American Optimism and Foreignness in Japan

The traditional year-end double issue of The Economist is always a source of immense reading pleasure. This year’s issue is no different. I’m still half-way through the issue, but a couple of items seem worth mentioning – one is about American optimism, the other about being a foreigner in Japan.

Lexington, the columnist for the United States section, reviews two books that “lament the American tendency towards mindless optimism”. One book is by Barbara Ehrenreich, who is angry about the overly positive attitude that permeates American society and encourages people to deny reality. People with cancer speaking about it as a “gift” that helped them find their purpose in life. Or people who believe that food won’t make you fat unless you think it will. The second book is by John Derbyshire, who quips that hardly anyone in Obama’s cabinet has ever created a dime of wealth, yet most Americans expects them to fix the economy. He has nothing but contempt for those who say that “given the opportunity, most people could do most anything”, pointing out that, mathematically, half of the people are below average.

What a refreshing breath of air! Finally someone who dares tear the cover off the nauseating “think positive” attitude that invades every corner of American culture, most recently epitomised by the mindboggling drivel in the best-selling, self-help book “The Secret”, by Rhonda Byrne.

Elsewhere, the topic of “being an outsider” is examined, and the different ways in which it has become both easier and more difficult to be a foreigner in another country are discussed. The following passage made me smile, bringing back pleasant memories:

The most generally satisfying experience of foreignness—complete bafflement, but with no sense of rejection—probably comes still from time spent in Japan. To the foreigner Japan appears as a Disneyland-like nation in which everyone has a well-defined role to play, including the foreigner, whose job it is to be foreign. Everything works to facilitate this role-playing, including a towering language barrier. The Japanese believe their language to be so difficult that it counts as something of an impertinence for a foreigner to speak it.

I’m sure my wife, who has mastered Japanese, will enjoy reading this last sentence. It is so true.

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