Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Paranoid Tourist - Voyeurism and Persecution in Japan

I've noticed a recurring theme when Westerners describe their experience of coming to Japan to the first time - if you are not East Asian, you are likely to be stared at. The stares, as a friend of mine described her own first experience, are not friendly or curious - they're the kind of stares that make one feel less than human, like an object, and most often an impediment. They are from strangers, passing in the street, young and old. This has been represented in culture, most famously by "Lost in Translation", which conveys the sense of alienation and self-consciousness  pretty well. I experienced it myself, both back when I was a kid living in Nagoya, and then for the first few months of being back in Tokyo in 2005 or so.  This stare (back when I was a kid) was part of my dawning perception of racial and cultural difference.  Why, I found myself wondering, was I getting treated like this?

But here's the weird thing about the staring - at least in my own experience, after a certain period of time, it has almost entirely vanished. There are two variables here - obviously, Nagoya in 1990 was a vastly different place culturally than Tokyo in 2005, and so of course the oddity of a foreigner for the people doing the staring is vastly less overall for this second go-round.  My sense of being stared at in Tokyo was never as great as I remember it being in Nagoya, and I certainly never had an experience in Tokyo like the horrifying afternoon when an Obaachan wanted to touch my brother's (curly, blonde) hair.  I did nonetheless feel stared into alienation in Tokyo, even in 2005 - but that sense was gone, maybe after my fifth month here.  There's no reason to look to a shift in the culture of the city to explain that transition.  It's certainly not that my physical appearance has changed, either - if anything I'm weirder looking, with a couple of extra tattoos and a topknot.

There are two explanations that I find compelling for this shift - actually, one explanation with two parts.  The first is that I am not looking for these stares anymore, because I have stopped thinking of myself as an outsider.  As my language skills and cultural savvy have advanced, the idea that I'm a stranger in some radically alien culture has simply gone away.  So maybe I'm still being regarded as a weirdo everywhere I go, but my eyes aren't constantly scanning the faces around me to find confirmation of my own alien-ness.  But I don't think it's simply that I'm not noticing that I'm being stared at - as we all know from experience, humans are extremely good at knowing these things, based on very minimal information.  We have a kind of spider-sense about being stared at, and I simply don't get that tingle with much frequency anymore.

That brings us to my second, related point - that I'm genuinely not being stared at, because I'm not expecting to be stared at.  I think we send out subtle signals that we regard ourselves as odd or unusual, and people respond to those by treating us that way.  The eyes may be the most important of these signals - if I'm constantly checking the faces of those around me for either approval or disapproval, and if I'm moreover projecting insecurity, I'm inviting hard stares, even from people who would probably be nice to me in a more in-depth interaction.

All this is important because it's easy to see this staring as a sign of racism or other deep-seated cultural prejudice against non-Japanese (at least against those recognizable as such).  But more than some hostility based on cultural boundaries as such, I think it might be safer to attribute this (and I'm not the first to say this) to a general Japanese resistance to those who don't belong.  This belonging doesn't necessarily have much to do with things like skin color, appearance, or clothing (though I'll grant it's probably easier for a white person to 'settle in' here than for darker folks), but with body styles, posture, and particularly, with how one uses one's eyes. I am always paranoid about being seen as 'a tourist' - even when I was new here, you'd rarely find me with my map out, neck craned, slowly shuffling down the street in obvious confusion.  But on a much more subtle level, it might be impossible to conceal one's outsider status - I'm reminded here of the research on subconscious micro-expressions that Gladwell reports on in Blink.

The case is a demonstration of the basic concept of intersubjectivity - that who we are as people is constructed in the confrontation with others.  If I think of myself as an outsider - if I'm intimidated by what's going on around me - I invite reinforcing responses from others, and this continues until I'm once again comfortable in my own skin, in my new context.

Do you still feel like you're being started at in Japan?  How do you respond? Or have you, like me, gotten comfortable and stopped noticing it?


Kara said...

I only spent six weeks in Japan, but the first week was dreadful. Everyone stared at my hair, wouldn't sit by me on the train, crossed the street to avoid me, etc. It was devastating. One day, I just stopped caring about it and sure enough, as you observed, the staring stopped. Part of the staring, I agree, is due to "not belonging," but I realized that part of it was perhaps simply a matter of personal safety. In my own country, if someone was skulking down the street, eyes darting about, I would keep an eye on him or her, as well. *shrug*

Nice post, anyway. I followed a link on Twitter to get here; will come back and read again.

David Z. Morris said...

Thanks for the comment, always glad to have corroboration for my crazy theories.