For the eight years I lived in Japan, I was charmed and amazed by white privilege. At a time when white males in America were increasingly called out by minorities, Tokyo seemed like a throwback to the 1950s — a bizarro world where shop staff bowed to me, employers assumed competence based on my origin, and young women swooned for “Charisma Man,” their hearts aflutter if I opened the door for them.
Some Japanese friends have asked me, with the curiosity of the underdog exploring a top-dog secret, “What is it like to be special? Do you enjoy it?” My answer was yes, sort of. If, no matter what, you’ll be a vessel for people’s projections on race, I’ll take skills and sophistication over colonialism and mansplaining any day.
In the West, white privilege can be more of an absence — less obstruction, less slighting and snubbing, at times less outright suspicion — and thus it may not be felt overtly. In Japan, however, it was tangible — as in “This treatment is special because I am white.” In return, my main form of political activism was to treat Japanese people as truly equal. Quite a few of them seemed surprised, unfamiliar with the experience.
Ironically, along with their status elevation, some Westerners in Japan seemed to feel sheepish about their good lives, as though real success was back home and achievements in Japan were just luck in a minor league. Justified or not, for many expats, “big in Japan” seems to be shorthand for impostor syndrome.
So I was surprised when, moving back to San Francisco — now part of the gold standard of success in the Western world — I experienced a cachet boost. Without my doing, I was rebranded as a “Tokyo Man” fantasy — a suave and successful cosmopolitan, a big shot who’d led a purer, more spiritual life in a mythical East.
Wherever I am introduced in SF, after my name comes a reverently low-voiced “He worked in Japan. In Tokyo.” Rooms go silent, as people wonder “How the hell did he pull that off?” People wonder why on earth I moved back here, as if America was a third world country. Asked if I speak Japanese, I give an ambiguous nod that says “No biggie, but yes, I get by.” People gasp, wide-eyed: In America, bilingualism never fails to amaze.
Applying for plastic at a Wells Fargo branch, Tokyo Man is faced with a challenge — a small indiscretion, having to do with blown credit. My banker in charge, however, an effusive young man named Lum, has full confidence in my cash credibility. “You worked in Tokyo for eight years? My man, your credit is fine!”
A quick check of my credit history wipes the confidence off his face. But Lum is undeterred. “You had a credit card in Japan, we’ll get you a credit card here.” Two days later, when I send him a cautious inquiry, the reply comes within minutes: “In the mail, my man!”
And yet, with all these perks, there is a price Tokyo Man pays for being home. Because in America, being white can be less than a privilege — it is part of a complicated history.
At the DMV office to get a new driver’s license, I find myself in line behind a group of people of color. The DMV staff, an African-American woman, gives appointments to everyone in the line, but when it’s my turn, she tells me to come back tomorrow. I am late, she snaps, angry before I have said a word. Then she gives an appointment to the Mexican behind me.
It’s no awful injustice, nothing a white male can reasonably gripe about. And yet it stung — a more visceral “othering” than I ever experienced in Japan.
It may sound strange, but this is partly why I went back to America — to be back in the mess, with a sense of political agency. I sometimes felt ineffectual in Tokyo, isolated from social problems. I seemed to adopt the inward-looking, fatalistic attitude that many Japanese people have about politics. It’s not necessarily a matter of language: Many other expats fluent in Japanese have no political involvement in their new home.
Donald Trump, who will be inaugurated tomorrow, was partly elected because voters felt powerless. So as America is going through convulsions, what is a white-privileged expat in Japan to do? It is a good time everywhere to stop feeling disconnected and check in with local communities — not to fight shadows on social media, but to do what can be done for real people, in whatever place we choose to make home.
As for Tokyo Man, his work is cut out for him. Never mind projections and fantasies; there are community meetings and rallies to attend, and resistance strategies to be hatched. Nothing can stop me — now that I have a credit card.
Nicolas Gattig is a writer and intercultural communication coach. He can be reached at email@example.com and equality-english.com. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org