Wednesday, July 11, 2007


When I was growing up, anger was a normal part of my everyday experience. My mother, who loved nothing more than to say I was temperamental because of my red hair, was probably the angriest person in the family. Any small hiccup in the day's activities could set off a screaming fit of verbal abuse. This could be quite irrational at times. For instance, she would be ready to go off somewhere in her car and discover that she'd misplaced her handbag. As her frustration escalated at lightning speed, she'd start screaming at my sister and I saying that we hid it from her to intentionally frustrate her.

My mother's wrath was so frequently let loose on us that I remember an incident as a child which sticks with me to this day. We were camping and she gave me a bar of soap and told me to go down to the river and wash up. She sternly told me not to lose the soap. Of course, if you have soap in a large body of water and you're a child with small hands, the bar slipping from your hand is a very predictable occurrence. After the inevitable occurred, I stood in the river and cried because I so feared the tongue lashing I was going to get. My father asked me what was wrong and I told him I lost the soap. His response was, "it's only a bar of soap," but I was sufficiently conditioned by my mothers verbal abuse over little uncontrollable things that I was completely neurotic about making such mistakes.

My mother wasn't a bad person, mind you. In fact, she could be a wonderful and giving person but she had her problems and one was that her life was very hard and there were many bad things going on which she couldn't control. When just one more thing broke the camel's back of her ability to cope (and that happened a lot because she had so much stress and difficulty), she'd let loose on my sister or I because my father would just walk off and go to a bar to get away from her and we were far easier to intimidate into cooperating or at least offer the illusion of effectively controlling our future behavior with a heaping dose of verbal vitriol.

When I first married (which coincided with when I first came to Japan), my husband experienced some of this type of irrational anger only this time it was coming from me. He'd do something thoughtless or careless to upset me and I'd say he was doing it on purpose because he didn't care about upsetting me. My husband is about as sharp as they come and he knew my history with my mother so he let me know that I was following in her footsteps. He also pointed out something which I knew from my days with my mother. Why would anyone intentionally anger someone who turned into a shrieking harpy when her hackles were up? Anyone who knows how much daughters hate to be the same as their mothers when their mothers have issues that made their daughters miserable can imagine how much of a motivator this was to change my emotional responses.

While I could, with a great deal of self-reflection and effort, learn to control my anger about all the little things in life that tended to send me off the deep end, I couldn't control my anger about a lot of things I experienced early on in Japan. To a limited extent, I still can't. Mainly, I'm talking about the rudeness I experience almost daily which either is because I'm a gaijin or because I live in a metropolis full of dreamy-eyed wanderers who rarely look where they're going and carry on their daily activities as if no one else existed. The staring, pointing, and animated talking as bugged eyes point in my direction or the tittering conversations which are bald-faced conversations about me which I'm not supposed to understand because I'm not Japanese continue to be the hardest part to tolerate though I am getting better at just ignoring it.

After I passed through the honeymoon phase a year or so after coming to Japan, I spent several years saying really ugly things about the Japanese. I'm not talking about racist sentiments but just general angry comments about how "stupid", "ignorant", and "rude" they were. I had a big "me against them" attitude. The thing is that some people can be rude, stupid, and ignorant. It's not as if my feelings had no basis in reality but my anger was disproportionate and my sentiments too generalized. At times, I'm sure that it was also misplaced. If you are subjected to something frequently enough and it makes you defensive, you will eventually start seeing these "attacks' everywhere, even when they're not really going on.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of anger. People commonly feel that anger is based mainly on fear but I'm not so sure that I'd agree it's at the root of all anger. I think some anger is based on feeling out of control and acting out on your anger is a means of attempting to gain control. If you can bully or intimidate someone into ceasing the actions they are undertaking which are causing you distress or pain, then you have gained a measure of control over them. If a Japanese person rudely gawks at me and I can intimidate them into looking away by tossing them a dirty look, an angry word, or an intimidating gesture, then I've taken control of the situation and stopped the behavior.

This sort of control is, of course, an illusion, just as my mother's verbal abuse gave her the illusion that she could control my sister and I by yelling at us. While one can use anger and acting on it to put people momentarily in their place, it won't change the underlying thoughts causing that behavior or prevent future incidents and all it does is end up making you walk around conditioned to react defensively all the time and to have a perpetually sour look on your face. If you read other Japan blogs, you'll sometimes see people comment that they often see foreigners walk around looking very unhappy. I can say that I can understand why those people look the way they do and I don't really blame them. When so much around you is overstimulating you and often rubbing you the wrong way, you've got to cope anyway that you can.

I don't mean to imply that foreigners should walk around mad all the time but just to say that it's understandable. In fact, I think the best thing you can do is develop an understanding and tolerance of the ignorant behavior of people. In some ways, it's a little like learning to tolerate the way children are always screaming and shouting and carrying on in a nerve-wracking fashion. Before someone takes that the wrong way and says I'm saying Japanese people are like children, let me say that I mean that we come to understand that kids don't mean to annoy anyone and are just acting on impulses they can't control and never stop to think about how they affect others much in the same way Japanese people don't really stop to think about how their actions toward foreigners may be perceived when they behave rudely toward them.

I wish I could conclude this post by saying that I've mastered my reactions and allow bad behavior to roll off my back but the best I can say is that it's a battle I consciously fight every time I fail at being sanguine about it. It's been a long time since I tried to intimidate someone into pointing their gaze in another direction but it's been far less time since I've wanted to do so.


Anonymous said...

I'm in my second year of living in Tokyo. I can identify with most of what you are saying. I walk around defensively and also give dirty looks, say things etc... as people (mostly Japanese men) stare or make comments. Sometimes I feel like I'm being paranoid and neurotic. I have nothing to add other than thank you for sharing. Your words made me feel better.

Shari said...

When I write something like this, I put myself out there a bit and comments like yours really make me feel like it was worth it. I appreciate the time you took to say this.

I do understand why you feel paranoid or neurotic. When I was going through the worst of this, I had friends who were deep in the heart of blind love affairs with Japan and reacted rather disapprovingly and completely lacked understanding for how I felt. Most of them eventually went through their own angry phases or left before their honeymoon was over. At that time, I felt pretty alone but I'm certain I wasn't. You're not either.

Anonymous said...

Shari, I think you are exceptionally brave for revealing as much of yourself as you have in this post. It reminds me of something I once heard Donald Richie say about the typical stages people who come to Japan tend to go through. At first--the honeymoon stage--everything is wonderful. The Japanese are wonderful, the food is wonderful, the culture is wonderful. Then disillusionment sets in and Japan is miserable. The Japanese are rude, insensitive, nasty, pushy, etc., etc. With luck and work, one can move into a third stage where Japan is neither wonderful nor miserable but in which some things are great and other things stink. Just like most places.

Are you familiar with the book "Anger: The Most Misunderstood Emotion"" I'll try to find the exact title and author and post again. But you might find it interesting.

Wally Wood (because I don't know how to use Google/Blogger to identify myself)

CMUwriter said...

I don't really have a comment about living in Japan, because I have never lived outside of good old Michigan (the Great Lakes State) for a very long time. But I have to say that you're right on the money about the mom thing. I too have some issues with my mom, and other people who are close to me, in the same way that you described how your mother acted. I live about 20 miles from my family and I try to get to my mom's place at least once a week, but I avoid it a lot of the time because all we do is fight.

She gets pissed about something that has nothing to do with me, then starts taking it out on me. I am 25 (I know I am still just a kid, but I have had ample life experience, i.e. the gauntlet that is life, to qualify for a higher maturity level) but I often get treated like I am just one of the kids, or that I am in high school or some bullshit. She even told me the other day that she was going to call my boss because I "talked back to her."

I seriously think that sometimes I'm reverting back into a child simply by living close to my family, or at least my family is making me feel like one.

Anyway, group hug everyone!

Miko said...

Oh man, I am soooooo glad to be a (relatively) "invisible" gaijin.

I know I complain a lot about what I've privately dubbed "memsahib syndrome" (do Americans understand that word?) but it's very enlightening for me to read about the other side of it. How burdensome, to be so conspicuous and never really be able to blend in with the crowd. I don't think I could stand it.

By the way, since childhood I have had a terrible temper, and tend to let fly over the smallest things! My son merely shrugs it off. Sons and daughters are very different animals, indeed.

Roy said...

Since I'm at work right now I don't have time to write a thoughtful comment but your post couldn't have come at a better time. I'm a big cauldron of irritableness this week. I post about this on my blog from time to time and mostly I'm just half joking but I agree totally with your definition of anger and the root of it being caused by feeling like you're not in control rather than fear.

Noise from things like cars and babies and construction don't bother me but loud voices and music from peoples headphones often make me really angry. As you said, it's because I want to gain control of those things while in the former examples I know that I can't do anything about it so I accept it.

I'm always amazed that Japanese people have a much higher tolerance towards these little things that seem to drive me completely crazy. They don't seem to get irritated as easily or at least they don't show it.

Alli-san said...

I have been in Japan for about a year, but this is my second prolonged stay. I just want to say that your blog makes me feel a lot less crazy and a lot less alone. So thanks!

Shari said...

Wally: I've read of the stages before and believe they are generally accurate for most foreigners though mileage does vary based on each person's situation. Some people stay in the honeymoon for a long time because they form a vested interest in staying in love with the culture. There's probably a good deal of interesting study to be done in varying reactions based on whether or not one has Japanese boyfriends/girlfriends or an interest in anime or other cultural aspects which make them more inclined to stay in love.

I hadn't heard the book you mentioned but it does sound interesting. Thanks for your comment!

cmuwriter: Based on what you've said in your blog before, I'm not surprised you've been through similar things with your mother. One of the hardest things to deal with when people do such things to you is that they make it hard for you to be the person you'd like to be. In the end, that's what compelled me to change my angry responses to the bad behavior around me. I didn't want to be the sort of person who went around shouting or giving angry looks at people. I didn't want to send that negative energy out into the world nor allow it to fill me.

To be honest, it's much harder to fight it than it is to let it run its course. It's exhausting fighting your impulses and it really doesn't feel "fair". Other people treat you badly and suffer no ill effects. You walk away mad and dealing with an energy-draining internal war.

What you said about your mother threatening to call your boss because you "talked back to her" is so typical of the sorts of irrational lengths a verbally-abusive person will go to to gain control over you.

Miko: I think Japan is a very different experience for people who look similar to the Japanese. Even if they know you are not Japanese, their interest level in you is much lower if you are Asian. Their preoccupation goes up with lighter hair colors and eyes.

I've often thought (and read) on many occasions that the gaijin experience for Caucasians is similar to that black people feel in largely white cultures. Even when people are tolerant and well-meaning, they focus undo attention on you and make you feel conspicuous.

Shari said...

Alli-san: Many, many thanks for your comment. It makes me feel good to know other people are benefiting from what I say. Also, thanks for including a link to your blog so I can read it. :-) With your hair, I bet you get a decent amount of attention, too!

Roy: I'm sorry to hear that you're having a bad week though I can empathize all too well as I have similar ones. Babies crying drives me nuts but otherwise, I'm relatively similar to you in that I don't like people who talk loudly or play their music too loudly such that it leaks out over their headphones.

At my former office, I was constantly sniping about people who were boisterous and obnoxiously loud in the office. The thing that always angered me about it was that this sort of attention-drawing and disruptive behavior was okay for Japanese staff but not for the foreign staff. We were told to settle down while some of the salesmen brayed like donkeys. One of them also randomly made bizarre noises very loudly (like "eeeee-heeeee"), but that's another gripe entirely.

I don't know if all Japanese people are better at tuning these things out or if it's a reflection of people who grew up in a metropolis and are immune to certain types of stimulation as a means of psychological survival. I wonder if people transplanted from rural areas to the city may find it harder. It's not an issue I've discussed but I do know one of my students can't bear the sound of a mosquito buzzing.

I also wonder if the Japanese, who are so practiced at suppressing their external reactions and value stoicism so much, are just better at not showing their irritation. It's something I think I'll ask my students about to see what they think.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, even when you're busy at work.

Anonymous said...

Sheri, the exact name of the book is "Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion" by Carol Travis. Apparently it is still in print (I think it was published in 1984) because Amazon lists it.

Sorry it's taken so long to get back to you.

Wally Wood