The slow burn of racism on Japan’s singular identity

Politeness is a common, sometimes overwhelming sentiment experienced by nearly all foreign residents and travelers to Japan.  It comes in many forms, at every step in any process, with varying degrees of sincerity and obligation, but never waivers in its routine or execution.  All of which makes the disturbing release this week, by Japan’s Public Broadcaster NHK, of a video purportedly for the purpose of educating the Japanese public to the reasons behind the current civil unrest across America, which was itself shockingly and thoroughly racist, all the more disappointing.  Never mind that the clip’s sole focus on income disparity and impact of the corona virus reflects a replete ignorance of the actual issues underpinning the foundations of institutional racism and its devastating effects.  And while the timing of its release couldn’t have been more inappropriate, the abhorrent characterizations and racial stereotypes depicted in the video should surprise absolutely no one who’s spent any time living here in Japan.

Racism in Japan is ever present, often benign, and usually wrapped neatly in an apologetic veil of extreme politeness.  This is the country where someone may refuse you entry because the cultural or linguistic barriers preclude them from providing you their usual ‘high standard’ of service.  Even after explaining in flawless Japanese that my 33 years living in Japan will likely result in no negative issues, I can still be met with a smile and polite nod acknowledging their previous request of me to take my business elsewhere.  The occasional appearance of Japanese comedians and performers in blackface seems somehow no more egregious than the Tokyo ramen shop owner who banned all foreigners from his establishment to protect his family from Corona virus.  Hell, even the Japanese government will allow Japanese citizens traveling abroad to return but won’t allow foreign permanent residence card holders (even those with Japanese spouses) back into the country… seemingly implying that even our friend Corona has racial preferences.

When you tally it all up with Japan’s unwillingness to acknowledge or atone for its wartime aggressions in any meaningful way, its mistreatment of generations of Korean residents who have only ever known Japan as home but have no path to citizenship, and its only very recent and tacit acknowledgement that its own indigenous Ainu people are in some way now acknowledged as Japanese citizens (sort of),  it’s frankly exhausting.  For a country mired in decades of economic stagnation, stifled by a bourgeoning social welfare system,  aging populous, and ever depleted industrial and agricultural workforce; Japan is in desperate need of foreign labor across the spectrum, from progressive and innovative corporate managers to nursing and elderly care staff and farmers to factory workers.

Sadly though, this is a country that views the unfamiliar with a suspicious eye and resists meaningful change above all else.  Our companies rarely fail spectacularly but never win big.  That safe spot in the middle of the road, with our blinders firmly in place which permits us to focus on just that one thing in our line of vision… and allows us the ability to claim ignorance to any peripheral damage that’s sure to ensue.   All while bowing our heads politely, of course.   

The roadmap to corporate Nirvana… now pass the secret sauce

The void into which all the world’s immediate allotment of logic and reason is beautifully packaged in a veneer of overwhelming politeness just before being jettisoned into the hinterlands of the never-to-be-seen-again, now stares me down on a daily basis.  Or, what happened when I agreed to put my photographic life on hold and move to rural Japan to develop a luxury travel brand for a regional conglomerate company.  

Everyone who’s ever spent more than two minutes living in Japan has an opinion about it, and many of those have written books on the subject.  They come in all forms… the starry-eyed just arrived defenders of all things beautifully ‘Japan’, the angry angst filled resident who after 20 years in the country is still teaching English to housewives, and the callous corporate slugs who realized all too quickly that being ‘foreign’ has its advantages.  So why listen to me?  Why should my opinions carry more weight than someone else’s?  I certainly don’t claim to be smarter or more successful than anyone else.  In fact, the last 15 years of my life have been a steady march of reduction and simplification… an acknowledgement that for me, the fewer distractions and less noise the greater the clarity.

Japan is a uniquely odd duck, but it’s incredibly simple when viewed for what it actually is as opposed to what we all wish it were.  Decades removed from the false promises of the ‘glory days’ of it’s hyper-inflated real estate market driven bubble economy, we still can’t fully admit that there was no secret sauce… that the Japanese never had the road map to corporate nirvana.  And while these myths have been replaced over time by the ugly realities of corporate Japan’s static and inflexible bureaucratic nature in the eyes of the west, the Japanese have continued, well, being Japanese.  Corporate Japan is not about striving for success, it’s about the endless march to mediocracy. 

When logic, efficiency, and effectiveness are removed as guiding corporate principles, what remains?  In Japan the answer is history, culture, and a determined resolve to repeat or regurgitate in some form what they have done in the past.  As has been pointed out in a dizzying array of articles from the NY Times, to The Atlantic, and just about everyone in-between, corporate Japan is dependent upon just (2) technologies, one is a 40 year old technology (fax machines), the other is more than 3000 years old (inkan/hanko) personal stamps.  No documents can be considered official or legally binding in Japan until every individual & corporation involved has stamped the document (original and all copies).  In most cases the stamp alone is not sufficient and must be accompanied by a separate document from the local city office, generated within the last 90 days, certifying that the stamp you used actually belongs to you.  And why fax machines, you ask?  Well according to most people, the justification generally tends to be that a fax cannot be deleted.  This, of course, requires the ability to draw a clear line of delineation between the acts of deleting and throwing away or fading over time.  The inherent flaws of such outdated technologies came to a head when Japan found itself incapable of implementing ‘work from home’ strategies during the recent Coronavirus state of emergency as no documents could be stamped and therefor remained ‘unofficial’.

Japan is a country where meetings are plentiful and never short in duration, but not for the reasons you might suspect.  While meetings are often formats for soliciting one’s opinion, the meeting itself is not a vehicle for resolving any particular issue; it’s simply the platform from which the predetermined decision is delivered to everyone involved.  Soliciting an employee’s opinion in Japan is more an exercise in being able to say you asked rather than any genuine attempt to search for a better idea.  Even in a pandemic vexed 2020 with little to no future visible on the horizon, Japan remains all about not rocking the boat, not reaching too far, and not stepping out of line.  They still prefer to focus on token progress like allowing employees to forgo neckties and jackets during summer months or loosening restrictions on female employee’s dying their hair and painting their nails, rather than implementing a single strategy or technology that could double productivity in half the number of man hours.  Corporate Japan is less about individual productivity than an individual’s willingness to sacrifice self for group…  a concept that would seem far less sinister if it weren’t for Japanese managers and their penchant for watching underlings swim hopelessly against the oncoming tide rather than establishing the platforms most likely to ensure their success.  Success and effort are equally valued traits in Japan, but success without considerable effort is generally frowned upon or viewed with a certain degree of suspicion.

I’ve spent 33 years living in and loving Japan and there is a lot to love.  Traditional corporate culture remains that stubborn immoveable object which threatens to drag everything beautiful about Japan into the inescapable abyss of irrelevance… and I’m pretty sure they’re just fine with that.  

For me, let’s just say that my cameras are never too far out of reach.

Those First Impressions: Istanbul

The first sentence of Lafcadio Hearn’s, ‘My First Day in the Orient,’ reads, “Do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible …They are evanescent, you know: they will never come to you again, once they have faded out; and yet of all the strange sensations you may receive in this country you will feel none so charming as these.”  Although Hearn was quoting a teacher he had met shortly upon his arrival in Japan, these words have stayed with me and I carry them close whenever I travel.  

On few occasions have I felt the urgency to pen these impressions the moment they came tumbling out as I did the night I arrived in Istanbul.  Standing on a crowded platform,  bags of luggage in hand tired and cold, i furiously typed onto my phone this vivid bombardment of socio-cultural stimuli.  It was late evening rush hour and everything felt tense… uneasy even.  I felt an endless stream of suspicious eyes being cast upon me.  The environment on the platform seemed disappointingly less than friendly and ‘customer service’ fell far short of what i’d grown accustom to back in Japan.  I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have flipped for a taxi from the airport.  It wasn’t until I got on the train that I realized everyone around me wasn’t disgruntled, just worn by a long days work.  Turkish women are eclectically attractive.  Seemingly unable to adhere to a specific schedule, the tram was late and very crowded making my bags and I somewhat less welcomed.  I hear the evening call to prayer echoing through the streets as we go rumbling by… the rhythmic clacking of the rails as our car gently sways back and forth.  It’s an oddly calming almost hypnotic combination that pushes me into a near out of body existence if only for the very briefest of moments.  Some 20 stops later and the crowd has thinned out.  A group of badly behaved boys, who will one day be twelve have boarded and are climbing on seats(with people in them) making noise and begging for money… passengers are completely tolerant, no one gets upset, no dirty looks or impromptu scoldings.  Im tired, hungry, and still have another 10 or so stops to go…

The arrival of the inevitable goodbye

Dialogue between a 53 year old father and his just turned 4 year old son is sometimes tenuous and always meaningful.   When that dialogue is weighted heavily in hello’s and goodbye’s it becomes all the more fragile and complex.  Whatever issues over the years which resulted in the two of us living so far apart have long since faded and I am left with only 3 emotions when it comes to you… the angst of wondering when I will see you next, the joy of every minute we have together, and the deep abyss which envelopes me every time we say goodbye.  So we part again, my little one… you on my keychain firmly attached to my heart, and I filling with the angst of wandering and wondering when I will see you next.

Those First Impressions: Abu Dhabi

The first sentence of Lafcadio Hearn’s, ‘My First Day in the Orient,’ reads, “Do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible …They are evanescent, you know: they will never come to you again, once they have faded out; and yet of all the strange sensations you may receive in this country you will feel none so charming as these.” Although Hearn was quoting a teacher he had met shortly upon his arrival in Japan, these words have stayed with me and I carry them close whenever I travel.

Having received the unexpected complimentary upgrade to business class on my flight from Frankfurt, I wanted to give myself the opportunity of decompressing over a few cups of coffee at the airport lounge upon my early morning arrival.  It was important for me to gather these first impressions free of the six hours of undeserved pampering i’d just received.  The airport taxis are large and spacious providing an almost disconcerting amount room in which to stretch out.  My driver, from India, was very polite efficient and a genuinely nice guy.  My first impressions of Abu Dhabi, forged mostly during the fourty minute drive to my hotel were surprisingly not what I had expected.  Gratefully falling short of the endless starchitectural landscape of neighboring Dubai, the drive across Abu Dhabi was eerily familiar to me… I had been here before.  Indeed, this was every trip I had ever made to visit my grandparents in Arizona.  That hour long drive from the airport in Phoenix to their home in Sun City came rushing back to me in all the most wondrous of ways.  

Abu Dhabi is a landscape built for automobiles with more foreigners on the road than locals.  It feels far more like Arizona than the Arabian peninsula.  Traffic is indeed a bitch at 7AM.  A low lying smog(or more likely sand) hangs in the air while drivers are tangled in the politely aggressive tango of getting where they need to be.  I need a shower.  I can’t help but noticing the occasional van filled with migrant laborers being shuttled off to some construction site where they are undoubtedly working for sub-standard wages which still presents a better option than what they could have earned in their homelands.  I try to push aside the inner conflict and focus on the fact that I am in Abu-freaking-Dhabi!  I really need a shower.  

Groovy, if not mis-matched architecture dots the landscape and construction sites abound.  The Grand Mosque appears on the horizon dominating the landscape like an oddly comforting alien craft that has gently landed integrating itself into the hearts and minds of all who see it.  Gazing upon it for the first time in this morning light is intoxicating to say the very least.

Everyone is so accommodating, genuinely welcoming… I was expecting excellent ‘customer service’, but what I found was something far less pretentious and much more genuine.  It’s hard not to smile.

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