I honestly don’t know how to say what I want to here, so I’m going to start with the title and move out from there. That seems to work for me, sometimes.
I have completely stopped my study of Japanese, and I don’t know if I will ever start again. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to start again. Because everytime I engage with Japanese or Japan in any meaningful way, it hurts. A lot. And I haven’t quite figured out why.
Maybe I feel like I’ve failed at it, and certainly there’s a bit of that. Every day that I don’t study is another day where the knife gets twisted in, as people who speak much better Japanese than me get better, and I don’t. That’s not their fault, though, that’s mine, clearly. The solution to that is obvious – keep studying. Then I would get better. But no, there’s something else going on there, something I don’t entirely understand.
I think there’s something about their culture that really calls to me, and repulses me, at the same time. And maybe that’s best expressed by comparing it to my culture.
American culture is very, well, free-wheeling. Truth is, if you think you understand American culture, and you’re not American, well, you really don’t. I don’t mean you’re stupid or anything, you just don’t understand it. We really base our entire cultural identity on doing what we want. The more extreme of us say “and damn everyone else”, and the less extreme say “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else”, but it all comes out the same in the end. Generally, rules are suggestions, and if you don’t want to follow the rules, well, generally, nothing will happen to you. If I were to go out onto the side of the street dressed like Gandalf and slam my staff on the ground yelling “YOU SHALL NOT PASS”, well, two things would happen. People would think I was weird, and people would pass. But generally people would just laugh or high five me, or take a photo, and then move on. Maybe someone would call the police, the police would come, ask me what I’m doing, they’d assess me as not a danger to myself or others, tell me not to go into the street, and leave. That’s what life in the US is like. Would I do that? Probably not. But I could.
But Japan is not really like that. They have rules. But those rules are a double edged sword, just as the lack of rules is a double edged sword. In Japan, unless you’re in like Akihabara or some place like that, if you stand on the side of the road dressed like Gandalf and shout whatever the equivalent of that is in Japanese, the police might come up to you and tell you to stop. That is, if you could get past the deep societal shaming that you’d encounter in the first place that would stop you from even trying. The rules exist, and you must follow them.
They’re a double edged sword, though, because in Japanese culture, you know what to expect. If you break the rules, you get in trouble. If you don’t break the rules, you’re fine. But you know what to expect. You can expect a kind of regularity to life there that you can’t really expect here. You follow the rules, and everything’s fine. No surprises. You do this, that happens. You don’t do this, that happens, or doesn’t.
You don’t get that here.
And that very much mirrors the experience I had in the cult I was growing up. The rules were different, but they were just as regular. You know what was expected of you, and you know what to expect from others, even if that’s not what they wanted to be deep inside. Tatemae is a very real thing for me, and I rather miss it. You knew when people were mad at you. They were still polite.
But it’s difficult being on the outside, when you don’t know the rules, you already know people are silently judging you for not following them, for not being Japanese, for being a stupid gaijin. You know you can’t follow the rules. But it would be nice to be a part of such a rules-following society again. Because whatever there is to say about American culture – we don’t follow rules. At least when we can avoid it. Ever.