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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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THE ZEIT GIST

Expat life in Japan: the good, the bad and the meaningful

Labor issues should trump all others for foreigners in 2009, writes Paul de Vries


I am a 46-year-old Caucasian male. I have lived in Japan for 17 years with an attitude toward assimilation that would not be looked upon favorably in my native Australia. I would feel worse about this were it not for an undeniable fact: Compared to the average Westerner in Japan, the moderate level of assimilation I have achieved is a standout performance.

Westerners in Japan do not tend to assimilate to anywhere near the degree that foreigners do in the West. I would suggest there are two predominant reasons why. The first is that because of the culture of social obligation, the joys of mainstream Japanese life are felt to be less than totally enviable. The second is that the negative forms of discrimination that exist for the noncitizen population are more than compensated for by an impressive array of positives.

Positive discrimination? Yes, in Japan, it most certainly does exist.

It is a universal human trait for established citizen populations to consider themselves a little higher up the food chain than the unassimilated or newly arrived. In any country you would care to name, "newbies" are regularly reminded that to some degree they have yet to truly "arrive."

These reminders can take two forms: punitive forms of discrimination, and the treatment of the unassimilated and newly arrived as guests. In Japan, the latter is the norm.

My life during the past 17 years has been one of never having to do a full share of the work, never having to fully pay my way, and always getting more than my share of attention. Such is the common experience of those who both forgo the option of full assimilation and come to this country more to learn than to preach.

It has to be said that being treated as a perennial guest has its own brand of frustrations, as it is nonetheless a reminder that you do not fully belong. Some of the greatest joys for foreign residents of Japan are when you find yourself on the receiving end of well-meaning banter, you actually succeed in picking up the tab, or your good friends start giving you grief about your lack of progress with the language. Still, positive discrimination is obviously preferable to the more common punitive forms.

There is no shortage of Westerners who disagree with this characterization. Their most common mistake is to eagerly claim the positives from their self-inflicted "outsider-dom" while declining to accept that a tradeoff is involved. Another routine trap is for the often-inevitable presence of a racial component to be the determinant of whether an issue is considered significant or not. This unfortunately results in issues of genuine practical importance (work conditions, holiday pay, etc.) being relegated to the sidelines of the non-Japanese consciousness.

There are undeniably, however, a couple of forms of negative discrimination that foreigners in Japan need to come to terms with.

In the Kabukicho area of Tokyo there is an establishment where (so I've been told) you can drop half a day's pay to have a schoolgirl in a nurse's uniform perform services of a scatological nature. No consideration will be made for your advances in the Japanese language. No attempt has been made to produce instructional illustrations. If you do not fit the image of the stereotypical Japanese national you will not be getting through the door. It is discrimination, but I somehow doubt that Nelson Mandela would be overly perturbed.

The other area in which you may experience a discriminatory sting is getting caught up in an application of group accountability.

In February, a member of the Toshiba Brave Lupus rugby team tested positive for marijuana. The team withdrew from the season-ending All-Japan Championship. The dreams of many innocent players, fans and officials were crushed. This common form of group-based punishment is also undeniably discriminatory in nature.

There are several areas in which non-Japanese have been, and continue to be, subjected to group-based discrimination in Japan. Misbehaving Russian sailors have been barred from bathhouses in Hokkaido, most famously in the port city of Otaru. American servicemen have been periodically turned away from establishments in the vicinity of their bases.

Tourists, Japanese and foreign, were recently banned from Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market for a month.

A small percentage of Japanese landlords are not enthusiastic about renting apartments to non-Japanese, or single men.

The problem with the Russians was allowed to fester due to the reluctance of either the sailors' representatives or Otaru City to take any serious initiatives. The matter has now been resolved.

The problem with U.S. servicemen has similarly been more pronounced than it otherwise might have been. In years gone by, U.S. base commanders saw themselves less as advocates of justice than as advocates for the defense. Their primary goal was to ensure that their servicemen beat the rap, an aim ably facilitated by the extraterritorial protection that U.S. servicemen continue to enjoy. Most recently, however, the U.S. has embraced the Japanese approach and then some. "Incidents" are now followed by curfews, and the conduct of the servicemen has most definitely improved.

The problem at the fish market is a recent one. In Japanese society, the opportunity to engage in boisterous behavior is traditionally provided through festival culture. In the West, such expressions of universal human need tend to be expended in more randomly chosen settings. The market had become one such setting. A monthlong ban was imposed. At the time of writing, however, the fish market is open for all who wish to attend.

The problem with Japanese landlords is both the most all-encompassing and difficult to counter. The obvious solution is legislation: to ban Japanese landlords from turning down tenants based on sex or ethnicity. The likely implication, however, would be a replication of what presently exists in the West, tatemae: landlords who say all the politically correct things but then find subversive ways to get round the legislation. The alternative is for men and non-Japanese to neutralize the problem by doing a better job of adjusting to life within high-density, thin-walled Japan.

Several readers have written to The Japan Times in recent months drawing parallels between Japanese applications of group accountability and various atrocities from history, including the Nazi persecution of the Jews and 1950s-era segregation in America's Deep South. Group accountability, however, is hardly good old-fashioned racism. It is applied in response to bad behavior, evenly and across the board. It is intended as the basis by which problems can actually be confronted rather than swept under the tatami. It is a significant reason why Japan remains so delightfully safe.

The issue has also been raised that the means of identifying one group from another can be less than clear-cut. This is exacerbated by the Japanese penchant to use a bazooka when a fly swatter will often do. True enough. In August 1996 my Japanese traveling companion pulled over in front of an onsen, or bathhouse, in Otaru. The sign on the wall said "Japanese only," but with a Japanese escort I assumed that sanity would prevail. No such luck. That situation needed to be dealt with, and was, but could we please stop pretending that the origin of this problem was anything other than behavior? Much of the conduct of those Russian sailors would have been inappropriate under any cultural paradigm.

The chances of being thus caught in the crossfire? Not very often — unless, of course, you go looking for it.

So, on the negative side: no assorted services from the schoolgirl (likewise at many other similar establishments) and the potential of an occasional slight. On the positive: The option of integrating as little or as much as you like, and facing nothing more adverse than life as a perpetual guest in a nation famous for its hospitality. The trade-off for the odd slight? The joy of living in a nation that claims the safety dividend accrued when the obligations of the group are considered no less important than the rights of the individual. No migration to the West ever had it this good.

An issue of genuine significance to the non-Japanese population in 2009, however, is job security. Japan is rapidly acquiring a two-tier labor market, in which company employees have relative job security and temporary or contract staff have little or none at all.

"Temps" who put their faith in old-school Japanese loyalty have recently discovered that times have changed. In 2009, "temp" genuinely means "temporary." Large numbers of workers have been let go. The noncitizen population is heavily represented in this group.

In the next two or three years, the precedents concerning the rights of temps and contract workers in the post-recession economy will largely be established. This is one of several areas in which the efforts of labor unions in the next couple of years will be of great practical significance for non-Japanese.

After the appearance of "Back to the baths" (Zeit Gist Dec, 3rd 2008), the first correspondence I received was from an officeholder in the union of which I am a member. A veteran of innumerable campaigns, he dryly noted that those who most vociferously champion the role of unions in improving the lives of foreigners in Japan tend never to get around to joining them. He has a legitimate complaint. If you are serious about fighting for meaningful rights for foreigners, union membership is your most practical option.

We hope one day you will join us.

Paul de Vries is currently working on a book about what the world can learn from Japan. Send comments on these issues and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


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