Number 4 on this list of "5 Things Nobody Tells You About Living In Japan" is, in fact, something that almost everybody tells me about living in Japan. Namely, that foreigners will always be outsiders there. I've stopped arguing about this with my friends and acquaintances and drunk people I meet in bars, because frankly the discussion has become repetitive, and I never really manage to convince anyone of my point of view. (I felt like I was constantly screaming "There...are...four...lights!!!")
So I thought instead I'd write it down.
Here's what the article has to say about life as a foreigner in Japan:
Simply put, the country just isn't very accommodating to people who can't speak Japanese. Without the language, you will barely be able to buy food or get around, let alone establish any kind of permanent living situation that doesn't involve keeping a bilingual girlfriend/boyfriend/hostage on hand 24/7 to translate every commercial that comes on the radio. You can't just exchange shouts with people and come to a working understanding like Han Solo and Chewbacca. Real life doesn't work that way.
So how is that different from moving to any other country where English isn't the native language? Well, for starters, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for Americans to learn, requiring 2,200 hours of study if you want to be considered truly proficient. This is partly because of the difficulties of learning a new language as an adult, and partly because English and Japanese have about as much in common with each other as Halloween and Halloween III.
That being said, once you actually got the whole language thing down, you might expect to finally be able to integrate yourself into Japanese society and thrive, right? Well, here's how it was with me: I've been coming to Japan for nearly a decade, my wife is Japanese, I speak the language fluently, I know the culture inside and out, and yet I'm still "that foreign guy" to most people here (even the ones who have known me for close to 10 years).
Japan is one of the most homogenous nations on Earth -- roughly 98 percent of the population is ethnically Japanese. No matter what you do to try and fit in, you will always stick out like a sore thumb in a room full of people who have had their thumbs removed by rototillers.
For instance, one of the biggest hot button issues in Japan concerns people of Korean ancestry who live in the country. In most cases, these are people who were born in Japan, have Japanese names and speak almost exclusively Japanese, but because of their Korean lineage, they are still legally considered foreigners and as such face several restrictions (such as the inability to vote or hold management positions in the public sector, a law that the Supreme Court actually upheld in 2005). The government literally decided that all Koreans are dastardly shitheads who are not to be trusted and mandated it to the entire country.
So now ask yourself this -- if the Koreans in this example (who by all rights should be full Japanese citizens were it not for ethnic prejudice) are given the same treatment as convicted felons, what chance does a white kid in a Gundam T-shirt have to not be considered a complete outcast?
I'm not saying that every single person in Japan hates foreigners, but if you live here, you will be constantly reminded that you are most decidedly not Japanese, nor are you likely to spontaneously become so.This is pretty typical of stuff I hear from Westerners who have lived in Japan. No, not pretty typical; depressingly, mind-numbingly ubiquitous. It's almost as if Westerners living in Japan are in thrall to some sort of...well, never mind, I shoudn't go there.
Anyway, to put it bluntly, this runs directly counter to my own experience of life as a Westerner in Japan.
I lived in Japan for 2.5 years between college and grad school, and I've been back several times since then, mainly to work at Japanese universities, but also to help my friend make a documentary. The experiment in my job market paper was run at Aoyama Gakuin University in downtown Tokyo. When I showed up in the fall of 2003, my Japanese was pretty rudimentary; I had taken one year of the language in college, but that was it. So I made a concerted effort to learn the language, hanging out around people who spoke no English, reading manga, and memorizing kanji off of the internet. It took about a year and a half before I was really able to carry on an intelligent conversation.
Japanese is not a difficult language. Reading it is difficult, because of the use of Chinese characters. But you can memorize these pretty easily by reading on the Web and using a rollover dictionary like Rikaikun. In fact, this method was suggested to me by my friend Tobias Harris, a political scientist who specializes in the study of Japan. Using this method, he was able to teach himself to read Japanese so well that, after only a year of study, he was able to work as campaign operative for a Japanese politician in Kamakura.
As for the grammar and pronunciation, neither is particularly difficult. Compound and complex sentences are easier to construct than in English; there are fewer verb tenses, and most nouns can easily be made into verbs. Pronunciation is quite simple, as Japanese has only one sound that English doesn't have (a kind of humming "nn" sound).
Despite the easiness of the Japanese language, many Westerners never bother to become truly fluent. The reason is simple; they can get by in the country speaking simple English and broken, simple Japanese. Of course, as the author of the article above suggests, this makes it difficult to really relate to most of the people in Japan. It makes it tough to form close relationships, tough to be included in social activities, and tough to work productively with Japanese coworkers. But because Japanese culture is generally friendly, and because some Japanese people take it upon themselves to speak English to foreigners, these Westerners can manage a sort of stunted, good-enough social life over there without ever spending the effort to become fluent. No wonder they feel like outsiders! What would you expect??
So much for the language part. What about the cultural attitudes? The xenophobia, the closed society, the racial homogeneity?
To be perfectly honest, I haven't seen much of it.
These days I go to Japan to work with my coauthors, at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, and at Osaka University in Osaka. When I'm there, I'm mostly around academics - professors, grad students, and undergrad research assistants. Culturally, they are essentially identical to academic people in the United States (who themselves are usually from a mix of countries). They bemoan stupid politicians. They make nerdy puns. They go rock climbing and biking. They show up to work late and then stay up all night reading papers. They try to eat at interesting restaurants. They read science fiction. They occasionally check out blogs. They politely pretend to follow each other's seminar presentations. In other words, if you are at home in a university setting in America, and if you speak Japanese, you will be at home in a university setting in Japan. And never once has anyone there treated me as an outsider.
What about other, less intellectual, less cosmopolitan segments of Japanese society? Well, when I lived in Japan the first time, I went to plenty of rock and techno shows. I found the people there to be extremely welcoming and friendly - and not just in a "Wow, look, a white guy came to our show!" kind of way, but in a "Hey, want to hop on scooters go out for a beer?" kind of way. They didn't speak a word of English, they knew hardly any American bands, but they were essentially the same people as the rock hipsters I've hung out with in Los Angeles, Austin, or San Francisco.
Another time, I joined a "yosakoi" dance team - I saw them practicing in the park at about 9 PM, wandered up, and asked if I could join. They said yes. Again, none of them spoke any English, but we got along great. I volunteered at the yearly festival and had a great time, and some of those people became my friends. We'd go out for yakitori (chicken skewers) at 2 AM after we got done practicing.
There are plenty more examples.
Yes, I've met some Japanese people who seem nervous or shy around foreigners, or just plain uninterested. They're not as bad as the Texans who screamed "fag!" at me from the windows of pickup trucks when I was a blue-haired college kid, or my racist Texan junior high teachers. But they did exist. I don't know how many Japanese people there are who don't want to accept foreigners into their social circle, and there's a very good reason I don't know: I don't hang around those people.
Yes, that's right, "people". You see, if you spend your life speaking pidgin Japanese and walking around thinking "I'm a foreigner, I'm an outsider," you can easily fail to realize that Japanese people, despite their vaunted "racial homogeneity", are just as heterogeneous in terms of their tastes and attitudes and personalities as Americans or Canadians or Australians. As in so many situations, individual differences matter far more than group differences. And if you're walking around Japan feeling a wall of alienation between you and everyone you meet, chances are it's due to the cultural prejudices of one specific individual: you.
Oh, and as for that legendary prejudice against Koreans, it is true that Japan doesn't have birthright citizenship. But in no way are "zainichi Koreans" prevented from becoming Japanese citizens. If you are born in Japan to non-citizen residents, you have the option of becoming a Japanese citizen when you reach adulthood. I have a couple friends who did that, in fact. No, Japan is not as welcoming to immigrants as America or the rest of the Anglosphere, but few countries are. It is certainly not true that "the government literally decided that all Koreans are dastardly shitheads". That's just trumped-up BS disguised as a lame, misplaced attempt at humor.
So there you have it. The myth that foreigners can never be accepted in Japanese society is, to all the evidence of my eyes, a myth.
These sort of myths about Japan are common. For example, I've had lots of Westerners insist to me - absolutely insist! - that Japanese people use the word "gaijin" ("foreigner") only to refer to non-Japanese people, even when abroad. Yet I've asked a number of Japanese people living in America: "Are you a 'gaijin'?" And every single one of them has immediately answered "Yes." (Although one did take care to point out to me that "gaikokujin" is a more polite term). So there you go. There...are...four...lights!!!
Anyway, my apologies to everyone who comes to this blog looking to read about economics. I just needed somewhere to vent. Now, instead of getting into the same old argument about Japanese "xenophobia", I can just link to this post.
(Oh, and by the way. #3 on that list was "Hospitals are closed on evenings and weekends." Hey dude, have you ever tried to go to a doctor on the weekend in America? Good luck! Try the Emergency Room instead. Which is open in Japan 24/7, just like in America. They even have their own version of "ER".)