A small selection of the large number of online comments and emails received in response to Olga Garnova’s recent Foreign Agenda column, “Spare a thought for Western men trapped in Japan“:
Who really has it tough?
I’m sure a brown guy such as myself will face lots of racism in Japan. These white guys in Japan who complain about how bad they have it get little to no sympathy from me, with them being already at the top of the hierarchy for foreigners in the eyes of Japanese.
Nerdydesi, I think this is a naive oversimplification of discrimination and racism.
First, we have to look at what racism actually means. Most people will probably say something like “discrimination based on race.” But it is unfortunately not that simple.
A lot of people often say things like “you cannot discriminate against a white man, because white men are at the top of the totem pole.” But this statement is very dangerous. It implies that no matter the injustices experienced by a white male, they don’t matter because of the injustices experienced by blacks/women/Jews/Korean immigrants, etc.
Of course, this problem arises from a much deeper aspect of human nature, and that is generalization: “If the white male is the dominant group, then all white males are at the top of the totem pole.”
But is a homeless white man actually more privileged than a wealthy black woman? While this is an extreme example, it should illustrate the point that a social definition is only a statistical description of that group, and does not accurately describe every single individual which it contains.
However in addressing problems only as they apply to minority and nondominant social groups, we do something even more serious than “ignoring half the victims.” When we view social problems from narrow perspectives, we often end up with incomplete solutions, and very few problems actually end up being solved for anyone.
Anyway, returning to the topic at hand, we’re not talking about poor black people systematically being trodden down everywhere they go. We’re talking about people of various races and genders, of roughly similar social standings, often receiving poor treatment as expats in the Japanese workforce. Dismissing the problems of one group simply because there are statistically more disadvantaged groups experiencing other injustices is a dangerous approach to a specific problem.
Notes: 1) I’m not white. 2) The article is about “Western men,” not “white men,” and while I can’t be bothered reading it again, I didn’t get the impression that it was specifically talking about white men.
MR HAPPY FACE
I’m sorry, I usually try and be nicer about these things, but this article is garbage. It screams of Western superiority complex and tries to make it seem as though Japanese life is full of depression, loveless relationships and a complete lack of hope.
So sorry Western men are having to deal with the harsh reality of being minorities, but not so sorry at all. If you want to know who has it the worst in Japan, it’s non-Japanese Asians. I’m not one of that group, but they have to deal with the same foreigner problems, but without the shallow perks of being a shiny new gaijin [foreigner]. Chinese and Koreans living in Japan have it hard.
For all these men who can’t seem to wrap their heads around Japanese work and marriage life, I say get a new job and a new wife. If either of them end up not being what you expected, that’s a problem with one’s own life choices, not a problem with society.
Japan is not the problem
I can’t help but feel the people who feel trapped in Japan are people who would feel just as trapped back home, or anywhere else for that matter. A lot of what is mentioned in this article would apply to any developed Westernised country.
Working long hours in a boring office where no one speaks, with plenty of overtime and little chance of progression, sounds depressingly familiar to what I was doing in the U.K. It is not endemic to Japan. Neither is people marrying for money or getting trapped with kids and a mortgage.
The key to not being trapped is taking control of your own life. If you don’t like life here, leave. If you don’t have any friends, go out and make an effort to meet some. If you don’t like your job, quit. If some girl dumps you because you might not make enough money, surely that is a blessing in disguise. There are plenty of people out there not motivated by money, Japanese or otherwise. If your in-laws nag you, either tell them how you feel or accept they are from a different generation, from a different culture, that they see the world differently, and that there is not much you can do to change that.
The thing that annoys me about these articles is that people think these problems are unique to Japan. They really aren’t. I doubt any foreigner in any country gets to fully integrate. As a gaijin you will never fully be Japanese, true, but as a foreigner in the U.K. you will never fully be British either. That is life. You haven’t experienced the same shared culture for the same amount of time.
To try and leave things on a happier note, I fully believe that if you come to Japan with a positive attitude and that you follow what you want to do, Japan can offer you many opportunities for an interesting and enjoyable life. Just don’t make silly choices like getting married after a few months to get a visa or taking a job you hate just to get sponsorship and you should be fine.
“The thing that annoys me about these articles is that people think these problems are unique to Japan.”
Chris, where has anyone specifically said this. It’s a Japanese newspaper written in English for foreigners. What do you think — it’s gonna be about foreigners’ experiences in Vietnam and Rwanda? They are talking about the specific experience about being a foreigner in Japan.
Western doesn’t mean white
The tone of this article strikes me as completely wrong. It completely ignores the experiences of foreign men who are not white — who, I would argue, have it much worse here. And let’s not forget foreign women living in Japan, too.
There are so many problems that we all face living here, and yet this article chooses to focus on one very specific group (who, again, don’t really have it all that bad considering other types of foreign people) and make it out as if it is the worst problem of all.
(Also, the title is misleading. These men are not “trapped.” Japanese people who don’t fit in their society are, though. They can’t escape back to their original countries like the rest of us can if things get really bad.)
Alex, having re-read the article, I’m bemused that anyone could think it was all about Caucasian men. It’s true the title includes the phrase “Western men,” but not all Westerners are Caucasian.
I also agree with you that people of color and women in Japan have it tough. Just because a writer draws your attention to one section of humanity, doesn’t mean the rest of humanity doesn’t exist nor that their problems aren’t as bad — or worse even, as you seem to believe.
Trapped on temp contracts
I work in one of the largest and oldest Japanese corporations, and the foreigners are all on temp contracts, and don’t get the same bonus, raises or benefits that the Japanese employees get. We are also excluded from meetings and are only told important information on what they consider a need-to-know basis, which usually means “You don’t need to know anything.”
If your company treats you exactly like they treat their Japanese employees, you are one of the lucky ones, and your experience is not the norm.
There’s a very good reason most employment contracts for foreign English teachers at Japanese-run language schools and universities offer only a one- or two-year term of employment. It’s Japan’s way of subtly reminding the naive foreigner that if he or she has any ideas about settling down in Japan, it might be better to think again and then head out to Narita Airport once that labor contract has been fulfilled.
The more intelligent gaijin readily recognizes that there ain’t no future here in Japan for most outsiders. Another term for gaijin should be “temp,” as in temporary guest worker.
I met a fella from New Zealand just a few days ago who’s lived here in Otaru for the past 16 years. Let’s call him Jimmy. He’s married to a local Japanese woman and they have two lovely daughters. He wasn’t terribly fluent in Japanese, but gets by. His hāfu daughters are Nihonjin, not Kiwis. His wife speaks little English and has no desire to live in his homeland. He works part-time at the local business college and lives from paycheck to paycheck. Jimmy complained that he’s never even been to Kyoto.
It looks like the poor man is trapped in this Siberian Otaru by family obligations and has slightly less than desperate penury. He asked me somewhat anxiously how I managed to “retire” in Japan. He has no hopes of a good pension.
Since he’s only 42 years young, I wondered to myself why he doesn’t move back to New Zealand and start a new life? Look for better prospects? Very likely he will after his daughters complete high school — with or without the family baggage.
I almost felt sorry for him — almost. He’s tolerated in Otaru, just barely. Other than his poorly paid teaching job at the college and his family ties, the flightless Kiwi has no place in Otaru “society,” such as it is.
I’m a foreigner, get me outta here
I just read your article on foreigners in Japan with great interest. I am a Canadian married to a Japanese lady, and we live in Kyoto. I am semi-retired and my wife and I share our living expenses.
My wife is OK with this and we have no kids. Her family, though, is another matter, and because I am not working full-time, I get no respect from the rest of her family, so I don’ t interact with them at all. But I love Kyoto and my wife is good to me, so I am content to stay here even though I do miss Canada.
I read an article years ago about how people who feel like outsiders in their home country fit in well playing the role of gaijin in Japan. I feel like I probably fit into this category. I have no Japanese friends here and I mainly stay in touch with people that I know in Canada on the Internet. But Internet contact is no replacement for real human contact.
In my younger days I used to teach full-time and I drank and partied with other foreign English teachers in Kyoto. But I don’t drink anymore and the “Nova culture” of English teachers is a thing of the past in Japan now.
I majored in religious studies at university and got an M.A. focusing on D.T. Suzuki, who was the first Japanese to write about Zen in English. Living in Kyoto I became a culture vulture, visiting all the famous temples and shrines in the city, but my fascination with Japanese culture has worn off now. I think that Japan is an OK place to live but I think Canada is better and I hope to return one day.
The only problem is that my wife will not commit to returning to Canada again. We lived in the cities of Hamilton, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada for a number of years, but I decided that we should return to Japan so that I could teach English here again, and now I don’t know if my wife will leave Japan again. The fact that the Canadian government now makes getting a permanent resident visa in Canada difficult doesn’t help matters.
I agree with your article that the best thing for a foreigner who lives in Japan to do is to act like a foreigner and not try to become assimilated into Japanese society.
I think it’s a great article that applies to me too — I am a non-Japanese, non-Caucasian foreign female. I have stopped trying to find only “Japanese” friends (to practice Japanese with) or “foreign” friends. I let nature take its course — like-minded folks tend to gravitate towards each other. Not surprisingly, most of my friends are foreigners.
Yes, non-Japanese Asian women have it worse here. We’re at the very bottom of the hierarchy. But I’ve learned to live with it. My reality is what I make of it — and I believe I’m way happier than many of my former Japanese classmates who are so hung up on how much their husbands make. Or even other foreigners at the top of the food chain. You can be disadvantaged in any society, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy.
The delicate issue of racism
Are we being trolled? April 1st is just around the corner. This can’t be serious, can it?
As a white man living in Japan, I’m getting pretty sick and tired of fellow Western white folks using the term “racism.” So you moved to Japan at 25 and some old man didn’t let you into the “girls bar” [hostess bar]? Get over it!
I remember shopping with black friends and having them followed around the store by the shop clerk. Every “South Park”/”Family Guy”-style “adult” cartoon makes fun of Asians with reckless abandon.
Fellow white people in Japan: Stop calling not getting your way “racism” — it’s a bit racist.
What? TokyoJ, you’ve got to be kidding. You get a house, have kids, and do all the stuff and paperwork that comes with that and then come back and tell us you still have no experiences of veiled racism in Japan.
Maybe you’re more at the “girls bar” and “South Park” level here, but when you grow up, and if you decide to stay here, you’re going to experience racism on other levels that will involve your family, the availability of choices for your future, and in many respects your identity and dignity.
Touched by the hand of Debito?
Congratulations on another fantastic article, Debito!
KetsuroOu, not gonna lie: As I was reading, I thought, “Oh, this must be a Debito Arudou article” and was genuinely shocked when I got to the top and it wasn’t.
The pursuit of happiness
“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.”
Suuuure. Let’s come to a country where we can’t speak the language, and instead of immersing ourselves in, let’s expect them to adapt to us. Yes, very clever. Just be ourselves. Gaijin rules!
Totally agree: Don’t try to be Japanese, ’cause you never will be. But it’s important to go with the flow, even if you don’t agree, or it will drive you crazy.
I always thought I coined the phrase “gaijin power.” I thought it meant getting the most out of Japan — for example, getting a girl, just cause you are not Japanese. Or you sit down in a restaurant and the group next to you starts asking gaijin questions (e.g., Where are you from? Can you use chopsticks?). Which can be totally annoying. Then, when you go to pay the bill, you find that they paid for you.
I think non-Japanese women have it much harder then men here in Japan. Even with “gaijin power,” finding a partner and emotional stability can be hard.
While the above “gaijin power” method could allow lonely foreign men to cope with the reality temporarily, it will not solve the problems. In fact I think it would make the situations worse. You can’t solve the problem of nonacceptance by substituting it with the delusional “gaijin power” — which you know very well will not get you any respect in the end.
I’ve seen a lot of expats — Japanese in America (I myself used to be one), Westerners in Japan and in China, where I currently reside with my Chinese wife.
Those who do well as foreigners tend to have a common denominator: These are the people who don’t get too upset when they see or experience things they would strongly condemn in their own home countries — the kind of things that you tell yourself, “Gee, they shouldn’t do this!” (but they do anyway).
If you are a foreigner, you know what I’m talking about. And if you are a type who gets bothered by those things too easily, eventually you will suffer a sort of mental breakdown. Your skin is too delicate. Soon you might start ranting on a forum like this, or start looking for girls who supposedly “understand” you (but actually don’t).
But if you are a type who can let it go and has an ability to make fun out of it, you will likely be fine. Except for most serious offenses, the majority of discrimination can be annoying but not life-threatening.
Instead of isolating yourself from Japanese people to protect your sanity, which this author appears to be suggesting, I would suggest a different approach.
People, after all, are not that different from each other. People all over the world appreciate, for example, things like kindness and honesty. So try to find those in Japanese people. And try to show Japanese people that you, too, have those qualities.
In other words, try to see they are the same as you, try to show you are the same as them.
My two cents.
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