Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Of all the possible conversations between a non-Japanese and a Japanese, the one that will cause the latter the biggest awkwardness and will probably create a serious rift in the relationship between them, is when the former will compare his country with Japan to the benefit of the second. Although the Japanese often complain about several aspects of their country, both as regards to its nature (the weather, the earthquakes, the terrain) and to its society (the politicians, the pressure in the work-space, the aging of the population) and although besides all these they love hearing someone praising it, in reality they can’t comprehend someone not loving his or her land in the same way they love theirs. In other words, they find it impossible to not find it impossible to live in a country other than your own -this is probably one of the main reasons they have a difficulty in accepting immigrants, whether they are foreigners coming to live in Japan or Japanese going to live elsewhere.
What I’m referring to here is not patriotism or nationalism -not that these sentiments can’t be found in Japan. I am talking about a feeling shared, openly or secretly by all Japanese: that they are so tightly linked to their country that even the idea of abandoning it is a cause of almost physical nausea. Even the possibility of a temporary work-related transfer or a post-graduate study abroad, although in theory is considered as an unavoidable part of “internationalized Japan”, in fact it isn’t thought of as something good -even if the interested party sees it that way, the society probably doesn’t. Hence that many Japanese who have lived for a long time abroad, decide not to return: not because the other country offers them more than Japan (that’s impossible) but because if they return they will be the object of finger-pointing and they won’t be allowed (in the oblique and always polite ways of their compatriots) to re-integrate. Being Japanese is a tightrope demanding constant effort -if you fell from the rope, the possibilities you’ll climb again are very few.
In a recent “Letter” I used the Galapagos Islands analogy in reference to the Japanese mobile phones. But with time, I tend to the conclusion that the most characteristic example of this analogy are not the telephones but the Japanese themselves. After 32.000 years of life in this impossibly hard land they have managed to create an ecosystem -literally and figuratively speaking- which although not perfect (and what is, anyway?) is perfect for them. Therefore, their relationship with it defies most people’s notions of “homeland” and their use of it to define themselves. The cliché “Japan is the Japanese and the Japanese are Japan” can be said for all peoples and for all lands and, literally speaking it is correct but my personal feeling is that here it is true in a different and much more intense, broad and profound way -despite the fact that the often introverted manner of the Japanese doesn’t allow casual observers to perceive it in its entirety.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.