Have stereotypes, will travel

Up unreasonably early again this morning, and on the train to church I read the newspaper. The Daily Yomiuri has a section on Sunday of articles from The Times, so I usually flick through to that section first. Imagine my annoyance when the first headline that caught my eye was ‘The shattering of my dream to be the perfect expat wife in Tokyo’. It was subtitled, ‘Lucy Alexander discovered how hard it is for a Westerner to slip into Japanese society’.

I read the offending article, rolling my eyes and wondering why The Times was publishing this clichéd stuff, imagining that it was indeed by a self-styled ‘expat wife’, uprooted from her career in the UK to move to Japan for her husband’s work. It certainly read like that. It reminded me of some of the articles published as eyewitness accounts after the earthquake in March 2011, my personal favourite being this one: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatlife/8426171/A-tearful-sayonara-to-quake-hit-Japan.html .

But no. At home this evening I Googled her, only to find that she’s a professional journalist working in Tokyo, which makes me wonder, why is she misrepresenting herself simply as ‘expat wife’, and why is she peddling such stereotypes? She states early on in her article that, ‘I had moved from London to Tokyo six months previously, towing two toddlers and leaving behind family, friends and work . . . I was now an illiterate trailing spouse in a foreign country.’ Oh, where to start? First of all, I am offended on behalf of all the wonderful, strong women I know who have moved here because of their spouse’s work and channeled their considerable talents and energies into their lives here. Secondly, Ms. Alexander has not left behind her work, she is still very much working as a journalist in Tokyo, so why pretend otherwise?

The article makes a number of claims, all of which I disagree with. The first of her ridiculous statements is, ‘your average British or American woman in Tokyo does find that she is a public novelty.’ I have no idea what she or her acquaintances are doing but no, I do not find that and have not heard anyone I know say that either. I can only imagine that she is behaving in some way that Tokyoites find odd, maybe being extremely loud in public (I have been told to pipe down on a bus when I was chatting at a normal volume with a friend), or alternatively approaching people and speaking English instead of trying to speak Japanese. I don’t think any foreign resident in Tokyo feels like a public novelty; maybe in some rural areas that is the case, I don’t know. Tokyo is a huge international city and no one is going to react with much interest to the sight of one of us going about our day.

Next, there is a reference to ‘the salaryman reading porn manga, . . . the teenager wearing a Victorian crinoline and surgical facemask, with black tears pencilled onto her cheeks’. Right then, to unpack all these images; yes, there is some disturbing porn in manga (graphic novel) form, as I am sure there is in many other countries. The difference in Japan appears to be two-fold; it is readily available and not sold shrink-wrapped, and it is also acceptable to read this kind of material in public, or at least it is possible to read it without anyone taking you to task. I wonder what would happen to the hapless commuter on the Tube with the same taste in reading matter. While it is certainly objectionable to realise that the man standing or sitting next to you is engrossed in such manga, you are far more likely to see him reading one of the so-called sports newspapers, which are published in two different editions. There is one for home delivery, containing sport and tabloid fodder, then there is the other edition, sold at station kiosks, convenience stores etc. which contains the same plus photographs of young women in a state of undress and spread-eagled in a fashion their gynaecologists would be familiar with. These newspapers are the same size as broadsheets, so someone reading one may choose to fold the pages to make them more manageable, in which case you could find yourself suddenly staring at these very unpleasant and quite explicit photos.

The teenager in Victorian crinoline . . . I think she is confused, I don’t think I have ever seen anyone actually wearing such a contraption, but what is quite a common sight, particularly around Harajuku and Shibuya, is young women dressed in a style known as ‘Gothic Lolita’. There are many different sub-genres of Lolita fashion, which has its roots in anime culture but also owes something to Marie Antoinette, apparently. It has nothing to do with the Nabokov novel of the same name. Someone dressed as a Gothic Lolita would wear mainly black and white frilly or lacy elaborate costumes, accessorised with vampy make-up and the odd crucifix or two. No crinoline, though, but plenty of corsetry. The facemask, again, is a common sight here, people wear them to protect themselves from cold and ‘flu germs in the winter (or to protect other people if they are already ill), or to try to block out tree pollen in the spring.

Now I come to what I found the most irritating of all the article’s claims; ‘it is true that Japanese and Westerners rarely socialise because of the profound differences between the Japanese and English languages, the rigid and highly complex set of social rules by which most Japanese govern their behaviour and Western laziness and arrogance.’ Where to start . . . may I ask, if you are reading this in a country where you are a citizen, how many foreign residents do you know? How many friends do you have who are not the same nationality as you? Should someone move from their country to yours and live next door to you, would you befriend them immediately and invite them into your home? Would you push through all the cultural differences at breakneck speed and know them well in a matter of a few short months? No? What this article is ascribing to a yawning chasm of cultural differences so wide no one can get over it, seems to me to be nothing more than human nature. British and Japanese people have some similarities and I would say that one is a general reticence and reluctance to be instantly friendly with people. It’s something pointed out as a foible of American behaviour, this alarmingly speedy commitment to friendship. Japanese people don’t invite each other into their homes much, do you know how small Japanese homes can be? It is far more usual to meet somewhere and go out for a meal, shopping or coffee.

From there, the article degenerates into references to expat wives who ‘may not be actually psychotic but many do develop mild neuroses’, and tales of sordid goings-on at hostess bars. I’m sure it’s an entertaining read for someone not familiar with Japan, but like the BBC articles and reports I’ve taken issue with before, it just isn’t true. The anecdotes in this article are just that, but the journalist has extrapolated a whole culture after being here only a few short months.

I’ve called Japan home for twenty years, and I have a lot of wonderful Japanese friends, but in many cases I haven’t been to their homes, nor have they been to mine. It’s an issue of space, not an unwillingness to socialise. When I first arrived in Japan it did take a while to get to know people, and when I moved to a new job it took time to make friends, but the friendships I have made are with some of the most generous, caring and wonderful people I have ever met. I believe a Japanese person moving to the UK and living my experiences in reverse would have had a similar experience. Sometimes it takes time, but it’s worth it.


12 thoughts on “Have stereotypes, will travel

  1. Tania Fragnito

    Thanks for your sharing your insights! It is always quicker, easier and more sensationalistic for people to focus on differences rather than taking the time to look deeper and seek commonality!

  2. tokyopurplegirl Post author

    I agree! But looking deeper, even though it takes longer and is more demanding, is equally rewarding. If this article truly reflects her experiences then I feel sorry for her, because she is missing out on so much.

  3. Michèle Ouellet

    Thanks for saving me the trouble of writing some kind of rebuttal.
    I am a Canadian wife living in Tokyo for close to six years now and found that article so annoying… I do have Japanese friends. I have been to some of their houses and they to mine, but seldom of course. I find Japanese women pleasant, curious and quite easy to get along with. I think perhaps Ms Alexander’s problem has to do with the concept of an expat. It may be difficult to have both a British circle and a Japanese circle. We made a conscious choice to live in a building where most people are Japanese, I think that makes a difference.
    Finally, in all fairness, I don’t have small children so my situation may be easier…

    1. tokyopurplegirl Post author

      Thank you for your comment, Michèle, and for reading my blog. I’m glad I wasn’t the only person to be so annoyed by the article. Unfortunately I think it was just lazy journalism, there seems to be an appetite for these kind of stories in the British media. The BBC has them too, but I try to blog about misleading stereotypes whenever I see them. I’m also glad to hear that your experience is so much more positive, I think more people would agree with you than with Ms. Alexander.

  4. Dutchy

    Getting “shushed” for talking too loud doesn’t only happen in Japan, it’s also happened to me and my friends in a Dutch canal boat.

  5. Steve

    I just read this article and I too am disgusted. Im glad others think so too. I was rather taken aback by the random inclusion of Hong Kong expats as if that has any relation to Japan. I Live in Japan and i will grant i saw the grains of truth in what she said; I dont know any gaijin who hasn’t found someone unwilling to sit next to them on a train at some point, I know the isolated feeling you can have sometimes and the fact Japan is a very genderised (Is that a word?) society. However, how was this woman given any time to write her aimless, insulting, blind article I will never know!

  6. writer

    Hello – I’m the writer of this article and I just wanted to say to you and your readers that I actually agree with some of your points here. The article appeared in a way that was rather different to my original intention, and much was left out that would have made it more balanced. This is an occupational hazard for freelance journalists. My apologies for what clearly appeared to be crude stereotypes.

    1. tokyopurplegirl Post author

      Hello Lucy,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and also comment. It sounds like you were edited by someone else to entertain and cater to stereotypes, and the article created impressions you didn’t intend. I do hope you enjoy your life in Japan and make some good Japanese friends, this really is a wonderful place to live.

  7. Nicholas

    A great piece, as ever. I started out in Japan in the countryside in 1991 when the kids did point at me in the street, though was struck when returning a few years later to notice that no one did any more. As you say, you’d have to be pretty obnoxious to be a “novelty” in Tokyo circa 2013. Here’s hoping she gets out of the Roppongi bubble, dips in a hot spring and chills out soon!


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