Between dreams and discrimination, Japanese build new lives in the City by the Bay

Harboring heady hopes or just hedging their bets, recent Japanese U.S. arrivals defy categorization


Another country is another self, said the poet Alastair Reid. To grow roots on a foreign soil means to wager on possibility — the heady hope for a new lease on life, a magical stab at self-reinvention. For a little over a century, dreams of starting anew overseas have also beckoned the Japanese, inspiring sojourns and fortune-seeking to mixed ends and degrees of success.

Since the first generation of immigrants (issei), one dream destination has been the United States. As this Saturday marks the anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor — the day that provoked the Pacific War and the internment in camps of all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast — how are modern-day Japanese immigrants experiencing life in America? What are their dreams, their struggles and rewards? And how do they handle the need to belong, the ceaseless negotiation between assimilation and roots?

I searched for answers in San Francisco, a colorful zoo for the young and adventurous, finding a new first generation of immigrants, the so-called shin issei. Defying the stereotype of the “insular Japanese,” their lives unfold as a multi-layered narrative — as complex, resourceful and daring as many others in the annals of world immigration.

“For me, San Francisco works,” says Takeshi Ebato on a sunny day in the Mission, a rare Asian presence in the vibrant Latino district. “I like Japanese culture, but I’m not going back anytime soon.”

Dressed in a hoodie and NOFX band shirt, the Tokyo native in his mid-30s has found the right place for his punk altruism. He arrived six years ago to study English and is now getting a master’s in psychology as part of preparations for a career as a communication counselor. Supporting himself through elderly care and cleaning services, Ebato credits the trials of immigrant life with giving focus to his ambitions.

“Living here, I feel that I am growing,” he says. “I’m excited about what is going to happen to me, and I am confident to make it happen. In Japan I had money, but I couldn’t see the future. Then when I came to America and didn’t have money, I had to be positive in order to survive.

“In Japan I could blame other people, but here I became independent, more responsible for myself.”

When I mention a certain kind of expat — the sad snarksters expounding in bars on how the host culture has been conniving to foil their lives — Ebato laughs.

“Of course, some Japanese here are blaming America,” he says. “They don’t like Japan, the social expectations, and they think here they can be free. But in a foreign country, you must take initiative. You need communication skills, which many Japanese lack. They don’t learn the language, they don’t want to learn anything from other people. They don’t understand that freedom means taking responsibility.”

Ebato has initiative galore, along with a curious mind. Besides practicing English listening for several hours a day, he has studied American history and wants to re-read some parts of the Bible, to view his adopted home from a native perspective. Ninety percent of his interactions are with Americans or people from other cultures, and while he admits to having developed two selves (“in a good way!”), Takeshi doesn’t fret about turning American.

“I’m not making efforts to stay Japanese. To me, just taking care of the people around me is a part of Japanese identity. Then again” — he looks up with his large, warm eyes, laughing again — “everybody should be kind to others. It’s not just a Japanese concept!”

For Dai Yoshida, a former business analyst now working as a lawyer with a global IT team, the move to America five years ago was effectively a matter of hedging his bets.

“Japan is sitting on a time bomb,” he tells me in confident, eloquent English as we meet in a cafe in Japantown. “Everybody in asset management knows the grotesque state of debt. If young people care about their future, they should look outside of Japan. It’ll actually be easier to learn a foreign language than to compete domestically.”

Working in Tokyo, Yoshida was sponsored through an intra-company visa, which was upgraded into a green card. The San Francisco assignment kicked off in 2008, just in time for the financial crisis.

“My whole team evaporated,” he recounts with a wry smile. “I almost got laid off — lots of drama!”

Despite a general sense of malaise across the U.S., many immigrants still extol chances unique to America. A fan of adult education, Yoshida went to night school to study law — a bootstrap effort that changed him.

“I actually work harder here than in Japan. If some kids tell me how tough law school is, I say, look, if an immigrant with a child and a full-time job can pass on the first try, don’t complain!”

Unlike most arrivals from Japan — so-called weak-tie immigrants who don’t seek help from their fellow countrymen — Yoshida reached out to the Japanese community, which has helped him to get established. His son attends the bilingual preschool Nihonmachi Little Friends, and besides being a board member there, Dai helps organize seminars on Japanese-American history.

As a lawyer and parent, he studied the rich yet ambivalent role San Francisco has played for Japanese-Americans, pointing out that the Little Friends school is in the same building where, just after Pearl Harbor, lines of anxious issei and their families had to report to be sent into camps. Still, as Yoshida explains, being honest about discrimination doesn’t eclipse the America he values.

“There’s still open racism, like a guy on the street calling me ‘f—-ing Chink,’ ” he says. “But I’m careful not to say ‘America is like this or that.’ The racist guy is an American experience, but then for example, Chief Judge [Alex] Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court — a friend of mine and an immigrant from Romania who speaks with an accent and has had an amazing career here — that, too, is an American experience. Myself, I focus on the latter.”

In the end, the immigrant’s dream is also a dream for the next generation. Yoshida has no plans to return to Japan, but he wants his son to know both cultures and languages. This gift of a mixed identity, he reminds, was foregone by Japanese-Americans following the war, when the need to assimilate outweighed the fostering of roots.

“I don’t think nationality determines character,” says Yoshida, “but we have to accept the fact that our children become Americanized. They are not Japanese, they are American-Japanese. What exactly that means depends on the individual, but this fact changed my attitude toward America. This is no longer a foreign country; it is the home country of my son.”

Some people wear their foreignness like a badge. Petite yet striking in appearance, Yukina Matsuo, 33, has spent seven years in America, though she still looks distinctly Japanese. With a thoughtful reserve in her demeanor, she projects an inner depth that feels exotic these days in San Francisco, a playground for techies and hipsters, where the talking is fast and opinions loud in a constant give-me-everything-now-or-I’ll-scream kind of way.

“I don’t really experience America,” says Matsuo, noting that most of her contacts are with Asians and other immigrants. “I don’t feel like this is Japan, but I don’t feel like this is America. It’s San Francisco, and I like it. It’s different from the rest of the country, just crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. I couldn’t live in an environment that’s more American.”

Since the first “picture brides” joined their husbands in the 1900s, it has been a special kind of Japanese woman that braves the great ocean-crossing experiment. Footloose and resolute, Matsuo was working as a beautician in Kyoto when she decided to quit and explore other countries. A travel agent recommended San Francisco, and so she set out to “the city that knows how” without being especially interested in America.

Her student visa became a green card when Matsuo got married, allowing residence in America and a job at a hair salon. A dream come true for people worldwide — but then foreigners, it is said, are curable romantics.

Matsuo has started to miss Japan, and staying forever in an expat bubble, no matter how picturesque, appears rather a bittersweet vista. Still, going back to Kyoto is difficult: Not young enough anymore to get hired as a beautician, she would have to open up her own salon. In addition, she thinks her husband is more comfortable in America — the sacrifice impasse arrived at by many binational couples.

“I often blame culture for all kinds of trouble,” Matsuo allows with refreshing candor. “Sometimes I complain to my husband, ‘It’s because you are American!’ even if I don’t really think that.” She gives an indulgent laugh, but then her voice turns serious again. “Actually, Americans keep surprising me by how nice they are, and then I feel bad about having a negative image” of them.

Matsuo concedes that more effort at assimilation might make her new life more comfortable, yet she doesn’t want to be any less Japanese. As we are saying goodbye, some passersby turning heads to glimpse at the Asian woman, her thoughts return to Kyoto.

“I miss the rivers,” she says wistfully, “the color of the sky and the clouds. You know, in the summer, the humidity changes the color of the clouds!”

Perhaps such nostalgia, I muse, watching Matsuo disappear into the subway, circles back to what lies at the heart of all immigrant journeys: our unending desire to be someone else in another place, in another life.

Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Steve Novosel

    Funny how you could flip this article to say the exact same things about a whole lot of expats in Japan. Like this quotation:

    “Of course, some Japanese here are blaming America,” he says. “They don’t like Japan, the social expectations, and they think here they can be free. But in a foreign country, you must take initiative. You need communication skills, which many Japanese lack. They don’t learn the language, they don’t want to learn anything from other people. They don’t understand that freedom means taking responsibility.”

    Write that as

    “Of course, some foreigners here are blaming Japan,” he says. “They
    don’t like their home countries, the social expectations, and they think here they can be free. But living in a foreign country, you must take initiative. You need communication skills, which many expats lack. They don’t learn the language, they don’t want to learn anything from other people. They don’t understand that freedom means taking responsibility.”

    And it sure sounds like quite a few people who like to complain about life in Japan, doesn’t it? The grass is always greener, etc…

  • phu

    It’s easy to be negative about this and to compare it to expat life in Japan, but while that comparison is not without merit, that’s not what the article is about.

    I think this is a refreshing look at Japanese perspectives about living abroad. Up until the last, I really enjoyed the accounts of personal growth and success; as for the grim finale, the admission is still there that a failure to even attempt assimilation is likely at or near the root of admittedly poor generalizations about the host country.

    I’d call this a nice feel-good cross-culture piece. Not everything has to attack the big issues or center on Japan’s poor attitude towards outsiders; it’s important to address those things, but it’s also important to step back and understand that there’s a world outside of Japan and myriad people having different — even positive! — experiences out there.

    Why not take a break once in a while and smile at someone else’s happiness?

  • AlanZulch

    This was a very well written and interesting article. My wife came to the Bay Area from Japan nearly thirty years ago to attend college and we met in grad school here over 22 years ago. I’ve always admired her strength in being the first in her Kyushu family to live overseas. And, I’ve seen her – and our many Nihonjin friends – struggle over the years with so many of the issues raised by this piece. Of course, her struggles have been mine in reverse, too. And there is where our bi-cultural marriage and childrearing was destined to either fail or become strong, and it’s fortunately been the latter. What a rich life we’ve had! May it continue for many more years. Many thanks for the opportunity to reflect.

  • Rosemary Chen

    My American friend often has an empty seat next to him when we go out together. Because he has VERY obvious “Gaijin” appearance, but I do not. He tries not to let it bother him but when they walk over to the seat, notice him, and then back away or change course or even just stand right in front of it, it really irritates him.
    And whenever he opens his mouth and asking things in JAPANESE, people here do not respond to him directly, not even looking at him, but turned over and talking to me. I am Gaijin too!!

  • Rosemary Chen

    “At least in America you’ve a shot, and if you’re holding an American passport 99% of people would never tell you you weren’t American; try doing that in Japan and see how long it takes someone to laugh in your face when you tell them you’re Japanese!” ← soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo TRUE!!! My family moved to Australia long time ago, that is the same there as the US.

  • Steve Novosel

    “how we’re not really welcome anywhere, and never allowed to assimilate”

    Speak for yourself, mate! I’ve integrated very well within my Japanese workplace and my community. I’ve never met anyone who’s actually TRIED to assimilate who complains about not being able to do so. Speaking the language, talking to neighbors, getting involved with local activities outside the foreigner bubble.

    “try doing that in Japan and see how long it takes someone to laugh in your face when you tell them you’re Japanese!”

    This is a theoretical exercise for you isn’t it, Ron? You’re not a Japanese citizen and haven’t tried it, have you? Why don’t you ask the many people who have taken citizenship what they say about that?

    Don’t assume.

  • Gordon Graham

    Oh the horror!

  • Gordon Graham

    Not “information”…misinformation

  • Gordon Graham

    I’m guessing the same article would include the phrase “sad snarkers expounding in bars how the host culture has been conniving to foil their lives”….

  • Steve Novosel

    I wasn’t making a parody of the quote, I was saying that many foreigners in Japan have the same issues as expats in other countries, including Japanese expats. The commonality is the divorce from one’s original culture – the experiences are largely the same.

    “most western NJ who get bashed by J-media”

    Don’t go making things up now, Toolonggone. You’ve been spending too much time in the foreigner bubble in Japan if you think there’s any systematic bashing of bilingual foreigners. You know very well that in Japan efforts to speak the language are generally VERY well appreciated.

    “And who is saying that the cited quote reflects the vast majority of opinions by Japanese?”

    …You? I don’t know? I don’t see anyone in these comments who said that until you just did.

  • Toolonggone

    I think it depends on the place you live in the states. Unfortunately, in some places like AZ, FL, LA, MS, TX, NY, GA, NC, SC, KY, there’s pretty nasty racism perpetrated by crazy right wingers and Zimmerman-like fanatics. But, this doesn’t give us any justification for tolerating similar practice in Japan or elsewhere, you know. Sadly, there are always some sort of ignorant folks who refuse to engage and instead shout down at the people who try to address the issues. They are elsewhere in any country.

  • Toolonggone

    “A naturalized citizen could even become PM,”

    Not unless h/she is a certified national “civilian.” You need to take the national exam. Less than 10% of Japanese native speakers are able to pass the test. Speaking of PM candidacy, forget it. It’s the party that selects a PM–not citizens. Be realistic. There’s no naturalized Japanese who took the PM Office in national history. And it won’t happen unless the central government is willing to make drastic change on electoral system.

  • Steve Novosel

    There’s been 62 prime ministers in a nation of 125M+. The possibility for ANYONE to become PM is insignificantly small, not just naturalized citizens.

  • Steve Novosel

    “It’s obvious you have an issue with the article”

    I think you have completely misread what I wrote. Can I ask you a serious question – no snark? Are you a native speaker of English? Because honestly, I have no idea how you would think I was criticizing the article. I wasn’t, and I am not. I think it is well-written and interesting, and I have not said anything here to imply I was critical of the author or his article.

    So since I think it is likely you have misread what I wrote, I will repeat that explicitly: I enjoyed this article and found it quite interesting. I do not criticize it or its author at all.

    “And you assume that the author is trying to inflame Japan-bashing sentiment with this article?”

    Clearly not. Nor have I said or implied such.

    “You are also wrong about your description of me.”

    Which description of you? I don’t know you and you don’t know me.

    “Foreigners who make an opinion about the problems with Japanese society–even though it is mild and conscientious, are being subject to reprimand.”

    Completely and totally incorrect. I work in a Japanese office with only Japanese coworkers and we discuss the issues of the day from time to time. I am not one for keeping my opinions to myself. Nobody ever criticizes me for sharing my opinions. Not one time in many years.

    Do we disagree in our opinions sometimes? Of course – everyone does, everywhere. It’s a discussion. But being reprimanded for having opinions and sharing them? Ludicrous.

    “See the quotes you made in your previous posting”

    I’m quite aware of what I wrote and what my own opinions are, Toolonggone! I’ll repeat – I think you have a bit of an English-language reading comprehension issue, because you seem to be consistently misunderstanding what I have said despite me correcting your interpretation.

  • Steve Novosel

    “The article is about the story of some Japanese people who decide to
    move out of their home country for their life choice. This has nothing to do with whether their voices are the main representative of Japanese
    or not.”

    Well, duh. That’s what I’ve been saying all along!

    “…, your rant of reading comprehension problem…”

    I didn’t rant about your reading comprehension problem, I politely pointed out that you clearly do not understand what I said, so because you are not a native speaker you likely have a bit of a comprehension problem. It’s not a criticism, I have severe comprehension issues in my second and third languages often as well. I was pointing out that you might want to ramp back your attack because what you think I wrote is not what I wrote. That’s all!

  • Steve Novosel

    “I certainly don’t appreciate the way you relate the views of some Japanese who make a plan to move out of their home county with those of NJ living in Japan”

    Why not? You don’t know some of these serial complainers? If you’ve lived overseas – anywhere – and mingled with fellow foreigners you will have met this breed of person. I knew several in the US (where I am from originally, though Japan is home now), I knew them in Malaysia and Thailand. They come from all over, and they get fed up with life in the country they live in (for whatever reason), and they complain relentlessly about everything. Stress reaction? Culture shock? Failure to try to assimilate? I don’t know.

    But they exist in some quantities, and they come from all parts of the world including Japan. You see them commenting on articles here (and other sites) frequently. You run into them in bars and nightclubs. I would hazard a guess that they are not the average anywhere by any means, but of course they do exist.

    “I feel it even disingenuous especially when I see your accusation of me “spending too much time in the foreigner bubble,” which is not true.”

    You’re overusing this word accusation. I haven’t accused you of anything.