Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Things I Learned in Japan #2: "Uchi/Soto and where Gaijin fit in"

This blog has been over TWO WEEKS in the making. Please enjoy and please don't mind how text-heavy it is. >_<

**note: the opinions here, which should be pretty obvious, are based on my own experiences and should not be taken for 100% fact. These are purely my own opinions!!!

Also, ALL PICTURES ARE MINE. You steal = i kill you. Kapeesh?!**

I added some wannabe-related photos to break up the text. haha.
Happy reading!

Uchi/Soto and where Gaijin fit in

Now here is a fun topic. I'll start off, as I think will be a trend, explaining the title.
Uchi/Soto is the concept of "inside" or "uchi (内) and "outside" or "soto(外)". It's essentially referring to groups/cliques/whatever that are formed between people. "Gaijin" or "outside-person(外人) is the word used to foreigners, tourists, or, in some cases, non-Japanese citizens of Japan (ie: just because you've lived in Japan all your life, speak native-level Japanese, have a Japanese passport, and swear your loyalty to nippon, you are NOT Japanese unless your parents and pretty much everyone else in your family were Japanese. Ethnocentric much?!)

semi-blurry photo of the Supports Seats at the Kashima Antler's Stadium :]

I've read parts of the wikipedia article and I just don't think it's written well enough to essentially cover uchi/soto in all of its complexity. It's the art of group-forming, but groups that go deep enough to affect essentially every aspect of Japanese life. Your loyalty is to your group. And any other group you find yourself in. And any group you want to be a part of. Think high school cliques, only wayyy more complicated.

I had read a little bit about this concept before I jump major landmasses and landed in Tokyo. But I didn't realize how deep this ran until I could speak Japanese a little and witnessed this concept in school and within my host families.

To help make this easier to understand, here is a list of links discussing this topic where you can find more information:

At Home In Japan by Jane Bachnik. - THISSS website is amazing. SO thorough and teaches you so much. If you are going to Japan and doing a homestay, PLEASE check this out. It's a great orientation and it shows you so many real-life situations that I was able to avoid because I knew this concept before I went.

Uchi/Soto in terms of grammar - A very interesting article that I recommend for those who are studying Japanese. It's quick and not completely in-depth but it introduces a new concept.

Uchi-Soto from kirainet - Interesting article but has one major point I will counter later about the workplace in Japan.

Japanese Culture: A Primer For Newcomers - An interesting site covering many different parts of culture shock encountered in Japan, such as: the gaijin complex and uchi/soto.

There are TONS and TONS and TONS of resources about this subject and I highly recommend anyone living in Japan for any period of time learn a little bit about this because you will encounter it.

You will find it in the workplace. People who say Japan has the most effect work ethic are full of shit, in my opinion. The fact is, rank determines everything, including if you're uchi or soto(see upcoming post on ranking, whenever that gets done). Based on this uchi/soto complex, lots of bullying happens and is even allowed. Hana from Finding Tokyo recently was kind enough to leave a comment on my last "Things I Learned in Japan" post about mistakes. In that comment she mentioned her opinions on some of the bullying that happens - "not speaking to someone/ignoring, leaving small things on someone`s desk, spreading nasty rumors to hurt their reputation or trying to get someone to quit so you don`t have to fire them etc".

view of some building I was in in Shinagawa. 3rd day in Japan! hah

When you join a company, you become "uchi" - part of the group. Of course, there are ranking within the company determine everything and separate you further. Japanese people are pretty cliquey, so getting into the "right" group (think: "right" uchi) is important. However, once you've done something to upset the balance of the group, good luck being included in anything again.

People who are "uchi" are considered part of the decision-making process and the "all-harmonious" idea that everyone must agree before moving on. However, this also leads to some people never speaking up for fear of "breaking the mold" and having to become "soto" again.

In Schools:
I really noticed this within my high school in Japan - your group is your group and you hardly ever break out of it. For example, most of my year, I ate in my homeroom with my friends. Now, my first group was comprised of many girls who floated back and forth. BUT, in my second homeroom, I ate with the same 5 girls everyday. We pushed our desks together in the same way. Sat in the same chairs. We left in groups. But occasionally, girls from other classes would come and sit with us. The atmosphere would definitely sour in a "Well, it's okay that she sits here, but this is our group" kind of way.

There also was the very apparent loyalty to the homeroom. Your homeroom is your family. When we lined up for roll call in gym, it was by homeroom. Where we sat in the auditorium was determined by homeroom. We were signed a three digit number - our year, homeroom, and student number. When we had papers returned to us from teachers, they gave it to our homeroom teacher. It was our group, our "uchi".
three of the girls from my homeroom during our last Long Home Room before summer break.

It is important, just like in work, to keep the harmony between friends. My friends homeroom's group was pretty much dismantled after I changed host families and no longer had a bentou prepared for me every day, which meant I had to go buy lunch in the cafeteria. This divided my friends and it was completely my fault. So what did I do? Take the Japanese way out and switched to buying bread and a drink from the cafeteria and eating it in my homeroom. I did this so my friends wouldn't have to break into the 食堂("shokudou" or "cafeteria") and 教室("kyoushitsu" or classroom) groups. It sucked. I would have really killed for some ramen many days, but it was worth it to keep the peace.

Within the Government:
This is the part when my frustration with parts of Japan comes in. (Before I start, I was the editor of my high school's newspaper and fought tooth and nail, time after time, to ensure that we had freedom of the press. I wanted us to be able to print what we want, how we want, when we wanted to do it. So my liberal bias will show, hah) Japanese news is reported very nicely. They hardly ever cover things that portray the government in a truly negative light because well, you just don't do that in Japan.

Check out this article from 2008 in the New York Times. Also check these two wikipedia articles: Censorship in Japan and Censorship in the Empire of Japan. Here is another article from Greenpeace about the whaling program in Japan.
View of Tokyo and Fuji-san from Tokyo Tower.

Here's the most simple way to put it - the Japanese government censors the news and media under the impression that it "keeps the peace". I discussed this with a gaijin at my school (he gave me Japanese lessons, but he was really an English teacher) and one of my host dads and we all pretty much had the same conclusion - it really amounts to nothing more than the desire for control. Anyone who has lived in Japan and had experience with the school system can vouch that the Japanese government definitely does not push for fluency in English as many other countries do. While this is just my take, it's worth mentioning: If Japan pushed for English education, more Japanese would be fluent, could read the world news, realize the Japanese government obscures the truth and occasionally flat-out lies to their citizens, and would get mad and probably retaliate against the corrupt politicians.

And here is where the uchi and soto come in. The "Uchi" is the government and those involved with it. They are in the "know" and therefore, in control. The "Soto" are the citizens of Japan - who apparently are "too delicate" to be in the know.

Foreigners in Japan and out of Japan: 

It was my experience that Japanese people have a very outdated view on their relationship with the rest of the world. Japanese people seem to have this opinion that Japan is succcccchhhh a traditional and suuuuucccchhhh a different country and that Japanese is just sooooooooo hard that the possibility of a non-Japanese person understanding Japan and speaking Japanese like a REAL Japanese people just doesn't exist.

It's from as simple things as the foods Japanese people can eat (my first host mom told me Japanese stomachs were "too sensitive" for most spicy foods) to things as complicated as understanding key parts of Japanese culture (I was once told that Non-Japanese cannot understand the concept of wabi-sabi).
View of the loads of people at Ise-Jinguu in Mie Prefecture.

Japanese people who have lived in Tokyo for periods of time are generally used to foreigners. And probably have some experience with foreigners who can speak a decent level of Japanese. Almost all Japanese are used to foreigners as tourists. However, leave the boundaries of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, or the major cities and go to the country, it is a completely different feel.

I lived in Ibaraki-ken, located north of Tokyo (about 2 hours by train, 1 hour by high-way bus) and there were not, absolutely not, many foreigners there. And so close to Tokyo!!! When I was in my uniform and riding my bike to school, I got a lot of strange looks. When I spoke to people at the end of my exchange (by then I was speaking at a conversational level with extensive knowledge of Japanese manners from my Japanese teacher), I often got compliments on how "Japanese-like" my Japanese was. I, personally, really took the time to learn the Japanese way, so I could exist as peacefully as possible.

And this is where I encountered racism, as well. My last host parents had lived abroad in Fiji and New Zealand. They had originally taken me in with the impression that I didn't speak Japanese and that I could teach them English (little did they know, I came to Japan for the sole purpose OF speaking Japanese). My host dad would often lecture me about how I was wasting my exchange because all I wanted was to study Japanese and didn't spend enough time studying the "real Japan" (whatever that is). He told me I should stop studying Japanese because I couldn't understand the "real meaning".

He had me in tears at one point, really wishing I could do something or maybe even go home early (scary, I know). I talked it over with my teacher and he gave me something to think about: for me, a young, obviously independent, strong-willed American to come to Japan and studying not only the Japanese language, but the way Japanese is spoken and to speak Japanese with little accent and in a very Japanese-like way could be just uncomfortable for some Japanese.

After-all, only Japanese people can speak Japanese, especially like a Japanese person.

On the world scare, "Uchi" is Japan and Japanese-descendant Japanese-born people. "Soto" is the rest of the world. Japanese people abroad still refer to non-Japanese people as "gaikokujin (外国人)" or "outside-country-person". Why? Wouldn't the act of being abroad make them the gaijin? Well, not in the Japanese perspective.

It is not that we are not welcome in Japan. It is just that it will be a long time before we are truly accepted. Even if you live, look, act, talk and walk like a Japanese, if you are a gaijin, you will always be a gaijin. When I was in a car accident, I had to talk to the police. The police ONLY talked to the lady who had hit me and REFUSED and flat-out IGNORED me when I tried to tell my side of the story - that I did not "hit her", but she sped through the stop sign, didn't even slow down, and hit me on my bike! But because I was a gaijin, it was assumed I could not speak any Japanese and I was completely disregarded in the case.

However, I will say, that being a white gaijin has it's benefits. Here is the wiki article on ethnic issues in Japan. I could seriously talk about this topic alone for a whole 15 posts worth.

Article on Japanese roots.
Arudou Debito's Website - The website of a non-Japanese man who fights and advocates for rights and ways to end racism/discrimination/prejudice against non-Japanese in Japan. Many interesting articles to read.

With all this being said, JAPAN IS AN AWESOME COUNTRY. There is so much to learn and talk about, I feel like part of my responsibility for having lived in it and studied it first-hand, is to inform and educate people. I love Japan - I plan on living there.

So, lets get a discussion going!
  • Have you had any experiences with uchi/soto?
  • Is there something similar in your culture?
  • What do you think about this concept? Could you live with it?
For those living in Japan,
  • Have you ever felt the pressures of xenophobia or racism?
  • Do you think it's better for non-Japanese to speak Japanese or just speak English?
  • Do you feel accepted in Japan?

And here's an un-related but kind of related question, should I do a post about racism in Japan? I have a few more examples of discrimination and/or funny tidbits of things that happened purely because I was a gaijin. Or, maybe a post further explaining relationships between non-japanese and japanese?

Let me know!!!

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