(Boy, don't people change their minds awful quick?)

(Following essay originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Sept 1995)

Dear Fukuzawans:


We have discussed something akin to this before on DFS, but I would like to field a topic like this hopefully without it being trivialized as "gaijin griping". I've been mulling this over for the past couple of weeks, discussing it with another Net friend of mine, and feel that it's important enough to request DFS's input on it.

My friend (also, incidentally, a DFS member), after reading my hopeful report as a Kobe volunteer (where I glowed how much I felt accepted by fellow volunteers), has maintained that I should be careful about getting too close, feeling like I am actually "accepted by the Japanese".

In his words,
"As a man who also lived in Japan for six years and got very close, let me caution you to be prepared for the day Japan will reject you and/or your family. I can fully, fully appreciate your natural tendency to begin identifying with Japan, Hokkaido and Sapporo, but remember, very few Japanese would think that was natural or allowable. I know you're a tough, stubborn guy, but you have your whole life invested in Japan, and if they ever reject you, you could be crushed."

I think this is a reasonable concern. To invest one's life in a place that tries to treat you as a perpetual guest and doesn't want you to assimilate would be nonsensical. Do Fukuzawans agree with this?

Let me here flesh out a mini-argument I've been having in my head in hopes of stimulating some input:


1) It is, after all, legally possible. Non-Japanese can become Japanese citizens.

My CON: yes, it is, after you change your name and renounce your other citizenships (tho' plenty of other countries, like Iceland or Germany, also demand the former and the latter respectively). But I can't see any reasons why anyone would become a Japanese national, short of economic-rational ones. Sumo wrestlers (Konishiki etc) forgo their citizenship in order to become stablemasters and assure themselves of job security--and even then everyone knows they are The Foreign Rikishi--it's announced before every fight. A Finnish guy named Tsurunen Marutei became a Japanese citizen in order to run for a government seat (He lost, tho' he got 300,000 votes. Hope he tries again). I never would renounce my American citizenship since I'd be asked by a fellow countryman, "Okuni wa", and if I said "Nihon desu", I'd get, "Ieie, dochira kara desu ka" and have to pull out my black passport as proof all the time. Exercise in frustration.

2) The ability for foreigners to advance to higher corporate positions in Japan. Witness the number of higher-echelon people recruited into Japanese and non-Japanese companies, some of whom are even on DFS. I personally know one guy who's been in Sapporo for nearly three decades with a large travel agency, and has now risen to shitenchou.

My CON: Those cases are the exception, not the rule. Too many glass ceilings, too much long-term hazing esp. for your differences (my personal experience), too many foreigners discouraged from learning Japanese in J companies and instead milked for their English abilities, not to mention academic apartheid, short-time contract systems for foreigners only etc.. And no legal recourse (despite the Labor Standards Bureau, the "roudou kijun kyoku", which is a last resort cos if you dare go see them you WILL lose your job) to try and protect your rights. Furthermore, one of my acquaintances, a foreign lawyer, recently packed up shop and left Sapporo after waiting several months to get insurance (without which he cannot practice), then hearing from the insurance company that they would neither issue his anew, nor renew another foreigner's insurance policy next year, because they'd decided "insuring a foreign lawyer was a mistake".

3) Alteration of the Japanese Gene Pool and the resultant ripples. After all, marriage to a Japanese is legally easy (in fact, easier than many other countries), and quite common. In fact, a couple of years ago, SEVEN PERCENT OF ALL MARRIAGES within Tokyo-to was to a foreigner. Nikkeijin (I don't much like the word "haffu"--I say "daburu") children are now publicly regarded as cute, not as genetic aberrations, and are even receiving prominent spots on NHK children's programming. Plenty of Nikkeijin are in the spotlight now--Miyazawa Rie (Santa Fe), Haga Kenji (with korokke princess and fellow Nikkeijin Umeniya Anna), Mizuki Arisa (Fuji Film), Odaira Keiko-Annette (NHK sportscaster), Hiroko Grace (model), to name a few. Also, visa-wise, you can work right after you get married--a "haiguusha biza" enables you to stay here long-term quite easily.

My CON: All true. But there's still the problem of assimilation. Too much finger-pointing at differences, which gets under my skin. Attitudes are still "a Japanese" = "pure Japanese blood", not "Japanese citizenship". My children's passports will legally indicate they have dual nationality, but in Japanese, they will always be "haafu", not whole. Even my wife, in a tragic gaffe at a party, said, "If David wasn't around, most people would look at daughter Amy and think she looks like a 'real Japanese' (because of her lack of Western features)" (debito wa mawari ni inakereba, ami-chan no kao o mite, minna wa kanojo ga 'hontou no nihonjin' da to omou). I dread what genetic stock will come out at puberty and make her into some kinda "uso-no-nihonjin", like The Fly Pt 3 or something. Also, not two days out of my wife, brown-haired blue-eyed second daughter Anna's appearance elicited this telling comment from my sister-in-law: "gaijin no ko mitai".

3) Make yourself an insider like everyone else. You just have to surround yourself with a circle of Japanese friends and family who will support you and view you as one of them.

My CON: Friends? How many really close Japanese friends do people have out there--with whom one can talk with the same amount of candor and abandon as one can a close non-Japanese friend? I don't have any (and I daresay not for lack of trying). Moveover, is becoming part of a Japanese family really possible? I'd love to hear if any DFS member knows of a success story out there. EVERY (I tell a lie--there was _one_ exception) non-Japanese I ever talked to up here has faced initial Japanese opposition to their marriage (one of them has still today not met his father-in-law even after three years of marriage).

Even today after six years of marriage, my father-in-law still makes statements which set me off writing things like this email message: My wife and I just bought a new mini-car. When asking Daihatsu why the fusebox under the steering wheel was not covered (and thus accidentally kickable), jiichan cut in to say, "This car isn't built for Americans with long legs. [I'm six foot] This is built for Japanese. We Japanese don't need the covers." (kono kuruma wa ashi ga nagai amerikajin no tame ni tsukuraretenai n da. nipponjin ate no kuruma nan da kara wareware nihonjin wa kabaa ga iranai). One could claim "absence of malice" in his statement (which I think is true), but the fact is there--no matter how long I'm here, to jiichan I'll always be "that American", not "that son-in-law". I'm a man, too. I shudder to think what a circus of misplaced expectations that a non-Japanese woman marrying into a J mother-in-law system would be.

4) Hey, it's not all that bad. Old hands like Skipp saying that "I also have had plenty of good experiences that far outweigh the bad".

My CON: Have you? Good, but I'm not so sure I can empathize--a parallel universe for me or for Skipp? I suppose the wealth of one's experiences here can be largely a matter of attitude and open-mindedness, but in my case I spend a lot more time rationalizing away the bad than enjoying the good. Particularly bad is when "this is Japan" argument gets pulled on me one too many times (even, memorably, at a District High School English speech contest where four eminent J prof judges decided to steamroller the two native-speaker judges (I was one of them) into accepting their verdict on the best student speaker (the native-E speakers' decision was different from the J profs'). I protested. Once they pulled the "we Japanese judges decided this and this is Japan so this student wins" card, I took the money and ran), to the point where I often resort to the opposite side of the coin, saying: "well, I'm not Japanese so those rules don't apply". In other words, I'm hypocritally pulling myself out of context and defying that very assimilation I want. Old hands--tell me, does it get any better, even after language proficency and a decade of Japanese experiences?

There are plenty of points pro and con I've missed, I'm sure, but allow me to stop here. Fukuzawans, confirm or assail, please.

MY BEEF IN BRIEF: (stop reading here if you think by now this posting is only meaningless grousing)

Japan to me seems to be unable to couch any discussion about me or around me except in terms of race. In free discussions amongst peers, I've lost count how many times I've been disqualified from having a point holding any water simply because I'm not Japanese, even though quite often I am included as the token gaijin to get a different perspective. Alas, soon arises the Chevy-Chase-style Catch-22: Hi, we're Japanese and you're not. Sorry, but what you think or say probably won't wash in this society. Too bad. The very "wareware nipponjin" separation complex really grates even when advanced speakers of English in Japanese academia cannot (or will not?) weed out the "we Japanese" from even their English speech, and "guide books on Japan" abound perpetuating these values. I am not convinced that this is a matter of cultural semantics, since how often does one ever hear "wareware aziajin"? To me, this is a matter of race.

This natural tendency in Japan spend more time looking for differences rather than similarities really irks me, brought up in a liberal "don't point" American white-collar culture. If only jiichan above had couched his statement in terms of individual comparison, viz. "My legs are shorter than Debito's legs so I've needed no cover" (which is valid), instead of international, viz. "Americans always have longer legs than Japanese" (which just isn't true), this whole tirade might have been avoided for now. But why does everybody here seem to be unable to do that?

With the very real threat for me of academic apartheid, few if any legal recourses against any kind of discrimination, and a mainstream racist view of the world antithetical to mainstream OECD societies' view, does anyone out there really trust the Japanese to look out for a non-Japaneses' interest?

I'm not just talking macro level--"happou bijin" style foreign policy in order to fulfill business ambitions. I'm talking micro level--i.e. not official policy but rather person-on-the-street attitudes. A lot of my time in Japanese interpersonal relationships is spent meticulously guarding my rights--checking out what exactly I'm getting into whenever I agree to something, and what I can do if I have to get out. And how to ensure I'm not winkled out. I may be a paranoiac or again just in need of a vacation (I don't get one this year), but I think I've raised some questions that warrant some input, and just might get a good, fundamental-level debate (no mo' Nomo) about Japan going.

In sum, in this era of "kokusaika", a concept people here hold so dear, is (or will it be) Japan open-minded enough to assimilate non-Japanese? Or will it always be just slogans in theory with perpetual "us" and "them" in practice?

I look forward to your responses. Thanks.

Dave Aldwinckle


(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Sat, 9 Sep 1995)

From: Dave Aldwinckle
Subject: Assimilation Pt 2--Greatest Hits

Fellow Fukuzawans:


I would at the outset like to thank all those who, despite the fluffiness of the subject, responded to yet another of my cultural issue postings.

HEADLINES: I raised a lot of topics in my original post, but most people focussed on what makes a person dare to stay here long term, or even want to assimilate into Japanese society. Most thought I should get out. One or two discussed strategies for how to stay. A couple more thought I should either lose some of the passion (fighting all the time will only make things worse and moreover tire you out) or else expect to be here temporarily. Others simply said remember where home is, do what you must to keep your ties to your native culture, and in the end take the money and run.

Most postings echoed that Japan is endemically racist, though one thought that everything racial I mentioned in my post happens in America too (I steadfastly disagree, having written a longer post on the subject about a month ago). Their point was usually along the lines of "how are you going to deal with it"? Most maintained that you as a foreigner are not going to change people here, so don't bother (one even said that the Japanese people are not "falliblist", meaning that they don't cotton on to being told they're wrong--don't think "oh yeah, you're right, I'll change my behavior from now on", and instead would actually resent you for pointing out their foibles). Others said that you should just accept your role in society, either as an ersatz functioning member or a guest, and take what they give you. Another pointed out that Korea treats their foreigners more violently, which made me appreciate Japan more.

Nobody really dealt with the issues of changing your citizenship, job discrimination, dilution of the gene pool, or does it get any better? Ah well. Only so much one can bother with in summertime.


SCHOOL ONE: NOBODY FOREIGN: As I said above, most told me I should get out of Japan. The majority of the "get outs" said it was a societal thing--that Japan is basically incapable of treating a non-Japanese as anything other than a guest. Echoing that, a couple said from what they can see of my confrontational personality, it seems I am unable to accept my own guest status; I was basically asking for trouble by demanding more. Japan is a "blood and soil tribe", one said, so I should get out when I'm good and ready, but definitely expect to get out. Another stated that he got along fine in his village once he resigned himself to being a "token" gaijin, and suggested that be a strategy (one radical type even said that I should never speak Japanese outside of my family, since most Japanese cannot or will not stomach a non-native speaker; language abilities create more disadvantages than advantages).

My response to that is that if you are willing to settle for only guest status, then you deserve the rose-colored glasses and the arms-length exposure you're going to get from Japan. Despite all the gritted teeth I've had seeing the darker sides of Japanese society, I definitely do not think ignorance is bliss. Japan has taught me enough about what can be good and bad in life, and how to choose it. Deprivation--not cushiness--is the great vulcanizer of personality, and Japan places far more cultural value upon denial, deprivation, and pain-and-gain. It's only when you really submit to the rules that Japanese society can and will dictate to its citizens (NOT its guests) that your values crystallize and you see what you want out of life clearly enough to fight for it.

In other words, I've gotten a lot from Japan out of trying not to be a guest--I daresay more than most guests.

And, unfortunately, leaving Japan is not always a workable or even good solution. Leaving a comfortable (albeit not perfect) situation here expecting to find something better back in the US sounds like a recipe for disastrous disappointment. Not to mention the fear of feeling like a "loser"...

SCHOOL TWO: DEFINITELY NOT THE PUSHY TYPES, LIKE YOU: A couple of long-timers said that it can be done if you do it the Japanese Way--not trying to "remake Japan to suit your whim of the moment". Downplay one's foreign differences, don't pull the "gaijin card", and be quite non-confrontational if you have to ask. Protesting and rebellion is just not done the same way here as overseas. One even poignantly said that I'm probably not going to be a Rosa Parks.

My response to that is that you are quite correct--any person who wants to live here has the responsibility of learning the language and how to get what they want the same way other people do. I wholeheartedly agree that one must learn how to play the game if they want to carve a life for themselves here (as with anywhere) instead of just settling for what's handed you. Sure, study The Japanese Way. Learn when to smile (when you might need that person later), and learn when to bite (when there's no repeat game involved).

The only problem is: what becomes a good reference for The Japanese Way? Watching Kurosawa movies? Reading The Crysanthemum and the Sword, Genji Monogatari, or MITI white papers? Who best dictates this? The college student fresh out of cram school? The salaryman who's spent the past 25 years being a yes man? The ojiisan inexplicably walking backwards down the street who still believes in the kyouiku chokugo? There are so many conflicting signals and differences of opinion (of course--this is a society of individuals not of cultural gingerbreadmen) that asking for a road map of beliefs and values from the average ten people often gives you eleven different directions. I also couldn't help feeling that people in Japan often kept shifting their view of "What We Japanese Do So Debito Should Too" to suit their own "whim of the moment"--to use me and/or to break promises that they'd keep with others who knew better.

No, I say that learning The Way is a trial-and-error sort of thing, not from books or anyone else's opinion, but from gathering your own empirical evidence on the streets. Becoming bilingual and hunkering down with people here, calling the shots as you see them, and continuously rewriting your "Japan mental software" until you feel you have a comfortable rate of success in dealing with life in Japan. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of time.

One other thing: I'm speculating, but I'd like to know if some of the real long-timers can stay here because they are endowed with some truly special "mental software" from their past. Decades ago, the US got involved militarily in places it shouldn't have, and that produced a lot of discontent and disillusionment among America's young. With all due respect, I wonder if there is an older disgust with and rejection of one's home country which actually helps people stay here longer and become more accepting, even defensive, of things Japanese. My point is that real old-timers may be special, and for people of my generation (born just outside the baby boomers--January 1965), that software might not be available. Does this theory hold any water?

SCHOOL THREE: WHO CARES? MAKE SOMETHING OF IT: The most productive comments came from those who suggested I do something for a wider audience after enlightening myself. Do research on those who have walked the same path (Hearn, Seidensticker, etc), write about their and your experiences in English and Japanese, get them published, and let people out there know what's in here as you see it. That is tremendously constructive and we'll see what we can do. The problem is that, in the words of some, few people overseas know or care much about Japan, unless they're culture vultures and are thus not interested in criticism (a few US Japan-culture publishers explicitly state this, I discovered when trying to publish my second novel; moreover, look at the brouhaha when Ian Buruma's BEHIND THE MASK came out). Still a worthy enterprise, though.

Again, this was meant as a concluding post, but I fear that some of my observations may stir up comment. As always, I welcome feedback. In any case, I thank the Fukuzawa network for providing me this opportunity to wear my heart on my sleeve--for indeed talking frankly and constructively with others who have walked the same path helps us all, and may catapault some into the next phase of their Japan experience.

There are lots of things that are better in Japan--the healthier food, the love of trivia (and the resultant good game shows), the bathing culture, the literacy, the women and the _incredible_ pronatalism. Things like these can keep you here forever since you know you'd miss them. Still, Japan has this habit of raising your expectations all the time for something better--"it'd be perfect if only they'd do this, and why can't other people also see that!?" Still, my pet rationalization is this: "No matter how bad it gets in Japan, it is ALWAYS worse in China. In every respect."

In sum, my point is never give up fighting the good fight. Every little battle won or lost is practice for the bigger ones (such as employment, property, political expression, legal representation, and retirement rights) still yet to come for us here for the long term.

And there should be more people here for the long term. A foreigner should not automatically equal a guest. We should make a choice for ourselves in this matter.

Dave Aldwinckle

PS: MY BACKGROUND, FWIW: A number of people asked me about my background, since the propensity for people to accept their status as dictated, knuckle under, rage against the machine, or drop out altogether depends precisely upon a person's personality, the software the mind develops in order to cope with experiences. So what wrote my software? FWIW:

I had no interest in Japan whatsoever until I was twenty. Came to Sapporo to see a lady, whom I met in America, who is now my wife. Found Japan enigmatic enough to warrant further study, and jumped headfirst into Cornell intensive language training (not FALCON, btw). Wound up well-trained verbally, but had to teach myself reading and writing (notwithstanding the flakes at IRPS--Tohsaku and co.--who masquerade as language teachers much the same way people do here in Japan) on the Sapporo streets, which indicates my limited exposure to the academic's view of Japan (Ruth Benedict and Natsume Souseki and all that). Returned to Sapporo and found myself a job at an English school for one year. Found I loathed the "daily hates" of gaijin society, and, following marriage, disassociated myself from anybody non-Japanese in order to embark on the Quest for the Japanese Way--through J business.

Worked as an intern for 10 months down in Nagaoka for a software development company, but had such a rotten time with the bullies in Soumubu that I swore I'd never work for another J company. But 1991, year of graduation from IRPS, was a dismal job market, and the IRPS recruiting apparatus was even more so, so I ended up following a former student back to Sapporo to work in his small J trading company, dealing in building materials for the corrupt J construction industry. However, after 15 months in that company, the lies and hazing ("gaijin harasumento" said Hokkaido Shinbun, which did a story on it) got past even the inhumane levels regularly tolerated by salarymen, and I quit (correction--I got them to fire me so I could receive my unemployment benefit faster).

Suddenly, this being four years ago, I found myself back where I'd started--teaching English, but this time for a university. My own schedule, my own curriculum, my own academic expense accounts. And I like teaching younger people--it's my only chance to find more "falliblist" types of people. Best job I've ever had, and it is the main reason I stay in Japan.

My point is that I was never a "dancing bear" for JET or somesuch, thus I have never had my experiences influenced or mollycoddled by J governmental mandate. My view of Japan is colored by the fact that I have been fighting all the time--be it from my family's steadfast opposition to our marriage to the daily challenge of "you whites cannot speak Japanese and have no voice here, so there". I have had no rights but what I had the gumption to claim--but what I have claimed I treasure (umbilical cord, etc). Moreover, I have the software to be a bully in this society--learned carefully from the nasty temperament of my boss in the trading company, and have a good idea how to blow up like a crazy Japanese--not so much a crazy American. Bullies have surprisingly more impunity here than in America.

And I firmly believe that The Japanese Way is a Holy Grail.

(More Background, if you really want it, here)

(To see the reasons why I ultimately came around to naturalizing, click here)

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