Many expats in Japan are pretty thoroughly disgusted by the current political situation in the U.S. Some of them took to the streets in Tokyo to rally after Trump’s inauguration last year, and it is conceivable that if they were in the U.S. today, many of these expats would also be standing in solidarity with the immigrants the Trump administration is trying to limit from the country.
Ethnicity-based views of national identity are spreading like wildfire not only in America but throughout the Western world. What is peculiar, however, is that when it comes to thinking of the role that they themselves should play in Japan, many progressive expats are actually more in line with the Tiki-torch-carrying nationalists back home than against them.
Japan is a conservative country with conservative views on immigration. This is why racist ghouls like Richard Spencer in America’s white nationalist clubs are drawn here. Steve Bannon has paid multiple visits to Japan in just the past few months. Jared Taylor grew up here. Though tourists find Japan and its omotenashi (hospitality) culture towards visitors to be a glimpse into paradise, real integration into the country is difficult and long-term residents often painfully discover that a lifetime in Japan more often than not means a lifetime of being regarded as an eternal guest and someone that will never be a true part of the country.
Jobs in Japanese companies where foreign workers have the same potential for growth and stability as their Japanese counterparts are virtually nonexistent. Housing discrimination is widespread — a Justice Ministry survey conducted last year revealed that almost 40 percent of foreign house-hunters had at some point had an application rejected because they were not Japanese. Many foreign nationals attempting to craft a life in Japan quickly discover that the only way to ever really be accepted is to be ethnically Japanese.
The most common reaction to this is acceptance. There is an attitude of “This isn’t our country and it isn’t our place to make any waves. We are guests here and should let Japan continue to be a country for the Japanese.” It’s the mantra of identity for expats in Japan, and it’s eerily the same mantra of identity that white nationalists in the U.S. and other Western countries wish that immigrants in their countries would wear around their necks throughout their lives after immigrating.
So why the double standard and uncharacteristic docility from a group that regards itself as progressive? The response that just about any foreign national who has lived in or even visited Japan will offer is that it is because they love Japan, and that it is a country that deserves profound respect.
This respect is surely deserved. However, in trying to preserve the baby that is respect for Japan, we are all too often preserving a bathwater of toxic sludge that is the fuel of ethnostates.
Some may say that the U.S. and Japan are different countries and that they require different social medicines. The U.S. is a country built by immigrants and this spirit is enshrined in monuments like the Statue of Liberty. Japan has no such foundations.
True as this may be, subscribing to a view based on where a country came from rather than where it should go is in this context is to subscribe to a view that foreign residents should be seen and not heard. Japan is changing. Immigration to Japan has been steadily increasing and even Liberal Democratic Party hardliners are beginning to realize that the combination of a declining population and closed immigration policies is a recipe for disaster.
If you are living in a country, you are a part of it. National identity based on ethnicity should be a tough Kool-Aid to swallow. Expats living in Japan, however, consume this mind-set like it’s water and bathe in it to the point where they incorporate it into the way they view themselves and their role in the communities around them.
Those who try to challenge ethnic nationalism in Japan are thrown to the fringes of expat society and are shunned as extremists. Their outspoken calls to action are seen as aggressive and out of place. The causes these individuals are fighting for, however, are in the same vein as the immigration protests that are taking place back in the U.S. in reaction to Trump’s immigration policies and the discrimination against U.S. minorities. Back home, these protests are quite basic.
Some take the stance that the battle of immigrants, particularly white men, fighting for equality and against discriminatory government policies in Japan is trivial when juxtaposed against the civil rights abuses that blacks, women and LGBT individuals have faced in the U.S. It is. But who’s comparing?
Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter that highlighted the importance of fighting against injustice wherever it arises and to avoid falling into the trap of being labeled as an “outside agitator.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Japan is a country where foreign people are not treated equally, and it is doing the entire world an injustice to ignore this reality.
There is a middle ground between believing that a country where you weren’t born is a place that you can tailor to your liking and believing that you should remove your voice box to fit in. The norm in Japan is to accept the extreme of the latter.
We can and should at all times hold a mirror of introspection to the lives that we are living and the norms that we have accepted, no matter where we are residing. When we look into the fun-house mirror of introspection that shows only how we look in accordance with Japanese social conventions, our complacency makes us look great. When this mirror is adjusted to global standards, however, we might not like the creatures looking back at us.
David Caprara on Twitter: @Caprarad. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan.
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