My Japan Times JBC Column 82: “Time to Burst your Bubble and Face Reality”, December 4, 2014


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By Debito Arudou
JBC 82 for the Japan Times Community Page
December 4, 2014


I want to open by saying: Look, I get it.

I get why many people (particularly the native speakers of English, who are probably the majority of readers here) come to Japan and stay on.

After all, the incentives are so clear at the beginning. Right away, you were bedazzled by all the novelty, the differences, the services, the cleanliness, the safety and relative calm of a society so predicated on order. You might even have believed that people are governed by quaint and long-lamented things like “honor” and “duty.”

Not that the duties and sacrifices necessary to maintain this order necessarily applied to you as a non-Japanese (NJ). As an honored guest, you were excepted. If you went through the motions at work like everyone else, and clowned around for bonus points (after all, injecting genki into stuffy surroundings often seemed to be expected of you), you got paid enough to make rent plus party hearty (not to mention find many curious groupies to bed — if you happened to be male, that is).

Admit it: The majority of you stayed on because you were anesthetized by sex, booze, easy money and the freedom to live outside both the boxes you were brought up in and the boxes Japanese people slot themselves in.

But these incentives are front-loaded. For as a young, genki, even geeky person finding more fun here than anywhere ever, you basked in the flattery. For example, you only needed to say a few words in Japanese to be bathed in praise for your astounding language abilities! People treated you like some kind of celebrity, and you got away with so much.

Mind you, this does not last forever. Japan is a land of bubbles, be it the famous economic one that burst back in 1991 and led two generations into disillusionment, or the bubble world that you eventually constructed to delude yourself that you control your life in Japan.

You don’t. Unless you marry an elite whose family funds your whims, you’ll discover that as you get older, opportunities narrow and doors close.

The first major life stage might be getting married — so easy to do here. Then you’d better lose the Peter Pan lifestyle and find a way to support your sudden kids. Or you’ll never see them again after the divorce.

Then you finally land that steady job that might lead to a career. But it’s hard enough nowadays for Japanese in their 20s and 30s to land secure employment (let alone climb the corporate ladder), so why should Johnny Foreigner cut in? Even if you manage to, people often assume tokenism and don’t take you seriously. The bamboo ceiling is pretty impenetrable.

But what about your trusty Genki Gaijin shtick? You’ll look jolly silly doing it as a geriatric, playing the perpetual dancing monkey, never the organ grinder.

Finally, as is true for everyone in Japan, the older you get, the less wriggle room you have in your career. Good luck comfortably changing jobs in your 40s or 50s. Most of the influential and reasonably self-actualized people in Japan are elites who spent their lives marrying into connections and cultivating Old-Boy networks, awaiting the right time to be catapulted into the next generation of leaders. NJ OBs in powerful positions? Unlikely.

Part of that is by design: Enough NJ live the life of Riley and assume the future will take care of itself. After all, for their fellow unambitious and unobtrusive Japanese corporate drones, it will; except that they will likely live a pre-designed, boring and “normal” workaday life taken care of by the state.

But for NJ, given the recent court decision about their welfare benefits, the perpetual weakness of their contract employment, and employers not paying into their pension systems with impunity, a “normal” career is not at all guaranteed. NJ have to be vigilant at an age when everyone else seems to be partying.

Another part is the shocking realization in many NJ (especially in those brought over during the 1980s Golden Age of Kokusaika (“internationalization”) who are now reaching late middle age and retirement) that they were working under a delusion: They were never seen as a colleague in the workplace. More as a pet.

This became evident as younger Japanese co-workers, who had less qualifications, time or experience in the company, got promoted over them. After all, what self-respecting Japanese wants some NJ as their senpai (senior) in the workplace? Suddenly, despite following all the rules, NJ didn’t get the same rewards.

So, after a quarter-century in Japan, I get it. And here’s what you oughta get by now:

If NJ don’t do something outside the bubble they’ve lived in so far, they might end up as some anonymous dead gaijin on a gurney, unremembered and unmourned, merely cremated and disposed of by authorities unsure of your next of kin. I’ve seen it happen — an accelerating number of times.

Why? Parables such as the one about “boiled frogs” come to mind (i.e., the frog who never noticed the temperature of the water around him rising until it was too late to jump out), but more insightful is what Pierre Bourdieu called the “illusio,” i.e., the belief that the great lifetime “game” we all agree to play is worth playing, and the fiction we collectively choose to follow is reality.

The fiction we have been accepting as reality is: Japan will treat NJ equally as long as they play the game by Japanese rules. This shows a sore lack of self-reflection about the NJ’s place in Japanese society, where those rules are stacked against them properly assimilating. It’s not because NJ always elect to be treated like guests. Guest treatment is in fact the default.

For example, have you ever noticed how difficult it is for NJ to become established in Japan’s essential, respected and licensed jobs — e.g., as doctors (and nurses), lawyers, engineers, administrative-level bureaucrats, etc.? Instead, where are they consigned? Factories, education, tenuous entrepreneurship, contracted tech, as nonadministrative corporate drones, and in entertainment. These jobs are basically fungible and expendable. And they are the default.

That’s why NJ must learn how to become “hosts.” By this I mean that they must offer Japan something that cannot be dismissed as a mere trifle or token effort.

That skill must be precious enough that NJ residents can choose to deny it to Japan, should they ever want to reclaim their power, self-respect and dignity. The NJ who exclusively do what Japan needs, and who cannot be replaced with a Japanese substitute (for example, people acting as indisposable ambassadors of Japanese knowledge — e.g., Ed Reischauer, Donald Richie or Donald Keene), can hold their skills hostage and become secure, respected, even immortal.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but face reality: What do you have to offer Japan? I’m not asking if there is something you do well; I’m asking: After all these years, is there something that you can do that Japan positively cannot live without? If not, then Japan can easily live without you, and you could be headed for the gurney.

No doubt people will decry this column. Look, I “get” that too, for it’s a natural part of illusio maintenance. People trapped in their bubbles will fight to their last breath to avoid having them burst. Facing the reality of their perpetual second-class caste status would force them to admit that they made a mistake by submitting to Japan’s default subordination processes — that they traded their entire life for something that they ultimately found no stake in.

Criticize away if that makes you feel better. It’s more comforting to play the game and party on. For now. But as your twilight years approach, you’ll look back in anger and wish you’d created a different bubble. Japan as an entire society does too, what with all this wasted human potential, as it fades into international irrelevance.

Debito Arudou’s “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants to Japan” is available on Amazon. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments and story ideas:


Read the rest in the Japan Times at And this will be the anchor site for the article, so comment both below and at the JT if you like. As always, thanks for reading! Dr. ARUDOU, Debito

51 comments on “My Japan Times JBC Column 82: “Time to Burst your Bubble and Face Reality”, December 4, 2014

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  • Baudrillard says:

    guilty as charged~ except to say that 1.the easy money isnt that easy if you e.g teach an English class at 7.45 am followed by a bunch of unruly semmon gakko kids over which you command zero respect or discipline power (they are actually customers and you are a dancing bear), and then a few useless hours off followed by an 8.30 pm evening class finish and 2.yes, a bunch of groupies who arent always that attractive after all- the really nice ones take a lot of work, a lot of language skills, a lot of luck/timing, and a lot of zuru kashkoi (manipulative cunning-the things men will do, or become) only to be ultimately heartbroken in the long run when “cultural differences” kicked in.

    So yes, your analysis is correct, but looking back on my life in Tokyo/Kanto it was mostly a struggle in isolation, with a few scattered moments of happiness or more accurately, denial.

    Unless you had an expat deal, it was never worth it in retrospect.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @JDG, #3

    Amazing, isn’t it!? It’s quite ironic to see how his self-painting victim narrative creates characteristic conflict with his ethos of difference(or “differance?” in Derrida’s term) that allows him to paint NJ as a potential criminal.

    Regarding the assumption on race and political correctness, his recent article is pretty much comparable with this piece:

    So, what can it be said? JT community could tarnish its integrity just like Education Post if we see an incendiary post written by a clueless author like Chris Stewart(?). Stewart v. Clark. Who’s gonna win?

    Anyway, back to his posting. Here’s my bottom line. Clark’s ethical appeal to innocent victim of heckling doesn’t give him credit at all since hecklers, in his narrative, are all supposed to be those subject to police ID check.

    — More to the point, Clark’s piece is written from the standpoint of a male in Japan who has spent his life basking in White Privilege — on top of all the privilege granted him in Japan by dint of powerful Wajin (e.g., former PM Miyazawa) in thrall to his famous father, Sir Colin Clark. In this piece, Clark is frustrated because he couldn’t exercise his privilege this time to remove the dark people in his way (and in the way of his upset “companion”, gender unclear). In Clark’s world, that somehow means these dark people are “running” Roppongi. So he squeezes out a rupo that I might have done when I was in my early twenties (except I would take the side of the disenfranchised; anyway, his social science methods keep regressing) and gets it published in the JT because — cue privilege again — he’s Gregory Clark, and he’s grumpy about something and thinks you should care. The man has so much an inflated sense of entitlement he’s enabled to keep putting out poor articles like these and embarrassing himself.

  • I thought the article written by Dr. Debito was one of his better ones. It should be an addition to the Newcomers handbook, especially the part about the frog in boiling water analogy. That is so true. Newcomers should take heed and realize when the water is starting to get warm. The economic fluff that started last year is starting to wane. Debito brilliantly summarized many points that have thought over for years.

    I just love the venom that followed, like the comparison to Mexicans etc. If a Mexican person marries a US citizen, they are allowed, buy law, most of the rights of their spouse. An illegal immigrant is not, as is the case in any country. An illegal immigrant in Japan gets detained, and as recently reported, possibly worse.

    Then there was the poster who said he had all these friend, who had been so successful. Yes, Ive met some of those people, and many, after you get to know them, are not happy at all. I dont care how long he/she stays in Japan, it doesnt change the obvious condition Dr Debito mentioned. Just take a look around, do you see any foriengers working?

    None of this stuff is really that deep or hard to figure out. Obfuscating, manipulating, deceiving, etc does not change anything. Thanks to Dr Debito for putting this out there.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Loverilakkuma #3 & Dr. Debito,

    Yes, the bubble created for himself by buying into the idea that merely telling people his name would give him access, has massively burst when these ‘youngish plainclothes officers’ clearly didn’t know, or care, who he is when he told them his name. Perhaps their ‘senior officers’ would be more impressed with him? I was laughing all the way to the end.

    ‘Those of us who have to live here’, he says.
    Have to? No Mr. Clark, if you don’t like it, why don’t you stop complaining and go home!

  • Another great article Debito.
    Even though you have succeed in naturalizing in Japan much more than most of the “lifers” I can’t help but think that a lot of what you outlined is personal even to you…

    As some of the other posters have pointed out, I too have been seeing more and more cracks appearing in my little bubble, on most of the fronts you’ve outlined. All of these cracks point to only one outcome, the time to leave Japan is a lot sooner rather than later

    — What I have outlined in my column, contrary to popular supposition, is not autobiographical. I talk to people. And they talk to me.

  • Indeed. Plus the yen gets weaker and if Abe gets elected, how low will it go?

    I came to Japan to pay off student loans and due to genuine curiosity.

    What I do not get is how some Americans are content working on contracts that are limited, and are in effect migrant labor yet do not realize it.
    The water is getting hotter yet they pretend to not notice.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Dr. Debito,

    I absolutely admit it 100%.

    ‘The majority of you stayed on because you were anesthetized by sex, booze, easy money and the freedom to live outside both the boxes you were brought up in and the boxes Japanese people slot themselves in.’

    Yes! Yes I did! I confess! That’s me!

  • Brooks:

    “The water is getting hotter yet they pretend to not notice.”

    The article in question makes the same mistake: It concentrates on the idiots who do indeed act like the proverbial (more accurately, urban-legendary) frog and misses the people who stay for reasons that are NOT entirely stupid, and/or actually do understand to some extent what they’re getting into and accept the tradeoffs.

    Aside from that failure, your comment also singles out Americans as though they’re the only ones who make this mistake.


    I’m starting to wonder how many people you have writing this column of yours. One day you’re salient and insightful, the next you’re juvenile and puerile. Which is it? Please pick one; I have a clear preference, and it’s for the way you used to be when you were actually an activist (you most certainly are not any more) and working for important change (Japan really does need it) in a positive and constructive (you are no longer either) way.

    If you’ve fallen so far out of love with both Japan and the other expats who choose to spend so much time here, perhaps your tenure is over and you should stop pretending to be something you’re not: A force for improvement in the lives of people you clearly don’t care about in a country you’ve spent so much time vilifying — rightly or not — that no one who’s read you consistently and with an open mind could possibly take you seriously any more.

    Or just don’t publish this comment. I won’t lie; I don’t care what you think — I haven’t for a long time, unfortunately — and I won’t stop back to see whether or if you put it up or reply. I just want you to know that you’ve seriously let down some people who used to honestly support you.

  • Excellent article Debito. Don’t know how you do it every time! Many of the commentators on JT don’t like the truth do they?

    All I can say is that once I’m happy financially ,I’m out of here. Like many I would imagine.

  • Fundamentally the article is right, in terms of identifying what it takes to really carve out a meaningful position in society here, as the society discriminates against all foreigners in many ways. Which is not uncommon in the world or unique, but that is hardly an excuse!

    I agree in many ways with a couple of the more eloquent, well-reasoned critiques of the article, but there is one predominant critique that I have been guilty of myself in the past that needs to be thrown out and buried: Comparing Japan to the rest of the world as a justification for how things are.

    I believe that Japan is a fundamentally better place to live than anywhere else I am aware of. I don’t care if Canada or the US is just as bad or worse in some dimension. I want Japan tomorrow to be better than Japan today, even if (or perhaps especially if) Japan today is as good or better than some crappy North American faux democracy.

    Canada and the US are no excuse for crappy attitudes and laws here.

    And if you want to make a career where you get hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars per year, you absolutely do need to do something nearly irreplaceable and unique as per the challenge at the end of the article. And we foreigners are often in a good position to do that, if we put our minds to it, by virtue of our unique skill-sets. And when we do, we get to be the elites that Debito references in the article, which is fantastic.

    However, one of the main things I love about Japan is that everyday people, whether English teachers or construction workers, are OK. You can live in a small apartment, eat good food, drink a beer, raise a family, and be alright. I have had these experiences too. And now that I am more richly rewarded financially, I don’t mind paying half my income in taxes because I like living in a society where everyone is doing just fine. I hope we can all work together to keep things that way in Japan, and even make things better as the society evolves to whatever comes after this fantastic place to live. (Wouldn’t mind a law against discrimination in housing, for starters).

    To the (I think limited) extent the article is dismissive of ordinary Joe lives in Japan, shame on Debito. But if a critique is based on a comparison with some crappier country, shame on the critic.

  • MatrixinJapan says:

    It’s as simple as taking the blue pill vs. the red pill. Japan is a very, very blue pill society for blue pill minded apologists. They want to stay and relish in that blue pill bubble, but time and especially the people that they live amongst (Japanese) don’t give a crap about you or that.

    Some people like being a sysadmin for a linux-based company at a salary where they could make double anywhere else easily. Just an example. Some people like to ‘step and fetch’ for that brass ring in many areas of their Japan life, only to see that ring rust and fall into the drain once they’re too old to realize.

    That’s not to stay you can’t take the red pill, open your eyes and choose to leave Japan. You can still stay and still be open to it all, but be aware that you face many limitations that you have to be strategic with. Sleeping with a bunch of Japanese girls/guys or trying to find that unicorn (yamato nadeshiko) you think will be your wife/hubby forever, until the divorce and sayonara kids, is not the answer to that.

  • I think Matrix is spot on; Japan is not the answer. Yes, its much better than many other countries, but its a blue pill with no varition of that pill that will ever allowed. For all the haters and critics who defend Japan, just look at all the Japanese who are studying for their TOEIC to go abroad. Part of the blue regiment instructs us that if your a foriegner, then thats what youll always be, but interestingly many of the apologist have accepted that and swallow that blue pill without hesitation.

  • I found much to agree with in Dr. Arudou’s article. It goes without saying that many of us who continue to live and work in Japan exist in a bubble of our own making. Agreed, many of us were “anesthetized by sex, booze, easy money and the freedom to live outside both the boxes you were brought up in and the boxes Japanese people slot themselves in.” as he puts it. As Jim said (No. 8) “Yes, yes I did! That’s me!”

    I arrived in Japan in the mid-80s thus I am one of those Dr. Arudou writes about. I’ve not encountered any narrowing of opportunities however. I am in my early fifties and yet sometimes am obliged to turn students away as I cannot fit them into my schedule. I am self-employed apart from a couple of side jobs and work an average of around 20-22 hours a week. Nevertheless, I earn enough to live in reasonable comfort and save for my old age. I teach mainly groups of middle-aged and older learners and I have yet to experience any trouble attracting new clients from time to time. One of my friends working in business English teaching tells me that demand far outstrips supply for “mature” teachers or people in their 40s and 50s.

    What is the alternative? I became disillusioned with aspects of life in Japan years ago. I tried twice to return to my native UK. Both times I quickly concluded there was no point. At my age, all I could find was data input or call centre dead end jobs. Working full-time at minimum wage I could just about make ends meet but my quality of life would be rather low. Teach in Europe? According to what I have heard, that is more minimum wage penury with even less security than in Japan. The Middle-East? Don’t make me laugh! I have continued to pay into the UK pension scheme and will be able to draw that when I retire. Also property investments I made back in the UK funded by the money I save while being the “genki” language clown way back will also ensure I don’t end up on Skid Row or on the gurney.

    Many of us who have lived for an extended period in another country tend to be harshly critical of our host country while becoming increasingly nostalgic for our old home. The problem here is that the West (more specifically in my case, the UK) has become more like Japan in its business practices. Try a zero-hour contract if you like. That means you are hired to be on standby full time and guaranteed not a cent. It is likened in the media to modern-day bonded serfdom and yet it is legal and increasing. All the manual-driven pettiness exists in the West that we have known in Japan for a longer period.

    Do I regret coming to Japan? Hell no! I can track the lives of old friends back in the UK to more or less see what I would have done. Low wage desk jobs or short-term (often six month) contract work with absolutely no prospect of promotion. A limp social life constrained by poverty and more than likely divorced at least once. I would never have had the motivation to better myself by going to university had I not come here. My life has been better than it would have been had I never lived in Japan.

    Why do I stay here? A lot of that is down to my wide circle of friends. I hope a few of them will show up to my funeral when I am on that gurney.

  • “I don’t mind paying half my income in taxes because I like living in a society where everyone is doing just fine.”

    If Japan is such a great place to live, then why is the birth rate so low?

  • @Elsewhere (#9) I would disagree about the relevance of this website being diminished with Debito moving elsewhere. Rather the contrary. As each JT column proves, Debito’s observational skills have only sharpened, which maybe in part be due to his residence in Hawaii. In Japan, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, and to forget that all of the problems foreigners in Japan are facing are not merely little day-to-day annoyances that could be tackled by activism but are rooted in the country’s peculiar cultural and political history.
    I do not know Debito personally, never met him, and therefore this is nothing but speculation on my part, but I have a strong feeling that his reasons for leaving Japan are due to (finally?) him accepting adulthood and stop running away from himself.
    Because let’s face it: Except for some people sent by their companies on an expat deal, the overwhelming majority (I believe: all) of Western people you find in Japan are running away from something. They’re the searchers, the misfits, the geeks, dare I say the creeps, who at some point in life decided that what stands between them and their happy, fulfilled future self was not they themselves, but their surroundings. So they escaped.
    None of the “cool” people I know, the ones who went to the best universities, or built their own companies, or became brilliant at the job they do, or even just started families, have any kind of interest to live in Japan. They’d maybe think about an offer to move to the US. But Japan? Never ever. You could as well offer them to go live in on the moon.
    Escapism can have many forms. The strong, alpha-type people go on real adventures or go to a poor country and help out. The dreams of the kind of people who come to Japan, their “exotic, but not too exotic”, and “safe and crime-free” Utopia, are “teaching English” and maybe find a spouse who, due to cultural differences, will be unable to see through them. But they always do, eventually. I’ll come right out and say it: Being attracted to the idea of living in Japan makes it very likely that you’re a boring loser. But nobody has to stay one all their life. And if you want to be an activist for foreigner’s rights in Japan, you should leave the country and never come back, as I did. As long as the misfits keep coming, the “hafus” keep being born, and act like there’s no man behind the curtain to please their “hosts”, nothing will ever change.
    I guess if I was ever to make a website about Japan similar to Debito’s, there would be a clear theme, i.e. there is absolutely no reason for Western people to live in Japan, unless they’re being sent on an expat deal with a big financial compensation for having to live in Japan. I would never recommend living in Japan to anyone, not even my hypothetical enemies. It would be akin to recommending an African person to go live in the Southern US in the first half of the 20th century. I am not even sure if I would recommend Japan as a tourist destination over the many other more interesting Asian countries.
    My point is: Debito cannot be thanked enough to keep up his work here. It is probably the least rewarding jobs you can imagine with all the creeps (apologists) defending their “precious” for fear of all their darkest secrets being revealed, and the mind-boggling level of misinformation on Japan’s status as a free and open society in the Western world.

  • Becky,

    Low birthrates coincide with industrial and social development. They are not, to my knowledge, strongly correlated with being a great place to live and may even be inversely correlated. Most of the countries I would be willing to live in rank relatively closely with Japan on birth rate. However, if you prefer to live in sub-saharan Africa, the middle East, Central America, Central Asia and India as compared with Japan, Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, then you would at least be consistent.

  • Arrived in early 90s and enjoyed life. At uni now and have socked enough away that it would be easy to move anywhere in the world. Still, with kids in school I ask myself where else? I have an American passport, but given the drug and gun violence I am no longer eager to “move back home”. A sister mugged at knifepoint and a cousin killed by a serial shooter while camping in Arizona has convinced me that America is not safe. The violence will get to you or a loved one at some point. At 14 I had my first .22 pistol I held for a friend, and at 19 again I was holding anothers gun. Those incidents at the time made me feel cool, but today they scare me.

    So where else should I move to raise my kids?

    Australia seemd nice, but the “bashing” is rampant there too.

    New Zealand is remote, Canada cold. UK wet and cold. Soon I start running out of good options.

    In Japan I (and every male probaly) do not need to look over our shoulders when walking home late at night after too many drinks.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    Now comments were closed in just 48 hours after the article was published. It must be the year record for JT moderation team–thanks to the posters and trolls who will never miss any opportunity to make fallacious, absurd, hysterical, obnoxious comments at an author and anyone who doesn’t share an opinion with them. The article indeed articulates the apathy of those people who vent off their spleen out of their bungled-up life while living in Japan or elsewhere.

    David Molinero’s artistic painting (on top) well illustrates the contexts for the system of apathy and disillusion in “One Yamato Under God,” which I think, brings some spectacles similar to “Mad Man” and “Ayn Rand” fantasy.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Bob, which ivory tower in which planet japan are you living on? It sure is an alternative reality to the “everyday people, whether English teachers or construction workers” you describe and claim “, are OK. You can live in a small apartment, eat good food, drink a beer, raise a family, and be alright. I have had these experiences too.

    “And now that I am more richly rewarded financially, I don’t mind paying half my income in taxes because I like living in a society where everyone is doing just fine.”

    I really dont buy that everyone is doing just fine. There are a lot of hidden or not so hidden poor in Japan. I suppose the huge sex industry is one way to alleviate poverty, but this is not a nice solution for a so called first world G7 country.

    ” I hope we can all work together to keep things that way in Japan, and even make things better as the society evolves to whatever comes after this fantastic place to live. ”

    Sounds like the CCP statement on Hong Kong, or a big society conservative. I am alright Jack, hey, we are all in this together. I dont think even Stalin tried to con people with this kind of line.

    Anyone who lives in small sub-standard apartments with rising costs and taxes, not to mention the huge costs of raising a child in Japan, is hardly buying that schtick at all. Should we be grateful that we can “eat good food and have a beer”?

    This really is the 80s dream version of Japan we were all sold on. So I am going to hazard a guess and say that the 80s or early 90s was “when you lived like that”. This version of Japan has long been down for the count, and recently received another kick to the head in the form of raised consumption tax on ALL goods (yep, including food and beer in the supermarket) unlike say, in the UK, where VAT only applies to luxuries- basic foodstuffs being exempt.

    Dont even get me started on the irradiated food chain. Ok, a tad alarmist perhaps, but when you are an “English teacher raising a family in a small apartment” this is yet another worry.

    And with the recent ruling against NJs claiming any kind of welfare, forget about a UK style safety net if you lose that eikaiwa job. More things to worry about…..

    “Gratitude is an illness suffered by dogs.”
    ― Joseph Stalin

  • Good article which raises a lot of questions that need to be discussed. However, if you are going to criticize ‘bad social science’ in Japan, don’t write articles based on some people you have spoken to. Methodology 101: Don’t generalize from personal experience. Do some research.
    If you have research please publish it.

    — Forthcoming. Also, some methodologies allow participant observation (i.e. speaking to people) and generalizations based upon personal experiences given a large enough sample size (after 25 years of sampling) to the point of saturation of theoretical categories. I think that happened in the research I did for this essay.

  • @Loverilakuma,

    Very true, and when that happens, its always an indicator of how relevant the material is. I think Debito is respected by many in Japan as I have actually had the Debito site recommended to me by many foreigners in Japan for information on what do do in certain situations etc.

  • #14 B
    I understand your position. However this , to me, suggest another picture.

    “…What is the alternative? I became disillusioned with aspects of life in Japan years ago. I tried twice to return to my native UK. Both times I quickly concluded there was no point. At my age, all I could find was data input or call centre dead end jobs. ..”

    If you do not have a degree or a skill or experience at “something” in the UK, you have just described the situation that anyone over the age of 50 would be in the UK. Lower educated/skilled people in society are always left in this position, no matter where they live.

    What you perhaps have not realised, is precisely what Debito points out in his article. You have a ‘skill’ set that is needed/appreciated in Japan, but not in your home country since you fall into a category that fits millions like you. Since you also point out:

    “..Do I regret coming to Japan? Hell no! I can track the lives of old friends back in the UK to more or less see what I would have done. Low wage desk jobs or short-term (often six month) contract work with absolutely no prospect of promotion..”

    That describes a low skill set of society, that’s all.

    It begs the question, if you have been able to take the opportunity presented to you in Japan, why not in your own home country? Or are you suggesting that being a native English speaker is your only skill set to offer anyone, anywhere?

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Granty #22,

    With all due respect, it’s a newspaper not a peer reviewed academic journal.
    Why shouldn’t the good Doctor put forward a hypothesis based on his opinion, and then sit back for the readers discussion, which (instead of attacking the Doctor, as JBC comments always do) should show readers thinking about the issues, and present arguments for and against?

  • Elsewhere,
    I have worked with Americans and have noticed they seem to stay longer than they used to.
    I think that is due to the poor US economy.
    I worked with a Brit, Irishman and Australian after the last five years and all have left,
    mostly because working here is such a dead-end.
    For a couple of them this was not easy as they have Japanese spouses and kids.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Regarding the “many curious groupies to bed” line, sometimes I wonder if I’m the only Western guy in Japan who is more popular back “home” than he is here!

    As someone who endured some very difficult times as a young employee of a Japanese company — a US/Japan joint venture, but culturally 100% Japanese, with attitudes and working hours to match — I’m very glad I stuck out those early years, because things get better for me all the time.

    From what I’ve experienced, coming to Japan as a man under about 25 sets you up for just about the worst possible experience. Long, miserable hours; corporate hierarchy with you as the lowest man on the totem pole; no social life; you’d better have a lover already lined up, because a woman you work with is not going to stick her neck out and be the one that dates the foreign guy. You’re foreign, so (as with young women) everyone thinks you’ll be leaving in a few years and you’re not looked at as someone who might be promoted, but you’re a man, so you work 14-hour days like all your male colleagues do, and will be continuously exhausted and sleep-deprived.

    Now if you can get through all that, then you finally get to enjoy life once you get some autonomy.

    Had I given up on Japan at age 24, I would have returned disillusioned and unhappy (and exhausted). I’m very glad I stuck it out. Now, well past 30, I’ve moved up at work, furthered my education, seen things, met people, done things that I would never take back.

    I know nothing of this mythical world of easy money and sex, but I do know about the interesting and fulfilling life you can have once the early years are behind you. Maybe this will change again when I reach 40 or 50. But for now… I’m not giving up on Japan just yet.

  • None of this matters as many will be dead or ill in the not too distant future due to living in and consuming the genpatsu nuclear fallout. This is all pointless drivel. Enjoy life now while we can.

  • @Markus

    You made some very harsh and hard hitting points, but the truth is usually this way. Once your out of the woods the forest is so much easier to see it for what it really is; I envy your position. All those years of gaman and trying to make it work suddenly become uneccesary and it all comes together. To be fair to those who have kids etc. the ones I have met are sticking it out for them, and I dont consider them losers. Others are doing it for their spouse, or married into a family with money etc. but I dont think they are happy. Their getting slowly boiled (gaman) also well but their family life gets them out of the water occasionally. The rest (majority of apologist) I think fit the characterization you described very well. Like yourself, I would not reccomend Japan long term for anyone, to do so would be dishonest and unfair to the would be new comer, both to they physical/mental health and career. I dont think Japan is at that stage yet, or ever will be. I hear of progress, but I always see 2 steps backwards- an attribute of what is fundamentally Japanese, that is Japan is for the Japanese, and none others. Japanese themselves know this, but as its unspoken, it can take years to figure out, after your already boiled.

  • John K No 25. Besides having a teaching diploma I am also qualified as a book keeper and in computer skills. My problem was my age and the fact that employers don’t trust long-term expats not to simply clear off again after a relatively short time and head off back East. I can’t blame them to be honest! In fact, the second time I was back in the UK I was able to find reasonably lucrative teaching work that meant I could make ends meet. One reason for not wishing to stay in the UK was the lousy social life and the struggle I found to relate to people who had never been away from their home town. I don’t think it’s a case of not having sufficient qualifications. A friend of mine from the USA who is a similar age to me cannot seem to find work in his field. He lost his job during the economic downturn. He is highly qualified in economics and finance and yet he teaches English as it is the only work he has been able to find in Japan.

    John K says:”It begs the question, if you have been able to take the opportunity presented to you in Japan, why not in your own home country? Or are you suggesting that being a native English speaker is your only skill set to offer anyone, anywhere?” No, but it is the skill set I worked on since it provided me with an opportunity to make a stable income in Japan. I have lived in Japan far longer than I initially intended to. No doubt, had I remained in the UK I would probably have continued with my book keeping training and ended up as an accountant or in some similar field. My point was that the challenge of being in a foreign country was more motivating for me and I suspect this is the case for a fair number of other foreigners that I know.

  • #31B..t

    “.. My point was that the challenge of being in a foreign country was more motivating for me and I suspect this is the case for a fair number of other foreigners that I know…”

    Indeed, and it is good that you found that. Not may can or realise what it is they want or how to motivate themselves.

    My point is, you have by your own admission found your niche, and not in your own country of origin. That is often very difficult to do. But, the niche you have found is clearly seen as a “skill” that is needed/wanted by Japanese. As such your life is significantly better than those without such, in Japan. And this is not related to degrees/experience etc..but what is perceived by Japanese, not others. Without a skill set that is needed/wanted by Japan(ese), you will simply blend into the grey background and be forgotten/ignored and find life somewhat more difficult to live.

    Having no skill set in your own country does not equate to being ignored by those other than an employee. You can still function survive and not be ignore by the rest of society.

    It is an interesting corollary given the nail and hammer syndrome here. That being the nail that sticks up gets hammered down…conformity or die. Yet Being a nail they want/need…ahh..suddenly it is different! Go figure..

  • #26 Debitos thought straddles both sides of civic and academic discourse. I made a fair point. People made other more ‘prosaic’ fair points. Solutions please.

  • perpetual dancing monkey says:

    Where’s my gurney?
    I’ve used my ‘rent plus party hearty’ to ‘bed as many curious groupies’ as I could with ‘duty’ and ‘honour’.
    I’ve reveled in the unbridled joy of being ‘anesthetized by sex, booze, easy money and the freedom to live outside both the boxes’.
    I’ve been a ‘young, genki, even geeky person finding more fun here than anywhere ever’. I’ve ‘basked in the flattery’. I’ve been ‘bathed in praise’ and treated ‘like some kind of celebrity’ I’ve gotten ‘away with so much’,
    I’ve had the pleasure of marrying ‘an elite’ whose family funded my whims.
    I’ve had the ‘Peter Pan lifestyle’.
    I’ve had the steady job that led to a career and climbed the corporate ladder.
    I’ve leveraged my ‘genki Gaijin shtick’ and lived in the ‘Golden Age of Kokusaika’
    Now where’s my gurney?…

  • For the people who say “its the same everywhere” I cannot agree. In your home country, as a citizen, you are entitled to many programs and access to benefits you are not entitled to in Japan. How many times have I been asked “kuni dochira”? in Japan. Exclusion is the first order of business for many firms. So you were an English teacher in Japan for 20 years. You are 40 – 50 years old. Can you see yourself being retrained in Japan for another career? It doesnt even happen that often for Japanese. Depending on where you are from, it happens everyday in other countries as they dont have the peculiar Japanese lifetime employment system. People are laid off, even fired. they retrain in another career. No, its not easy, but the sky doesnt fall down either. Japan is governed by rules and norms not found in other countries and its part of the reform going on to change it. Its going to take decades to happen, if ever.

  • #33 Granty I don’t think you made any discernible points yet. As far as “prosaic” goes, I do think that the Japanese society in general and the situation of foreigners in Japan in particular would be a very interesting field for writers and other artists to explore. But apart from the odd Kenzaburo Oe book or the paintings of Tetsuya Ishida, there’s shockingly little criticism of the status quo among the Japanese intelligentsia.
    But as you were asking for solutions, here are mine (in a nutshell): For the foreigners in Japan: Get out asap. For the Japanese in Japan: Bring forth the guillotines.

    — Let’s keep this discussion more realistic.

  • @ PD Monkey “I’ve had the steady job that led to a career and climbed the corporate ladder.” You DID? I didnt know there was one to climb, you mustve picked the right career, hence the resulting marrying elite family?

    which comes first in Japan, the elite or the job?

  • As mentioned in the book Enigma of Japanese power, positioning and ones place in Japanese society are very rigid concepts without much flexiblity. As a foriegner, there is a good chance you will work for a black or undesirable company if you work in Japan for any length of time. If you miss out on that wonderful experience, there is also a good chance you’ll experience some other taylor made just for the foreigner job related discomfort like contract dispute etc. I dont know if its a case of jinshu sabetsu or just part of the conformist and rigid culture or both.

  • I think what Debito wrote here is a very truthful and accurate warning and anyone seeking the easier or safer path maybe should take the warning and find somewhere else (and I mean that, there’s a lot to be said for taking the path of least resistance, e.g happiness). I’m not sure (correct me if I am wrong Debito) that he is saying everyone should leave, rather that you shouldn’t expected to be treated the way you deserve to be treated and may need to carve out your own niche. I’d also point out that other countries are not necessarily better, the UK for example is in a terrible state right now, and I can’t imagine raising my kids in gun and drug crazed America either. Also while it is true that life seems comfortable for many Japanese employees, a lot of them also have similar feelings of disillusionment, and if they don’t they probably will once the TPP comes into force and they lose all the benefits of Japanese corporate socialism (including probably their jobs). It’s also worth noting that most people in any country in middle age find they have hit ceilings in their careers or even get kicked out of their careers permanently, that’s not unique to being a NJ in Japan. Finally, in the words of Christopher Hitchens I personally still feel in Japan “there is something worth fighting for”, by that I mean there are many good things about Japanese society/culture and if the bad aspects could be reformed/modernised the country could play a part in moving the world as whole forward – or at least stop it drifting backwards any further. That said I admit I am a hopeless optimist, and time may well prove Debito right.

  • The article makes me think of a few people who got older and got trapped. Who wants to be over 50 and unemployed or underemployed, and either divorced or having to rely on their spouse financially?
    Two Americans I know tried Hawaii for five years but decided Japan was better.
    One told me that he had been gone so long he didn’t know people in the US but he did in Japan.

    The good days are gone and things are tough now. How low will the yen go?
    Things may get better in the future but it really seems that Abe is taking Japan down a dark tunnel of economic uncertainty.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ John K, I was going to post that link for the “spare a thought for the western men” article. It wanders around a bit, but there is a good middle section about micro aggressions.

    There are a lot of western guilt trippers commenting below it on how being a western gaijin is a veritable paradise, how white men have it easy in Japan, etc etc. I will concede that some of the case studies in the article are odd, or atypical, or just not particularly interesting, which is why the article isnt great.

    As a whitey, I still had to go through 24 properties before one deigned to say “gaijin ok”, (and these were the over priced, inconveniently located ones, what an odd coincidence, but I digress). And yes, the realtor told the owners I was “pera pera” before the Japologists jump in with that old chestnut about you not speaking the lingo).

    Some people here have got real hang ups or fear about white people, or a grudge, or a chip on their shoulder, or an inferiority complex, so really it is hard to empirically prove these days that whitey has got it any better than an Indian in finance, a Singaporean who speaks and writes near native Japanese, or an Afircan American musician. It also depends on the industry, and what ethnicity that particular sub culture of Japanese are trying to identity fetishize.

    “I dont like white people” (Japanese housewife whose daughter studied in USA high school and felt white students were stuck up)
    “Yappari Igirisu yatsu da” (Disgruntled salesman with a grudge because some Englishman who owed him money)
    “You only think that way because you are WHITE” (Japanese woman in London who had been jilted, or disappointed in the reality of the city).
    ” White men cannot rap, it is strange” (Japanese record producer who obviously hadnt heard of Eminem).
    “White people shouldn’t speak Japanese, that is too weird” (Hong Kong architect studying Japanese, oh the irony)

    You see, J apologists? Everyone has got anecdotes.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Baudrillard #42,

    In all my years, I only ever got ‘Gaijin wa…..’.
    No one ever singled out my color as white.
    However, compared to, say, 10 years ago, I do believe that being white in Japan now makes you more conspicuous, and as a result, attract far more random aggression, insults, fight-starting efforts, on the streets and in public spaces. I think that this is the recent right-wing swings constant banging on about the war making ordinary Japanese feel more enabled to vent their anti-US frustration.

  • #42 B..

    Indeed. The article was interesting the so much as presenting a differing/different perspective opinion on the usual theme/story.

    The main issue, and it is symptomatic of Japan, is that there is very little hard factual independent data. This serves Japan well thought, since if something is not spoken about or recorded, it doesn’t happen! Even if it is “obviously” everywhere.

    My line of work (not teaching) highlights this very much. It is a case of telling a Japanese colleague they will run over the rabbit caught in their car headlights at night. No, I won’t….why, because it has not happened, but you can see it will….ah..but not right now, so it may or may not happen. They continue until they actually run over the rabbit and then say, oh no, why did that happen. Being proactive and actually recognising something is going to happen, even though it is not written down as an instruction does not mean it wont happen! Ergo, speak no evil, hear no evil…etc

    So stories like this ‘stuck in Japan guy’ is the only type of story of any “facts” one can really grab hold of and of course becomes a haven for hyperbole and derision and constant misdirection. Extrapolation of one persons experience to explain all behaviour, thus becomes impossible without hard data. It is just one spot on a blank sheet of graph paper, ..where is the trend???..impossible! There is little to support any argument either way; that’s the way the J’s like it…..facts eventually, even for the J’s will become hard to ignore. Thus don’t present or attempt to find any….ignorance is bliss.

  • Baudrillard says:

    Just my impression, but in the 80s I could half believe that Japan was in the “western” camp. I remember a comment from a Japanese -“middle easterners are not like US, are they?” but since 2000 or so, coinciding with the election of Ishihara and the internet/media changes, it seemed like a formerly buried resentment was starting to build, especially as the Japan economy went from bad to worse. A kind of tiring of all things (and people) western.

    I suppose the fad, the fashion, had worn off. A bit like the Korea boom, a fad that splits Japan 50-50 between housewives in thrall to K pop idols and those who “hate the Korea wave”. Not unlike the Pro Northern invasion camp v the Pro Southern (anti American) camp on the eve of Pearl Harbor and WW2.

    And now, with Abe labelled as “Japan’s Putin”, that rings the zeitgiest bell more truthfully for me.

    Japan just doesnt feel like a western country under the veneer of the buildings etc (although compared to HK or Singapore, it seems much more Asian).

    And I agree with the Japologists on this one in a way, if they say this is Japan’s unique culture blah blah. If it IS Japan’s unique culture then Japan is, in the main, naturally anti-western.

    Dont you get the impression that Abe wants to right the wrongs done to Japan (in his view) since WW2?

    That hardly puts his government and supporters in the western camp, does it? More in the Russian camp, but of course Japan is at odds with Russia and China as well.

    If they were strong enough, I think they would love to just go it alone.

  • @John K (#44) Very good point about the way people in such cultures as the Japanese deal with the cognitive dissonances between what they see is true, and what they are told / want to be true. And it goes even deeper – as you know, it is not considered well-mannered in Japanese culture to point at things – or, to point out things, which basically is the first step to communicate an object, which in itself is an indisputable fact (I know, I know, Hegel would beg to differ 😉 )
    It’s quite astounding to see a culture and language seemingly developing around the idea of never becoming, or making someone, accountable. As I said before, this cultural trait is the reason why organised crime thrives in Japan and probably is behind the efforts not to change Japan into a more direct culture of accountability and transparency.

  • Debito

    Hi. Sorry to take so long to leave to comment on this excellent piece. But you see, I have a great excuse, and it is one that speaks to this article.

    About 5 years ago, shortly after my daughter was born, I stopped reading your website as well as Japan Today and the Japan Times website. All the Japan related news seemed to be bad news and it was bumming me out. So I granted myself a media blackout and I was able to be more positive about living in Japan (I’ve been here 20 years) and the idea of raising my daughter here. I’ve been positively heroic in my efforts to shore up the cracks in my bubble.

    My daughter is bi-racial and approaching 6 years old. I look at everything here through her eyes now in the sense that the bullshit I deal with here by choice because I choose to live here she will be saddled with at no fault of her own. It makes me feel like I’ve stacked the deck against my daughter. These thoughts have been wreaking havoc on my bubble.

    My wife and I had my daughter when we were both 40 so we are older than most parents and as a result we’ll die sooner. One of biggest things that has been haunting me is: where we will leave our daughter after we die? By that time Japan will be a right mess. Even for full blooded Japanese Japan will be a shit place to live. Let alone for some one with the handicap of mixed heritage.

    My bubble burst about 6 months ago. I knew I had to get the family out of here. The only excuses for staying are cowardice, laziness, or indifference towards the well being of my child. I feel very passionately about this so you can imagine how awkward it makes conversations with NJ friends who are still snug in their bubbles.

    Come May next year we are gone. So much preparation to do. It’s going to be hard. But the reward is I’m giving my daughter the greatest gift I can. A better life.

    I wish I read this article back in 2014. It may have helped nudge me into action sooner.

    So long Japan, and thanks for all the fish.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Hotspur #47

    I appreciate your comment, I couldn’t agree with you more. You’ve made the right choice IMHO.

    Here’s an article from today’s Japan Times about Japan denying NJ’s identity, discriminating against them, and treating them as ‘threat’ or ‘entertainment’;

    This guy isn’t saying anything that Dr. Debito has said at least a hundred times over the last 20 years. The sad fact is that Japan has made no progress what so ever regarding discrimination, racism, xenophobia and social exclusion.

    What kind of parent would choose that for their kids?


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