'English-speaking diaspora' should unite, not backbite

There has been an ill wind blowing around Japan, and I don’t just mean the fallout after Fukushima. I’m talking about the nasty attitude non-Japanese (NJ) residents have towards each other, even in this time of crisis.

One would think that difficult times would occasion people pulling together to help. There has of course been plenty of that, but on balance there has also been, as I wrote last month, a particularly unhelpful tendency to bash and badmouth NJ as cowards and deserters (as neatly demonstrated by the new word “flyjin”).

But this is a mere complement to the perpetually uncooperative nature of many NJ in Japan, particularly in the English-speaking community. Despite its size and stature in this society, this community has not yet fostered a comprehensive interest group to look out for the civil or political rights of NJ.

Not for lack of trying. I personally have led or been part of several groups (e.g., UMJ, The Community, Kunibengodan, FRANCA), but none garnered enough support to be an effective lobbying force. I’ll take my share of the blame for that (I am more an organizer of information than of people), but my efforts did not stop other people from organizing separately. Yet 20 years after a groundswell in the NJ population, and despite the unprecedented degree of connectivity made possible by the Internet, minority interest groups and antidefamation leagues for the English-language community have been lackluster or lacking.

Contrast this with the efforts of other ethnic or language groups in Japan. The Zainichi Koreans alone have three different organizations, which over the past 60 years have wrung political concessions from the Japanese government. The Chinese too have powerful information networks, not to mention a neighboring economic hegemon often speaking on their behalf. Even the Nikkei South Americans have their own newspapers, grass-roots schools and local human rights associations.

It’s an important question: Why are some minorities in Japan less able to organize than others?

Let’s focus on the English-language community, since this very forum is part of it.

It might be a numbers or a longevity issue, since English-speaking residents might arguably seem to be comparatively few or staying a shorter time. But the Nikkei South Americans, for example, are relative newcomers (only two decades here), yet they’ve been powerful enough to get local governments to lobby on their behalf (starting with the Hamamatsu Sengen of 2001). Besides, given Japan’s historical “wannabe” relationship with the West, Japan pays attention to nobody else like it does the United States (when the Americans actually bother to get bossy about business or military bases).

Instead, it might be a class-consciousness thing, as in people not used to being linked by an economic or occupational union. But plenty of English-speakers are from countries with a history of strong labor unions (including Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia), and therefore shouldn’t need to be convinced of the benefits of group action.

Or it might be due to the type of work done. Generally, English-speakers are in the white-collar industries (education, finance, IT, etc.) while other immigrant language groups are bluer (Nikkei in major export-oriented industries, Chinese in smaller factories and agriculture, etc.). Being “working class” may make organizing easier.

But I think there is a significant and overlooked factor at work: The self-awareness of a people as part of an “immigrant class” within a country. In other words, a diaspora.

By diaspora, I mean a group arising from a large movement of people out of their homeland, as in immigration. My definition goes beyond the original meaning of the Jewish Diaspora (since migration science now talks about a Chinese Diaspora, too). The effect is still the same: In the society where people have settled for generations, people tend to clump together by ethnicity to network with each other, even create miniature versions of their “homelands” overseas.

Case in point: There are Chinatowns worldwide, not to mention the Little Tokyos, Little Saigons, Little Manilas, etc.

But where are the Little Londons, Dinky Dublins, Mini Melbournes or Micro Angeles?

English-speakers don’t seem to clump together anywhere merely because they are in the same language group. I posit it’s because they don’t see themselves as a viable emigrant ethnic minority.

I co-wrote a chapter in a Japanese book series titled “The Global Disapora” (2009) where I question whether, for example, Americans have difficulty seeing themselves as an ethnicity (since “American” is a legal status, not an ethnic concept). I think Americans, even if abroad semipermanently, also have a hard time seeing themselves as an immigrant community — a diaspora.

This has political ramifications. When a people lack a sense of affinity with strangers despite potential ascriptive commonalities (be it language, culture or nationality), they are less likely to organize and agitate for their common benefit. In fact, given the cultural sensitivity training that is an intrinsic part of Western educations, it is often seen as distasteful and “culturally imperialistic” to lobby, as it apparently foists one’s value system upon a “host” society. Uncooperativeness is thus hardwired.

Then, as people cleave into an attitudinal spectrum — with “more Japanese than the Japanese” versus “my way or the highway” on opposite poles — we see fractiousness, infighting, bad-mouthing and self-interested rent-seeking. This only encourages further atomization, disenfranchisement and isolation.

This is not a criticism of how English-speakers live their lives in Japan. It is, however, an observation about one barrier to their organizing on a macro level, becoming effective lobbyists for improved civil rights and conditions. If the immigrants themselves are convinced they are not immigrants but temporary “guests,” it is no wonder they perpetually remain as such.

The lack of a self-aware English-speaking diaspora means that their voice will be comparatively less likely to be heard in Japan’s policy-making arenas. Long-term, many people will begin to despair at the lack of interest accrued on their promised stake in Japan, pull up stakes and move on.

Sadly, in Japan’s case, fellow NJ then pepper them with pejoratives (such as “flyjin”) to add insult to injury. This is a destructive dynamic.

If people ever want to settle into Japan, they had better accept their role as settlers and help each other settle. Cooperate or be isolated. It’s a conscious choice.

Debito Arudou’s new novel “In Appropriate” is now on sale ( Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community page of the month. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to

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