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As a male, being Canadian, discussing ‘We Japanese’

I know that many language teachers in Japan blanch at hearing the infamous ‘We Japanese…’ response (and yes, that includes many Japanese teachers). You know what I mean. That loaded preface which marks many international conversations in Japan:

Foreign human: So, what’s a good place to grab a lunch around here?

Japanese human: Well, we Japanese like to eat a bento at our desk.

 

Foreign homosapien: Are you really ok with 2 hour meetings that could have been dealt within 10 minutes?

Japanese homosapien: Well, we Japanese like to give everybody a chance to speak and be sure to gain consensus.

 

Now, it’s likely that only the most easily-triggered among us would really bristle at this, but nonetheless, many of us find this rhetoric slightly… umm annoying.

Why, you ask?

 

Well, because the speaker is resorting to a type of argument from authority. By conflating a personal belief or habit with the collective the speaker is doing any or all of three things:

  1. Abdicating personal responsibility for his/her response (or even avoiding a response) by implicitly claiming that his/her belief or habit represents the national/affiliation consensus.
  2. Setting up a needlessly adversative us/them dichotomy.
  3. Giving a response that more or less kills further discussion.

 

“Conversational infelicities”

 

Now, to be fair, this happens in a number of places worldwide where one interlocutor is clearly and visibly a local and the other not. It is not a ‘uniquely’ Japanese trait but, to be honest, it is very much a common strategy on these isles. I know that some language instructors (gently) address such responses when they appear in the classroom because of what they view as… conversational infelicities.

 

But that same dubious approach is currently spreading far and wide, with even more troubling permutations — the current hankering for prefacing any utterance about oneself with the ‘As a…’ prescript.

“As a white person…”

“As a person of colour…”

“As a queer person…”

“As a male/female…”

 

“As a…” should be referred to as the Discourse Virtue Signal. Often it translates to, ‘Don’t blame me! I’m one of the good ones! Look!’ (wipes sweat off brow). Its corollary (granting automatic and immediate discourse credibility for those who claim to be on the oppressed side) could be called the Discourse Moral Virtue Signal.

 

I refuse to participate in this language game. Why? Because the very utterance of the phrase implies that:

  • One’s self and one’s habits/beliefs are wholly representative of this identity group
  • That the identity group has something of a hive mind, as if instead of finesse and diversity, there must be some collective community zeitgeist
  • That one’s personal experience or belief can somehow automatically be extrapolated to the group that you share some outward identity feature with

 

It’s not really so different from the “We Japanese…” meme is it? The verbal equivalent of a cat arching its back when in danger, trying to make itself appear bigger than it really is. It attempts to grant the speaker greater ‘authority’.

 

In the current sociopolitical climate you can’t help but have noticed the recent spate of, “As a privileged white person…” testimonies inevitably followed by, “I cannot fully understand what (some marginalized group) feel”. When I hear this stuff, I feel like…. well, like that bristling cat.

 

The entire notion of treating people, even ourselves, primarily as if we/they were merely members of self-contained tribes, as if every member of an identity group is compelled to manifest the official scripture of groupthink, is precisely the hallmark of racism, sexism, othering. It’s implicit in the discourse.

 

“She was… a character, with idiosyncrasies, nuances, personality quirks

 

I recently wrote a novel (The Aggrieved Parties: amazon.com/amazon.co.jp cough cough) in which one of my lead characters happens to be a gay Cambodian woman (all necessary for the plot). While writing, I was asked, ‘But how would you know what a gay Cambodian woman feels like?’ as if there was some typology, some template for this intersection of identities that my character was somehow supposed to conform to. With this in mind, in the story I had the character say, “The worst thing for me would be to appear in someone’s novel with the writer thinking, How does a gay Cambodian woman sit? What would she eat?’

 

Yes, I made my character, wait for it, a character, with idiosyncrasies, nuances, personality quirks. Yes, I visited rural Cambodia, talked with locals, and studied my Khmer Rouge history to give my depictions some realistic depth, but my character still remained a character.

 

(Sidebar 1 – I was once told by a critic that my writing was White because he ‘knew’ that a person of colour would not write like me. Apparently, he could divine racial features through prose. I bet that his friends of colour will be pleased to hear of his racial can/can’t do deductive prowess. I think he may have a future in eugenics.)

 

“…why not go whole hog and then claim that I can’t imagine being any person except for exactly who I am?”

 

More than that, what is this notion that we can’t possibly grasp the experiences or feelings of people who don’t look like ourselves? Hey, I’m a white Western guy but I’m less in tune with the ethos of some middle-aged Caucasian dude in rural Nebraska than I am with, say, an elderly Japanese farming housewife. But, no matter whose reality I try to interface with, I have this thing called imagination and (hopefully) another attribute, called… empathy.

 

After all, can any sentient being not at least basically understand what it’s like to be downtrodden, oppressed, to face prejudice? If not, and if you are one of these self-proclaimed downtrodden, prejudiced, oppressed folks, can’t one likewise then claim that you can then have no idea of what it’s like to be privileged or live an easy life*? But hey, everybody seems to think they have a handle on that!

 

(*Sidebar 2 — I grew up in one of Canada’s lowest income neighbourhoods, the family subsisting occasionally on welfare or minimum wages, with my parents having only a junior high school education from Britain. But I recognize that that plus 450 yen will get me a tall latte chai at Tully’s.)

 

If we require first-hand experience to even begin to understand the plight of others then why not go whole hog and then claim that I can’t imagine being any person except for exactly who I am (after which we can say goodbye to literature). Any two members of a particular racial group or with a common sexual orientation will inevitably still have a world of differences separating them (yes folks, there is considerable diversity within these ‘communities’ despite what the ‘woke’ narrative might have you believe.)

 

There’s a right time to ‘appeal to authority’

 

This brings me to a question. When is it rhetorically legitimate to use the ‘As a…’ prescript? Well, imagine an online discussion on some specific field in which you do have a knowledge/expertise card to play, especially vis-à-vis novices (eg., ‘As someone who has lived in Japan for 30 years…’ ‘ As someone with a PhD in Nuclear Physics…’). This is precisely the time to appeal to authority (presuming, of course, you are not BSing). But as a representative sample of a racial, gender, or sexual orientation group? Or by maintaining the assumption that your identity automatically presupposes your personal characteristics? Sorry. In such cases, preface your commentary instead with ‘I think…’ “In my experience…’. It’s so much more palatable.

 

This is not to deny that often there are identifiable group characteristics and thus there are other circumstances in which the ‘As a…’ qualification might be considered at least reasonable, but we should be prudent. Note the following:

‘As a Canadian, I grew up watching hockey.’

‘As a Japanese, I prefer not to criticize directly.’

 

Now, compare them with a slightly adjusted form:

‘Being Canadian, I grew up watching hockey.’

‘Being Japanese, I prefer not to criticize directly.’

 

Sense a difference? The former seems a bit ‘odd’ because ‘As a…’ presupposes some kind of statement of principle or conviction. ‘Being X’, rather, connotes some environmental or cultural connection that one might reasonably expect, a by-product of association in a group, not a position. In such cases, the latter is preferable.

 

“You’re with a person!”

 

So, how does this tie into language teaching you might ask? Well, it’s a part of interpersonal and intercultural competency. If you shudder at the ‘We Japanese’ formula then, for goodness sake, don’t make ‘As a…’ a part of your verbal arsenal.

 

Why? Well, have you ever noticed how those Japanese prone to using ‘We Japanese’ often tend to be the most awkward in conversation? And not because of any lack of English proficiency but rather because they are so hyperconscious of you Not Being One of Us. They can’t get your ‘foreignness’ out of their minds. For them it apparently permeates everything you do or say.

 

So it is with the ‘As a (name your race/gender/sexual identity)’ crowd. As Bill Maher astutely observed, this approach just makes communication with others freaking awkward, and especially so for your interlocutor. And, as Maher went on to point out, ‘Remember, you are not with a person of colour. You are with a person!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Guest

2 Responses to As a male, being Canadian, discussing ‘We Japanese’

  1. As someone who has never broken a bone is his body, I can’t imagine what a broken leg would feel like.

    Would it involve pain, I wonder?

  2. I think only a licensed medical professional could possibly know that, Alan.

    It’s ironic how the ‘I/You couldn’t possibly understand…’ catchphrase is used often by people who claim to strive towards unity and inclusivity when the upshot of it is actually quite the opposite — an expanded sense of distance, the impossibility of empathy, increased othering.

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