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Japan’s growing diaspora reflects concern for the country’s future

by Michael Hoffman

Here’s a surprising fact: One Japanese in a hundred lives abroad. It’s surprising because so much is made lately of Japan’s growing insularity. Young people seem less interested than ever in studying overseas, and voters last month elected a new government whose platform includes strong doses of patriotism and patriotic education — necessary, advocates say, for the cultivation of national pride; mendacious, retort critics at home and abroad, because 20th-century Japanese militarism and imperialism, taught honestly, are more conducive to painful soul-searching than pride.

The new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, speaks fervently about love of country and readiness to die for it. His solid electoral victory in December is not necessarily a popular endorsement of that attitude — voters affirm they are more concerned with the economy than anything else — but it’s not a rejection of it either. Japan is at a low ebb. Will it rise again on a surge of patriotism, and so repeat the recent history it prefers not to teach?

It’s a legitimate fear, and yet 1.18 million Japanese — more than ever before — make their lives outside the country, according to foreign ministry figures for 2011. A report earlier this month in the Asahi Shimbun’s Sunday supplement Globe raises several reasons for the swelling diaspora — business, adventure, comfortable retirement, better education and broader horizons for the kids, general dissatisfaction with the state of things at home. A nation so easy to leave is not necessarily unpatriotic, but its patriotism is more apt to be gentle and accommodating than murderous and suicidal.

“Imagine there’s no countries,” sang John Lennon a generation ago. It’s not unimaginable today. Globalization and the Internet are making world citizens of us all, as are the border-defying problems we face — pollution, climate change, a sagging global economy, and so on.

“I knew of last month’s election from Twitter, but it didn’t interest me much,” a 24-year-old Japanese salesman living in Jakarta told Globe. It’s strange how irrelevant, viewed from a distance, the most pressing national affairs can seem — though even in Japan a similar feeling was widespread, judging from a record low voting rate of 59 percent. Japan, aging rapidly, is simply too slow for the dwindling ranks of youth. “Instead of looking for politics to change Japan,” the salesman added, “it seems more realistic to make things happen yourself in a country where there’s hope.”

Is Japan hopeless, then? That can’t be true, because the number of foreigners living here is also up — to 1.67 million in 2011 from 850,000 in 1996. A job fair last month in Tokyo drew 1,000 foreign students, among them a 24-year-old Vietnamese who told Globe, “I want to study Japanese management and business practices. With so many Japanese companies operating in Vietnam, I feel this is a chance for me.”

Qualified Japanese-speaking foreigners are discovering Japan as a place to “make things happen.” Globe mentions a 29-year-old Chinese hired by the Lawson convenience-store chain as a store manager; he’s now in personnel, vetting job candidates as he himself was vetted three short years ago. His career is launched. It’s not smooth sailing for everyone, of course. Another Chinese complains of the leading Japanese manufacturer that hired him, “I’m not an interpreter!” He resents being assigned to deal with language issues, to the detriment of more challenging work. He fears he was hired as a mere “accessory.”

The top three destinations for Japanese emigration are the United States, China and Australia — a shift from 1996, when they were the U.S., Brazil and Britain. It’s a shift toward Asia. Of the top 20 destinations, eight are Asian, among them Malaysia. Malaysia is attractive to Japanese looking to relocate. Many Japanese are already there to soften the culture shock. There are Japanese supermarkets and Japanese book shops. The climate is pleasant. Crime is low. The cost of living in Kuala Lumpur is half what it is in Tokyo. And so when Takashi Araki, 39, and his wife Motoko, 34, were feeling restless at home in Osaka, they thought, Why not Malaysia?

The chief cause of their restlessness was education for the two kids, 8 and 5. Exam hell, cram school — it’s a tough system to push children through, and at the end, what awaits? In a stagnant economy such as Japan’s a university degree doesn’t guarantee you a career and may not lift you above casual part-time employment. With an international background, with foreign languages securely sown up, you are a citizen of the world, not just of Japan.

The Arakis are now settled in Johor Bahru, on the Singapore border. International school is not cheap, but rent is, and so they manage, Takashi having secured a job with a Japanese company.

Not far from them — Globe doesn’t mention whether they’ve met — lives a 34-year-old Japanese woman with her two daughters, 5 and 3. Her husband remained in Japan but she was determined to get the kids out, a global education for them being the main issue. The family is well enough off to be able to afford the most expensive international school in town, but all is not always well — is it ever? In November the elder girl got sick, and the nearest Japanese doctor was in Singapore. “I felt so helpless, I just cried,” said the mother. “But I kept telling myself, ‘It’s for the children, it’s for the children,’ and that gave me strength.”

“No countries,” sang Lennon. The woman’s children, or theirs, may know such a world. Imagine how quaint Abe’s patriotism will seem then.