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  • S.L. Chan

It’s Not a Culture Thing

I've been living and studying for two years in Japan.

Japan is great. Amazing. Wonderful. A dream.

Japan was all that until I realized that I wasn't honest with myself.

Since when did I stop thinking Japan was great?

Two years here have definitely allowed me to create many wonderful experiences that I wouldn’t want to trade for anything else. I was meeting new people from different parts of the world and surrounding myself with everything amazing you could ever imagine about Japan.

However, as much as I kept saying how great these two years were, there was a certain feeling lurking deep inside of me that I couldn’t seem to ignore. I still feel uncomfortable and out of place here; I don’t think this feeling is going to disappear anytime soon. Two years of bliss also means two years of me trying to fit into the cookie mold of Japan’s culture. To sum up how I feel about ‘fitting in,’ I’ve never felt like I could be my authentic self whenever I'm in front of Japanese people.

“It’s probably the language barrier!”

That’s true. For someone coming from another country raised in an entirely different background, Japanese isn’t my first language. Though I studied Japanese intensively for twenty months and started conversing in Japanese for two years daily, there are still times when I struggled to express my thoughts to everyone in this language. Honestly speaking, I still don’t have the confidence to say with my entire chest that I can speak fluent Japanese but I do know that I’m improving daily and that more people understood me compared to before.

“Then it’s definitely the culture!”

Right! That’s another big factor as well. Easy then, I’ll just learn more about Japanese culture! And I did. I learned the proper etiquette in greeting people, how to mind my behavior, and not do anything reckless that will cause other people trouble in public spaces. I mingled with my few Japanese friends and learned whatever I could. Despite all these efforts, I still feel something tugging at the edge of my heart. Why do I still feel so uncomfortable when I’m around them? Why do I feel like I’m not allowed to be here? Why do I feel so small, so unimportant no matter how hard I try to speak out to let people understand me? Why do I fear them so much?

These questions remained unanswered for as long as I could remember. Because I didn’t have an answer, I settled with an unsatisfying conclusion: I’m feeling this way because I’m still not fluent in Japanese, and I still didn’t make enough effort to understand the mindset of their culture. It’s me.

I remember asking one of my friends who’s amazing at speaking Japanese (he’s from South Korea but you could mistake him for a native Japanese judging from the way he speaks. As far as I know, he doesn’t have any trouble expressing himself in Japanese), “Do you still feel some sort of wall, like something hindering you when you’re talking to your Japanese friends?”

“Yeah definitely!”

His answer was short, precise, and said without any hesitation. That’s when I knew, the problem was never about language. Then, it’s definitely the cultural difference ain’t it? After much pondering, my answer is no, it's not the culture either.

This distance, this wall that I felt, this feeling of being excluded no matter how long I’ve been here, how is all this part of a culture?

I’m not talking about daily conversations with them. I’m talking about the situations where we’re trying to raise a problem that we’ve been experiencing and being brushed off with some reasons like, “It’s what it is, there’s nothing we can do” but of course, in a polite way. This is a problem especially for us, the non-Japanese who coexist with the Japanese in a shared community. It just feels like our needs are always placed second and that the odds are never in our favor. It doesn’t matter how long we reside here, we’ll always be the foreigners that aren’t important. We just aren’t accepted here.

I’ve had a few discussions about this with other international students studying at the same university as me. It shocked me but at the same time, I also wasn’t surprised that they felt the same way as me whenever they interacted with the Japanese. One of my professors from the States also shared a similar experience she had before. I remember her saying, “It’s invisible, but it exists.” These shared experiences with my international friends and my professor gave validation to my feelings.

Japan practices collectivist culture which prioritizes the interests of groups over individuals. Act according to your role in a group and not for individual purposes. The culture of fitting in, doing your best, and knowing your role… I fully understand these are the values of Japan for hundreds of years or even more. I respect that, and I honestly find beauty in that. But using this culture as an excuse to exclude or even belittle foreigners or outsiders and calling it ‘our culture’ is wrong.

Here’s the thing that confuses me, how can exclusivity and prejudices against other races be part of a culture? That’s not culture. To be frank, that’s undealt racism. I’m not saying, “They are behaving this way because they’re Japanese.” I’m trying to shine a light on this mindset that has been long ingrained in them.

“It’s invisible, but it exists.”

For years, I’ve been conditioned to think that it’s just me feeling this way because of its subtlety. I have to say though, as I’m blessed to have lighter skin, my experience is not as bad compared to others who can be immediately identified as ‘outsider’. I’ve heard of instances of my friends where no one would sit next to them because of their foreign appearance. It’s all these microaggressions and subtle acts that hurt us. Sometimes I would have no trouble communicating with them but the moment they found out that I wasn’t Japanese, I could feel a slight bit of hesitation in them.

I’m not asking for us to receive any special treatment but to at least try to listen and treat us like a human with dignity.

Of course, I’m not saying that all Japanese are like that. In fact, I’ve met countless Japanese friends who saw the painful reality and understand the situation as it is. We need more people to stand up, to have the courage to voice out and point out the problem. We need people to make the invisible visible in the community. Whether you’re Japanese or not, we’re sharing the same circle: we’re living in the same community. We all have a responsibility to create a change we want to see.

But who am I? I’m not Japanese, I don’t have the right to try to bring a change to how Japan is.

No, it’s not the culture that we’re going to change. I’m highlighting the toxic and racist mindset that has become so normalized to the point where we’re all unconscious of it. I’m talking about the inner biases that can exist in everyone regardless of their nationality. Culture is something beautiful, an identity. It’s not culture if we use it as a pedestal to deem ourselves better than others who are different.

I’m entering my third year in Japan this year, and I’m ready for change. This change is fundamental not only for me but for the women and men, regardless of their nationality, who are in Japan.

Edited by Emiru Okada

Graphic by Momoka Ando

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