Don't Ask Me... I'm Japanese

(this article first appeared in the august 23, 2004 issue of newsweek international)

One recent morning I got a phone call from a TV production company. "We're discussing Japanese baseball," chirped a young woman. "We'd love to interview one of your writers." I knew exactly where this was going. "Well, I've written about baseball," I said, playing along. She hesitated, trying to figure out how to break it to me. "But you are... Japanese. We need a foreigner's take."

Of course. Working for an American magazine in Tokyo, we get asked all the time for "a foreigner's take" on everything from Japan's defense policies and showbiz gossip to the imperial family. It doesn't matter who utters those opinions as long as he or she is a foreigner. We Japanese love hearing what foreigners think of us -- and crave approval. The local press went wild in June over how Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stood front and center among the G8 leaders at Sea Island, Georgia, not off to the side as usual. It confirmed his importance -- and Japan's.

I call it national insecurity. It's not new, of course, and probably dates back to 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay and pried open the Japanese cultural clam. Old habits die hard. Today we have a big earthquake or an election, and the next day there are prominent articles in the Japanese papers detailing how the foreign media reported it. It's healthy to be curious, but is a natural disaster or major political event somehow less significant if foreigners fail to take notice?

My mother has a saying. "In kimono," she will intone, trying to persuade me to wear traditional garb, "you'll never feel embarrassed when surrounded by foreigners." "What foreigners?" I'll reply. "Where?" Never mind that I'm never embarrassed anywhere, even in jeans. Perhaps she imagines the foreigners to be big, beautifully dressed people who might embarrass merely by towering over me. According to Yoko Kunihiro, a Tokyo sociologist who studies racial stereotyping, "foreigners" are mostly Westerners, usually Americans armed with the Hollywood and Marlboro Man consumer cachet?"the beings," as she puts it, "that we have been working hard to catch up with."

Obviously, just like Japanese, some foreigners are witty, others dull. Yet for reasons that elude me, their opinions are presumed to be somehow better than those of the Japanese. Or maybe they're just different, a safe departure from the old Japanese illusion that we live in a homogeneous society, with little to distinguish among us. "I'm thrilled that people seek out diverse opinions," says Kunihiro. "But I am troubled that they feel they must turn to foreigners for them."

Even more perplexing is the sense that foreigners possess a mysterious ability to achieve what Japanese can't. Gone are the self-confident glory days of Japan Inc. In their place comes gaiatsu, or external pressure, the push from abroad that forces Japanese officials to undertake essential social and economic reforms that they would otherwise be unwilling to tackle. When the Lebanese-Brazilian-French CEO Carlos Ghosn turned Nissan Motor Co. around, I don't know how many Japanese said: "Only a foreigner could do it." As if Ghosn had succeeded because of his gaijin-ness, not his vision and determination. Just the other day the star of the Japanese national volleyball team explained the failure to make it to Athens: we must hire a "foreign coach" to improve our game.

Maybe I take this too personally. I remember another phone call, long ago, from a reporter inquiring about an article I'd written. "Are you sure you want to talk to me? I'm Japanese," I blurted out. There was a dead silence -- and I hung up.

(c) 2004 newsweek, inc. and kay itoi

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