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Analysis: Lessons in Japan From An Oregon Perspective
Let’s get to know our neighbors

In 2008, a friend and I chose to visit Japan to see a high school buddy of mine who had expatriated and been teaching English there for 6 years. While there we took a few days to go out to the country. First we went to Nikko, a small town north of Tokyo, which has some incredible shrines. Later, I split off on my own and went to a small coastal town called Shimoda, which is a small local hotspot for surfing.

I love history, and Shimoda is the port which Admiral Perry sailed into in 1853 making a very strong case that the Japanese should be interested in what the west was selling. He did so by showing them how the American west was won. Big cannons, with lots of powder. In truly Japanese fashion they still celebrate the festival of Black Ships with sister city Newport, Rhode Island where Perry was born. They celebrate the day Japan more or less had its borders forced open by western military technology.

Before I left Tokyo, my host, who had been in Tokyo and Yokohama for most of his time in Japan could not understand my need to get out of the city. “Kropfster, you grew up in the country. Country people are all the same whether it’s here or there.” Cities are where there’s a real difference in culture he inferred. I cannot say for sure that I totally agreed with him, but his point holds merit. We had grown up together in the same one stoplight town in the central Willamette Valley.

There is a similarity in people that live in the smaller towns and in the country, isn’t there? It's a slower way of life, and a different set of priorities. In some sense, my trip to the Japanese countryside confirmed this. I think there is a common misconception that people from the countryside are more small minded, and racist.

While in the Tokyo’s tourist districts, I was certainly exposed to racism. I actually heard first hand a loudspeaker van go through a huge tourist area saying “Japan is for the Japanese, you should all go home.” I was even able to offer that interpretation to our host while knowing almost no Japanese. He confirmed it was the “nice” version of what was said. Fascism seems to sound the same no matter the costume worn. Also, the costume in this case had lots of striking well understood symbolism. Bright colors and hard lines in red white and black. Some communications do not depend on words.

In the Japanese countryside, I got to experience a different sort of racism, being denied services, as a local hospice agent placed my reservation, only to confirm that the BnB owner was ok with a “gaijin” guest. She was not. In a lot of ways, I’m far more comfortable with the second situation than the first. I would have hated staying somewhere I was not wanted.

The next proprietor was more than happy to have me and I found my way to that Bed n Breakfast, which in the Japanese countryside could be called a Futon and Fish. I was relieved to find a place to stay. I had actually considered that I might have to find a ditch to crash in, as I had done my usual amount of planning and preparation for the trip. None.

My host tried to give me breakfast in the morning, but I couldn’t stomach fish and rice with broth for breakfast. The head was still attached to the body of the fish, and I was not feeling adventurous.

To be fair, I think there was a fried egg in the broth. She expressed a rigorous concern that I would not make it through the day, and mostly in sign language she let me know that I was far too big to skip breakfast. “You sooooooo beeeeeeeeeeeg.” Her english far surpassed my Japanese. The point was made, and I politely made my exit.

I remember fondly that trip to Japan. And though my friend could not quite understand why I would want to spend time in the countryside, I am very glad I did. It was a nice slowdown from the hustle of late night drinking and socializing in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills district. I was also afforded a different set of experiences that could not have happened in the city. I got a perspective on the world wherein my understanding of the contexts of our individual lives got some definition. I started to understand my friend’s perspective.

The border of Russia and Mexico

I currently live in a bit of an odd place along the border of Russia and Mexico. Tha is a simplification. Many of my neighbors are from Guatemala, Ukraine, Nicaraugua, or actually from Russia or Mexico.

Gervais, Oregon sits 5 minutes south of Woodburn and 15 minutes north of Salem. A heavily rural and agricultural economy abounds. There are greenhouses, farms, tree and nut production. The area represents an interesting cross-section of America in the early 21st century. The perspective here is enjoyable and unpredictable.

Many of the people here are guided by faith. Other than sub-century immigrants, the families tend to be of German or French Catholic descent, creating a lot of mixed Catholic cultures. There are a fair number of “old believer” Russians, and the beautiful churches accent the skyline with Mount Hood framed in the distance on clear days. The scenery is gorgeous, and the mix of cultures is refreshing, as are the attitudes.



As a transplant to the area I have my own perspective as well. I have my hands in many arenas, and have a diverse group of friends. I was raised Mennonite until the age of 6, and culturally for my entire upbringing. Mennonites, a sect of anabaptism, (not anti-baptist) are a somewhat diverse group in and of themselves. The majority are very conservative, agrarian, and culturally separated from larger society. Most adhere to a strict way of life which prohibits involvement in organized sports, competition or politics. The very strictest and most well known are Amish.

Malcolm Gladwell, whose parents converted when he was a child, describes them as a sort of American Christianity with Jewish traditions and roots.

My dad laughed at this description with familiarity when I relayed it to him. He had never heard it put this way, and could not help but agree. “Those (traditional Jewish) are our stories and traditions,” he acknowledged.

In many ways, Mennonites live as immigrants in whatever land they choose to live, another commonality with the Jewish heritage they embody.

Over the past election cycles I’ve witnessed notable phenomena. In 2016, I recall talking to friends in Eugene that could not conceive of how Donald Trump had won election. I pointed out to them that where they live represents a specific bubble, and that they get insulated from outside perspectives.

Rural Americans don’t think like suburban or metropolitan Americans. When you live in the country or in small towns, priorities are different. Which is in no way to say that people from specific areas all think the same. In fact, that’s the point I’ll get to by the end. I consider myself a bit of an amalgamation in that I grew up country, went to college in a small town, and lived in both a small city and a larger city at different points in my life. I’ve also had the benefit of visiting some of the world’s largest metropoli.

Living in a largely immigrant cultural area affords a perspective on the differences in the way immigrants and think compared to the way established cultures think they think. I know that's a mouthful, or a mind full. Generally, I find that people from large cities think that people from rural areas ought to share their values. And, if that is not the case, they assume that minorities from rural areas will have similar values to their own.

It is not only a narrow understanding, but also a grossly negligent, and in some cases racist viewpoint on the part of my well meaning friends from the city. I often cite a conversation I had with a friend that immigrated from Nicaragua over 30 years ago.

She and I were talking about the election in 2016 when Mr. Trump was campaigning on a promise to fulfill on the proposed border wall from 2006 legislation. My assumption was that my friend would not support building a wall, and I could not have been more wrong.

“Well,” my friend related “ what I remember of Nicaragua was not positive to say the least. It was a hell we escaped, and we were lucky to get out alive. As far as I’m concerned, build that wall, there are bad people down there, and I support any measure of protection from them we can get. Americans don’t understand what that looks like. Sandinistas were truly awful.”

I’ve relayed this conversation to multiple friends over the years. Usually I’m giving this as an example of why we cannot make assumptions about people’s political beliefs. Belief comes from context, context comes from experience, or at least the story we tell around the experience. A lot of immigrants have had awful experiences that don’t have them align with party line politics on either side. It turns out that Cuban and Vietnamese immigrants tend to be very skeptical of communism and socialism for instance.

In large part, Democrats and the “left” are guilty of this to a greater degree than their R counterparts. Though in large part, the assumption is the same in both cases, and that assumption is that minorities vote left. At the end of relaying my story, I have often heard some version of the following: “so they vote against their own people?”

I usually try to point out that they do not for a second think they are “voting against their own people.” They want to be here, and they are Americans (the USA kind, no offense to our neighbors). They don’t view it as “their people”. They are us, and are acting upon their own best interests, whether we agree with them individually or not. Likely, there is a belief that they are acting in defense of the United States, their adopted country. They came for the American dream, and to flee people that would have oppressed them.

This is a context I feel many people would be well served to understand, even if it may be difficult. Perhaps immigrants understand better than any what “Us and Them” really looks like. Or doesn’t. Immigrants often come here to relate to people on a level of equal philosophy, and to have a bond in a new country that they believe is linked by common ideology instead of being falsely divided by race and culture.

We need a new diversity- not one based on biological characteristics and identity politics but a diversity of opinion and worldviews.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I personally think a new paradigm could be emerging in which political analysts finally abandon racial assumptions. I encourage all of us to do so. The last two elections have certainly challenged what many think along these lines. Progressive liberals have been hard pressed to understand why Latin and African Americans have voted in historically large numbers for Donald Trump.

Race and culture certainly color our individual perspectives. So do things like our pace of life, and access to having our assumptions challenged through exposure to new views and attitudes. I believe things like rural / city are another lens through which opinions and attitudes become contrasted and understood.

Many immigrants understand America, at least the USA and Canada, as places where they can voice their opinions freely and be judged by their character and actions instead of by the color of their skin or any other indication of where their lives may have begun. They most likely hold their beliefs and opinions with reasons all their own. Not understanding them, does not mean they are illogical.

We could assume political beliefs or biases based upon where people live and likely be more accurate than making assumptions based on race. Let’s not do that though either. Let's not assume we know what people think. Especially in Oregon where my Trump supporting friends also strongly backed legalizing mushrooms for psychiatric treatment. Oregon, where my NRA member friends with concealed carry permits have been active members in the Portland Pride community. Oregon, where socialist rednecks are a real thing.

Assumptions are not just toxic, they are profoundly lacking in nuance and understanding and likely inaccurate. Let's get to know our neighbors and see if we might actually be able to understand where they are coming from.

--Jeremy Kropf

Post Date: 2021-02-23 11:12:15Last Update: 2021-02-23 12:29:30

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