I find myself this morning, after over two weeks of ‘hibernation’ doused in rich perfume, waking up. It is a bright, cold, sunny morning, and we might head into the big city this afternoon to get some needed things now that the work term approaches and we need to slough off this sleepy languor (it is strange up here without neon; our neighbourhood is quite dark at night, which I love; in many ways cut off…..if you stay here long enough being back in the unstoppable electric vein of the metropolis comes as a jarring shock). Perhaps I will peruse some of the new fragrances in Isetan or Nose Shop.




As I briefly wrote the other night as the decade ended (although I thought the pictures told the story better), we went to Engakuji Shrine, a few minutes down the hill by bike for hatsumode, the traditional ceremony of good luck that a large percentage of Japanese people participate in every year. The monks made no differentiation between the few foreigners present and the others; all were welcome. It felt sanctified, serene. Genuine. You felt the ancient tradition and precinct surroundings in your cells. Part of something.



An hour before this we had been expecting to go to what we thought was the only place open near the station, Wabisuke, an atmospheric dive bar where well to do locals sip whisky and smoke, and they play jazz but also unexpected music too, and where the somewhat sullen proprietor has somewhat gotten used to the presence of non-Japanese over the years with our infrequent drop-ins; there is always a ripple of cognisance whenever a non-Japanese person enters a place –  as there is anywhere here – but it is muted.



It was closed. But it was too cold for us to stand outside at the temple waiting for midnight, no matter how beautiful and diamond cut the constellations above in the indigo black sky. We wanted a drink. So in vain, we thought, we cycled along a bit aimlessly thinking we would just kill some time before returning to Engakuji but then came across a place that was open – you could tell it was one of those really ‘local’ local places where the mama-san hosts regulars who practically live there; no airs and graces; no attempts at beautification; almost like someone’s living room, a place for salarymen to crash after work to avoid their grateful wives; or for the single to work up a bar tally in order to escape from their daily loneliness; or else just a gathering of people come together to watch the Kohaku yearly music show which is a staple of O-Shogatsu, unchanging New Year celebrations.



This tale has no dramatic denouement in case you were expecting one from my build up. But the fifty minutes or so we spent in there – gingerly opening the door, as I rolled my eyes in anticipation of the kerfuffle and psychological mayhem our entrance as Europeans would cause; so predictable, so tedious, if somewhat amusing – are quite emblematic of many of the fundaments of the heart and soul of this country we live in, the profound lack of internationalism despite the fact that Tokyo is to be hosting the Olympic Games in 2020: an absolute segregation, at the marrow level, of the Us, and The Other.



I have to clench myself in these situations. I become defensive inwardly, which probably exacerbates the tensions in advance: a vicious circle. D is always more sweet and personable and likeable: he always says I put up barriers. But what I would like, ideally, is just to be able to walk into a place and be welcomed just like any other customer – I would expect some curiosity perhaps, but not the fucked up Muppet Show that was the result instead on New Year’s Eve (loose translations coming up….)’ What?!’ ‘WOW!’ (said in English); enforced high fives (YEAHHHH!) – some customers openly panicking about not being able to speak English to us; what were they going to do?!) I felt like Ringo Starr coming to Japan for the first time and being surrounded by Beatlemaniac fans screaming and reaching out….all we wanted was to sit down, and yes, it was all super ‘friendly’ in a hysterical sort of way (about 10 middle aged people sat around the bar acting as though they had a mental age of about 6), reduced to gestures and a bastardised mix of Japanese and English (though one more laconic person on the end said ‘they speak Japanese, you don’t need to keep talking to them like that…)



As I say, at least it is ‘welcoming’, and not overtly aggressive  – you are not being thrown out or attacked, as you might be in other countries as the whole world gets steadily more xenophobic- no; this is an entirely different and more complicated kettle of fish that I don’t have the time to go into right now in detail; to do with wanting to be kind and welcoming but panicking about not speaking the language (even though we are in Japan), but not being able to at all because the entire English education system is structured in order to make students understand labyrinthine reading passages that a large percentage of British or American high school students would not be able to answer (honestly), and yet not be able to string a sentence together or answer a question like ‘Where do you live?’ because they don’t have any speaking practice but don’t let me go there because there is a whole book in this and I am already writing it : I know that I am right about this point though as I am bang in the middle of the education system here but THIS; this childish stupidity, is the direct result of it.



Essentially, what it boils down to, even though they calmed down after a bit and we drank some beers and I gave my opinions about some of the pop stars on the TV screen (“What?! You know Sheena Ringo? You recognise Seiko Matusda and Arashi?!!!!!!!” Can your green Caucasian eyes distinguish between Japanese differing faces?!!!!! (They didn’t say that last part but that was the inference………of course they knew all the UK pop bands and the drunken man sitting closest to us, very sweet actually and well meaning, was a drummer in a rock band that covered the Beatles and other songs, but they also presumed that we would know nothing about the artists in this country, even though we  live here…)




But anyway. I can feel myself getting roiled up just thinking about it: thank god, as the minutes passed by on the clock on the wall, we knew we had a good excuse to get out of there and amusing though it was in a way – the energy was ultimately positive and interested and the woman who ran the place was quite friendly – the sense of being ‘Othered’ to the point of cartoon dehumanisation was so strong that it was a great relief indeed to be away from such laughably low levels of sophistication and be plunged into the profound austerity of the temple grounds and the chanting monks who were seemingly – but who knows – beyond such risible nonsense.












The next day we saw in the newspaper that Carlos Ghosn, the disgraced former executive of Nissan who had been arrested on charges of embezzlement and been detained for long periods of time and was currently under house arrest before his trial, had escaped in a musical instrument case after a Christmas concert at his residence and somehow been smuggled to Istanbul and then to Beirut, where he triumphantly told the world that he would not be held hostage by the intrinsically unfair Japanese justice system with its notorious 99% conviction rate that has been condemned by human rights groups worldwide, and though from the very first time I saw his face I instinctively knew I didn’t like him and suspect that he probably might be guilty as charged, I also don’t think for a moment that he is the only person high up in the Japanese establishment guilty of corruption; in fact such scandals appear with yawn worthy frequency (I find ‘scandals’ like that extraordinarily dull; I can’t even follow the Trump Ukraine details; ultimately I just don’t give a shit); for me it is a given that power corrupts and that people abuse it: call me cynical, but that is just how it is.




What is different though is that I felt sure that Ghosn was being made a scapegoat. A real whipping boy. The levels of vitriol and intense fascination with his case – misusing his funds – reek of racism to me; of nationalistic outrage focused on one person. I don’t believe for one second that if this had been a Japanese man he would have received the bilious fury that Ghosn has. And I don’t believe that he would have had a fair trial, and so I, like many other people, were secretly – no openly – delighted that he had the audacity to plan an escape that would seem farfetched in a film script and get away with it and I will tell you why.





What I am about to tell you is a true story. I will corroborate with the friend in question when I come to write about it in more detail as I want every fact to be precise before I do so, but three years ago, when we were filming Girl Goned, one day our German cameraman didn’t turn up to the location for the shoot; unfathomable, as he is an extremely reliable and trustworthy person who would never do that. Working for Reuters, he is a great photographer who has travelled the world in all kinds of dangerous places for reportage with a rebellious spirit and sense of humour now living and working in Beijing, and he had done some really good work with certain scenes that we were very pleased with. But on the day in question he wasn’t there. We couldn’t contact him, and we didn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks. We were very worried.




About thirteen days later, while on the train back from Tokyo, D suddenly got an email. ‘Sorry guys, but I have been in jail’. Astounded,we soon met up with him a few days later once he had begun to recover and listened incredulously as he told us the tale of being thrown in prison for two weeks in heinous conditions with unrelenting fluorescent light together with yakuza gangsters, unable to take a shower (which in itself, when he finally was put in front of some kind of legal panel, was so debasing to his sense of self that he could hardly speak – it was in summer time here which is extremely hot); fighting to get his ‘case heard’ and hiring a lawyer used up all of his savings, and shortly after this he decided to leave the country – unsurprisingly.




So what had he done? NOTHING. Coming home after work one night, ladened down with camera equipment as all such people are, dressed in black, coming down the street where he lived and having a cigarette on the street, he had been approached by a drunk old man who, when seeing his bulky back pack and all his equipment, assumed – ridiculously – that he was a ‘terrorist’ and accused him as such. T is a very world-savvy person with a great sense of humour so didn’t pay this idiot much attention but he kept being harangued by him, trying to get away until they had some kind of altercation during which the bigot called the police and my friend was subjugated to a claustrophobic hell hole that any lesser person would find traumatic and which could affect their whole life terribly.




T was able to laugh it off: it will make great anecdotes, and a good chapter in my book, as an example of how little most foreigners here trust the justice system. In his case, because there was literally no foundation for the charges, although the police here routinely confine people for up to 26 days I think it is (without allowing you to call anyone – you just disappear) and under lightbulb interrogation force a confession out of you – there are many famous cases like this here, even those on death row – T was released, but he was one of  the very lucky 1%. I was enraged to hear his story, though, so you will see why, even if Ghosn was involved in some financial wrongdoing, I would be quite delighted for him escaping in a cello case and sticking his middle finger up to a red-faced country that accuses him of being ‘cowardly’ (what? you are joking! this is a Steve Mcqueen like escape that is quite brilliant, I am sorry – he would not have been entitled to a fair trial and would have been convicted no matter what so of course he had to jump bail and be received like a hero by the people of Lebanon): in many ways he is the ultimate symbol of Othering right now and I am glad that he has had a way to highlight that to the world.




The purpose of this post, which I just had to get out of my system, is not to vilify Japan. Whichever country you are living in reading this, look at your own institutionalised racism, your own prison populations and unfairnesses. This is a problem at the basic human level: we are terrified of people different from ourselves. At the same time, though, while Japan may be famous for and touting its beloved omotenashi, or selfless kindness and impeccable service, I just hope that, when the hordes of foreign visitors that will be invading the shores this coming July and August are hosted in restaurants, hotels, eateries, inns, that they are not treated as though they were aliens from outer space – unfathomable, bizarre – as we were the other night at the bar near the station: but just like regular, normal, human beings.






















Filed under Japan, MUSINGS

29 responses to “THE OTHER

  1. OMG what a read! I could picture your entire evening. The last paragraph of your post is so true and happen in other countries and cities as well. When will people ever learn how we should treat each other? I could go on and on but will stop with just saying thank you for writing this and Happy New Year to you and Duncan.

    • And to you too!

      The great thing about this country is the safety: it cannot be overstated how wonderful this is: you are basically never in danger (unless some racist old fuck decides to randomly call the police on you). So many other countries – America now, people insulting black people, killing Jewish people randomly – have far worse problems: I am just talking about being ‘Othered'(such a PC term!) in a seemingly innocuous way that still really GRATES on me as even when you know the cultural reasons for it is ultimately just moronic. I was laughing as we left but still quite unsettled and infuriated.

  2. OMG what a read! Thank you for writing this. When will people ever learn? It’s not just in countries, but cities, towns, neighborhoods, etc. I could go on and on but will leave it at that as you said it all in the last paragraph. Happy New Year to you and Duncan.

  3. Filomena813

    Sorry for the double comment.

  4. Tara C

    Love the sword photo. I could visualize the whole scene through your writing. My husband said he felt the same otherness when he traveled for business in remote parts of China. As he described it, « I was the guy with the purple hair. » Constantly stared at, awkward moments, people pushing their terrified children towards him to practice their English.

    • Definitely. But it works both ways I am sure. In fact, this whole blog, with its ‘exotic’ far east aspect, could be accused of being completely based on the ‘othering’ concept.

      I don’t know. I just think people should wise up and accept the reality that people are people are people – and that is all.

  5. David

    That was interesting and so sad about the German photographer.
    I guess “otherness” is one of the reasons why I and my husband, a Brazilian Japanese, left Japan. That, and very overt racism directed to my husband as a Brazilian. (Yes, I know racism occurs everywhere, in the USA, in Brazil, in Germany, but Japan’s racism interferes with career choices, renting an apartment, buying a house, citizenship, etc). I miss living in Japan quite a bit. But working there: no no no. I am able to have my own business in Brazil, something that would have been impossible in Japan. I could take all the otherness at restaurants or bars or shops, but in the work place, it drove me bonkers. And my husband suffered a nervous breakdown over workplace otherness that was really harassment.

    But I think you are able to cocoon yourself from the negativity and still flourish in Japan. On a daily living level, I could. But in terms of work, I couldn’t. If only I didn’t need to work, I’d still be in Japan, making my umeboshi and my own o-sechi ryori. I am happy because when I look back, it’s the happy memories that come up first. I can chase the bad ones away by thinking of that lotus temple on a humid August day in Kyoto or the smell of the air in the rainy season. I believe we can choose which memories and thoughts to linger on. I’m not about to linger on the bad ones, especially when I’m getting old! Who’s got time for that?

    • Me!

      No but seriously, this whole blog is like a testament to my blighted love affair with this country – we find it impossible to leave for all the things we love (just come back from a great day and evening out in Tokyo for example), and yet it somehow almost feels like a moral duty to highlight the things that drive me crazy. The fifty minutes at the bar were actually fun when all is said and done – a good memory rather than a bad one – it’s just that I do sincerely wish there weren’t this GULF that sometimes, but not always, appears.

      Good to hear that you are enjoying where you are now, but that you still have good remembrances of here.

      And a happy 2020 x

  6. Robin

    You took a scenario that was extraordinarily difficult to describe precisely and concisely . . . and nailed it. Wow. Actually, both scenarios, but I was most fascinated by the first, with you and Duncan being treated like approachable and appealing European sideshow freaks. Of course, you were gracious about it and they might well have thought that you were enjoying the spotlight.

    I wonder what would have happened if you had tried to explain how you were feeling and took the conversation in that direction? Would they have been capable of understanding the patronizing “otherness” they were inflicting, and how irritating it was? Would they have been able to make the adjustment to another way of relating to you? Or was this just attitude so entrenched, so beyond their capabilities of recognizing and changing?

    (In the middle of reading about your experience, for some reason, I actually wondered: what fragrance was Neil wearing?)

  7. Neil was wearing an absurd, but somewhat delightful, concoction of Heritage, Shalimar Parfum Initial and Speziali Fiorentini Vaniglia Del Madagascar, but with the vetiver on my coats it all somehow amalgamated into Vol De Nuit, which against the freezing cold was kind of divine (D was wearing Comme Des Garcons 2 Beads, so we must have entered in this sweet balsamic wind from outdoors that added to our Otherness).

    In fairness, I wouldn’t be able to articulate myself AT ALL in Japanese about what you suggest here; my command of the language simply isn’t that good.
    Even if I did/had/could, it wouldn’t have worked in that scenario as everyone was drunk when we arrived so naturally things were working at some kind of basic/heart level that was essentially very personable and jolly – I am just very sensitive to these things. Also, a a lot of the time, even if you are speaking Japanese, people think you are speaking English and claim to not be able to understand you or speak English back to you – communication here really can be torturous at times!

  8. And yes: ‘approachable and appealing European sideshow freaks’ hits the nail perfectly on the head. That is exactly what we were, and how I felt. As will the majority of the visitors who come to the Olympics – although if you are a straight visitor from abroad I think it is easier. People who come here always go home delighted at the friendliness and hospitality; the Rugby World Cup was a huge success in that regard. It is when you blur the definitions and are not quite the clueless foreigner who has just arrived, nor an obvious naturalised person who speaks the language perfectly and has taken on all the movements/ gestures/tics and has ‘become Japanese’ that the bumps arise the most.

    Strangely, I can’t definitely say that we won’t go back though.

    What does that say about me?

    • Robin

      Indeed. What does that say about you? 😉

      That Vol de Nuit-like amalgamation sounds divine indeed. I’m going to try it myself.

    • Robin

      I do admire your ability to self-reflect. It’s fairly rare.

    • Robin

      I was trying to remember that infamous quote of the character Ian Richardson plays in the original House of Cards, Chief Whip aka Francis Urqhuart. Ah ha. What does that say about you? “I couldn’t possibly comment.” But that would have been too cheeky of me.

      • Robin

        Although I was cheeky anyway.

      • Thank god. Too few are.

        But what it possibly does say about me is that I have some kind of draw to peculiar situations, and I also know that I tend to judge people too quickly and make rash and damning proclamations.

        The reactions in the bar honestly WERE ludicrous – D was also quite irritated so that proves it (he is a lot more calm than I am and gets riled much less easily) and yet they were also genuinely quite funny and rambunctious.

        When I first came to Japan something similarly bizarre happened. I and my friend Melanie went into a local bar or restaurant near where we were living in Hodogaya, Yokohama. All we wanted was to mind our own business and have some food and wine and talk. However, we caused such a RUCKUS – as in, we did nothing whatsoever, but everyone ELSE kept coming up to us and going on about the Beatles or Freddie Mercury or Queen Elizabeth or Manchester United in either pidgin English or exaggerated Japanese done in a faux Gaijin accent that eventually WE were asked to leave by the owner because we were disturbing the atmosphere. We found ourselves on the pavement utterly bewildered and speechless. What had we done? Just gone in there (at that time as two pretty) foreigners. But no one could just treat us normally; it had to become this bizarre acting out of a circus.

        It is all so ODD. It has never happened in any other country I have gone to. You go to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, anywhere – you sit down, someone who might not speak any English will take your order – they might be a bit sullen, or friendly,or just normal, and then you get your food. The other locals in the restaurant will just get on with their own business and leave you to yours, either uninterested, or not even noticing you.

        It’s a Japanese thing.

  9. Great piece of writing. Have you considered that you were in the company of local “Others”? No excuses for how you were treated but they may not know any other way to welcome you.

    • You mean that they themselves were possibly a group of outsiders/oddballs? Good point. One of them definitely was. A women probably in her fifties who was dressed in boy’s hip hop clothes and was dancing in front of the screen to Arashi the boy band like a dervish. She was definitely not your average Kamakura woman. The others in the bar I would say were pretty regular types, but in this kind of set up it is a small space where intimacy is built up between the customers there on a daily basis, and probably in any country complete outsiders suddenly coming in out of nowhere might seem,if not intrusive, then at least possibly ‘breaking the spell’.

      What is incredible in this country is when YOU are speaking Japanese but people don’t hear it as such (my command of the language is unimpressive, given how long I have been here as I have said before, but my pronunciation is fine, and I can handle daily conversation no problem; I have enough vocabulary and cultural knowledge to be able to ‘fit in’ – at work I speak to some of the staff exclusively in Japanese for example) so there is no excuse for THE COMPLETE FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE in the first five or ten minutes. It was honestly laughable. PATHETIC.

  10. Maybe it is just a Japanese thing. I would think that something of that nature or similar could also happen in otherl cultures as well. It could also be a proprietary thing as well. Who knows? But the reality of it all is that it is a wasted opportunity. We are all curious about each other whether we are from the same country or live in the same country. I am being redundant, but why can’t we all just get along. Diversity is a great thing. If we were all alike, life would truly be boring. We can always learn something from other cultures and they can also learn from us.

    • But as I said, they definitely WERE curious about us, hence the befuddled communication. I think I am just being oversensitive ultimately and should chill out. I overthink everything. Everything!

      • Most of us do. But it is a waste of energy and no one know what anyone is really thinking, even people who we live with and/or consider them close friends.

      • Now we are getting into deeper territory….. but of course you are right.

        In my bleak existentialist twenties I think I dwelled on all of that too much : the fact that can never know what anyone is thinking ( and sometimes not even yourself – we hoodwink ourselves through many layers), and it is an ontological trauma for us all on some level. The isolation.

        On the other hand, as I have got older my philosophy has changed a lot and I find that very uniqueness in each person almost miraculous. It’s what makes communication and interaction so fascinating ( and exhausting ).

        I suppose I also consider myself in many ways beyond category: nationality / age / gender, which is probably far too radical to the majority of people who are what I see as woefully attached to the tropes of these tedious limitations. I just want to talk person to person without all that but I know I am being unrealistic. People need their categories as scaffolding to hold onto – hence one of the first questions in the bar was ‘how old are you?’, in order to be able to put us into a box ( I am classed as an ‘ojisan’, or middle aged uncle, better than the despised ‘jiji’ or old man I will become in the future). I reject such strictures point blank and always will.

      • I hate it when someone asks someone how old they are. It is definitely catagorizing. After all, no one can help what age they are, but we all can help how we comport ourselves.

  11. A brilliant read, but also a bit disheartening. I am so sorry that you had to go through that behaviour on new year’s Eve, when all you wanted was a bit of a relaxing night out before temple.
    I am in love with Japan, but as an outsider who only knows it from videos, movies, music, anime, books and photos. I just worry so much about “causing a commotion” just by being in an establishment. I guess it is something I will deal with when I am actually there.
    The story about the photographer was truly terrifying. How absolutely horrible that must have been for him. I am thankful it worked out in the end though.
    I am so pleased that your New Year’s Eve was pleasant overall. I wish you and D a most wonderful, happy and prosperous New year.

    • You too – and you absolutely must come and experience all of this for yourself.

      What happened to my friend was HORRIFIC, UNPARDONABLE – and in a way it was a spurious link to the harmless fluff that came my way in the bar (which doesn’t really warrant any sympathy: I write in the pointless hope that some Japanese people might be reading this and somehow spread the word along that it is time for change in this regard; that this childish Othering is just cretinous in the twenty first century. I mean that very severely. But at the same time, it is not actually overtly prejudiced as such nor aggressive, as I said, just foolish).

      You put it perfectly. ‘Causing a commotion’ just by being in an establishment. But you will find that on the whole, in the majority of restaurants and coffee shops, izakayas and public spaces, you will be treated with the perfect politeness than Japan is renowned for. Perhaps in small, hole in the wall, rinky dink bars where everyone knows each other it is too much: I know I often deliberately avoid going into such places as I know how Japanese people will feel if I DO go in. I protect them from the deep discomfort of having a foreigner in their presence when they are relaxing.

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