Now, here’s a conundrum for you: let’s say that you’re working in a Japanese office, and it’s the end of the day. Of course, all the Japanese folks are typing like mad, as they’ve done since dawn. You want to be a team player but Hey, it’s 6 p.m., and let’s add that it’s Friday and you’ve been at work since 8:30. What to do?
A reader named thompson recently put it like this:
Everyday, after 8 hours, can I just stand up, say “sorry for going early” and then “HAHAHA, time for japaneseruleof7!!!” while walking out with big steps while ignoring that feeling that someone wants to stab you?
And maybe the bigger issue is: are you going to move to Japan and be a perpetual outsider, or not? Not be “that gaijin,” and try to actually fit in? Let’s see what Magic 8-Ball has to say.
Reply hazy, try again
Well, considering the last thing I asked was “How ’bout you eat a magic bag of dicks?” it’s a wonder old 8-Ball’s talking to me at all. But whatever, because the real answer about Japan comes from the school system.
Working in Japanese Schools
My first day at an elementary school, I arrived at 8:14. In Japan, you’re supposed to arrive 15 minutes before work, and I showed up a minute early, because I’m diligent like that. Then promptly at 8:30, all the male teachers stripped off their shirts and walked out. The female teachers went too, out to the dirt school yard, but much to my disappointment kept their shirts on. Everybody was barefoot. A couple hundred children lined up in formation. They also had no shoes, and the little boys were bare-chested. I was like, Should I get naked? What the hell’s going on? I went outside and stood next to a gray-haired man with no shirt.
“What the hell’s going on?” I asked.
“This school. I went here sixty-five years ago,” he said.
“Good morning!” the principle screamed into a microphone. The sound reverberated off the neighborhood houses.
“Good morning!” the children and teachers screamed back.
“Today too, let’s work hard together!
“Let’s work hard together!”
Then music blared from a massive speakers and everybody took off running like crazy. For ten minutes they ran round and round, barefoot in the dirt, including the old man. Every day started like this.
Military School in Japan
Japanese school resembles nothing so much as a military school. By the time they reach junior high, all children are indoctrinated into sitting stoically in class, roasting in the summer and freezing in the winter. You know, they say Japanese folks are yellow, but in my experience most of them are frosty blue. Every day in middle school, there’d be half a dozen troops shivering on the dirt field, standing in the snow at attention under the watchful eyes of class leaders. The leader would shout commands, and everyone would shout back, then start doing jumping jacks, push-ups, and sit-ups, until their backs and fronts were covered in snow and brown mud. Then they’d take off running, chanting in unison. I worked at a total of nine schools, and eventually this became normal. Imagine 12 years of that.
Japanese Flight Attendant
So I recently had dinner with a Japanese flight attendant, who told me “You’ll never be Japanese.” We were sitting at a table outside a small restaurant, sipping white wine and eating salmon with eringi mushrooms sauteed in butter.
“Well, I don’t mean ethnically Japanese,” I said. “But wherever you live, eventually that’s your home, right?
“To be honest, we’ll never accept you, because of how you look,” she said.
“Gee, thanks for the encouragement. Glad I spent a decade learning your language.
“Sorry, but Asians are racist as hell,” she said.
“What about people here who don’t look Japanese? I mean, your mother’s Filipino. Even you don’t look ‘Japanese’ Japanese.
“Well, unless you go to school here, you’ll never fit in.
“I thought you went to school in the U.S.?” I said. “And weren’t you born in Seattle—Doesn’t that make you American?”
“I’m Japanese,” she said.
“Right, then so am I.
“That’s not how it works,” she said.
Going to School in Japan
And this reminded me of something my gay Japanese roommate once told me: going to school in Japan is what makes you Japanese. Interestingly, he was half-Filipino as well. Well, whatever, I get what he meant. Because years of marching in line, bowing, and responding in unison can’t fail to leave a mark. And then a few years later, in the workplace, nothing’s really changed. Except suddenly there’s you, the “foreigner.”
Imagine you work with the Army, surrounded by a bunch of G.I.’s who now have desk jobs, only you’re a contractor. You’re sitting there, doing roughly the same work, but although you may feel part of the team, you’re still an outsider. Because Maki’s a Lieutenant, Hideki’s an Airborne Ranger, and Kubo-san drooling in the corner never made it beyond Private. To you, they might all look the same, but they know who’s who. And that’s work in Japan. It’s just an extension of the militarized school system. They know you’re not a soldier, and never will be, no matter how much you salute or recite the Military Code of Conduct. And—God forbid—nobody wants you to see you in uniform. Because you didn’t put in the years of marching in formation, following orders, and making the sacrifices they did. You just breezed in, and can peace out whenever you want.
So, working in Japan, should you play the foreigner card? I asked my friend Miwako. She’s in HR, and presumably knows about such things.
“Hell yeah,” she said. “I wouldn’t spend one minute at work I didn’t have to.
“But what about my coworkers? I mean, I feel bad leaving early.
“Screw that,” she said. “They wouldn’t help you. Maybe in America, but that’s not how Japan is.”
Which got me thinking. Because one of the things Japanese folks pride themselves on is hard work. Almost like it’s the only thing they have. So the sooner you leave the office, the sooner they can feel proud of how great they’re doing. By staying around, maybe you aren’t helping. You might actually be making things worse.
And there’s your answer. Working with the army doesn’t make you a soldier. There’s no poster saying Uncle Hirohito Wants You. So cruise in with a smile, speak Japanese with a terrible accent, leave early, and everybody’ll love you. It seems that’s how Japan works.
Edit: I stumbled across this video, which provides some context for what working in Japan can be like. It’s a bit dramatized, yet not off base.
118 Replies to “Fitting in in Japan”
Best post ever dude!
I laughed so hard at your magic 8-ball question!!!
Its so true about how they do want to feel good about doing their hard work – Id rather just not do it, or do it faster, or better, or more efficiently, but thats not the point right? The point is the hard work rather than the result.
I hope the newer generations are different from the racist way the older ones are.
Don’t like the weather in Japan? Just wait fifteen minutes. Change is surely coming, for better or worse.
This sounds pretty sad. It’s quite different in Israel.
Whew, glad to hear that. Know how people talk about how bizarre Japan is? Well, this approach towards making all school, work, and life feel like Army boot camp accounts for a large percentage of it.
Golly gee yeah!
It’s so easy to fit in over there, unbelievable, and no matter where you come from!
Especially if you speak Arab and were born in the Gaza strip, Irak or Syria!
A breeze and warm welcome.
Gee, you’re one of us!
Am I suppose to be;ieve this?
OMG, Being Japanese is just like being in the Marine Corps. FYI, we Marines always say the only EX-Marines are 6 feet under the dirt because we are always Marines at heart for the rest of our life! I guess that sets Japanese people apart from other races… O’orah Nipondenso!! I think in the 1970’s, the Marine Corps borrowed a saying from Nipondenso: The 6P rule – Preventive Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
I think that’s when the Japanese started the movement to make all Japanese so hyper-productive and efficient (probably because American companies made fun of the Japanese products as cheap knock-offs and inferior; boy did they show us what for in the following decade!!). Anyway I think they might have over perfected that routine by the look of things and considering the population drop, they need to chill out and make more love and stop with the industrial revolution draconian work practices. Yeah, people of Japan UNITE and overthrow the evil corporate groups before they replace you with robots and then create a European style socialist state like they have done here in the US…. oh the horrors of it all!!
Great CM Ken, laughed and laughed and then had an epiphany, but it turned out to be just some gas buildup, meh!
Japan’s already pretty heavily socialized. But hey, I’m just happy I can go the the doctor for fifteen bucks, even if he does absolutely nothing.
As for The Revolution, I think it’s not going to come with marching in the streets, but rather with more people locking themselves in their rooms and refusing to come out. And if it does happen, where fifty percent of the population just refuses to participate in the corporate machine…then the remaining fifty percent will simply respond by working twice as hard. Actually, that may describe what’s currently happening.
I asked the exact same question to a japanese salaryman over a certain anonymous forum, what I got was more or less “Gaijins are lazy, they don’t work hard” and “Lazy gaijins leave us after a year or two”. Obviously he didn’t say it directly like that, because he is a polite japanese after all. Also after asking how many days or weeks he takes off, 2 days for summer vacation, he quickly adds that he knows we europeans take weeks off and that he isn’t envious of us. At all. Now that is an upright individual. I don’t know if he is aware that Germany is getting closer to overtaking Japan in the World GDP Ranking each year. We work 8 hours a day. Boy, they should really take a break sometimes.
By the way, I’ve heard even japanese folks only actually work 8 hours a day. They just put 4 more hours surfing the internet, writing private emails or watching not-so-childfriendly clips. Also it’s funny, how often japanese people, who went oversees for a long time because of work or study, don’t really want to go back.
Great job asking a japanese HR person, I couldn’t think of someone better. That should mean something, if a japanese person says that she wouldn’t work even one minute too much and that your japanese coworkers don’t give two effs about you.
To be truly happy in Japan is probably to try to somewhat fit in, but to know your place at the same time. You are a gaijin, and you will always be. Accepting and doing the best with it will surely give you much relief. Also, as you already said, there are quite a few advantages in being a gaijin. And the best thing is, they will forgive you your “bad” behaviour. Most of the time.
Ganbere. It’s a word I can’t even take seriously anymore, because most of the time the context is so hilarious after reading about japanese work mentality. Corresponding with a partner company? Using a company wide email address? Write each person differently, that’s how you do it. Washing your clothes? All at once? No no, you sort it after whose clothes those are. Hell, you should wash it sock by sock. That’s one way to live your days. Ganbare!
Work is supposed to be hard—that’s the Japanese way. If at any point it approaches being fun, you find a way to make it hard until any enjoyment ceases.
This approach toward, well, life in general is one of the biggest gaps between people in Japan and the West. I’ve heard so many Japanese people say, “I don’t care if I live or die” and “I hope to die early.” You ask people what they enjoy doing in their free time and they struggle for answers. Sleep is a popular hobby.
The challenge comes with wanting to be a part of the society in which you live. Being a perpetual outsider isn’t a great solution. But if integrating means behaving in self-harming ways, well, what then? So yeah, gambare. Trying to sort that one out is the fun of living in Japan.
The next and perhaps the more important question is: Leaving everyday after 8 hours, how long until they fire me? I can’t imagine everyone, most importantly your bosses, would approve of that and feel proud that they are so much more hard working then you. Because it would mean that YOU are not hard working, and don’t fit in the company culture, even if you do your job perfectly right, mind your own business and don’t blare around how funny and in a good mood you are, like they expect every worker to be. After all, even if the country of Japan itself can’t really kick you out, the company itself certainly can.
It’s just sad. Actually, when I asked that salaryman if he never takes like a week off to go the beach or for traveling, he said “I don’t need the beach. I just need a good sleep and good food, that’s enough for me.” Can’t help but sensing something bitter in his words. But to outright hear that they don’t care about their very existence, I wouldn’t know what to reply. Encouraging them to do whatever they like would contradict with “their” way of thinking, that has been indoctrinated into them since birth, wouldn’t it? Hell, society would denounce them doing whatever they like. As far as I know, being passionate about something makes you automatically an otaku. And being a otaku is a no-no, isn’t it?
As said, you would probably need to find the balance between integrating and being a gaijin. We are the audience, the observers, they are the boxers. I don’t really want to get my face wrecked in the ring, but I enjoy the stuff around of it. The atmosphere, the hype or even the music, the food, the after parties.
So enjoy the cherry blossoms, the temples, visit the monks, try to tickle some opinions or inner thoughts out of japanese people, check out koto music, watch animes, try karate – but leave work after 8 hours, talk some english, tell them how great japan is. I think that’s how you should handle Japan.
It’s certainly possible to get fired here even while working overtime and trying hard to fit in. I’ve known folks who were serious and devoted to their jobs and still managed to get fired. If anything, Being somewhat dopey and foreign may provide you with a margin of safety.
One key thing to realize is that, at least in the U.S., workers are valued. Replacing employees is expensive, so many firms invest in retaining and developing their staff. In Japan, the company is God. They have no problem showing you the door if at any point you fail to meet expectations. That puts workers in a terrible spot, where they’re constantly trying to appear valuable, or at least more valuable than the person at the next desk. Not sure that’s a game you want to play, and if you do, I wouldn’t bet on you to win it.
When you say you’ve known serious people devoted to their jobs who’ve been fired in Japan, do you mean foreigners (I’m thinking mainly of the European-looking, English-speaking variety here) who’ve been hired at least in part on the basis of their foreign talents (usually speaking English)?
I say this because I’m come across some seriously flaky types (of the above European-looking, English-speaking variety) in Japan who seem to be able to hang on to their jobs okay, and I suspect one reason is the difficulty of the re-hiring process, and the fact that a lot of Japanese think the next one may be even worse.
They were both foreign guys. Good guys, too.
I’ve known some flaky people too, but I’m generally impressed at the overall level of education among people from overseas. Most of what makes them weird, I think, boils down to competitiveness with other foreigners. There’s a lot of posturing.
Still, many people who come here are dedicated and hard-working. But there’s something about being placed in a Japanese school or office. One thing that happened to me was being given a list of “job responsibilities” that had over 30 bullet points. That’s not a good sign. Another thing that seems common is not being given the basic information or resources necessary to get your job done. Being alienated in the workplace (presumably because you’re an “alien”) is another factor.
Of course, every company is different, but I’ve seen a lot of situations where people were being set up to fail. Support from your boss and co-workers goes a long way.
It was an open secret in the office I worked that everyone did sweet fuck all in the evenings while waiting for the boss to leave so they could leave too. I fucking hated that shit.
Hello Ken! I stumbled across your site awhile ago, and it’s my first time posting here.
I’m in the middle of choosing my major. I’ve always wanted to go work/live in Japan, so I’ve been considering majoring in AB English while self-studying Japanese. Would you recommend this? How’s the pay and living conditions for an English teacher there?
Sorry, I thought of a few more questions
-What are the expectations for non-Japanese asians like myself (pale-skinned Filipino)? Is it easier to fit in than say… Caucasians?
-Are Japanese really two-faced? Is it hard to find genuine friends?
-I don’t smoke/drink. Am I expected to attend social drink gatherings even if I’m not into that kind of thing?
-Is Ken Seeroi your real name? 😀
Thanks in advance
You know, I once asked a girl if her boobs were real, and her response was “If you can touch them, they’re real.” I took this as an invitation, which, as it turns out, it wasn’t. My bad.
On being non-Japanese but “other” Asian: I have several friends in this category, and they’re always quick to point out that they’re not Japanese. Tell people you’re from Canada and you’ll be golden. I’m serious too.
Two faced? Eh, hard to say. I mean, everybody’s got that, right? Japanese people think Westerners are all friendly and cheerful, and I’m like, Yeah maybe, but I sure knew a lot of folks in the U.S. on Prozak.
Is it hard to make friends? Yeah, really hard, especially guy friends. It helps to be young, good-looking, charming, and rich. Speaking English is also a plus.
You know, ironically, I was worried about having to go to a lot of drinking parties when I first got here. Turns out most of that stuff ended in the 80’s. Disco fever, baby. Nowadays, smoking is actually a bit rare, and nobody’s going to force you to drink. I’ve been to many parties where one or more people just order oolong tea, and nobody bats an eye. On that score, put your mind to rest.
Those “drinking parties” were still in full swing when I first set foot in Japan in 1990. That scene began to noticeably contract in 1992. It is said that an iconic skyscraper precedes every major economic downturn. Don’t know about that but ジュリアナ東京 was the Japanese party-scene equivalent. Yeah, disco fever, baby.
Filipinos are a smiling, genuinely happy bunch of people. Someone might say that Japanese smile a lot too and that might be right but Japanese are not happy, not happy at all. I once read that a fake smile makes you feel miserable, well then, the Japanese must be the most miserable people on the planet.
Majoring in English while self-studying Japanese sounds like the perfect plan. I’d also look into picking up a TESL/TEFL certificate along the way.
I’m planning to write my next piece on the pay and living conditions (in Tokyo, in particular), so stay tuned for that.
RE- the civilian contractor thing. From my personal experiences, you’ll be more accepted by ‘the others’ in that role than you probably ever would as a pseudo-salaryman in Japan. Especially if you’ve got an unusual and extremely valuable set of skills.
Also, working with dangerous explosives is way cooler than being a salaryman.
“I want my job to be a real blast”: said the Islamic state recruit… as he applied for the real COOL job! Then he was hired and given his new employee special “dangerous explosives” training vest… that was so cool it was – “to die for”, hmmmmm!
That was actually a pretty big part of the ISIS propaganda for a while. They’ve toned down on it after the constant airstrikes started taking a toll.
For the love of all that is good, don’t major in a language if you want to have good job prospects anywhere. Good writers are already a dime a dozen, and a lot of them will have other marketable skills on top of that.
Wow, this is sad. So Ken, do you still try to fit in knowing that you will never be fully accepted? Do you leave work on the dot or do you also stay behind like the rest of your Japanese peers?
Mary, you always ask the right questions.
My first couple of years here, I really tried to do things “the Japanese way,” one hundred percent. But you don’t have to be here long before you notice that there are advantages and disadvantages to being “foreign.” You get a certain amount of discrimination and being looked down upon, that’s the bad. But it’s compensated by the gaijin-card: leaving early, people thinking you’re “special,” etc. So to forgo the up-side and be “Japanese,” well, you still have the down-side, so that leaves you at a net negative.
Also, in talking with Japanese friends, I came to understand that they weren’t working out of some Samurai-like code of loyalty or duty to the company. They were just following the written and unwritten rules. Their advice was universally consistent: if you don’t have to do it, don’t do it. We wouldn’t if we didn’t have to. That’s why so many Japanese folks go abroad.
I still try to fit in and do what everybody else does, about 90% of the time. But if something puts me at too much of a disadvantage—We want you to work this weekend, or Let’s have an office party Saturday night—I might opt out, because I can.
But even 90% is probably too much. You can go too far trying to fit in, speak the language, and behave like everyone else. When I see someone who acts “foreign,” and witness the delighted reactions of the Japanese around them, I think, Man, that person’s got it right. So my advice to others is, yeah, if you can stay foreign, do it. Then everybody’s happy.
In the 1990’s when the American economy was go-go-go I had Japanese co-workers who were transferred to the office in LA. They would all tell me on the sly that they were never going back to Japan and these guys, being engineers and single, would job hunt knowing their time in Southern California was limited to 2-4 years and when the Japanese overlord tapped them on the shoulder telling them their time in America was over they replied with a simple “fuck you.”
By the way Ken, just for fun, I asked Magic 8-Ball the following:
Is Ken Seeroi handsome? Answer: As I see it, yes
Thinking that it might just be a fluke, I asked another question.
Is Ken Seeroi ugly? Answer: My sources say no
Hey, Magic 8-Ball’s never wrong.
Awesome post. Love your writing.
Exactly what I saw at a local school yearly matsuri. A day long choreographed military performance with hundreds of kids on a dirt yard. I felt I was in North Korea for a day. But in fact work was all the same : 4 month at a North Korean company, with uniform and cap. The head of HR was…. the retired police chief of the City.
Only the company was in Kansai and no one went to a reeducation camp for being a bad soldier.
You are spot on saying that you can’t be Japanese without having gone to school there. Hopefully this will change but I would not count on it. Education is such a sensitive and deeply entrenched cultural issue ( France continues teaching s***loads of French literature but we barely can speak a word of English at age 18, guess what’s most useful to get a job…).
You know, that’s pretty good advice. If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em […out the door].
I’m a long time reader of yours and I’ve never once posted. I enjoy the hell out of your columns and you really have an inimitable style of writing. Believe it or not, I quote you in general conversation often.
I’ve taken in all you’ve said about learning Japanese and embracing Japanese culture for what it is. With that in mind, I opted for a Japanese class in University this year amongst my other compulsory units.
It took 2 hours for me to decide it wasn’t worth jeopardising my degree and transferring to Anatomy would be by far the easier option. Bearing in mind it was the first session of the beginners class, the native speaker teacher lady had Kanji on the board. What truly got me thinking I was fucked was the fact that a large number of the group could already identify them. Beginner class my ass.
So I am going to continue my love affair with all the things the Japanese create (motorbikes, drums, Pokemon cards) and the history. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to visit at some point in the not too distant future (Rugby World Cup 2019? Come on you Brave Blossoms!). But I don’t think I’m under any contractual obligation to learn the language in order to enjoy any of those things.
I’ll love Japan and the Japanese. They’ll love me as an exotic specimen and we’ll all be happy.
(PS: They just started stocking Asahi and Sapporo beer at the local supermarket. Warm regards from Wales. Win.)
Thanks for writing in. Glad to see the Welsh faction represented here.
You know, I’ve enjoyed learning Japanese over the years, but that being said, it certainly hasn’t been the best time investment. Beyond memorizing a hundred-odd survival phrases and conversational pleasantries, it’s of questionable benefit.
Undoubtedly, having a working knowledge of the language opens doors. On the flip side, I’d argue that time spent learning Japanese would be better put toward getting a Master’s or Doctoral degree, which opens many more doors. In that sense, studying Anatomy seems like a much wiser career choice than Japanese.
Mostly, however, it’s amazing how much speaking Japanese alters personal interactions here. Japanese people are actually thrilled to speak English—they’ll pay hundreds of dollars a month just for the opportunity. Passing that up and speaking Japanese, with all it’s somber overtones, well, you’ve got to wonder anyone would choose that path. I ask myself that every day.
I tell you, I think you’ve chose the right path. Whoever said ignorance is bliss wasn’t lying.
Just thought I’d drop you a note to inform you someone linked to this post on reddit:
Uh oh, the bitch session of the Internet. Seriously though, thanks for letting me know.
I had a great moment talking about work with one of my Japanese friends working here in Australia. She said to me one day “I just realised that you don’t have to work any harder than necessary, then you can have fun doing other things!” This seemed pretty obvious to me as I’ve been scraping by at work for years now but it was a genuine revelation for her.
Needless to say when her visa ran out and she had to go back to Japan she wasn’t terribly happy, given she knew her new work ethic wasn’t going to go down very well there…
Thanks for this further elucidation on your prescription to avoid nuttiness while living here. Carrying — and using — the gaijin card at all professional and social times and occasions (other than with the wife) seems to be the way to go.
What is the value in fake “friendships” that only arise from acting in such a way as to avoid offending the egos of bigots? I act as “Japanese” as I know how to and refuse to speak English with Japanese people except whereas required by my job. Yes, it pisses people off, but fuck them, if they’re racist like that I don’t want anything to do with them anyway. Where’s your self-integrity? Others don’t get to decide who you are; that’s your choice.
Actually, I agree with you. Other people don’t get to decide who you are, and if they don’t like it, they’re free to find a comfy spot to piss off to.
But I’d like to make a distinction between self-integrity and advice. I behave in a way that’s generally consistent with my values, but that doesn’t make them the best values. Just because I choose to live in Japan, speak Japanese, drink a pile of beer and chat up random women doesn’t mean those are the best things to do.
It’s a lot smarter to get save money, get some exercise, eat a sensible meal, and go to bed at a reasonable hour. So that’s what I’d advise, along with speaking English and not trying to be too “Japanese.” Doesn’t mean I’m necessarily gonna do that, but for someone with an ounce more sense than I have, it’d be the right thing.
I work in an international company, and I am now a low-level manager supervising some Japanese people. I get more pressure to stay late from my subordinates than I ever did from my bosses.
I told them to make use of the company’s flex time policy to manage their own hours. They have my permission to come and go as they please, so long as the hours add up at the end of the pay period. Still, they are all in the office until seven or eight, and come with all the exaggerated apologies when they want to leave work at five o’clock to go see a doctor on the way home.
It is pretty clear that some of them are offended by my habit of leaving early when I don’t have any pressing work. They all think I am lazy, and it doesn’t matter that I come in early in the morning, because everybody knows that work doesn’t start until 5pm.
In Japan, not giving a shit what people think of you is a superpower. It allows you to leave work and go grab a beer while everybody else is still hunched over the keyboard, trying to impress everybody else with how hard they are working.
Exactly what I was wondering. How long have you been working there now? Any reactions from your bosses? Also let us know, if they ever fire you because of some made up reason! Goddamnit, an international company was my last hope of having an actual life there.
Yeah, positions like manager, project leader or director are quite tough in Japan. You basically don’t leave until everyone else does, and with the “I don’t have a personal life, so I will work till midnight” kind of work culture, its terrible.
This guy has nailed it here.In Japan,not giving a shit about what others think is the real super power!! The more your care more you will be taken for a ride.Apart from standard code of conduct Japanese people dont give a shit amongst themselves either,so why should a gaijin care?
One of my first introductions to Japanese life was undoukai (sports) day at a small school in the wilds of Kyushu. One of the contests involved boys stripped to the waist holding sacks of sand over their heads in the hot sun to see who could gambare (hold out) the longest. Amazing stuff.
In my present job, I feel absolutely no angst at waltzing off home at whatever time I want. I figure it’s a win-win situation. I get to go home, and any co-workers who spy me get a wonderful surge of superiority. The boss should thank me for making the real workers feel so good.
It’s hard to watch a Japanese sports festival, with all the marching in line and shouting in unison, without thinking of a military drill team. Just adds guns and you’ve got an instant army.
I used to always make smartass comments to a coworker that spent half his life growing up in the US about them training everyone to blindly charge at machine gun nests.
Yep, let’s all pat ourselves on the back for standing out. Hey, it’s no our fault we’re not accepted into the society. Japan is fucked up. Let’s go have an Asahi Super Dry. You’re confusing “respect as an equal” with “being Japanese.” If you (and I mean all the commenters and readers too) intend to ever make anything of yourself in this country it will take hard work. Sure, you’ll always be a foreigner but you can earn the respect and status that seems to come to natives more easily. No one is going to do that if you just hang out, play the gaijin card every day and go for beers at 6pm every night. First, you need to prove you’re worthy. I’ve been with the same company for 14 years now. I started as the lowliest man on the Japanese totem pole. Now I’m a vice president and run the department. Clients, colleagues, and business partners all respect me, but you have to work even harder than everyone else to get to that point, not less. If you’re happy just getting by as a gaijin, fine, but stop bitching about it and stop using old stereotypes to justify your laziness.
Well, fair enough, but I wouldn’t call leaving work at 6 p.m. lazy.
No doubt you can climb the corporate ladder. I did it in the U.S., but we also had something called work-life balance. You may want to google it if you have time.
So, do you want to talk about work-life balance or fitting in? Two different topics here. Maybe you need to fit in and earn some respect before trying to change the work-life balance situation (which I’ve had some success with too).
Jeez, Dad. Maybe you need to take a chill.
You are certainly the right fit for a Japanese office, that’s pretty clear.
Haters gon’ hate.
One may want to fit in, doesn’t mean one should blindly follow everything Japan does just for the sake of fitting in. I am sure your success regarding work-life balance were crazily fullfilling. Ganbere!
I respect where you’re coming from man. But not all of us are moving to Japan to fancy ourselves a native. I agree that it takes a lot of time, as I guess it reasonably would to pursue such a thing. But to make observations on the lack of equality and the natural distance when you get off the plane seems okay for someone who isn’t used to it.
Playing the Gaijin card is bad, that I can VERY easily see. That would lead to the defeatist attitude and just assuming that they won’t ever respect you would be an easy way to justify not even trying.
But honestly I don’t think I will EVER be on equal terms with them and I think it’s best to come to peace with that before anyone flies over. If it happens, hell, fantastic. But I don’t believe I’m going to be this special snowflake that changes their mind and they accept me into the big ol Japanese family.
Oh, and screw working past 6pm. I’m not going there to work, sleep and die young.
If you’re coming here to work you have an obligation to give it your all. Anything less and you might as well stay home.
There’s nothing wrong with poking fun at “not fitting in” with social situations: the obasan who runs from you when you try to ask directions in Japanese, the kids who want to touch your hair, the waitress who speaks to the Chinese guy at your table instead of you, the people who incessantly ask if you like natto, the person who asks you to read a Japanese menu out loud like you’re a dancing monkey, the store clerk who says they have nothing in your size before they even ask what you’re looking for, the onsen ojisan who reminds you to wash before getting in the tub….
That’s all part of the fun of living here, but disrespecting your workplace because you’re not willing to do what it takes to fit in doesn’t help anyone. If you’re fine being a gaijin helper, then more power to you, but don’t cry foul about it.
I appreciate the words of advice GaijinSalaryMan, and I do mean that sincerely. I have a lot of respect for people with your work ethic.
While I have no intention of playing around, (I’ve read too many stories of ALTs who go there thinking it’s a paid vacation), I do want to pursue having a life there as well. If the company needs me to plug some extra hours, I’m down for that as I have always been.
However I believe what Ken Seeroi was getting at (I’m open to being wrong) is that you CAN plug those hours but it won’t always pay off.
I’m a 6’2″ bald and viking bearded gentlemen. I’m treated with fear and wariness here in the states, and I cannot possible expect that to be any different in Japan. I appreciated the scenarios you listed of how you will always be expected to not understand the culture regardless of how long you live in the country.
It’s been people like you who’ve kept me grounded and realistic about this transition to Japan and I’m 100% grateful that I haven’t had the starry eyed people who claim it’d be this great adventure with no adversity to overcome, telling me that over and over. It’s also why I like this blog as much as I have and have read all of its articles.
It’s one of the first and if not possibly one of the few that don’t try to make a personality based on this wacky guy who went overseas, got accepted and made it big. It’s real and there are challenges in being in the minority.
I’ll take your words to heart and I’ll pursue to do whatever company I work for justice. I don’t want to be seen as a slacker or a loose string, but at the same time I can’t, and I mean I just CAN’T plug 16 hours a day like some of these guys can. That’s why you’re a Vice President with probably a lot going for you, and I plan on living in a small apartment teaching. Different worlds, brother.
Brilliant work as always! Can’t wait for the next article.
Anyway, in my personal experience with Japanese companies, I came to the conclusion that, for the most part, whether you fit in or not depends on the company. When I first came to Japan, I worked at a company where I was the only foreigner. At first I gave it my all, doing lots of overtime( from 3 to 4 hours of overtime, including all nighters and many weekends, and holidays), it was damn hard, but I wanted to do my best to fit in. But after a few months passed, no one gave a shit about that, the more I tried to fit in the worser the treatment got. They even told me why am I not putting in more hours. Even the projects where I played a major role in were ignored. After that I swiftly changed jobs. Its still a Japanese company but, both japanese and foreigners work no more than 8 hours a day. And the people there actually have heard the term work-life balance, and treating people as people. I say work hard and put in the hours for this type of companies, as for the companies that work crazy hours for no reason, play the gaijin card, leave early and don’t give a sh@t.
Your experience matches mine to a T. I couldn’t have said it better. Please feel free to write the next article; that’ll cut down your waiting time.
But why would anyone ever want to be on the “inside”?
The only reason is that they have a bogus romanticized illusion of what that would mean.
At first they look on from abroad at anime and manga and dramas and video games and the sights and sounds of the cities, they can only see the benefits from the outside.
The reality is of duty and obligation.
I know non-Japanese with Japanese spouses who get upset at various aspects of still not being “inside”.
I know foreigners who slaved for years to get serviceable Japanese, and then one conversational slip-up where they use uncommon phrasing or muddy intonation and they are immediately outed in front of everyone.
Wanting in and trying to get in is a recipe for anger and frustration. Why give oneself an unnecessary problem? Would you also like to hit yourself in the face with a ball-peen hammer? Cause that is what foreigners are doing in their internal clamor to be inside. Let go.
I like being on the outside. The outside is place without obligation. The outside is a place within my control. The outside is a place of low-expectations, where you can surprise people by doing a whole lot more than they might assume. Their own neuroses with regards to work is their own problem. I am not interested in gaining the respect of people who take such values seriously. What would it be worth? Not much.
The only inside I need to be part of, is the “inside” of the people who I let into my life and are proven friends and allies. These are individuals who I value and care about. I care about being respected by them, because I respect them and they have been there throughout the years, foreigner or Japanese. What I don’t care about is some intangible, immovable “collective” without a face. That is just a void that sucks in all the energy I could be using on something productive that would better my life.
Well said. An interesting counterpoint to what GaijinSalaryman said above.
What ? You mean that the only reason the frosty blue people like foreigner it’s because we are working less than they do ? Holy poop that’s great ! Being loved for my laziness 😀
If the Smurfs are talking to you to get free English training, and they avoid talking japanese for this particular reason (let’s put the “this is the only thing that make them > you” aside). Then what if you don’t speak English ? But French, German or any other “not-that-great” language. Are they going to make you feel like you are wearing the Invisibility cloak or are they going to unlock their native language for you ?
If trying to fit is the way to show everybody you are different, maybe doing the opposite is the way to be accepted, in a “i’m different, bitch” way. If it’s true, I reccomend you the Borat swimsuit 🙂
Thanks, yet again, for a great column (the magic 8 ball question caused me to spit my green tea across the keyboard, but I forgive you for that…actually, I love you for that).
Because I work with Japanese exPats and have been learning the language/culture for several years, people ask, “so, why don’t you move to Japan and work for a Japanese company?” I always answer, “no,” which surprises most white folk. The “live-to-work ethic” of corporate life is a bit of a deterrent, plus for me (being a single white female), work opportunities are limited.
Still, if I win the lottery and become independently wealthy, I would love to live in Japan and further explore the land, language and culture. I have several Japanese friends there who are wonderful, even if one of the probable reasons for being my friend is a fascination with my “outside-ness.” I attempt to fit in, I fail, and yet this is viewed as endearing. I’m okay with that. Gambatteiru.
For now, I’m off to buy a lottery ticket while I await your next post.
Wow, some really great comments on this article and the points brought up are very enlightening and thought provoking. I believe this problem of career and life style compromise (to fit in) seems tied to the culture of an individual’s originating country and the state of modernization in the society that a person lives. A lot of attitudes that permeate each society (hence the commenters’ belief system) are probably tied to their religious backgrounds, as well as family/clan associations. This is a highly complex issue that on the onset seems simplistic, but it’s just the opposite.
Most people just see the desire to be happy (and for Americans, its supposed to be one of the fundamental human rights) as the controlling issue, but I believe in the case of Japan it’s the happiness of the nation that is part of their cultural heritage that seems to have a guiding hand over their people’s attitudes. In a macro view of their society, it’s as if Japan as a nation seems to believe that this work ethic is tied to their very survival. I would even go further to say that this way of thinking (the desire to work ridiculously hard) is a replacement for Japan’s past militarism and devotion to the nation and their emperor (as a god). I think it’s almost a cultural habit for many Japanese to blindly suffer and sacrifice their happiness for the perceived good of the higher entity (the company) or of the nation.
I think this is demonstrated when Japan suffers a natural disaster, like the earthquake and Tsunami; the huge majority of people in those affected areas line up and cooperate with the relief efforts instead of looting and acting like individuals (as happened in America’s Hurricane Katrina). I believe that is also why suicide is not so taboo to the Japanese culture as it is to many in the west. There are many societies that encourage hard work ethics, but in Japan working hard is an obsession bordering on lunacy and self destructive actions that seem unreasonable to many other cultures.
Bud: you present a good argument. I do have a question though about how bullying would fit into your analysis.
Allow me to give you my opinion on that question: There are always exceptions.
Hey Alex, good point! Once again a simple issue (bullying) really is a terribly complex issue. Bullying just might be the one true indicator of a culture’s adaptability and military potential. Bullying can be physical or mental or financial and it is usually done against those that are in the minority or those that are weaker or poorer. It is my opinion that the way a society handles bullies will point to the political and social development of an entire nation. The level of bullying most likely indicates the aggressive nature of a society and its desire to enforce standards on a population. Bullying is also a form of terrorism that is used to manipulate and intimidate potential competitors and rivals (and that could be on a micro scale as well as the macro world view). Bullying also can be used to force others to give up their rights and freedoms as in the case of Islam and how it treats those that criticize its beliefs or leaders, thus it can become a tool to maintain dominance and perpetuate fear against a majority in another country.
As a former Marine, I witnessed institutionalized bullying in my USMC Boot Camp that was used to train and brainwash recruits (me included) into becoming aggressive fearless warriors. After undergoing that training, I would have willingly given my life for my country while I was in the military; if the situation had presented itself. From a cold heartless viewpoint, this is probably necessary for a nation to have a military that is aggressive, effective and victorious while enduring the hardships of combat (and as long as there are military conflicts, this is a FACT of LIFE). USMC boot camp has been proven an excellent tool to accomplish those goals as history has shown, heartless though it may have been. Would I have endured that training and bullying had I known what it was before hand… probably not, but I entered the Marine Corps to toughen up because I had also been the victim of bullying in school, so I was willing to endure it to FIT IN. I might add that I looked up those bullies at a later date and got my revenge on them and to this day it is still one of the great shameful acts in my life.
The Japanese have a very well established system of bullying that begins in their schools and is continued through their business and governmental institutions, as well as their social strata and media. Nippon has a very long history of institutionalized bullying that is at the root of their Samurai tradition. You could say that the Japanese have perfected bullying for their unique culture and the proof of that is the ultimate form of bullying, the Kamikaze from WWII; where a human being is trained to throw away their life for the good of the culture. I believe that there is nothing more terrifying than a person that has no regard for their own safety or life and is determined to kill you at all costs (as the Muslims have discovered, hence their institutionalized religious martyrdom that has given the modern world the “Suicide Bomber”).
Yes bullying does force others to FIT IN or suffer and I personally abhor it, but I also see the need for it in certain limited specific cases (like training military units). Interesting comparison: In America, some of those that suffer horrible bullying or believe themselves to be bullied sometimes resort to murder, while in Japan; those same types of individuals might just end up being a “hikikomori”, while other nations experience an increase in suicide rates among teenagers instead. Why different societies experience differing results could be due to national laws, the weapons culture in that country and popular expectations that a society has regarding personal freedom as well as the acceptance of bullying by the societal norms.
Bullying is currently an integral part of the world. I for one would like to see it completely abolished and made a taboo crime against HUMANITY, but I don’t believe that bullies will be stopped until the governments and people of the world stop supporting unfair treatment of other human beings. As long as there remains unfair corporate business practices, organized institutionalized disinformation/ propaganda controlling the media, fanatical religions or a small minority of people controlling the vast majority of wealth, THEN there will be bullies and consequently, there WILL BE WAR. So yeah, bullying is the root cause of conflict around the world and it is one of the most complex societal problems facing mankind today, so it plays a HUGE part in my analysis.
Hi Bud: thank you for the thoughtful, well-reasoned, and informative reply. I had read some historical accounts from WWII of how Japanese soldiers were treated by their officers and NCOs – truly horrific conditions to say the least. It never ceases to amaze (and horrify) me how much can be extracted from people and how much suffering they will endure.
Not my intent though to open any old wounds. It really was a question that arose after I read your initial comment. I too spent time in the military (as a private in the Canadian infantry) and saw first hand some of the tactics you describe. A curious development I noticed is that while there was the obvious uses of bullying by the officers and NCOs, and all of it seemed more or less just role playing, there was also an underground strain. In this second channel, there was a dark side in which a huge effort was exerted to get people to relinquish control of their lives and to commit criminal acts.
Some of the new recruits ended up as virtual slaves (and for reasons of decency, you will forgive me for not going into the graphic details) of more dominant members of the regiment. There was no rank involved, just an acceptance of the dominated to be completely controlled by the dominant. Watching this behaviour, but not succumbing, I learned some valuable lessons. In particular, I learned to watch for rather subtle clues in my post-military life that have been, unfortunately, extremely accurate in predicting what sort of person a co-worker or new acquaintance is. My initial exposure to this behaviour was over 30 years ago but nowadays, these people are correctly labelled as sociopathic or, in more extreme cases, psychopathic. Fortunately, there are not many of the former and even fewer of the latter.
Again, thanks for the reply and your valuable insights.
Let me clarify a few thoughts.
Sometimes I get a bit absorbed in replying to comments, or maybe I don’t even know what I’m trying to say. I know, that’d be a first. So hold on tight, here comes clarity.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to fit in in Japan. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t work hard at your job. I’m saying, understand the situation you’re in. Just like anywhere else.
If you’re in a company that recognizes and rewards you for your efforts, then that company deserves your hard work. If you’ve got supportive co-workers (even one or two), then be thankful, because that’s rare anywhere.
What concerns me is seeing a lot of folks move here without much of a safety net. They quickly become dependent upon their jobs, both financially and socially. You’re on the other side of the earth with few friends, money’s tight, you can’t understand what the hell’s swirling around you and you’re looking to others to show you what’s okay or not. Plus you’re inundated with paperwork, things to sign, notices in red letters, and a mailbox full of stuff you can’t read. And you’re too busy to figure any of it out because you’re working all the time. It’s very easy to exploit a person in that position. Unpaid overtime should be a red flag.
So I’m saying, it’s okay to leave work on time and attend to other aspects of your life. You can’t ask your company for a little extra yen, just because it’s Friday night, and they can’t ask you for a little extra work. That’s what the contract’s for. Before you devote your time and love to something or someone, it’s good to make sure the feeling’s mutual.
I agree in everything you say, but allow me to add some points.
This might make me really unpopular, but I will just say this bluntly: If you need to have all of your workers, who work perfectly time efficient, constantly work more than 8 hours a day to get by, you are doing something really wrong. When your GDP is astronomically higher than any other country because of everyone’s 16 hour work days, we’ll talk again. But this is the economic point of view. The next thing to note is the cultural point of view, where you wait until your boss goes home first, because that’s “tradition”. You sit there until near midnight “working”, even though there is NOTHING to do, because that’s “tradition”. You produce no results, the company gets no results. Whom does this help?
What follows is -my personal opinion-: EVEN if you really work 12 or more hours a day and you actually produce results in all those hours, I won’t respect you, and I think nobody should. You throw you live away for some company that you don’t even own. Your life is your own and you should respect your life, your wishes and your dreams. You don’t respect yourself, how should others respect you?
Do you see those kids loudly playing soccer? That couple at the café smiling and laughing at each other? That old lady sitting in her small garden, quietly drinking her tea? That family doing a picnic under the cherry blossom trees? Look at them, and tell yourself. What do you feel?
Maybe someday, in the office, at your desk, at 11 pm, you feel sudden pain in your heart, your head falls onto the table, your eyes close, and you never open them again. Will you be able to say to yourself: “I lived my life to its fullest. I was happy.”?
I am not saying, I am right in everything and that’s how you should do it. But I am sure, when Japan thinks a little bit about it, there will be more smiles in the 6am trains.
Pretending to work until the boss leaves for the day is something I prefer not to recall about my 16 years in Japan. In 1989 when it seemed like Japan would dominate the world I was about a year away from moving to Japan myself. There was a show on PBS about Japan’s economic dominance that featured interviews of CEOs of Japanese companies. One CEO said that Americans spend too much time with their families and should be more like Japanese salarymen … for the good of the companies they work for and the country at large. Well, in 1989 I suppose that sentiment could be justified but not anymore … yet it is still believed: Japanese men do think that time away from their family is a sacrifice they must make for the good of everyone. At least that is the story they tell themselves. But really most salarymen don’t want to be with their families (ever notice their demeanor when the speak of “kazoku service?”). Work in Japan is structured, boundaries defined, roles clear cut and as miserable as it might be sometimes it is preferable to the morass at home.
The flip side of that are Japanese women who are not in the workforce. You see, they grew up seeing the misery of the working men around them and don’t want any part of that. Why would they? Fuck Abe and his arrows, however many there are now. Japanese women are too smart to want that misery for themselves.
Well, I think that Japan is starting to see the error of it’s ways bit by bit. For example the fact that the term ”Black company” or ”Burakku kigyou” came to existence proves that people are starting to notice that, the old way of working is messed up. I know a number of companies that are starting to decrease the overtime, that their employees do. Plus many young Japanese people want to enjoy their lives, not just rot at the office.
Oh boy, you are making it sound like a dream. “Just be the baka gaijin asshole you are and everyone will like you for it.” Where do I sign up?
I suspect, INSTALLGENTOO, that “signing up” is unnecessary for you. n9
Wow, I disappear for 1 month, and come back to find like 5 new posts. Man, you must have been on a writing binge Ken.
Anyway, this was interesting. I guess unless your skin is yellow you will never fit in japan. You will always be that white guy that moved there.
Yeah, that white guy’s been busy.
And here’s one more little thing to keep you that way:
It’s all feast or famine in the Ken Seeroi world.
Hi, i am from India. I have following your blog for 6 months now and this is the only blog i follow, it’s great . I think Japanese is a great language, because i just landed a job because of it. People are impressed just hearing that you are learning Japanese(not even knowing).
Thanks very much, Mukul. Congratulations on landing a job because of your Japanese skills—that’s fantastic. Is it in Japan?
Oddly enough, the most staunch defenders of ‘you’ll never be Japanese’ I’ve met were not Japanese; I can’t tell if I’m just extraordinarily lucky, really ignorant, or what. Like, I know all the stereotypes about not being Japanese, to the point where if I encounter them I actually get mad, but tbh they are so rare that if i wouldn’t have gotten the ‘this is what Japanese people do to remind you that you’re not Japanese’ speech so many times from other foreigners I probably wouldn’t have noticed them. The topic of my not being Japanese comes up with my Japanese friends, but usually it’s me bringing it up, or makes sense in context, and 90% of the time their conclusion is that they prefer me non-Japanese.
How on god’s green one you manage to survive all the years? I can’t even stand my parents’ divorce. Which may be less troubling than living there.
So if people have to stay super late with nothing more to do, what are time-wasters you can do?
Will I get yelled at if I play my 3DS? What if I have a sketchbook to draw in? What if I do things on the computer to be less conspicuous like play browser games or shitpost on 2ch?
In most Japanese offices, you’re completely exposed. You’re likely to have people sitting in front of you, behind you, and beside you.
Contrary to what others have said, I find that Japanese people screw around at work very little. There’s always more work than can be done in a day—that’s the Japanese system. There’s always a deadline, and it’s always tomorrow. They might try to sneak a look at Yahoo news or text somebody on their phone from the bathroom, but generally they’re working, hard.
Now what you, as a “foreign” person can get away with, should you choose that role, will depend on your office. Staying at work 14 hours a day isn’t going to get you anywhere if people see you messing around. Either stay late and work hard, or accept the role of outsider and go home early; there is no other way.
If anyone is not familiar with the layout in typical Japanese offices …
First, the office is open plan. Desks are set up in islands with three or four desks side-by-side, facing another three or four desks side-by-side. You can look across the island to the people working opposite you, although many people build a wall with a bookshelf or screen of some kind to block the view. Nevertheless, people next to you or in the island behind you can easily see what you are doing.
Next, this section of people is ruled by a section chief (kachō) who sits at a desk facing the section end-on, about a metre and a half away. Kachōs have struggled for years to make that small jump to their current position, so they feel obliged to start early and stay late. By the same token, their section members feel they are letting the team down if they leave before the kachō, so everyone does long hours.
As for the work, there is lots of it, but I get the feeling that much of it is “make-work work” which exists to keep everyone perpetually busy.
Hey ken, just found your blog by searching “reasons to study japanese”, and your “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Japanese” appeared as the second result, which I found hilarious and decided to check it out. So here I am now, at 3 am, reading your blog, and let me tell you, I love it, and even though I’ve changed my mind about learning Japanese, I’ll continue to read your blog, cause it’s so damn hilarious.
Well, to the point now, I wanted to ask you, or actually, confirm something. In your posts you have talked about how in your workplace people don’t think about anything but work, conversation seems difficult -if not impossible- and outside of work, even though you talk about having multiple girlfriends, relationships seem kinda… cold, so I wanted to ask you: isn’t it lonely living on Japan? In some books the protagonists are lonely for not being able to fit in, not sharing any ideals, interests or anything with others, or by having such complex feelings they end up isolated from the world, so is it like you met all this requirements just by being a foreigner in Japan? Is it possible for someone who doesn’t look Japanese to ever be able to be accepted as “one more”? if so, is that even good?
Thanks in advance, and sorry if you have already talked about something similar or have already answered this kinda questions, still haven’t finished reading your blog… yet.
That’s a great question, and other people have asked the same thing. So let me put together a post on this and I’ll get it up in a few days. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the motivation. Edit: Well, that was faster than I thought. Here you go.
RE- the civilian contractor thing. From my personal experiences, you’ll be more accepted by ‘the others’ in that role than you probably ever would as a pseudo-salaryman in Japan. Especially if you’ve got an unusual and extremely valuable set of skills.
Also, working with dangerous explosives is way cooler than being a salaryman.
Stumbled upon your post while researching Japanese citizenship laws.
i have gotta say, most of what i read pretty much is in line with what my ex-Japanese colleague tells me.
and also from a old blog i read (gaijinsmash) about the life of living in japan and dealing with the japanese culture/people as a gaijin.
what actually prompted me to leave a comment is “Sorry, but Asians are racist as hell,”.
truth be told, Asians are racist and i came to realize the level of racism is directly proportional to their level of sophistication and the willingness to let higher intellect rule their behavior/thoughts rather than xenophobia or downright stupidity/ignorance(reminds me of the rednecks in America), the emphasis here is most Asians,some Asians just do not give a rat’s ass.
that being said, Japanese people strikes me as a bunch of strange people with very strange culture and social norms and a contradiction in a nutshell.But i still love the nation despite its flaws.
if its any consolation. SEA (where i am from) is also full of racists. in my country, its an open secret that a certain race will never be in the air force or high ranking official in internal security and the govt also practices institutionalized racism throughout the bureaucracy while screaming against discrimination.
i do hope that Japanese people will one day embrace gaijins who wants to be part of the japanese society as japanese.but until then, asians are racists as hell still holds true.
I just came across this blog and would like to thank you deeply for these posts and for investing your time into this blog.
I have been living off and on in Japan for a total of 6 years now, struggling as a Japanese -Canadian in Tokyo all by myself since I was young, and this is the first time I found a place that held constructive opinions and advice coming from other expats who understand what its like here. My time in Tokyo was/is hard, and I experienced firsthand working practices and prejudice that shocked me as someone who was raised in Canada. I did grow bitter and cynical, and I am still overcoming the negative experiences here, but this blog and comments brought much needed comfort to me that I know I am not alone.
So for what its worth, thank you! I can feel like I can finally let the anger and bitterness go, and just act gaijin from the get-go instead always trying to live up to the expectations of a Japanese native. I`ll try to dig and revive the Canadian inside of me.
Yeah, that’s the challenge, right? Trying to figure out who you are and how you fit in. People who move here and retain their identity don’t have that problem. Stay gaijin and hey, no problem.
I was recently reading about people born of mixed race in Japan, and how they have identity problems as well. Apparently it’s hard to believe you’re really Japanese when everyone around you calls you a foreigner. Go figure.
So for sure, you’re certainly not alone. Things I try to keep in mind are, first of all, hey, nowhere’s perfect. I just wished Japan was that way. Ah well, nuts. And secondly, what does it really matter what other people think? If there’s one thing that moving to Japan,having a blog, and just freaking living life has taught me it’s that some people will dis you and some people will get you. Like Tupac said, that’s just the way it is. Keep the faith, brother.
Its actually the opposite for me, I look completely Japanese so the Japanese subconsciously hold me to their expectations of a member of their society.
And when I stray from the unspoken norms I get attacked. Verbally, sometimes physically, try to get me to conform through bullying or intimidation.
Its not as simple just thinking “who cares” when it involves my physical or mental well being being under siege every day. I just try to limit my contact with Japanese as much as possible why enjoying everything the city itself has to offer.
I guess thats the difference between looking Japanese and looking foreign.
I see what you mean. That sucks. You know, I’ve got other friends who look “Japanese,” but aren’t, and whenever we go out, they make an immediate point of conveying that their non-Japanese-ness: they speak English loudly, or flat-out say, “I’m American.” Where I spend time trying to fit in, they spend it trying to stand out. So maybe wearing a maple-leaf t-shirt is where you need to be going with this.
Hahaha you are hilarious. This is the first time I’ve read a blog and actually scroll down the whole article!
I just moved in Japan last October, well at least they say it’s Japan (i’m in Okinawa by the way). And I’m Filipino and I just love how every one thinks I’m one of them until I start speaking
Okinawans are so much different than Mainland Japanese. They come late, the also like going home early…oh but my boss is from Mainland so he goes home at like 1am (i dont know how he lives really
It’s great reading your blog!
Omg my english has gotten worse since I moved here, really…
Well, I have been to a few automation trade fairs here, and was overwhelmed with the robotic systems on show. Maybe you have better things in the US, but for me, that was excellent. Agree with you on other points, but i think you forgot the… toilets with so many buttons that can clean your butts after you are done with you business. Isn’t that brilliant?
I honestly don’t know what they have in the U.S.—I’m just going off of what I see online. And what I see looks pretty freaking amazing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-h5qpXO3isM But maybe Japan’s got similar stuff. If so great, we’re all doomed.
As for toilet seats…although I enjoy clean nether regions as much as the next person, I’m not sure I’d categorize a squirt of water as advanced technology. Other countries don’t have it because they aren’t—how’s this for an apt word?—nearly so anal.
I wanted to comment to hopefully encourage you and, apparently, many of the readers on here as well. I’ve read tons of articles like this, and I always find them incredibly depressing. The vast slew of discouraging, defeatist replies doesn’t help either lol. I lived in Japan for college until 2 years ago, and am moving back next year, so I feel like I have a decent experience to draw from. And most of the time, it doesn’t match up with what you or others seem to experience. So whenever I read an article like this I get depressed, start worrying “am I missing something?” and start frantically contacting all my Japanese friends to confirm whether we’re really friends or if they think I’m just some weirdo loser gaijin. Of the several times this has happened, I think by now everyone is starting to get used to my insecurities and is getting progressively better at expressing their honne lol. But, since I for one am tired of being discouraged, I thought hey, maybe I can instead encourage YOU (and others) 🙂
Because I realized today, when reading this article while scanning through ‘moving tips’, that perhaps it is not a matter of action or different realities, but mindset. And a couple commenters mentioned this I believe so, forgive me if I’m repeating something.
The reality is: people are people. Whereever you go, people are always just people. Culture may inform their perception or responses to some things, but in the end, we all want the same things. We want to be loved, accepted, appreciated, respected…we want to enjoy life and be successful and so on. Those don’t really change. Just how they play out in day-to-day life. Japan is a culture that is unique to itself, just like every other culture on the globe. And of course, being unique, it by definition means all others are different. Just like all other cultures are different from American culture, or Indian culture.
So there’s two aspects to this. We are both individuals, and members of a group (the culture). Even in Japan. Japanese people, like any people, have their own personalities. And we are going to get along with some of them better than others. But that’s not really what people are discussing here. We’re discussing culture. And culturally yes, Japanese culture has good and bad sides. On the one hand, they do generally find other peoples and cultures interesting BECAUSE they are ‘other’. On the other hand…they’re ‘other’. But I think America is really the only place in the world where you can TRULY get past that barrier, and even then, well…we all know how great a place it is with Trump as president :\
My point is this: if your goal is to enter Japanese culture and become a part of it, you have to ask yourself why. What does that mean to you, and what is your goal? Do you want to BE a Japanese person? Yes, that will never happen. But then…would you ever really BE a British or Mexican person? No. They might accept you as ‘part of the family’ or whatever, but YOU will always know you’re different. Simply by the cold reality that you weren’t born and raised there. And sometimes (like with Japan), even that isn’t enough if your genes are different.
But…why does it matter? Who cares? If we love Japan, there must be good things about it right? Isn’t the goal of joining the culture to assume it’s best aspects and encourage change for the better in those aspects that are crappy? I guess you could say I’m advocating that every person, no matter what culture they are going to or coming from, if they truly love that culture (important caveat), should seek to introduce the best aspects of their culture while integrating with the best aspects of the target culture. You should not seek to BE Japanese…because Japanese culture, like all cultures, is flawed. Do you REALLY want to be so work-stressed, group-stressed, and constantly conscious of social hierarchy? Most people don’t I think. Why? Because obviously, most people don’t LIKE those aspects…they are negative. Hell most Japanese people don’t like those things either. As people have pointed out, Japanese who get the chance to leave Japan usually do. They know, better than we do, that Japanese culture has flaws.
But to love someone means to love them DESPITE their flaws. So instead of worrying about whether you’ll be Japanese, or complaining about aspects of the culture you don’t like, consider it like a marriage. Your goal is to encourage the best traits in your partner, while simultaneously helping them overcome their flaws (and hopefully introduce some of your neat ideas in the process). That means you will never BE Japanese. But that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to be yourself: your own half of the ‘marriage’ so to speak. And in my experience, when you genuinely care about the culture and the people, while still being yourself, 99% of Japanese people (like people in ANY culture) will like you and want to know more 🙂 Even if they do get annoyed when you get to play the gaijin card and leave work early 😉
tldr: don’t try to be Japanese, that’s where you’re all failing. Instead try to culturally marry Japan.
You had me at “I lived in Japan for college.”
Seeroi-sensei, I wish I could give your response a thumbs-up like on Facebook.
By the way, Mark, please do some research before making false statements like “you will never be a Japanese person.” You most certainly can become Japanese (http://www.moj.go.jp/ENGLISH/information/tnl-01.html). That you might still be excluded and labeled a “foreigner” just because of your skin color etc. only proves how deep-seated bigotry is here.
Well, I sort of understand Mark’s point, although I agree he is quite optimistic in the way he sees it.
To the Japanese, being “Japanese” is not a matter of a choice or documentation. From a Japanese perspective, either you are Japanese or you are not; you don’t “become” Japanese just like a dog doesn’t become a cat.
There are of course some exceptions. If you “look” sort of Japanese (like Koreans, Chinese), if you have lived in Japan since you are a child and studied in Japanese schools, adopted Japanese name and manners, and severed all your links with your origin country (like you never visit Korea or China, you don’t mention them to your friends, you don’t celebrate Lunar New Year or anything related to these countries, you never speak Korean or Chinese except with your parents and you definitely don’t teach these languages to your children)… if all of these are you true, then the Japanese will say: “Oh, well, this person is Japanese. I cannot think any reason for otherwise.”
Japanese do not necessarily “look down” on other countries; in fact, some of them have reverence for certain European countries like France, England or Germany. Yet, no matter how much a Japanese person dreams about living in France, to the point of believing that Parisian streets are clean, he or she would like still laugh at a Japanese wanting to become and be treated as “French” or vice-versa.
To be fair this point of view is not exclusive of Japanese; it is probably true for most Asian people. It’s not as evident simply because there aren’t exactly many foreigners wanting to become Vietnamese, Bangladeshi or Indonesian.
Dogs and cats are species. “Japanese” is a nationality.
Of course. But Japanese is also an ethnicity, a concept that for obvious reasons isn’t very simple to understand in countries entirely formed by immigrants, like USA, Australia or Brazil.
But it some Asian countries, your ethnicity or religion is even registered in your documents and it does affect your legal rights. For instance, in Malaysia, people who are Malaysian nationals but have Chinese or Indian ethnicity have less rights with respect to education, housing and public sector work, whereas people with Malay or Orang Asil ethnicity have more rights . And the thing is, you cannot change your ethnicity as you can change your nationality. Even if you say you have completely adopted Malay/Orang Asil culture and eschews your Chinese/Indian culture, the Malaysian government will never give you the same rights of a Malay or Orang Asil.
Naturally, Japan is not one of these countries, but it shows how the concept of ethnicity is deeply seated in many Asian, and also some European cultures.
Wrong again. Japanese is not an ethnicity. The ethnic majority in Japan (the ones who are most often guilty of denying the existence of other Japanese ethnic groups) are known as “Yamato” or “Wajin.” Other than Wajin, the Ainu and Ryukyu indigenous peoples, the so-called “Oubeikei Islanders” in the Ogasawara Islands, Chinese-Japanese, Korean-Japanese, Burakumin, persons of mixed heritage, and other miscellaneous groups exist throughout the country.
Your example of Malaysia is an interesting one, as many countries keep track of citizens’ ethnic groups. Japan, much to its discredit, does not, despite the government FINALLY (in 2008) acknowledging the Ainu as an indigenous ethnic group. At the official level, no other groups are recognized, and even the Ainu numbers are not recorded in the national census. It’s not that ethnic minority groups don’t exist–they’re just not acknowledged. (This is what extreme ethnocentrism looks like.)
You are also mistaken when you claim that Japan is not a country of immigrants. First, the country we know as Japan today is a relatively recent invention. If you actually study some Japanese history, you will know that not only are the Okinawa/Ryukyu Islands a recent addition, Hokkaido is too, and even before that, the different areas of Honshu, Shikaku, and Kyushu were divided up into various “countries.” (For example, I live in Saitama, which used to be part of the “the country of Musashi.”) Yes, an emperor has been present supposedly since 700 B.C. or so, but at one point in time we even had two emperors, and among legendary warriors of the past, a desire to “unite the land” was a common theme.
As you may already know, Japan did not develop its current writing system independently, and the land’s first written works are tomes of mythology, the accuracy of the non-mythological parts being highly suspect. What happened before is subject to lots of speculation and is assembled not only from primary archaeological sources but also from secondary sources from ancient China. (Well, sources from areas we now refer to as belonging to the country of China.) Many persons from present-day China and Korea visited and traded with the persons who lived in present-day Japan. How many emigrated is unknown, but as we can see in modern times, contact was extensive, and significant cultural artifacts were imported, writing being one of them.
Even before present-day Japan’s ancient peoples came into contact with present-day China’s ancient peoples, from where else might people have come to the Japanese archipelago? How many people visited, and how many people emigrated? There are as of yet no written records, so it is impossible to know with certainty. Going even further back (and this one might throw you for a loop), there is contention in Japanese history and archaeology that the “race” (remember, biologically non-existent concept we humans made up to categorize each other) living in present-day Japan during the Yayoi period was different from that of the Jomon period (the earliest extent period of Japanese history), including evidence suggesting Hebrews–yes, Hebrews–might have played a role in the area’s earliest development.
So, please remember that despite the government “we Japanese are one people” propaganda and so forth, the reality is that the history of what is now called Japan is quite complex and even still not fully known. Whatever the case, Japan is absolutely an amalgamation of many different groups of people with different backgrounds. That the right-wing elitist power-hungry wealthy politicians in charge of the government seek to hide this truth is nothing more than one of the many great shames of this nation.
As a side note, I hate to say this because I know it sounds conceited, but please actually do some research about Japanese history and society before arguing the point. A good ground rule is to ask yourself what evidence might prove your position wrong, and look for that. If you can’t find anything, you might be onto something.
Jeez, are you serious?
I didn’t “argue” for anything. My point was to describe how a typical Japanese person, or many people in the World for that matter, see themselves and foreign people.
Which apparently, you don’t disagree either. If you have read the first five lines of my first reply, you would have saved a fair amount of typing.
I enjoyed reading your extremely detailed and well-articulated comment. Very insightful.
I just thought you might like to know that someone appreciated it, seeing as Demo Gorgon apparently didn’t.
Thanks Jeremy. I thought my comment read more like the long ramblings of an obsessive geek, but I certainly do appreciate your words.
So, ethnicity then? You’re right, I don’t get that concept. It simply sounds like thinly veiled racism.
Help me understand what “ethnically Japanese” means exactly. It can’t be appearance, since Japanese people come in a variety of different faces, body shapes, and skin tones. And there are certainly plenty of people who look “Japanese” that’ve never been to Japan.
So then it’s a belief system? An education? Those don’t sound particularly insurmountable. Is it then merely a matter of learning the culture and assimilating the beliefs? I mean, assuming you could get people from 47 prefectures to agree on what their beliefs are.
But okay, maybe I’m off-base. Let’s go back to some practical examples, based upon people I actually know. Please help me determine who’s ethnically Japanese:
1. A “Japanese”-looking person born and raised in LA
2. A Second-generation “Japanese”-looking person who moves from Brazil to Japan
3. A black person born and raised in Japan
4. A Hispanic person who moves from Brazil to Japan
5. A “Japanese”-looking person born in Japan who attends only international schools
6. A white person born in Japan who moves to the U.S.
7. A “Japanese”-looking person born in Japan who moves to the U.S.
Because I have no idea.
I guess this is a cop-out answer…but it truly depends. All of them are Japanese and none of them are…and the entire spectrum in between. I think you will find people of any group (ethnic, national, etc.) who can and will pass judgment on who a “member” is. Plenty of Americans who would say that I’m not American because of my name and how my look, even though I’ve spent most of my life here. Plenty of Filipinos, including my own family, who would say that I’m not Filipino, because I didn’t grow up in the Philippines. A metric sh!t ton of Japanese would say I’m not Japanese, even though I’ve spent most of my adult life in Japan and probably plan to continue to spend a large portion of the remainder of my adult days there.
There are no true arbiters of belonging, and if you rely on universal consensus on your “identity”, then let me welcome you to Disappointmentville, Population You.
As for me, I consider myself Filipino-American-Japanese…I have taken elements of who I am from all three cultures, and I accepted a long time ago that there will be plenty of people in all three groups that will consider me “other.”…
We can go on and on about Japanese ideas of ethnicity, and what constitutes belonging…and why those ideas are wrong or short-sighted, but we all know it doesn’t matter. There’s gonna be some random @ss oyaji in Osaka that doesn’t care what a gaijin says or thinks…and yeah, it really doesn’t matter, since it’s something we have to determine on our own.
My advice to anyone is to surround yourself with people who accept you, your background, and what you identify with…that’s belonging.
I enjoyed your article above. It’s interesting and funny !
Would you want to fit in in Japan?
Can you picturize yourself being a Japanese and living in Japan forever?
There are so many good things here that every morning I wake up like, Okay, today’s the day I’m changing my citizenship! Gonna become Japanese! Then by noon I’m like, everybody here’s a dick, I gotta get the hell out.
So it’s hard to make all-or-nothing life decisions. Like getting married, there are plenty of pros and cons to consider. There’s lots of reasons I’d like to live in Japan forever, as well as reasons I wish I’d left yesterday.
Would I want to fit in in Japan? Absolutely. It’s not great being a perpetual outsider. But will I ever? Yeah, I’m thinking not. Hell, even people born here have a hard time fitting in. So that’s just one of the negatives about Japan.
I agree with Ken on the misfit of foreigners in Japanese society unless you can look like them!. Which makes East Asian people easy to assimilate than non East Asians.
I have been living for 18 years in Japan and everyday i become 1 day more older alien in Japan. The problem becomes more acute as you become older in your 40s and 50s where you crave to be with your kind i guess. Can you imagine yourself retiring in Japan?
I’m split right down the middle on it. I think my plan for retirement is gonna be to spend half a year in Japan and half a year in the U.S. How’s that for a half-assed solution?
Either that, or just die early. That works too.
I understand it’s difficult to make all-or-nothing life decision.
I know the negative side of Japan like you mentioned above, so I wondered if you would like to really want to fit in Japan or not. It looks you fit in Japanese society pretty well according to your blog ^^.
Living in Japan from autumn to spring and living in the US in summer would seem nice to me. Summer in Japan is too hot and humid for me although I like festivals and fireworks.
You pose a very interesting question—would I really want to fit in in Japan?
I’d always believed the answer to be Yes, but maybe now I’m not so sure. The longer I’m here, the deeper my understanding becomes of both good and bad points.
It’s a bit like asking if you’d like to be the opposite sex. I mean like, I can clearly see some benefits to being a woman; just not sure I’d choose to become one. I dunno, I do like shoes a whole lot.
Thing is, for most of my life, I never had to think much about who I wanted to be. I just was. And now this. I kinda didn’t factor in an identity crisis when I moved to a foreign country where nobody looks like me.
Heh, that’s kinda my plan too…Autumn to Spring is fantastic in Japan and I’ll be honest, the summer’s aren’t too bad once you get to it (unless you’re like in California, Summer in the US can be pretty disgusting too ;/).
Nah, I went to the same place at one time about wanting to be “accepted”, realized that it wasn’t going to happen…and that I really didn’t want it too. I’m a lot happier for it…though I do limit my interactions with the locals when my wife is around since she has to deal with the collateral damage of my DGAF approach ;p
I feel ya, although I still haven’t completely settled how I feel about wanting to be, if not accepted, then at least not excepted.
As you know, anyone who looks or acts in any way non-Japanese is quickly given “the special treatment,” the way one would act towards a child. I’m not entirely resigned to that role, although it doesn’t seem there’s much to be done about it. Not sure just propping my feet up on the table and saying “Eff you, deal with it” is the answer.
Maybe I just had the wrong impression, but in the two companies
where i did office job in Japan most employees did absolutely nothing. Get to work early, stay there overtime and hang around all day casually chatting. Even staring at the wall for hours on end is considered work. It is such a disheartening experience it significantly increased my alcohol consumption (that is, i needed an excuse for that).
That sounds like every office job I’ve ever had, in both Japan and the U.S. Probably a natural consequence of forcing people to stay at their desks for a set period of time. Office work certainly is disheartening. Drinking doesn’t seem to make it much better, unless you start at lunch.