PLIGHT OF JAPAN'S "WANNABES'

PLIGHT OF JAPAN'S "WANNABES'

Japan evokes images of mystery, rich social tradition and cultural uniqueness. Bow the wrong way and you won't get any dinner. Forget to remove your shoes and you'll be deported. Or so the authors of travel guides would have you believe.

This is particularly disconcerting for Americans famous for planning vacations with people they met in the elevator 15 minutes ago.Part of Japan's distinct identity may stem from 1,500 years of relative isolation, during which Japan was able to adapt most foreign influences to its own image - including, most recently, the Macuradanaldo Haambaaga, known elsewhere as the Big Mac.

But Japan's unique outlook has also given rise to an equally unique counter-phenomenon - the gaijin who tries so hard to fit in, he ends up believing he's really Japanese.

"They become kind of freaks," says John Neuffer, an analyst with a Japanese think tank.

Mr. Neuffer recalls sitting on the plane next to a young man from the West Coast a decade ago who spent the entire flight enthusing about anything and everything Japanese.

When the plane finally touched down at Narita airport, the guy burst out into applause. Then he turned to Mr. Neuffer. "I'm finally home," he said, nearly in tears.

Robert M. Orr, government relations director with Motorola Corp. and a longtime Japan scholar, believes Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto is the unofficial mecca for these wannabes the Japanese sometimes call hen-na-gaijin, or strange Westerners.

"Many came over in the hippy movement during the 1970s," Mr. Orr says, and have since spent decades studying Zen Buddhism or Kabuki and wouldn't be caught dead without their traditional wooden staff or kimono.

Richard Werner, economist with Jardine Fleming, admits to a personal bout of hen-na-gaijin. Part of this may go with the territory for anyone seriously trying to learn the Japanese language, he adds.

Inevitably, one ends up absorbing a host of cultural values with the grammar, including attitudes about women, the world outside Japan and the value of hierarchies. For most people, there's a natural correction as they

reassert their identity. But some never come back.

Jason James, strategist with James Capel Asia, believes the Japanese view extreme wannabe cases with some distrust. "An American might have the same response," Mr. Neuffer adds. "They're trying too hard, it's too contrived."

Given the importance of groups in Japan, wannabes also risk falling through the cracks, says Mr. Orr. "A lot of guys who try to out-Japanese the Japanese find the Japanese are not responsive," he said. "I think (the Japanese) don't understand what the motivation is and why you're not accepted by your own group."

That said, Mr. Orr admits he's caught himself doing surprising things, including bowing while speaking on the telephone even though the other person can't see him. "That's really scary," he says.

But Yukio Okamoto, president of consultant Okamoto Associates Inc., believes Japan may have more trouble with Japanese acquiring American sensibilities than foreigners trying to become Japanese.

Mr. Okamoto said Japanese managers who live in the United States for an extended period may soon find their ideas discounted. "The head office thinks they've gone too much toward adopting the American mentality," he said.

The question of how far to extend yourself culturally can have important implications for business.

Some, like Mr. Orr, believe foreign businessmen should confer and drink in Japanese, if possible, but negotiate in English. The major reason is that Japanese is far more nuanced and less concrete, leaving more room for misunderstanding.

Mr. Werner sees it more strategically. Negotiating in Japanese puts the foreigner at a power disadvantage, he believes.

For Mr. Okamoto, it's less about power than about consideration. These days, even if you don't have the skills to negotiate in Japanese, at least showing you've tried to learn the language is appreciated.

Occasionally, the reverence for all things Japanese becomes so overwhelming that old hands are tempted to make a little mischief.

Rei Ohara, a Japanese photographer, says he met an over-eager gaijin businessman on a plane to Japan recently who drove him crazy. Finally, the guy asked him how to say good morning at a Japanese business meeting. Mr. Ohara instead taught him the phrase, "My, you have nice legs." To this day, he says, he wonders how the meeting went.

Mr. Orr remembers having a bit of fun in the mid-1980s when two Kentucky researchers showed up to snag some Japanese funding.

"These guys were really green, right off the boat," Mr. Orr recalls. The three sat down for some noodles. But just before the two guys took their first bite, Mr. Orr shouted out in shock, prompting the two visitors to look up.

"That was close," Mr. Orr said, with a relieved look on his face. "You didn't bless your noodles. And you have to get the evil spirits out of your beer."

After hearing so much about strange Japanese practices, they took the bait. Before long he had them repeating hocus-pocus prayers and rotating their beer glasses counter-clockwise around their heads before drinking. Needless to say, Mr. Orr adds, the Japanese in the restaurant thought it was the weirdest thing they'd ever seen.