Sunday, February 06, 2005

rinji jinsei

Last night was the monthly Kuchi Kuchi DJ event in Omiya, a mix of domestic and imported DJ's spinning an array of genres whose distinctions I have a hard time understanding. One of the main organizers is an English teacher, and he pulled in a lot of white faces, mixing in with the local b-boys and hipsters. One of the people he pulled in was an old friend I hadn't seen since last summer, a Chinese-American English teacher who is just about as nuts about cooking as I am.

While catching up with him and going over our current situations, it began to dawn on me just how rare the two of us are. Everything about English teaching jobs discourages people from striking out on their own, or carving out a niche in Japanese society. Housing is provided for or arranged by most schools, your job itself is a liminal space, the projection of Japanese dreams of "America". Inflated English teacher salaries heighten the unreality. Even socially it's easy to simply get caught up in the narrow network of teachers and foreigner friendly venues. People dissapear forever, back to their home country and their "real life", and Japan was a two year layover, a few photo albums to put on the shelf, a second gap year between graduation and a real career.

Although I crawled my way out of the claustrophobic English teaching circuit and out into lower paying, more personally satisfying work, there's nothing inherently wrong with that world, I've met many wonderful people through it. What I take issue with is the transient mentality it fosters; an extended vacation, a few years of sightseeing in your own neighborhood.

I am currently searching for apartments in my area, the second time I've been in Japan when I've had to go through this process. I would say that close to 80-85% of the landlords I talk to refuse a foreign tenant straight out because they have had a bad experience in the past. The sense of unreality, the lack of consequences leads people to kinds of behavior they wouldn't pull back home; from unproperly seperated trash and strings of noisy parties to unpaid bills and structural damage to the house, all sins are unreal, without consequences. This is Japan, and I'll be on the other side of the world in two months. One bad example is enough for most landlords, who simply don't want to put up with the hassle.

There has also been a rash of military personell and English teachers who routinely scam the trains, simply hopping the gates on the way in and the way out, the staff too busy or intimidated to do anything. If you were a five foot tall middle aged train conductor with a pension would you confront five linebacker built GI's for hopping the gates?

While these are all fairly petty, they add up to a pretty bad image for foreigners, even the clean cut English teacher types. I pretty much see immigration to Japan as a necessity, and myself at the forefront of a massive shift in Japanese society. Japan will never be my home, it is still a redshift away from the US; I have no desire to erase my Americanness. But it is no longer strange, and in many ways no longer foreign. All the pontification on Japanese uniqueness and being treated as an outsider are a mental denial of the inevitable, a multicultural Japan. What I realized last night when catching up with my friend was that whether you are here for two years or twenty, during that time you are not just in Japan, you are Japan.

There was an interesting editorial in Tokyo's free English weekly Metropolis a few weeks ago that takes such a radically different stance from my own but argues it so well that I can't get it out of my mind. Worth a look.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the article. It was very interesting. Do you keep thinking about it because you disagree with it?

Jamie said...

Well, yeah. I just don't know how to take a position like his. On one hand he's not one of these snot-nosed English teachers who show up for a few months and become cultural pundits, spinning out elaborate theories of Japaneseness from the everyday bullshit at their high school. And he also brings up some points I've heard from other long term ex-pats: it's easy to come and be left alone in Japan as a foreigner. You're outside the loop, you can live in peace, people will respect you but always assume you are different, outside. He (quite rightly) criticizes all the Japan apologists, the foreigners who just love everything about traditional Japan, try to be Japanese, and get all prickly when they are rebuffed. Including all of these made his article fairly tricky to critique, but there are a few points I disagree with him on very strongly. First off, he divides the Japan experience into the two above groups, with no in between. I figure I'm in between. Most of my friends here are Japanese, I use Japanese at work, I feel like the issues I'm starting to face here are the same as my Japanese friends. But I have no desire to "be Japanese" and expect nothing more from Japan than what I expect from the states. It's just where I happen to live.