It has been 5 years since South Africa. I’ve grown so much as an academic and person from that experience. I made friendships for life, but I also got to know myself so well, that I feared looking in the mirror for the longest time. I changed physically and mentally for the better. I was forced to accept my racial, cultural and academic background which I’ve never had to deal with. Here in this African country, the whole package had suddenly determined me as a person. No matter how many times I’d try to convince others that I was the person who I was, they still determined me as the other I didn’t want myself to be. I could never be them, us, and I was utterly disappointed by the fact that I was excluded regardless how hard I’d tried. But come to think of it, of course I could never be them. I am the other and there is no way I could be them after just 6 months. That Western privilege blinded me heavily.
South Africa was also the place where I saw diversity in depth. I chose that subject by default, and it opened my eyes in every possible way. It is blunt to think that there is no diversity plainly looking at their physical appearance. They speak different languages, they come from different townships, they have different traditions and rituals: they are so much more diverse than judging by their skin color. Looking back at my experience and research, I was so selfishly looking for answers that I was ignoring everything around me. I kept chasing in circles, because I thought I was running out of time and I ended up being misled by my colorblind glasses. The greatest lesson I’ve learned from that country is that I have to accept the truth of systematic racism and carry on from there.
‘You look at them, do you think, ahhh they are all the same? No man, he is from Limpopo, he is from Sesotho and he is from Kimberley. We all speak other languages. And, that guy over there, yes he is white, and no he doesn’t speak Afrikaans. He is from Zimbabwe. So let me ask you again, Felicia, what do you want to research?’
Fast forward 5 years later I am on a different continent taking up a different social position, again as an outsider, but now as a laborer. I am grateful for my South African experiences, because now I know what to look for in a homogenous looking environment. Japan keeps surprising me, continuously. Let’s start with the obvious: The attitude towards the gaijins (foreigners, 外人) is alienating them. I don’t like to use that word, gaijin, and honestly, I have never heard anyone saying that to me. I do find it fascinating how words can describe the person. 外人 means literally, outside person – outsider. And, I can sense the meaning from the briefest, innocent moments, in my daily life. In example, Japanese people like to react explosively happy when you tell them you are from France or Sweden or Holland. Over the years I have grown accustomed to the “Ah, cool” responses, or even the “I don’t care” faces, but the Japanese over-exaggerate every sentiment, giving me the feeling that I am really special, but in fact we are simply different from them. I feel like it is merely an obsession with the ‘other’, yet afraid of the unknown. Along the years we all know what fear can do to people individually and collectively. Looking at the numbers of the Japanese immigration, it is not surprising what kind of stance they are taking towards the unknown. They have zero to none refugees and, again, obtaining a visa is winning a lottery. Have a seat in the immigration bureau for an afternoon and you will see the profiters and non-profiters segregating the room. Japan fears for the unknown for so long, with the eyes on Olympics 2020, the anxiety just increases. They are fearful for the rising crime rates, and how the whole public transport system will be disrupted by the flood of foreigners and tourists.
The sameness, repetition, dictates the Tokyo society. Everything needs to be in order and everyone has to follow the orders. If we all respect the rules, why would we worry about the outcome? Treat others like how you want to be treated. That is how a society should function and that is also the lowest risk for accidents and mistakes. The sameness, which is rooted in their rich history, has now been harassed by the “otherness’. Fighting against and finally surrendering themselves to globalization have happened over the years behind the scenes. Because it happened backstage, they adopt the “Nothing to see here.” attitude at the front stage. Whether ‘globalization’ is a Western definition of dominance and power relations, it was a matter of time that Japan got affected by the Western world. Latest researches conclude that Japanese women are standing up for themselves more often and choosing their career over marriages which they call it a Western concept. And the patriarchy is sulking under the threat of this female power wave.
Yet, once in a while, Tokyo does show its diverse, happy face to the public. The Tokyo Pride was a great example how the public accepted the Pride Walk that was marching down the road in the neighborhood of Harajuku, the Japanese fashion mecca where identity is genderless. A rare moment where different subcultures come together as one and celebrating something beautiful. The dynamics within the society is still something I can’t grasp. On the surface I found a homogenous patriarchy, but when I went deeper, I was surprised how tolerable and helpful they are when it comes to the human body. They respect your choice and won’t question you, because when they put on their uniform, they act and assist you on a professional level. At times I think the Tokyo society dates back to the prehistoric, but other times they are ahead beyond imagination. That makes the city, the country, so interesting. In contrary of the whole world thinking that Tokyo is all about technology and controlled by robots and Gundams, the capital is still evolving on its own terms. Whether they want to preserve their own culture or showing themselves to the outside world in the upcoming Olympics, it is the deeper layer that shows its true face.
‘We came from so far to reach to this point. I don’t like when people come to Tokyo and all they think is Shibuya crossing, Akihabara and that we are crazily obsessed with technology. Why do you romanticize a city that is all about hard working people? Do you think we are surrounded by robots? I despise those people who come here with such an attitude.’
Written by Felicia Mok
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