Things have changed for the better for foreigners since the old days in Japan.
Cries of “Expel the barbarians!” are rare now. The five settlements where foreign residents were required to live in the Meiji Era are a thing of the past. The Ee Ja Nai Ka incidents of the late 1860s — when people danced crazily in the streets shouting “Ee ja nai ka!” (“Isn’t it wonderful?”) after finding talismans printed with the words “Exterminate the foreigners!” that were said to have fallen from the sky — are unlikely to be repeated.
But as we enter the second decade of the third millennium, sometimes the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” rings true.
Back in the day, only the elites in Japan had last names and commoners had just a first name, or they had no name at all and were referred to by their occupation or family affiliation — as the Village Idiot, the Tatami Maker’s Illegitimate Child or the Drunkard’s Son, for example.
Yet even today, in the playground and on the train, foreign residents can still find themselves addressed in the traditional way — as eigojin (the English-speaking person), segatakaihito (the tall person) or just plain gaijin (foreigner).
It is still also a fact that no matter how long a foreigner lives in this country they will never shed their outsider status in the eyes of most native-born Japanese. On his blog and in these pages, the activist Debito Arudou has documented many instances of discrimination and outright racism towards foreigners — even long-term residents like himself who have acquired Japanese citizenship and speak the language fluently.
And after dozens of years in Japan, being told you can use chopsticks well and that you speak “jozu” Japanese can make an expat wonder whether we’ve come that far since Ee Ja Nai Ka after all.
The Japan Times talked to three well-known, popular foreigners who have made it to the top of their fields in Japan about their views on surviving and thriving as a foreigner in Japanese society.
Peter Barakan is a British musicologist and commentator who arrived in 1974. Konishiki is a Hawaiian former sumo great who has spent 27 years in Japan. Tsurunen Marutei is the first foreign-born member of the Diet’s House of Councilors of European descent. Originally from Finland, he has lived here for 42 years.
So how do these three Japan hands — who have racked up over a century in the country between them — stay sane under the barrage of compliments that can push even the greenest, most mild-mannered gaijin over the edge from time to time? What witty retorts do they have in their armory for when they are told they use chopsticks well?
Tsurunen: “I say thank you.”
It seems that while coming up against and confounding stereotypes — e.g. the awkward, Japanese-mangling foreigner — can make some foreigners feel they aren’t being taken seriously, seasoned veterans have learned to blow this off — or even revel in it.
“I feel good,” Konishiki says when asked how he feels about being told he is good at speaking Japanese. It’s a phrase Japanese use when “they don’t know what to say,” he explains. “It’s a compliment. I deal with it every day. I try not to think about it.”
Barakan, considered by many to be the best foreign speaker of Japanese on television and radio, says, ” ‘You speak Japanese well’ comments are a kind of greeting most of the time.” On the other hand, “People saying you are more Japanese than the Japanese is just flattery.”
On being treated differently, the veteran broadcaster feels his language ability may have helped shield him from the discrimination some foreigners complain of in Japan.
“I rarely feel that I have been discriminated against personally, perhaps because I have relative ease communicating in Japanese,” he explains. “What I do often feel, though, is that people treat me as a foreigner in unthinking ways. For example, they expect me to have an ‘international viewpoint’ just because I don’t look Japanese. I know that’s not discrimination, but it sometimes annoys me just as much.”
It is also possible that more than a few of the foreigners who bemoan their lack of integration into Japanese society are experiencing life as a minority for the first time, and it might serve them well to take a look at how minorities in their own countries are treated.
“Probably in any country it’s real hard for different ethnic groups to be really accepted,” says Barakan. “I wouldn’t put Japan ‘out there’ in that way.”
In his book “Lost Japan,” Alex Kerr suggests that “The Japanese are haunted by a sense of insecurity about their cultural identity” since so much of their culture came from the Asian mainland. This could help explain why so many Japanese claim that their country and culture is “uniquely unique,” and why they think that foreigners will never come to grips with its subtleties and “become Japanese.”
The Japanese dwell on what they believe to be their uniqueness a great deal. This national self-obsession even has a name — Nihonjinron — and the controversial idea has spawned a huge genre-spanning body of academic literature. Nihonjinron reached the peak of its popularity overseas as both Japanese and foreign experts grasped for a theory to explain the country’s meteoric postwar rise. The field has lost its sheen somewhat in the subsequent “Lost Decades,” particularly abroad, but the central idea of “Japan’s uniqueness” is still very much part of the Japanese psyche. As John Dower writes in his book “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II,” “Although all peoples and cultures set themselves apart (and are set apart by others) by stressing differences, this tends to be carried to an extreme where Japan is concerned.”
The classification of everything as either “Japanese” or “foreign” is an almost subconscious process, says Barakan. It could, however, be misconstrued as deliberate discrimination by those who find themselves categorized this way.
“Talking about music, for example, they distinguish linguistically between Japanese music and foreign music — also movies, clothes, food, just about everything,” he explains. “They distinguish between the Japanese version of it and the foreign version of it. Because this is so deeply entrenched in the culture and the language, Japanese are not even aware of it. They don’t think that they are being discriminatory.”
Konishiki takes being a perpetual outsider in stride and is comfortable with his status as a foreigner, he says.
“I think that’s very normal. What can you do? I don’t look Japanese, my blood isn’t Japanese, the way I think isn’t Japanese, but I try to be like them. When I step in my house, that’s when I’m myself.”
The “us and them” mentality is not a uniquely Japanese concept, but in a society with a famously uchi-soto (inside-outside) group-based structure, being labeled an “outsider” can feel like the ultimate insult.
But the “outside” is not some Japanese purgatory exclusively inhabited by carriers of gaijin cards. The struggle to belong for any Japanese citizen starts with the infamous koen (park) debut at the neighborhood playground, where mothers and their toddlers worry about fitting in, and continues in school clubs and on up through company life.
A native-born Japanese person can move from their hometown to another area within the country and be considered an outsider for the rest of their life. Television programs poke fun at the customs of people unfortunate enough to find themselves living outside the Tokyo metropolitan area on a regular basis.
Even some of the problems perceived by many expats as “uniquely foreign” — finding housing, unequal employment conditions and unwarranted identification checks, for example — turn out, on closer inspection, to be shared by many of our Japanese neighbors.
Google Earth was recently criticized for making it easy to identify burakumin (the outcast class from the feudal era, whose descendants continue to suffer discrimination) by pinpointing areas where they have traditionally lived. Gay and transgender individuals still face discrimination when house-hunting, say human rights groups. It is estimated that today a third of the workforce in Japan is employed on temporary contracts, with little or no job security. Japanese who do lots of cycling in big cities at night also complain of frequent stops by police for checks.
None of this discrimination can be condoned, but it goes to show that foreigners do not have a monopoly on these kinds of problems.
Some of the more perplexing issues that foreigners living in Japan face when trying to integrate are socially-based. For example, in a number of social settings but especially on the job or in the sports world, foreigners encounter the senpai-kohai (senior-junior) hierarchy. This can present difficulties for foreigners who are not familiar with the system.
“I think it’s a notion that’s hard for foreigners to get their heads around,” says Barakan. “I’ve never really had that sort of senpai-kohai thing. In modern-day Western society they are so egalitarian now, people don’t really think in those terms.”
Other foreigners, however, have managed to tackle the senpai-kohai system successfully.
“I’m a Diet member so we have senpai and we have kohai,” says Tsurunen.
Konishiki came face to face with senpai-kohai in the sumo stable and ring. But can foreigners become senpai?
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “I am.”
Outside of work, one common complaint among foreigners is that they have difficulty making Japanese friends. Plenty of people come to Japan and find a partner they want to spend the rest of their lives with, but real, deep, long-lasting friendships with someone besides their other half can be elusive.
It takes time and patience to make friends with Japanese, and the cultural differences can be hard to reconcile, Konishiki says.
“One thing about us foreigners is we can become friends overnight, become really close,” he explains. “The Japanese people are more like, ‘up front we are good friends,’ but at the back they’re not too sure, they don’t show that side, it takes time for them, but they won’t show it.”
“But us foreigners, we tend to be very open” when we meet Japanese people, he adds, “which is OK, but make sure not to get too deep, thinking that they are 100 percent with you — it won’t work with the Japanese.”
There is discrimination that only foreigners in Japan experience, and changes need to be made in a number of areas. Foreigners married to Japanese are unable to get on their partners’ juminhyo (certificate of residency). Permanent residents are still denied suffrage. Some jobs and establishments remain strictly “Japanese Only.”
But are the difficulties that foreigners experience and their status as outsiders so bad that they prevent them from being successful in Japan if they are determined enough?
Tsurunen has proven that it’s possible for foreigners to achieve great things in Japan. He has gone all the way to the halls of power as an Upper House lawmaker with the Democratic Party of Japan. His advice: Get over the fact you are not Japanese and get involved.
“We are foreigners and we can’t change the fact. But still Japanese accept us into this society as foreigners,” says Tsurunen, who has Japanese citizenship. “I don’t need to try to be Japanese or assimilate too much. I want to be accepted as a foreigner and still contribute to this society.”
“It’s no problem for me to be a foreigner — it’s a fact,” he adds. “I always say I am Finn-born Japanese.”
Barakan stresses the importance of understanding and flexibility in making the most of life in Japan.
“Compared to some other countries, people in Japan have extremely different sets of values and ways of reasoning. But if you can understand these differences and the reasons for them you can stop feeling anti,” he explains. “Try to understand this society and the people as best you can. People are people.”
Konishiki has a similar message for all foreign residents, wherever they happen to find themselves.
“I don’t even look at Japan as Japan. I look at it as a piece of the Earth that I’m in right now,” he says. “It’s a matter of learning to adapt, opening up your mind, opening up your heart, opening up yourself.
“That goes for any place you go.”
Charles Lewis has been fitting into Japanese society for 30 years. Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org