Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Barbarians Like Fried Chicken.

I've almost finished reading Hitching Rides with Buddha, a fast-paced and entertaining autobiography that documents Will Ferguson's hitchhiking journey, from the southern tip of Japan to the northernmost island of Hokkaido.  Engrossed in Will's hilarious adventures as he follows the advancing cherry blossom front throughout Japan, I suddenly read something that made me sit up in shock.  

First, let's pause for a moment for a BIG GIANT DISCLAIMER here.  Lots of Americans in Japan will talk in the same breath about how kind and generous- but racist- the Japanese are.  I'm never comfortable with this talk, as dismissing an entire nation as "racist" is problematic, no matter which country is being discussed.  Yes, I've had Japanese students discuss their distaste for China. I've also had Japanese friends express sadness about the war crimes that Japan committed against China.  I've had a student tell me about how her friend refused to swim in a resort pool that was filled with Koreans, an action which my student then condemned in the next breath.  Restaurants may be allowed to display "No Foreigners Allowed" signs, but there are Japanese spouses of American servicemen who are trying to get our base to remove the slur, gaijin, from official orientation classes, as well as my Japanese tutor who is very careful to only use the respectful gaikokujin when our lessons discuss foreigners.  So my fellow Americans and I need to be very, very careful to not toss around phrases like, "the Japanese are so racist," because it's just as much of an ugly stereotype as "foreign men are dangerous." 

That being said, there are certain aspects of Japanese society that do reinforce the view that there are Japanese and then there are foreigners. Obvious examples are those afore-mentioned No Foreigners Allowed signs, the elderly man on the train who angrily stood up and moved across the train car when I took a seat next to him, the cartoon caricatures of foreigners with big noses, massive chins, and potbellies, or the television shows that specifically (and only) request someone blonde-haired and blue-eyed when their programs need a foreigner.  It's uncomfortable and hurtful, which brings us back to Hitching Rides with Buddha.

The part of the book that made me sit up was when Will Ferguson started talking about a delicious and popular dish in Japan- Chicken Nanban.   As the author described it, I recognized the recipe immediately, because I eat it.  Chicken Nanban is...well, it's tasty, fried chicken drizzled with mayonnaise.  I'll often visit our local grocery store to grab a bento box for lunch, and Chicken Nanban is on my regular rotation of delicious lunch bento.  I love Chicken Nanban. Yes, it's unhealthy.  Yes, it's lowbrow.  Yes, I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that I enjoy this dish (if you're making a face right now about the weirdness of drizzling mayonnaise over fried chicken, please read this post).  Chicken Nanban is this interesting sort of dish that is composed of Western ingredients, but not really recognizable as something that Westerners in the West actually eat, kind of like the Japanese tendency to put corn on pizza.  But the ingredients of Chicken Nanban, itself, aren't the problem...the problem is the name.

My Chicken Nanban bento from last week.  The rice and red pickled plum create
the "hinomaru" portion of the bento, which represents Japan's national flag.

When writing Nanban one must use two kanji.  The first kanji, 南 is the symbol for south.  The second kanji, 蛮, is the symbol for barbarian.  What we have here, Southern Barbarian, is the derogatory term that was used to describe the Portuguese and Dutch missionaries and merchants who first tried to open Japan for trade.  Apparently, those traders liked a lot of fried chicken and mayonnaise (presumably not together), which eventually led to the creation of Chicken Nanban. Of course, the trouble is that a slur from the 1500s (a time not known in any culture for its political correctness) is still in active use today.  That can be the trouble with learning Japanese. I learn things that are uncomfortable and now my enjoyment of Chicken Nanban has suddenly disappeared.  I start to feel awkward. When I exchange a cheerful ohayo gozaimasu with our corner veggie seller, is he quietly thinking, "barbarian"?  When Little TF is pitching a fit on the playground, do the other mommies look at me in sympathy?  Or do they talk amongst themselves about how ill-behaved foreign children are?  Do my neighbors know that my messy car is because my husband isn't home to help me pick up, or do they think it's because foreigners are dirty?  

But enough on accepted racial slurs in Japan. On the bright side, we Americans can smugly congratulate ourselves!  After all, it's not as if some Americans have ever stereotyped an entire racial group as one that loves fried chicken, or looked with suspicion on the ethnically different family that moved into the neighborhood!

For me, one of the most important parts of studying Japan is not just to learn about new ways of living life and new ways of appreciating beauty.  It's about learning that ugliness can be universal.  Japan holds a mirror up to my face, to reflect my culture and the ugly, hurtful things that I- through sheer familiarity- could be comfortable never noticing.

I had a lot of hesitation in writing this post.  As a white person, I understand that I'm writing this from a precarious position, and so I asked a (Japanese) friend to go over this post before I put it up.  She told me it was important to tell the bad along with the good of Japan. This is not a Japan-bashing post and any comments that are not kind and civil will not be published.  Thank-you for your respect and understanding.

Disclaimer:  I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate.  However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong.  Please let me know if something needs a correction.  Thank-you!


  1. Interesting post, I will definitely think differently next time I enjoy my chicken nanban.

    There are words like this in the English language as well. Words like picnic. After learning it's origin, I cannot use that word without cringing.

  2. Yes, you are absolutely right! I learned the etymology of the term "gyp" last summer, as in "You gyped me out of my money" and I haven't used it since. That's why its so important to not point the finger at Japan as having a racism problem...the whole world has a racism problem. Thank-you for your thoughtful comment.

  3. I truly loved this post. Unfortunately, no matter where you go in the world there are stereotypes and people who firmly believe them to be true. Anyway, I love how you presented this post, making it more of a fascinating piece on humanity than an uncomfortable/depressing one on the darker side of our human nature.