Out of Japan: An innocent abroad in her own society

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - A friend, whom we shall call Nobuko, has shed a lot of tears over what it means to be Japanese.

When she was young, her father was transferred overseas, and she was educated in foreign schools, mostly in the US. At home she always spoke Japanese, and had never thought of herself as anything other than Japanese.

But when she returned to Japan to attend university, she felt more of a stranger than at any time when she was abroad. 'I realised there was so much I didn't know, or had forgotten, about being Japanese. It took me years to adjust, and even now there are times when I feel an outsider.'

What Nobuko had missed was not the primarily factual aspects of Japan, like the to-and-fro of domestic politics, popular music, television soap operas or the latest Tokyo fashions. These details can quickly be picked up. It was something more intangible - the thousand subtleties of Japanese social behaviour and the way each member of society is meant to find his or her place within that society.

How deeply one should bow to a person, depending on their relative seniority in the social hierarchy, for example. Or when one should voice one's opinions, and when it is better to remain silent. When one can order what one likes from a menu, and when one should simply order the same as the host. These social niceties are so ingrained in a person's upbringing that they are rarely mentioned explicitly. One is meant to intuit what social standing other people have - from their name card, the way they dress, the way other people around them behave in their presence.

But having absorbed some of the defiant individualism of America, Nobuko found herself hopelessly club-footed when she returned to the group-oriented society of the Land of Harmony, as Japanese refer to their country. The penalties for non-conformism range from gentle ridicule - 'are you a real Japanese?' to public humiliation and, the ultimate sanction, social exclusion. With many tearful nights behind her, Nobuko now feels she has more or less re-integrated herself into Japanese society. But although she is happy to be Japanese, she cannot avoid moments of bitterness over the way she was forced to turn many of the good aspects of her American experience on their head during her 'relearning experience'.

Nobuko belongs to a growing number of Kikoku Shijo, or returnees - Japanese who, usually because of a parent's work, have spent some of their formative years overseas. For a European, to study or work abroad, possibly picking up a foreign language in the process, is generally regarded as an advantage, broadening horizons, opening up the mind to different ways of thinking and behaving, different cultures, cuisines and shoe size calculations. For a Japanese, however, it is a liability.

It cannot be repeated often enough that up to the Meiji Restoration 120 years ago, Japan was totally closed to the outside world. Although changing gradually, the Japanese mind is still traditionally averse to outside influences. It is this conservatism which the returnees run smack into when they come back from overseas with their notions of individual liberty, women's rights and other potentially disruptive Western constructs.

Most returnees are women. There are male returnees as well, but parents tend to be less willing to jeopardise the future careers of their sons by bringing them up overseas, and as likely as not they leave them with relatives in Japan.

Frequently the 're-entry period' is at university age. But even supposedly open-minded centres of learning turn out to be difficult for returnees. Waseda, one of Tokyo's most prestigious universities, has put a lot of effort into attracting returnees, thinking that they would add to the diversity and richness of campus life.

But it emerged recently that there is an undercurrent of ill- feeling between the students who have slogged their way through Japan's 'examination hell' and those who have studied overseas, bypassing the cramming schools and late nights memorising repetitive homework. Anti-returnee graffiti were turning up in the lavatories, complaining among other things that the entry exams for returnees are too easy. As Nobuko puts it: 'It's not easy being Japanese.'