Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column: “Charisma Men, unite against the identity enforcers”


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Charisma Men, unite against the identity enforcers

The Japan Times March 1, 2011

Courtesy http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110301ad.html

English teachers in Japan get a bum rap. Not always taken seriously as professionals, and often denied advancement opportunities in the workplace, they are seen as people over here on a lark. They get accused of taking advantage of Japanese society to earn easy money, canoodle with the locals, then go home. They even get blamed (JBC, Sept. 7, 2010) for the low level of English in Japan.

They are also often derided as “losers,” as evidenced by the comic strip “Charisma Man.”

First featured in a Nagoya newsmagazine and later collated into a book, “Charisma Man” tells the story of a scrawny Caucasian nebbish who escapes his job serving fast food in Canada, comes to Japan, and instantly transforms into a buff, lantern-jawed lothario, able to seduce Japanese women in a single bound.

He can defy all Japanese rules, coming out on top of any situation through charisma alone. His nemesis is Western Woman, who sees through the facade and reduces him back to nebbish status with a single glare.

To be sure, “Charisma Man” is a hilarious series, offering home truths for people frustrated by the lack of professionalism in their colleagues, or by the disparate ways in which men and women are treated in Japanese society.

The problem is, like many comic strips about an employment sector, it stereotypes dangerously: It makes anyone in eikaiwa look like frauds, as if they’re “faking it” as unqualified professionals. Unable to get a job “back home” in anything meaningful, they’re merely marking time in Japan. I know several professional educators who hate the strip, because their students read it and ignorantly point at them as an example.

But there is one aspect of the “Charisma Man” phenomenon that is little talked about: what I will call “Immigrant vs. Identity Police.” Let’s take Charisma Man’s side in this column, and suggest why he too might have been given a bum rap.

Charisma Man is initially a tragic figure. He’s stuck in a dead-end job “back home” and derided for being a dud. His predicament might be his fault (due to a lack of education or motivation) or might not be (due to a lack of economic opportunity in his neighborhood). But either way, he’s depicted as a loser.

So he comes to Japan and is again stuck in a dead-end job. But this time he winds up being a “winner” in some respects. He is finally getting something always denied: a modicum of respect. Earned or not, respect can be transformational in a person’s development. Charisma Man remakes his identity.

However, then come the Identity Police, be it the reader or the (rather offensive stereotype of) Western Woman. They’re trying to force Charisma Man back to the predestination of failure.

That’s unfortunate. One of the problems with the world is the lack of social mobility — the lack of opportunity for people to realize their potential, to decide their own fate, to redesign themselves as they please.

Either by bad luck or poor guidance, many people get slotted from an early age into social roles that are disadvantageous, e.g., “geek,” “loner,” “fat chick,” “spaz,” “slacker,” “weirdo,” “psycho” . . .

This leads to broken dreams and embittered souls. Witness the phenomenon of the hikikomori (social dropouts who can’t even leave their bedrooms), or the Akihabara knifings of 2008 (where the killer was expressly sick of being part of the make-gumi, or loser class). As some people disparagingly say, these people need to go out and get laid.

Well, that’s exactly what Charisma Man did. He got out of his “burger-flipping class” and found himself on the sweeter side of society here.

Point is, why should anyone be stuck somewhere they’re not able to make a better life for themselves?

That is the very essence of the immigrant: Someone who was dealt a bad hand in their birthplace emigrates and gets a fresh cut of the cards. If they move and provide a valued, profitable service to their new society, bully for them.

Now, of course, Charisma Man is not a template. He’s a humorous stereotype about someone who gets what he really doesn’t deserve.

But he must be viewed in the proper perspective — not as an indictment of English teaching or of teachers in general. Charisma Man is a bubble-era social parasite. He will probably not remain in Japan for good, because he has little incentive to learn about the society that is treating him so well.

So what I’m speaking out against here is the Identity Police. Why should they be given carte blanche to force people back into the inferior positions they managed to escape from?

Whenever somebody insinuates “You don’t really belong in Japan” or “You’re really a loser back home,” that person should be told: “Japan is my home and I belong here just fine. I’m not just coasting along on charisma.” A decent job and a secure income is sufficient proof of socially acceptable services rendered.

In other words, tell the Identity Police to go police somebody else’s identity. All you readers out there being derided as Charisma Men — unite. Be proud that you’re making a better way for yourself. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a second chance at life.

Arudou Debito has completed a new novel entitled “In Appropriate,” on child abductions in Japan. On sale in March. Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to community@japantimes.co.jp

14 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column: “Charisma Men, unite against the identity enforcers”

  • I’m a big fan of this article. It may even be my favorite of yours. Your “very essence of the immigrant” is probably the best defense of the issue I’ve ever read. Who could argue with it?

    Keep up the good work, looking forward to the book.

  • Very dangerous bucking the status quo and calling out the Identity Police, Debito. The Identity Police even include people who are closet Charisma Men who wish to gain esteem by trying to scapegoat others and achieve respect. Very sneaky those Identity Police are.

  • Michael Weidner says:

    I was also very impressed by this article. Not only to you evenly look at both sides of the coin, you use it as an example to empower those of us who like Charisma Man, get the bum rap and then have the strength to fight through everything to create a new life in a new country.

    Thank you for this. It really made my day ^_^

  • Debito

    This is one of the worst you have written. How did it get past the editors?

    I guess here comes the bold text to tell me how wrong I am? Go for it.


    — No, you are not “wrong’. It’s your opinion, and you are entitled to it. Sorry you didn’t like it. Try me again next month.

  • Great article. I hadn’t thought of it this way but you are so right – it is unfair of anyone to try and stop someone from remaking themselves – as long as the person isn’t a scammer just trying to fool innocent victims. But for most people they are just trying to change for the better. Nothing wrong in that.

  • Steve von Maas says:

    This was very interesting. As usual, you have given me many more things to contemplate, my thoughts on which are not yet formed. I would like to offer my personal experience, for whatever it may or may not be worth. I realize that whether in Japan or elsewhere, there are a virtually infinite number of variables involved in complex human interactions, but I think I have reason to suspect that objective evidence bearing upon the question of whether or not someone is a “loser” may have far less to do with this phenomenon than many of you expatriates suspect:

    I was a high school summer exchange student to Japan in 1982, and in college I studied Japanese for two years and did well. (I wasn’t fluent in sophisticated topics, but I knew about 600 kanji, and I think I reasonably believed I could have become fluent with another year’s study in Japan.) Life did not unfold this way for me, however, as I had other obligations and tasks to complete here (military service, marriage, law school, kids, etc.). I remained quite close to my Japanese host family, and we have visited one another many times since then, and I have always hoped for a chance to return.

    In 2004, after having been an American trial lawyer for thirteen years (with experience teaching English to internationals as a church volunteer), my wife (an experienced college English teacher) and I sought two fill two job openings teaching English at the same Christian girls’ school in Sapporo, in which school we also hoped to enroll our two daughters, both good students.

    We were invited to interview, and we went to Japan and did so. Our backgrounds were not “typical” for such a position, but I don’t think there would have been any objective basis for calling us “losers” in our own country, and neither have we been accused of lacking “charisma” here. I thought our interviews went well, but neither of us was offered a position.

    This experience has helped me suspect that the “Charisma Man” caracature is as much an expectation of the Japanese perspective as it is grounded in reality. I suspect that a stubborn inferiority complex may yet cause many Japanese people to believe, falsely, that no successful Americans would want to invest time and energy in them. Therefore, whatever your objective credentials, and whatever your personal qualities, they retain a deep psychological incentive to believe that you are, in some way, defective. Sadly, most Japanese who do not spend time abroad will never have an opportunity to be disabused of this misconception.

    I would encourage you all to “keep your chins up,” to remain professional, modest, discrete and hard-working, and to appropriately challenge and resist the stereotype, both verbally and by example, whenever and wherever you can. Many of you have already gone far beyond anything I dreamed possible, in 1982, for foreigners in Japan to achieve. I have little doubt you can eventually destroy this misperception, too.

    I hope your future columns on this topic, Debito, while perhaps not abandonning the successful immigrant storyline, which you do well to champion, will decline to concede that you would have been anything less than a shining success in North America, too, concerning which assertion I have no doubt whatsoever.

  • Stan Francisco says:

    That’s a good thing about Japan and shows the power of support and enthusiasm. It brings out the best in people.

    We did an experiment in university for a quality control class. Everyone had to give a speech and everyone had to cheer wildly. It was stunning how good the speeches became. No matter what the comment was everyone would nod and smile, clap, cheer or laugh uproariously. I don’t I’ve ever laughed so hard or had such a good time.

    Charisma man is cool; Western woman – not so much.

  • @ Steve Von Maas above, you re absolutely right sir! Quote: ” I suspect that a stubborn inferiority complex may yet cause many Japanese people to believe, falsely, that no successful Americans would want to invest time and energy in them”.

    With Saudi Arabia offering high pay, and S.Korea and China offering paid airfare, completion bonus and free accomodation,and even a local vote in S. Korea’s case, why indeed come and live in Japan?
    If the reason is an interest in traditional Japanese culture then this is sometimes seen as “odd” by not a few Japanese who themselves cannot explain to the earnest foreigner what “wabi” “sabi” and so on, mean. Then they get back to swilling down a Starbucks and listening to J pop, thinking “henna gaijin”.

    This is sad, because its increasingly all Japan has got to attract NJ teachers and businesspeople. Well, that and the ladies. Which brings us back to Charisma Man.
    But let’s not forget the discrimination Japanese women face in the workplace, or if they are a single mother, or past a certain age etc. So if they’re dating a Charisma Man, whats wrong with that?

    To quote Boye De Mente, “This book (Bachelor’s Japan) is dedicated to the women of Japan, without whom this country would have far fewer friends.”

  • I agree with the guy above asking how this got through the editors. Charisma Man doesn’t exist and neither do the Identity Police.

    Also Charisma Man is totally obscure, a relic remembered only in gaijin circles.

    This is not like the McDonalds campaign last year, which was in front of a million eyes. That was something to write about.

  • I found it very enjoyable to read and very well-written, so I’d be interested to hear why Thing found it the total opposite of what every other person who has commented so far, wrote. Perhaps he could tell us why he was disappointed, coz as his comments stand it seems like he was merely trying to provoke a strong reaction in you, which you did not play to.

  • Interesting article. Heck, even the “Come at me bro” comment of Thing was interesting. I will grant that I have not heard of this Charisma Man, but I was attributing it to my age. Well, anyway, you make some interesting points there in the article. Nice to see you write again.

  • (Re-itterating what I said about this article elsewhere) I don’t think the Charisma Man concept is dead at all, even if good examples of people fitting the stereotype are few and far between. I still often overhear/overread conversations about how some guy who’s “obviously a complete loser back home” is dating a local who’s clearly “way out of his league”, etc. It always makes me think, christ, who the hell do you people think you are?! Remind me never to trust your opinions on anything that matters.

  • Actually I found this article to be very good. Since much of this board is about fighting stereotypes, the foreign community in Japan needs to be able to fight stereotypes within as well. I am old enough and have been here long enough to know Charisma Man in his prime and found this article to be good.

    I have never taught English in Japan, however I have met teachers of different ages and levels that have come to Japan for a variety of reasons. Granted some have come to screw around I have also met others that are serious about what they are doing or came to live in and learn more about Japan.

    Perhaps some of the issues raised in Charisma Man are true and may be due to the age distribution of alot of the teachers (tend to be younger, single, and in a different stage of life than us old farts). However if one is to take a cross section of any group in Japan (teachers, expats, etc.) one is sure to find an equal proportion of interesting characters.

    I liked the article!


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