Sunday, January 28, 2007

Inside New York’s “Japanese Village” (Nihonjin-Mura)

Both sides now… After having been a fish out of water in Japan, when I returned to New York in August 1996, I noticed how the Japanese in New York were experiencing the same kind of culture shock and difficulty adjusting as I had in Japan. Shortly after my article, “Japan Should Never Be Rearmed” was published in Japanese translation in New York’s OCS News and received a lot of attention in the New York Japanese community, I was approached by an editor of The Yomiuri America, a New York Japanese-language paper, to write an article for them.

The topic I chose was something I’d noticed since becoming involved with the Japanese community when I moved to New York in 1987—the way the expatriate Japanese community in the U.S. had created its own very tight little insular enclave. I nicknamed it the “hai-hai ghetto”—watching Japanese TV in New York, I noticed that all the characters on the J-dramas were always saying “Hai-hai!” rapidly (“Yes-yes!”), as if to show their rapid acquiescence to whatever was being suggested.

(Japanese tend to be very agreeable, at least in public, but for Japanese, there are a million ways to say “No.” The best-known is, “Ah, I’m afraid that would be very difficult,” which, translated, means, “No fucking way!” Suffice it to say that if a Japanese person does not offer their unqualified agreement, they’re trying to back out in the most polite way. We just don’t understand this in American culture—but they figure that we already share their unspoken cultural assumption.)

Of course, in Japan, I had noticed Americans who clung desperately to American culture and never partook of Japan. It reminded me a lot of that scene in My Antonia, where Willa Cather writes about the old Norwegians in Nebraska who only read Norwegian-language newspapers and refused to learn how to read English. The new immigrants are not leaving their old culture behind, and they’re not gonna change.

Translated into Japanese, a different version of this article was published in the September 5, 1997 issue of The Yomiuri America.

Inside New York’s “Japanese Village” (Nihonjin-Mura)

Many Japanese transplanted to the United States live in a totally self-enclosed Japanese subculture. They work for a Japanese kaisha [company], they usually eat at Japanese restaurants, they mostly shop at Japanese markets, they solely rent Japanese videos, they only buy Japanese books and magazines. And they have only Japanese friends.

I've been involved with the Japanese community in New York for ten years now, and I know whereof I speak. Anyone who visits Yaohan Plaza, the mammoth Japanese shopping center in Edgewater, NJ, knows that when you pass through its doors, you leave American soil and enter a suburb of Yokohama. The great Kinokuniya bookstore in Rockefeller Plaza—a temple of Japanese culture in New York, thank God—has so many young Japanese hanging out there, the extensively-stocked magazine racks on Saturday nights have become famous as the closest thing Manhattan has to a Japanese singles bar, where you go, hopefully, to be picked up.

Part of this cultural isolation is the fault of the U.S. Japanese community, and some is that of their American hosts. Japanese society has strong tendencies toward insularity, and as a people the Japanese are very shy. Too many Japanese in the U.S. stay inside the Nihonjin-mura [Japanese village], because it's safe and offers no risk.

On the other hand, I think a large part of the blame lies with the failure of the American community. Too few Americans reach out to their Japanese guests. It is, after, all the job of the host to make his guests feel at home, especially foreign guests in your country. When I lived in Himeji for a year under the JET Program, I was constantly impressed by the warmth and openness of the Japanese people. They reached out to me and made me feel extremely welcome, inviting me into their homes and helping me participate in Japanese life.

Whereas in my ten years in New York, I've heard too many horror stories of Japanese (and other Asians) cruelly victimized, exploited, and taken advantage of, because 1) they were perceived as having money ("the Japanese are rich"), and 2) culturally they're not inclined to be aggressive and confrontational; they don't put up a fight. The $700 cab rides from JFK to Manhattan are just the most obvious examples of this kind of outrageous vampirism.

But as with everything, there's a flip side to this story. After I first arrived in Himeji in August 1995, I once went out to dinner with three other newly-arrived JET teachers. They insisted on eating at an "Italian" restaurant, and then it was time for Mister Doughnut. I was amazed. Here they were in Japan, where you could get the greatest Japanese food in the world (and cheaply, if you knew where to look), and they were consuming the inaka's [countryside’s] idea of Southern Italian cuisine? I'm sorry, but the marinara sauce just didn't taste the same. As my mother taught me, "When you go out to eat, always order something you'll never get at home." In Japan you eat in a place where you sit on a tatami mat and manipulate hashi [chopsticks].

In Japan, there were many Americans who lived in the "red-white-and-blue" ghetto. They shopped at the local America-mura, the Yankee shopping center, they haunted Tower Records and the English bookracks at Kinokuniyas, they complained endlessly about inane Japanese TV fare. But my God, I thought, you're in Japan! Take advantage of the unique, beautiful, priceless things that only this particular nation and this special culture have to offer! Who wants Clint Eastwood when you can have Takakura Ken or Beat Takeshi? Why settle for Madonna when you can watch Chisato Moritaka or Yuki Uchida? Why look for a hamburger when you can gnaw yakitori? Why soak in a hot tub when you can relax in an onsen?

So maybe both cultures have to come out of their shells a little. As for myself, I'm glad I stand with a foot in both worlds. American culture by itself is pretty arid, and in Japan I got awfully homesick. But I know eventually I'll return to Japan, to live and work--even though, right now, I enjoy living in New York.