfamiliar. One may think this an escape from one's self, but I saw it more as a search for it: What are my beliefs? What are my assumptions? These things go unnoticed until they are cut out and held against a new background--a lone red dot on a sea of white. I went to Japan to learn what it is to be an American.

English, too, was everywhere, but in a similarly distorted form. Vending machines encouraged us to "Refresh Up!" and promised "eminently drinkable flavor extravagance" within. A popular drink was called "Calpis," a name far too close to bovine urine to be enjoyed. My ATM card had a picture of Paddington Bear on it and proclaimed: "He will eat marmalade on its own or more usually in a marmalade sandwich. He usually keeps a marmalade sandwich handy in his suitcase or under his hat." When I pointed out to my supervisor that neither Paddington nor his peculiar eating habits had any bearing whatsoever on my financial matters, Hattori-sensei responded, "But English means good image." The meaning of the English, of course, was left to the imagination.Of course, the first thing I learned was that America was everywhere. In my town of 38,000 people, there were two McDonald's, a Big Boy, and four Circle K's. The video stores rented almost exclusively American movies. Two nights a week at eleven o'clock, I could watch Beverly Hills 90210 or ER, and either the NFL, NBA, or pro baseball was on every night. Even our alma mater was everywhere: I taught four different students wearing Duke T-shirts, and once saw a businessman riding his bike home in a Blue Devils windbreaker. I might as well have been in Hoboken, New Jersey, instead of Hozumi, Japan. Except that one child thought Duke was a rock group, 90210 was listed as Bebiri Hiisu, and Circle K served hot grilled octopus next to the cash register. This was not home.

It could be said that the essence of Japan is the ability to import outside influences and transform them into something uniquely Japanese. This is not a new phenomenon. Throughout their history, the Japanese have "borrowed" and Nipponized ideas from other cultures. From China, they acquired the foundations for their political institutions, their writing system, the Confucian code of ethics, and Buddhism, to name a few. Yet the borrowing is not quite robbery--it's more paraphrasing than plagiarism. For instance, in the ninth century, the Chinese characters were simplified into kana syllabaries to represent the Japanese language phonetically. Also, Buddhism eventually lost its otherworldly focus to recognize more religious significance in daily life. Things were imported, but then altered according to Japanese needs.

This borrowing continues in full force today, though often from the West instead of Japan's Near East neighbors. Katakana is a syllabary used entirely for imported foreign words, like erebeta (elevator) or aisukurimu (ice cream). The average Japanese knows more than a thousand such words. However, they are often so distorted or shortened that they become new entities entirely: radio-cassette player becomes rajikase, and so on. As one Japanese friend pointed out, when she writes "McDonald's"--Makudonarudusu--it's not English anymore, it's 100 percent Japanese. Is it okay then for them to call it their own?

My parents came to visit me and their tour guide in Kyoto told them, "We Japanese are best at taking ideas from others, make it better." I guess so. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and DoCoMo made it into a six-inch mobile that sends e-mail, plays MP3s, and takes digital photos.

This constant borrowing from other cultures made me, and many of my fellow JETs, uneasy: Are we losing the real Japan? A friend of mine wrote an article for our local JET publication in which he quoted Matthew 15:26: "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Another friend, who taught at a low-level technical high school, lamented that his students were forced to take English class every day but didn't have a single period of Japanese history. And one day while on my way to a Japanese language and culture class, I stopped dead in my tracks to read the back of a rain poncho worn by a twenty-something Japanese woman. It read, "HEDONISM: It's just that I don't agree with Japan tradition anymore. It's the way to life." It's hard to know how to accept such a statement, as it's quite possible the wearer had little idea what it meant. That night in my journal I wrote with the heavy heart of a missionary whose mission had gotten out of hand: How did this happen? Is it happening everywhere?

I sent an e-mail message to a friend of mine, a Japanese woman who lived in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, for four years and then returned to Tokyo. I contacted her often for cultural comparisons, since she was so good at poking holes in my generalizations. Her response this time was no exception. She wrote, "Oh yes, invisible things can be strong features of culture. The States is a new country, and visible things are from all over the world. But 'independence' and 'freedom' are really strong features of American culture. We have invisible 'spiritual' culture too, in Japan. We value it more. Even though [in America] there are many Chinese restaurants, and many kids are wearing Pokemon T-shirts, that's not intruding American culture, I think. Don't worry. Japan never die!"

The pattern of Japan's interaction with the outside world is perhaps best characterized as a series of pendulum swings: eager openness followed by conservative closed doors. In the seventh through ninth centuries, rØugakusei (overseas students) were highly respected as "bearers of enlightenment from the lands beyond the sea." In the seventeenth century, any Japanese caught trying to visit the outside world was sentenced to death. Underlying these changing attitudes is a deep sense of ambivalence and insecurity about Japan's place in the world that can be felt clearly even today. I wrote in my journal of my discomfort at being placed upon a pedestal for being foreign, while simultaneously feeling looked down upon for the same reason. It was as though the pendulum swings spanned historical centuries, and modern nanoseconds as well.

Often I am asked what it was like being an American in Japan, and I find it so difficult to box the daily contradictions into one neat little answer. It would be much easier if they would ask pointed questions: Were you treated like a celebrity? Yes. Were you discriminated against? Yes. Did they admire Americans? Yes. Did they think Americans were arrogant, or dirty? Yes, and yes again.

The dichotomy of attitudes toward America did not escape the children in my classrooms of grades 1-9. Some days I saw my students as being trapped in an "internationalization" tug-of-war, never sure which way they should be pulling. I worried: Would they just remain caught in the middle, fraught with tension, soon to snap?

One day I asked a little girl in the fourth grade to stand up during class. She was very shy, but smiling, and glanced around nervously as she pushed back her chair. From this position I could see her entire T-shirt, and therefore the entire statement printed upon it: "Americans do it better." The word "Americans" was in bold, and sat atop a boxy version of our flag. I asked her, in Japanese, if she knew what it meant. She shook her head "no," but pointed to the ribbon in her hair: red, white, and blue. It matched her bow. She grinned wider. I looked back at the Japanese homeroom teacher in the room with me, and she too smiled proudly, thinking I was pleased.

Later that same day, I taught a sixth-grade class, one that always gave me trouble. A group of boys in the class were particularly stubborn and refused to cooperate when we played our simple English games, like "'When is your birthday?' Bingo." This day was no different. While the rest of the class broke into groups, an angry-looking boy in the corner played with his pencil case. He was zipping and unzipping when I approached. "Why don't you join your group?" I asked. He only stared. "Come on, it's a fun game," I tried again, pointing to two girls laughing. He said something to a boy beside him in Japanese, and I said back to him, "No Japanese in English class, remember?" And this time he spoke to me, though still in his native tongue: "I am Japanese. I live in Japan. I speak Japanese." He turned away from me then, and I let him.

I am Japanese. I live in Japan. I speak Japanese." This would not be the last time I would hear one of these phrases as a definitive explanation for our differences. And we did have differences. Despite initial impressions of being placed in an oddly off-center photocopy of America, I was reminded daily that I was also a stranger in a strange land. Old habits took on new, often discordant, meanings. It was as though I had picked up the same book, but read it differently, back to front, right to left, as the Japanese do. The moral of the story had changed. Those lessons I had hoped for about different perspectives hit me at the most unexpected times, but often.

Teamwork: junior-high students race as one

Teamwork: junior-high students race as one.

"That's wrong," Yoko said, pointing to a word I had just written in hiragana, one of the Japanese syllabaries. I thought perhaps I had spelled it wrong, as I often leave out the small tsu or forget to add the long u to certain words. "Oh, how do you write it?" I asked, and my Japanese mother took the pen. She wrote, and then nodded approvingly. I looked at her word, and then at mine. They were the exact same. "What's different?" I asked, scrunching my nose. "Ah, easy," she said. "My right, your wrong."

After much deliberation and demonstration, I understood the error of my ways: I had defied the order. The character in question is a Japanese "ha":f. Habitually, I had done the horizontal "cross" as the final step, like crossing a "t," but I was supposed to have done it second. When writing Japanese characters, whether these simple kana or more complicated kanji, proper stroke order is imperative. I knew this, for I had watched my students copy newly-learned kanji over and over again during their calligraphy class, always following the numbered model on the board without deviation. But to me it was silly: What matters more, the process or the product? Isn't a "d" still a "d" whether it's written circle-then-line, or line-then-circle? I learned that answer quickly: not in Japan.

It's tempting to dismiss this strict adherence to order as foolish, or unimaginative. In fact, that's exactly what I did that day--I stared at Yoko and thought, "My God, this woman has been brainwashed." But as time wore on and my all-knowing assumptions wore thin, I started to like the rules. I took a Japanese calligraphy class and didn't balk when my teacher showed me the exact angle at which to hold the brush, and the precise movement of your wrist required to complete a stroke. The order gave me direction--it was soothing.

My friend Keiko explained how writing was not about mere communication. It was ritual, centering. "Letter is art," she said, and picked up a brush. She drew the character for hito, meaning "person": . She narrated her strokes: "First, one line leaning. Then, another one comes here to support." She smiled. "Like people," she said, and I saw how indeed the means could hold the meaning.

As teacher of English, I came into a lot of conflicts with language. I don't mean just language barriers--though there were plenty of those--but theoretical differences in the implications of language that made teaching English inseparable from teaching American. Language is, indisputably, a powerful reflection of culture. In America, my name is Kathy Crutcher. In Japan, on the other hand, it is the opposite: Crutcher Kathy. It may seem a minimal change, but the consequences are substantial. With a quick flip of linguistic priorities, my identity is rearranged: group before self. You see? In many ways, you are what you speak.

Japanese verbs do not conjugate the way they do in English, nor in the Romance languages I had studied in the past. They don't depend on singular or plural, or upon their subject. Instead language depends upon the relationship between a listener and a speaker. It is a way of showing respect, and also of establishing one's place within a hierarchy. Speech occurs in ladders, using one set of vocabulary to speak to the rung above, another to the one below. Instinctively, I hated it.

"Go" is "go" in English. In Japanese, it is iku, ikimasu, mairu, mairimasu, ikareru, gyokou sareru, or perhaps even others I've never heard of. The appropriate form is selected from this list depending upon the situation, and especially upon the company in which it's uttered. I don't pretend to understand the complexity of real Japanese etiquette--as a foreigner, I was largely excluded from its intricate rules. But I did have to check myself as much as possible: Use familiar language with my students, more formal with teachers and principals. Of course, in English this exists to some extent as well, but in Japan the distinction is so much more ingrained in the way of life. Even older siblings are not called by their first names, but rather by their titles: ani, big brother; ane, big sister. I tried to explain to my grade-school students that "brother" can be used for one who is older or younger, and they seemed confused: How do you know where you stand?

Japanese language is not only more regimented, but also more indirect. "You" has a similar number of possibilities as does "go": anata, kimi, omae, otaku. Some are polite but intimate, others used only by men, others informal and impersonal, used only for acquaintances. But what was most surprising to me was that generally "you" was not even used at all. I was taught to speak to people as if they weren't in the room. I asked, "Would Kumazaki-san like to go to lunch with me?" while YØuko Kumazaki stood two feet from my nose. It was offensive to address someone directly. It seemed to me the linguistic equivalent of not looking someone in the eyes. I felt unsure, and distant.

I taught a small women's class in the back of a flower shop every few weeks. The class was composed of four or five middle-aged women who wanted to practice some English, but mostly to hear about America. I, in turn, practiced my Japanese, and asked about Japan. It was a good deal. One day I brought up my discomfort with the restrictions and circuitousness of Japanese language. They asked what I meant. I tried to explain how Americans value speaking directly, and treating each other as equals. They nodded, but did not comment. I assumed they did not understand, and changed the subject, frustrated.

As I stood up to leave at the end of the lesson, one woman put her hand upon my arm. "Japan is small country," she said. "Japanese people live close, and work close. We have ways to get along together." Another woman nodded. "America is so big," she said. "Maybe you don't need to."

Sayonara song: third-graders play goodbye

Sayonara song: third-graders play goodbye.

Writer Kyoko Mori says that in Japan you are taught to "always speak as though everything in the world were your fault." She wrote a book, Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught Between Cultures, in which she tries to reconcile her Japanese childhood with her adulthood in the American Midwest. It is a struggle.

During my time in Japan I felt torn between worlds as well, especially over matters of apology. Every day I witnessed constant requests for forgiveness--when accepting tea, when initiating a phone call, when leaving and entering a room. In situations where I would normally say "please" or "thank you," my co-workers would substitute "I'm sorry." For me it was unsettling. Whereas I saw "thank you" as a giving to others, "excuse me" seemed more like a taking away from myself. It felt somehow weak, or even humiliating, to apologize for things like leaving a room before someone else: Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu. Literally this means "I have been rude." I felt I was constantly asked to belittle myself, and as an American, my instinct is never to do that, ever.

While I was in Japan, an American submarine accidentally sunk a small Japanese fishing vessel, the Ehime Maru. Nine Japanese, four of them high-school students, were killed. An emotional apology eventually came from the sub's captain, but not right away. In the interim, the people around me became disillusioned with America, even angry. I spent an awkward car ride with my supervisor trying to answer his question: "Are apologies not important in your country?"

This answer required careful thought. Did "apology" even mean the same thing to him and me? I tried to explain that, especially in this case, apologies imply guilt, and it would be foolish to admit responsibility and become the scapegoat. But he only stared straight ahead and said nothing. I tried to reconcile the situation in my head--how could we understand each other? I come from a culture terrified by liability, he comes from one in which people apologize for things that could never be their fault. People in Japan are taught to accept responsibility in order to maintain harmony. We often learn to shun it to protect ourselves.

I told my boss that I was sorry for the accident, and suddenly felt that I had sunk the boat myself. I stared at an older woman waiting on the corner and thought: What does she think of Americans when she reads about this in the newspapers? What does she think of me? He must have noticed my guilt, for he told me not to worry, that one day, our cultures would understand each other. We would learn to listen. "Starting here," I said, meaning the space between him and me. "Starting here," he nodded, and drove on.

Sometimes "internationalization" seemed more like the clash of civilizations. I clung to my American ideals of freedom, independence, and individualism and preached them through simple stories: explanations of English grammar ("go is go") and tales of standing up for oneself. I started out wanting to instruct, to explain that I should be able to draw a "d" any way I chose, should be able to speak to a person and not around someone. I wanted to interact with people as equals, to see myself as an individual and use language accordingly. These things cut to the very essence of my Americanism. It made me passionate, really, about who I was, and where I came from. And then it also made me question: is this the only way to be?

In an essay, "Why We Travel," Pico Iyer explains, "We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; we travel, next, to find ourselves." The greatest lesson is not merely to recognize the incongruities, as I had first imagined; I had sought Americana across the world and then found it, jarringly. But rather it is to learn to maintain a delicate balance between the familiar and the foreign--to preserve one's identity without dismissing that of others as mistaken. Even if an idea contradicts that which you hold dear, even if it makes you suck in your breath and grit your teeth, it is not inconsequential. It lives. You must grasp what you cannot embrace.

In the same essay, Iyer says the essential distinction to make is not between a "tourist" and a "traveler," as is so fashionable nowadays, but rather between one who leaves his assumptions at home and one who doesn't. I liked this line, and highlighted it as something to remember before leaving for Japan. But upon returning, I've changed my mind. It is impossible; you simply cannot leave your judgments behind. I couldn't set aside my Americanism any more than I could force it upon a small community in rural Japan. The real question is whether you allow yourself to challenge your beliefs while you're there. The real question is whether you bring those same assumptions back with you, unmoved.


Crutcher '00 works in Boston as an ESL instructor and is an intern at a literary agency.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor