Saturday, August 23, 2008

Between then and now 3

Many years ago it was not uncommon, and sometimes altogether too frequent, for Japanese children to lob verbal grenades at foreigners passing in the street. The most commonly used form of ammunition was a overtly enthusiastic “HAROH!” If you were walking about unaware of the presence of children, you could easily be startled. Adults were a little more circumspect (unless inebriated) and you couldn't always hear what was being whispered, though usually you'd catch a whiff of “gaijin” or “amerikajin.”

Kids don't do that much anymore, and neither do adults. I suppose that kind of behavior might still be in evidence in pockets of rural isolation, but in the cities Japanese have become fairly used to the presence of foreigners. To a great degree, we are no longer novel.

There are probably more than a few reasons for this that I won't touch on here, but one of them surely has to do with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, a government run scheme that has for the past 21 years brought young, college educated native speakers of mostly English (though in more recent years of other languages, as well) to serve as language teaching assistants in the nation's public school system. I came to Japan on the second year of the program and was on the government payroll for three years in the junior high schools of Himeji. In those early years there were fewer than 1000 JETs; now there are over 5000. And thanks to this program, today nearly every Taro, Junko, Hiroshi and Ikemi in Japan, though they may never have left the archipelago, has met and interacted with a genuine, air-breathing, hand-shaking gaijin.

There's also the fact that many Japanese have now been overseas themselves. It used to be not too many people could afford it because the only way to go was on overpriced package tours, traveling around in a protective bubble of Japanese culture, never having much interaction with non-Japanese beyond the cashier ringing up souvenir purchases. But with the introduction of discount airline tickets and more especially the accumulation of knowledge brought back by the first waves of independent travelers, more and more Japanese began to see it was possible to travel by learning to plan and manage for themselves. Today one of the most commonly cited reasons for studying English at language schools or even at university is for travel.

An incident last week is indicative of how things have changed. I was in the elevator of a department store with a young boy of maybe eight or nine, and he struck up a conversation with me. In Japanese, of course. The JET programme and foreign travel haven't much raised the level of English fluency among Japanese, but they have made them more comfortable around foreigners.



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