Lost in Translation

    “”GAIJIN!” the bus driver yelled.

    Eh?

    “Gaijin!” he screamed again.

    The bus wasn’t moving. Was he talking to me?

    Everyone on the bus turned around and stared. Apparently he was talking to me, since I was the only gaijin — “foreigner” or “outside person” — on the bus. I made my way to the front, where the driver gave me the correct change I had earlier been denied.

    Younger Japanese won’t use the term gaijin. Some find it a xenophobic insult, something approaching a racial slur. Japanese university students I’ve met are internationally minded citizens, enthusiastic about visiting other countries and curious about foreign cultures; adults seem less interested in the world beyond the home islands.

    Then there’s Governor Shintaro Ishihara of Tokyo, a right-wing politician who has called on the Japanese military to prepare itself for foreigner-led riots in the event of a major earthquake — never mind that it was the Japanese themselves massacred thousands of ethnic Koreans during the 1926 Kanto quake. Facts and figures do little to persuade people like Ishihara, a pop novelist before his rise to power. Nor does he need to concern himself with other viewpoints; Ishihara was last reelected with more than 70 percent support.

    Ishihara plays upon people’s worst fears. Since 98 percent of the Japanese population is ethnically Japanese, other ethnicities are seldom encountered. While America’s disparate ethnicities are a source of national pride — and any deviation from diversity is seen as a shameful failure — Japan’s racial homogeneity is the source of its national identity, according to people like Ishihara, whose brand of outspoken nationalism has made him one of the country’s most popular leaders.

    Despite the shared pride over its common heritage, this nation is just like any other major industrialized country, and imports much of its culture from abroad — primarily America.

    But Japan’s imported America is a caricature of the real thing.

    It’s one where Disney is omnipresent: where a cell phone’s default ring tone is the theme from Aladdin, where Peter Pan announces the arrival of an e-mail, and where Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot smile up at you from your ATM card. Disney practically owns this place.

    English words are used as decoration, regardless of their meaning. “Black Power” advertises a tanning salon. T-shirts proclaim “Erection Delight!” A construction company asks passersby, “What kind of polygon does your dream look like according to your idea?” And because bikes are everywhere, the subway stations warn, “No Thanks, Bicycles.”

    Not that America has done much better. America’s incomplete understanding of Japanese culture is showcased through kanji tattoos that their owners can’t read, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and movies like “The Karate Kid.” Incidentally, thanks to that movie, I was “Daniel-san” for five years. Not until junior high did kids finally stop using the suffix. Every time the “Karate Kid” mania would fade, another sequel would come out, and I’d enjoy another eight months of Mr. Miyagi imitators chanting, “wax on, wax off,” and “Daniel-san.” Nine years later, I am again Daniel-san.

    Despite their knowledge of American pop culture — Will Smith is on TV all the time and Brad Pitt sings in Japanese in a Gap commercial — Japanese students seem only vaguely aware of the U.S. presidential election, and only slightly more conscious of their own country’s politics. They have hazy recollections of a porn star and the Terminator doing something in California last year, but every time I try to tell them that I ran for governor, they just don’t get it. Only two Japanese students have easily understood the “I ran against Arnold” concept, and one of them was the daughter of a city councilman, already familiar with words like “ran” and “governor.”

    This is an endless source of frustration for me.

    To hurt an egotist, ignore him. Those who think highly of themselves — “attention whores,” as my friend likes to put it — like people to know who they are. I did not prepare for this newfound anonymity when I bid farewell to UCSD’s comforting familiarity, reminiscent of the bar in “Cheers” where “everybody knows [my] name.” In my luggage, I packed a photo album full of recall memorabilia, a sample ballot from Madera County and two laminated pages from the Los Angeles Times, both containing articles featuring my gubernatorial run. Every time I find someone fluent in English, I pull out all my governor stuff and hope they understand. They rarely do.

    In San Diego, I’m former gubernatorial candidate/ Warren College Television talk show host/“Wheel of Fortune” champion/Guardian columnist/once and future king of Warren College, Daniel Watts.

    In Japan, I’m simply Daniel-san.

    The islanders can’t find San Diego on a map; “It’s near Mexico,” I have to explain. They have never heard of “Wheel of Fortune,” and when I pull out a 2003 gubernatorial recall ballot and the Los Angeles Times, my efforts are met with blank stares. Politically, most know Bush is the president and Kerry is his opponent, but not much beyond that.

    This is not so of UC students in Japan. While most are wholly ignorant of Japanese politics, 25 of these Californians packed into the university’s audio/visual lab to watch the first U.S. presidential debate — broadcast live in Japan on BBC-World. Whether they learned anything new about the candidates is another matter, as they spent most of the debate cackling at the president’s creative pronunciations. “Saturday Night Live” and its infamous debate re-enactments are not syndicated here, so we have to settle for the comedic value of the real thing.

    Of course, we’re not starved for comedy by any means. Everything here is 10 times more amusing than in the United States. T-shirt slogans alone could cure anyone’s depression: It takes a more stoic person than me to refrain from bursting out laughing when my friend shows up to school wearing an “Erection Delight!” shirt.

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