Friday, June 11, 2010

IR and the island

The differences in lifestyle and culture between people of different countries can be both frustrating and fascinating. If I were to go back to school for an advanced degree (in other words if I had a lot more money than do now), I would want to enroll in an International Relations program. This program at UC San Diego is right up my alley.

Anyway, the frequent cultural exchanges that I engage in here with people of different national origins (not just Japanese) is one of the most rewarding parts of living abroad. For example, at my visit school I work with a very cool guy from Ireland. Not only does he have a sweet accent, but it's quite amusing to periodically run across words and pronunciations that differ between American and Her Majesty's English. Just the other day I learned that in Ireland there are no "juice boxes." I guess they're called cartons or something.

Being that Yoshie is an intelligent and curious young lady, we've also had some conversations about cultural differences between Japan and America. The other day she asked me about a recent, somewhat angsty post of mine, which lead to a conversation about Japan's isolationist history and bleak future if it doesn't do something about its population problem, as well as the challenges facing foreigners here. Yoshie's account of the conversation, for those of you who can read Japanese, can be found here.

It's interesting - whenever Japan's homogeneous nature comes up in conversation with a Japanese person, they inevitably mention that "Japan is an island." This is true, of course, but so is England, and look how cosmopolitan the U.K. has become. It's important to account for Japan's isolationist past - something I had read about and that Yoshie again explained when we talked about this. But further, Japan never really had an "empire" to speak of. France, England, Spain - colonies all over the world. Japan, not so much.

Most recently, the other day at school one of the new social studies teachers (I believe she's fresh out of university), who happens to be part-time (I mention this because I sit near the part-time teachers) and also one of the shortest Japanese women I've met, asked me about my roots. This kind of surprised me, because I haven't really been asked very often about that over here. She said had learned that in America, people are a lot closer to their roots in that they often identify with their ethnic heritage and sometimes know the languages of the countries their ancestors came from. I told her that this is true, but my opinion is that it gets less and less true as more time passes. Sure - we talk about what ethnicities we are. For example, I told her I'm Polish, Irish, and Alsacian (we had a good conversation about that, too). But while my grandparents spoke Polish, my mom can only speak a few phrases, and my sister and I can only speak a couple words. The longer we live here, the more "American" we become, and although we may cherish our roots, our connection to "the old country" weakens. She seems fascinated, replying that Japan doesn't have anything like that.

"Yeah, but," I said," Japan is an island."

他の国の文化や生活の違いは興味深いでありながら難しいと思う。大学院に入ったら(つまりお金持ったら)国際関係を勉強したい。UC San DiegoのSchool of IR and PSは最適らしい。去年そこで勉強したらいいなぁと思ってたけどこの頃将来にチャンスがないと思う。

とにかく、僕として海外に住んでいることは色んな国の人と話せるってはとてもやりがいある。例えば、一つの学校で、アイアランッド人の友達と一緒に働いてる。彼はカッコいいアクセントあって、よく会話するとアメリカの英語とイギリスの英語の違いを気がつく。例えば、(日本語で言葉あるかな?)"Juice box" というものある。イギリスも確かにあるけど"Juice box"と言われてない。







  1. "Japan never really had an "empire" to speak of."

    It wasn't for lack of trying. :-p This is why China and Korea continue to be angry at Japan.

    Japanese people do have a diverse ethnic heritage, but they are in deep denial about it and the roots are further back than they are for Americans. Nara is actually an area settled by Koreans ("Nara" means "country" in Korean, and many Japanese people are descendants of Koreans who settled there after a political split in their own country.) Japanese history books omit any references to their ethnic roots because the Japanese don't want to see their genetic links to other Asians and prefer to present themselves as "pure" Japanese (as if they sprang to life on the island fully formed rather than were a part of people who migrated from other areas just like pretty much everyone else in the world - we all began in Africa, after all).

    If you willfully ignore the past because you have a profound desire to see yourself as "pure", you can assert that you have no links to other ethnic backgrounds, but that won't make it a reflection of your true lineage. Even islands were originally settled by immigrants from other countries.

  2. That's true, but actually this teacher didn't exactly say that. She did mention that Japanese came from Korea and some indigenous people, but that was so long ago that no one identifies with that. I imagine in a few hundred years if America is still around, it may be similar.

  3. Hehe. Not many of the Irish people I know would like people to think they spoke 女王の英語.

  4. Heh, good point, Tom. Is there a less offensive way to say "British English?"

  5. A few pedantic points: Great Britain is an island, England is a sub-nation within the UK.

    After Ireland's hard-won fight for independence from British rule, I don't think people in Ireland would say they speak "Her Majesty's English". People in Ireland speak Irish and Irish English (which has many similarities with British English).

    Japan is an archipelago—which everyone knows, but not many care to point out. I think when people say a singular island, they are only re-inforcing the erroneous view of a homogenous culture and society within Japan.

    Japan has had many conquests to expand its empire (e.g. 1st and 2nd Sino-Japanese War).

    To speak of anything uniquely "American" isn't very accurate, I think. USA is a huge country with a huge scope of experiences and lifestyles. Anytime a generalization is made (or, about any country, really), you can't help but grope for the nearest caveat.

  6. Kat,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    The fact of the matter is that there are a number of grammatical and spelling differences between American English, Australian English, British English, Irish English, and however many other countries speak different forms. Regardless of whether or not it hurts anyone's feelings, Irish English is a lot closer in form to British English, and so while I may have been remiss in calling them the same thing, they are a lot closer to each other than to American English, which I suppose was what I was grasping at.

    You're right - your other points are rather pedantic, but thanks for taking the time to point them out, anyway. =)

  7. Whenever I have a conversation about ancestry with a Japanese person, they always ask me if I can speak German because of my last name. I think they're surprised that I only know gesundheit.

  8. Hmm, I'm not convinced the whole idea of British English as a unitary thing to be opposed to other varieties stands up to very much scrutiny. Most people would probably pick out Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle within England as having very distinct varieties associated with them, which it would be hard to confuse with the south-eastern default variety. Then there's Scotland and Wales, particularly Scotland in this context. And depending on your viewpoint, of course, Northern Ireland might be considered part of Britain in the political sense, and its variety is very very distinct from south-eastern default English (and most accents of the Republic).

    I remain baffled whenever people from other countries are happy to call the country as a whole England but the accent of one part of England British! It's evidently what people do though so I've got to put up with it.

    Anyhow, enough of this on a blog about Japan...

  9. A little follow-up:

    I'm not talking about accent, I'm talking more about the general lingual form that includes pronunciation, spelling, and grammar.

    I talked to my Irish friend about this today, and he agreed with me...although he doesn't particularly like it, Irish English is a lot closer to British English than American English. He also said that in ESL teaching around the world, the two basic forms that are taught are American and British English.

    So my point was not to suggest that there are only two dialects or accents of English in the world. However there are two main forms, for lack of a better word.