Iwakan: Why Japanese are afraid of foreigners

Most of the time when you are in Japan, you will experience people treating you nicely and politely, but when you are longer in Japan, you might discover that not all Japanese have a fondness for ‘gaijin’ or foreigners. Some might spot you walking in the street and swerve so they will ‘accidentally on purpose’ bumb into you, call you names or refuse to sit next to you on the subway or other form of public transport.

There is an old saying ‘Birds of a feather, flock together’. This is even more so in a country like Japan where people live in a close knit society where the benefit of the group is more important than the feelings of the individual. The need of Japanese to shun people that are not part of their inner circle, goes well beyond what is considered “normal” for most people.

Japanese use different parts of their brain

There is of course the language barrier. Although most Japanese have studied English in school, their ability to use it in daily conversation is usually somewhere between limited to not at all. Those who can speak English well or very well, often find excruciatingly tirering and still much prefer to speak in Japanese if they can do so. Some Japanese claim that the Japanese language and thought process are very different from those of English speakers and that an entirely different part of the brain is used by Japanese in thinking and speaking. When they speak in English, they need to access a different part of their brain that they normally do not use for verbal communication. This is the reason, Japanese say, it is such a burden for them to have to speak in English or any other foreign language.

Iwakan, a feeling of extreme discomfort

Besides the language barrier, there are a variety of other cultural factors to consider. Both attitudes and customs that seperate Japanese and non-Japanese and create a barrier for smooth and effective communication. In any event, a combination of these factors make most Japanese business men and professionals seem so uneasy in the presence of ‘gaijin’ or foreigners, it is important to exlain its significance. Iwakan describes the sense of  the feeling that something is strange , or a feeling of discomfort. At it’s root lies a feeling that things are not compatible and there is a sense of incongruity.  In the full sense of the context of its meaning, iwakan incorporates both a sense of unease and suspicion, and according to Japanese mental health authorities, it is the source of a condition called “foreign complex” that many Japanese, especially men, suffer from.

Part of the Iwakan foreign complex that afflicts many Japanese, results from the Japanese feeling of being inferior to Westerners, especially caucasian Western Europeans and Americans, because of the physical differences in size and appearance and the historical perception that Westerners were more advanced technologically, and had a higher standard of living.

What to to against Iwakan

To help counter these feelings of inferiority, the Japanese long ago assumed a superior stance with regards to their family system, loyalty, dilligence and spirituallity. However, this does not eliminate the feelings of Iwakan when they are actually confronted with Westerners. Foreigners themselves are also a significant part of the problem. The number of Westerners in Japan that can speak Japanese well enough to carry a decent conversation is very small, especially when you consider how many of those are directly involved with Japanese on a daily basis. Generally speaking foreigners make far less effort to accommodate themselves to the customs and ways of the Japanese than the Japanese do to cope with foreign expectations. The failure of most Westerners to meet Japanese halfway and bridge the cultural gap, is a strong reason for the feeling of Iwakan to persist.

Iwakan and the country side

Fortunately the farther you move away from the big cities and move away to the country side where people have been less enclined to have lived abroad or to have had a lot of interaction with foreigners, the feeling of Iwakan deminishes. Not surprisingly, women are far less likely to suffer from Iwakan than their male counterparts and often times even relish the opportunity to speak with Westerners and practice their English.

Categories: history of Japan, Japanese customs, Stories about Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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