Notes from the Obstacle Course
Dr. Michael Peckitt
I often feel overly uncomfortable in everyday situations — such as when using a changing room in a clothes shop, to the point that I avoid spending time on shop floors unless it’s absolutely necessary. But here, the voice in your head yelling “You’re not normal” doesn’t scream so loud, because even when you are behaving in a “normal” way, there’s an expectation for you to be somehow abnormal anyway. So, by appearing odd, you’re confirming the common perception among Japanese that foreigners do things differently. If you’re all hot and flustered around a changing booth, “adult male who can’t buy clothes for himself” becomes “foreigner who feels uncomfortable in Japanese shops” — it becomes normalized, and the self-image problems that come with the whole episode are alleviated.
William Bradbury in The Japan Times
I remember when I was at the Japanese embassy in London, in the summer of 2012, a week before the Olympics no less. There was on an exhibition about the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, there were posters on the wall informing me about the new zairyu card or resident card, which was to replace the gaijin or foreigner card. And next to that that there were posters, warning would-be travellers to the Land of the Rising Sun, not to go if you were, in what at its kindest could be called, ‘in a bad way’, and I always assumed that what they were aiming for was people with mental health problems.
Amongst my many ailments I have a history of depression, a history which I do not fully understand. It is simply to crass to put it down to the fact that I have cerebral palsy and am bummed out about it. Or that I had a bad childhood – as I really did not, quite the reverse. I am, I suppose relatively successful, yet I have always felt that I do not belong, at least not in Britain, so I agree with William Bradbury when he writes:
In Britain, I lived forever in fear of persecution by outside forces because of mistakes I was sure I was making through ignorance.
Britain has no time for an outsider, for the crazy ones, the ones that do not fit. If you think that seems harsh, try growing up in Yorkshire, as a person with cerebral palsy who loves books and has no interest football. It’s an isolated existence. Hell would at least be less lonely, and a lot warmer than Rotherham.
Not so in Japan. William Bradbury has hit upon a truth when he says that that Japanese people are ‘forgiving’ towards foreigners, that here, eccentricity is encouraged as a virtue to be nourished when it is found in the foreign population. It goes without saying that it may be different for the social misfit that happens to native Japan.
In fact I would go further than Bradbury; there is another way that Japan helps foreigners who don’t quite ‘fit’, and that way is be found in Japan’s love of a rule-based society. Japan lets a foreigner get away with a lot; here you can drink on the street, drink in a bar until five AM, where by the way, you will often, even as patron, be expected to flirt with young Japanese people. As an exile from Britain, that’s not too shabby, I’m sure you will agree.
You may ask, how does this relate to Japan being a rule-based society, so far you’ve told me spending time with cute Japanese girls with bars, if that is a hardship then I have no sympathy for you. And you would be right to say that. But that is not my point, at least not exactly. Yes, I live in Japan, yes I often have long conversation with some of the cutest women on the planet, but I have no choice but to do that. I’m sure you still have no sympathy, but maybe the next paragraph will explain.
Japan has no time for a person who does not care for human company, no sympathy for the person who wants to sits in the corner of the room, hoping that no one will talk to them, you will be spoken to, so get used to it. If Japan has a Golden Rule it is not ‘Thou shall have no other Gods but me’ it is ‘Thou shall be social!’ Fail to be social, it is true, immigration won’t call, but slowly people will realise that you don’t want to be part of Japan, as Japan demands that you be social. You have to smile and talk to people. A failure to be social might lead people to conclude that you are not just odd, you are anti-social, and we cannot have that.
The paradox about depression is that the depressive seeks human company but often prefers isolation. There is only one solution to that that, and that is to obey the commandment ‘be social’.
And don’t forget to smile.
Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. He runs the Japan and disability related website ‘The Limping Philosopher’ (https://thelimpingphilosopher.wordpress.com) and you can find him on Twitter @Peckitt.