The Japanese and Everybody Else (Immigrant Song)

‘There’s the Japanese- and then there’s everybody else’.

After I started the ball rolling on moving to Japan, I heard this one friendly warning time and time again, from a range of different people. A friend of my mum’s who worked with Japanese clients, a British-Nigerian dude who had worked in Osaka. Former travellers and Nipponophiles. On first impulse, it felt like a bit of a cliché, but now I’ve been here for six months, I thought I might revisit the statement, and evaluate it. Long story short? It’s totally right. But then again, it’s also completely wrong.*

The undeniable facts are as follows: Japan is an island nation which was almost entirely closed to the world for over two hundred years. In 1641 all foreigners were finally banned from the mainland, with a small colony of Dutch traders and merchants permitted to live at Dejima, an artificial island built in the bay at Nagasaki. By 1853 when Japan was ‘encouraged’ to open up by American warships, the two centuries of sakoku had had a deep psychological impact.

Model of Dejima- not my picture.

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Facing the World

Certain people will contend that the Japanese are curious and perceptive about others, but fundamentally closed to outsiders. They regard their culture as a thing apart, and are wary of opening up in the presence of foreigners. They don’t like learning languages, and assume Westerners can’t learn Japanese. The children of Korean immigrants are still considered ‘Koreans’, and not Japanese. The Japanese administration system is intimidating and no help is offered.

I would say this analysis is about half true- no more, no less. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve found people to be incredibly friendly and helpful to a fault. The first day I arrived in Japan, I got lost on the way to my hotel, and an elderly lady insisted on walking me to Imafune tram stop and then waiting to make sure I got on the right tram, which to be honest wasn’t strictly necessary, but it was a sweet thought. People do go out of their way to supplement their questions with body language where useful, even though Japanese people typically use body language less than English people do. Lots of people seem to enjoy chatting broken Japanese with me as well, although it’s notable that those people tend to be the ones who can speak decent English.

Imafune tram.JPG
Imafune- my first photograph of Japan.

dont-dance-on-the-wall-of-hope.jpgDaily life is full of cartoons, explaining everything from train etiquette to garbage disposal to, like, please can you not dance on the wall of hope? In the big city, most of the signs have English translations, particularly at train stations; although no such luck on the buses. Additionally, there’s a fairly tight-knit group of Westerners in Hiroshima who you meet pretty quickly at the international bars.

As for the wariness, I don’t think that has much to do with nationality. As I’ve said before, people in Japan are often reserved in a certain way. If they’re just as willing to have fun with (and make fun of) strangers as anywhere else, they’re more cautious about opening up, talking about their feelings, opinions and life histories. But you meet plenty of lively exceptions to the rule, and I reckon this is gradually changing in the younger generation, who are having a rough time dealing with an economic system that still prizes seniority and shuts them out (sound familiar?)

All sounds pretty dreamy right? There are definitely harder places to live as an immigrant. The actual process of immigration was a little intimidating, and I’m quite certain that the border control folks deliberately speak Japanese as quickly as possible, to give you no prospect of understanding them. Sometimes, shop assistants puzzlingly fail to understand really simple Japanese phrases, presumably because they’re not used to hearing awkward Westerners speaking Japanese. I know this sounds like a stupid complaint, but no London shopkeeper would get away with not recognizing accented English. On the whole, though, a lot of effort is made to slice through the language barrier.

But fucking hell, the kanji.

Oshirase.JPGKanji are a nightmare. I’ve learnt to recognise about six or seven hundred, and it’s really nowhere near literacy**. I regularly get letters written in kanji, which contain important information about pensions or taxes, and I can’t even decipher the occasional sentence. Paying bills is as simple as a trip to the convenience store and a scanned barcode, but understanding the small print is way beyond me. In some Japanese writing, the readings of kanji are written above them in the simpler, syllabic hiragana script, but for whatever reason government agencies don’t think that’s worth their time. To add to the chaos, Japanese switches back and forward between kanji and its two syllabic scripts in any given piece of writing, affecting meaning and emphasis. I’m determined to learn to read Japanese, but it remains a writing system with an incredibly high entry level.

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The Immigration Game

Talking to people in Japan about immigration can be a bit depressing, to be honest. Most people’s views aren’t very nuanced, and they skew very negative. You hear the same answers: ‘immigration causes lots of problems’, ‘look at what’s happening to Germany’, ‘we have no experience of this’. Women, have at least given me more balanced takes, although too many are still convinced that immigration would cause Japanese culture to disappear. Given that traditional art forms like kabuki have been on the decline for decades, and Japan enthusiastically pilfered a grab-bag of American culture after the war, this excuse just seems like bollocks to me.

In polling, the majority of Japanese people are generally opposed to liberalising the country’s restrictive immigration policy, although it’s a different story among young people (again, sound familiar?). For example, one recent poll found that 60% of young people would support an increase in the number of foreign nationals residing in Japan, which currently sits at around 2.3 million, or 1.8% of the population.

And who are these people? Mostly, they’re Chinese and Korean foreign workers***. Japan’s relationship with Korea is absolutely fascinating to me. Older Japanese people can be derisive and xenophobic towards Koreans, regarding them as ungrateful and uncultured. There have been problems with how Japan’s imperial history is remembered too, although this is hardly a uniquely Japanese problem.

But when you meet young Japanese people, they love Korean music by K-pop bands like BTS and Got7 (I have tried listening to these bands, and it made me feel very, very old). They watch Korean TV dramas, go to Seoul just for shopping trips and relax on beaches on the south coast. I am assured that young Korean people are in love with Japanese culture too. A substantial number of older Koreans, meanwhile, have acquired Japanese citizenship. If I make it to South Korea next year, I plan to write more about the special relationship.


A smaller number of Japan’s residents are from the USA, UK and unexpectedly Brazil. Brazil has had long-standing economic ties with Japan, and a number of Brazilians with some Japanese heritage came to Japan in the 1990s to work in less desirable manual jobs. To its shame, the Japanese government paid many of these workers to go home during the financial crisis, a policy that was once trailblazed by the BNP.

This week, Shinzo Abe’s government enacted a law which slightly liberalises immigration, to allow more construction workers, nurses and food & drink industry workers to come to Japan. The opposition parties complained, but the opposition parties are basically irrelevant to anything at the moment- there’s so many of them and they keep popping in and out of existence, like ripples in the quantum foam, with no discernible impact. Japan is basically a one-party-state right now, and that doesn’t seem great. In any case, the legislation passed, and perhaps 300,000 new citizens will arrive in Japan in the next five years.

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The Alt-Right and Japan

Not all of the people who oppose Shinzo Abe’s step into the unknown live in Japan. A dubious farrago of white nationalists, border hawks and self-proclaimed migration experts have lined up to declare Japan a model society. These include Jared Taylor, the Japanese-fluent editor of the toxic American Renaissance (AmRen) blog, and William Johnson, the head of the white nationalist American Freedom Party. Lots of the alt-right are also drawn to Japanese culture through anime and manga, of course.

Unlike most wealthy countries, Japan has made the leap to become a productive and highly-developed society while remaining ethnically homogeneous. The ‘scholars’ of the alt-right claim that Japan is a sheltered, nationalist society, and its low crime rate, high productivity and good workplace relations are all a result of its closed-door immigration policy.

This is where you’d expect my knee-jerk liberalism to kick in. But to be honest, I don’t think they’re entirely wrong. Japan really is more harmonious than most countries, and crime rates are ridiculously low. It’s not at all rare for people to leave their doors unlocked if it’s convenient. Productivity and workplace relations are a bit more complicated, but the Japanese tradition of working hard for collective gain certainly has deep roots. In a book I read, historian Marius Jansen mentioned in passing that medieval Japanese farmers worked longer hours than their European counterparts.

But Japan’s relative seclusion creates its own problems. It prevents Japan from fully adapting to the era of globalization. There’s also not an obvious social solution to the declining birthrate and the increasing community of older citizens that working people will need to support. There’s a shortage of labour, which contributes to the culture of overwork- people are doing often unpaid overtime to make up for the ‘missing’ folks in the workforce. A quarter of Japanese companies press workers into at least 80 hours of overtime a month, and while the aging population isn’t the only cause of this, it’s definitely a factor. Plus (and my knee is jerking once again) immigration is exciting. It gives new life to traditional culture and encourages people to meet and understand others, and see the world differently.

So for what it’s worth, I reckon the tentative changes underfoot will continue. And I think they’ll be good for Japan, both spiritually and economically. The population’s aging, and the financially productive centre cannot hold. Globalisation of culture is happening, anyway, and it’s only partly caused by immigration, and it’s an immensely creative disruption. So why not take a chance?

This one is mine though!

* Oh, you thought you were getting clarity from me? Jog along. If you’re looking for answers, I don’t need your kind here.

** The usual kanji quota for Japanese literacy is 2,000, and an academic or keen reader can typically identify between 3,000 and 5,000.

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