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Why Do You Hate All the Best Parts of Being a Gaijin in Japan?

“All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers.” – Francois Fenelon

File this one under “Life in Japan”. And subtitle it: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Gaijin Pass and Why You Should To.

Some years ago now, I seem to remember watching a heavily edited version of “American History X”: we have those in Utah (edited movies, that is…I don’t know for sure whether or not AHX had an edited version; Utah’s more sensitive to sex than violence). And there’s a scene where Edward Norton’s neo-Nazi gets some vicious prison discipline from a fellow neo-Nazi — the head neo-Nazi in charge — for being too “eager” and purist in his, well, neo-Nazism.

At the time I thought it was powerful and brutal and poignant, but also gimmicky; it seemed like too much of a plot device, too convenient, too much of an object lesson. Surely, ethnic gangs in prisons were too busy sticking together to have in-fighting?

But then I thought about it.

Who killed Malcolm X?
Who killed Yitzhak Rabin?
Who killed JFK?
Who tried to kill Hitler?
Who eventually did kill Hitler?

After all these men had been through, all the wars and close calls and early days, they were targeted and killed by their own people (or themselves, leaving behind a real scorcher of a suicide letter).

Let me qualify that. People of all shapes, shades, sizes and appendages will screw you, will be mean to you. But the people shaped, shaded, sized and appendaged like you will probably pull it off more often, for several reasons:

  1. You’re likely to live in closest proximity to them
  2. You’re likely to spend most of your time with them
  3. You’ll never see it coming from them; you won’t expect it; you expect them to be on “your” side
  4. You’ll suppress the memory of when it does happen and/or chalk it up to momentary/individual failing
  5. You and your society will let them get away with it

Even in the famously ethnically fractured states united of America, violent crimes of all kinds are overwhelmingly committed intra-group, by in-group members, not across ethnic lines. Similarly, most sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances of the victim, not strangers in the bushes on “rape hill”. So, literally, no one will screw you longer, deeper and harder than your own people.

Looking back some 20 years ago now, I don’t think Yitzhak Rabin, decorated IDF veteran, son of the soil, a man who’d spent more than a third of his entire life as a soldier, woke up that morning in 1995 — or any other morning — and thought: “some punk kid who owes his very existence and nationality to me, who’s been alive fewer years than I was in fatigues, is going to pop a cap in my a$$ today”; I don’t imagine that that thought had ever occurred to him; I don’t imagine he ever thought random domestic wingnuts were an imminent and credible threat to his life. Or perhaps he did 1, but it felt pretty out-of-left-fieldy to me.

Japanese people don’t hate you. You just live in Japan, and there are jerks (even in Japan; Japanese industry hasn’t figured out how to quality control them…yet 😀 ). And statistically, probabilistically, because of reason (1) up there, almost all the jerks you meet are gonna be Japanese. But for reasons (3), (4) and (5), you won’t let it slide. 2

Now, I hear you going: “Khatz, you’re just pulling off mental acrobatics to get us to hide from the truth”. And I know it can seem that way. But I’m not.

Firstly, it actually takes a great deal of effort to permanently blanket-hate a group of people (it can be quite easy to start, but maintenance is killer ); if nothing else, you’re forced to suppress and ignore all conflicting evidence; you have to forget and ignore all the good while remembering only the bad; it wears your mind and body down; hate, like language proficiency and talking plants in Rick Moranis movies, has to be fed to stay alive and healthy. So you don’t need my help there.

Secondly, what I’m actually doing is pulling out surprising statistics to get you to see the truth behind the assumptions and stereotypes. There are definitely exceptions and counterexamples: Leopold of Belgium was able to royally screw over much of Central Africa without ever visiting there. Remote jacka$$ery, if you will.

Then again, you could take it up another level of abstraction and come full circle: humans make a big deal about other animals (or extraterrestrials or even ghosts(!)) killing us, but it’s living humans that hate and harm fellow humans the most: “homo homini lupus”, as the Romans 3 said. Man is a wolf unto man. We are the big bad wolf. We are our only true predator.

Like, literally. At every scale. From cosmic to microscopic. It’s self-similar. Like a fractal.

Observe. Some 30,000 Japanese die by their own hand (suicide) every year. Similarly (but much more indirectly), the products of our own metabolism inside our own cells end up causing aging and eventually death for us. 4 Carl Sagan would say that we’re just temporary accumulations of stardust annihilating other temporary accumulations of stardust.

2002 was a terrible year to be a female child in America, with a spate of kidnappings that would not let up, of which Elizabeth Smart was but one datapoint…if you watched the news, that is. In real life, 2002 was a down year for child kidnappings. Not only that, but most child kidnappers are…known to the victim — family, in fact. Blood relatives. Divorced parents and the like. No one will screw you longer, deeper and harder than your own people. And you don’t even know. You turn a blind eye to that because you seem them as individuals. The Smart case was an outlier, an aberration, an exception not an illustration.

We are far more wary and judgmental of biological and sociological outsiders than is statistically fair. Every kid gets the “stranger danger” talk. No kid gets the “watch out for us when we’re drunk: we will eff you up” talk. Not from their parents. Tsk tsk, African immigrants in South Africa got beaten up and killed in a dirty, rough neighborhood and it’s on the news? Dewd, native South Africans in dirty, rough neighborhoods get beaten up and killed by their fellow countrymen all the time and it gets jack-all coverage because, well, nobody cares about kids from dirty, rough neighborhoods. 5

And the solution is not for the news to change. I would never suggest something so quixotic and stupid. I hate when people go “they should stop airbrushing models in women’s magazines!” 6 Why? Because it makes you feel bad? Boo-farking-hoo, how about this — don’t buy the magazine. Don’t pay for the movie. Don’t watch the news; these are private enterprises, not gubmit programs; they don’t have to show population parity and you don’t have to give them your money. Vote with your wallet, not your tears. 7

Everybody will screw you. So if you’re going to get upset or start hating, you’d better be ready to spread it around. You’d better be prepared to hate everybody, because the statistics justify it. As fans of the American Second Amendment occasionally point out, history shows that, in general, governments have killed many times more of their own citizens than the criminals against whom they purport to protect us; this has especially been true in the 20th century, where technology and nationalism reached a multiplicative zenith of sorts, allowing power and stupidity to concentrate in unprecedented ways…or maybe I’m just being myopic…we tend to act as if most of history happened in the 20th century, and that simply isn’t true. Steven Pinker, whom I usually find well-spoken but plain wrong, astutely points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature that, while the number of human deaths due to human violence has increased, the proportion has tanked. And that’s including all the tiffs and spats of the last century. So things are getting better.

Anyway, moving on, so…if you’re Chinese, Mao will “save” you from Japanese occupation — or, at the very least, take credit for it — and maintain the territorial integrity of China, before attempting to destroy your writing system and starving tens of millions of people to death, out of either malice or (worse) an incompetence enforced by violence and untempered by dissent. If you’re Russian, Stalin will also “save” you before turning around and screwing you over. “But he was Georgian”, you say. And the German guy he saved you from was actually Austrian. Same difference.

This whole blog is stupid and overkill — this post especially so: using too much scale and too much history to make a simple point. But so is our emotional reaction to Japanese strangers’ automatically speaking heavily accented English to us. Look back on your life. Look back on all the hurtful things “your own people” (native speakers of your own language) said and did to you…in the schoolyard, in class…is the behavior of random adult strangers in Japan really your biggest problem in life? It’s annoying (potentially), but does it warrant a therapy session? Does it warrant emotional suffering? Are you getting chased through the streets and beaten up in alleys?

Personally, I don’t want it to ever come to the point where Japanese people in general — other than close friends, so, strangers — expect me to speak Japanese well and are utterly unsurprised by it. I like being foreign. I didn’t cross oceans and continents to fit in: I can do that back home. I came here to be an outlier; I thrive on being exceptional. I especially like being selectively foreign — linguistically Japanese enough to produce and consume humor, but a total ignoramus when it suits my purposes. I like my gaijin pass. Being a normal Japanese person is tough like rural women. Social codes are a strait jacket; like ill-fitting clothes, I do not like them on me. Here, I can flout them and not be a jerk — I’m just eccentric.

One time, when I was a teenager, spending a holiday with a relative, I was told that if I didn’t behave, “I won’t take you out; I’ll leave you at home, alone”.
Home. Alone. With a blazing fast computer. And broadband Internet. And a massive-a$$ public library. Within walking distance. With interlibrary loan.

OH NO!!!

As you can imagine, I did everything in my power to get left home alone, that day and every other day that summer. Best. Punishment. Ever. 8

In Japanese society, the worst thing people can do to you isn’t to harm you: it’s to ignore you, to send you to Coventry, to 敬遠 you. In other words, in Japanese society, the worst thing people can do to you is leave you alone. As it turns out…that’s all I’ve ever wanted.


  1. Apparently there were two or three unsuccessful attempts on his life before the last, so…maybe…
  2. Channelling KRS One a bit here 😉
  3. Of whom Edward Gibbon eloquently opined (and I paraphrase): they ruled the world, but were unable to rule themselves.
  4. And Leopold could never have accomplished his feats of brutality without the cooperation of local, African actors.

    It’s not like Hitler was personally gassing anyone; he never personally killed or beat anyone — all he did was talk really mean from time to time. Which is probably why “hate speech” is such cause for concern, because it looks like that’s all it took — really harsh trash talk. I guess it shows the power of words…

    But it gets weirder. Jews persecuted in Germany (as in Russia and elsewhere) weren’t some nebulous transnational entity (“the Jews”); they weren’t foreigners; they weren’t outsiders. They were Germans, who were Jewish. Fully integrated into and in love with German culture and society, German native speakers with German names. They were friends, lovers and neighbors, doctors and teachers. Because of propaganda, because of hate speech, Germans turned on other Germans. And then, weirdly enough, more Germans, with names like Eisenhower (Eisenhauer), Nimitz, Spaatz and even Hitler are counter-attacking a Germany gone mad with hate.

    Fenelon was right. All wars really are civil wars 😉 .

  5. Of course, the danger with all this “nobody hates like family” logic is that sometimes people use it as carte blanche to justify cruelty. They’ll go: “there’s nothing wrong with us doing it to them; they do it to themselves, after all”.

    Again, there’s a lot of self-similarity (fractality?…yeah! I form abstract nouns like an American now — deal 😛 ) in this kind if behavior — it’s scale-invariant.

    It can go from:
    “There’s thing wrong with us bombing Europe — they bomb themselves after all”.
    All the way down to:
    “There’s nothing wrong with me treating these foster kids like free child labor. After all, I saved them from their good-for-nothing, drunken, drugged up, abusive, useless, incompetent parents — these darn kids should be grateful to me; I’m teaching them good, Christian values; I deserve to get something back; it’s just a few chores.”
    And, finally, in attenuated form, down to the benevolent “scholarship boy” condescension sometimes directed toward kids from low SES backgrounds who earn themselves scholarships to prestigious private schools.
    And so one can find oneself in a classic frying-pan-to-fire situation, as one cruelty justifies another in a sort of conveniently framed: “so what we killed a couple Jews? At least we made the trains run on time!” way.
    The point here is not to minimize, negate, deny or justify cruelty but to identify its most potent source. Unfortunately this source is often (though not always) very close to home.
  6. If anything, models should be the ones up in arms about airbrushing, not readers, because airbrushing basically says of the models: you’re defective, so we fixed ya up.

    In fact, so does make-up. Make-up is basically someone saying to themselves: I am ugly and miscolored, so I’m going to fix that with paints and oils. We can take this argumentum ad naturam all the way…

    For the record, I think au naturel women are gorgeous, the more natural the better, but I fail to see any justification for browbeating Cosmopolitan magazine into turning into some kind of half-hearted hippie Earth Mama operation, just to placate a couple of chicks who are unfamiliar with the complex scientific theory known as “read something else”.

  7. The TV show Friends is often criticized for “lacking diversity”…oh, yeah, because that’s all it would have taken to fix that show, more “color” — well, we have the UPN for that. No doubt, had Friends forcibly rainbowed itself up, then the next complaint would have been that be “the ethnic minority characters are unrealistically written”; you can’t win; it’s like living with a nag with no redeeming qualities — who doesn’t put out or even bake cookies 😛 !
  8. And whenever I was “rewarded” with an outing, I had those thick, plump, juicy library books with me.