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Japan and others gain from Jamaican brain drain

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Dave Collymore, a 34-year-old Jamaican, has been a resident of Japan for the past seven years. He was recruited as an assistant language teacher (ALT) to teach English to elementary school kids in a rural area of Okayama Prefecture, where, it turned out, unsurprisingly, he was the only black person.

His conspicuous difference from the natives and the other, mostly Caucasian ALTs, plus a stint on a local TV show, gave him celebrity status in the area. Everyone knew him, and that made for both a pleasurable yet highly scrutinized life. After three years in the countryside, though, Dave made his way to Yokohama, where he has since become an ALT trainer.

In addition to his work in education, Dave is an author and poet. He has performed “dub poetry,” a Jamaican style of spoken-word poetry combining lyrics with rhythms, all over Japan, Jamaica and in several other countries. He has also penned a book of verse called “Poetic Expressions of Peace and Love.”

What prompted me to write this series on Jamaica and Japan in the first place was the rising number of Jamaicans I was coming across in my everyday life here. I was curious what they thought about Japan: Did they find any similarities or commonalities with this Asian island nation? Also, I wanted to know whether they were aware of this increase and what their thoughts were about it. Dave obliged me.

“I guess one similarity I’ve noticed would be this: In my experience, in Japan, if a Japanese sees a black, they’re going to think he’s African; and in Jamaica, if a Jamaican sees an Asian, we’re going to think they’re Chinese,” he explained. “Even if they say they’re Japanese, Jamaicans will think Japan is part of China.

“And many Japanese here, as well: When I tell them I’m Jamaican, many think Jamaica is in Africa. I had a social-studies teacher who asked me to show his class Jamaica on the globe. I’m trying to turn it to Jamaica and he’s fighting me to turn it to Africa, and I’m like, ‘Nooooo!’ ”

As far as his issues with life in Japan, Dave made it clear they were very minor.

“I call them pinpricks of racism — like someone using a very small needle and keeps sticking you, and you go, ‘Hey, stop that!’ I don’t experience any hate” from Japanese people, he said, “but fear, yes.

“I think it’s likely a kind of unconscious racism. Like I’ll be walking on the road and people I don’t know walk anywhere but near me, or people running away and walking on the other side of the road, people getting up from seats beside me, or not wanting to sit beside me . . . that kinda thing happens a lot.

“But the biggest issues I’ve had with race in Japan,” Dave said, “is not with Japanese; it’s with white Americans. Jamaica is 70 percent black. We have some white people but they’re very Jamaican just like us. We don’t have any race problems in Jamaica. We don’t give a shit if you’re black or white.

“So I come here with this disposition, never having had any experience with American Caucasians, and I couldn’t get along with many of them. They send these signals, and any time anyone says anything even borderline racist I have to step back and wonder what the hell are they trying to say. And they do this a lot!”

As for the rising trend of Jamaicans coming to Japan, Dave had some very interesting thoughts.

“A lot of Jamaicans actually want to leave Jamaica,” he told me. “Some have gone to Canada, England and the U.S. to study, but when they come back to Jamaica they can’t get a good job. So one of the avenues now is to go to Japan.”

The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) is one of the primary providers of international teachers, having recruited 252 participants from Jamaica in the 2000-14 period. Several private companies that specialize in placing foreign teachers in Japanese public schools have done likewise.

“At my company, we recruited about 150 Jamaicans last year, and this year probably more,” Dave added. “It’s a brain drain. The best and brightest are leaving Jamaica. Some of them actually worked for some well-established companies in Jamaica, but they come here and make more money — especially the ones fresh out of college. Even teachers in Jamaica are leaving because here you can get triple or quadruple the salary.”

In fact, all four people I interviewed for this series, and several other Jamaicans I’ve spoken with, have expressed concern about this “brain drain.” It was Yvonne Goldson, founder of the Jam Rock Cafe and Restaurant in Tokyo, who first brought to my attention the reason for the rise in recruitment from the Caribbean nation.

“The increase in Jamaicans in Japan is the direct result of the Jamaican Embassy’s efforts,” Yvonne had explained when I interviewed her for November’s column. You might recall that she was the president of the Association of Jamaicans in Japan. “They started to petition the Japanese government to make them aware that not only North American and European countries speak English.

“They didn’t even know that Jamaica’s official language is English. They thought we spoke French or Spanish,” Yvonne said, referring to the Japanese government. “Of course, Jamaica is surrounded by French- and Spanish-speaking countries, and the patois is mixed with many French, Spanish and Portuguese words, so I understand their misconception. The petition was successful, so every year more Jamaicans come, mostly through companies hiring teachers.”


John Francis is a 40-year old Jamaican who has been living in Japan since 2005. When we spoke he told me straight off, without any conditions, that he’ll be here until he dies. He’d been a successful lawyer in Jamaica for nearly eight years before coming to Japan — an assistant attorney general, in fact — and would likely be in an even loftier position by now if he’d stayed. But he chose instead to come here.

“I applied to just about every Japanese law firm in Tokyo. I got responses from two, and one of them eventually told me they had an opening for a legal editor position,” John explained.

After a series of interviews and tests, and retests, he eventually landed the position. A year and a half later, in 2010, they actually created a new position tailor-made for him. Fortunately, John was prepared for this opportunity.

“I was the only one in the legal editing department that had both a legal background, having practiced law in Jamaica, and could speak, read and write in Japanese.”

So now he is a foreign attorney at a Japanese law firm, and a newlywed living well in Tokyo.

John had initially come to Japan to explore opportunities, but it’s the amenities that keep him here.

“I love the conveniences,” he explained. “I can pay my bills at the local convenience store, and there’s mail delivery on Sundays. Small stuff like that makes life here less stressful for me than back in Jamaica. And it’s so safe. Driving alone back in Kingston, especially late at night, I’m always looking around, left and right. I don’t stop at stop lights after 2 a.m. I’m always circumspect!”

When asked what he thought about life here in general — and comparisons between Jamaica and Japan in particular — he had some interesting insights.

“One similarity between Jamaica and Japan is the use of patois (the Jamaican language) and standard English, the way the keigo (formal Japanese) and casual Japanese are used here. I would never walk up to someone in Jamaica I don’t know in a formal setting and start speaking patois. I would use standard English and then, depending on what they say to me, I might adjust.”

When asked for his thoughts on the brain drain, John too expressed concern.

“The Japanese government has increased the number of teachers they take in. Plus, people in Jamaica, through word of mouth, hear that the money that can be made here is good. So some people come here just for the money,” John explained. “It’s a brain drain for sure, but there really aren’t many opportunities in Jamaica. The number of young professional, college-educated Jamaicans leaving Jamaica for other countries, like Japan, is alarming.

“It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy: The best people are leaving Jamaica because there aren’t enough opportunities which in turn will decrease the opportunities moving forward ’cause we’re not there to develop them.

“But it’s tough. Take me, for instance: If I had stayed in Jamaica, I could’ve got a good job, working at a decent law firm. But the stress of living in Jamaica — the lack of security, the lack of convenience — wouldn’t have made it worthwhile. We live in a global market now. You can take your skills and go elsewhere. Why would you stay?”

The Jamaican ambassador once suggested to him that he become part of the solution and return to Jamaica.

“But, I’m selfish,” John confessed. “I wanted to live my life, because if I returned to help, that would take 20 years of my life helping and I’d have a miserable life for 20 years . . . and I don’t wanna do that. I tell other Jamaicans to do what they think is right. If they think they should stay in Jamaica, then stay in Jamaica. You should follow your heart in whatever you do. I believe that. That’s what I’ve done.”


Well, there you have it: Having profiled two women in last month’s column, that’s four souls from Jamaica making their way in Japan. What stands out most for me after writing this series is that though they’ve each taken distinctly different paths to achieve their respective accomplishments here in Japan — whether it be singing or entrepreneurship, practicing law or teaching — these four Jamaicans are united by their common heritage, and they maintain an abiding love and respect for their homeland.

That’s beautiful, ain’t it? And admirable. Definitely can’t say that about some of the Americans I’ve met here.

On a personal note, I recognized through speaking with these four people that Jamaicans have a relationship with Jamaica that I’ll never have with America. Similar to people from African countries, essentially all four of these people, until coming to Japan, have only known black authority. They have never experienced a system designed to subjugate them based on their racial designation in their homeland, and this has enabled within them a sense of entitlement, a dignity, that they likely take for granted.

And though I’m sure they’d each tell me how it doesn’t matter — that power corrupts and corruption has no racial designation, and of course they’d be right — I envy them in this nonetheless.

Black Eye appears in print on the third Thursday of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • http://www.davecollyjap.blogspot.com davebizz

    As usual nice and well written piece. Keep up the good work.

  • blackpassenger

    great article. after a five year absence, this jamaican is happy to be back in japan

  • marcusbird

    This was a good read Baye, and I like how you captured some of these perspectives. Davy Colly got large up in this article! I think this brain drain could warrant more scrutiny in future writeups, I didn’t know so many Jamaicans were heading to Japan. Keep it going!

  • Ella

    This was one of my favorite series. Reading their stories gave a very personal insight into Japan. Baye as usual has amazing writing skills that make reading the interviews more like resding stories. Thank you for this section and for your work Baye.

  • Shaun O’Dwyer

    An interesting, insightful series of articles. t’s great to see Jamaicans carving out a new life here – but I hope that Jamaica can also work hard at luring them back.

  • Oliver Mackie

    No, no. it’s just an illusion! Haven’t you heard? Japan is the most xenophobic and racist country in the world, much more so than any white country. I know this because a couple of white people who frequent the discussion board here told me it was so….

    • blackpassenger

      total BS. Japan is no more racist that those white countries.

      • Oliver Mackie

        Thanks. I hope you understand that I was being sarcastic. I feel that Japan has significantly less ‘serious’ racism than most white countries, whilst having quite a bit more racial ignorance, coupled with a directness (e.g. touching people’s hair) that can be surprising.

      • blackpassenger

        ooops, sorry. didnt know you were being sarcastic, as sarcasm isnt readily discernible on the internet.

      • Oliver Mackie

        True. I should have used an emoticon or something.

  • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

    At my company, we recruited about 150 Jamaicans last year

    That’s an amazingly high number, for any amount of non-Japanese hiring for one year alone (a high number even for hiring Japanese nationals unless its a very large corporation) — especially from just one small Caribbean country.

  • blackpassenger

    No racism in Jamaica? WTH?! Jamaica’s population consists of 95% Negroes of Subsaharan African descent, with the 5% Caucasian and Mongoloid and mixed minority controling 95% of the resources. There IS racism AND classism in Jamaica. I remember clearly not so long ago, in the 90s when Negroes were not allowed in some of the resorts on the north coast.

  • http://www.jamaipanese.com/ Jamaipanese

    wow wow wow! This article is on point.

    As a young Jamaican myself I am looking to move to Japan soon. I am not primarily motivated by the money as I have always had a deep interest in Japanese history and culture but more and more young Jamaicans are leaving not only for Japan but India, China, Russia, Canada, the UK, Brasil, South Africa, it really is alarming!

  • John

    In the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph of your article, you make a good point, Baye. Prior to living in the US, I had never experienced the system that you mentioned. While I had read about it and had heard about it, to experience it first hand was unpleasant. It was then that I realized what we as Jamaicans have. Jamaica is not without its race issues, though, but I believe that they are not as pronounced as those in the US. I know some Jamaicans that prefer their partners to be light-skinned Jamaicans. I remember when Buju Banton caused a furor when he released Love Mi Browning, in which he said, “Mi love my car Mi love my bike Mi love mi money and ting, but most of all Mi love my browning.” Some dark-skinned girls were not pleased with the song, and in response, he released Love Black Woman, which was a hit in its own right, but which was seen by some as Buju’s attempt to not only appease dark-skinned women but also to downplay the controversy over Love Mi Browning. I think classism is more readily apparent in Jamaica.

  • Oliver Mackie

    But the behavio(u)rs he was commenting on were distinctly different, depending on the groups he was interacting with. Like him, I see the behavio(u)r exhibited by most Japanese as far less serious than those experienced elsewhere, for example in the USA. Not being Jamaican though I ultimately leave it up to the people quoted to make more accurate judgements than me about the seriousness of such behavio(u)r, but again we see here an example that would seem to support my belief.

  • meneldal

    I think he’s saying the exact opposite. He’s saying that the white are as much Jamaican as the black, even if the major ethnicity is black.
    I don’t know what you misunderstand with “very Jamaican just like us”. “us” just refers to “us black people” and not “us true Jamaicans”.

    I don’t have any experience with racism in Jamaica but when it comes to racism against blacks in Japan from whites, I think Bayes’ first book gives some good examples.
    The racism from white people might be less common but is in my opinion harsher than the microaggression that actually only become a problem because they happen so often. He’s not “downplaying” them, he’s just saying it’s just a needle and visibly got used to it (and that’s an acceptable way to avoid losing your sanity).

    I think he believes that it’s not as important as the overall convenience and safety he feels in Japan. If you hate microaggressions so much find a way to cope with it but don’t attack him because he’s saying he’s hurt more by other things.

  • http://www.davecollyjap.blogspot.com davebizz

    Compared to what I see/experienced in america and to a lesser extent, in Japan … It’s very easy for me to see racism is almost non-existent in Jamaica, or so minute that one don’t even need to mention it as any form of issues. Yes the wealthier Jamaicans are usually of Jewish/white/Syrian and maybe Chinese background but they will still say they are Jamaicans. The class issue is huge tho, that is undeniable.

    I also don’t subscribe to thinking that if someone is half black and half Indian …. He is just black, because he is Jamaican. I won’t downplay the other half or quarter of a person’s race because he is dark-skinned.

    • Oliver Mackie

      By class issue do you mean wealth disparity?

      • http://www.davecollyjap.blogspot.com davebizz

        Not only wealth disparity Oliver, but that is a part of it yes.

  • robertwgordonesq

    Oh No!!!! Where is Debito Arodou when you need him???? This can ‘t be happening….dark-skinned foreigners happy in Japan??? This is a travesty!

    Jamaican Dave Collymore said “But the biggest issues I’ve had with race in Japan…is not with Japanese; it’s with white Americans….”

    Heresy. Heresy I say!

    Mr. Collymore finds people like Mr. Arodou more racist than the Japanese?

    Oh no!!!

    Jamaican John Francis told the author: “…straight off, without any
    conditions, that he’ll be here [in Japan] until he dies.”

    What? Mr. Francis isn’t yearning to go back to his home country where he would have power and position in a majority Black environment???

    Surely Mr. Francis must be brainwashed!

    What? Mr. Francis even married Japanese???

    That must be it!

    He caught Yellow Fever! [See Fn 1]

    That must be the reason Mr. Francis’ brain isn’t working straight!

    Don’t worry Mr. Arodou…Al Sharpton has plenty of work for you back in the United States…and given the recent Michael Brown and Eric Garner events, as a white man and former American yourself I’m sure your message of “This country needs to stop being racist!” will be well received!!!

    ——footnotes——-
    Fn1: This poster [me] is, 1) actually of Jamaican descent, 2) actually a personal friend of John Francis, and 3) has also married Japanese….so this post is all in jest…except for the part about Mr. Arodou going back to the United States. :-)

    • Oliver Mackie

      No, no. You misunderstand. It’s not the REALITY of your life here that matters, it’s the legal THEORY. It doesn’t matter that the worst you experience in reality is microaggression, the fact that there isn’t a part of the constitution which specifically states that immigrants are equal to Japanese is the problem. You’d be much better off in the USA, where you have a constitutional right to equality, even if in fact you’d probably end up in jail or shot by the police.

      Dr. Ardou (he has a PhD remember) knows better than you that reality in Japan is just an illusion, even if if persists until you die. He knows because he came to Japan and tried to do things in an Anglo-Saxon way (the only acceptable way, of course) and it didn’t work.

      Footnote: I am being sarcastic.

      • robertwgordonesq

        Right. The Anglo-Saxon way is the only way.

        By the way…my original comment was removed by someone.

        (to whomever removed it, could you please tell me why…I’ll send you my e-mail address…I’d hate to assume your motives).

  • Bob Gordon

    [Note: This is the 2nd time I’m posting this. The original was deleted by someone. I contacted the author and he said it wasn’t him. So I contacted Japan Times directly but received no response. To the person who deleted the first posting, if there was a problem with the post, please e-mail me to inform me what the problem was and I will consider modifying my statement. Or if there is some posting rule I violated, please direct me to it so that I may consider it. You have my e-mail address already. If it was accidental, no worries. Thanks.]

    —begin original post—
    Oh No!!!! Where is Debito Arodou when you need him???? This can ‘t be happening….dark-skinned foreigners happy in Japan??? This is a travesty!

    Jamaican Dave Collymore said “But the biggest issues I’ve had with race in Japan…is not with Japanese; it’s with white Americans….”

    Heresy. Heresy I say!

    Mr. Collymore finds people like Mr. Arodou more racist than the Japanese?

    Oh no!!!

    Jamaican John Francis told the author: “…straight off, without any
    conditions, that he’ll be here [in Japan] until he dies.”

    What? Mr. Francis isn’t yearning to go back to his home country where he would have power and position in a majority Black environment???

    Surely Mr. Francis must be brainwashed!

    What? Mr. Francis even married Japanese???

    That must be it!

    He caught Yellow Fever! [See Fn 1]

    That must be the reason Mr. Francis’ brain isn’t working straight!

    Don’t worry Mr. Arodou…Al Sharpton has plenty of work for you back in the United States…and given the recent Michael Brown and Eric Garner events, as a white man and former American yourself I’m sure your message of “This country needs to stop being racist!” will be well received!!!

    ——footnotes——-
    Fn1: This poster [me] is, 1) actually of Jamaican descent, 2) actually a personal friend of John Francis, and 3) has also married Japanese….so this post is all in jest…except for the part about Mr. Arodou going back to the United States. :-)

    —end original post—

  • Winter 冬

    Another great article! It’s really interesting to see Japan in the eyes of Jamaicans who have lived and worked here.

  • MiltsSon

    Very interesting and thought provoking article.