The past two months have been uncomfortable for Japan, and for the country’s foreign residents. Non-Japanese (NJ) have been bashed in the media, unreservedly and undeservedly, as deserters in the face of disaster.

Consider the birth of the epithet “fly-jin.” A corruption of the racist word gaijin for foreigners, it appeared in English-language media as a label for NJ who apparently flew the coop in Japan’s time of need. The Japanese media soon developed its own variants (e.g., Nihon o saru gaikokujin), and suddenly it was open season for denigrating NJ.

For example, the Wall Street Journal (March 23) announced in English and Japanese articles an apparent “fly-jin exodus,” portraying NJ as fleeing, then sheepishly crawling back to their Japanese workplaces to face hazing. Tokyo Sports Shimbun (April 14) ran the headline “Tokyo Disneyland’s biggest reason for closing: repatriating NJ dancers” (oddly, Disneyland reopened days later).

Tabloids reported that “all foreigners have fled Japan” (Nikkan Gendai, April 11), or that a wave of migrating “bad foreigners” would render Tokyo’s Ueno a lawless zone (SPA!, April 12). The NJ-bashing got so bad that the government — unusually — intervened, quashing Internet rumors that foreign gangs were roaming the rubble, raping and pillaging, or that foreign terrorists had caused the earthquakes.

More moderate media still reported that escaping NJ labor was hurting Japan’s economy, citing farms and factories employing NJ “trainees,” fast food outlets, convenience stores, the IT sector and language education. Mainichi Shimbun (April 25) shed crocodile tears over the possible death of Japan’s textile industry due to the lack of cheap Chinese workers.

I saw no articles putting things into perspective, comparing numbers of AWOL NJ with AWOL Japanese. Cowardice and desertion were linked with extranationality.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt that many NJ did move due to the Tohoku disasters. But my question is: So what if they did?

I have my doubts that a) it’s any more significant than the fact Japanese did, or that b) it’s worth blaming NJ anyway. Japanese overseas, if advised by their government to leave a trouble spot, would probably do the same. I also doubt overseas media would criticize the departing Japanese so harshly.

So here’s what I don’t get: Why should Japan care if NJ are leaving? Japan hasn’t exactly encouraged them to stay.

Consider some common attitudes towards NJ: Larkers and freeloaders, they’re here just to make money, enjoying our rich, safe society before going “home.” NJ also get accused of threatening our safety and stability, as criminal gang members, terrorists or illegal workers. NJ are such a threat that the National Police Agency created a Policymaking Committee Against Internationalization (sic) in 1999, deputizing the nation’s hotels, employers and general public to join in their racial profiling and help ferret out “bad foreigners committing heinous crimes.”

Moreover, NJ are publicly portrayed as people to be viewed with suspicion, justifying Japan’s first neighborhood surveillance cameras in alleged “hotbeds of foreign crime.” They are even denounced by the likes of Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara (recently re-elected to a fourth term), for infiltrating and subverting Japan’s very democracy (JBC, May 4, 2010).

On the other hand, NJ human rights remain unprotected. They are sometimes subjected to “Japanese Only” exclusionary rules and hate speech, neither of which are (or look likely to become) illegal activities in Japan. Meanwhile, local governments asking for kinder national policies for their NJ residents (e.g., 2001’s Hamamatsu Sengen, a set of proposals put forward in Shizuoka Prefecture to help foreign residents integrate) continue to be ignored by the central government. Indicatively, we still have no official policy to support and assimilate immigrants.

Rarely are NJ residents praised for the good they do for Japan, such as increasing our taxpayer base, contributing to the labor force, even sticking around to raise funds and deliver supplies to the Tohoku disaster bareas. Instead, we get sentiments like “Japan must be rebuilt by us Japanese only” from the Asahi Shimbun (March 20) and Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s speeches.

All this might change, if NJ were ever given a stake in Japan. But rarely do they get the same opportunities as Japanese.

I speak from personal experience. We were promised, during Japan’s Bubble Era and “internationalization” push in the 1980s, that if we immigrants learned the language, worked hard and waited our turn on the corporate ladder, we would be treated equitably and promoted just like our native Japanese colleagues.

A quarter-century later, how’s that going? Pretty piddling. Few NJ have advanced to the top echelons of Japanese corporations in Japan. Few NJ “trainees” can ever hope to graduate beyond temp-worker status, picking strawberries for slave wages. Few NJ have become deans of universities, let alone gotten beyond basic contract work in education. Few NJ graduates of Japanese universities, despite years of corporate promises, have gotten genuine, promotable jobs in Japanese corporations here. And even after two decades of sweetheart visa status, few nikkei South Americans who lost their jobs in the recession were considered re-employable, unlike fellow laid-off Japanese: Only 1 percent of the former were offered any government retraining, with the rest tossed bribes to give up their pensions and “go home.”

And the Wall Street Journal reports that NJ are being questioned about “where their allegiances lie”? Allegiance to what? If they are constantly bashed for staying and now for leaving, is it any wonder that some NJ might not stick around to be potentially irradiated as well as exploited?

Look, Japan decided in the 1970s that it wanted a quick-fix energy source to power its high-speed growth. It neither wanted to pursue available (and potentially safer) sources (such as geothermal), nor rely on foreign oil. So it built one of the world’s highest concentrations of nuclear power plants on some of the world’s most seismically active land. Did people really expect that someday this atomic house of cards would not come crashing down? Come on — it was the classic case of accidents waiting to happen.

Then, when they did happen, and people (regardless of nationality) began to look out for themselves and leave potentially dangerous areas, they got blamed for either overreacting or deserting? That’s rubbing salt in the wounds.

But it’s the NJ who got it particularly bad, since the worst critics were from within their own ranks. The word “fly-jin,” remember, was coined by a foreigner, so this meanness isn’t just a byproduct of systematic exclusion from society. This is sociopathy within the excluded people themselves — eating their own, egging on domestic bullies, somehow proving themselves as “more dedicated than thou” to Japan. What did these self-loathers ultimately succeed in doing? Making NJ, including themselves, look bad.

The point is that Japan made a mistake with its nuclear policy, and will pay for it in land, lives and reputation. Yet the past two months have demonstrated that NJ — ever weaker and disenfranchised — are being scapegoated to draw attention away from those truly responsible for this mess: the inept, cosseted Japanese nuclear industry, perpetually in bed with a bureaucracy that turns a blind eye to safety standards and abets coverups.

So let me counterbalance “fly-jin” by coining a word too: “sheeple.” By this, I mean people who timidly follow the herd even when it hurts them as a whole. They are unwilling to impinge upon their comfortable, convenient middle-class existences, or threaten their upward social mobility, by demanding a safer or more accountable system. Worse, they decry those who do.

If these sheeple had had their way, Japan’s nuclear industry’s standard operating procedure of disinformation and coverup would have continued after Fukushima, as it did after previous nuclear accidents in Tokai and Kashiwazaki. But this time the accident was big enough to potentially irradiate the international community. Ironically, it sometimes falls upon the dread foreigners to save the sheeple from themselves.

But again, the situation is particularly pathetic for NJ (and the opportunistic NJ rent-seekers) because, given their permanent “guest status” in Japanese society, they are expected to act like sheeple without ever being a full member of the herd. They neither have the same opportunity to speak their minds as residents, nor defend themselves from unfair bashing in public.

So bully for the fly-jin, or anyone, for protecting themselves and getting out. Why stay and be a sheep or a scapegoat?

Debito Arudou’s new novel “In Appropriate” is now on sale (see www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to community@japantimes.co.jp

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