Keeping the Wheels of International Dialogue Turning
Okayama Middle School
"The Japanese are the most insular, parochial, xenophobic and clannish race I have ever encountered."
Before I get disqualified, let me point out that these harsh words are not mine. They were published in "The Daily Yomiuri", in June of this year. But, who said them?
I was amazed to read that they were allegedly said by Edwin Reischauer, a former American ambassador to Japan. How could such a distinguished, person have said such a thing? It wasn't until recently that I began to realize why.
My enlightenment came, bizarrely enough, in a bicycle shop. My tire had a puncture, which was being repaired. While waiting, the following events took place:
A foreigner came in, and started looking at the used bicycles. The manager and wife started whispering.
"You talk to him", said the wife.
"Why me? I can't speak English." said the manager.
"But he likes that bike, perhaps he will buy it. Go and talk to him."
"He can talk to me first. Oh no, he's coming over!"
His wife ran off into the back room.
"Excuse me, how much is that bicycle?" The foreigner asked, in Japanese.
The manager was surprised. "Uh, um, well, um." was all he said. He pointed to the price tag, just in case the foreigner didn't understand him; it was twelve thousand yen.
"I'll have to make some repairs. Could you make it cheaper?"
The manager froze. He didn't want to say "yes", or he would lose money. However, he didn't want to say "no", and lose the customer. He went for the safe option. "It's hard", he said.
"What's hard?" said the customer. "Can you bring the price down a little or not?"
"It's hard", replied the manager again.
"All I want is a yes, or a no. Which one? Could you at least replace that old tire?"
"It's hard", said the manager desperately.
"It's not hard, it's flat! There's no air in there! Look, do you want to sell this bicycle to me or not! I knew I had made a mistake coming here. You didn't even say "welcome". You just started whispering. When I asked about the price, you wouldn't give me a straight answer, and when I showed you that the bicycle was faulty, you called me a liar! Why? Is it because I am a foreigner? Forget it!" He then left.
The customer had completely misunderstood what the manager meant, because he did not give a clear answer. The manager came across as offensive, when actually he was trying to be polite!
In Japan, not expressing your opinion is considered a virtue. We avoid giving direct answers to questions. We do not assert ourselves strongly in discussions. We fear upsetting others. We are the only culture in the modern world that does this. Aren't we crazy!
So, what's the message? We have to change. We have to be more open, and welcoming, in our interactions with foreigners. We have to be more direct.
Mr. Reishauer's comment was made over thirty years ago. Thirty years ago he may have been correct, but we are a new generation. I think it's our duty to prove him wrong, and make sure the wheels of international dialogue, like my bicycle wheels, remain turning.
(7th Prize in the 56th Contest, 2004)
(C)JNSA FUND/the Yomiuri Shimbun
All of the speeches are copyrighted material of JNSA FUND and The Yomiuri Shimbun, and are protected by the Japanese copyright law.