One of the fringe benefits of being an expat is having the ability to observe your home country from the outside, or at least through the prism of a non-native perspective. Being "outside the bubble" can help strip away popular narratives and other cultural assumptions that otherwise would go unquestioned.
Often, this different perspective can be helpful in placing complex issues in a more complete context. At other times, though, it can put one's home country in a more unflattering light. As an American, there are aspects of my country's culture (cherishing freedom of expression, being a driving force of scientific advancement, the marriage of chocolate and peanut butter, etc.) that I quite like being associated with by foreigners, but there are other aspects that create a peculiarly strong gravitational attraction between my forehead and the desk. I can't help but wonder what non-Americans must think of me and my people when stories emerge of, for example, churches giving away free guns, steak dinners and tattoos as an enticement to come hear about Jesus' love.
That brings to mind another question -- what makes expats from other countries cringe when their homeland hits the international news? For many Australians whom I've known and befriended, it can be largely summed up in two words: "Tony" and "Abbott". Malaysian expats must be loving all the attention their country has received in recent days. Even our sensible, well-adjusted friends up in Canada have their own domestic embarrassments for which to answer.
Then there's Japan.
Let's be clear about something: I really dig Japan. It's a beautiful country with a fascinating culture, not to mention somewhere I hope to live someday soon. It also has its quirks and rough edges, of course, one of which came to the fore recently.
Urawa Reds fans -- among the most passionate and vociferous in Japanese soccer -- put up a banner reading "Japanese Only" (in English, it should be noted) during a recent home match. Explanations as to why the banner was necessary have been hard to find, but the sentiment behind it is hardly new. To put it mildly, Japan isn't exactly the most welcoming place for foreigners and incidents of racism aren't exactly uncommon.
Ultimately, the J-League punished Urawa by ordering the club to play its next match behind closed doors, depriving it of upwards of $1 million in match-day revenue. Reaction from the authorities was surprisingly swift and decisive -- a fact that may owe something to Japan playing host to a Rugby World Cup and a Summer Olympics in the near future. The league deserves credit for taking such an unequivocal stance, even if stories such as these tend to be the exception as Japan's leadership lurches still further to the right.
It's tempting -- and probably largely accurate -- to think that the people who put up the banner at Urawa's stadium were more misguided or misinformed than malicious. Japanese people, like most everyone else, are on the whole generally good and far from the racist, imperialist caricature painted by their most strident critics (i.e. China). That said, the steady stream of stories about anti-foreigner sentiment in Japan and people reacting in horror to the prospect of more foreigners coming to the country makes me wonder just how welcome a big, hairy gaijin like me would be welcome if I moved to Japan. I can compartmentalize and power through as well as the next guy, but far be it from me to hang around where I'm not wanted.