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).
I was happy to see that this new little child
turned out to have an almost completely Japanese appearance. Her
mother though, 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
The explanation 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
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
much contact with Japan, my knowledge of this country came mostly
from books, the media, and travellers to Japan or rarely, actual
Japanese people. 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 that, when after years of this kind of advance
'preparation' I finally arrived on these shores, I was 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 completely identical in
real 'homo sapiens' culture.
Our 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 ...