Japan from the inside out

The perpetual whingeing of the outsiders

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 2, 2012

WHEN I first came to Japan, the only publicly accessible opinions in print about the country were little more than pretentious spitballing masquerading as insight. It’s taken some time, but the tide is finally turning.

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook who writes an economics blog. Prof. Smith has lived in Japan and liked it quite a bit.

On Friday, rather than write a post about economics, he dealt with a post on another website called Cracked titled 5 Things Nobody Tells You About Living in Japan. (I also read it, but thought it was too puerile to waste time on.) Thing number four was that “foreigners will always be outsiders”. That’s a dead giveaway the speaker/author expected adulation without effort or behavior adjustment and is astonished to find himself on the royal road to obscurity.

Prof. Smith takes apart the conceit very well. He says:

This runs directly counter to my own experience of life as a Westerner in Japan.

He discusses language skills first:

Despite the easiness of the (spoken) Japanese language, many Westerners never bother to become truly fluent. The reason is simple; they can get by in the country speaking simple English and broken, simple Japanese. Of course, as the author of the article above suggests, this makes it difficult to really relate to most of the people in Japan. It makes it tough to form close relationships, tough to be included in social activities, and tough to work productively with Japanese coworkers. But because Japanese culture is generally friendly, and because some Japanese people take it upon themselves to speak English to foreigners, these Westerners can manage a sort of stunted, good-enough social life over there without ever spending the effort to become fluent. No wonder they feel like outsiders! What would you expect?

And culture:

What about the cultural attitudes? The xenophobia, the closed society, the racial homogeneity?

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t seen much of it.

Speaking of his academic work, he says:

(I)f you are at home in a university setting in America, and if you speak Japanese, you will be at home in a university setting in Japan. And never once has anyone there treated me as an outsider.

He includes informal social settings:

(W)hen I lived in Japan the first time, I went to plenty of rock and techno shows. I found the people there to be extremely welcoming and friendly – and not just in a “Wow, look, a white guy came to our show!” kind of way, but in a “Hey, want to hop on scooters go out for a beer?” kind of way.

He also tells some Keynesian harsh truths:

(I)f you spend your life speaking pidgin Japanese and walking around thinking “I’m a foreigner, I’m an outsider,” you can easily fail to realize that Japanese people, despite their vaunted “racial homogeneity”, are just as heterogeneous in terms of their tastes and attitudes and personalities as Americans or Canadians or Australians. As in so many situations, individual differences matter far more than group differences. And if you’re walking around Japan feeling a wall of alienation between you and everyone you meet, chances are it’s due to the cultural prejudices of one specific individual: you.

One factor behind the alienation is the sense of entitlement many Westerners bring with them to the country as if it were carry-on baggage, and the disappointment that results when they realize the people around them are quite content to live their entire lives without interacting with Our Hero.

Some of the commenters to his post beg to differ. I was alerted to the article because I caught a retweet from someone in Japan who read it and agreed with it. Looking at the history of the Tweet revealed that one person thought Prof. Smith’s opinions were “contrary to the evidence and facts”. As evidence he offered a link to the BBC and as facts he provided a link to the Japan Times. By that time I was laughing so hard it was impossible to click on them.

A copy of the Tweet was also sent to Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times, for some unfathomable reason. No matter where the people employed at that newspaper were born and grew up, they quickly develop an inability to understand anyone living west of the Hudson River and east of Long Island City. Manhattan is one of the most provincial places in the United States.

I’m in complete agreement with Prof. Smith on this subject, and dealt with it five years ago in this post called What Japanese exclusionism? The myths live on, alas. One of the points I made at that time is equally true today. I suspect the foreigners who do well in Japan communicate on a sub-verbal level that they are willing to accommodate themselves to Japanese people and their customs rather than demand the Japanese accommodate themselves to them. As Prof. Smith says, if you’re having a problem, the problem is you.


It might be that Prof. Smith and I would agree on little else, however. One of the posts on his site is titled “Why I Love Michael Moore”. If I were writing for a website unrelated to Japan, I might title an article “Why Michael Moore is a Transparent Fraud”. He also links to Matt Yglesias, the blogosphere’s version of Michael Moore.

8 Responses to “The perpetual whingeing of the outsiders”

  1. TB said

    I’m glad a few websites discussed this fluff piece on Japan.

    I took issue as others did with the sentiment that foreigners would always be considered as outsiders. That is not always the case, of course, but that could be considered the same for any ‘homogenous’ country. I wonder why Japan always seems to be singled out for this by many. Very odd how many demonize Japan in this aspect, as if it were the most xenophobic and racist nation in the world, when you have hundreds being killed,more brutally assaulted, in places like Russia due to racism and nationalist hatred.

    I especially took issue with the author’s reference to the treatment of ethnic Koreans, the usual standby for examples of Japanese racism. I commented that many ethnic Koreans in Japan deliberately choose not to become full fledged citizens, and in fact there were schools that ethnic Korean parents sent their children to that were sympathetic to North Korea. A few replies insulted my character, and basically stated that there were no such schools in Japan. I guided them towards information on the internet which refuted their lies, yet they conveniently chose to ignore me.

    Yet another persons example of “racist” Japan was that Japan did not allow foreigners to hold public office or become upper management. I refuted this outrageous claim with a few examples, to which of course there was no reply.

    When it comes to Japan I realized people just make outrageous claims and exaggerations, and when the facts are presented to them, they just ignore them.

  2. 21st Century Schizoid Man said






  3. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Just I felt some guilt in posting in Japanese again, I sum it up as follows, in the form of questions:

    1) Where is the country or place not like Japan in that foreigners can easily be insiders?

    2) Even before that question, how do you define “insider” at particular place? Probably U.S. citizens are so easy to become one in a given State or city coming from different one.

    3) Because Japanese love to reflect particularly on what foreigners say about them, foreigners say about them bitterly had (I repeat, “had”, not “has”, I do not believe in linear progress of human being, but even Japanese are changing, mind you) been rather cheered by Japanese themselves (and that is one reason why Japanese are called weird).

    But how deep have foreigners inquired into true intention for cheering Japanese to do so?

    Judging from what that author had said, I can easily become that insider in E.U. and U.S., and oh, Australia. Whoa! That is why I wrote in Japanese above. I said, I cannot stand it because of sheer absurdity.

  4. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    I forgot to post this at the end:

  5. toadold said

    Years ago I read a book about teaching conversational English in Japan. This was written back before the real estate bubble burst. What was interesting was the author said recruits would be told you don’t need to learn Japanese, his observation however, was that the recruits that lasted out their contracts and who spent long periods of time in Japan, learned the language to at least some extent and avoided spending all their time in the expat ghettos. He said you should learn enough of the written language so that you could navigate the train system and figure out ordering food.
    I’ve always bemused by the tourist’s syndrome, travel to a foreign country and then want everything to be the same as the home country. There was a German stand up comedian who told about the first time he visited a McDonald’s in the US. He did like he would in Germany and ordered some beer to go with his food. His friends told you can’t get beer here in the states at a McD’s. He replied,”Why do you come here to eat if you can’t get a beer to wash this stuff down?”

  6. Avery said

    When this was linked to me by several friends on Facebook, the part I took issue with was not about Westerners learning Japanese– to each his own– but the author’s fact-free assertion that Koreans can’t become Japanese citizens, because they are Korean. That’s not only trumpeting your own ignorance, it’s actually offensive because he clearly has never spoken to a single Japanese person about this issue.

  7. Andrew in Ezo said

    Anytime two (native English speaking) foreigners meet up in any sundry Japanese city, after the necessary pleasantries about work, their favorite sports teams, devolves into a whingeing session about Japan. I make it a rule to seat myself out of earshot of them at restaurants and cafes (rather difficult in the case of Americans)- otherwise the overheard conversation is maddening.

  8. Ken said

    There is always a Youtube.

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