But why would anyone who has chosen to move to a foreign country – quite possibly because they loved what they saw of it from afar and had a romantic view of what it was like to live there – be so quick to criticise?
Well, first and foremost there is culture shock, which affects everyone to a greater or lesser extent. Once the honeymoon period of wide-eyed awe is over, the expat begins to miss his home comforts and the cultural security blanket that most people have wrapped around them at all times. He becomes overly sensitive to inconvenience or difficulty of any kind, and frankly, at that point almost everything seems alien and annoying.
Secondly, it is in our nature to compare, and while many Japan / UK comparisons come out in favour of the former – the trains run on time, the vending machines work, the streets are crime free etc. – there will always be some that come out against: the almost complete absence of workers’ and women’s rights, for example, the over reliance on bureaucracy, or the still smoky atmosphere in most bars and restaurants.
Thirdly and most importantly, there is the language gap: one is always more likely to criticise or find fault with something one does not understand, or into which one does not have a proper insight. When you’re living in your own country, not only do you have the advantage of being a native speaker, but you have a lifetime of knowledge and experience with which to back that up: cultural reference points, customs and manners, education and upbringing, and so on and so forth. If you arrive in a foreign country with just a few basic phrases at your disposal – ‘Hello’, ‘Pleased to meet you’, ‘Can I have a beer, please?’ – you are completely helpless. It’s like being a baby all over again: you can’t understand what people are saying, nor can you read something as simple as a road sign, and to compound the problem, you cannot express even your most basic needs. What to do when you need to catch a bus, buy a plane ticket, or turn on your air conditioner? The trouble is, no matter how amenable or empathetic you might be, there is an innate human tendency to view everything as someone else’s fault, so even if the problem arises from the inability of two people to speak each other’s languages (and let’s face it, when a foreigner comes to the UK, it is much more likely to be the former who can make him or herself understood by the latter, and not vice versa), in the opinion of the expat, it is the native speaker who is being awkward, or ignorant, or obstructive.
Be it on paper or on the internet, what these three things give rise to is a lot of writing that instead of celebrating what’s cool, interesting or great about Japan, focuses on what’s regressive, inconvenient or unfair. My favourite J-Blog of all, Tokyo Damage Report, has often been often guilty of this, and along with the book Dogs And Demons, whose author Alex Kerr is an expat of sorts, it served as possibly my biggest influence when I made my bid for travel literature immortality. I’m certainly not saying that foreigners should refrain from criticising Japan, but I do believe they should think twice before doing so, and ponder whether they are in fact contributing to an overall atmosphere of what the current jargon calls snark – ie. a bitchy, critical writing style that has become all too prevalent in today’s Facebook / Twitter / blog-heavy virtual world.
On my current visit to Japan, I have tried as much as I can not only to look for the positive in what I encounter, but also to look for its negative equivalent in my own culture, or at least to balance out one negative with another. For example, while Japan isn’t exactly a world leader when it comes to protecting the environment, neither is the UK. Where Japan’s landscape is blighted with concrete, the UK too has become a homogeneous suburban wasteland, in which out-of-town superstores and four-lane bypasses are rapidly replacing rolling hills and village greens. In the same way that everything in Japan claims to be eco, green or energy saving when it is often nothing of the sort, so everyone British with an ad budget and a product to sell has been jumping on the environmental bandwagon, whether they have the credentials to back it up or not – in fact, given Japan’s record for innovation, if a solution to global warming can be found, it is more likely to come from the East than the West.
So if you, dear reader, ever find the balance of this blog tipping too far into the realm of the snark, please encourage me to restrain myself, as my aim – my manifesto, even – is to avoid such negativity.