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Monday, May 23, 2011

Rivalry, Competition, and Assholism in Japan

When I was teaching English, I worked with a guy who greeted me every day by saying "Oh, Bobby! MY RIVAL!" He was a goofy, funny-looking guy, and a bit anti-social. After numerous attempts to start regular conversations with him, I realized he wasn't comfortable talking to people without putting on some sort of anime-style voice/character. He did it with Japanese co-workers as well, and the "rival" joke was one of his favorites, despite the fact that after the first few meetings, it made everyone feel really awkward. I'd guess it was his way of dealing with low-self esteem by taking his notion that he didn't measure up to some of the PE teachers, the cool crowd, or the foreigner, and turning it into something he could laugh at.

Rival is a popular loan word, pronounced "raibaru; ライバル" in Japanese. Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the competitive nature of people in general, about our tendency to measure ourselves against one other. By no means do I intend to imply that any of what I'm going to talk about are phenomenon exclusive to Japan, but in turning over ideas about rivalry in my mind I've found that living here has given me a lot to talk about.

My coworker's idea of rivalry, for one thing. I think about things in a competitive way. I keep track of how badly Ciaela blows me away in the YouTube subscription department, for example. And I figure a lot of my progress in Japanese has been motivated by feelings of competition with my Japanese speaking foreign friends. But I've never actually considered anyone a rival. I can't help but wonder if it's because I didn't play a lot of sports as a kid. Here, where the students dedicate SO much more time to competitive activities with the explicit goal of making it to a national competition, no matter WHAT the activity, and there are a proliferation of competition-based manga and anime, maybe Japanese people are more socially conditioned to think of others as rivals?

When I first registered with the modeling agency in Fukuoka (which I discuss here), at one of the walking classes, the teacher addressed all of the new models and said "Just to be clear, the people around you... these are not your friends. They're your rivals. When you go for an audition, you're competing with them, and you need to know your strengths, as well as their weakness." He went on to add "For example, Bobby's strength is that he's a foreigner, and his weakness is that he's bad at modeling." What he said was entirely true, but at the time, I entertained the thought that he was demonstrating his point by treating me as a rival from the start.

As a consequence of this kind of thinking, in the entertainment industry, your coworkers, at least those who are also your peers, never quite relate to you as friends. When you watch Japanese TV shows, you see the "talento" making fun of each other a lot, and it's mostly good natured. Behind the scenes, everyone acts civil enough, but the rivalry that goes on is actually pretty intense. Even when you're working together on the same show, the people that I work with seem like they want to get as much screen time, as much talking time as possible, even if that means doing what's called "nakama hazure," leaving someone out.

Personally, I find it hard to participate in on-screen banter even without the competition. Trying to keep up with a fast-paced conversation, full of jokes and pop-culture references is hard. There's often a lag before I can catch on and respond, and that window is all the opportunity my co-reporter needs to make his or her joke and bring the camera back to him or herself. On a few rare occasions, I've even had a co-worker compliment me on something funny I said during rehearsal, and then turn around and use it themselves during the live broadcast.

I don't hold anything against them for it. The more they speak on air, the funnier they prove themselves to be, the better it is for their career. And I'm probably the only one on the show that isn't concerned about my long-term career, not to mention everyone else has probably worked harder than me just to get there.

There's another show that I've started work on recently, loosely titled "Ikemen Gakuen" or "Hot Guy School." In it, two famous Japanese comedians teach a class of 12 "cool dudes" random stuff. It's not so much of an education as it is an excuse to make models sumo wrestle each other, and eat all kinds of food (the latter half being the prototype for all Japanese TV).

I know a handful of the other models in the room, and it's surprisingly easy to look around and put the 12 dudes into groups. There are the ones who speak when spoken to, and don't get very much screen time, the ones who don't speak even when spoken to and get less, and then there are the ones who really want to be talento, and they speak CONSTANTLY, which means cutting each other off, and interrupting the "teachers," as well. The last group, of course, is the one that's most likely to get more jobs in the future. You have to be willing to assume the role of the rival to have any kind of success.

But if you know any competitive people, you also know that merely being competitive doesn't make you successful. In fact, a lot of people use a willingness to engage in rivalry as overcompensation. Here I'd like to make an awkward segue into areas of competition between foreigners in Japan.

A long time ago, I remember reading a blog about the 10 types of foreigners you'll meet in Japan. It's pretty mean spirited, but also accurate in places, especially when it comes to the "My Japan" types.

I look at it this way: On a surface level, Japan REALLY likes foreigners. If you're the kind of person who can survive on shallow praise, Japan is the perfect country for buying your own hype. And once you start buying your own hype, it becomes all too easy to start participating in it.

"My Japan" types have forgotten that they're not as special as Japan tells them they are, and because of that, when they meet a foreigner who threatens that belief, you'd be surprised by how blatantly obvious the competitions can get.

(I stopped myself from using the term "alpha-male" just now, and then on reflection realized that I've never come across a woman who was obnoxious about her status as SUPER-Gaijin. Hmmm.)

By far the funniest shut-down of such behavior I've ever heard of was from Ciaela. She was drinking with a group of foreigners at a bar. A westerner that they didn't know approached them and said "Hey. How long have you guys been in Japan?" Then, without really listening to or waiting for an answer, he blurted out "Oh, cool. I've been here for 12 years now. And I'm not an English teacher or a student, like you guys probably are." Whereas I would've quietly tolerated him and hoped he would go away, she said "Oh that's nice. Does your Japanese wife know that you're out tonight?" and shut him the hell up.

The competition that I've noticed seems to go on a lot more among people who've been here longer, but I'm not really sure why. I was at a barbecue a few months ago, and met a guy who'd spent some time in Nagasaki and recently moved in closer to Saga. I'll call him Warren, because I think that was his name.

Warren, American, mid-20s, English teacher. He speaks exceptional Japanese, complete with regional accent, and when I came up to the group of Japanese people he was talking to, he was making fun of a girl there because she spoke with an Australian inflection. Without really addressing him, I told her that she shouldn't feel bad about it, because a lot of Americans find that accent attractive: they 憧れる。I asked him if he'd ever heard anyone say that they thought Australian accents were sexy. He said "Those people are fucking stupid."

I kind of cocked my head and smiled awkwardly, and he jumped back in right away with "Dude, that was just a joke."

So I had already written him off as an alpha male type with a sense of humor VERY different from mine (Does that actually count as a "joke?"), but I had a few more occasions to talk to him during the night. On one, he asked me what I was doing, and I said I was trying to get my cooking blog off the ground, working in restaurants, etc, etc. He said "Oh, you like cooking? I can teach you how to make Fillipino food."

There was this INSTANT elevation of the conversation to "This is what I can do and I can do it better than you." And then, later when someone else was asking me to tell them my blog address, and I was getting ready to hand them my business card, he said "Dude, I swear to God, if you pull out a meishi, I'm gonna slap you."

I can see his point of view a little bit here. A foreigner with a business card can come off as a little bit... pretentious. If that foreigner is an ALT. But if you do any kind of business at all, in any country, especially one that depends on publicity and networking, you need to have a business card. So why such a negative reaction? To me, I had a piece of paper with my blog address on it. Handing it to a person who wanted it was easier than searching for a pen and a different piece of paper and writing it out. There was nothing strange or out of place about it. But to him, I looked like one of those "MY JAPAN" guys making a move, and he wanted to discredit it, lest I usurp him.

These kinds of interactions happen a lot, and they boil down to the same phenomenon as the TV shows: other people are your rivals for attention. He wanted all the talk time.

On TV, I get by because I don't have to be as pro-active in seeking out chances as my co-workers. As the modeling teacher pointed out, that's my strength: just being a foreigner means I stand out. They want me to talk more, so they'll meet me halfway.

In the personal sphere, I've learned to ask people a lot of questions about themselves. I think I picked that up from my wife. It's something I've always admired about her. She's lived in foreign countries, traveled all around the world, and yet, when we're talking to some backpacker who just toured SE Asia, she doesn't go: "Oh, I've been there too, weren't the fried bananas great. I also went to THIS island, did you go there? You should," like most people do. She just asks questions. And most of the time EVERYONE has a better conversation for it.

I'm not as good at it as she is, but I definitely don't feel the need to dominate the floor. Believe it or not, as much as I plaster myself all over the internet, I'm not really a spotlight seeker at social scenes and I'd rather laugh at someone else's jokes than talk about myself at length.

Which is one of the reasons I gather a lot of Japanese "friends" who, when it comes down to it, I don't think we actually like each other. I don't like them because I know that they want to be my friend for all the same surface reasons that Japan likes foreigners, which I find dehumanizing and immature. So I smile and answer their questions politely, and am friendly when we meet in town (which happens a lot when you work service industry in a small city). But I find reasons to decline invitations to their parties, or to go out with them and their friends, because I don't want anything deeper than that.

I think that most of them probably don't like me because they've figured out that I don't want to be friends with them. But then there are people who clearly haven't figured that out, and I think that they also secretly don't like me. I get the sense that they really like having a foreign acquaintance because it confers "status" on them. But at the same time, they're jealous. This is a pretty arrogant claim to make, I know, but think about it. We're popular for no reason. They don't know that it can be really frustrating here. They know we get to drink free a lot, and members of the opposite sex who are out of our league will talk to us, and everyone wants to know all about who we are and where we come from. I've faced jealousy at every place I've ever worked in Japan, especially at schools. To outward appearances, the ALT is, in many cases, the most popular staff member while being the least qualified, and working the fewest hours. If I was a regular teacher, that would piss me off.

And I think that same jealousy creates a sense of personal rivalry with those casual friends as well. At one of the restaurants where I work, there are a handful of customers who would call me their friend, who also make it a point to make passive aggressive digs about how I'm getting fat, or how my skin is bad, or how my pronunciation sucks. Emphasize or go out of their way to point out what I don't know. Friends don't do that. People who want to bring you down do. Rivals do.

And for me, the longer I'm here, the less interested I am in being anyone's rival.

I'm really curious to know if you other foreigners in Japan have had similar experiences in the fields you're in, either at school, at your job, or in your personal life. Do you find yourself in competition with others? How do you deal with it? What do you think causes it?

And, about the last bit: In my opinion, Asians in general are more likely to make comments about weight or appearance directly to your face than Westerners. Do you think it's actually more acceptable? Would an Asian person not find the same sort of comment insulting or take it negatively?


gec said...

Maybe being a woman, as you mentioned, this is a bit different. Rivalry doesn't really come up.

About the making comments about weight or other things... I recall an episode where some teachers were making fun of another, new, young, and--by my standards--only slightly overweight teacher. And maybe had I not known everyone there as well as I do I would've thought it mean, but taking a good look I realised they weren't doing this to bring her down, they were doing it because they care. They care about her health and happiness and they want her to know that.

John said...

Very interesting article ! I agree I don't like overly boastful people who feel the need to one-up everything you say. I believe that if your achievements Merritt any recognition it will naturally be known to people. I don't know why but I find it absolutely more annoying with foreigners especially in group situations. I find it much more rewarding when people notice things about me and I notice things about them without the use of rivalries, or boastfulness. Why can't we just be friends and dismiss constant competetiveness ? It is tiresome and gets boring very quickly.

D said...

Creating a rivalry intentionally can be beneficial if you're working towards a goal. The rivalry can keep you on track.

Here's a competition I created with a friend: [Learn all the Heisig RtK1 kanji]

My goal was to learn 10/day; his was 8/day. Because we are competing against each other and monitoring each others progress over a shared Google Docs file, our competitiveness pushes us to accomplish our daily quota. Not competitive? Include incentives. At the end of the month we meet, and whoever met their quota less, has to buy a mid-range dinner for the winner.

This type of rivalry has clear benefits. You push and pull each other closer to a shared goal.

The rivalry you talked about, however, seems to be parasitic and rooted in insecurity. Japanese or foreign, avoid these folks like the plague.

This is a post from my blog about [Foreigners in Japan – NJ – Greasy Gaijin] http://bit.ly/iPN4tB

PS Having a business card is not pretentious for anyone. I'd much rather take a meishi than a scribbled on napkin.

Bobby Judo said...


I think the female perspective on being a foreigner in Japan has to vary widely from the male. Just like a Westerner's perspective is probably different from someone from another Asian country. That's probably why I like finding blogs from all different kinds of foreigners in Japan. Do you have any recommendations?

Even if they weren't intentionally doing it to bring her down? What was the effect? Did it make her feel bad about herself, or liked? If it was "making fun of her" like you say, I have pretty strong negative associations with that phrase.

@John Agreed, agreed, and agreed.

@D There's actually a Daily Yoji that describes that type of rivalry: 切磋琢磨
It's one of our favorites.

Read your blog entry. Pretty generalizing (Japanophiles = no experience in Japan?), kind of angry, (manipulative wife?) and actually seemed more judgmental than "10 Gaijin" but I do know a handful of people who fit your descriptions... except the Last Samurai type. Never even heard of one of those.

As for the business card, I don't think there's anything wrong with having one. But does an ALT need one? Almost everyone carries their phone on them at all times, and in any situation where you actually WANT to exchange phone numbers, infrared or direct phone input is much more likely to ensure that the numbers get registered.

I think the only reason that ALT's who have them get them is to embrace the "meishi koukan" culture, which is totally valid. But it's also kind of a "Look-at-how-Japanese-I-am" thing to do, which I think is why he made that remark.

the_greatest_pip said...

Very well said all around. I've definitely had some similar experiences...And my experiences are more interesting than yours. Now I'm going to tell you all about them ;P

I guess I wasn't an ALT long enough or didn't socialize with coworkers enough to ever experience the kind of stuff you mentioned toward the end, but I can definitely see how they would feel that way. I think the secretary at my current job might feel that way, so I try to go out of my way to show her appreciation. How did you respond to those critical comments?

the_greatest_pip said...

Oh yeah, and the whole Ikemen Gakuen thing sounds like a really interesting experience. I look forward to reading more about it and possibly even seeing it(?)

Bobby Judo said...

If we're in a safe place and it's okay to be completely honest, when I get those comments, I just laugh and say, "Yeah you're right." Then, in my head I go, "I should just feel sorry for these people. I'm still young and I'm doing things that they've never done in their lives (traveling, learning another language, having adventures). Plus he's clearly fatter than I am, AND he's balding. He comes here to get drunk 5 nights a week. I don't have to take anything he says to heart, and I should shrug it off with an internal 可哀想." But even though I tell myself that, I still hate those people with a passion, and nurse thoughts of blowing up and telling them everything that's wrong with them.

Nirav said...

"I should just feel sorry for these people. I'm still young and I'm doing things that they've never done in their lives (traveling, learning another language, having adventures)."

Between this and your description of Yuri's policy of just asking questions about people's experiences backpacking, I think the two of you have got this whole "non-traditional Japanese existence" thing down (you since you're obviously not Japanese and Yuri because, let's face it, just like most Americans won't have the experiences you do, most Japanese people won't have the experience she's had).

Specifically about "Warren," I don't think I've ever acted as egregiously as he did, but thinking back on how I act and have acted in Japan, part of it may just be that he's never really thought about or never had the opportunity to deal with people other than himself who are multi-cultural (I mean this in a broad sense - not just those people born to parents of more than one culture, but also those who have picked up aspects of foreign culture either by living abroad or simply through following their interests in their home countries). I've had the immense good fortune of being able to study a foreign language to the point that I was once able to speak it nearly natively, and sometimes that led me to forget that many of my Japanese friends were actually pretty baller English speakers, too. Thinking back on some of the comments I made, I'm sure they stemmed at least partially from me seeing myself as some kind of middleman between them and the English-speaking world. I don't think I ever made fun of someone's accent, but I definitely made comments that I could have thought through more thoroughly. Maybe Warren really does think he can carve this middleman niche out for himself (and maybe there are people in Inaka-shi, Inaka-ken that buy this).

Specifically about people being more upfront than they should be about, e.g., people's weight problems: I think that the acceptable level of explicitness about this is definitely higher in Japan (can't speak for other Asian countries), but it only works to a point. When I visit my old office (especially because I'm still friendly with many of the people there), it's ok for them to comment that I'm larger than I was five years ago. That being said, there is at least one "kaizoku" in Saga who crossed enough lines for his wife to apologize to me, and I think someone visiting that particular establishment under different circumstances (whether Japanese or not) might have reacted more strongly than I did.

Also: Fatter than you are? Balding? Drunk five nights a week? Grrr.....

D said...

In reply,
Though I was generalizing, if I offended you, or any other reader with my post, I apologize. It was not written from a pedestal in anger.


When in Rome...
My business cards don't have a mobile number, nor keitai address; just [name], [what I can do for you] and a [Gmail address].


I didn't mention this before, but your "R, C, and A in Japan" post is probably your best. Keep 'em coming!

Bobby Judo said...


When I talked about feeling sorry for the people who make those comments, I meant specifically the Japanese "friends" who like to make snide remarks about me. I tell myself I'm having experiences the average Japanese person doesn't.

I don't feel sorry for the "Warrens" of the world.

As for the comments the dude at kaizoku made to you, I really have a hard time believing that Japanese people are okay with saying those kinds of things to each other. In some cases, there's a very aggressive aspect to it, and other times there's just some disconnect in their mind that says "It's okay to do/say things I wouldn't normally do or say, because this person is a foreigner."

As for your closing, I can't tell if you think I'm talking about you (NOT AT ALL), or you're jealous of fat drunk people (highly likely).

@D I wasn't offended or upset, but you did seem like you were going for impact. "Greasy Gaijin" is pretty strong phrasing. It was still a good read though, and your other blog content looked pretty cool too!

"When in Rome" works, but you might actually help me prove my case about the cards.

In the "What I can do for you" section, does it say ALT? Who can you do that for? Do you give your card to students? Or BOE folks and the teachers you work with? Culturally, that's cool and is probably appreciated, but practically speaking, they don't need your card. I'm guessing your business cards get used more for the non ALTing part of your life, and you'd be better served giving them out to people you think might give you translating work.

Nirav said...

Yeah, I meant the "Warrens" comment to be a separate thought from the "feeling sorry" comment. Sorry that wasn't clear.

That said, I do kind of feel sorry for the Warrens of the world in the sense that they are hopelessly immature and probably missing out on a great deal from at least some of the people they consider "friends," but not really.

As for the kaizoku dude, he was definitely over the line. My point was only that, to give an example, if you were to put on 20 pounds and someone you knew well were to comment along the lines that you had 幸せ太り'ed, I think something like that is more acceptable in Japan than the US.

The ending comment was really just me noting that, purely coincidentally, all of those things apply to me. Except the drinking part. I hate alcohol.

Rob said...

The "My Japan" type carries a few other monikers - I've heard friends describing them (sarcastically) as "Wise Gaijin" quite frequently in the past.

I've been a bit taken aback by how common this factor is among foreigners here. Conversation openers with other westerners turn into a minefield as you probe delicately to see if a friendly chat is about to turn into a tedious pissing contest. The irony, of course, is that like a lot of people relatively recently moved to Japan, I'm actually really keen to talk to people who have genuinely interesting or informed insight into the country - but the people who actually have something interesting to say don't overlap with the people who feel a pathological desire to denigrate everyone else's experiences, lifestyles or language skills.

I guess that the other irony is that distaste at this kind of nonsense actually ends up pushing you into a position where you're likely to get classified as a My Japan type yourself. I've reached a point where I make a pained face at the prospect of going out to a gaijin bar, and have a pretty clear preference for hanging out with Japanese friends (or a mixed group) over spending time with other foreigners. There are only so many nights of listening to people alternate between condescending "I am the fount of all knowledge" crap and embittered moaning about how Japan has miserably failed to be exactly the same as home (while simultaneously rolling out the red carpet to every foreigner with three words of the language at his disposal, obviously) that a guy can take.

As to the weight thing - I don't set off earthquake warnings on NHK if I fall out of bed or anything, but you know, living here makes a bit of softness around the waistline feel like diabetes and death is just around the corner - so I could do with shedding a few pounds, sure. Japanese people (and other Asian friends in general) are far, far more likely to pass comment on this than any of my Western friends. It was a bit embarrassing at first, and I guess would be hurtful if it was something you were actually particularly sensitive about (I'm not, but they have no way of knowing that). I don't think the intentions behind it are negative, though - it's just a cultural difference in how comments like that are perceived.

D said...

I used "greasy" in the title because it's catchy!

I think I misunderstood your idea about meishi. But I have exchanged cards with the BOE and other teachers from outside my school (initiated by them). Though in-school I've never seen anyone exchange contact info. We get enough of each other at school...

I primarily exchange business cards for freelance translation and consulting.

Liz said...

I expect that the one-upping increases with duration in the country for two reasons:
1. prolonged exposure to the one-upping game.

2. the longer they're there, the more they think they can win the game, so they start it.

It's a strange game, the only way to win is not to play. (The first person who knows the correct quote, feel free to correct.)

Anonymous said...

I have never lived in Japan, but the impression I get from Japanese media is that rivalry of the 切磋琢磨 kind has a very positive place in society. In this context, a rival seems to be someone you *want* to see succeed and improve, because this drives you to succeed and improve at the same time. If you beat a rival, you don't want it to be because your rival is so very weak--you want it to be because *you* are so very strong.

I can easily see, though, how this would get twisted into the more poisonous type of rivalry--and perhaps the perpetrators have trouble telling the difference.

(First-time commenter here. Your blog is fascinating; keep up the good work!)

Tori-kun said...

Hello Bobby,

in your last paragraph you ask how "we", your readers, deal with rivals. Well, I'd really like to make living in Japan after I graduate from my school for a bit of time, in order to relax and have a broader look on subjects I could study at university back in Germany in English. But due my strict and conservative education of my parents it is very likely I will never be allowed visiting my girlfriend in Tokyo and start living their for some amount of time. Furthermore, this education provided the strict rule "You have to better in anything than anyone". After 17 years I recognised that this rule is just hilarious. You for example can cook like a master. It's your "forte", it's just your territory. My territory is playing Russian folk music and I bet there are just a few teens in my age in Germany who can play like I do. This may sound really self-boosting and like showing-off, but one has to be able to talk about one's strong, or best, points and weak points openly. It has never anything to do with self-praise, that's a fact. I can't tell what kind of person you are, Bobby, but due my education I turned into a bloody, cynical person. I'm critical with everything and I always thing people lie and wanna screw me up entirely. I just don't care about my rivals, as I don't have any practically. I watch your videos where you speak Japanese twice a day, to make my aim, where I want to get, more concrete. I want to achieve what you achieved concerning language education at least. It's a realistic goal, isn't it? And that's what counts: setting goals for yourself. Not creating rivality.

Perry said...

Funny to stumble upon this. I live in Ibaraki and just the other day my girlfriend said to her mother right in front of me, "He has small ears, don't they look strange?" I wondered if this sort of appearance insult was just a cultural difference or what.

Anonymous said...

Wow...you have a lot of tolerance. I wouldn't have been able to even tolerated talking to him. -_-

Blue Shoe said...

Great post, man. I totally agree with everything you wrote, though I can't claim to be above it all.

People who elevate themselves over others because of something like language ability or dialect...that is just stupid. No one is perfect and everyone learns at a different pace. What bothers me, actually, are people who are smug about not speaking Japanese, like those of us who make an effort to learn the native language are somehow selling out or something.

I think one thing that can cause the "alpha maleness" is a sense of having been there and done that. I'm not proud of it, but I've been around people who are new to Japan and still wide-eyed and seeing rainbows and flowers everywhere and found myself a bit annoyed. I've never given in to the impulse, but have wanted to set them straight, so to speak.


Benjamin L. Belcher said...

I recently read "Polite Fictions in Collision," discussing what is and is not culturally acceptable in the West vs. the East (mostly America and Japan in this book) and how they tend to fly in the face of each other. I think it would shed light on that question about appearance.

I enjoyed this blog. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. I shirked nearly ALL foreign circles for my first year here - granted, I've always been a bit of a loner - convincing myself I was doing it for language acquisition reasons. Really, I wanted to leave behind a lot of the "aggro" and 1uping I loathed back in the States. When I encounter it these days, I take a similar, tolerant approach to yours dude - I smile, and make a little checklist in my mind to try not to meet up with this dude again. Granted, it's easier in Tokyo to maintain such anonymity. ;)

M said...

I never felt any rivalry like you describe in your post.
I have been in japan for nearly 11 years and I never realized if all the japanese people are my friends for a reason else than because they like me.
I never worked for a japanese company (or any company for that matter).
My life here is 99% surrended by Japanese people and I don't really think there is something different than if I am in UK, or France or Australia.
I make friends easily anywhere I go, and I don't calculate why they want to hang with me. Or vice versa.
anybody who calls me to have a drink and I'll go because I appreciate the thoughts (more than the drink and the talks, but there are always things to learn, from anybody and any situation)
Likes your blogs
Keep cooking!
Marcel from allomarcel