At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land (Part I)

This is one of a two part series. 

The divide between people can be so vast sometimes. We can appear to look the same, act the same, speak similar (or the same) languages and yet all of our experiences, our perceptions and the matrix of our personalities through which these perceptions and experiences are funneled through amounts to infinite differences. But despite all of this, people can connect to each other and can understand that most human beings seek certain things in life: sex, food, shelter, water and friendship/love. Now, what if we don't look the same, act the same, speak the same languages or grow up experiencing the same, collective histories? That's when the divide is even more apparent. 

Japanese Culture Lesson:  In Japanese culture, there is a concept called 内外, or uchi soto, which means inside/outside. There have been a number of articles written about this structure in Japanese society that go into its history and how it enables Japanese culture to function efficiently. It is also deeply embedded within the Japanese language, making this language one of the most complex to learn. For a foreigner, it is a very complex system of interaction that at first appears to benefit us. Because we are always in the soto group, the kanji for soto is also the same kanji in the word 外国人, which means foreign-country person, we will be treated with respect (at least at the tatamae level). tatamae 建前 and honne 本音, by the way, are two other ways to divide behavior (and language) in Japan. Tatamae means "facade" and it is all of the acceptable public behavior that creates harmony, but it doesn't mean that it is how the person really feels. Honne, on the other hand, is the true feelings or desires of the individual. Often tatamae will overrule honne.  If you are good at reading body language or eyes, you can start to intuit behavior better. Most of it is very subtle though. I have heard Japanese lament tatamae, so if you feel like you aren't ever certain if someone is being open with you, just be aware that many Japanese feel this way too. This has everything to do with uchi soto and with maintaining harmony. Those who are inside a close-knit group (such as a family) can express their true feelings and desires openly to each other. They would then express tatamae to those who are soto to them (whether Japanese or foreign). For us foreigners, it is very hard to ever get into an uchi situation. I think even relationships can maintain a level of soto (that is true in our home countries as well), so that you find distance when you want closeness and you find yourself guessing whether the person is actually expressing his or her true feelings or not.   Many people have written about these concepts, so if you're interested in reading more about them, it's probably better to approach it from an academic analysis because various blogs offer personal opinions (not always favorable) about the Japanese society.  That being said, blogs offer personal insight, which should not to be ignored either.

As an aside, I find that Okinawans are less formal with each other and more likely to express honne openly, though they will use tatamae as well. Why is this? Its a complicated thing (and has much to do with the fact that the Japanese language is relatively new to the Okinawan culture -- a hundred years ago they were still speaking their native language).  For in uchiinaguchii, they expressed collective brotherhood with each other in the phrase, Icharibaa choodee (which means, "once we have met, we are brothers/sisters). See how complicated things are getting?

Returning back to the original question.  How do we overcome the vast divide so that we can begin to make better connections in our lives?  If you are a foreigner living in Japan, attempting to befriend and become good friends with Japanese can seem nearly impossible.  For sure you will have acquaintances and meet a number of very interesting people.  But will you ever become close enough to them to feel like you're in the "in group"?  It's a difficult thing.  I think the older we get, the less likely we are to make these types of connections, regardless of where we are living in the world.  It's not impossible though.  People are, after all, often drawn to others at a subconscious level.  I think being open and honest, while also respecting Japanese culture, is likely to attract the people who would naturally be drawn to you.  As a foreigner, being in a relationship with a Japanese person (and being in a good relationship with them), can buffer the feelings of being an outsider.  But a good relationship in any culture does blunt the sharp edges and difficulties we experience in life.  

In retrospect, I am slowly noticing how much my former relationship helped me deal with a number of "outsider" issues that might have lead to extreme culture shock.  Slowly, but surely, I am noticing the daily reminders of my foreignness (and my inadequate Japanese language skills) more frequently.  But, at the same time, I also feel more free to meet others and I have more time to invest in other friendships and do new things with my life here in Japan.  The thing is, how can I go about making real connections? 

Last year, on Ishigaki, I spent the majority of my time on that island alone.  I often had so much time on my own, that I was desperate to meet others, anyone who I could make a good connection with.  As I wrote in September, I did end up meeting J. and while we had a brief hiatus in the summer, we spent about a year or more together.  But there comes a time when being single and going the solitary route, offers more freedom and more possibilities, especially when living only temporarily in a place. 

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