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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?