Americans living in Japan have had three weeks to process what Donald Trump’s shock victory in the presidential election means for them and their country. Many lived through the entire election campaign in Japan, far from their country but never far from media coverage of the spectacle.
While some feel that the thousands of miles between here and their homeland have allowed them the chance to see the country from a critical distance, for others it has fed feelings of loneliness, helplessness, pride or shame. A few U.S. citizens living in the Tokyo area, of different ages, backgrounds and political hues, told The Japan Times about their experiences.
Election night, Japanese workday
Due to the time difference, election night in the U.S. was a regular day at work in Japan. In large international companies, it was hard to stay focused on the job as everyone — non-Americans included — watched the unexpected result unfold.
In the preschool in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward where he teaches English, 28-year-old Will Sweeney-Samuelson had almost forgotten about Election Day — until he turned off airplane mode on his cellphone at lunch break.
“All these notifications kept coming in, one after the other; it was nearing the end, and it was terrifying,” says the Washington state Democrat. “My state was that pinky gray red on the Guardian website, and I was like, ‘Oh, hell no!’ I started to shake, and I looked around me. There was no American, nobody I could look at in the eyes and just have a moment of complete panic with. It was one of the loneliest moments of my life here in Japan.”
Working in a junior high school in Chiba Prefecture, Jesse Pelerin, 39, took the temperature among the students. “I asked them what they thought about Trump. All the girls were like, ‘Chikan‘ — a pervert. And that was the only thing they cared about. They were disappointed when he won.
“The boys were like, ‘Trump — like a deck of cards, yeah.'” (In Japanese, toranpu means “playing cards.”) “But I had the same class when Obama came to Hiroshima, they were very impressed by that,” says Pelerin. “One of the girls said that she cried when she saw it on TV.”
On the Tokyo campus of Temple University, Amani Kidd, 21, remembers her Japanese classmates’ reactions. Some were concerned, worried for friends in the U.S., but also “embarrassed for us, because everywhere you looked on newspapers, on TV, there was Trump.”
For Joelle Wacker, 27, a Virginian working for a vocational school in Shibuya, the subjects that Trump’s candidacy brought to the surface were a source of shame.
“Stuff about sexual assault, about the KKK, it was all in the Japanese media,” she recalls. “Reading the Japanese media felt like having embarrassing family secrets spread all over the news.”
Pelerin concurs. “It is a little bit embarrassing, and it is very hard to explain the Electoral College, why she cannot be president,” he says, referring to the fact that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million ballots. “I explain that Trump is a Horie Takafumi. He was an entrepreneur, trying to get into politics in Japan. He is not a bad person but you can’t imagine him becoming president.”
Caught up in a global obsession
Even in Tokyo, Americans seem to have followed the election cycle quite assiduously, mostly through social media and online articles.
“I read six to 10 articles a day about it, for a long time,” says Sweeney-Samuelson, the Washington state native. “No matter what happened in the elections, it was still going to be an important change. It was incredibly entertaining, to be honest.”
He remembers following his brother-in-law, an American whose father is Japanese, organizing bets on Facebook with his friends, mostly lawyers like him.
“He would give people $10 if they guessed the crazy thing that Trump was going to say next,” explains Sweeney-Samuelson. “He wrote a list of potential things that he might say, and everybody would bet on each of those things with a fictional $100. It was like betting on horses — whoever won the most fake money would get a nice bottle of scotch. They were all very well informed, and outraged, but nobody really expected Trump to win, otherwise nobody would have been having any fun.” After his triumph, “it just wasn’t funny anymore,” says Sweeney-Samuelson.
Wacker said that being surrounded by international acquaintances with similar concerns about Trump has provided her with some comfort. At the same time, it has also led to occasions when she had to challenge or reassess her opinions.
Sweeney-Samuelson recalls a thought-provoking conversation he had with a Mexican-born co-worker.
“He was honestly more moderate than me, he was scared and angry as well about Trump and (newly appointed presidential counsel) Steve Bannon, but he supports the idea that here should be much stronger deportations.”
Joe, who asked to use a pseudonym due to privacy concerns, found friends in his Tamagawa share-house that share his enthusiasm for Trump.
“Makoto was following it almost like a sports thing,” he says. “He understood that if Trump won, the world would shift ideologies.”
Working as a model, the 26-year-old says he wasn’t swayed by the arguments of his liberal international colleagues.
“Most of them are socialistic-leaning people,” Joe says. “But they just talk about character, about personality. They think that Trump is mean and that racists like him. Those are not serious political arguments. Society should take care of itself.”
Visitors in their own country?
Most of the respondents feel like their years in Japan have greatly influenced their world-views. For Sweeney-Samuelson, this Japanese year was an eye-opening experience that made him relate more deeply to the experience of migrants and minorities in his home country.
“It’s been a challenging transition to live here in some ways, not knowing the language, not being able to find a job right away, struggling with the different customs and with the otherness of being the only white person in a train car full of 100 people. You face so much resistance to every small thing in your life,” he says. “It wasn’t bad for me, it was stressful sometimes. It made me reflect on how African-Americans are treated like second-class citizens in their own country — visitors to white America, in a sense.”
Temple Japan student Kidd is part of a U.S. military family currently stationed at the naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. She was glad to be with her family here, away from her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, during the campaign and its aftermath.
“I am mixed, and a female. And I feel more at home in Japan, even though I look like a foreigner, than I do in the States. In Japan, people would look at me strangely and perhaps act strangely towards me, but I don’t necessarily expect that … amount of hard racism, I guess. I would rather be in Japan right now. I am glad, at least for my father, that he is here. He is much safer being here.”
Arthur Vito Valaer’s struggles to integrate as a college student on Temple University’s Japan Campus, however, influenced his views in the opposite direction.
“As a foreigner who’s worked hard to live here legally and assimilate,” says Valaer, 33, “I don’t think anybody should be allowed to live in another country illegally and receive special treatment. Also, given how Japan doesn’t suffer from attacks by radical Islamists, I’ve seen firsthand how tough immigration rules can help prevent them.”
Fellow Trump supporter Joe, who is half-Japanese himself, says that although he feels more American here than at home, this year in Japan has not changed his political views.
“I am an immigrant personally, true, but not on a political level,” Joe says. “The problem in America is not that there are immigrants — America is a country of immigrants — the problem is illegal immigrants.” Mexicans, he says, “can come, but there is a process, and they should go through it. As for me, selfishly, yes, I like traveling, but if a country doesn’t want me there, I won’t go.”
Coming from a traditionally Republican Christian military family, Pelerin believes his 16 years in Japan played a part in making him lean toward Clinton this year, the first time he has supported a Democrat. But the long period away also helped put some distance between himself and his country’s politics.
“After the (March 11, 2011) earthquake I realized that Japan was going to be my home, not the U.S. So I closed all of my bank accounts in America,” he explains. “Even though I have an American passport, it is the only thing that ties me to America right now. I kind of viewed the elections as a spectator.”
However, Pelerin admits that not voting was a little hypocritical considering that he pressured his son to vote in July’s Japanese elections.
Building a wall or breaking the ice
Although absentee ballots are a first step, some U.S. citizens in Japan are looking forward to returning to their homeland and getting more involved.
“I feel like as an American citizen I need to engage,” says Sweeney-Samuelson, who hails from Seattle. “Standing Rock is happening and I have a cousin there,” he says, referring to the standoff between a Sioux tribe and its supporters and security guards over the North Dakota Access pipeline. “My friends are in the middle of Seattle marching every day” in anti-Trump rallies, he adds, “and I am not there, I am living sort of vicariously through it. I gave money to Citizens United, but I would like to be part of what America is becoming right now. Now that the worst possible outcome has happened I don’t feel any catharsis coming, any way to engage. It’s life as usual here, but it doesn’t feel the same.”
Valaer shares Sweeney-Samuelson’s drive to get involved in shaping America, but the similarities end there. “I’d like to return home as soon as possible in order to volunteer to help build the wall along the Mexican border,” he says.
This hands-on approach is not for everyone, however. Kidd, the U.S. military dependent in Yokosuka, says that she would feel uncomfortable being part of the anti-Trump protests, although she thinks they are necessary.
“Education is the key,” she believes. “I want to become a professor and educate people, open the doors of communication. I think that’s what I can do being here.”
Wacker is grateful to be in Tokyo, where she has been a teacher for three years, rather than back in Virginia.
“If I was back home, I would feel too emotional, it would affect me in everyday life. Here I’m able to turn off my computer and walk away from it.” she says. Being in Japan maintains that necessary distance with her country’s politics, helping her engage rationally in the debate.
Whatever their politics, few could disagree that this has been the most divisive U.S. election in recent history, leaving what Sweeney-Samuelson calls “an ideological disconnect.”
“People are talking past each other,” he says. “It is our responsibility to have difficult conversations.”
Khan Smith, who began supporting Clinton after her victory over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, had that conversation with his family, whom he describes as black lower-middle-class residents of New York.
After Sanders’ defeat, “My dad was a Trump supporter from day one,” he laughs. “Not because he likes him. It’s kind of a rebellious act — it will show them that people have the power.”
“I am not in America right now,” he adds, “nor are my American and European friends. The media we saw were all against Trump, never one positive thing about him. He did some positive things, I believe. Fifty percent of the voters in America are not dumb, people voted for him for a reason, and we also need to look at that.”
If he was in America right now, Smith says, “I might think differently. I might not be a Trump voter, but I might be an abstentionist.”
While Democratic interviewees underlined this deep disconnect between the two camps, Trump enthusiasts reported experiencing hostility first-hand.
“I tell people that I am pro-Trump and people think I’m crazy,” says Joe. “They don’t wanna talk to me anymore. You talk about politics and people just think you are an idiot if you are for Trump, that you are unsavable, that you are just a bad soul. So I avoid conversation with them, especially about politics.”
Valaer reports “being attacked for holding conservative views multiple times a day” by Americans on his Tokyo campus but, like Joe, he declines to be specific. However, being a Trump supporter at Temple’s Azabu Campus, he says, “improved my debate skills and ensured that I fully research any policies or values that I support.”
In their daily life, neither of the Republicans perceived any change in the way they were treated by Japanese people, unlike their Democratic counterparts.
“I wear my Trump shirt sometimes and read books of his during my commute but I don’t notice much difference in the way I’m viewed,” says Valaer.
‘A laboratory of democracy’
While Trump’s supporters have no problem with their country being associated around the world with the platinum-blond billionaire, for those who opposed him it is another matter.
Even months ago, when Wacker was working in a bar in Shinjuku’s famous Golden Gai alley, “Japanese people asked me all the time, it was the No. 1 question: ‘Oh, you’re American, do you like Trump?’ “
After the result of the election became clear, says Smith, “I did get texts from 20 French people saying, ‘Oh, your country is terrible.’ ” Smith spent eight years of his life in France, where his mother is from. “French people love to do that. I was like, ‘You guys wait for Marine Le Pen and we will talk again, right?’ “
Sweeney-Samuelson has written to friends abroad that felt threatened as minorities by the implications of Trump’s win, apologizing on behalf of his country.
After Trump’s win was confirmed, he says, “I looked around me, and I knew that I would have to go to work the next day and have my Japanese co-workers ask me, ‘Why? How could Donald Trump possibly be acceptable?’ I have to own that, and all Americans do, and it is a hard question. I am ashamed of that. It did make me change how comfortable I was with myself outside of America.”
Sweeney-Samuelson recalls traveling while George W. Bush was president and feeling foreigners’ disdain for Americans. He fears more of the same.
Wacker says she even sometimes wonders whether the effects could ripple as far as the Japanese bureaucracy.
“My visa is coming through now, so what if the immigration officer who is approving it, is like, ‘Oh, but Trump, maybe she likes Trump?’ It does concern me a little bit; I feel like there’s probably gonna be a backlash against Americans,” says the 27-year-old. “I am sad and embarrassed, but it doesn’t change my feelings about being American. Nor does it change anything about my life plans. But it does change what I feel my responsibility is as an American.”
Asked if she feels she has to justify herself to people from other countries now, Wacker says: “I feel like I want to. I want to let them know that I don’t like Trump.”
What is already being called the “Trump shock” and what led up to it might have changed the way some of the interviewees feel as Americans, but it did not necessarily undermine their feelings for their home country itself.
“I am still proud of the values of the country,” says Smith. “My image of America is that it is a laboratory of democracy. America can bring out the best and the worse of democracy.”
While Kidd believes the country has changed for the worse, her pride remains battered but intact.
“It is very hard for me to say that I have the same amount of patriotism I had prior to the elections. That’s not the nation I grew up in,” she says. “But I thought about my mother, about the many, many women that put their lives on the line, for our democracy, for us to have the right to disagree or agree. And I realize that as much as I wanna be angry, we still have rights that people in other countries don’t have. Blood has been sacrificed for this, and I can’t be upset. I would always be proud to be an American because of that.”
As the interviews come to an end, feelings are mixed, between hope and utter disillusionment.
“Winter is coming,” concludes Smith with a grin.
“America is so f—-ed at this point that it doesn’t even really matter,” reckons Joe. “How much money do we owe to China at this point?” He acknowledges the threat facing the climate, but it’s too late to do anything about that anyway, he says.
Pelerin is resigned to the prospect of President Trump. “He wasn’t my first choice but the democracy had it that way,” he says. “It was a fair election, so I think it is time to give him a chance.”
Kidd, searching for a bright side, believes a Trump presidency could energize and unite the opposition.
“This election really gives my generation the power to stand up and exercise our rights,” she says. “His presidency is not going to destroy us. But we have a lot to do as a nation and as a people.”