Like Douglas Adams’ deadlines, recently the milestones keep making great whooshing noises as they go by. This is both my ninth month in Japan and my 200th post on ten minutes hate and, although it has been a mad rush of a week after the previous serene holiday temple wanderings, that seems to offer enough of a reason to stop and survey the scenery.
So already pondering my navel, this excellent post on the seven stages of gaijinhood* perfectly chimed with the mood. It also includes a handy chart, to map your progress on the descent to something even your closest friends will take pleasure in shunning. It was intriguing to wonder where I might fall.
On the one hand, I am happy to be a ‘wide-eyed wonderer’, still ticking off the firsts: first trip on a shinkansen, first visit to Kyoto, even (slightly shamefacedly) the first faltering steps towards learning some Japanese. Yet at the same time, perhaps not so wide-eyed.
Often I struggle to answer the question of why I came to Japan when people ask, because the reason seems quite mundane. I was tired of London and looking for something new, afraid of slipping into the dread routine and worried I would never make it out. People told me I was crazy to give up a secure job and although I know they were rooting for me, I don’t think even my best friends thought it would really happen until we were celebrating at my leaving do.
In spite of that, and even though just before I left the UK I was writing that Haruki Murakami was about 68% responsible for the whole adventure, maybe not having a clear obsession, with manga or martial arts or anything else, helped. Hopefully, my lack of a clear reason for choosing Japan meant that I managed to side-step some of the notions that set people up for rapid disillusionment soon after the plane lands. The real, if slightly dull, reason I came here was that I wanted to see it for myself.
But if the ‘wide-eyed wonderer’ stage is the most self-aware of them all then it is important not to get too self-congratulatory. It is essential to keep a handle on how gauche you are, still wet behind the ears, so required to bow (like a rice stalk in the wind, according to one guidebook I brought with me) to the superior knowledge of others. While running counter to the spirit of adventure that got you onto the plane, on arrival, it is both safer and easier to walk in the footsteps of those who have trod the path before.
As a writer in Japan, it is inevitable that writing about Japan would rear its sometimes-ugly head. Our Man in Abiko skewers some of the more terrible afflictions of the genre in this post:
Do not use pictures of Japanese people behaving normally, such as shopping at CostCo, walking around IKEA or eating a hamburger, as this will imply to potential readers that you don’t know the real Japan.
The Westerner’s fear of the neonsign also offers some words of caution:
Every blog about Japan – and there are too many to count – reveals a dossier of prejudices that the author either held already or nurtured during that vital first year in the country. It’s no surprise that blogs are appended so innocuously – ‘a blog about my life in Japan’, ‘thoughts on Japanese society’, ‘visual culture in Japan’ – since this is all the author believes himself to be doing.
Maybe because this site existed before I arrived, it was easier to resist the urge to document every new thing I stumbled across in those early ‘barely able to get on the right train’ days. My posts from that time are notable either because they don’t contain much Japan, or because they don’t contain many words, although that last does include not one, but two strange flavoured Kit-Kats. I could die of shame.
I started ten minutes hate to vent spleen at the utter uselessness of the UK’s politicians and at first it was difficult to resist the lure of or foresee an end to that topic. That was until the time difference and distance began intruding, when it didn’t seem like I could offer any new perspectives on the cuts and the protests against them. My last post on the subject, written on 10 March, was largely unloved and unread.
I wasn’t sure what else to do, but I knew I wanted to avoid writing another ‘weird Japan’ blog. As an English teacher I couldn’t feel comfortable mocking attempts to use the language, especially not with six words of Japanese to my name. The seedier aspects of life might have boosted the hit count, but apparently there are others out there making a much better fist of that, so more power to their elbows.
Maybe in the end, your subject finds you. As with so many other areas of life, the Tohoku earthquake must have altered the gradual progressions noted in the chart. Perhaps it has made me jump a few steps to ‘ill-informed activism’ as, horrified by the UK media’s take on the situation, I determined to tell the ‘real’ story. That this has proved popular shows that people are keen to hear from other perspectives. My posts since 11 March have often strayed far from what I would consider ‘newsworthy’, seeming to endlessly concern the tea I have been drinking and accompanying cakes. Maybe there is a ‘keep calm and carry on’ nature to such posts that make them comforting to read.
I am aware of Japan slipping down the list of stories, at the worst possible point for those affected, when they need assistance and attention more than ever. All I can do is, in a small way, keep the stories of survivors, their needs and the relief efforts directed at them, in the thoughts of people around the world who may be able to help. To keep plugging Quakebook and other fundraising efforts and to report on efforts being made in other countries, so that Japan doesn’t feel alone, as one of my students said it did in March.
I hope that will keep ten minutes hate going for another 200 posts, although on the way there will be times when I am just as unsure of the right direction. In Gakuranman’s post he notes that:
self-doubt and questioning is at least a step in the direction of humility.
I would argue that a little – not too much – self-doubt is an essential part of a writer’s arsenal. You want that small voice whispering in your ear ‘it’s not good enough’, to spur you on to better things. When strolling around new cities, as well as when writing, getting lost is usually the best way to find your way to something unexpected but ultimately more rewarding.
* A gaijin is a foreigner in Japan, lovers of wordplay will note that this was recently amended to ‘flyjin’ in response to the numbers of foreigners who made arrangements to move elsewhere when faced with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown.