Friday, August 22, 2008

I am. You are. We are gaijin.

There has been a bit of discussion recently in the Japanese press about the use of the word gaijin, as a label for non-Japanese.

Gaijin,  外人 , literally 'outside person', is most usually translated as 'foreigner'. Having negative connotations perhaps, but not necessarily racist.

But the depth and subtle nasty power of the term can only be seen when you compare it with the more politically correct  外国人 , gaikokujin, 'outside country person'.

Gaikokujin is a legal term, referring to foreign nationals. Gaijin is just used to mean 'non-Japanese' and as such is inherently rascist. It is used constantly, by all kinds of people, to refer to foreigners, especially caucasians. If you are a gaijin, it doesn't matter where you come from. It only matters that you are not Japanese. Even Japanese living overseas, for example my friends in Sydney, will cheerfully refer to Australians as gaijin, without any sense of irony. There is nothing necessarily malicious in its use, but you cannot argue that part of its function is not to exclude: it is about creating boundaries between 'us' and 'them'

It is not as bad as 'nigger' , but its innocence is only relative. It might be more usefully compared to a word like 'Jap'; popular right up to the 70s, but thought to be pretty offensive now in educated company. 'Jap' serves the same function as 'gaijin': it is a useful abbreviation that is racially-based. Which is what this issue is really all about: race. In the West nationality and race are increasingly separated, while in Japan they remain synonymous. That is why the term gaijin is offensive- it confirms ethnicity and reminds foreigners in Japan that they can never be Japanese.

It is true that the word is most often not meant to be offensive, indeed it can even be respectful. Thus you have the existence of the term gaijin-san,
'Mr Foreigner'. I have even on a couple of occasions heard the term o gaijin-sama, 'Honourable foreigner'. It is obvious the Japanese are often unaware of the negative nuance behind the word, which is why many are surprised if a foreigner is offended. But this surprise merely demonstates the insidiousness of the problem; it is symptomatic of the inherently racial view of the world held by the Japanese, a worldview of which they themselves are often not aware.

That is not to say that some cautious optimism in not appropriate. On Japanese television the preferred term in now gaikokujin, and there is a creeping sense of the issue among intellectual Japanese. I remember clearly one of my first days in Kagoshima, where a young primary school teacher, introducing me to the class, asked the children not to call me gaijin, saying that gaikokujin was the correct term. I was impressed. Of course, that didn't stop the kids, their parents, other teachers and the Board of Education cheerfully and without conscious malice referring to me as gaijin for the next three years.

And while I object to being called gaijin on intellectual grounds, practically it is impossible to battle. Being upset at being called 'gaijin' in Japan is like being upset at having to breathe air. It is not a battle that an individual can win. I have never been allowed to forget my gaijinness, but you take the good with the bad. That's what living in a foreign country is all about.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sumo is Fantastic

Sumo: Crowd surfing has yet to take off...

Sumo- ancient noble sport capturing the essence of Japanese ritual and history?

Or fat guys fighting in a circus freak show?

Whatever it is, I love it.

Essentially an absurd pastime, it is spiced up immeasurably by the atmosphere, the ritual and the trappings.

I am a big fan and quite an addict. I follow the banzuke, the rankings, and I love the top guys: the yokozuna, Hakuho and Asashyoryu. I've been to see a tournament twice, it's great, and well worth it, except that the box seats are about the size of my palm and are supposed to fit four people.

Once given the ridiculous premise, fat guys slapping each other up, the Japanese have taken these elements to their logical conclusions. The rikishi, the wrestlers, are not only fat, they are obscenely fat, but strong, like Americans with muscles. And you don't just get to see their bodies, their fat is displayed for the amusement of the crowd. Huge white shiny buttocks. Oceans of gut. Giant flabby thighs. On some level, it's a deliberate counterbalance to the rest of Japanese society, where anorexic flesh is covered up and hidden far more than in the West, and where most women just don't go to the beach for fear of somebody glimpsing their thighs. Which is not a problem, because the Japanese male can get to see all the tits and ass he wants at the sumo tournament...tits and ass...just the anatomical features missing in most Japanese women- tell me there is not something unconscious at work here! One can only conclude that sumo acts as some kind of pornography for Japanese men, giving them what they need and pandering to their homoerotic instincts in a safe 'sporting' environment.

The circus freak show element is likewise exaggerated. It is not enough to have the rikishi display their fat juiciness in front of crowds of drunk adoring shouting fans. The spectators are placed in rows at the bottom of the dojo, the clay wrestling platform. This dojo is much too small for these human whales to perform athletics on, so inevitably one or more of the rikishi fall off. To heighten the comic effect of this, in the front rows are placed the people it is most amusing to see being squashed: old dignified men drinking tea, nursing mothers, babies in prams etc. Truly it is good fun to see 200 kgs of fat fall into the crowd, scattering cushions, lunch trays and primly dressed women in all directions. By the way, injuries, which are common, almost never happen during the actual bout, but when the rikishi falls off the dojo. Not surprising when you think about what happens when all that muscle and fat falls 1.5 m onto the ground, cracking a skeleton meant to handle the weight of an actual human being.

As the actual bouts are over quicker than you can say 'Jenny Craig', the pre-fighting stage is extended to several minutes. The combatants glare at each other not once, twice, but three times before stomping back to their corner and giving their ass a nice big slap to work up the crowd. Then they grab a big handful of salt to throw on the ring and drive out evil spirits. Some of you may be interested to know that these evil spirits include women, who are never allowed onto a sumo ring. Then they finally charge each other and press their giant flabbering folds of muscle and slabbing flesh into each other and start pushing and shoving and pushing and shoving and grunting and moaning and sweating and grabbing and slipping and pulling until one falls over and they are all men.

The TV commentary is hilarious, it is worth the effort of following the sport just for the commentary. It is the only sport where you may hear a remark like,

"He'll be a much more effective competitor after he puts on about 20 kilos."

Sometimes the commentators say things that make you think there might be a more direct expression. For example, "Excessive forward contact resulted in some overleverage", might be usefully rendered as "The fat guy fell over" and "The average ozeki just doesn't have as much mobility," means "He's fat but he's fast", while "He looks to be in the best shape among the ozeki" simply means "He's the fattest."

And occasionally the peculiarity of the sport lends to the commentary a different possible interpretation. For example, the word "thrusting" seems to come up a lot, as in "he's thrusting for a better position now", while my personal favourite is "He achieved great extension with his thrusting." Surely an achievement of which any man could be proud.

But I do not mean to denigrate the sport. The wrestlers are fit and strong, and they follow a strict training regime- it is not easy to consume 20 pieces of KFC chicken every day.

No seriously, sumo is a great sport, it's just not... a real sport. It has about as much chance of getting into the Olympics as synchronised swimming.
Oh, wait...

Sumo: occasional mismatches do occur.