Negative Evidence

If you look around on the net, you can find a lot of anecdotes about how the Japanese exclude foreigners, along with generalised statements that don’t even include anecdotes to back them up. I’d like to provide some anecdotes on the other side. They’re still just anecdotes, and the vast majority are only significant because of the prevalence of the opposite anecdote, but they were notable inversions of the common story. I’ve been in Japan for nearly seven years now, and while that’s not long enough to become an expert on Japanese culture, it is quite long enough for the novelty to wear off.

Japanese People Won’t Speak Japanese to Foreigners

I’ve had to go to the dentist recently. At my first appointment, the dentist asked me, in Japanese, “Are you OK with Japanese?”. When I said yes, he replied, “That’s a relief. I’d hate to have to rely on my English; it’s really rusty,” still in Japanese, and then went on talking to me in Japanese. He did use a couple of English words, to translate Japanese dentistry terms into English for me, so he clearly could have tried to speak English to me. Nevertheless, he spoke Japanese to me, and judging from what I could hear through the partitions, in exactly the same way as he spoke to Japanese patients.

Japanese People Won’t Sit Next to Foreigners on Crowded Trains

On my way to Shiobara a few weeks ago, the train was quite crowded. Someone got off soon after I got on, and there were about one and a half seats in front of me. I offered the seat to a Japanese lady standing next to me, and she took it, and then tried to make space for me to sit down. I thanked her, but told her it was too narrow. Some time later, the (Japanese) person sitting wide at the end of the seat got off. She moved up, and once again invited me to sit down next to her. By now the train was emptying out a bit, so I did. We didn’t talk on the train, but she did nod good bye as she got off.

Japanese People Don’t Like Foreigners in Their Hot Springs

At Shiobara, I went to quite a few hot springs, that being one of the main points of the area. The first time I went to the outside spring by the river, I was debating whether to go in. I’d only realised on getting there that the facilities consisted of just some shelves with a roof for your clothes, and that the towel I’d brought was not nearly large enough to dry myself efficiently. The Japanese people already in the pool, however, were enthusiastic about inviting me in, and when I explained about the towel problem, they told me not to worry about it; they lent me one at the end. Possibly notable is the fact that this was a mixed spring, and it was one of the women who was most enthusiastic about inviting me in, although it was one of the men who lent me a towel.

Japanese People Never Really Accept Foreigners

Today was the Summer Festival at Shirahata Hachiman, our local shrine, and the one I go to quite a lot. There are quite a few earlier entries about it, both in this blog and in my Japan Diary. It’s where we did Mayuki’s Hatsumiyamairi, and where I did the ceremony for my permanent residence. The main “event” part of the festival is the Negi Mai, a traditional masked dance performed by the chief priest of the shrine. The dance has reputedly been passed down in his family for about 400 years. However, before that there is a standard Shinto ceremony, where offerings are made to the kami and a norito is recited. Although the general public are invited into the haiden for the dance, only the shrine’s ujiko (a bit like the elders of an English church, I guess) are invited into the shrine for the preceding ceremony. I’ve been to four of the Summer Festivals (I think I’ve missed one since I’ve been in Kawasaki), and I try to turn up in time for the ceremony as well as the dance. Obviously, I stand outside during the ceremony.

Except that today the shrine’s priest came over to tell me that the chief priest had consulted with the head ujiko, and they had agreed to invite me to join the ujiko inside, and to offer a tamagushi (a sakaki branch with paper strips on it, the standard symbolic offering in a Shinto ceremony) during the ceremony. Most of the ujiko do not offer a tamagushi. In fact, only the chief priest and the officers of the ujiko (four people) normally do so; most of the ujiko bow and clap with the last of them to do so, but those who have offered tamagushi themselves do not. So, the chief ujiko, the sodai, led me in with the ujiko, and showed me to a seat near the centre of the front row. I was quite nervous when it was my turn to offer a tamagushi, but I managed it without any serious mistakes that I can remember. Certainly everyone was too polite to point them out if there were any.

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I was second to last to offer my tamagushi. You offer tamagushi in order of status, normally, and I’m not one of the leaders of the ujiko, so I went later. On the other hand, I couldn’t go last, because all the ujiko need to bow and clap with the last person, so he needs to be representing them, and thus has to be one of the ujiko leaders. So, I guess, I was slipped in to the most sensible point in the ordering.

It is important to understand the significance of this festival. This is not a private ceremony, like the ones I have had before. It is one of the three main festivals in the shrine’s ritual year.

What’s more, the plan is for this to not be a one-off. The priest said that they would like me to offer a tamagushi at both the summer and main festivals from now on. (Presumably unless I do something to horribly upset them. I have no plans to do that, though.) One of the ujiko invited me to the ujiko gathering after the dance, as well, but Mayuki was impatient to go home, so I had to decline. I should try to organise around the main festival in September so that I can say yes if I get invited again.

This is, therefore, extremely good evidence that the people associated with Shirahata-san want me to be involved with the shrine. Obviously, I’m very happy about this, because I also want to be more involved with the shrine. I suppose the best way of putting it is this: Today’s invitation was a formal and public acknowledgement that they want me to be involved, and accepting it was similarly a formal and public acknowledgement that I want to be involved. It’s just another stage in a relationship that’s been developing over years, albeit a significant one. The only practical difference it will make in itself, I think, is that I’ll have to be careful not to be late for future festivals…

Posted in Japan, Shinto.

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