A few years ago I found myself in conversation with a visiting American. A visiting liberal American. A visiting liberal American geek who had found himself locked up with his Japanese colleagues for the previous three days and was showing signs of mental fatigue.
We were standing outside a church in Roppongi, an entertainment district notorious for foreigners behaving badly. We were sober. He looked me straight in the eye and gushed, “I’m so glad to find another American! Someone who understands individuality! Independence! Freedom!”
By this time I had been living in Japan for more than a decade. I’d had 28 years of American individuality and one day decided to spend the rest of my life conspicuous as a sore thumb in the capital of conformity, so I sold all my stuff and moved to Tokyo.
Over the years the inscrutable became scrutable, which means “capable of being understood through study and observation; comprehensible” and is derived from the Latin word scrutabilis (searchable). I searched by means of immersing myself in Japanese society — learning the language, marrying a native and being a productive and participating member of various groups (family, company, neighborhood).
And reading. Kerr, Van Wolferen, Clarke, Holland … Bull, Marx, Loco, Abiko.
But mostly talking, shooting the shit with colleagues and neighbors. Conversations like “Hey, how do you Americans deal with such and such an issue?” I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I do this and that. “Eh?! I do something similar.”
My philosophy is a form of anonymity. By this I mean that I place priority on the most common denominator — our humanness — and seek to attract passively rather than actively promote myself. The search is for common ground and not for the differences that can divide. I adopted this philosophy while living in the USA! USA! USA! To date it has served me well in Japan because it forces me to look beyond the branding, to scrutinize.
I work in media. I edited a newspaper for a dozen years, and know the value of a good headline. I now work in PR, and craft some eye-catching headlines for client press releases. Media is a commodity to be sold and the headlines must entice an increasingly overwhelmed consumer. We know what works, which well has the sweetest water. So we go back to that well frequently. Well water is sweet to the undiscriminating reader, bitter to those of us who have tasted mountain springs.
Our Man in Abiko nails most of my pet peeves about foreign media coverage of Japan in his new ebook, How to Write About Japan. Buckets of brackish well water that stink of conformity (nails to be hammered down) and queerness (panty vending machines). A burqa is an illegal is a salaryman.
He does not touch on the role played by the Japanese national marketing collective in perpetuating certain stereotypes, which is unfortunate because that’s a topic deserving of scrutiny. Using four dozen nubile schoolgirls to promote Cool Japan isn’t the most progressive approach to national branding.
Nor do I completely agree with his comparing coverage of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident to a Hollywood Western, but that’s a minor issue. In the main, he … erm … strikes the nail squarely on the head. To quote a frat brother, “Scrutiny, people! Scrutiny!”
[Mea culpa: After publishing this post, I had an exchange on Facebook with a Japan-based journalist whom I have known professionally for several years, and who asked if the foreign media is treated as a monolith in Our Man's book. My answer was "Our Man does not distinguish between reporters who get it and those who don't - and arguably makes the mistake of practicing that which he rails against."]
As for the American in Roppongi … I knew not how to make him see the light, so I left him in the dark. And he was content.
Read more about Our Man in Abiko here: http://www.ourmaninabiko.com/
Or follow his hijinks on Twitter: @ourmaninabiko