April 23, 2011


Last night, at an enkai*, I got the question: "When you came to Japan, how did your image of Japanese people change?" This is a fairly common question, and one I should have a set answer to, but I haven't managed to come up with one yet that doesn't make me sound like I got to Japan yesterday.**

On this occasion, I tried to wave it off, but the dude was insistent, so I came up with this: "Before I came here, I didn't realize how blunt Japanese people are sometimes," and went on to talk about how surprisingly open my dance teacher can be about criticizing me in class.

Today, what I think I really should have said -- what I think I really meant -- is that Japan is a country that really strips you of your squeamishness (and surprisingly, in a lot of ways, prudishness).

Why today? Because I passed a foreigner-in-Japan milestone that I'd actually expected to pass some time ago: a sushi chef scooped up a fish, killed it, skinned it and filleted it right in front of me, and didn't even seem to notice my flinching and cringing, or that I decided I was finished eating immediately afterwards. Meanwhile, there was a Japanese guy hanging around there with three kids, and none of them even batted an eye at the whole thing.

Japanese people tend to be inured to this sort of thing. They don't have our traditional American squeamishness about eating things with faces, about eating raw meat, about killing things in front of small children. And like I said, although Japan has a famous reputation for being repressed, in some ways they're a lot less prudish than Americans are. We don't do public nude bathing or have pornography in store windows (I mean, okay, we do, but not with actual nipples or anything). We don't, as far as I know, comment on the teats of strangers. EDIT: In the original version of this post, I forgot one of my most eye-opening examples -- in America, we definitely do not let teenage boys change clothes in front of their female teachers.

And this does extend, to a certain degree, to the kind of tough-skinned bluntness I was talking about last night. I used my dance teacher as an example, but really, she's a pussycat. Had I been bolder (or ruder) I could have much more easily spoken of the multitudes of older women who have commented on my body -- I'm pretty sure it is only in this country that I would be told, "It would be better if your breasts were smaller." Or the people who comment on my eating habits, or whatever. The point is, Japanese people say what's on their mind a lot more than you might think they do.

Despite the whining in my last entry, I'm really not criticizing this. Rather, I realized today that the longer I'm here, the more I, too, am becoming more inured to it. Sure, I wasn't exactly hungry after the whole "Killing Nemo" thing today, and I get pissed off when some baachan (grandma) calls me fat to my face. But there are also a lot of things I take in stride now that I didn't before. I can look a dead shrimp in the eye and still eat its tail, the very idea of which used to make me sick to my stomach. I can tell my coworkers that I want to eat raw horse with them and mean it.

And as for the boob thing, when I heard that, all I could do was shrug, smile, and nod. Of all the things that are wrong with me and how I fit in in this country, I think my breast size is a pretty low priority, but, sure. It would be better if my breasts were smaller. Why not?

*A big drinking (+dinner) party with your coworkers, thrown for any number of reasons including welcoming new coworkers, saying goodbye to those who are leaving, or it being spring.

**I mean, really, I don't know what to say without seeming either stupid or rude. On one end of the spectrum you have, "Oh, I didn't realize you sometimes eat with forks, because I am an idiot," and on the other end you have, "I didn't know you were all freaking nuts, so there's that."

***Addendum: So far, my newer, thicker shell has not led to me being any less unable to kill bugs or pests, including the crazed sex pigeons on my balcony. Wish me luck as we head into summer, AKA Horrible Disgusting Bug and Spider Season.

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