I first met Mr K around twenty years ago. As one of the most experienced and knowledgeable English teachers in the school, he could explain the finer grammar points to me better than I understood them myself, and he was valued by the company for his ability to instill this impractical but necessary English in students for the higher level entrance exams. Suspicious of me at first, his narrow, deep set eyes watching me closely in his snide, if humorously and appealingly hippopotamus-like face as I walked into the room, with his faltering, heavily-accented English that he was obviously quite self-conscious of, he hesitated to address me directly, but gradually let down his guard and began to take to me – and me to him. I found him amusing. We had a similarly absurdist sense of humour, a general skepticism, a playful mockery and politically left of centre tendencies (he had supposedly been a ‘revolutionary communist’ at his university, when longhaired and speaking Chinese and womanizing). He had a wild side I could correspond with, even if I hardly agreed with his general philosophy of life. With his louche and sexist ways – constantly disparaging his wife and ex-wife in mean fashion – he was almost disgustingly libidinous, always reducing women to their basic physical elements and appraising their value as such: after work he would usually drink sake in Fujisawa late at night at the ‘hostess’ or the many Thai ‘nyu-haafu’ (transsexual ) bars until he passed out, sometimes coming in to work the next day dishevelled and reeking of alcohol as though he had slept under a hedge. I would give him mints and tell him to go and smarten himself up. In many ways, he was a disgrace. His views often offended me, but he also amused me : at least here was somebody with character and obvious defects he didn’t try to hide. He wasn’t always trying to appear ‘perfect’. I found it refreshing. At least at first.
Despite his dissolute lifestyle, Mr K in other ways was as rigidly conservative as they come, very much of the old school way of thinking – still very prevalent – that the university you go to completely defines you as a human being, meaning that with my Cambridge credentials I was automatically elevated to ‘acceptable person’ status. Graduating from the ivory towers was all he needed to know. I was bona fide, based on my certificate: my academic ‘prestige’. Little else really counted for him.This man fully believed, deep down in his soul, that ‘intelligence’ could be measured solely by how a person performs in the hopelessly archaic Japanese high school and university entrance exams; that your fundamental worth comes from the establishment that you eventually, after years of studying hard at schools and cramming at night schools, manage to enter. It was all hierarchy, ranking, name. It irked me. And was nonsense. A student, say, who to me was obviously very talented, even possibly a genius at several subjects would be immediately discounted as competely ‘stupid’ if they couldn’t do mathematics or science (so that obviously includes me as well then ), or if they were more logically minded – a future Nobel scientist – but couldn’t grasp the nuances and ambiguity of written Japanese (‘baka’ : : he is stupid). No. Only a blinking automaton who acquiesced in a servile manner: humble, committed to rote learning and using their ‘intelligence’ consistently across the board in order to answer, passively, all the multiple choice questions that will never really help them in real life; who bowed respectfully when he walked in, managed to stifle their yawns in his notoriously static and mind-numbing evening classes (I saw this on many occasion with my own eyes when I passed by his classroom) – only they would be accepted as being, in the severe restrictedness of his view, remotely ‘intelligent’. And intelligence, and academic prowess, were all that mattered.
Mr K had gone to the elite Tokyo Institute Of Foreign Languages, where he had specialized in English and Mandarin in the 1970s. Coming from Kagoshima Prefecture on the lusher, slower island of Kyūshū, this was his one claim to greatness; the one fact his porcelain pride could cling to – seemingly, even the very pillar of his identity – he was always talking about it, though he had left that linguistic institution more than thirty years before. Despite his occasionally amusing anecdotes and observations in the teachers’ room, to me it made him an objectionable academic snob. Ranking people in direction proportion to their university degrees. The lower, the more inferior. But worse, I later came to realize that he was also an inveterate bully. And it was this, as I gradually witnessed him viciously verbally abusing at least three of my Japanese colleagues first hand – two of whom developed very serious psychosomatic illnesses as a direct result of his nastiness, with all the standard consequent psychological repercussions – that made me quickly realize that I was teaching in quite a toxic environment. And later, it would happen also to me. At his hands. I had always thought of myself as much stronger – immune, if you like – but I came to see and experience personally just how badly bullying does affect people. And it was this side of Mr K that then dominated in my view of him, despite his better attributes – I know that he was proud of, and loved his children very much – and why I was glad, in the end, to see him gone. Even not, ideally, in those particular, sorry circumstances.
While Mr K continued to quietly, if openly, bully a sweet, if somewhat docile – and in truth, occasionally incompetent – English teacher I sat next to and got on perfectly well with, on the whole, this harmless married man in his thirties was able to take – just – his ‘superior’s’ incessant, critical verbal tirades about his lack of ability or lack of intelligence – until the time he finally started developing quite crippling stomach pains – probably ulcers, or polyps- from all the stress, and which in the end kept him from work for quite a while (highly unusual in Japan – people do not take days off from work here unless they are virtually dying). I really felt for him, and tried to be nice. Chatting to him and making small talk in order to encourage him. And when alone with Mr K, I told him directly that he should stop being so obnoxious, criticizing him openly when he wouldn’t let up, and the poor man sitting next to me seemed nervous and pale.
I wasn’t to know, however, that he was just warming up. Saving his most hateful and hot-blooded vitriol for a lovely young teacher who became a good friend of mine and his eventual suffering victim and who I shall for the rest of this chapter call Yuina. As far as I was concerned, this new, petite, smiling and girlish colleague that I found sitting next to me one spring and whose marriage I would one day go to: her parents came up to me in order to thank me personally for looking after her during this terrible time in her life – was a quick-silver intelligent, self-deprecating person, immediately loved by all the students, very genuine, if vulnerable, and someone I instantly clicked with. At the beginning, she was always smiling. Someone who enjoyed a lot of things and laughed a lot, while simultaneously being aware. And although she claimed not to be able to speak English despite having lived in America for a while as a child, she understood everything that I was saying, with all the nuances (which Mr K never had a chance in hell of doing, and I think it was that which made him jealous). A Disney lover – something I can’t relate to personally, she was also a bass guitarist in an all girl pop punk rock group who she loved performing with;she appreciated the darker side of life too alongside her enjoyment of happy endings: horror movies, thrillers..we had what I call the ‘ether’: banter about nonsense that made me laugh unselfconsciously and quickly – not all the forced humour of the teachers’ room where everyone is basically permanently on edge and performing -just random silliness: she would say things in Japanese, and I would reply in English and vice versa, which was an odd state of affairs but we always knew exactly what the other was talking about. I was so happy to finally have someone beside me I could actually feel at home with.
Was this why the mean-spirited man opposite us, vituperously stewing in his own juices and pride every day, decided to then pick on her so ferociously? Because with Yuina he became a monster. Yes, when teaching the students and joshing in the hallways, messing with kids’ hair and teasing them harmlessly, he seemed just like a jovial big bear. But with my friend, riled with incomprehensible rage he seemed to desire nothing less than the destruction of her spirit. To ‘tame’ her. ‘Bring her round’. Nail her. He truly seemed to hate her, and used his position of power and advancement to say to her whatever he wanted, unpunished. He was never reprimanded. At least not in front of me. And I simply couldn’t understand it. She hadn’t done anything. Except, perhaps, just be her sunny self. And, of course, to not have graduated from the blessed Institute Of Foreign Languages (but she had been to Keio – equally respected, if you really care about such things……. I just found the whole thing utterly ridiculous) One factor I think that led to her being subjugated to his vicious whims on a daily basis was that she was what is known as a kikokushijo, or ‘returnee’, having lived abroad for a while because of her father’s work and therefore, in some people’s eyes, not ‘pure Japanese’. This is a common problem for people coming home: although it is possible that envy – in being able to speak real English, for a start, which the current Japanese education system simply does not allow people to do – plays a part, it is also the issue of differing temperament and behaviour. Although ethnically identical to their friends at school, a few years out of the straitjacket can do wonders for a person’s perspective on the world – not to mention having the experience of that strange and exotic, unimaginable concept called free time. Students here simply can’t believe that in Europe and in fact most of the world, a six to eight week summer holiday, or even longer in places like Italy, where you are pretty much free to do whatever you want, is essentially the norm. And the students I teach who have experienced this uniformly love it.
They get used to it. The body language changes. It loosens. There is more eye contact, a slovenly effect, I suppose, sometimes a sense of being a bit too comfortable in one’s own skin, that comes across to some as iikagen or bad-mannered; immodest, lazy at any rate – not a person who has done the full conveyor belt J-citizen factory from kindergarten through to graduating from university. To many, the returning students are simply not ‘real’ Japanese anymore, and they therefore often face a peculiar kind of discrimination. Perhaps this is what I liked about her, I don’t know. Not being able to transform myself into the kind of foreigner who willingly absorbs Japaneseness to the point of no return, I myself was also like a hybrid in many ways, and so was she: to me Yuina was just a unrestrained: she dared to be ebullient. But Mr K detested this. To him she was some kind of abomination.
From the moment she entered the teachers’ room, even though, or perhaps because she had been a former student at the school, taught by Mr K – how dare she now be his equal in the staff room! – he was finding fault with her, almost leering in his constant pinpointing of what was wrong with her – that she wasn’t ‘polite’ enough, that she wasn’t ‘feminine’ enough, that she was insolent, indolent, spent too much time talking to me, that she didn’t know anything about English or English grammar, that she was a useless teacher, and he would frequently reduce her to tears. In the staff room. I would do all that I could to intervene, when I was working with her at the same time, though I knew that whenever I wasn’t it was even worse, that he really laid into her, got really deep and wouldn’t let up. And as a new teacher, an underling, she had no right to answer back. Particuarly not to an older, experienced, ‘veteran’ teacher. I noticed that she was getting more and more run-down. Red-eyed. Coming down all the time with colds and coughs with a permanent, slightly too high temperature. Wearing surgical masks to cover her face and protect herself from some of the criticism. She didn’t look well at all, and started to speak much less to me, keep herself to herself. Sit quietly. I think the incremental bullying accrued in her bloodstream; accumulated, little by little knocking down her immune system and self-esteem; along with the stomach pain that the two other male colleagues I had sat next to suffered – one was visibly becoming more and more disheartened and depressed as the weeks went by; he apparently had the ‘sin of arrogance’ (admittedly, he wasn’t subservient, and had an ego, his own ideas about things, and was quite ‘K.Y’ – literally kuki yomenai – someone who can’t ‘read the air’ ie clueless) but he wasn’t a bad sort by any means either and certainly didn’t merit such horrible treatment – for just existing. Yuina, though, the object of K’s deep misogynist fury – was obviously in a class of her own.
One day, when I was sitting next to her one afternoon, she suddenly couldn’t see. ‘I can’t see anything’ she said to me quietly. She was staring forward, eyes open. ‘I can’t see’. Clearly very distressed, as was I, but trying not to draw attention to herself, she was closing her eyes, then opening them – but she wasn’t able to focus. She sat still in her seat, trying to compose herself, willing this away. I didn’t know what to do; couldn’t quite believe what was happening. She couldn’t see? It seemed that the stress of all the bullying had made her temporarily actually go blind. Not just a migraine – which the other bullied teachers were also sometimes getting – but so many flashes of white in her irises that she simply wasn’t able to see. And she was in a panic – and I for her (blindness is my greatest fear) : and I could hardly believe what was happening; and he just sat there, blank-faced, almost enjoying it as another human being was going through such tremendous suffering, inflicted by him, as she was led out eventually and, once the initial crisis had subsided and her eyesight was working a little again, allowed to go home. I had no words.
Except I did, a little later, when we had one of the few social events that I was somehow required to go to – a goodbye party in an izakaya organized by our jovial, good-hearted manager Mr Takamine (a well meaning individual, overall, but why didn’t he step in more to intervene in this situation? Such vile and demeaning treatment by one of his teachers? Did he also think that she needed to be ‘taught a lesson or two’ or ‘go through the ropes’? (was this some form of psychological hazing?) I was sat in a corner opposite Mr K and next to Yuina who, despite the food she was picking at and the alcohol she was being coerced to drink – even though she reacted badly to it – and the supposedly upbeat and ‘celebratory’ atmosphere was, once again, unsurprisingly, being bullied (but at a party?) And this time it was like a soliloquy. A rant by him; a monologue against her. Yuina weeping silently, head down, as the puffed up, unthinking ‘linguist’ continuously hounded her with insults and rudeness until finally, my blood boiling I could take it no more: smashing my fists on the table to the gasps and stares of other onlookers in the restaurant, standing up and shouting into his face with multiple middle fingers and fuck yous I erupted into a blind rage that totally shocked everyone there and I instructed him to stop this immediately, shouting at my manager for not doing anything either as she cowered into her corner probably wishing she could disappear but I couldn’t stop ( I should have done this decisively, and earlier). I told him how cruel he was, that I wouldn’t stand for it any longer, that he was hurting her, in a mix of English and Japanese, imperfect, but there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever for anyone there about how I felt. I stormed out in a cyclone of mayhem and with a feeling of despair that verged on suicidal. An inchoate sadness at the inherent injustice of the situation. A person in power taking advantage of someone in a weaker position and just intentionally ripping her apart. Day after day. His behaviour offended me to the depths of my being in its unfairness, its pointlessness, and sheer cruelty.
Which is, of course, the essence of bullying, a problem that lies at the heart of Japan – and of virtually every other culture, no one is immune – but particularly here, and a problem that can no longer be ignored. A recent government report indicates that cases of bullying, both physical intimidation and verbal abuse, have escalated over the last few years, particularly in elementary and junior high schools (with maturity, it seems the problem is less endemic once kids actually start to develop more empathy as their brains develop), but as in any culture where blind conformity is expected, fissures of stress will inevitably break open, and those that are weak, independent or different in any way will always bear the brunt. Deru kugi wa utareru – ‘the nail that sticks out must be hammered down’ is a famous expression in Japan, a proverb that speaks for itself. I have had students who have been bullied at their schools (not our evening classes – I have an absolute zero tolerance policy towards anything even approaching bullying), and who come to juku depressed, sullen, unresponsive. The bullying can range from the familiar victimization of anyone physically different, to those with ‘quirky’ personalities, to even just the stress of being in a ‘group’ of friends at school where you are expected to do what your friends do without question. Girls, especially, seem bound to belong to a trio or quartet of some peers from their class or their club activity, with a designated ‘leader’ who makes all the main decisions for which their tacit acquiescence is required; they do everything together; decide everything together, and while much of the time this can undoubtedly lead to fluttering hearts and passionate pubescent mutual confidences, and in the best cases, true friendships for a lifetime, it can also lead to huge frustration and a stultifying loss of liberation and personal identity. One girl I taught, a student who had been abroad and was basically friends with everyone in her class there, was horrified to find that she was silently expected to join one of these cutesy ‘cliques’ made up entirely of girls of her own age when she really didn’t want to. A naturally fun and effusive girl, it was very alarming to me to see her getting more and more sad and listless each time she came to my class, weighed down with the burden of intricate social minutiae she wasn’t remotely interested in to begin with, all the unspoken social ‘rules’; that she was supposed to intimate her friends’ deeper feelings through intuition, rather than having them stated far more openly, which she said that she was used to (an intrinsic cultural gulf, that exists deep down in the essential supposed differences between Japanese and western cultures made small in the confines of a provincial school classroom). But it was all just a hassle to her. And she knew it couldn’t continue (whenever students tell me ‘I hate my friends’, I always explain the inherent contradiction).
One day she had had enough. That evening she came in cheerful and beaming. I asked, as I always did, about the subtle bullying she had received at the hands of the ‘leader’ and her handmaidens in the playground. ‘I am no longer a member of the group’, she told me. ‘How did that happen?’ I inquired. ’I wrote her a letter today. I told her that I didn’t like any of them, and that I was leaving’ she told me – ‘I have left them’ : an act of great bravery in the context I thought. And that was that.
Others are not quite so lucky. One student of mine was repeatedly viciously bullied, both physically and verbally, on a daily basis, by a group of boys who harangued him relentlessly to the point where he actually barricaded himself in his bedroom for a while and refused to go to school for a few weeks. His mother was in contact with me, pleading with me to give her ideas on how to help him: one particularly heartless student at his school, one day forced him down onto the floor and deliberately stood on his leg, pressing down with all his weight until his femur cracked, and act of physical and emotional violence that agonizingly painful and traumatizing to him. No wonder he felt he had to cocoon himself away. His crime was twofold : again, he had been in America, like many of my students, and had just not been able to get used to the overseriousness of Japanese school life, and again, he was a little ‘K.Y’ – maladjusted to his life in Japan, and I supoose also quite immature emotionally, often acting out in class and taking it out on me on a Friday night – I have often been used as an emotional punching bag by students, absorbing their angst, while trying to getting them into a decent high school to kickstart their futures so they can go to a university and then escape all of this, but it can take years for them to process and heal from the trauma of bullying. The effects of it can resonate for a lifetime.
With my naturally strong personality and waywardness, I had always personally thought of myself as ‘unbulliable’; having emerged from an education in England largely unscathed. My first school, in the Black Country area of the Midlands, was decidedly rougher than my second, in the much more financially comfortable area I grew up in, and I was, admittedly, sometimes pushed about a bit in the playground. There was an atmosphere in that place that felt threatening. And as a four year old, I had been wide eyed and astonished (and so bitterly crestfallen) when some tougher kids deliberately, after I had gone into the woods and picked them in sweet fairytale ignorance, knocked the Snow White-like red and white magic toadstools I had lovingly wrapped in crepe paper and brought to school to show my teacher out of my hands and then stamped on them on the floor, for no reason. Just for the hell of it. It was a senselessness I couldn’t fathom or understand at that age and I remember staring at them, bursting into tears. I was occasionally kicked a bit at breaktime, but was protected by a big West Indian girl called Sylvia who took me under her wing and physically forced them away from me. Most kids, in any country, experience some kind of teasing or conflict. It is a part of growing up and learning to deal with other people. And I cannot deny either ever having been spiteful to other students or teasing people heartlessly: I think insecurity and pressure causes people to behave that way: being a child is not easy, and I wasn’t an innocent angel either. I could be mean to certain kids I didn’t like as I had a big mouth on me: words at my disposal. At comprehensive school, there was the odd incident in my teens when I had been badmouthing and gossipping about some of the more badly behaved boys in my year who were sleeping with girls and I suppose I got my just deserts – being pushed over in the playground or even forced into a physical fight, but these were rare incidents. On the whole, my time at school was fun and enjoyable – and I thrived on it. I don’t think I could ever truly claim in all honesty, to have really bullied when I was growing up.
The first time I was, it was in Japan. By Mr K. And as a ‘middle-aged’ man (an easy target here, actually, where anyone past the prime blushes of young manhood, with the unforgiveable sins of ageing, or a receding hairline – god help you if you should go bald! – or have weight gain, the all telling expanding waistline, the prime symptoms of being an ‘oji-san’ – literally ‘uncle’, but more generally a friendly pejorative for a ‘man that is past it’). Even though he was about fifteen years older than me, very overweight and no handsome young prince himself, to put it mildly, I suppose with a bully, it is easy for these people to find the Achilles Heel, the obvious chink in your armour; hone in to your vulnerabilities, and then exploit them to their advantage. My appeance was mine. ‘You look good in photographs but terrible in real life’. ‘How fat you are!’ ‘How much you have aged!’ etc etc, he would say, as though these were acceptable things to say to a colleague in a work situation. I laughed these comments off, but they always really hurt. I am very sensitive, and I suppose narcissistic. But nobody expects the people they work with to say things like this to them out of the blue, during the working day when you are preparing for your lessons. It wrecks your mood. It is very wounding.
Ageing is what it is. We all come to terms with it in our own way. And most people don’t look the same at 50 as they did at 20. No matter. Despite of the fact that the teachers’ room didn’t exactly look like a modelling agency, any change in size or weight or visible wearing of stress on a person’s face was often remarked upon, out loud, in front of other staff, on a fairly regular basis. Part of this can be attributed to one part of Japanese culture in which it is acceptable for men to make jokes about each other’s appearance; family members also joke around about such things perhaps more than we would do in England, for example. And I was aware of this. But this was somehow different. Even after I developed severe leg pain because of a hereditary, arthritic loss of cartilage in both knees with the resulting loss of mobility, he would taunt, out of the blue, when I came back from lunch: ‘Wow. Mr Chapman was so handsome when he joined this school. And look at him now’ – to the embarrassment of the other, far more decent teachers- they knew that this was unacceptable and contained nothing but ill intent. I laughed, or protested weakly, but had been disarmed and weakend. I learned what bullying can do to people for the first time, first hand. You become more generally prone to anxiety, more worried, more depressed; you get a lurch in your stomach even thinking about going in to work – it can have a significant impact on your quality of life. I got so wound up and upset at the thought of being mocked in front of other teachers that I eventually started writing up a very carefully worded legal document threatening him with action if he continued in this manner: that if he didn’t stop I was going to take this seriously, take it up with the senior administrative staff and get him removed; at the very least, reprimanded. In the end, it wasn’t necessary.
Coming back to school after a six month rehabilitation for knee surgery, having had to learn to walk again from scratch – a long and arduous process that involved a lot of pain and effort – one of the things I was most dreading about returning to my desk was having K’s mean, beady eyes fixed on my sorry frame as I hobbled back into the room and making new and merciless jibes at my expense. I was dreading it. And wasn’t sure if I could take it.
As it happened, though, when I entered the room and saw his empty desk, asked where he was, I was told that he had in fact recently had a severely damaging stroke. This had incapacitated him completely, and he had not only had to learn to walk again like me, but also talk. No more mean words. Ironically, while I had been learning to walk again, so had he. In his case, though, it had also affected his brain and he was now a shattered man. Although the school tried to allow him back eventually, to teach some lessons, he was so slow, thin, weak, shuffling along with his walking stick that it was obvious he would never be able to work there again. His long-suffering wife was now looking after him, at home, where he just sat and watched TV. When I heard he was coming into the school one day to say goodbye, I felt a tightening in my chest; a darkness, but when I saw him, I could not gloat. He looked pathetic. I couldn’t help but somehow feel sorry for him, as a human being. We had shared some laughs. His life was over. At the same time, as I got stronger, and back into the work routine, I can’t exactly say I mourned his absence.
Bullying is an extremely seriously problem in Japan, leading to a great deal of stress, mental illness, and often suicide. It prevails in all parts of society, and in a variety of different ways. It can be the straightforward malice of the classroom, the ‘power harassment’ of the workplace, the ganging up on mothers in ‘mama-san’ groups of parents (a good friend of mine was forced into expensive psychotherapy, her dread of the other mothers’ censure and malicious conformism growing to such an extent that she could barely function normally); it can be the ‘playful’ bullying of bosses forcing their underlings to drink alcohol even when they are allergic to it, to down shōchū and beer at after work parties, or university students feeling obliged to drink very dangerous quantities of spirits at binge-drinking gatherings, where they are egged on to go further under social duress, even to a perilous degree. Year after year there are reports of deaths from the highest level universities about students, unaccustomed, succumbing to extreme alcohol poisoning, under the canopies of campus cherry trees.
The key to beating this scourge is, I believe, education. The society is changing, often in very good ways, and I encourage my students to be themselves as much as possible, to think outside the group where necessary (to discourage group dynamics completely would be akin to dismissing the essence of Japanese culture, which derives many positive aspects from being group-oriented – see the response to the Great Tohoku earthquake of 2011 as one example, and there are many). To try to instill self-confidence in one’s own peculiarities and uniqueness; to respect differences, and to refuse or denigrate any form of coercion or bullying in the first place. To stand up to it.Although the sheer toll of ijime on the thousands of souls of Japanese people by Japanese people is incomprehensible (in 2018, the number of reported cases of severe bullying in elementary schools was 317, 121 – and that was just those that came to light), concurrently there does now seem to be more awareness of the seriousness of the problem, both at the individual and societal, even governmental level – there are posters featuring famous athletes and other celebrities on my local bus with appeals to stop bullying, campaigns in schools, all of which raises the hope of letting some light in (Yuina eventually moved to another school, teaching younger kids where she nows seems bright as a bean) : illuminating, and hopefully destroying, the darkness of all this wasteful, devastating, and totally unnecessary misery.
35 responses to “BLINDNESS”
This is a tentative first draft of a chapter for the book I am planning and mulling over right now: ‘Death and Love In Japan’ – a chronicle of my time here, an autobiography and some armchair anthropology about the country I call home. While this chapter, all of which is true and how I experienced it, might be typical of some of the darker material – because a lot has happened since I have been here – this is not going to be some Japan-bashing misanthropic type thing. I love this place, deeply, as does D – so there will be a lot of more floaty and positive chapters describing my journey from darkness to light, how we discovered ourselves through the community we finally discovered and properly connecting with our creative sides which saved us as well as a whole lot of reminiscences about the beauty of Japan in general, but at the same time I am not going to shy away from describing the bad times. Like this. I am aware of how important it is to be culturally sensitive, and I know I am walking a tightrope in terms of how much I overgeneralise etc, but this is my personal experience and I want to put it down in words. I plan to have it translated into Japanese simultaneously as it is definitely as much for Japanese readers as much as anyone else. I think it is important to hear how people from outside see the culture you sometimes take for granted.
That was fascinating to read, and I will think about it more. I lived for a while in Germany – early 1960’s – and still remember the deeply embedded hierarchies, and the distrust of anything foreign.
But where do you live now? And are the hierarchies any different? I think they must exist anywhere.
First of all, I LOVE your writing!
I have read your blog for years, at first for the perfume reviews but always for the superb writing.
I don’t think this piece is too dark, but rather an interesting character study and vivid insight into one of the more unpleasant aspects of Asian culture. I too have lived in Nepal and India for the last 10 years. Every culture has toxic malignant narcissists. We all know at least one. Mr. K is not that unusual in any part of the world. The incessant bullying at all societal levels is common, accepted, and somewhat encouraged in India and Nepal too. So is the blatant obsession with a social hierarchy that I can’t quite grasp the unspoken details and minutiae of. It was a huge culture shock when I realized what was going on and how deeply this sadistic streak ran in Indian and Nepali culture. The human misery this vicious bullying causes within families, in workplaces, schools, politics, and just about every aspect of life is devastating and unnecessary. Suicides are not uncommon here due to this feature of the culture.
I look forward to reading your book and thank you for sharing your experiences both positive and negative in Japan. I currently have a gallery selling Buddhist art but am thinking I’d like to try teaching English in Japan. How do you think a middle-aged, slightly obese, Jayne Mansfield lookalike would fare teaching English in Japan?
Jayne Mansfields are always very appreciated in Tokyo – and there is also a huge Nepali community – most ‘Indian’ restaurants, which we often go to, are usually actually Nepalese, so you will probably feel completely at home.
I mean, I am super-aware that any cultural critique of any other country that you are not a born ethnic part of is riddled with potholes and landmines – which makes the whole undertaking rather fraught, but at the same time, as you say, malignant narcissists exist in EVERY society – they are a part of humanity: and the president of the US is the ultimate example. And Bolsonaro in Brazil, who I actually want…..well I had better stop there. Mr K….yes. Let’s just say that I felt there was some karmic justice. I actually don’t feel so much malice any more – even though writing this today was in some ways quite painful for me; he is who he is, and I don’t know his personal background story, why he was so insecure, etc – but I do know that making my friend go blind on that day was completely unforgivable.
I am glad you are writing another book! I think it will be eye opening for many, especially those of us who have seen Japan only superficially. It’s hard to fathom how openly tolerated K’s behavior seemed to be – clearly he was still benefitting from the hierarchy system. I hope the mentality of people as a whole is moving towards a better direction (some say it is, albeit too slowly).
Also, I have no doubt you’ll have plenty of positive stories to balance out the negative ones!
Watching Netflix, as we do, we are very aware of how many narcissists exist in so many countries. The Tiger King that we were raving about the other day for example, contained examples of humanity’s most insane; people who stared at the camera without blinking (this was true of Affliction as well), while just blurting on about themselves in a way that would basically be impossible in Japan. I don’t mean for one second to indicate that this is the norm, or that everyone gets bullied in schools (D has never experienced anything like this, for instance). However, this pathetic bastard that I worked with for sixteen years or more definitely at the very least deserves this belated story. And yes – I think you ask the right question: why was this so openly tolerated? It was a big part of what made me feel so hopeless. But at least I DID stand up for my friend -and I know she was very thankful for it. Bullying like this is just horrible.
As for the book….I am at the tentative stages. There are SO MANY books a about Japan written by foreigners that it has become a total cliche to even think about writing one. Somehow I have the confidence though that mine will be different. I am not entering it from the viewpoint of ‘zany Japaneseness’ or worshipping at the altar of ladies in kimono or whatever but from a different angle. Burning Bush etc. The final triumph in Shinjuku (honestly, the last ten years have been by far the best in our lives).
And yes – it will end on a positive note and will be filled with all the beauty that we both love so much, and which is almost indescribable.
I am not shying away from the horror though.
Had to chuckle at “There are SO MANY books…” That never stopped anyone on any topic! Your angle will be your own. It must be truly fulfilling not only to be living the best years so far, but to know it as well.
Definitely. And that is a good point, actually – there ARE always loads of books on any given subject. But especially Japan I would imagine. It is the ultimate ‘I am a foreigner in a foreign land’ type of place. Some of my friends here have slightly rolled their eyes when I mentioned even thinking about doing one. But as you say, my angle would be my own.
Just spent the last ten minutes mesmerized. It is going to be an exceptional book. This is the kind of writing that will do it.
Will Japanese readers be willing to see their world this way?
This is the thing.
I am not a Japanologist (but then again, I had no credentials in perfume but did that book so) – .. I have had all my eyes and senses open all these years, have been analysing it all CONSTANTLY, and my Japanese friend (who lives next door) says yes and would like to translate it. Japanese people are obsessed by their own culture. And are very interested in how ‘outsiders’ see it as well.
The balance has to be right though, and yet it can’t be too PC and I also can’t come across as some kind of moronic racist wanker.
The thing is, I would probably lose my job.\\\\\\\\\\ So…I have to weigh things up.
But the fact you like this means a lot to me. I want to do something meaningful, beautiful, real, and rather scandalous.
I do feel like a conduit, and that I have to get these things down in writing.
I think this book needs to be written. I probably couldn’t have read a book like this (I mean, how it will be) when I first left Japan. And I think my husband would never be able to read it… I don’t think of the bad days anymore. My husband still sometimes does. I do my best to try to chase away his demons.
I’m glad you stood up for your co-worker. Hero. I stand up when I see people being mistreated, too.
I wish I had done it earlier, to be honest. I mean I did, kept saying things when at work that he was being mean, and protected her when I was there sitting next to her but on the other days she was just a sitting duck. In some ways I feel sorry for him – he was obviously very insecure, and he once told me that as soon as he retired he wanted to die as he had nothing (no hobbies, no interests, not even love from his family though he had worked like a SLAVE for years to provide for them – really he did work very, very hard with hardly a day off in a month…it was crazy). However, that didn’t give him the right to mentally torture other people and when I exploded they definitely did take note.
Why do you say you couldn’t have read a book like this when you left Japan? Nor your husband? Had you also experienced similar treatment ?
This was difficult to read, but very well written. I could visualize it perfectly. Having been bullied at school myself, to the point I became anorexic, I can completely relate and cheered when you finally unleashed your rage at him in the restaurant. My painful childhood was one of the major reasons why I decided not to have children myself. I am still dealing with the effects on my psyche to this day, as I was bullied not only by my peers but my father as well. It is only now in my 50’s that I am coming to peace with who I am and my self-worth.
I think it’s wonderful you are writing this book because you have such a gift of insight and the ability to articulate things that others feel but are not able to express. Please keep writing and sharing with us.
I am sorry to hear about your own history of bullying, – that sounds terrible – but glad that you seem to be gradually overcoming the worst of it. I feel fortunate that I wasn’t ever really bullied at school (I had enough to deal with already internally): luckily, I am quite fierce.
But the experience with Mr K was quite darkly enlightening for me. Witnessing someone be so cruel to someone IN PUBLIC, IN FRONT OF OTHERS and not being reprimanded for it, and then eventually when he turned on me and started deliberately humiliating me in front of other people about how I looked…it was pernicious and totally nasty. I truly had written up a document that I was about to hand to him, but then noticed that the other teachers must have said something in his absence because when I went back he had changed his attitude and was acting more like a normal human being.
Thank you for the encouragement with the book. As I said, I want it to be ultimately a positive experience, not a downer: however, I am totally not afraid to delve into the truth of certain situations as I know deep down that it is cathartic not just for me but for other people.
I read somewhere that an artist is a wound that heals.
My husband experienced very bad treatment in Japan as a Brazilian Japanese. Bullying and racism. Me: I experienced a micro-managed work place that operated under a system of blame. I can look back now and conclude that It was good that I started hating my Japanese work environment: it was hate that galvanized me to leave. I needed a push to give me the courage to start my own business, to try living in Brazil. Yes , this country is going through some shitty times now, but I’m happier here….work is important to me, and when I’m miserable at work—as I was working in Japan—that misery colors (or discolors) all facets of my life. So when I left, I had some raw feelings toward Japan running through me. I didn’t want anything to do with Japan, except the hate… I needed that hate to keep flowing so I could establish myself in Brazil, so I wouldn’t give up and return to Japan…. once I got settled here, after about a year, I could look back to my time in Japan and let the happy experiences, the beauty of Japan, take over…. Micromanaged work place, stupid-ass performance reviews that were manipulated, blaming the foreigner to divert attention from the real issues, impossible metrics: they no longer mattered, trivial in retrospect. The closest I came to being bullied was a troubled Japanese co-worker who would try to humiliate me by saying such things as (I’ll never forget it): “Please don’t look at me. Your blue eyes are creeping me out.” Lucky me to be able to sweep such nonsense away and remember dancing the night away at Kinsmen or Arty Farty instead…. these Paul Newman blue eyes served me very well in Ni-Choke, if you know what I mean, so f#ck you, Chie (that was her name)….My husband, on the other hand— I don’t think he’ll ever be able to sweep the bullying and racism away. For him, thinking about Japan is like scratching up a barely healed scar. It’s just best to keep the fingers away.
I can write all this and actually feel happy because, while writing, I forgot all about the coronavirus for 35 minutes at 3:47am on another night of insomnia. I can sleep now. Lucky me.
Ni-chome, not ni-choke….hahaha Not into that.
Wow. I have opened a Pandora’s Box. I have heard some of this before, I think – but the creeping you out blue eyes thing this is the first. This kind of racism always works every way round, of course. But still.
What you say about controversy below is very interesting. I totally agree with you about it. I personally think that intertwining the horrifying things that have happened with all the beauty would make it more interesting as a whole, more akin to what life is actually like.
Also, the reason I want my friend to translate each chapter as I do it is so that he, as a Japanese person, can evaluate the risks of what he thinks is too much, and so on, but without dulling the bite. There are SO many books on Japan that are way too obsequious (your husband would burn them in a great inferno); yes, the culture is exquisite, it is thrilling, but as we three know, there really is a dark side as well. AND I AM GOING TO WRITE ABOUT IT.
For me, racism is THE issue in the world. I have written about it quite a lot on here – sometimes pieces devoted entirely to that topic. People from this region have had a lot of heinous discriminatory treatment in the US and UK and everywhere else recently – being spit on, beaten up, verbally abused and so on. It disgusts me.
On Netflix there are countless documentaries we have watched about endemic racism towards African Americans – some of them have left me speechless. Completely horrified.
What you are talking about here is something that people in this country don’t want to talk about though; racism exists here in Japan just as much as anywhere else and that is a fact. My friend was coming up the hill to our house the other day and an old man physically tried to prevent him from doing so just because he looks different. This is rare, but we are already seeing foreigners being barred from restaurants in some place because of the coronavirus. People are idiots everywhere and need to be educated, basically.
The problem with writing about all of this is that it is all SO polemical and explosive. I don’t know if I have the skill to negotiate it all sensitively and not become a pariah. Obviously, historically, racism goes SO much the other way, the blue eyes looking down on the slave being whipped or the ‘natives’ being made to do whatever that I suppose some would say it is hard to have any sympathy when it goes the other way. But it is just as painful. Like my story recently when I was made to go to work when no one else was. To me it was pure discrimination.
Anyone’s comments on all of this very welcome.
Yes, writing about racism is always explosive. Writing anything negative about Japan is bound to cause controversy. Many Japanese and many foreign Japan-lovers might , unfortunately, overlook the beauty–the art–of your prose and grill you (over the internet, of course). It’s a risk. Of course, you could write a beautiful book just about the beauty of Japan, your home in Kamakura, making films, perfume-hunting, the flowers of Kamakura. It would still be a fantastic book.
My favourite singer/songwriter of all time, Chrissie Hynde, was put over the flames when she wrote her autobiography in 2015. She wrote about being gang-raped while high on quaaludes in the 1970s. In her book, she said it was her own fault. She was using drugs, she put herself in a dangerous environment by hanging out with bikers. Oh, the controversy erupted. She was accused of victim blaming. She responded by saying she was just telling her story. She refused to apologise. The interesting thing about this was that, in 1979, on the Pretenders debut album, she wrote a song about the incident called “Tattooed Love Boys.” The lyrics were graphic: “Changing tires/upstairs, bro/I shot my mouth off/and you showed me what that hole was for. Of course, there was no internet at the time, so no one made a fuss. In a Rolling Stone interview in 1980 she talked about the incident. She said something like “Well, for every act of sodomy I was forced to perform, I’m getting paid 10,000 pounds now.” Again, no internet, no Twitter, no FB or Reddit= no controversy…. The dirtiest, most scathing song about relationships I have ever heard in my life–still to this day–came out around the same time in 1979. Marianne Faithful’s “Why’d you do it?” Oh, dear it’s graphic. Again, I don’t remember a controversy….well, it’s not just the internet. Madonna courted controversy in the mid/late 80s, but there was MTV and 24-hour news….
I like controversy, I like art, I like discussions. I don’t like when people try to silence others from expressing their point of view. I don’t like when people overlook the art because they don’t like or approve of the content.
oops, i did it again with the long comment, but you said you don’t mind.
Wow Neil, this is a sobering account written with your characteristic vividness and passion. I am so glad “Yuina” had someone in her corner, but it scares how many people haven’t and this essay has opened my eyes to the silences we must always look at twice.
I was bullied at school by three girls, for being “posh” (not true, I was raised in a council house) ginger (true) and walking funny (possibly true although nobody else has ever commented since). I’ve also been bullied at work and have taken out official complaints each time. One colleague who never missed an opportunity to snipe at me, read my private medical records aloud to me including things I hadn’t even told my best friends. I complained and she was no longer allowed access to medical records. I don’t work there now and I’m so very glad.
For every Yuina we know about, my heart breaks for the ones we don’t.
What you are saying here is also seriously shocking me. She did that in public?
I know a lot of people who have been in similar situations. Women on women bullying is much more common than is acknowledged. Men can be arseholes, oh yes – but so can the ladies.
I am glad this post meant something to you and that you responded. Writing it was exciting – to get out the truth – but also mildly harrowing, and I felt quite vulnerable afterwards pressing publish. If people get something from it, though, I am delighted.
On the subject of the posh thing, I was also teased similarly: the gay male is often ‘immune’ to the local accent compared to his friends; some kind of self-protecting superciliousness taking over. I might have a tinge, but I could never have become a fully Brummy. The full Birmingham accent just wasn’t ever destined for me. D is the same with Norfolk. At school I was posh. At university with all the public school kids and aristocrats I was the one ‘from the north’- to them I sounded like someone from Coronation Street, even though I was from the Midlands.
Imagine if it had got out that I was dancing ballet to Tchaikovsky in my bedroom secretly as well…..
Thanks so much for writing this. x
Very illuminating and worthwhile (without being worthy) and more (ie a book) would be welcome…ignore the cliche of the ‘my experience in exotic Japan’ book and just do what you do so well, which is to write about things that many of us have seen/noticed/experienced/thought/recognised/felt in a way that makes the reader think ‘That is exactly what I saw/noticed/experienced/thought/recognised/felt but could not express’.
This is extremely encouraging and I am very grateful you have written this. You are right- I need to just do the whole thing unadulterated and not worry about precedents.
If I can express some of these things (that others also need to be expressed), then it feels like something essential. I am motivated!
That is a grim tale Mr Ginza, and powerfully told, but with balance. It flowed so well between the specifics of the story and general points about life and Japanese society.
I’d have liked to have heard about the results of your blow-up at the restaurant and Yuina’s situation in the aftermath, if that story can be publicly told.
Important: when published, can we have full bleed pages of your chosen images? Please?
The very best wishes to anyone bullied who you are still in touch with.
Thanks George. I REALLY want to write this book – I have so many stories to tell, honestly, so if it comes across as balanced I am very pleased. You have lived here so have had access to this atmosphere. It can be oppressive.
As for Y: she left that school, got married, had two kids, and now works for the kindergarten department. She couldn’t be happier.
At work, they just had to deal with it, as they knew that he was a monster and that I was right. I can be FIERCE x
> I can be FIERCE x
Er, yeah. That I know x
PS make sure about those pictures! They often really add to the mood of your pieces, and certainly do here.
I have never asked for copyright for a single image on this blog, even though I am hyperaware that the entire thing is full of illegal pictures. If someone asks me to take them down I will immediately, but so far nobody has……
A very gripping read. I am sure this will be an absolutely amazing chapter in your book. Most people think of the Japanese as being meek and polite to a fault, they never truly understand that their is a dark underbelly to all of that politeness.
You really need to get a manuscript ready and send it to a publisher, it will keep people enthralled and entertained through every chapter.
I hope so, and I think so too, but as yet am only seen as a perfume writer. The Japan book was something I was planning to do even before the perfume one! Thanks for the vote of confidence!
Amazing work! I finally got around to reading it all. As a fellow teacher, I believe your ijime story is very important in this tapestry that makes up life in Japan. Cant’ wait to read the book! I’m still working on mine.
Thanks very much. What tack are you taking with yours? I would like to read some. It is a never-ending task though, this place, isn’t it? Like most people I adore it but it makes me insane. AND YET WE CAN’T LEAVE.
I’m doing lesbian fantasy, and I’ll be sharing bits and pieces of it in the coming week or so. It’s about time, I guess.