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The Body Language of Prejudice

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It’s New Year’s Day at a shrine situated in a residential area in central Tokyo. There is a long line of people waiting to enter the shrine to pray, dispose of last year’s good luck charms, and purchase new ones for the coming year. Tables selling a wide variety of charms to aid in making every wish for the coming year come true are set up opposite the two temple areas where folks will take turns clapping their hands, bowing, and saying a silent prayer. The mood of the scene is relatively sedate and people are respectful of those around them despite the crowd. Even the people imbibing hot sake at a tent near the charm sellers are on their best behavior so as not to interfere with the spiritual observances of those visiting the shrine.

A middle-aged American couple has come to the shrine to learn more about the cultural practices of the Japanese on their most important holiday. They know enough about kanji to read the symbols on the teabag-shaped good luck charms on offer, and decide to buy one. There are people lingering at the tables in front of the couple, so they wait patiently and silently behind a mother and her pre-teen daughter. As the daughter surveys the charms, she catches the red-haired, blue-eyed foreign woman out of the corner of her eye and immediately taps her mother’s shoulder and pulls her down to whisper in her ear. The mother turns around and stares straight into the foreign woman’s eyes for a full three seconds, then slowly and carefully surveys the foreigner from head to toe. The woman’s behavior suggests someone looking over an animal which cannot comprehend the scrutiny being applied to her, not the actions of one human being interacting with another.

The previous scenario recounts an actual experience and an example of the type of prejudice betrayed in the body language of Japanese people when interacting with foreign visitors and residents in Japan. While most foreign people do not experience quite this level of overtly rude behavior, this is one point along a scale which begins with the Japanese person who makes quick, self-conscious glances at the foreigner standing on the train and ends with the child who does a wide-eyed double-take and gasps, “gaijin da!” ("It's a foreigner!")

Japan is hoping to host the Olympics in 2016 and, if it does, it’s going to have to spread awareness among its people about the possible negative consequences of betraying prejudices and lack of regard for the feelings of foreigners with both subtle and gross displays of body language which single out foreigners and make them uncomfortable. Staring, pointing, and talking about a foreigner with a traveling companion may not land one in hot water when the foreigner resides in Japan and is motivated to grit his teeth and bear it, but it may not go over so well with visitors who won’t sanguinely put up with such disrespectful treatment. The results could range from hostile stares to unpleasant verbal confrontations to physical violence, depending on the disposition and sensitivity of the object of unwanted attention. The ultimate consequence could be an increased prejudice toward Japanese people on the whole and a feeling that they are much more comfortable with overt racism than are citizens of many other developed countries.

A good point at which to start raising awareness is with parents. If the previously mentioned scenario at the shrine were to happen in a western country, the mother would almost certainly chastise her child for staring at or whispering about another person based on his or her unusual appearance. Parents in western countries try to train their children not to gesture toward or talk about other people, particularly minorities (or disabled), but parents in Japan often reinforce such behavior by even more aggressively engaging in it. With such behavioral role models, children are bound to grow up objectifying foreigners and regarding them as unworthy of the same respect as fellow Japanese.

Apologists in both the foreign and Japanese communities excuse this sort of behavior by explaining that many Japanese people don’t often see many foreign folks and they cannot help but stand agog when they encounter them. For rural Japan, this explanation may hold water, but it doesn’t work nearly as well for Tokyo. There are thousands of foreigners in Tokyo, and many commuters see them on a semi-regular basis as they go about their daily business. What is more, Tokyo has some of the most well-traveled and sophisticated residents in the world. Many of them have been to foreign countries, and the sight of blue eyes, dark skin, or blond hair should not elicit these types of reactions. The time has long passed when Tokyo folk can get away with this sort of behavior and claim Japan’s relative isolation and homogeneous culture as a credible excuse.

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About Shari

  • Great article, Shari!

    I’ve only been to Tokyo twice and on both occasions I’ve been too bothered about avoiding big crowds, but I imagine that if I were at a more “Japanese” type of event like this, I could have had an experience like this one.

    About an hour ago I had a Trouble at the Bank Half-Hour, due to the fact that none of the ATMs here in Kyushu have great English instructions and I had to ask someone to help me. To cut a long story short I didn’t understand a transaction, which meant a huge line of folk all staring ahead to see what the problem was – aha, the gaijin holding up the queue!

    I’m quite used to children looking at me, but as long as they’re not rude and just say hello, it’s alright. But it’S when their parents aren’t seen to chide them for staring at the person who’s different that I get a bit narked.

    You made a very good point about temporary visitors, who may feel they’ve got nothing to lose by getting aggressive at people who they perceive as rude. For us it’s not worth the hassle of getting annoyed each time someone makes a spectacle of you; you know it will be worse for you!

    Recently I was laughed at by an old man for using chopsticks (which I could do perfectly well in London actually). Like you said, I let it go, being a resident right now. It did, strike me, however, as incredibly bad-mannered. My grandfather, who would’ve been ninety-three had he lived and grew up in lowland Scotland with few foreign faces, would even have kept quiet!

  • PR

    Im a permanent resident in Japan and I dont let people get away with staring at or commenting about me. I always say something even simply konnichiwa. Common sense is not always common, in any country. Back visiting in my home country I was stared at by an entire family of my own ethnicity while in a store checkout line. I am an average looking person, not ugly nor especially attractive but for some reason this entire family was staring at me even after my sister and I commented loudly to each other how rude it is to stare.

    As for the mom and daughter at the shrine perhaps they were just visitng Tokyo from a rural area and had not seen many foreigners, or they could be from tokyo but simply have no sense or manners.

  • SC

    Nice article. As foreign residents of Osaka, my partner and I get this kind of thing all the time. We’ve been singled out, stared at, laughed at, verbally abused, even physically assaulted—because we’re not Japanese. Friends have had similar experiences. The extraordinary thing is that such ugliness passes without comment. Nobody seems to think it’s anything unusual. Japan, in this respect, has a very long way to go to drag itself into the twenty-first century, and apologists for what is nothing more than unabashed xenophobia aren’t doing the country any favours. My partner and I are leaving very soon—I can’t imagine why?!—but our sense of Japan will be forever altered by our experiences here.

  • Pam

    It’s never going to change. The Nagano Winter Olympics were held in 1998 and Japan co-hosted World Cup Soccer in 2002. (Not to mention the Tokyo Olympics in 1964) There were thousands of visitors from all around the world who visited Japan for those events and were, no doubt, subjected to the same stares and whispers as the long-term resident foreigners. Nothing changed.
    I first moved to Japan in 1987. Everyone talked about how much it was changing. Over twenty years later, I see a lot that hasn’t changed at all.

  • I always confront them and ask them “what the f___ are they are looking at? Do they have something to say? I find the foreigner “Japan Sugoi” types to be more pathetic as they explain away the ignorant behavior.

  • I want to thank everyone for the wonderful and interesting comments, particularly those sharing their stories as I think that it’s useful for people who are interested in this topic to know my experiences are far from isolated.

    On my own blog (where this article is linked to but not posted), I got a good question and that question was essentially why is it rude to stare at people in this way and not just a cultural difference. I think that, if Japanese people treat each other this way, it’s a cultural difference. If they don’t (and they certainly do not treat each other this way), then it’s bad behavior.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that freakily-dressed Japanese people don’t get treated this way by other Japanese people by and large. It’s not merely looking different that causes them to stare and whisper, but you’ve also got to be enough of an outsider that they feel it’s OK to treat you rudely. You can have a foot-high blond Mohawk and you don’t get this treatment if you’re obviously Japanese.

    And, as Chris B mentioned, there are a ton of foreign apologists who are keen to excuse or downplay the importance of this behavior. These same people would be first in line if a black person were treated this way in a largely white community, but they think it’s just fine for the Japanese to behave so badly. These people are so desperate to be accepted by the Japanese that they can see no wrong with anything they do. Essentially, they have entirely bought into the idea that any nail that sticks out warrants a little hammering. A lot of them will blame foreigners for being foreign rather than the Japanese for behaving in a prejudicial manner.

  • Mike

    Really it isn’t the fault of the Japanese with the way they are thinking. They are an island nation and do not have the same amount of diversity of countries such as the United States. I lived in Tokyo for a year studying abroad at Sophia University and I experienced plenty of racism, such as a person not even wanting to stand next to me on a train platform and actually walking 20 feet down after I stood 5 feet away from him.

    Situations like that were a first for me, but it didn’t leave a chip on my shoulder at all. Just like the Japanese need to understand about diversity, foreigners need to understand that their culture is different as well. Having pride in Japan and staring at the occasional foreigner are part of Japanese culture. You have to realize that you are minority coming into this very closed culture. Instead of reacting with anger like African Americans do in the United States, I decided I was going to try my best to become as Japanese as possible. “When in Rome” I suppose.

    Impressing the Japanese with my cultural knowledge helped a lot. Maybe the woman in this story saw that foreigner as just buyer a souvenir when really that fortune is part of a deep Japanese pride in luck for the upcoming year.

  • “Instead of reacting with anger like African Americans do in the United States, ”

    An ignorant person trying to teach about ignorance.

    F___ing classic :)!!!!!!

  • Ah, Mike, you are a classic apologist. The Japanese are too special, unique and isolated to treat outsiders with the same respect they accord one another. Your ignorance of real Japanese culture is reflected in your statement about how deep Japanese pride is regarding good luck symbols during New Years. The vast majority of people do not take it seriously at all. In fact, the tradition of burning the charms at the end of the year and buying new ones is taken so lightly by some of my acquaintances in Japan that they don’t burn the ones they like the decorative quality of even though they’re culturally taught that doing so is bad luck.

    You’re just like all the other Japanophile hakujin who believe that displaying your “great knowledge” of the intimate details of Japanese culture (which is so precious and inscrutable) is the only way to fit in. You have to impress the Japanese with how much you admire their culture so that they can extend you the courtesy they freely offer one another. There was a word for folks who do as you suggest back in the 50’s. That word was “Uncle Tom”. Kowtowing to “fit in” and accommodate prejudice and bigotry only reinforces the behavior.

    As long as your behavior is not disruptive, inappropriate or illegal, there’s no excuse for treating people with disrespect because they look a little different. Waiting quietly and patiently in line hardly warrants a bad reaction as it’s certainly perfectly normal behavior in Japan. Your idea that the Japanese woman could read the foreign person’s intent and decided it was okay to behave badly toward her is absurd. If someone in America said that they denied service to a person who appeared to be Hispanic because they sized that person up and decided his English wasn’t good enough to do business with, there would be outrage. Bigotry isn’t excusable based on reaching unsubstantiated conclusions about others. That’s the essence of prejudice.

    I’m not saying you have to beat people up or force your notions down their throat, but Japan is a part of the worldwide economic network and their doors are open to foreigners. It’s time for them to grow up and start getting over themselves. If they want our money and our markets and our labor (to support their diminishing population), then they need to start according foreigners the same respect they accord one another. That isn’t so much to ask unless you’re so hopelessly insecure and desperate to be approved of that you’re willing to bend over and take it just so you’ll be accepted.

    I understand Japanese culture (that’d be the real one, not the fanciful one which is what people talk about but the one people actually live according to), far better than you can possibly imagine.

    Sometimes it seems that the need to be patted on the back as a good gaijin seems to totally distort people’s moral compass. Honestly, foreigners who act as apologists for this sort of behavior are far worse than the Japanese who engage in it. The Japanese do it because they are too ignorant, xenophobic or unsophisticated to understand good manners apply to all humans no matter where they come from or what they look like. Most western folks are raised in cultures which teach them egalitarian views. The fact that some folks toss those values out the window for the sake of gaining the approval of the Japanese is pitiful.

  • From what little I’ve seen of Japanese culture, they have abandoned the Japanese part, copied the porno stuff from Americans (adding a few new twists of their own), and they’re retained the racism and xenophobia. Why should anyone apologize for their racism and xenophobia? What do they have to offer that foreigners should admire?

    Sushi? Anime?

  • What do they have to offer that foreigners should admire?

    Well, some magnificent art, for one thing.

  • DD,

    Let’s put this more crudely. What have they done recently, like within the last 60 years or so, that is worthy of our admiration. Why should this gaijin have any respect for a nation of copy-cats?

    More to the point, why, if I were to go to Japan and pointed to like a mad dog because I’m not Japanese, should I not give the guy or woman with the bad manners the middle finger.

  • duane

    Experiences vary, no doubt. I have spent only two weeks of my life in Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto), but I must say, it was great. I experienced nothing but kindness and good manners, unlike my experiences in … oh … say, Italy and Holland, where I was often treated like … you know … a foreigner.

    I was made aware (by some American colleagues) of the racism that is purportedly endemic to the culture, and I saw some distasteful portrayals of blacks on the TV. But I never experienced any staring or avoidance.

    But I won’t dispute Shari’s assertions, since she has vastly more experience with the Japanese. Just my two cents.

    Ruvy #12: My opinion of Japan is heavily influenced by their scientific output, which is impressive. (By the way, my opinion of your country is similarly biased.) I admire the Japanese scientific establishment, and any country that invests heavily in forefront scientific research gets points in my book. I don’t want to talk about myself, so let’s just say that in my field, Japan has often led the way.

  • Silver Surfer

    You admire Japan’s scientific output eh Doc?

    What do you think of “scientific whaling reasearch”.

    You know, where you go down to the whale sanctuaries in the southern ocean and catch and kill whales for scientific research.

    Chopstick research, that is. “To study these animals we have to kill them (and eat them). So sorry”. I mean, why even bullshit about it? I don’t understand why they don’t realise how foolish it makes them look in the eyes of the world to have whaling ships with RESEARCH written in giant letters along the side??

    You know what else? Their claim to have a whaling tradition is crap. It was confined to a few coastal villages, and a very small cull.

    Japan’s whaling tradition started after WWII when the protein-poor population turned to the ocean and decided that whale steak tasted good. It’s a Japanese baby-boomer thing, but this latest foray is more about the true resumption of commercial whaling, and it goes against the majority wishes of the world community. But does Japan really care? (most young Japanese either don’t like it or have never tried it and have no intention of doing so)

    They have been unbelievably arrogant in their pursuit of this, and have bought votes on the international whaling commission by encouraging poor landlocked countries to vote on their bloc … no doubt with considerable financial inducement.

    All the while the Japanese government and its bureaucrats have accused Australia generally and Australian opponents of the slaughter of being racist.

    I’m sure my grandfather’s generation would have had a different view. It’s a given many of those still alive would be more than willing to make known to the Japanese their views about who’s racist and xenophobic and who’s not.

    There are old blokes here who won’t even have a Japanese product in their homes. Some young people are now thinking that this might be a way to hurt Japan if they consistently refuse to listen and take note on this issue.

    In the case of the old blokes, I can understand why – although no young Japanese (who I like mostly) will understand it because they haven’t been told – they have the attitude they do, but that’s probably taking things a bit too far and time have changed. Yet the truth is, the Japanese really do need to have a really good look at themselves about a lot of stuff if they are truly to take their place at the table of nations.

    I’m with Ruvy here. They intensely dislike foreigners (whilst not being averse to cherrypicking bits of western culture they like) and are probably the most insular society on this planet, even more so than the US – but at least educated Americans don’t look down their noses at people generally. So yeah, really, what does Japan contribute to global wellbeing?

    Not very much that doesn’t suit only them is my belief, and if you suggest they are doing the wrong thing, they are invariably suitably outraged at the supposed arrogance of others.

  • duane

    That makes for an interesting debate, doesn’t it, Silver? You (or someone) should do an article for BC on the subject.

    Evidently, Japan is operating in accordance with IWC guidelines, although their plan to accelerate the program was met mostly with disapproval by the member nations.

    I suppose the issues are:

    (1) is the research valuable?

    (2) can non-lethal research provide a satisfactory substitute?

    (3) if the killing of whales is restricted to non-endangered species (like the Minke), is it then ethical to kill whales?

    (4) is Japan’s desire to reinstate commercial whaling being hidden behind a scientific pretense?

  • Stan, it’s Duane who expressed enthusiasm about Japanese science. And they have made numerous important contributions.

    And yes, the whaling thing is bullshit. The only ‘research’ involved is finding out if broiled whale wang tastes good with teriyaki sauce.

    Japanese technology is of course largely an extrapolation of western tech. I’m not in the least bothered by this, especially since it’s much better made than most else that’s on offer. I drive a Japanese car with 107,000 miles on it and it still handles like new.

  • STM

    My wife has a fully imported Japanese car and it’s a beauty, and I like it too. But that doesn’t alter the fact that by and large, many (not all) older Japanese a) dislike foreigners and b) think we (non-Japanese) should all mind our own business no matter what.

    They’ve been there before, too, and in the recent past. Telling here is Japan’s decision (and it IS a decision of legislators in Tokyo) in the past not to admit to its own children the extent of its war crimes and how it has been perceived in the past in the region.

    So when you are hearing debate in Japan about WWII, you will hear plenty about how dreadful the atom bombs were but not much about anything else. That’s because Japan’s post-war generations have no real knowledge of it.

    It’s been a sore point in China, and here, for many years – but especially in China.

    Given the changing nature of Japanese society, it is sad that unlike young Germans (or young Britons, young Americans, young Australians or young Russians, for that matter), most young Japanese have never had to confront anything uncomfortable about their nation’s past.

    I believe this has fostered a continuation of the old belief that they remain untouchable (and which Shari has touched upon in the article) and a cut above, but in new ways, and this spills over into their dealings with other nations.

    For the record, I have liked almost every Japanese person I’ve met, because they are VERY likeable people, which makes some of my contentions above all the sadder if they are true – and I believe they are. Hopefully, this will change as younger Japanese more enamoured of western mores and attitudes move ionto positions of power both in government and the corporate world. In doing that, it is also worth noting that no one suggests the Japanese should sacrifice their own culture. More user-friendly is the issue.

    I do believe modern Japan must reassess its own perceptions of itself if it is to truly become a global force for the collective good. Otherwise, nothing changes.

    The whaling issue, which you might have guessed is a passion of mine, would be a great place to start. It is vital that Japanese understand the loss of face they are suffering internationally as a result of this so-called scientific research.

  • Andy

    I wonder, how much of this actually DOES have to do with body language – not just the Japanese’s, but the foreigner’s as well.

    Who really learns the native *body* language? Who really pays attention to their own body language and how it effects others?

    To draw a parallel — certain foreigners to America have smaller “personal space” radii than Americans, and unknowingly offend them by constantly trying to close that distance, advancing as the American moves away, both trying to establish and reestablish comfort zones.

    So in Japan, this could be at least PART of the problem.

    And ffs, the Japanese are neither saints nor demons, here.

  • andy

    it doesn’t matter if you’re Japanese or foreigner, everyone who is ignorant of local customs and history will act accordingly. I love watching traditional Japanese weddings but when foreign tourists start snapping photos like crazy, it really irks me.

  • Cindy

    This article reminds me of a visit I made to France. On arrival, an American couple in the airport talked about how the French were rude, the French were snobs, the French blah blah blah…

    It turned out that on my return, I saw the same couple in the airport again. They confirmed that their experience with the French had proved they were right. According to them, they met scores of rude and obnoxious French people.

    My husband and I, on the other hand, met scores of very polite and helpful French people over out two week trip.

    Tips: 1) Never ever rent a car in Paris. (Though you are on the same street–the name seems to change every block.) 2) Just because you can ask for directions in French, doesn’t mean you’ll understand the answer.

  • STM

    3) Try not to order from a waiter in schoolboy French, and 4) when the old boot covered in melted cheese turns up at the table, pretend it’s exactly what you wanted.

    Also, don’t take a blonde girlfriend to Paris unless you desperately want to discover that all those surly Frenchmen who couldn’t speak a word of English before they saw her can now suddenly speak with the fluency of an Oxford university linguist.

  • Why au nom du diable would you ever need to rent a car in Paris? In the city center you’re never more than 500 yards from a Métro station and there are buses and trains a-plenty that can take you to even the more out-of-the-way arrondissements.

    Zut alors!

  • ‘Old boot covered in melted cheese’?

    Ah, le crôque-monsieur. Delicious, but like eating a glass baguette…

  • STM

    Did everyone notice that every car in Paris has at least one ding in it, or is missing a hubcap or two. They all smack into each other on that roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe.

    Some of ’em are quite new, but they look like rolling wrecks.

    It’s madness. The city of light … unfortunately it’s not the city of give way to the right.

    Doc’s right about the Metro and the trains. Much more fun.

    Walking ain’t a bad way to get around either. Plenty to look at 🙂

  • STM

    I prefer “le sandwich jambon” to the croque monsieur. That’s just a fancy nancy-boy name for a toasted cheese sanger. Frogs … typical.

  • A Duck

    I like le crôque-monsieur. It is ham and melted cheese, oui? Et gruyere at that! Mon dieu! Je les aime.

    In France, in the countryside I bought a baguette with ham and cheese and butter. That was good.

  • Cindy

    whooops. forgot to take off my feathers.

  • STM

    Lol. Nice one Cindy.

    Widely travelled too … so when are you going to get down this way for a visit?

    God knows what you’ll make of us if you do …

    At least we speak the same language – kind of.

    The good thing is, if you can’t understand anyone, at least you can read what’s going on and understand the shop and public transport signs.

  • STM

    Doc writes: “In the city center … ”

    I meant to take you to task for that a bit earlier.

    Come on Doc; what, you’re giving up the Queen’s English after a couple of years in sunny Fresno?

    Geez mate. Letting the side down.

  • This coming from an Aussie – the land where they can’t even spell the name of one of their major political parties properly.

  • STM

    Lol. OK, then … how come phonetic is spelled with a “ph” instead of an “f”.

    Labor … a bloody-minded decision to differentiate it from your mob, I suspect!

    Either that, or there were a couple of union leaders involved who thought we were becoming little America anyway, so what the hell.

    Or they just couldn’t spell.

  • And how come ‘monosyllabic’ has five syllables?

  • Yeah, STM, a croque is ham and cheese and bloody delicious it is too. I first had one in a somewhat sleazy but very exciting cafe/bar in Antwerp, where I had the great pleasure of living for a couple of years, and I mean great pleasure. Fabulous city, fabulous toastie!

  • STM

    I must admit, I do miss Europe. I’m getting withdrawals again.

    A couple of weeks is all I can handle at a time, though.

    I love a sunburnt country.

  • Cindy

    RE #22


    We were headed for the Loire Valley. lol.

    (must think me an idiot, driving around in Paris…haha)

  • STM

    Most Parisians appear to have cars, though, Cindy – or another form of wheeled transport (madness, riding a motorbike there).

    They just can’t drive the bloody things. It’s a mobile obstacle course on wheels.

  • Bill Bryson in one of his books compares the notoriously bad drivers of two European capitals – Paris and Rome – and comes to the conclusion that the Parisians are worse. He reckons that while the Romans are merely crazy, the Parisians actually want you dead.

  • Cindy

    I was going to mention Rome. As I recall, everyone drives like mad down these narrow alleys. There didn’t seem to be any advance rules. They only decided which way anyone is going to go once they actually get to the intersection.

    I kept counting the number of ambulances I heard in my two weeks there.

  • Rome even has tiny buses that are specially designed to get up and down those narrow medieval alleys.

  • STM

    The Portuguese are the worst drivers I’ve ever encountered. They are, truly, insane. It’s just a scary place on the road there.

    Add in tropical weather, the Catholic Church, booze, oppressive government, poverty and a complete breakdown in morals and it’s easy to see how Brazil inherited the legacy and became such a mad place.

  • I actually didn’t think the drivers in Rio were that bad, considering their reputation. I think there’s been a strenuous effort by the police in recent years to curb some of the mayhem; so that people do, now, actually pay attention to what colour the traffic lights are.

    Buenos Aires was the real eye-opener. The drivers there aren’t totally tonto, but they do seem to regard the lanes on the road as simply decoration.

  • I really enjoyed this article and it mirrors alot of my own experiences.

    My husband comes from rural Japan, so whenever I took a step outside the door I was pointed at and whispered about. In the train station buying a ticket the whole crowd stops talking to watch you. After 3 weeks living there I could no longer go outside without feeling like a major celebrity, not a good feeling. When I got home I suffered from post traumatic stress disorder because of it.

    In Tokyo however no one paid any attention to me! It was sooo great! I saw alot of foreigners on the subway and apart from the businessmen who targeted, and walked right through me, I didn’t have a problem with Japanese people.

    My husband I have just realised is an apologist. When I complained that Japanese people moved if I sat next to them, he explained that they were frightened I would speak English to them. When I complained that his in-laws asked him questions about me instead of talking to me directly, he explained that they are nervous speaking to a foreigner even in Japanese.

    He even perpetuated the behaviour I think to some degree as he didn’t try to educate his own family, his own people, by leading by example.