Just Like You, Just Like Me
Back when my first daughter was about to be born
(over in Vancouver, Canada), her mother and I went through a period
where we were quite worried about what this child would look like. As
neither of us could be considered particularly handsome, we imagined
some nightmarish situations: say, her Japanese mother's fairly flat
face, with my somewhat impressive English nose stuck in the middle of
it ... things of that sort. We were thus quite relieved when the baby
turned out to have what seemed to be fairly 'standard' features (as
did the sister who came along a couple of years later).
To my eyes, I was happy to see that this new
little child turned out to have an almost completely Japanese
appearance. Her mother in turn, was happy to see that this new little
child looked almost completely Western! Were we seeing the same baby?
Of course we were. It was our own eyes that were different. As the
years passed, I came to realize that it was just not her mother and I
who saw things this way. Canadians who met my daughter commented on
her Japaneseness, and after we came to Japan, everybody here
instantly recognized her as a foreigner.
The reason for this seemingly paradoxical
behaviour is actually very simple, but has very wide ramifications.
Whenever we see something new to us, we only notice the differences,
never the similarities. My daughter's very Japanese nose and facial
shape were invisible to her Japanese mother, who noticed only the
Western eyes. This feature was unnoticed by me, who saw only those
points that seemed particularly Japanese.
This same sort of behaviour is also apparent on
wider scales. A traveller visiting a foreign country for the first
time looks about him in amazement ... the buildings, the people,
clothing, the food ... he sees all those things that differ from his
home environment. "How very different these people are from us." he
thinks. When he returns home, he is full of stories about all the new
things he has seen. His friends hear these stories, and their image
of that country as "... different from us ..." is thus
I can easily understand how, back in the days
before airplanes made travel a common part of our lives, and before
TV brought foreign images into our homes, this 'selective blindness'
of travellers created the general image that foreign lands were
indeed all strange places inhabited by strange people. What is less
readily understood is why, given these modern aids to contact and
communication, nothing seems to have changed.
In the case with which I am most familiar, that of
Japan seen by Western eyes, and vice versa, I simply have to think
back over my own experiences to see that this is true. Before I had
any actual contact with Japan, my knowledge of this country came from
books (mostly), the media (somewhat), and travellers to Japan or
actual Japanese people (rarely). The 'only see differences'
phenomenon came into play in a doubled form. The authors of those
books (mostly Westerners) of course emphasized differences, and then
I too, as I read, was mostly interested in differences, skimming past
anything that seemed too familiar. So when finally, after years of
this kind of advance 'preparation', I arrived on these shores, I was
quite convinced that I was about to enter a truly new world, where
nothing would be familiar, and where all the rules would be
different. How would I survive?
Well, of course I did. That was many years ago,
and I can now just laugh at those concerns and fears. I had no
trouble whatsoever integrating into life here, and becoming a
'normal' productive member of this society. This was possible because
although the books were right in basic fact - yes there were
differences - they had ignored the other 99% of the story ... people
are people. The Japanese were in all essentials, just like me. They
got up in the morning, went to the toilet, ate breakfast ... and so
on through the day. They had the same desires, the same needs, and
the same problems. They felt the same emotions, and the same bonds to
the people around them. Maybe that 99% figure I mentioned is indeed a
bit exaggerated. On further reflection, I think it should be revised
After all these years of living among the Japanese
people, I am now totally convinced that those presumed 'deep'
differences are in actual fact, nearly irrelevant. Shoes off/shoes
on. Pull tools/push tools. Eat rice/eat potatoes.
'Honne~Tatemae'/'straight talking'. Such differences count for
nothing when compared to the reality - two people standing side by
side, pretty much identical in biology, and pretty much identical in
real 'homo sapiens' culture.
My friend Emiko went to Egypt last year, not as
part of a tour package, but as an independent traveller. We asked her
before she went if she had been 'reading up' on the country in
preparation, but she told us that no, she didn't want to go with her
mind full of preconceptions. When she returned, after a couple of
weeks in that 'exotic' country, a group of us waited eagerly to hear
her tales ... but we were to be disappointed. She didn't have much to
tell us. Her host family had been completely 'normal', the father a
school teacher, the daughter a college student, etc. She said it was
like visiting her own family! Of course, she had a good time visiting
famous sights, and eating interesting food, but far and away the most
valuable thing she brought home was that even in an apparently very
exotic country such as Egypt, where the religion is different, the
food is different, and the climate is different - there is one thing
that is not different - the people. She learned in just a couple of
weeks what took me years to learn, and what many people never learn.
People are people. They are you and me.
I know we can't change human nature. We will
always tend to see foreign countries in this lop-sided way. It's just
the way we are. But it would be nice to think that we can also learn
to see other cultures as more like us, and less strange, less
threatening. I am waiting for that big day when the astronomers will
announce the news that they have finally discovered evidence of other
civilizations out there in space somewhere. Perhaps then we will
finally start to really understand how much alike we humans all are,
when seen in comparison with someone (something?) really
But there I go too, falling into the same trap.
Who knows, but that those aliens will probably turn out to be pretty
much just like us. Father a school-teacher ... Daughter a college
student ... Just neighbours in the Milky Way ...