Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble: a gaijin’s lot in Japan?

A selection of online and email responses to Debito Arudou’s last Just Be Cause column, “Time to burst your bubble and face reality,” which appeared in print on Dec. 4:

Offensive, bordering on racist

There are two arguments running through this article: one that is eminently sensible and really needs to be hammered into certain kinds of people, and one that is offensive bordering on racist.

The sensible argument is that it is a big mistake to think that you will be 25 forever, living it up as a novelty act. You need to get a career, you need to get skills and qualifications to lift you out of the insecure unskilled sector (as Debito indicates, a lot of eikaiwa [English conversation school] work is technically unskilled labour, and as such is subject to the same insecurity as unskilled labour markets everywhere). You need to learn the language, you need to sort out your pension, you need to sort out your private/family life and so on.

This may sound obvious to everyone reading this, but it’s simply true: There is a subsection of the Western expat community that forget to settle down until it’s too late, and they have a crisis.

The offensive argument involves the denigration of all of us who have made a career and a life here, and the denigration of ethnic Japanese that we live and work alongside. Debito is not commenting on specific bad practices or bad faith by this or that individual — he is making general statements about ethnic groups.

He is not talking about the difficulties faced by Westerners trying to make it in Japan, he is talking about absolute impossibilities, and how those of us who are under the illusion we have good jobs for which we worked hard to be qualified for, who are under the illusion that our partners love us and that our children are a source of genuine happiness — all of us are just fools. The only reality is the one that he personally has lived.

Apparently, all marriages with Japanese will end in divorce and the alienation of your children. Really? Apparently, Japanese are incapable of working for non-Japanese bosses. Really? Apparently, when you die, no one will mourn you. Really?

The funny thing is, I know a fair number of Western business owners and managers here who employ Japanese. I know loads of Westerners with successful marriages. (Of course, I know some with unhappy ones as well, but they’re hardly an overwhelming majority). I have had the sadness to know Westerners who have died — and sod you, Debito, there were Japanese weeping at their funerals.

The most sinister aspect of this second, frankly racist argument, is the recommendation that a foreigner, if they are stupid enough to stay, should secure their lives in Japan by playing on their foreignness — on something that ethnic Japanese in their essence can’t do. If this is the conclusion of a human rights activist’s 25-year work in Japan, this is no activist. This is a casting agent for circus performers.

There is a discussion to be had about how different sectors of Japanese society manage the increase in non-native-born residents and their children, and the communities they may form. There are discussions to be had about how certain economic sectors really need immigration to make up labour shortfalls. There are discussions to be had about support networks for foreign residents, including health and welfare outreach. But that’s all for the real world, not for the strange world of delusion created here.


A frantic hand-to-mouth existence

Good article, with lots of painful truths.

If you came here in the 1980s, Japan was to be the land of milk and honey. North America and Europe could do no right, Japan could do no wrong. Sony was the Apple of its day. In those days, the overseas mass media, our university professors and the job market were essentially saying, “Go East, young man.” A year or so of university Japanese language classes on your CV was a significant plus in the job market.

Fast forward to today, and many of us long-timers are now finding the Japanese dream is not all it was cracked up to be — yet for reasons involving families and careers, we have become vested here, and as such it has become difficult, if not impossible, to pack up and start over in our home countries.

Even if our salaries happen to be comparable to our peers back home — which they are increasingly not, given a weakening yen and faltering Japanese economy — our lifestyles are not. Here, we often have longer work hours, less family time, $30,000-plus annual per-child tuition fees (and increasing every year) if you want your child to grow up learning English at an international school, high costs of going home to see aging parents and relatives (that is, if your Japanese employer will even allow reasonable vacation time), and subpar homes in comparison with back home. Life here becomes a frantic hand-to-mouth existence.


Valuable advice must be shared

Debito, you hit the ball out of the park with this one. While I can accept that your claims do not fit everyone’s situation, they align perfectly with my own: Had a great time here in the ’80s, have tried hard to get qualified for a university job, etc. Yes, the specific negatives you describe indeed fit my own case.

Of course I know others in academia doing far better, but your description fits so many of us to a T. Then again, that you and I have shared many a beer here in Sapporo might mean you’ve borrowed some of my tales. Also, I sometimes wonder if — contrary to conventional wisdom — Hokkaido people are not somehow less friendly than those in other parts of Japan.

Bottom line: Your advice is valuable and should be shared with those contemplating a long-term career in Japan. (But as one reader commented, opportunities back home are also slim — so slim in may cases that even in our waning years we hang on to what we’ve worked for in Japan.)


Exclusion of expats will backfire

What’s getting lost in all this is that by failing to properly utilize the considerable skills, talent, expertise and diverse experiences of its non-Japanese residents, it is Japan that is the ultimate loser. A key reason for Japan’s stagnation over the last three decades has been the lack of fresh blood and fresh ideas to rejuvenate a country stuck in secular decline.

It is an undisputed fact that foreign-born professionals make up a significantly lower percentage in Japan in areas such as business, research, technology, science, engineering, academia and medicine, as compared to other developed countries in North America and Europe, as well as Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Foreign-born residents of these countries have made significant contributions to the society and economies of these countries.

It is impossible for Japan to compete with these countries, since the latter have the advantage of drawing from a much larger pool of qualified individuals who bring significant diversity to the table, whereas in Japan, the abovementioned fields are almost exclusively the domain of Japanese people.

So, Japan can exclude its non-Japanese residents from important positions, treat them as second-class, subject them to racism and xenophobia, discriminate against them, and deny them access and opportunities, but eventually it is the Japanese who will be poorer for it.

The non-Japanese may yet have the last laugh. All the Uncle Toms with their disingenuous and snide comments here will not be able to save Japan from itself if it continues to go down its current misguided path.


Debito byline a falsehood-free zone

Right on, Debito! Thank you for another blistering truth-fest. You are wise and brave. I have lived here for a very long time and have yet to find a false word under your byline. Please ignore the carping of the deluded and keep on testifying.


Stuck in his 20th-century bubble

Part of Dr. Arudou’s article is spot on. It says that in order to succeed in work life, you must get qualified in something society wants that makes you become unsubstitutable. It is wisdom you don’t normally see printed, as it’s as obvious as The Sky Is Blue. It’s a universal lesson taught repeatedly to everybody with an education.

So why did he feel the need to repeat the obvious? Because it complements his other advice, where he implies that non-Japanese must stop relying exclusively on the novelty of their foreignness (race, ethnicity and language) to sustain a livelihood long term in Japan.

That’s very insightful and bold advice. If it was published in 1994. Twenty years later, it sounds out of touch.

Why is Dr. Arudou unaware of how the non-Japanese job market has changed since he first arrived during the beginning of the Heisei Era? Both in ratio and in absolute numbers, there are more foreign-origin politicians serving the people than ever before. More non-Japanese working in permanent positions at stable companies than ever before. More non-Japanese managers (of both Japanese and non-Japanese subordinates) than ever before. More non-Japanese promoted than ever before. More non-Japanese working in Japanese-language jobs than ever before. The numbers are small and progress slow, but they’re rising.

Dr. Arudou’s comments about tokenism, connections and being the dancing monkey, from a young non-Japanese professional’s perspective, sounds both condescending and like sour strawberries: like a grumpy old man complaining about how the only reason minorities get good jobs is because of government “affirmative action” mandates.

Perhaps Dr. Arudou gives 20th-century advice in 2014 because it’s Dr. Arudou who is trapped in a bubble, unaware that the Japan outside his self-constructed Ivory Tower of English Exile changed long ago and passed him by.


Been reading too much Debito?

Japan isn’t looking to foreigners to bring something to the table that they can’t live without — they can think of that themselves. If you are a foreigner, you should be able to do something that a normal Japanese finds difficult or something that you can do better than a Japanese, in whatever field that is.

If you’re an accountant, you should be a danged good one if you wanna make it in finance here. If you’re an engineer, you’d better be able to design and implement as good as, if not better, than a native Japanese (no matter how high your language ability is).

There are a lot of jobs where speaking English gives you an absolute advantage, such as teaching, engineering (particularly in software, where mastery of the English language is beneficial to the job) and working for an international airline (where mastery of the English language, unlike in engineering, is required).

If you have a magical ability that, if you held hostage, would bring Japan to its knees (as Arudou suggests you should do), then you’re awesome and should be the next prime minister. However, that requirement is an awful stretch.

The Japanese want you to contribute to society in some way, not look for ways to innovate it. If you want respect in your workplace, don’t act like a clown — save the tokenisms for when you get drunk at your weekly nomikai [after-work drinks]. Don’t give your co-workers a reason to treat you like second-class — be respectable, and output more than they do. If “Jiro Yamada” produces at 100 percent, you produce at 150, or even 200 percent. Become an asset — this is basic business.

Arudou is (or was) a professor at a university in Sapporo, if I recall correctly. He does not teach business, and business rules only slightly vary from one country to another, but the basics are the same, and that’s something that Arudou skipped out on in his borderline racist tirade. If you make yourself an asset, and use your bilingual skills well but don’t make that your focus-point skill, you’ll succeed here no matter what industry you go into. Everyone wants to chase those multiple-thousand-yen bills everywhere, but if you focus on honing your skills, refining them and making yourself more than you are, you’ll overcome the ribbing, bullying and laughing from your coworkers and make it in your company.

Common sense? Yes, but Arudou makes it sound like that’s impossible to do in Japan. From experience, it’s not impossible. Difficult? Yes, but not impossible.

In short, Arudou made some good points, but in the end, this is rife with “I did it but you can’t,” like his blog is flooded with. Ten years ago, among foreigners, there was a question directed at pessimistic gaijin: “You’ve been reading too much Debito, haven’t you?”

It’s (not so) nice to see that some things not only remain the same, but reputations continue to be (infamously) well-deserved.


Heed this Dickensian vision

Debito Arudou’s essay is disturbingly insightful and forboding. He’s offered up a Dickensian “ghost of Christmas future” warning that a great many aging gaijin [foreign] residents in Japan, including myself, would prefer to “dance around.” Many will continue to embrace the “party on, dude” attitude, feeling confident that they’ll be able to cross that bridge (retirement, feeble old age and finally death) when they come to it.

Well, guess what, folks: That bridge begins to loom very large on the horizon, ominously casting its shadow across the dance floor.

Generally speaking, the Japanese public could care less about the fate of any and all aging gaijin, regardless of the contributions these foreign residents might have made to Japan over the past 30 or 40 years. These elderly individuals, age 60-plus, comprise a very insignificant minority in Japan. Who knows, Finance Minister and Liberal Democratic Party boss Taro Aso might have been thinking of these aging gaijin when he shouted “Hurry up and die.”

Otaru, Hokkaido

We’re nobody’s dancing monkeys

As a nearly 30-year resident of Japan, I have been exposed to Mr. Debito Arudou’s shrill rants for a long while, but I’ve dismissed them time and again. I’ve never felt personally affronted until his latest half-page diatribe in your newspaper of Dec. 4.

How dare he suppose that he knows what keeps me here and what will become of me in my dotage. How dare he put forth a polemic and then dismiss any rebuttals in advance of them actually being made as being delusional at best. And shame on you for allowing him to do so!

While certainly not in the pantheon of the greats with U.S. Ambassador Edwin Reischauer, or the Donalds Richie and Keene, whom he points out as exceptional exceptions to his wholly negative view of life here, I and many others I know are and have been dedicated to building good lives for ourselves at all levels in this society. We have created families, built homes and nourished careers and are respected by our Japanese peers, neighbors and colleagues, completely accepted and integrated into the fabric of this society. We work hard together at disaster preparedness practices, Bon odori festivals and cherry blossom-viewing picnics. We share the joys of marriages and births and we suffer the sadness of disaster and death alongside our Japanese friends. There is no “we” and “they.” We are nobody’s dancing monkeys.

Certainly there are problems and issues that need to be addressed, debated and fixed, but is this not true for most, if not all, societies? Breeding contempt through inflammatory speech, however, would not seem to me to be the best way of pursuing the changes that are required. On balance (and in different ways for different reasons this would apply to nationals and non-nationals alike), for most of us the scorecard clearly shows that there are many more positive aspects to life in Japan than there are negative. Gaining a little perspective is a good first step to recognizing this.


After Just Be Cause, what next?

Well, that’s quite the line-drawing as we reach the end of the year, and perhaps the end of an era? Not sure how anyone follows that, so I guess it’s sayonara and farewell. Believe it or not, we shall miss you.

I wonder what is going to replace JBC in future Community sections, to cater to this apparent market of over-sexed, alcoholic, loser English teachers in their dead-end careers and dead-end lives.


Earn kudos by offering solutions

If you feel that we are all perennially second-class citizens, then what is your solution? What’s are the real next steps beyond the “observations” you make here? You end on a note challenging everyone who lives here, who has made Japan their home, by asking, “What can you do that Japan positively cannot live without?” To answer that in one simple way, I’d tell my friends or children or anyone who lived here that asked me this: “Just being you as you.”

The reason I would answer it that way is because you seem to think that Japan is the only place in the world that has second-class citizens. It’s as if you have never ever been a minority of any sort. Ever. Anywhere (except maybe Japan.) Anyone who has ever been anything but a member of the predominant culture of the society in which they live knows that living the life as you want to live it, believing in yourself and in the values you hold dear, and engaging with the people in society who don’t give a rat’s arse whether you are white, brown, pink, yellow or purple, will lead to the happiness you wish to create.

While we can all get negative and beat down the environment around us and blame it for our mishaps and problems, as a minority you chin-up and soldier on. Happiness is not guaranteed anyway — no matter where you live or where you go. I don’t think most of the non-Japanese who have emigrated here are as naive as you imagine, and even if some played the prodigal son (or daughter, but you feel there are somehow fewer of these types), they are likely to have figured out that they must shape up or ship out.

In short, I think many respect what you’re doing, and even many also respect what you’re trying to say, but the delivery is terrible. You’ll earn a lot more kudos by offering solutions and ideas to change things for the better along with the constructive criticism rather than bloviate and putting everyone in the hot seat as if they have to prove their worth. We have to prove our worth everywhere.

My biggest gripe is that second-class citizenship — and the survival and prospering despite that — is common. It’s being done. It’s happening worldwide. Talking about and sharing the tools to do so would make a much more pleasant and less generalizing article to read.

And imagine how positive and helpful all of the posts would be. Imagine comments full of helpful tips and advice and links to resources rather than refutations of your individual conjecture.


In cases where a location is not included below the author’s credit, comments have been taken from the JT website. Have your say: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Jay

    Thanks for bringing this commentary back. I never did have a chance to post, although I thought about the issue for days and shared the article with several other long-term expat friends. As many of the readers have noted, I think there is some truth in what Arubuto has written. I am one of those who came in the 80s, allured by the easy money and other attractions and also disillusioned by the lack of job prospects at home. I joke with a colleague about graduating first class joint honors from a top university in Canada and then finding myself working like a slave in a warehouse for pitiful wages. Japan in the 80s was on fire; the yen was strong; the demand for the English language was strong; Japanese was considered cool and even necessary for one’s future career possibilities. My language skills were respected and well-rewarded. However, I feel that what has kept me in a relatively “second-class” position in Japan has been precisely my lack of fluency in Japanese. The stress I feel and my inability to form true and lasting friendships here all boils down to an inability to communicate at a deeper level in the language here. It also explains why I have not been given greater responsibility in my workplace. Aside from this, people have been very welcoming, friendly, polite and courteous. Many have extended offers of friendship. I have a Ph.D and tenure at a small private college, and for the most part, my ideas are listened to (in English) and often acted upon. My Japanese relatives are very warm kind people, and I believe my four children are happy, popular, and secure–especially because they are all fluent in Japanese! Japan may not be the top desired place anymore to begin a life and career, but it isn’t a bad place to ease into a comfortable retirement. When I return “home” (is Canada really home anymore?), I quickly realize that the grass isn’t greener: people I know are struggling with their issues: divorce problems, language issues in Quebec, crime, corrupt politicians, high cost of living, and the list goes on. I never thought I’d be here nearly 30 years after I first arrived, but I don’t regret what has happened, and I do not fear the years to come.

    • Guest

      You bring up some good points, but miss others – something that sets Japan apart from many other nations is its insularity, for example. You will never be fully accepted no matter what you do or how proficient your language skills are (in fact, the better your language skills are, the /more/ ostracized you may find yourself – Japanese often react that it is “weird” when non-Asians speak Japanese too well). Japan also does a great deal to erect “them” and “us” dichotomies, and there’s really not a lot you can do as a non-Asian to transcend those since you will forever be pigeonholed on first sight simply because you are easy to categorize: you don’t look like us, thus you aren’t nor will you ever be one of us. Language acquisition difficulties then arise because you’re rarely included in the high-level discussions about things, provided you even get to that level – after all, if you’re white then you’ve got to break through the barriers of people wanting to practice English on you (even if you aren’t a native speaker, as those of us from non-English speaking countries will attest) or just assuming you can’t speak Japanese at all because you’re not Asian. It can be difficult to form lasting relationships because you’re often treated more as a novelty or a show-off toy (or a dancing monkey) than an actual person, and rarely given the same basic respect or treatment as other people.
      Once Japan gets over its xenophobia and undergoes some massive social changes I think we might see more people learning Japanese to a higher level because they’re given the basic opportunities to do so that we take for granted when thinking about immigrants in our own countries, but I don’t think many of us will be alive to see that day, sadly. Sure you can definitely create solid relationships with a handful of people, the super-open-minded, direct family, your in-laws and such, but society at large simply isn’t at a place where that’s possible for most of the JT readership.

      • Here’s a free hint, Jay: the people, like this guy, who tell you you shouldn’t bother to learn Japanese or try to fit in because They’ll never accept You are just making excuses for their own inadequacies: they usually lack strong language skills (or are under the delusion that their Japanese is “good enough”), lack the appropriate work and socialization or communication skills, and/or are too lazy to try to fit in and adapt. Because hanging out in the gaijin ghetto drinking and bitching about Japan putting you down is the easy way out.

      • Oliver Mackie

        “You will never be fully accepted no matter what you do or how proficient your language skills are…”

        What do you mean by ‘accepted’? Do you mean that local people will never entertain the though the you might not have been Japanese since birth? At this point in Japanese history, there is a very clear link between looking ‘Japanese’ (i.e. a subset of Asian) and being a Japanese national. Yes, I know that there are minorities of those of Korean and Chinese descent, as well as indigenous populations, but the fact remains that if you are black or white with no Asian influence in your looks, there is a 99.9999% chance that you have not been here since birth and that Japanese is not your mother tongue. There is also at this point a very clear link between being a Japanese national and a certain culture called Japanese. Yes, popular culture is starting to broaden, as it receives influences from more and more Japanese travelling and working abroad, the demands of doing business internationally, as well as many other factors, but, if your definition of being ‘accepted’ is that, as like in North America, people’s default assumption would be that you are have citizenship, are submersed in the ‘national culture’ (whatever that is), and speak the national language, despite your appearance, then I’m afraid your historical timing is lousy. It has nothing at all to do with cultural constraints preventing people who do not know you personally from seeing you as ‘Japanese’, simply a human tendency to assume based on the odds.

        “Sure you can definitely create solid relationships with a handful of people, the super-open-minded….”

        Sorry, I think you are mistaken. There are all kinds of people, for sure (there would be wherever you live) but I question your experience. It seems very narrow. I would also question your definition of a ‘solid’ relationship. Do you mean someone with whom you can sit down with and pour out all your problems and ask for advice? Do you mean someone who would come to your aid in an emergency, despite it being risky for themselves? In the first case, I find plenty of people in Japan, and have in fact been helped by Japanese friends during difficult personal times. In the second case, except lifelong friends (e.g. from school days) how many of such friends do you think you might have back in your home country? And I mean people you be be absolutely sure would risk themselves to help you out in a bind. It is my experience that you will find very few people anywhere (outside of family) who would become such friends in your adult life. I find just as many (few) in Japan as anywhere. I think a lot of people falsely assume that most people they know from their own culture-of-birth would in fact help them, whilst assuming Japanese people they know wouldn’t. They think this for no other reason than an undeniable under-current of distrust, the reasons for which are difficult for them to articulate other than a kind of ‘gut feeling.’ This is of course, not unusual. Indeed it’s already known by another name (hint: it’s an -ism regarding race.)

      • Jay

        I am not disputing that the Japanese are ethnocentric. But have you ever known any Jews? First Nations Cree? Chinese-Americans? Quebecois? Super wealthy WASPs? Members of Ethnic/economic groups tend to stick together and keep other groups at a distance. They marry within their groups and may even kick out a member who rebels and marries outside the group. The Japanese are not much different. There are some who despise NJ, and others who embrace them. Many Japanese I’ve met would dearly like to communicate if they only spoke better English, just as I wish to speak better Japanese. I am sure there are companies or institutions where a NJ would never get hired, and there are those in which a NJ is Department Head or President. It would be pretty much the same in Canada–difficult to be employed or accepted without fluency in the language(s) and/or connections (membership in the group). Finally, I doubt very much that the college that employs me regards me as a novelty after 21 years, nor do they deny me the same respect (conditions) they show to the Japanese professors. They could employ dancing monkeys for a lot less money.

      • Johnny Standards

        This stigmatizing newcomers to Japan with the tired ‘they’ll never accept you’ meme is getting very old. I am accepted here. Period.
        Does it mean that Japanese people treat me exactly as they would another Japanese? Of course not. I don’t treat myself that way, and most certainly the other foreigners I meet here do not. This is reasonable. I don’t have the same upbringing or natural language facility as the Japanese, and one’s assuming this (correctly) in no way implies acceptance or lack thereof.
        I fit in here and am respected and treated with dignity (no, not distant politeness) to the point where, although people here (including fellow foreigners) are aware of my Gaijin-ness, it is almost never an issue. This has been achieved through my own efforts to establish my role within this society without ever assuming I’m supposed to become exactly like one of ‘them’. I don’t experience what ‘Guest’ writes above because I’ve made the effort to learn the language and have never taken it for granted that Japan somehow owes me something.
        If you are a dancing monkey, take responsibility for yourself. It is of your own making. It’s you, not ‘them’.

  • Tomoko Endo

    In Japan, Korean cults’ individual terolism is a big issue. Many Japanese suffer from gang stalking and group stalking by Korean cults. They plunge Japanese targets to mental illness hospitals. In Japan, 5/1 mental illness hospital of the world of exists, that is too much.
    Korean cults trace Japanese target, when the Japanese were children.
    Korean are mad and witches to read mind and they torture Japanese. That’s why we insist that Korean piys must to be guilty to this crims,individual terrolism.