The disturbing conversation I had at the bonenkai

My han consists of only 8 households, and it was the inhabitants of these 8 households that got together at the local Chinese restaurant to celebrate the end of the year.

Japan is an aging society, and this is reflected in the makeup of my han. Five of the eight households consist solely of elderly people. The three exceptions are all families with children ranging from 5 to 14.

I live in a small country town, in an area noted for its conservatism and rural ways. It's probably as good an example of small-town country thinking as you can get in Japan.

And so there I was at my han bonenkai - a 6' tall gaijin with funny hair and ear rings - a classic fish out of water. Things were quiet at first. My neighbours were shy, and I was no better, as making conversation in Japanese is practically impossible for me.

But after a few drinks we all loosened up. Assisted by one of the younger women who spoke reasonably good English, they started to ask me the standard questions gaijin are always asked:

  • How do you like Japan?
  • Can you eat Japanese food?
  • Can you use chopsticks?
  • etc.

I'd dealt with these questions a thousand times before, and so knew the appropriate noises to make. My neighbours started to relax. And here is where the conversation took a disturbing turn.

"You are very kind", they said.

"Oh thank you", I replied, trying to brush off this compliment.

"No, you are a very nice person", they repeated, with genuine feeling.

"Thank you", I replied.

"These days in Japan, there are many different types of people, but they are not so kind", they said, and an alarm bell started ringing in my head.

Uh oh. This was code, of a fairly obvious kind. What they were really saying was that they felt that Japan today is full of scary criminal foreigners, but I had nevertheless shown myself to be acceptable. I suppose this was meant as a sort of backhanded flattery, but it came across as more backhanded than flattery. However just as I was starting to wonder whether my initial suspicion regarding this line of questioning was correct, my worst fears were confirmed by the next question:

"What do you think of Japanese people?"

I spied my opening. Before I could think twice I blurted out "Japanese people are the same as everybody else", and it was only when all jaws at the table dropped that I realised that I had given exactly the wrong answer, at least from the point of view of my neighbours.

The conversation moved on, as these things do. I was treated cordially enough, but there was a definite chill. Had I gone too far? Perhaps I should have been more sensitive to the mores of my community?

Ah fuck it, they deserved it.