|CHRIS McKENZIE ILLUSTRATION|
‘Gaijin’ mind-set is killing rural Japan
Allow me to conclude my trilogy of columns regarding the word “gaijin” this month by talking about the damage the concept does to Japanese society. That’s right — damage to Japanese society.
I previously mentioned the historical fact that “gaijin” once also applied to Japanese — to “outsiders” not from one’s neighborhood. But as Japan unified and built a nation-state, it made its “volk” all one “community,” for political and jingoistic reasons. Anyone considered to be Japanese became an “insider,” while the rest of the world became “outsiders,” neatly pigeonholed by that contentious term “gaijin.”
However, old habits die hard, and “outsiderdom” still applies to Japanese. Even if not specifically labeled “gaijin,” the effect is the same: If Japanese aren’t from “around here,” they don’t belong, and it’s destroying Japan’s rural communities.
Here’s the dynamic: Postwar Japanese society has been surprisingly mobile. Japan’s high-speed growth and corporate culture sucked people to the cities and overseas. Afterward, people found themselves unable to return to their rural hometowns because they no longer “belonged” there.
Consider this phenomenon in microcosm at the school level. Pluck a kid out of class awhile, then witness the trouble “fitting back in.” The readjustment problems of Japanese students who leave the fold, then find themselves socially isolated, are well-reported (there’s even an established term: “kikoku shijo“). And that’s after only a year or two’s absence.
It’s worse for adults. Whole classes of occupations do round-robin transfers throughout Japan. If they take their families along (called “tenkin zoku”), their kids speak of solitary childhoods unable to make friends. To avoid this, fathers often choose “tanshin fu’nin,” where the husband lives apart from his wife and children for years, so as not to disrupt the kids’ schooling. Thus transplanting in Japan is so painful a prospect that people break up their families.
People also move around later in life. Some want that quiet country home away from the rat race. Others want to be closer to their grandchildren, or have their grown-up kids closer to them during retirement. Yet after moving in they often find the locals distant.
“I know some ‘newcomers’ who have waited 20 years for someone to make them feel welcome,” says James Eriksson, a 16-year resident of Monbetsu, a remote seaport city in eastern Hokkaido. “It’s tough in Japan. There’s no Welcome Wagon. In Canada, when my parents moved to a small town 40 years ago, within two days somebody dropped by with flowers and coupons. Then once a month for a year Welcome Wagon had meetings for them to make contacts. People also invited them out. Thanks to that, my parents still live there.
“But imagine a new arrival in Hokkaido being invited to the local Rotary or Lion’s Club. Not likely. Newcomers need to feel welcomed, be included, invited to take part in things — not feel like the perpetual stranger in the room.”
Eriksson concluded, “You can always tell the tenkin zoku here in Monbetsu. They don’t tend their gardens. It’s a great metaphor for how they don’t feel like investing in their community. But without newcomers relocating here, Monbetsu will continue to shrink.”
Monbetsu is but one example. As business and industry has concentrated in the urban areas (called “ikkyoku shuuchuu”), all of Japan’s rural prefectures are watching in alarm as they lose people to the big cities: Since 2000, Tokyo’s population has risen by 3%, Nagoya by 2.5%, while the Kansai region stays at equilibrium. However, rural regions like Hokkaido (-1%), Tohoku and Shikoku (-2%) are watching people flee and property values drop by double digits (Hokuriku by a stunning 35%).
In fact, according to the New York Times (June 3), Hokkaido towns Shibetsu and Yakumo are offering land for free if people build and live on it. Yet takers are few. Why bother if “outsiders” have to ingratiate themselves like stray cats, having no say for decades in how locals run things? No wonder people favor urban communities where everyone else is “from somewhere else.”
I know this firsthand because I once lived in a small Hokkaido farming town of 10,000 souls. It was only possible to make friends and get politically involved because 40 percent of the population were bed-town newcomers. Woe betide if you lived in the surrounding towns, however.
Here’s how bad it’s getting: The Economist (Aug 24, 2006) mentioned the village of Ogama, Ishikawa Pref., where everyone is above retirement age, and people are too elderly even to farm. The plan is — after everyone moves out and takes their ancestral graves with them — that Ogama’s beautiful valley will become a dump for industrial waste. Thus, in a nation where 40 percent of rural residents are older than 65, whole histories are winking out of existence, fine old structures are collapsing from lack of maintenance, and arable land is going fallow. Or worse.
People are trying to reverse the trend, but again, exclusionary Japanese communities are strangling themselves. I witnessed this last July at a Hokkaido forum I emceed near Niseko, the site of a tourism and property boom thanks to Australian skiers and developers.
The forum launched Takadai Meadows ( www.takadainiseko.com ), an organic farm run by Japanese and non-Japanese (NJ). T.M.’s aim is to revitalize the local economy, bringing urbanites out to the countryside for fresh air, healthy locally-grown food — and perhaps even a pastoral home and lifestyle.
Attendees, including dozens of local farmers, were receptive but leery. I realized it wasn’t due to the “foreigner factor.” It was the generic “outsider factor.” During the Q&A, a newcomer Japanese farmer who had retired here many years ago said he still felt unwelcome. Why? Because despite all those years and investments he was still an “outsider.” A Japanese “gaijin.”
This must stop, for Japan’s sake. And believe it or not, the “real gaijin” are in the best position to show the way.
Some of the most culturally fluent and conservation-minded individuals in Japan are not from “around here.” They are immigrants.
Consider author Alex Kerr, who preserves old houses and warns against public works concreting over Japan’s rich past. Or naturalist C.W. Nicol, columnist for this newspaper, who buys up Nagano forests before the loggers arrive. Or viticulturist Bruce Gutlove, who has helped revitalize rural Tochigi by running Coco Farm and Winery. Or Tyler Lynch, of Kamesei Ryokan in Chikuma, Nagano Prefecture, who seeks to save his local onsen town from crapulence and decrepitude. Or Sayuki, Japan’s first Caucasian geisha, who wants to preserve geisha traditions while opening things up to the modern world. Or Anthony Bianchi, twice-elected city councilor in Inuyama, Aichi Pref., who wants people to discover his under-promoted city, which is steeped in history.
Newcomers they all are, but they are also die-hard fans-cum-curators of things Japanese, trying to save ancient structures and cultures from public-pork-barrel, cookie-cutter “modernizers.” Many come from societies where centuries-old buildings are commonplace, so they know the value of their upkeep. They don’t fall for the scam of recycling homes and mortgages every 20 years, and have an innate appreciation of time-worn wood and stone over sterile concrete kitsch.
Best of all, NJ newcomers represent two absolute pluses. The first is as a repopulater. A native Japanese moving from one place to another is zero-sum: one community gets, another loses. Bring in an immigrant, however, and the entire country net-gains a new taxpayer.
The other boon is cultural. NJ aren’t necessarily culturally hidebound by the notion that “newcomers should shut up and wait to be invited in.” They’re also less likely to swallow the excuse of lack of precedent, i.e. “it can’t work because we’ve never done it here before.” Fortunately, NJ aren’t always expected to be familiar with or follow “the rules” anyhow.
These opportunities, plus the “can-do,” “make-do,” and “muddle-through” attitudes of many immigrants, make them invaluable for revitalization.
Friends must help friends break bad habits. Your friendly neighborhood “gaijin” should speak out against the word and the concept itself. “Gaijin,” in the sense of “outsiders who don’t belong,” is hurting Japan, because it ultimately affects Japanese too. Create the Welcome Wagon, not the Gaijin Cart.
Readers, lead the charge. Don’t accept “gaijin” outsider status. Open Japan and its communities to newcomers, regardless of where they’ve come from. Otherwise this very rich society, in every sense of the word, will continue to wither despite itself.