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Being a Totem Gaijin: 1

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by Peter Goldsbury

Published Online

I was attracted to Japanese culture in general as a result of practicing aikido, but I was attracted to direct, hands-on experience of Japanese culture by actually living in Japan, as a result of practicing aikido under the direction of Japanese teachers, who often talked of their experiences as direct deshi of the Founder. They talked of a world that I wanted to experience directly, for myself.

The Japanese martial arts, as a microcosm of Japanese society as a whole, rests on a trinitarian distinction: ‘omote’ and ‘ura’; ‘uchi and ‘soto’ and ‘tatemae’ and ‘honne’. Omote is what happens before the face; ura is what happens behind one’s back. Uchi is ‘us’; soto is ‘them’: the in-group vs. the rest. Tatemae is formal, public, official; honne is informal, private, unofficial. I think that the core of these distinctions is found in all cultures, but in Japan the refinement of these distinctions is quite exquisite: it is an art form. Things become interesting, however, when foreigners, who are not supposed to know about such distinctions, enter into the equation.

One way of dealing with this dilemma is a form of totemism. In Japan, foreigners are relatively few and far between, but they are often called upon to add a token element of ‘internationality’ to purely Japanese activities. Thus, I serve on many local and civic committees, for example, the board of trustees of Hiroshima’s atomic bomb museum and the board of directors of the international school. However, one of my more recent ‘gaijin’ activities has been to serve on the local police committee (‘kyougikai’ in Japanese). Apparently, I am one of only 20 or so foreigners in the whole of Japan to serve on such committees and so my election to the local committee was an occasion for rejoicing and interviews with the local media. I was elected to serve on the committee because of current anxiety in Japan about crimes committed by foreigners. There are over 800 foreign students in Hiroshima University, which recently relocated to a ‘country’ campus, situated in a collection of sleepy farming townships, cobbled together to make a ‘city’. It was felt that as a foreign university academic, I could add something of value, given the tripartite distinction made above.

Like the military, the Japanese police are really a law unto themselves and there is no systematic check on their activities. The public safety committees in each prefecture are only a rubber stamp and nobody really questions the police about their activities. So, there are many stories about police corruption in the newspapers and in these cases the local police chiefs usually summon a press conference and bow deeply, but nothing really happens as a result.

Well, from the very first meeting of my local police kyougikai, we were made to feel that we were definitely in the ‘uchi’ camp, but all the meetings were very definitely conducted in ‘tatemae’ mode. The meetings followed a typical Japanese pattern. There was a long period of ‘setsumei’ (explanation), wherein each section of the police station produced detailed statistics of the incidence of crimes and the rate of detection. This was followed by a period known as ‘iken koukan’ (exchange of opinions). As the token gaijin, I felt I had to ask a question during the ‘iken koukan’ period, but my questions were usually different from those envisaged under the normal ‘tatemae-honne’ distinction and usually caused mild panic, since the section chiefs could not answer these questions and thus the ‘tatemae’ was not preserved.

Thus, at the first meeting I asked whether the RATIO of crimes committed by foreigners actually matched that of crimes committed by Japanese in the area. There was a mild panic, as the station chief had to decide very quickly who should answer the question (the actual answer did not matter). As a result, the section chief responsible for organizing the meeting gave me some friendly advice afterwards: “Sensei, we love your questions and they are very important, but it would help us very much if you could let us know beforehand what questions you plan to ask, so that we can answer them ‘properly’ at the meeting” (i.e., definitely ‘tatemae’ mode).

However, I have to say that the Japanese police are very efficient in some respects. I always drive to meetings in my car and a police officer is always ready to welcome me into the station car park and direct me to a parking place. I joked about this once and was told, “Sensei, all the police in the entire prefecture know which car you drive” (i.e., the make, number and colour). (‘Honne’ and ‘tatemae’ mode)

As part of these meetings, we are allowed some insight into police activity. On one occasion after the formal meeting we were taken to the dojo (there is a dojo with tatami in every central police station in Japan) to watch a training exercise. Several young officers had to complete an obstacle course within a certain time limit, to qualify for, e.g., being seconded to counter terrorist activities. The obstacle course was nothing special and I asked about police training in the martial arts. The answer was interesting. The Japanese police take official courses in judo, kendo and taiho-jutsu. Very bright students take the Yoshinkan Senshusei course, but this is really aimed at the riot police and aikido training itself is not considered. The police officer in charge of our group told me that aikido is considered only as a refinement of other, more proven, methods. He added that, “Of course we know that you yourself do aikido and many officers would like to practise aikido (‘tatemae’ mode), but, of course, it would not be possible for a foreigner to teach the Japanese police a Japanese martial art.” (‘honne’ and ‘tatemae’ mode)

Finally, I attended a police bonenkai (‘forgetting the year’ party, always held at the end of the year). Since I was driving, I could not drink alcohol, and this was a major mistake. After the initial toast, everyone settled into a variation of the ‘tatemae/honne’ mode: they got very drunk and said lots of things that they would never dream of saying in public. However, since I was not drinking, and would have broken the law if I had been drinking, I was not part of a certain ‘uchi’ mode and this was considered very bad form for the ‘tatemae/honne’ mode. Thus, I was told, “Sensei, next time do not bring your car. Leave your car in the police station car park and we will make sure that you get to wherever you have to go.” Just like the senior police officers. At the party they drank to the same extent as aikido Hombu shihans and sumo wrestlers and either drove home themselves (very unlikely) or were taken home by anxious juniors. Thus the ‘tatemae’ was preserved.

Well, the next police meeting is the day before the All-Japan Aikido demonstration at the Nippon Budokan. Thus I will be subjected to two heavy doses of tatemae/honne, uchi/soto, omote/ura etc. etc. within two days. I will endeavour to keep you informed.

(Editor’s note: this article was originally published as a blog)