August 7, 2007

Why Japan ought to give me a Peace Prize

Filed under: asia,Japan,politics — Kim @ 6:27 pm

I’ve been an English teacher for a fair while now and over the years I’ve come to realize that one of the things that goes along with the job is being an ambassador for my homeland of England.

I realise that may sound a tad pompous, but what I mean is that in my experience a worryingly high number of people -and perhaps especially Asian people – will tend to form an opinion about an entire country and culture based on a couple of people they have met, and in extreme cases on a single random encounter with a complete stranger. So, whether I like it or not I am, to an extent, “representing England” out here in the far flung Orient.

And also, of course, I get a fair few questions from curious students asking me to explain this, that, or the other about England or Britain. They are usually sensible questions and sometimes thought-provoking…and occasionally totally off-the-wall. One Japanese university Freshman, for example, asked me “Do you have trains in England?” and I had to double check if she knew what she was asking and she did and had no idea why it was a strange question. Ho hum.

In any case, I am not a particularly proud Brit, otherwise I would live there I guess, but I do think it’s a reasonably civilized and definitely interesting country and when asked I always try to do my best to explain it -warts and all- to Johnny Foreigner.

All of which being a preamble to the fact that it has come as a bit of a surprise to me lately to find myself acting as an ambassador and apologist for Japan!

I had no idea until I came here how much dislike and often outright hostility many Chinese still feel towards the Japanese. And what surprises me most perhaps is that its the young who seem to get het up the most. I mean, I imagined they wouldn’t care so much about events that happened so long ago. I’ve often heard it mentioned that for young Chinese the events 18 years ago in Tiananmen are just too distant to remember….so why do they fixate on “what Japan did to my country” all those years ago?

Of course part of being young is having a cause to get excited about and part of being a nationalist is hating your enemy, and young Chinese come across as quite nationalistic to me. It’s the summer holidays now and in my part-time job at private school the little darlings are getting some extra English improvement in. So, when I have a class with a few youngsters in and introduce myself by saying that I have lived in Japan, or whenever Japan comes up in any discussions, I know what’s coming when one of them gets a spark in their eye and asks me “Do you like Japan”? I guess they are hoping I say “no I don”t” but from several experiences in the last few weeks I absolutely know they are waiting to tell me how much they dislike Japan.

Now, I lived in Japan for 3 years and liked it. Not unreservedly of course, for example I found many Japanese difficult to get to know and often a little bit too clannish and up their own arses about being Japanese. But, by and large, they are undeniably a polite, upbeat and helpful bunch and I felt welcomed and happy there. But also, even if I had had a shit time in Japan I would still challenge Chinese anti-Japanese comments because it’s basically ignorance and lazy nationalism.

So that is why I get a bit stroppy myself with some of these young Chinese with anti-Japanese characteristics. When they ask me if I like Japan I lay it on a bit thick with my praises of Japan. I like to watch their surprise and indignation when I say how friendly and kind and funny I found Japanese people to be and how much I think they would also get to like Japanese themselves if only they would put their prejudices aside and talk to some young Japanese people. And then I ask them if they actually know any Japanese at all, and they invariably don’t. So how can you say you don’t like them if you don’t know them then, I ask. I then tell them my wife is a proud Chinese but that doesn’t stop her from liking Japan and having Japanese friends.

Just occasionally the argument gets into deeper waters if they go on to mention how they hate Japan because “Japan refuses to apologise for what they did to China” and the Yasakuni shrine, high school history textbooks, comfort women etc etc comes up. This is a tougher one because it is well known that some Japanese politicians and nationalists refuse to apologise and indeed don’t think they have anything to apologise for (the twats) but I point out that every country has nationalists and in a country with freedom of speech (Japan is better than China in this respect I tell them) you have to put up with stupid nationalists spouting off their hate-based, half-baked, ignorant opinions. I then point out that actually many Japanese history teachers/academics/journalists do teach/write that the Japanese invasion of China was “a bad thing” and that many Japanese are apologetic about their recent history. This is true in my experience.

The Japanese are conformist in many ways, but there is definitely much more public debate going on over there about the pros and cons of teaching nationalism/patriotism in schools than is allowed in China.

And for the occasional arseholes who won’t listen to anything I’m saying I deal the killer blow by saying (lying) that I much prefer Japanese food to Chinese food because Chinese cooking is too greasy and oily.

Shock! Horror! Denial!

“Hey”, I tell them, “I’m only joking! You guys don’t seem to have a good a sense of humour as my Japanese students.”

Actually, not all my students by any means are anti-Japanese (I’d say it’s about 50-50) but the more vocal ones usually are and that is why I feel a duty to argue against them when I can.

Now can I have my Peace Prize please, Mr Abe?


  1. “actually many Japanese history teachers/academics/journalists do teach/write that the Japanese invasion of China was “a bad thing””

    I think we have to define what MANY means. Because the Japanese haven’t elected the type of people you mentioned to rule the country. This subsequently means that the MAJORITY of the Japanese people are still OK with the actions (WWII issues included) of their government.

    Comment by Carl — August 8, 2007 @ 8:55 am

  2. I don’t think Carl is correct. People don’t necessarily vote for someone who is going to try to resolve issues that are concerned with events from decades ago. They’re more interested in voting for people who are going to help them now. Too bad for China, but I think for most Japanese a strong economy now takes precedence over worrying about Chinese nationalist trumpeting. (Yes, I realise that better relations with China might help the Japanese economy.)

    Comment by Sean — August 9, 2007 @ 7:39 pm

  3. I agree with Sean. He is very smart. I hope he posts more. I dont understand Calr. He makes me confused.

    Comment by Alobar — August 11, 2007 @ 3:48 am

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