Japan Times publishes reactions to their Dec. 28 article on Old Japan Hands accepting their foreigner status

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Hi Blog. The Japan Times yesterday published letters to the editor regarding Charles Lewis’s December 28 article in the Japan Times, on old Japan hands Konishiki, Peter Barakan, and Tsurunen Marutei, and their coping strategies for living in Japan long-term.

See it at http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110118hs.html

The letters remind me of the parable of the blind men feeling up the elephant and describing what it looks like: One feels the trunk and thinks an elephant is like a snake or a tree branch, one feels the legs and thinks an elephant is like a pillar, one feels the tail and think it’s like a rope, one feels the ears and thinks it’s like a fan, one feels the tusk and thinks it’s like a pipe, one feels the belly and thinks it’s like a wall, etc. It’s a good metaphor for not getting the big picture.

As for the letters, each author gives the article a feel and offers their take: One talks about the patronizing attitude towards NJ and questions the presumption that they should just accept the bad treatment they receive. One talks about how everyone is a gaijin somewhere (as if we should drink anytime because it’s 5PM somewhere). Three others talk about the advantages of non-assimilation.  One simply agrees with the the sentiment that faint praise is merely small talk.  One talks about how he can never get friendly with Japanese men.   And one gets knotted up in the terminology of “gaijin”.

Agree or disagree, these points are all over the place, and nobody seems to be dealing with the real undercurrent running through the article:   Should a long-termer, immigrant, even naturalized person still consider himself or herself a foreigner, not a Japanese? Even Tsurunen-san, up until two days ago, seemed to have been advocating that.

We’ll see if I can offer up a more sizable chunk of the elephant in the room in my column on February 1.  Arudou Debito

11 comments on “Japan Times publishes reactions to their Dec. 28 article on Old Japan Hands accepting their foreigner status

  • It seems to me that modern Japan is, and has been in the midst of am identity crisis for the last 50 years. Can we get a poll from Japanese people to answer the question “What does it mean to be Japanese”? Aside from the most likely answer which I guess would be “being born in Japan of Japanese blood” I can’t imagine there would be any other clear or majority answer. I think this is part of the reason “foreigners” are so quick to be labeled as such, Because Japan HAS no real strength of identity to begin with. In comparison, to lift a quote from an article regarding “Americans”

    “Americans will tolerate or even welcome immigrants as long as they show loyalty to this country and behave like the Americans already here,” Straughn says. “Where newcomers were born or how long they’ve lived here is secondary”

    To me it seems like Japan puts ALL of the emphasis on “being Japanese” on factors beyond a persons control (birth and ancestry).

    In Japan, as a foreigner you can behave like a Japanese person, You can be fluent in Japanese, you can gain Japanese CITIZENSHIP but will likely still be a foreigner to most Japanese people. I am convinced that this kind of thinking is the result of a people who don’t know who they are or what it means to “be japanese” beyond physical traits and blood.

  • Isn’t “Old Japan Hands” derogatory to at least two of these people? The term seems to apply to foreigners who interpret Japanese culture for folks back home who share their nationality. These guys (well, at least two of them) are Japanese, who, in general, talk about what goes on in their (Japanese) communities to other Japanese. More often than not, it is not about being foreign-born either.

  • gilesdesign says:

    Without getting caught up in the meaning of “foreigner” “outsider” and “gaijin”. I think what it means to be Japanese is the important distinction between Japan and other countries. Despite similar problems of immigration and discrimination faced by habitants of London and New York etc. What it means to be considered British, American, a Londoner or a New Yorker etc is so very different from what it means to be considered Japanese by Japanese society. Japan has a much simpler definitions of “Japan” and “Japanese person” which are not often challenged by society, the media or even many NJ. Similarly, definitions of other countries inhabitants are simplified into tidy and neat visual definitions. Despite the legal status for naturalized Japanese, finally it is how society accepts you that makes you feel that sense of belonging we all crave in the place we call “home”. I think all NJ are undoubtedly different and whilst some are content with the extra attention of being a “gaijin” others just want to be treated fairly and not singled out for special treatment whether it be seemingly positive or negative.
    I think the nature vs nurture argument also applies here, many Japanese seem to see nature rather than nurture as critical to what determines who we are and what we can do or be. I cant speak for all NJ but in my experience I feel that I was brought up feeling fairly free of the feeling that my life and opportunities was already predetermined through my genes.

  • Re: Should a long-termer, immigrant, even naturalized person still consider himself or herself a foreigner, not a Japanese?

    I think it’s up to every person like that to decide whether they want to consider themselves Japanese, foreigner, or something in-between (like the ‘hyphenated’ Americans: African-American, Chinese-American, and etc.)

    I guess if we argue semantics, it would help to differentiate between culture and citizenship, though. Saying “I am a Japanese citizen (or national)” may or may not be perceived the same as “I am Japanese”.

  • I’m of crustpunkers viewpoint.

    And like to add that, for good or evil, I think Tsurunen were being honest in his initial opinion of his foreignness. Before he tried to recover his (now turned) fumble, so to speak.

    As much as he (…and a truckload full of young scholars) like to toot with the example of the possibility of a foreigner not just becoming Japanese but also a part of the Diet – I think he have simply come to terms with how society sees him.

    He, or anyone naturalized, may tell him- or herself that they are now Japanese. Sure, it’s a good direction in challenging conventional perception. But don’t be fooled; even Tsurunen have empty seats around him on the train. Or elsewhere were neither paper or passport matter. And so will it be long after we’re all gone.

    Sadly I can’t believe anything else after a 1/3 of my life here, but like many (yet not many enough) would much like things to be different.

  • Have we considered the possibility that these three famous ex-pats are lying.It would be career suicide for them to say anything critical of Japan. If Konishiki said, “Well I really hate living here because I get treated like a fat monkey, but if I went home I could not make this kind of money.” Of course he is not going to say what he really thinks, because he depends on the Japanese public liking him on some level, to make money.

    When my students ask what I think of Japan I am never honest because I depend on them for my salary and future. The most common questions I get from my students are “What do you think of Japan/ Japanese? I know they are fixated on what other people think of them but it amuses me that they think I would answer honestly.

    — If we assume venality and dishonesty at times like this, we’re not going to be able to trust anyone with a vested interest in anything. A bit too cynical for my liking.

  • It is not cynical. It is realistic. How many of us here can risk being disliked or ostracized by the people around us? If we are English teachers, without tenure, our jobs depend on us being popular and well liked. Anybody who has been here for any length of time knows that it is dangerous to tell your true feelings. I was once frozen out by a class for telling them that if they saw me downtown they didn’t have to speak to me in English. It was perfectly ok for them to talk to me in Japanese. For some reason they found that offensive and stopped talking to me for the rest of the semester. Through many experiences I learned that if I told Japanese people about incidents of obvious discrimination I had experienced I would be risking my friendship or more.

    I have lived here over 20 years and have met many non-Japanese who in a group will tell you how much they love Japan but if you get them alone will tell you how miserable they are.

    My point, though I may not have expressed it well, is that we non-Japanese have tatemae too. The things we say in public, like in a national newspaper often don’t reflect our true feelings

  • In response to Jon

    I think that there is certainly an element of more or less telling people what they want to hear. We need to think about and decide what the motivation was for publishing the article and interviewing these people in the first place….

    It would have been good to follow this piece up with another one focusing on Japanese nationals who live overseas and why they left or foreigners who lived here for a long while and then left.

  • Jon,

    Well some people may be more guarded than others. I’ve generally been free with my criticisms (including what I blog under my full name) – and being on a contract, I’m as vulnerable as any. However I also make it clear that there is plenty to like – and the fact that I’ve stayed for 10 years, twice as long as I’ve remained in any previous job in my country of birth, tells its own story. I though the original article was fair, balanced, and useful, if a bit fluffy, and I look forward to Debito’s analysis. The bottom line is, none of us are slaves (ok, almost none…) and people who really want to leave sufficiently strongly, can generally do so. The choice to stay certainly does not imply no right to complain about the bad bits, but it does suggest that things aren’t that unbearable…

    — Please relate this back more clearly to the topic of this blog entry.

  • “I have lived here over 20 years and have met many non-Japanese who in a group will tell you how much they love Japan but if you get them alone will tell you how miserable they are.”

    Quite interesting really. Now, I do videos on youtube about my time in Japan, and through that, have met many others who do the same. Now, my own channel have become somewhat infamous because I choose to always focus on the negative aspects of Japanese culture. I originally decided to do this because, frankly, no one else did. Everyone else’s video’s were sugar coated versions, that showed Japan as this amazing utopia on earth.
    Now how this relates to what you were saying: Most people still continue to only make videos about the positive, and I have often been criticized by them for making negative videos. I would also never get them on video to talk about the negative things. But the second we go out drinking, and it’s just one or two of us,they aren’t on camera (they aren’t “public”), then suddenly you can hear them get pissed about discrimination and unfairness all the way around the board.

    In the public eye, even to other foreigners, they say Japan is amazing and that people shouldn’t fuzz about it. Get them a few beers, and suddenly the story changes.

  • A great observation Debito!

    I feel exactly the same way that you do. Simply put, the term “foreigner” shouldn’t be reserved for Westerners as it so often is. Once someone has been in Japan (or China, or elsewhere) for a sufficient length of time to settle down, they should be treated basically the same as everyone else in that country.

    In fact, the very term “foreigner” itself needn’t be used very often at all! It’s only relevant when discussing, say, ongoing immigration issues related to the person concerned. Or, perhaps, if you’re talking about the difficulties of learning a second language. But let’s take these two examples. In Australia, where I live, immigration officials wouldn’t use the term “foreigner” over and over again. They’d be more likely to say “applicant” or something like that. The second example, regarding language learning, there are many alternative terms which are far more appropriate, take NNSOJ (non-native speaker of Japanese). This is an important distinction, because it’s possible for Japanese couples to have Japanese-speaking children outside Japan. So the foreign/local distinction becomes quite meaningless when it comes to language learning. My son, for example, would definitely be called a “foreigner” by the Chinese, but his mother tongue is Chinese. So, even with these two examples, in which you would expect the term “foreigner” to be particularly relevant, it turns out not to be particularly necessary or appropriate to use the term at all!

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