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Spare a thought for the Western men trapped in Japan

by Olga Garnova

In Japan, it’s a familiar refrain: “Men have it easy — especially foreigners. They are males in a highly conservative patriarchal society, so they enjoy all the benefits: status, money, career. On top of that, foreigners often attract a lot of Japanese girls.

“These Western men do not really have to learn the language or try to fit in. Their Japanese girlfriends or wives will take care of the majority of things for them. Their careers, especially teaching ones, also may not require Japanese proficiency. They are never subjected to sexual harassment, abuse or sexism.” But is this the full story?

Jim, an American in his late 20s, used to be a very passionate young man. He claimed he was a communist — a Stalinist, even. He would engage in endless political debates during smoking breaks and drinking sessions. He dreamed of graduate school, an academic career and, one day, even leading a riot. But instead, he got married to a Japanese girl and already had children by the time he graduated. She did not want to leave Japan and insisted he earn a stable income, so he ended up teaching English somewhere in the sticks, far from any big university. “It is only for the time being,” he insists, but it’s difficult to see how he will ever have the money or mobility to realize his dreams.

Japan can be the best place in the world for some, but for others it can be a trap. And sometimes I think it’s far easier for Western men to be sucked into this trap than women.


Japanese society can be notoriously conservative when it comes to gender roles. While there is a lot of talk about the negative effects of imposing traditional roles on women, their restrictiveness and destructiveness for well-being are rarely mentioned in regard to men.

In Japan, men in general have very limited choices. The culture demands that they become “real men,” which usually means breadwinners obsessed with their careers. The job-for-life system that has dominated Japanese corporate culture for the postwar period demands the full devotion of employees. Promotions and salary raises were, and often still are, mainly based on loyalty and seniority. The company has to be a man’s top priority.

So what does this involve? Well, although hours have been dropping for the last few years, Japanese still clock up more minutes on the job per year than workers in almost any other OECD country, although many of those minutes are unpaid. Forty percent of workers say they regularly do what’s known as sābisu zangyō — unpaid overtime: 16 hours a month on average. So-called burakku kigyō (black companies) might require over 100 hours, and their youngest employees — those in their 20s — are hit the hardest. Karōshi — death from overwork — is such a prominent problem that the government passed a bill last year aimed at tackling premature death and illnesses caused by overwork, apparently the first of its kind in the world.

Japan’s corporate jungle is still overwhelmingly a man’s world — a world many women drop out of when they get married and have children, whether they want to or not. And when it comes to marriage, money tends to quickly become a top priority. According to a survey conducted by OZmall, a popular Japanese women’s information site, 72 percent of women would not be willing to marry “without money” — presumably meaning a case where the couple concerned had no money to speak of between the two of them.

While such pragmatism may be quite understandable in a nation that has not seen sustained growth for over 20 years, it would also seem to fly in the face of the Western notion of marriage being a culmination of a romantic relationship. For example, American adults — both married and unmarried — ranked “love” (93 percent), “making a lifelong commitment” (87 percent) and “companionship” (81 percent) as more important reasons to get married than “having children” (59 percent) or “financial stability” (31 percent) in a nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with Time magazine.

Sebastian, a 32-year-old university student with several part-time jobs and 12 years of service in the German Federal Armed Forces, discovered this disconnect the hard way when a Japanese girlfriend he had been together with for a year and had proposed to dumped him because he had “no future.” According to her, his Japanese major was not a promise of a successful career and, not being a native speaker of English, he could not secure teaching jobs. “Why is it always about money?” he asks.

To borrow from the headline of a past column by Kaori Shoji from these pages, “Marriage has little to do with romantic love.” No wonder foreign husbands often complain about Japanese women suddenly transforming from sweet and cute girlfriends into shufu — professional housewives emotionally and physically distant from their husbands and fully devoted to their children and home. Men can be sidelined when it comes to participation in child-rearing and other home-related matters, such as controlling the family budget. As opposed to a safe haven from the pressures of work, marriage can become an additional source of stress for men.

No wonder Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, at 18.5 per 100,000 inhabitants — about 60 percent higher than the global average of 11.4. As in most of the rest of the world (the most notable exception being China), men in Japan kill themselves at a much higher rate than women.


Japanese men have it tough, but foreigners might have it even worse. Unlike Japanese, who have been raised in the culture of strict gender roles and long work hours, foreigners — especially Westerners — may have very different expectations, lifestyles and ideals. For example, achieving a balance between work, family and personal time is seen as extremely important in contemporary European and American societies, but Japanese corporate culture does not support it.

Finding a stable full-time job after graduation will be very hard for Sebastian: As a foreigner approaching his 40s, he could become a victim of double discrimination — due to both age and nationality. And even when foreigners fulfill all the “requirements” for a promotion — having endured long hours, nomikai (after-work drinking sessions), business trips and relocations — they still may be denied just for not being Japanese.

Patrick, a 31-year-old American IT specialist, decided to leave a Japanese company he was working for because after all the overtime work he put in, he hit the glass ceiling.

“According to my boss, three promotions were the most I could’ve gotten,” he says. Patrick says his boss explicitly referred to his being non-Japanese as a factor. “But they wanted me to come to work even when I had 40-degree fever. Of course, I left!” Patrick adds that some of his foreigner friends managed to get higher in their companies’ pecking order, but “they had no life.”

Even when they have a steady income, men who do not have a stable job can be harassed. Jack, a U.S. Navy veteran retired after 20 years of service, receives retirement benefits from the U.S. government. However, his Japanese in-laws see him as a leech: His wife is working while he is back at school.

“They just do not get it!” he fumes. “I spent 20 years in the navy working every f——— day. I am tired of explaining that I am getting paid.”

Another huge problem is integration. According to Nana Oishi, a researcher specializing in migrations and Japanese studies, the greatest barrier in the workplace for foreigners is not language. In her study, which involved interviews with non-Japanese working in the country, “several respondents expressed frustration that their Japanese colleagues were not communicating sufficiently either with them or with each other.”

An acquaintance of mine, John — fluent in Japanese — was exasperated when, after three weeks on the new job and with no training or help from co-workers, he was asked to complete a project.

“They expect me to know how to do it perfectly without any explanation!” he complains. In the end, John had to contact the management overseas for help with integration into his work environment.

Integration outside of the workplace is also often a challenge, especially for men who are expected to have a full-time job, be the main provider for the family and, therefore, often find themselves with fewer opportunities than women to engage in social activities and make friends with Japanese. Forming personal relationships with the locals is an essential part of the process of adjusting to a new country, but Japan is recognized as being a society with low relational mobility, i.e., people have fewer opportunities to form relationships and terminate old ones. It is also a collectivistic culture, and thus it is difficult for foreigners to enter existing social groups and circles. Most of the time it is necessary to belong to some social group to establish and maintain friendships with Japanese.

Despite all the difficulties, it seems that it is relatively easy for foreign men to get married to Japanese women. And while those women are usually the least traditional — and the most likely to avoid the dreaded shufu transformation — intercultural communication always has a potential for misunderstanding and unintended offense. A couple’s expectations of marriage and family also might not match. Since family is one of the bedrocks of emotional support, this situation may result in lowered psychological comfort and overall wellbeing.

Nihonjinron — the largely discredited but still widely held idea that Japanese are an especially homogenous and unique people — can also complicate the situation. Although openly aggressive racism is rare, discrimination can be cloaked in the form of polite questions regarding a foreigner’s country of origin and ethnic background, their time of arrival in and departure from Japan, praise of their language and chopstick skills, and even unsolicited explanations of culture, food, tradition and so on. These words may sound quite innocent, but they can also convey very strong messages of exclusion and inferiority.

Acculturation studies connect experienced and perceived discrimination and subtle forms of racism, such as racial “microaggressions,” to mental and physical problems. People may experience anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, helplessness, psychosomatic symptoms and academic and work problems. All of this leads to lower life satisfaction.


Of course, foreign women are also subject to long hours, discrimination, microaggressions and problems related to these phenomena. However, studies have shown that women are generally better at recognizing and expressing emotions, and hence they ask for help more often. They also usually have better access to emotional support, which is predominantly provided by female social groups. There is a lot said and written about women. There is a whole industry dedicated to dealing with the effects of sexism, misogyny and other problems specific to women. A woman knows she is not alone; a man does not.

Men are trapped in “men do not cry” mentality. They are discouraged from complaining and prefer to keep their emotions and stress to themselves. Instead they engage in self-destructive behaviors such as excessive drinking, smoking and promiscuity.

And here we come to the “party boys.” How many of them are indeed pure hedonists who have pledged their souls to the pursuit of fun? There is an interesting type of depression that has been recognized recently by some psychologists called “masked depression.” Clinical psychologists theorize that men are more susceptible to this variant than the standard “sad” form. Excessive partying can be one of the ways this type of depression manifests itself, with all the “fun” just a means of concealing the overall unhappiness and lowered self-esteem a man is suffering from.

Having read this far, the outlook for Western men may appear bleak, but foreigners — and especially men — are by no means doomed to a miserable existence in Japan. There are examples of well-adjusted expatriates living a happy life here. So what is their secret?

Having non-Japanese friends and co-workers helps a lot. Not only can you use your native language, but the patterns of communication, expectations and levels of self-disclosure tend to be quite similar, and therefore it is often easier to build and develop relationships. The fact that we are all foreigners here “in the same boat” is a perfect icebreaker.

But perhaps the most important thing is to admit and fully accept that we can never fully assimilate in Japan. We can never become Japanese, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ken Seeroi, the author of the popular blog Japanese Rule of 7, writes, “It seems you can either spend a lifetime trying to prove you’re as good as the worst Japanese person, or opt out and just be ‘foreign.’ ”

Embracing your non-Japaneseness, just being yourself, exploiting the “gaijin power” your outsider status affords you and simply enjoying the ride are the best ways to avoid the trap of loneliness and misery.

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees and their families. Foreign Agenda provides a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp