A recent issue of Newsweek had an interesting article by Cathie Gandel in the My Turn section. She says that at 5' 10" and as a fair haired foreigner in Japan, she felt as conspicuous as a "nail that stood out". Japanese society is quite homogeneous and conformity with tradition is highly valued. Children are admonished by elders not to be too eccentric or individualistic because as a popular Japanese saying goes - "the nail that stands out gets hammered down." Gandel's analysis of this Japanese trait is mostly correct. But I found some of her other assertions a bit surprising. She says this of her experience at a women's communal steam bath, the ofuro:
I tiptoed into the small inner sanctum of the women's ofuro (communal bath) at the small ryokan (inn) in the Japan Alps. Following custom, I had left my clothes in the outer dressing room, bringing only a small towel with me. The steam rising from the square wooden tub obscured the small window, hiding the tiny garden outside.
Unfortunately, the steam did not hide me, a tall, fair-haired, light-skinned foreign woman. As I sat on the little plastic stool and turned on the wall tap to start the prewash cycle, I became aware of sidelong looks, gasps, muted giggles and a sudden exodus of the Japanese women and children. I must have resembled a gorilla in the mist, or the repulsive creature that was Sigourney Weaver's nemesis in another of her movies. After all, that's what I was to these women: an alien, a gaijin.
Gandel makes much of her size and foreignness among the petite Japanese. I don't want to sound unkind to her because I am sure that she is truthful in her assertions that she felt awkward - like Gulliver among the Lilliputs. She indeed describes her Japanese experience much like that of a bull in a delicate china shop. But I wonder how much of this awkwardness was caused by her own self-consciousness and not so much by the actual "gawking and giggling" of Japanese onlookers.
I simply love traveling in Japan. At five foot nothing, I do not stand out in height but am definitely a "foreign" looking Asian among the Japanese. My own experience in several small and big cities of Japan was nothing like Gandel's. I don't speak any Japanese except the obligatory "Arigato gozai mas" (thank you). Yet I found the Japanese to be unfailingly polite, helpful and patient with my efforts at communication, using English and wild hand gestures. At some restaurants, the owner would stand by the table and guide me and my husband through an exotic meal. The taxi driver who drove us to the top of the volcanic Mount Unzen in Nagasaki, handed me a gift at the end of the trip - during the drive my husband had casually mentioned that it was my birthday. In trains, on the streets and in stores, I found the average Japanese to be very polite and welcoming. Ms Gandel makes a few sweeping statements in her article. I will take the risk of making one of my own. Speaking as a person who was born in India, my experience is that Indians stare, the Japanese DO NOT. I have been to several of those communal hot spring baths in Japan - no women or children left upon my arrival. Also, unless there is overt hostility, why would we need to feel just like everyone else to enjoy a foreign experience? (Mind you, I am not talking about "living or settling down" in another country but visiting for a short or even a longish period).
It is important to note that all Asians do not look or sound alike - so it is not just a westerner who "stands out" in Japan. There was a lively discussion under way at Concurring Opinions a couple of days ago regarding the controversy that has erupted by the casting of Chinese actors in the new movie, Memoirs of a Geisha. Many would say, "What's the big deal? I can not tell the difference." But the Japanese are not pleased as indeed they can tell the difference. Whether this should interfere with an enjoyable movie viewing experience, is another matter all together.