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Troublemakers ...


One of the most entertaining parts of my morning newspaper is the section that appears twice a week containing letters from readers. Most of the missives fall into one of a few common types: effusive 'thank yous' from tourists addressed to the 'polite' Japanese people; rather bitter complaints from somewhat longer-term residents about the 'impolite' Japanese people; sarcastic and cynical jibes at Japanese customs, behaviour or politics from people apparently unfamiliar with proverbs about sticks and glass houses; and then finally, the rebuttals and counter-rebuttals that commonly follow any of the above, including frequently hilarious 'corrections' to perceived slights in news stories penned by staff members in the embassies of insecure third-world countries.

The letters are usually far more engrossing than the 'serious' news that fills the rest of the paper. I've spoken about these sort of letters with Japanese friends on occasion, and find that they invariably have the same impression - that foreigners are a noisy bunch of complainers. I'm sure it's not that these friends feel that Japanese society is 'perfect' and that everything here is beyond reproach, but that they would prefer that problems be dealt with by methods somewhat more private and less confrontational than public whining.

Now in my tenth year of residence here, I too have been through some of the standard 'stages' that foreigners all seem to pass through when they come here to live. Do some of these words apply? (in no particular order!) Wonder ... euphoria ... disappointment ... cynicism ... understanding ... resignation ... acceptance ... I don't find myself writing to the newspapers too often, and on those few occasions when I have done, it was simply to make a point related to what I felt was an important news item, non-specific to any particular cultural group. I have tried to avoid being a 'complainer' here.

But the general feeling among Japanese that foreigners always have their fingers on the trigger, ready to complain at the slightest provocation, was driven home to me just yesterday afternoon, in a meeting with some members of the staff of the local community centre. At their request, I am holding a small exhibition of my woodblock prints in the centre early next year, and yesterday's short meeting was being held to go over some details of the preparation, posters and suchlike.

On any number of occasions during the conversation, as they brought up various points for discussion, it became apparent to me that they were expecting me to offer resistance to their suggestions. The young lady responsible for the posters was nervously apologetic as she explained to me that as the paper and printing methods for producing the posters differed from my methods of producing prints, the colours on the poster may not exactly match my finished work. Of course, I simply shrugged and commented that I was sure that nobody would be inspecting the posters so closely, and they were simply a way of informing people about the exhibition. She wasn't ready to leave it at that; "But please understand that the colours may be slightly different ..." I didn't care, and said so again, but I know that she didn't believe me. A few weeks from now, when she shows me the finished poster, I am sure she will be waiting for my 'explosion'. When we discussed probable attendance figures for the show, they explained that as this was to be a small and rather informal affair, that I shouldn't expect huge crowds and long line-ups. Again, I shrugged off their concerns, and suggested they not worry about such things; I had a quite realistic view of what to expect. And again, they repeated their concerns, trying to defuse my grounds for complaint ...

It became apparent to me that they must have had some kind of bad experience in a similar situation at a previous time, and had thus been 'trained' to expect trouble from foreigners. At every moment they were 'on edge', waiting for me to start making trouble. I don't think that I ever did manage to put them at ease and convince them that I wasn't going to cause any problems, and that I was just happy they were making so much effort to help publicize my work ...

It reminded me of a similar situation I encountered earlier this year, when a casual acquaintance of mine (an elderly Japanese man) was involved in organizing an art exhibition that featured works by foreigners. He had real horror stories to tell; of actually being threatened with violence by an 'artist' unhappy with the way his works had been hung, and then of acting as middle-man between a gallery owner and a foreign artist, and being caught in the subsequent litigation ... So few of the people he dealt with were willing to accept that he was working on their behalf, doing the best he could to help them. They only focused on what they thought were problems, ignoring the 'good side' of the situation.

But now that I've spent a couple of pages trying to portray myself in your eyes as a non-complainer, a 'nice guy', somebody who focuses only on the 'good side' of a situation - and certainly not a troublemaker, I have to confess that such an attitude on my part was sorely tested one day this week by an experience at my local bank ... (At hearing this word 'bank', I am sure that those of you familiar with Japanese consumer banking practices are nodding your heads sagely at this point, knowing what to expect, but no, it's not that aspect of banking that concerns me at the moment ...)

I visited my local branch to make a money transfer for a purchase I had recently made, and as I entered the office, noticed that one entire side of the room had been transformed into a Christmas display. I didn't stop to look closely, but just took it in at a glance as I made my way to the counter to fill out the paperwork; it seemed to be a village of miniature buildings, most with lights twinkling in the windows ... tiny figurines standing here and there ... artificial 'snow' drifted about ... It was a very large display, four or five meters wide, quite spectacular. Somebody had obviously gone to a great deal of time and trouble to set it up. As I put my papers in at the teller's window, the young lady gestured towards the display, "Please take a look at our Xmas decorations ..." She was obviously quite proud of what they had built.

As I waited for my transfer to be processed (with no complaints about how long it was taking!), I wandered over to see their presentation. And here, I have to ask for your assistance - can you think of some expression I could use stronger than '... his jaw dropped in stunned amazement'? Because I am sure that that is exactly what happened - I stood there in absolute astonishment, with my mouth hanging open stupidly. The buildings of the display were just what one would expect to see, two and three story 'brick' structures, windows all aglow, miniature doors festooned with holly, and roofs dusted with snow. No problem.

But the figurines! Marching in from one side of the display, arrayed in precise ranks, came file after file of toy soldiers. Not 'Nutcracker' style old-fashioned tin soldiers, but men of a more modern appearance. Soldiers in jet black uniforms, wearing polished leather boots, right arms held high in salutes as they goose-stepped across the snowy scene, red-and-black swastika flag waving at the head of the column ... A hundred or so Nazi soldiers.

Off to each side were the 'opposition'. On the far right were the Americans, dug into emplacements and firing their machine guns in the general direction of the Germans. On the far left were the British, with a few model aircraft and some lorries in place to support their men. And spread above this scene of 'peace and goodwill', in large gold-coloured letters pinned to the cloth backdrop ... glittered the seasonal motto ... 'Merry Christmas'!

I'm not sure what else to say to you. I presume that one of the branch employees collects model soldiers as a hobby, and some misguided soul in charge of preparing the bank's Xmas decorations thought that these 'toys' would make a suitable addition to the display ... The notion of celebrating Christmas is relatively new in this country, and what experience most Japanese have of it runs mainly to department store displays of Santa Claus surrounded by toys. The idea that there is some underlying message to all the celebration is pretty much foreign here. (... but was I saying something earlier about 'glass houses' ...)

I didn't have the heart to say anything to the nice girl at the window when I went to pick up my receipt ... nor did I write to my newspaper fulminating about what I had seen ... I didn't see any reason to cause bad feelings among people who after all were simply trying to spread what they considered to be a bit of 'Christmas cheer'.

But what do you think? Should somebody tell them?