Friday, February 02, 2007

I can't say that I'm speaking for all western women when I write opinion pieces. I can say, however, that the pieces I write, whether they are short fiction, bits of poetry, or the article I wrote below, are compilations of the opinions of the western women I have met over the years here; from Kagoshima to Morioka. I still haven't made it to Hokkaido or Okinawa. But when I do, I can't wait to meet and chat with more western women, and add their thoughts and stories to my stuff. I would love to hear from all who are checking in. Please drop me a line...

Identity, Guilt and Puff Pastries - Western Women In Japan

Having lived in Japan for eight years, I have had the opportunity to cross paths with many wonderful Western women from many different countries. Each woman has been unique in her background, her character and her motivations for coming to Japan. In many of my conversations, however, there has often been a common thread of interest; that of identity, and how we viewed ourselves in the context of our place in Japan in the role of "Western Woman". We often contrasted ourselves first to where we came from and to who we were before arriving in Japan, and then to how we fit into our new home, often in comparison to Japanese women.

Sometimes these conversations were empowering, sometimes enlightening, sometimes frustrating. Why did the issue of identity keep cropping up? It most certainly never took up such large chunks of conversation time back home. The more I talked, the clearer it became. One thing Western women adore, cherish and will fight for is choice and the freedom to speak their mind. We didn't have such things not so long ago and they are an integral part of who we are. Being in Japan suddenly made our freedom to choose and our freedom to speak our minds not such desirable qualities. In fact, it is these very qualities that are seen as unattractive and undesirable in Japanese women.

As Western women in Japan, we find ourselves in a lose/lose situation where our identities are concerned. If we hold onto our western selves, it is difficult to forge meaningful relationships with Japanese. That's not to say we don't make friends with Japanese; we do. It is just very difficult for these friendships to get beyond the novelty of us being the strange, outspoken foreigner. We're good for cafe chats, and the occasional dinner; superficial and fun. It rarely goes much beyond that. If we try to assimilate more Japanese qualities into our personality, we run the risk of losing the respect of our Western girlfriends (as well as going against the grain of our personal beliefs). What is bound to stem from all of this internal identity juggling is negative feelings towards the people, the culture and the country itself, and for this I sometimes feel guilty.

We've landed in a place where our fundamental belief that having an opinion, (and sharing it freely) actually works against us. Doing what we do naturally makes us appear harsh, abrasive and unfriendly. And, because our identity is so deeply ingrained in our personal expression, we dig ourselves in even deeper as we try to defend ourselves against our detractors. Our words, our pride in our intelligence and our outspokenness are the tools we used back home to express ourselves, to defend ourselves, to get by day-to-day. We didn't even think about it. It's who we are. In Japan, those tools just don't work.

We have found ourselves in a culture that doesn't value overt forms of expression in women. As such, from our western perspective, it can make Japanese women appear weak, overly accommodating, and immature. Because our education and socialization taught us that these are negative personality traits, we find that when we are socializing or working with Japanese women, we sometimes feel disdain, anger, amusement, or pity towards them. Making negative judgments of the culture and the people of Japan seems to be the unfortunate but common side effect of not fitting in. Perhaps this negative appraisal is part and parcel of being judged daily ourselves, whether it be based on being outspoken, trying to purchase size 9 shoes, or an inability to sit seiza. There is, however, that companion sentiment to this judgement that I mentioned earlier, and that is guilt.

Again, whether we refer to ourselves as feminists or not, a running theme of the movement is the sense of sisterhood with all women, across cultural, ethnic and economic lines. Am I abandoning that sisterhood when I feel anger or disdain when witnessing immaturity and self-deprecating behaviour in Japanese women? I am in Japan. I am here by choice. My intellectual instincts tell me to adjust, to appreciate the culture, to assimilate. My gut instinct is counteractive and kicks my intellect all over the floor. My gut recoils and balks when I try to reason with it intellectually. My intellect reminds my gut that I am the way I am because of my own cultural upbringing. My culture isn't better. It's not worse. It's just different. My gut answers back (vehemently and full of acid, I might add) that No! My way is better! Everyone else is wrong! And there goes that warm fuzzy sisterhood out the window. My gut always wins, and I end up with indigestion and a guilty conscience.

You would think that with all this internal struggle with identity, there wouldn't be any time to devote to romantic interests. With so much energy being expended as the intellect and gut duke it out, who has time to worry about relationships? Ah, but wherever you are, there's always time for a little romance, isn't there? When it comes to l'amour, there seem to be two predominant themes for Western women in Japan. Scenario one involves Japanese who view Western women, sexually, as an anomaly, something along the lines of a grade school science project. The specimen is poked, prodded, dissected, and eventually set aside with a bit of a sour grimace. I remember peering into a bucket in my science class at all those poor discarded frog carcasses, thinking it so cruel. At least Western women have disposable income at their fingertips to soothe battered egos with an este treatment or a haircut when cast aside by a J-lover. It must be said, though, that even with our new haircuts, aromatic candles and creamy puff pastries, those bruised hearts still smart from the rejection.

Scenario two? Well that would have to do with our counterpart - Western man. Just as our identities have had to undergo reconstruction during our stay here, so too has Western man's. Only it's different. Very different. Whereas Western woman has to question whether she is jeopardizing her whole belief system or merely being nice in the simple act of preparing tea for a male co-worker, Western man has found himself on territory that is almost eerily too friendly and accommodating. As he takes his first tentative steps on Japanese soil, I imagine him shooting a few wary looks over his shoulder, first to the left, then to the right. Out of his lips, an almost indiscernible; "What the fu...?" In the beginning, it must seem quite surreal. This is when I like Western man in Japan the most. He doesn't know what's hit him, and just as with anything that seems too good to be true, he's questioning it. Just-off-the-boat Western man is great fun to talk with. But, inevitably, he changes.

I'm not going to go too deeply into those changes. We've all heard about the phenomenon of Western man in Japan. A stereotype perhaps, but, as in most stereotypes, there is a seed of truth and it can be infuriating at times for Western women. To acknowledge its existence is normal. Too dwell on it until we become bitter doesn't help or change anything. So, here's my acknowledgment and tip of the hat to Western man in Japan. I hope we can sit down and have a civil chat over a glass of wine sometime soon.

Being Western woman isn't always easy. But, it isn't all that bad either. We find ourselves here by virtue of the multitude of choices made available to us because we are Western women and we were lucky enough to have this Japan option available to us. The choice to leave is always there, hanging in the wings with a come hither wink. We choose to ignore it for the time being as we delve deeper not only into the culture we find ourselves in, but also into our own ever-changing identities. We find ourselves questioning, analyzing, and getting to know ourselves more intimately than we probably ever could had we never boarded that plane.

Perhaps that's part of the journey as well; unearthing those bits and pieces of ourselves that we never knew existed. There are those ugly traits that we'll find, the ones we won't necessarily like. Finding something you don't like about yourself at least gives you the opportunity to change it. Never knowing it was there is like never fully knowing yourself. Just as in our friends and lovers, we have to take the good with the bad. A lot of the fun is in the discovery. I'm willing to let this journey go on a little longer, learn a little more, and, hopefully, smile and laugh at it all at the end of the ride. And, if I'm lucky enough to meet you somewhere along the way, I've got quite a few stories and some creamy puff pastries I'd like to share.

1 comment:

Soundhunter said...

What a fascinating read!

I wish I knew what the western man in japan cliche was though, does it have somethng to do with the way he acts to women after realizing the different gender dynamics?

I really enjoyed stumbling into your blog :)