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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

January 28, 2010

The Politics of 'Hello'

When Professor X, head of the English department, sees me in the hallway he gives a Japanese grunt of acknowledgement and waves his hand briefly, Ed Sullivan-style. I'm cool with that.

When Professor Y from the Anatomy department greets me he always says "Hi" or "Morning" in an unforced and friendly way. He recently spent a sabbatical in the U.S., enjoyed it, and is comfortable working within that idiom. No problem. More on this later.

But when Student Affairs official Z and I pass by me he invariably offers up an awkward 'Hello'. I've always felt a bit uneasy about this and reply in Japanese. Here's why:

First and foremost, can we please stop teaching Japanese students that 'Hello' is the standard English greeting, an equivalent to 'Konnichi ha/wa'? It isn't. 'Hello' is used to hail someone, to confirm the other parties' presence- not as a greeting per se. That's why you use it when answering the telephone. That's why you use it when entering a room, a shop or place of business, and no one's in sight. It's what you might well say to the unconscious or semi-conscious (Note how all these cases approximate the Japanese 'moshi moshi').

When it is used as a greeting (rare among English NSs) it is invariably marked. It's what Grandma says when visiting the grandchildren or what careworkers shout at the institutionalized elderly. And it's what native English speakers teach/tell to non-natives.
And that's why 'Hello' just plain sounds odd when someone greets you with it in passing.

Another, more socio-politcally based reason that I feel uncomfortable about (not "offended" please note) this 'Hello' is that it may be that the speaker thinks they HAVE TO talk to Westerners, even veteran Westerners in Japan, this way. Some such folks may feel it is burdensome ("Why do I have to greet someone in my own country in another language?"). I've sen this used as a platform for criticizing the alleged linguistic arrogance of english-speakers. The answer is of course that you don't have to do this- and in fact you shouldn't.

Some 'Hello-ers' may feel that it is a bit of a novelty. "These are the words you say to a Gaijin so let's use them". This comes off to me though as being a bit childish and as such doesn't reflect well on the speaker. (Or to be uncharitable, one might say it's on a par with making animal sounds when visiting a zoo- but I'm not going too far down that road).

Some might feel that this is my role at the university. That I am the guy you talk to in English and practice your English with- a token of internationalization. This one presents a little bit of a dilemma. I understand that most NJ teachers do not want to be treated as the walking eikaiwa school but rather as teachers, fully functional members of the institution. At the same time, there is an understandable undercurrent that I can help people with their English or bring an outsider's perspective into things that the school finds valuable. I suppose I'd say that it is a reasonable role but not one to be exploited for novelty. (In fact, special English help is expected to be reciprocated with some help from whatever that person's area of specialization might be).

At university-connected parties and extra-curricular affairs I am spoken to in about 50% J and 50% E. (These affairs usually involve university bigwigs- many of whom are quite good at English). Now, I am always happy to be talked to in Japanese, even when the content gets dicey in terms of my comprehension, for the simple reason that such people are not harping on my gaijin-ness, which can just get tiresome. Nor can they feel that it is burdensome for them or complain (explicitly or implicitly) that they are 'forced' to speak English with Westerners.

Worst are those whose English is clearly inferior to my Japanese but prattle on in English despite my attempts to ease the conversation (for their own benefit) into Japanese. Now, I don't want to discourage anyone from using English who wants to but not only is the pace of communication frustrating but I often get the impression from such people that they do not accept, that they refuse to hear, my Japanese. For obvious reasons, I feel like I am being targeted for an awkward, clunky after-hours English conversation lesson by these people and am not being treated as 'another worker at the bonenkai'- which just starts to piss me off. Not because 'my human rights have been violated by a racist xenophobe' as some would have it but because I'm being used, manipulated in perhaps the most boring way known to mankind.

As for those who address me in English, it depends. If their English is better than my Japanese AND if their manner of discussion isn't one of those overly affected J-Gaijin 'let's be international' schemas (like Professor Y above), then I'm fine. But I DO want them to know that at any time, should they choose so, speaking Japanese is absolutely ok and hey, I can take it! I always want them to be aware that there is no obligation to speak to me in English.

Students represent another dilemma. The extant goal in most schools is of course to have them improve theiir English communication skills and thereby to have NJ teachers, at least to some extent, provide them with opportunities to do so. As a result, 95% of my classroom language is in English. But, as a part of their wider understanding regarding NJ's living in Japan I do want them to be aware that there is no social obligation to speak to me or any 'visibly foreign' person in Japan in English.

So, what about outside of class, when it's about anything from administrative matters to just passer-by greetings? Here is a sample of what I tell all my new students in the first class:

"OK. Now I'm going to speak in Japanese" (ears perk up):

"I do speak Japanese, not perfectly, but for most matters Japanese is not a problem for me. Now, obviously I want you to improve your English so I will use English in almost all cases inside the classroom and expect, or at least hope, that you will do the same.

Outside of class though- well this is Japan and if you want to speak to me in Japanese that's perfectly fine. And if you want to challenge yourself or feel comfortable using English outside the classroom that's also fine. It's your choice. Whichever you choose, I'll respond in that language.

I do want you to know though that you have no obligation to speak to people who look like me in English at your part-time job or, after you graduate, in hospitals or clinics in Japan. Many non-Japanese can and will speak very good Japanese. If they don't, fine- you can switch to English.

I say this because I want you to underatand that English is not just a language for 'foreigners' but is a language for Japanese people too. And likewise, Japanese is for anyone who wants to use it- especially those who choose to live in Japan. Of course, we will usually be imperfect in second languages but that doesn't mean we have to stick to the idea of a Japanese code for Japanese people and an English code for 'others'. In fact, that goes against the basic idea of internationalization. Ok- I'm going to resume speaking English now and will not use Japanese much more inside this classroom".

Oh- I also tell them that if they want to greet me in English (which is perfectly ok with me), not to say 'Hello' but rather 'Hi' or 'Good morning'.

After all, would you say 'moshi moshi' to someone you can see?



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Comments

Wow, you put what I have been thinking for a long time into a very precise and well-thought article (albeit the usage of a cuss word).

I nicknamed such phenomenon 'helloing', and yes, I too feel uncomfortable with it.

It, of course, is not limited to universities, and probably has it's roots in the Japanese attempting to translate the sociocultural habit of greeting with 'konnichiha' into English.

As you mentioned though, that is not the only source of the excessive helloing that occurs and I think you have done a good job of disscussing other motives behind it.

Thanks.

About to head into a lesson so just a quick thought for now. What I find is that when "newbies", for lack of a better word, arrive in Japan they generally are grateful to Japanese people for trying to speak English to them, mostly because they haven't learned Japanese yet and thus are more comfortable using English. But as we stay here longer and longer and start to learn the language a bit I have found that alot of NJs begin to resent the fact that people automatically assume they can't speak Japanese. My feeling is that we can't have it both ways. We shouldn't be grateful when it serves us well but then get frustrated when we don't need people speaking to us in English.

To be fair, my Japanese ability probably isn't as good as most gaijin so maybe I have a biased opinion here.

I think the larger point that you argue in this post Mike, that the underlying message is that Japanese language is for Japanese and English is for others, ties in nicely with your presentation on the 10 cultural points which we should be teaching to students.

More later, gotta go.

Mark

By the way, James, which cuss word are you referring to? Read it twice and couldn't find one. Just curious.

Hi Mike. This article adds even more credence to some of the things you've been saying about how teaching culture is even more important than the nuts and bolts of grammar. I would like you to seriously consider, as part of a PhD perhaps, writing a book on this entire topic of culture in language teaching. You have a knack for getting to the root of many issues that drive NJ crazy, in terms of how J people use English.

I thought I read in there somewhere 'piss me off' hmm.. My cold medicine must have been making me see things.

Thanks for comments all.

I actually do remember writing 'piss me off' but since this isn't my own website it could be that it was deleted. I know what is lowbrow but perhaps I'm a bit behind on what constitutes a 'cuss word' (I actually find it more trying to write the word 'cuss' than the 'cuss' itself).

Mark Hunter- Just a point for clarity. It's not that I consider teaching culture more important than teaching grammatical nuts and bolts but rather that culture should not be taught as if it were grammatical minutaie, that is as a cumulative set of discrete rules or facts about group X or Y.

Mark Howarth- Good point about the vascillation between being appreciative of Japanese efforts to communicate in English and chagrin when it is insisted upon despite one's competency in Japanese. I hope I have outlined a few criteria for where and when I feel it is acceptable and when it is frustrating, and implore people not to rush to the 'being offended because I'm treated like an outsider' mind set.

You're right James, piss me off is indeed in there, I just thought you were referring to something more seedy so I thought I missed out on something.

Anyhow, I'm curious to know how you all feel about people saying "hello" or otherwise trying to strike up conversation with us NJs in a public forum, i.e. outside of work. This actually annoys me a bit more than when it happens in the workplace. I live near an elementary school, and quite often I will walk by a group of kids who are walking home from school and invariably one of them will shout out "HELLO" or "WHAT'S YOUR NAME". If I happen to be in a decent mood that day I will most often appease them and answer their questions or acknowledge their presence. I don't want to be the reason for these kids growing up and thinking all gaijin are cranky old curmudgeons. But there are days when I don't want to hear it, especially if I happen to be walking with my kids who get embarrassed. It would be nice if elementary schools in addtion to teaching basic English would also teach the kids more about different cultures. And rather than teaching unnatural greetings like HELLO or GOOD BYE how about teaching the kids something that is actually said by most native speakers. If we start teaching elementary school kids this stuff early enough then maybe by the time they reach the workplace we won't have such awkward encounters.

Mark

This is a very interesting topic. The other day, one of my colleagues was saying almost the exact same thing as you. He said that it's racist for Japanese to immediately speak to him in English or worse yet, answer him in English when he speaks first in Japanese. I was a bit surprised because even though I've been here for a dozen years, I still appreciate it when a Japanese answers me in English (which is usually better than my Japanese). Another Japanese colleague was sitting with us during this conversation and she said that Japanese people answer in English to try to make the foreigner feel more comfortable. I guess what I want to ask is why do you, my colleague, and other NJ's find it so bad (or even racist) to have a Japanese speak English to us when we meet outside of "school".

As an example, when I'm back in CA and meet a Spanish-speaking person. I sometimes may answer/speak to them in Spanish (even though my Spanish is not very good). I don't feel I'm being racist. I do it to try to make that person feel comfortable. OK, maybe a little of it is to practice or use my Spanish too! But is that not the same reason why some NJ's resent the fact that they are being spoken English to here, as they can not practice/use their Japanese? So far I've always nodded my head in agreement while reading your articles, but this time there was a part of me that disagreed. I do understand where you're coming from but would like to hear your response when you have time.

Whoa- careful with the attributions, Conrad. I certainly didn't, and wouldn't, say that it is racist. The entire race issue doesn't really enter my mind (although apparently it enters the minds of others- you can guess the usual suspects).

As I wrote, one of my primary reasons for sometimes finding it unacceptable is that it can be a burden on the Japanese person who BELIEVES that they have to speak English to any foreigner. I want such people to understand that such is not the case- to relieve such people of that tension.

This ties into my wish not to foster or endorse a psychological discrepancy between peoples and languages, such that the Japanese language is viewed as being solely for Japanese people and English is for 'others'. As a language teacher I find this essential.

The second factor is simply expediency. If communicating in Japanese makes the communication better then it seems that this should be the obvious mode of communication. But if the Japanese person still insists on using less expedient English at that point I would argue that he/she is less concerned about that point of communication, or transmitting the message, than they are about 'practicing' their own English or following some unnecessary prescript about how one is supposed to address foreigners. This becomes what is known as 'othering'.

Some may even be earnest and pleasant in their manner when doing this but I don't always want to be treated as if I'm in Eikaiwa practice mode and would prefer that people concentrate on the issue at hand and not my visual 'foreigness'.

Conrad, I agree with your argument as to why Japanese people will often try to speak English to foreigners, i.e. to make us feel more comfortable. I honestly feel that this is often the case and I, like you, often appreciate it given my relatively low ability in Japanese.

I have to strongly disagree with your friend that says it is racist, and I don't think Mike or any of us consider it racist. The definition of a racist is one who believes his/her race is superior to other races and therefore has the right to exercise some kind of power over the inferior race. Clearly this is not the issue we are debating. I don't think Japanese people consider themselves superior to us, thereby not letting us into their culture by refusing to speak their language to us. That argument is clearly too extreme. And I don't think foreigners are being racist when we ask that Japanese people speak Japanese to us when we are in Japan. We are being the exact opposite of racist asking them to welcome us into their culture. The only racist scenario I can see here is when a foreigner comes to Japan and insists that Japanese people speak Englsih to us because clearly English is a superior language and culture. These people do exist, unfortuately, but I don't think any of them are posting on this site.

I think what Mike is arguing (correct me if I'm wrong Mike) is that we need to break down the cultural barriers that now exist between the East and the West. Stop looking at ourselves as "others", start looking at ourselves as "togethers", and simply use the mode of communication which is going to facilitate conversation.

I tried to argue the same point in my post about the elementary school kids. I hope I didn't come off as racist, but my point was that clearly the kids were looking at me and my kids as "others" which prompted them to blurt out their "hellos" in a mocking fashion. Kids will be kids, I am well aware of that, but I'd like to see elem school teachers teach the kids more than just rote phrases and start teaching a little more about intercultural understanding.

Hope that clears up my point of view. Mike, if I have misspoken for you please chime in.

Mark

That was spot on, Mark Howarth. Can't really add to that.

Well, I have to wonder where rudeness crosses over into racism. I've never heard Japanese elementary kids blurt out "konichiwa" to complete Japanese strangers in the way "Hello" is blurted out here. Why is it ever acceptable to blurt out "Hello" to white foreigners (seems to me it rarely happens with non-whites)? If racism includes mocking, which I consider the rudeness or blurting out of "Hello" to often be, are some of us being too easy on the kids and the adults who teach them that this public othering is OK? I would argue that racism IS part of the equation, even if not overt in the mind of the kid who does the mocking. One doesn't have to look too far for the influence of the media on this issue where one can still see prosthetic noses, blonde wigs, and exaggerated gesturing..all designed to be funny. Generations of Asian adults in the west have also had to put up with this BS. I tend to not respond and just stare at the kids, especially junior high school aged ones. My stony stare teaches them far more about what I consider good manners than me trying to be some kind of idealized cultural ambassador. There is a time and a place for everything.

So Mark Hunter, you think that when Japanese kids shout out 'hello' to you it's because they think they are racially superior to you (which is the essence of racism) and thereby 'mocking' you?? Okeeee.

It seems to me that your interpretive mechanisms might need a tweaking down from 'reactionary' mode.

Or could it be that kids are addressing you because you are visually different and thereby novel? Because kids are unsophisticated in how they approach visual differences- given that they are kids and all. Now if you interpret even that to be 'racism' then I'd suggest that your understanding of racism is so broad as to be almost meaningless, almost designed so that one can easily choose to be offended and therefore a 'victim' of 'racism'.

One other thing- how well travelled are you? I've been to over 75 countries and I can tell you that in EVERY SINGLE country where Caucasians are rare that kids do the exact same thing- and the equation is not only lmited to Caucasians but to any people who are visually 'foreign'.

Just another note, Mark Hunter.

I might actually consider it racist when people start ascribing 'racist' motives to others willy-nilly.

After all, only people who are hyper-conscious of racial 'I am X, you are not' paradigms tend to engage in such behaviour.

Hi Mike. Some people choose not to see an element of racism in over-done reactions, that's fine. I choose to do so.

But let me be clear. Not all "Hello's" are mocking. Many are, in my experience. They are the kind when kids shout "Hello", followed by guffaws of laughter, maybe broken totally unrelated phrases from Sunshine English and even negative comments in Japanese, often accompanied with the 'gaijin' word. Perhaps the junior high kids in your part of Kyushu are different, but I've also lived there and had the same experience where I lived. Those that are mocking of one's otherness are showing racist behavior, whether or not they know it is racist. I clearly said in the prior post that adults and the media are a large part of this problem. Rather than dressing down junior high school boys, and they do tend to be boys, I find a silent stare is just so different than the reaction they seem to expect that maybe they learn I don't want complete strangers mocking my otherness. Not all instances of "Hello" are this way,but enough are that I don't feel at all comfortable with it when it happens. A friendly "Hello" is a completely different thing, however.

I agree that kids around the world tend to try out their English. However, Japan is a developed nation with decades and literally billions spent on so-called 'internationalization'and it's still ok for a small, but influential element in the media to mock others' features. Go figure. In a poorer, less developed nation, one might expect odd reactions, but in Japan?

It is the kids of foreign looking people in Japan that must bear the brunt of othering, however, and the mental anguish that many experience in schools and in society in general is where my real sympathies lie and I have encountered many such children, casually and professionally. We adults should be thicker-skinned perhaps. But why should kids have to put up with not being accepted and with not having their foreign-looking parent accepted as a truly equal member of society. Why should walking down the street with foreign-looking Mom or Dad be a trauma? I've even heard kids express this. I mention all this because I feel the whole "Hello" that is done in a mocking fashion is just symptomatic of a much broader issue - the acceptance of others as equals, deserving of the same manners and respect as everyone else.


Insinuating that someone is racist when they feel uncomfortable when being mocked by Japanese kids is odd, to say the least. I know a blog is not supposed to be a love fest, but hey, that was too much.

Nice to read your post Mark H. and am glad to know that I'm not the only who feels the way I do. Also glad to read your later posts Mike and now can start nodding my head in agreement again to your words of wisdom. :) Peace, Conrad

Whoa, things are getting heated!

Perhaps we should stay away from the word racist here as it has such a deep seated meaning.

I think Mark Hunter makes a good point when he talks about kids from mixed families being picked on/singled out for their foreignness. I have heard numerous accounts of this and it is a strong concern of mine for my own kids. But I don't know if it arises out of racism, if we define racism as a feeling of superiority over lesser races. I think kids will pick on "hafu"s simply because they are different, not necessarily because they think they are superior to "hafu"s. We all know that being different in Japan is not always a virtue becuase it is viewed as threatening the comfort level of the group.

That being said, I do think there is a fair amount of racism amongst Japanese people directed toward other Asian races, especially Chinese and Koreans. I feel for kids who are of Chinese or Korean descent living in Japan because I think the teasing that goes on there does indeed arise from a belief that Jpanese are superior to those races. But I would argue that most Japanese people, especially adults, have almost an inferiority complex when it comes to white foreigners, and they are simply fascinated by our otherness. So in terms of westerners I don't feel there is a racial motive to noticing our foreigness but there is nonetheless alot of othering going on.

Hi again Mark Hunter.

I have a lengthy reply and I certainly hope you'll read it all the way through.

First, let me address the issue of 'foreign-looking kids' in Japan. My own son (now 13) looks far more Western than Japanese. Ever since he was small I knew that many people here would be asking whether, or assuming that, he's foreign- not fully Japanese etc. despite being born and raised here.

My maxim has been to NEVER deal with these curious, usually well-meaning, although occasionally naive, questions or comments in a shrill or defensive manner. Loooong ago, I told him that people will be curious about his ethnic mix all his life in Japan and to treat the fact that he has a Canadian father, and therefore looks a bit Western, as just that, a matter of fact, and to calmly tell this to anyone who happens to ask or misunderstand.

If I had reacted shrilly to such inquiries when he was young, with mention of racism or xenophobia or cries of 'Don't 'other' him!", he almost certainly would have grown up with a complex about it- precisely because when parents react strongly the child is likely to believe there actually is something wrong with their appearance, something shameful about their difference, because people are apparently not supposed to discuss or ask about it (reminding me of Fawlty Towers' famous 'Don't mention the war to the German guests!' sequence).

As a result, he deals with it calmly and as such is no big deal. He recognizes the occasional naive question as being naive but that's their problem, not his. His relaxed demeanour in handling this has meant that he has NEVER (to my knowledge and by his own admission) been on the end of a racial taunt because he's not uptight about it- so it's not something that others will target.

(Note here- bad JHS boys the world over will target whatever they can about a person to get a dig in, to dis, to get a guffaw. If it is your race- yes well that might be the target. If you are fat, thin, wear glasses, are an attractive woman, old, young, whatever, that's what bad JHS boys will snicker at. It's not JAPANESE boys being racist because they are products of the JAPANESE system, that implicitly endorses racism. It's just bad JHS boys being bad JHS boys. Period. And smaller kids say things because small kids everywhere are unsophisticated and naive- not because they are JAPANESE kids who are being manipulated by a racist system. Occam's razor.)

OK- let me move on.
You didn't like my insinuation that you might be harbouring racist ideas. Well, of course- I was being a bit ironic. How so? Well, do you think that the Japanese public like hearing insinuations that they or their country, or fomative insitutions are somehow systemically 'racist'? No. Same difference.

Do I think you, Mark Hunter, are in any way a racist? No. I cannot and will not use the term in such a cavalier way- and that obviously goes for the 'Hello' business too. But do I think that you are facing that precipice without your realizing it? Damn straight I do.

Howzat, you might ask. Here's how:

First, you wrongly equate being 'developed' with 'multi-culturalism'- which I would regard as a prejudice or chauvanism. After all, you argued that Japan is 'supposed to be a developed country' and therefore the mitigating factor I suggested, that visible minorities are so few that they naturally generate comment and/or curiosity, was untenable. In other words, for you 'developed country' means a country that displays a multi-cultural ethos. A country like Canada, Australia, the U.S. etc. where visible minorities are (usually) so common that nobody cares much or notices much. Associating the notion of being 'developed' with an ethos or manifestations of multi-culturalism is simply a prejudice. Since Japan is not a multi-cultural society it cannot ever be 'developed' by your implicit definition.

More importantly (or stridently, I might say) if you view the 'Hello' habit as often having a fundamentally racist motive you are saying that the issue is not one of communicative expediency (as I am) but as an ethical breach, a moral failure, even perhaps a human rights violation. Also, by stating that it is systemic (and not idiosyncratic, as I argue), that it is a 'Japan' thing- which you do when you invoke Japanese adults and media as negative causes of the pehonemon (you could add the education system, as some do)- and you do not accept mitigating explanations based upon geogrpahy, history, culture (as you do not according to your previous post) then just how do you explain what you clearly regard as this systemic morally unacceptable behaviour? Pointing the finger at adults or basic institutions still indicts Japanese society as a whole, as you'd have to maintain that those who apparently have been swayed by the powers-that-be are still responsible for manifesting the behaviour, duped or not.

So, where does this road take you, Mark? If you don't accept explanatory mitigating factors, It seems to me that you will have to resort to accusatory blanket statements about the Japanese, like "the Japanese have fewer moral scruples than us", "the Japanese are less developed in terms of human sensitivity than we are" or "They don't value human dignity as much as us more advanced people do". And you can see how all that sounds.

Is this what you want to say, Mark? I don't think so. But if you claim that unwanted 'hello-ing' is often racist in intent, that it is systemic, but that it cannot be explained by being a visible minority in a land that is largely homogeneous (because Japan is 'supposed to be a developed country' and because of the amount of money spent on internationalization) then I don't see how you can avoid the conclusion that this 'systemic, ethical' problem occurs in Japan because the Japanese people are generally (adults, formative institutions) worse than us.

Is that the road you want to take? If not, how do you get off it? Please tell me- because that's how it looks to me.

Hi Conrad. I'm glad there was something in my comment that you could take away. Interestingly, I've been in Japan long enough to notice that some NJ really start to try justifying all kinds of subtle, but nonetheless, racist and downright rude behavior on the part of some Japanese. This phenomenon I can only assume is part of some kind of coping mechanism. I've even seen it taken to the extreme where some NJ will even say that we're only guests and should suck it up. I don't think anyone on this site is particularly strident in this way, but the phenomenon does exist.

Hi Mike. Thanks for the lengthy reply. You raise many interesting points and I will certainly consider them one by one.

I do one have one major beef, however, and that is that you seem to suffer from a tendency to assign sweeping generalizations and conclusions in your analysis of my comments that were never made in the first place. As a simple example, I never even remotely wrote that Japanese are in any way inferior to anyone and you're stretching really hard to find a logical course to make such an assumption. Granted, toward the end of your reply you did say that you don't think this is what I wanted to say, but you have basically damned me as some kind of racist in the previous paragraph by implication in the so-called logic of your argument. That takes nerve if you ask me. Damn by some kind of indirect, accusatory logic and then say well I don't think that's what you mean to say. Too late, damage is done. I resent the implication that I'm racist. Period.

Perhaps you misread, but at no point did I implicate all adults, all kids or any complete system in the "Helloing" issue.

I believe there is an element of racism in some young people's mocking tone toward foreign (mainly white) residents in Japan. I believe that that behavior cannot be completely explained away as boys being boys. I believe that racist elements in the media, ignorant elements within the field of education who make no effort to educate about treating all others equally (especially in light of the so-called internationalization efforts), and some adults are responsible to a certain extent for the mocking that goes on. To assign sweeping conclusions about racism on the part of a poster, even indirectly, to this kind of opinion, would be very odd.

On a brighter note, I really applaud your approach with your own son. You have done him a great service and I'm sure he will thank you, if he hasn't yet.

That said, I do think we all need to be very careful of allowing racist, borish, and downright rude behavior in anyone. I think it's wrong for anyone to use a mocking tone with me and I will always try to counter it in some way. Silence often works best, in my opinion. This whole issue is actually very small in the whole scheme of things, but, in my opinion, does appear mildly symptomatic of broader issues in society that affect NJ. Particularly rights issues. I will not roll over regarding this minor othering issue and I hope no one else does either. Racism of any kind is wrong.

Have a great one.

Hi again Mark.

Sorry to sound like I'm mocking you (would that be racism then? heh heh) but, yes, I am challenging you. And since you take a strong stance and are not afraid to do so I assume you can accept opposition.

What I'm saying is this: You are not a racist, right? You deplore racism, correct? Good. We can all agree on this. But look back at your first post on this thread. I think it is fair to say that you are arguing:
1) that the problem is a racial one- therefore it implies a moral stance, an ethical dimension
2) that the problem is systemic (adults, media influence). Now please note saying or implying that it is systemic does not mean that you think ALL Japanese fall into this category, but it does mean that you see this as a problem of Japanese society in general. After all, adults and media influence cut a pretty wide swath.

Then, in your follow up email, you clearly don't want to attribute this phenomena to more innocuous causes, nor do you think geographical/historical factors mitigate the behaviour.

So far, accurate, right?

I can't see that I'm putting words in your mouth in what I've written above. This is at the very least the gist of your argument.

So my question then is this:
How do you avoid explaining the phenomena you describe WITHOUT resorting to general claims like the Japanese have fewer moral scruples, aren't as developed in treating others with dignity in comparison to us, etc?

Once again:
If it is an ethical issue...
If it is systemic (and not idiosyncractic)....
If cultural/geographical/historical factors don't mitigate or explain it---
If you don't see the behavior as more universal ('boys will be boys')...
are you left with any other explanation except to say, in some general sense, that Japanese society and its people are somehow ethically or morally lacking? Please show me how you can avoid coming to this undesirable conclusion?

I manage to do so by:
Arguing that the behaviour is not a moral issue but one of expediency (and where 'morals' may enter into it it is a universal quality- such as boys being boys).

I also avoid it by noting that the behaviour I described in my initial blog post is acceptable and understandable (albeit sometimes frustrating) in a non multi-cultural society.

I further avoid indicting Japan-in-general by arguing that related problems are more idiosyncratic than systemic.

Putting words in your mouth would be, and is, a cheap way of scoring debate points to be sure. But I really don't think I'm doing that. Nor do I want to call you a racist. So, for your own benefit, how do you avoid the claim other than to say that it's not nice to be called a racist. Frankly speaking, I get the impression that you are a person who wishes to defend human dignity for all- that you are a good guy who genuinely cares about others.

So, with that in mind, I'm asking you:
Given you assertions and line of reasoning (outlined above), how you can avoid making the unpleasant conclusions about Japan and the Japanese?

Hi Mike. Thanks for a well-put reply. I appreciate it. To sum, in response to your final question, I do not and will not summarily dismiss Japan or the Japanese in any way. That would be stereotyping and racist. It also would do a great disservice to all those hard-working Japanese people who fight for equality issues every day. I do have criticisms of elements of Japanese society. However, it would be wrong to call my criticisms systemic. Maybe my definition of systemic is different than others, but to me it means entire systems or groups being at fault in some way, almost conspiracy theory stuff. I do not think that is the case at all. Just elements within certain systems, like some lousy teachers or parents for example. It is faulty logic,in my opinion, that says when I use the words adults and media in reference to negative influences on kids, that I mean all adults and all media. I just don't get your thought flow at all on this. I've written that only some adults and only some elements of the media (think the false nose and blonde wig people, for example)are at fault. I refuse to implicate entire systems or groups of people. You are attempting to take this debate where it need not go, trying to make me admit to some overarching fault in Japanese people or society. Ain't going to happen.

So, in the spirit of healthy debate, may I bounce this back at you, if you don't mind, and ask you to explain the dynamic that you think is at work when some people, let's take junior high boys, mock those (mainly white as far as I can tell) who look different. I don't mean a friendly "hello", but the kind that has made many of us different-looking people feel very uncomfortable. Of course, if this has never happened to you or if it doesn't bother you, then I can understand if you can't explain. Also, if you think it's just boys being boys or some behavioral quirk, that's fine. I don't think so. I think some teachers, some adults and some elements of the media have for some reason allowed them to think it's ok to do so - not just idiotic behavior. In addition, why do you think someone like me or other posters don't like this when it happens?
(I have been with Japanese friends when this has happened and they have been clearly embarrassed. What this means, I have no idea as I've never discussed it with them.)

One thing's for sure. I get the sense that there is a lot of hurt, for lack of a better word, just under the surface of many people's lives among the NJ population and for many of those with children, I think it is even more so. I guess I get that impression from news of problems that some NJ people encounter in their daily lives that are just heartbreaking, primarily involving schooling and associated issues. What I hope is that those people can lead free and easy lives without worry for themselves or their kids.

Ooops, I'm sorry Mark Hunter. I forgot there were to Mark H's. I meant to say that I was agreeing with Mark Howarth's comment. (Feb. 3)

Mike, again you've taught us something about how your son answers such questions, brilliant! (Feb. 5, 10:33am)

Conrad

Hi Mike. I wrote a reply to your most recent post, but it got lost somewhere in cyberland. To address the first two points in the second paragraph. Yes, I do think mocking people who look different is racial, as you put it. Also racist. Second, I do not think this problem is systemic. Some elements within some systems are at fault, but not some overarching problem with Japanese people or Japanese society in general. That is your conclusion, not mine.

I would have to disagree that Japan is not multicultural. Tokyo and Kansai especially have many cultures represented. This is not government policy, but more by a fluke of various historical factors. Nonetheless, othering people is still wrong and a testament to the failure of internationalization efforts to reach everyone. If the JET programme and others had never existed and if governments at all levels had not promoted living in harmony and peace, as they have done actively for quite a few years now, then it might be understandable that some people still 'other'. Borish, but understandable.
Some people have simply fallen down on the job and allowed this behavior to continue. The entire system or culture cannot be blamed.

Have a great weekend.

I never expected that the word HELLO and its usage by non native speakers would be an intellectual stimulation, how its unappropriate use; may it be in social context, or worst, with racy intent has made this thread worth reading. 
It amazes me how a simple hello could summon mores and morals, and the irony of racism against and from Anglo-saxon ancestry! 
Try teaching in a country with more than 200 school days,  70 students in a class, limited instructional materials, and a pitiful salary. 
Try teaching in a country where your health care is matter of luck!
Try teaching in a country where kids go to school hungry.
Japan is far better than the rest. I know this for a fact because many non-native teachers of english from Africa, Middle East, and Southeast Asia have had more of a challenge.                 

Bernie, that's the best post yet, and something we all need to keep in mind.

Hi once again Mark Hunter!

I think we've beaten this topic to death so I'll try to wrap it up by answering your question and also commenting upon Japan's multiculturalism (or lack thereof).

I've been in Japan twenty years and I can count the number of times that overt racially hostile comments have been directed at me on just one hand. Maybe two or three times by drunks or other whacked-out folks, a coupla times by JHS-type wannabe bad boys. Because it is so infrequent (I'd assume you could be anywhere on earth and it would be hard to beat this rate) I think of it as idiosyncratic behaviour by weirdos or anti-social elements. I simply do not see it as a Japan thang- something that is indicative of a greater societal milieu (now that's a pretentious sentence!).

Intercultural awkwardness and naivete regarding aspects of my Caucaian-ness, I've experienced numerous times but obviously, as should be clear from my original post right through this discussion thread, that does not fall under the rubric of racism for me.

As for those overtly hostile racial comments, I don't think anyone here wants to justify them or gloss over racist attitudes anywhere but that is not what the original blog post, nor the subsequent discussion, was dealiing with.

A bit of a tangent now- Japan as multicultural? Well, if it is, I suppose that would obviate any 'progressive' calls for Japan to become a multi-cultural society. But let's not kid ourselves. While there are certainly multi-cultural neighbourhoods in Japan we can hardly describe the country as multi-cultural. The country is still among the most, if not the most, homogeneous in the world (98% ethnically Japanese). I know that J nationalist-types like to overemphasize this as if there is NO diversity in Japan, which maintains its 'purity', but there's still no denying that Japan is light, light years from what we generally know as multi-cultural societies (where, for one thing, a wide variety of ethnicities are citizens and further participate widely in all social institutions- not just live there). No one will mistake Japan for Canada, that's for sure. This is in no way a criticism of Japan- I don't think, like some do, Japan has some kind of moral obligation to become multi-cultural because it is somehow believed to be the hallmark of a 'developed' nation- that's just the way it is. But now I'm waaaay off topic...

Bernie, I agree with your sentiments. If we have the luxury of discussing the politics of 'hello' it is a sign that our workplaces and conditions are relatively benign. Fortunately we aren't blogging about military massacres in our classrooms or our students dying from infactious diseases.

I mentioned earlier in this discussion that I've visited numerous countries (mostly non-Caucasian based) and the curiosity, unapologetic othering, insider/outsider distinctions, oddball assumptions, and occasional rudeness or hosility towards people who are visual 'outsiders' is as strong as, and often stronger and more blatant, than in Japan. But almost everywhere I've traveled I've experienced far more on the positive side. In Japan that positive margin for me is huge- which is why I choose to live here permanently.

I too think it can be bit precious for Anglo-Saxons to complain about being discriminated against, especially when it seems like they are looking hard to be offended, to feel like victims and thereby emulate the sufferings of their heroes (which seem to be increasing these days) but, on the other hand, if the discrimination is real and meant to offend then, in principle, it doesn't matter who the prepetrator or the target are- it's not a good thing.

If my kid gets beaten up because he happens to be partially of the same racial stock as people who colonized a chunk of the earth a century ago, I sure ain't attributing it to karma!

A stimulating thread. Thanks to all!

Hi Mike! Point taken. Prejudice comes in  colorful garbs, whether in Japan or anywhere else. I think we come to understand more of ourselves and the hallucinatory biases we have had thru this thread, because of your anecdotes. Anways, I read this common ad in Japan, "...in need of english native speakers." I think it implies to people born into a country wherein english is the mother tongue. But, sometimes it is really hard to think that countries like Canada, or the US with its diverse cultural mixes and economically founded by immigrants could be construed native in the East.
Good morning!

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