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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

January 14, 2010

Japan- Love it, Leave it, 'Change' it, Or...?

Japan- Love it or leave it! Does the old redneck adage hold any water?
I think it might.

OK- Today's entry is not about English teaching or universities but I hope you'll let me indulge in a little socio-political discourse anyway.

I think we've all come across NJs who are so unrelentingly and persistently negative about Japan, with the badmouthing becoming so predictable and boring that we can't help but wonder, yes I'll say it out loud: WHY DO YOU STAY HERE? After all, I can't imagine many of us are refugees, who can't return to our countries of origin for fear of losing our lives. And we are not usually so destitute or neglected that we are economically forced to endure (Yes- I am talking about English-teaching types here). OK- some have been assigned to Japan by a company but those 'sentences' are usually temporary. I also can't imagine too many such people would be reading this blog.

Does this then mean that the choice to stay here forces us to be non-critical, appreciative of whatever Japan puts in our paths? Obviously not. But I certainly think there is an heirarchy for complaining- that is, some bases and motivations for critique are more legitimate than others.

So then, what exactly are my criteria for legimiately carping about Japan?

First, the legitimacy of a complaint has to be connected to how much one has invested in this country. So, greater complaint legitimacy resides in the following order:
1. Citizens- those who have gone through the naturalization process have the greatest right to present their beefs. They've made the ultimate investment in the country. Score a 10/10 for griping privileges.
2. Permanent residents- they have also made their intentions of full participation in this society known. Their beefs may not carry the same pure weight as that of a citizen but they have still made a notable investment.
3. Other NJ tax payers- These people either haven't yet or don't wish to make the same commitment to this society that the above two categories show. But as tax payers and participants in this society they have some legitimacy in complaining, although it cannot- and should not- resonate as much as that of a citizen's.

Running parallel to the above are those who can answer 'Yes' to the following questions:
1. Do you have children who are Japanese, and especially, do you intend to have them grow up in Japan? OK- That's an investment. Give yourself some legitimacy points.
2. Is your spouse Japanese? Ditto- but not quite as big an investment as with the kids.
3. Are you a land, house, or business owner? Yes.You have legitimate interests too. Give yourself some carping kudos.
Of course, you will generally find that those with the greatest 'citizenship' commitment to Japan are those who have the family, business, land/house cards to play as well.

But wait, there's more...
What is the scope of your critique? If you are, say, a land owner and you want to moan about land reform practices or deed titling in Japan the fact that the content of your beef and your investment match adds more credibility to your rhetoric. But if your scope is a critique of ALL OF JAPAN, INCLUDING EVERY INSITUTION AND THE PEOPLE THEREIN, then you're just bitchin'. OK- This might be acceptable in a bar or some such place where a certain whining quotient is a given but don't expect it to carry any social or political clout. Don't whine when 'nothing is done' about it.

Next- what's the motivation for your complaints? Is it truly out of concern for 'building a better Japanese nation'? OK let's be VERY careful here (tangential rant warning)--

If this is your motivation I will argue that this is the mandate of the citizen first and foremost and those with immediate family as citizens close behind. But for others who take this line let me raise the missionary, neo-colonial charge- and this applies in particular to pasty-faced, melanin-challenged Westerners like me. Listen up- how do you think it looks when folks like us presume to be 'saving' other nations by demanding the establishment of attitudes, institutions, and values that only had validity 'back home'? "Look Japan, we want to lead you on the path to light and righteousness which we know of, for we have seen its shining virtue back in Flin Flon, Manitoba". A bit patronizing n'est ce pas?

Imagine, if you will, some VietNamese people in Australia saying that they are protesting Australian human rights to 'help Australia become a fully modern nation'. And imagine that this notion of saving Australia and changing it into a fully modern nation consists largely of telling Australians that they should have more VietNamese values, that they should adopt more progressive VietNamese traditions and institutions. Add to this the fact that most of these protestors have not taken out Australian citizenship, nor do they plan to. Pile on top of that a hypothetical in which many of the whingers have little or no English ability or understanding of Australian society or history- or that they get most of their alleged insights from dubious internet websites written in VietNamese.

So, people who want to think of their complaints as somehow being beneficial to Japan, that you are gracing this country with your noble spirit of opposition, that your protests operate under the banner of personal largesse, think again. (rant concluded)

The above applies of course to those who say they don't want to leave Japan, but to 'change' it. I mean, if someone married to a Japanese calls for reform of the koseki system, this kind of call for change seems reasonable. But to 'change Japan' as a whole, as in alter the very fabric and foundations of this society? Uh no. (Prepare for tangential rant #2)

This is for you, Mr/Mrs 'I want to change Japan': When you first chose to come to Japan (and for 99% of us it was a choice) were you not aware that Japan was not a Western country? That the society was based upon certain principles and values that were, shall we say, less familiar to us? And wasn't this in fact part of the attraction? That you were truly living somewhere else and not in a facsimile of Adelaide, Milton Keynes, or Columbus? If so, why would you want Japan to become 'not Japan'? Did you not expect that as a visible minority (don't play PC games with this term please, you know what I mean) you would be marked as different- positively AND negatively (just as you will be in most of the non-Western world)? Did you not expect to be thought of- and even think of yourself as- an outsider? If not, why didn't you do your homework before you came?

Now- does my little rant above excuse those occasional cases of out and out hostility and exclusionism that we all know of and perhaps have faced? No. But the NJ who claims he/she wants to 'change Japan' is talking about reforming the very country they have chosen to live in, not just how to deal with the occasional bigot or ignoramus (I suppose some may feel that ignorance and bigotry are systemic here, a wholesale national violation of 'human rights', and is therefore endemic to the populace at large- such attitudes usually reveal more about the speaker/writer's own prejudices rather than 'human rights' issues per se).

Anyway, don't you think that most Japanese would find this attitude at best arrogant, and at worst, threatening? Hell, I do. Sure as eggs is eggs, I wouldn't want Japan to suddenly change into Vancouver- East. Because, with warts and all, I chose to live in THIS society and within THIS culture. Now that doesn't make me an Uncle Tom or a willing punching bag. There are some things that I think could be improved here and in my small, grass roots way I can and do work for change in those narrow areas (especially those which I'm knowledgeable about and have a vested interest in) but I'm not on a God-given mission to 'change the country', especially into a version of what I left behind.

(rant #2 finished)

(Back to the main script)
You also lose credibility points if your motivation is smugness or sanctimony. Let's face it some people just love, in fact make a virtual cottage industry of, telling others how wrong and backwards they are. Such people actively hope for, actually go out of their way, to try and induce racism or ignorance in others so that they can them triumphantly claim 'victim' moral highground. These are the kind of people who are trying very hard to get offended, to find fault as a matter of course, and then interpret it in the worst possible way. This way they can feel justified when they put their hands on their hips and shout 'xenophobe' (which apparently is supposed to shock the alleged xenophobes into becoming tolerant, accepting people). Yeah, right, sure.

You also lose brownie points if you are doing nothing about whatever you find so objectionable. And, damn it, too many people conflate whining or bitching with showing concern, with 'activism'. As if those who don't chime in with the bashing are apathetic or tacitly accepting the status quo.

OK. Visible in-your-face protest might fall under the rubric of 'doing something' but here again we are subject to the legitimacy criteria I've outlined above. Is your critique focused or just a verbal volley of spittle launched at Japan en masse? Are you doing it mainly to point the smug finger of accusation at 'them'? Have you invested enough in this society, or that aspect of Japan that your objection addresses, to make your protest relevant?

There's more to consider. Is your oppositional rhetoric based upon sufficient knowledge regarding the background to the situation you are questioning? Or is it just a sophomoric knee-jerk riposte against Japan Inc. (or the comic-book villain-style 'Team Japan')? Can you read and speak the language sufficiently to make a well-founded, informed claim? If so- kudos. Your claim has a stronger foundation. Are you familiar with the background to, and the wide-ranging function(s) of, the object of your wrath? If it becomes apparent to Japanese associates that you aren't you will obviously lose legitimacy points.

And guess what. At that point, if J or NJs start thinking, "If you don't like it here, why don't you leave?" it will be because you've actually lent credence to that old redneck adage.

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Mike, I am curious to know just what kind of complaints are you referring to? Can you give some examples of some common complaints that you hear?

I agree with your premise when it comes to petty complaints which I often hear from fellow NJs, for example "Why aren't there more garbage cans around town". But I get the feeling you are talking about larger issue complaints.

Hi Mike. I agree with all you wrote except one very small thing. I would argue that having a Japanese spouse does not elevate one in terms of 'legitimacy points' over a non-Japanese couple. In my area of Japan there are plenty of non-Japanese, permanent resident, land-owning couples. Perhaps they have more legitimacy points than someone married to a Japanese person because they have not had the same built in help in navigating the systems required to set up a household in Japan. I would put non-J couples quite high on that part of your lists. I agree with 99% of your post and I, too, get tired of those who whine with a colonial attitude. Fortunately, I've managed to distance myself from them by working in a Japanese organization that only hires longer term people for its foreign positions. Thankfully, I work with a wonderful bunch of Japanese people, too. Happy New Year and Cheers.

Hi Mark Howarth (Using just 'Mark H.' will not suffice with Mark Hunter also being a frequent commentator here).

Actually, I'm referring to all kinds of complaints. However, a focused complaint (i.e. lack of garbage cans) with a sincere motivation (not just waving one's fist at Japan), made by someone with a stake in this society- particularly a long-term stake- is more legitimate that some generalized blanket statement such as "The Japanese look down on other people" or "This society needs to learn about human rights".

In order have more legitimacy in making the latter type of claim one should be in an extremely knowledgeable position regarding the language and the society and have a very large stake in this society in order to expect any ear-bending to occur (at the level of bar room chinwag I'd just let it go although it can start to get annoying even in those circumstances).

Interestingly, most of those people with high legitimacy points tend to avoid making such crass generalizations in the first place precisely because they know the reality is far more complex.

Hi Mark Hunter and happy new year to you too!

I accept your point re NJ couples. The consideration that would elevate a J-NJ couple (all other factors being equal) would be that the J spouse is a citizen and is thus more roundly tied to this society (and quite likely, no other). That spouse is a voter and thereby has the special responsibilities that come with being a citizen and will almost certainly have fewer non-Japan options regarding life choices than the NJ couple.

Hi Mike. Many non-J couples choose not to become citizens because they would lose their original citizenship upon becoming Japanese and, in many cases, their families have spent generations in Japan. I feel their ties to Japan are just as strong as Japanese people even they can't vote, yet. Also, we need to remember that refugees don't have a fall back plan, in most cases. Cheers and have a good one.

Hi again Mark Hunter. You are, of course, addressing largely the Korean and Chinese population in Japan (although I admit there are other smatterings of people who fall into the category you described).

Although many are thoroughly ""tied to Japan in terms of language, acculturation and so on, as you describe (although the choice to acculturize can vary among some members of those communities, their CHOICE not to take up Japanese citizenship, if it is indeed due to fear of losing citizenship of a country they have never lived in, effectively mitigates their 'ties' to Japan in terms of this one important aspect, as a direct consequence of their own choice.

Also, I would reiterate the fact that a naturalized Japanese citizen can vote and hold office means that they have a greater responsibility and stake in this society, precisely because they can effect change more.

A refugee who leaves his/her own country to settle permanently in Japan but does not want to give up citizenship of the country he/she left seems to be of two minds to me- a having your cake scenario. Dual citizenship recognition could help that but I assume that they come to Japan knowing that Japan does not (yet) recognize dual citizenship in such cases (nor do most countries that refugees tend to come from BTW).

I do not plan to take J citizenship myself but as a consequence of that I don't expect to receive the full privileges and rights of J citizens (such as voting and holding public office). I also accept that as a result of my choice my voice does not resonate as loudly as someone who has made the choice to naturalize. Of course neither does this mean that my human rights should be fully abrogated in Japan (I'm pretty sure you know that human rights as such are not a zero-sum game but some people are clearly not).


What are the odds of 2 Mark H's being on this blog? Maybe Mr. Hunter and I should janken and the loser has to change his name.

Anyway, got a question for you Mike. Lets say 2 NJs are discussing a "focused complaint", to use your term, such as "why is it when you go to a bakery and buy several pieces of pastry the clerk will indivudally wrap each one". Now, one of the NJs, lets call him Mike, has been here many years, has a family here etc. and thus has more legitimacy points than the other NJ, lets call him Mark, who just came off the boat. Imagine that Mark's argument is that it isn't necessary to indivudally wrap each pastry and it is harmful to the environment to be using so many plastic bags. While Mike argues that it is part of Japanese cutlure to neatly present items to customers (or some other argument supporting the need to indivudally wrap things).

Would you say that Mike's argument is more legitmate than Mark's becuase he has built up more legitimacy points? In cases where there is no lcear answer to an issue being complained about should those of us who have more legitmacy points be granted more weight to our arguments?

Mark H(owarth)

Hi Mike. You are right I think. Wouldn't it bit great if more Japanese citizens actually could become more active in civic affairs and political change. Re 'legitimacy points', I think couples from overseas who move to Japan have probably experienced much more difficulty in navigating the beaurocracy than a foreign person who marries a Japanese person. The latter foreign person has a built in secretary, if you like, while the foreign couple need outside help, if they don't speak good Japanese. The foreign couple are in a very legitimate position to then be able to critique (complain) about shortcomings in the system.

Hi Mr. Howarth.

Yours is a very good question. Offhand, I'd say that Mike should get more legitimacy points because he's Mike.

That aside, I'd say that several factors come into play (some might be conflicting). For example, is Mark constantly complaining about Japan? Does he go out of his way to connect this one incident to more generalized complaints about Japan- "They have no concern for the environment" etc? If so, I'd be inclined to think that he's just letting off steam or he's having personal issues regarding his stay in the country (motivational legitimacy).

Next, is Mark actually aware of the role and function of presentation, and possibly the importance of visual hygiene (for lack of a better term) in Japan? If he is but still wants to argue the environmental line I'd give his complaint more credibility. If he's not aware of these factors I might assume that he isn't aware of all the relevant factors and therefore, in my mind, his argument is weakened.

Finally, there's the form of the complaint. Is it just man to man- then no biggie. But if Mark takes his complaint to the Food Packaging Association of Japan and The Ministry of Health and Environment and so so, then I would say that a citizen doing so, or a person with other long-term vested interests in Japan, would- and should- be given more credence.


Hi Mark Howarth. It wouldn't be the first time I had to change my name. I actually only frequent two other sites, but on one of them my 'name' conflicted with a longtimer and I changed it. Glad to see you enjoy debating the finer points of Mike's articles. He certainly raises a lot of issues that no one else seems to get round to doing. It's a shame that this 'Uni' section couldn't somehow be made the main section of this ELT News site, since most action happens around Mike's entries. Have a good one, eh.

Mike, your point about someone taking a specific example (bakeries individually wrapping stuff) and blowing it up to a larger gripe (japanese don't care about the environment) is an important one to keep in mind. When I hear someone doing this it drives me nuts. There are of course lots of examples one could cite which proves that Japnese people care very much about the environment. Too often though we see one instance and blow it into a large generalization.

Interestingly I find that I often have to remind my students not to do this themselves. Japanese people, as you probably have noticed, are generally quite self-depricating. I often hear students make complaints about their own culture/society and want to become more westernized. For example, a student may see me hold the door for someone entering behind me and they will remark how polite and gentlemanly I am (if they only knew the truth). They will then go on to bemoan Japanese culture and say westerners are more polite. At which point I remind them that just because we hold doors for people doesn't make us more polite in all situations. As NJ teachers I think we have a responsibility to not only love it or leave it but we also can play a role in teaching Japanese to love their own country.

By the way, Mr. Hunter I totally agree with your point on making Mike's blog the main one on ELT News. I rarely check the other ones.

Hi guys.

Thinking about this issue a little more since my last post...

Obviously the force and validity of an argument, regardless of citizenship 'level' and motive for complaint, can come into play. As an old Philosophy major I cannot discard the value of a well-formed argument, one that is internally consistent, and also adheres to the facts.

Thus, if a scientist completely unconnected to Japan discovered that Japanese bakery plastic wrapping was highly toxic, that would obviously trump any local considerations regarding the awareness of Japanese aesthetic or hygienic sensibilities.

A more complex situation would involve the environmental advocate claiming (with some justification) that plastics cause environmental damage. However, the possible 'local knowledge' counter arguments- that Japan's recycling rate for plastics is the world's highest (and therefore arguing from an outsider's perspective might merely reflect the different situation in his/her homeland) or that, say, a 20% decrease in the use of plastics would lead to the loss of 30,000 jobs both in Japan and in some developing country, would certainly temper the force of the environmentalist's more 'generalized argument.

Good point Mike. I was kind of thinking along the same lines. In many arguments/complaints there is no clear right or wrong side to the issue, it often comes down to two differing opinions. But there are certainly cases which could be made where clearly one side is more right than the other (the toxic plastic bags example). In these instances, where there is a clear "right" side to the issue, I don't think legitimacy points hold much value.

That being said, I think your original post was taking issue with the more vague issues we often hear people whinging about. Legitimacy points do indeed come into play in these arguments.

Several interesting comments. I am particularly interested in the comments regarding Japanese customs related to food packaging.

The cooking caper:
When I first came to Japan 18 years ago (how many points do I get for that?), it used to drive me crazy that everything was individually wrapped (after all, I wanted to eat the whole box of cookies in one sessions without a mountain of wrappers on my table). However, upon more serious reflection, having everything individually wrapped means that you can eat fewer cookies (a healthier choice) and have each one stay fresh even after you open the box (more pleasurable than eating stale cookies later on). Additionally, you can pass some around to other guests who visit and not worry about the quality of what you are offering (again, convenient).

Grocery store bags:
My Japanese wife and I go to a local grocery store once a week, and I was originally surprised at the number of people who use plastic bags instead of spending 500yen for a reusable eco bag for their shopping, which are prominently displayed at the customer service check out counter. It's not only good for the environment, but the store actually gives customers with eco bags a small discount (price of the bags?). Additionally, if you line your shopping cart with the eco bag at check-out time, you don't have to bag your own food (saves time and makes shopping easier).

On the surface, it might be easy for someone who has just come to Japan to say something like "Japanese really aren't that environmentally friendly" by merely looking on the surface of this situation at the grocery store. However, after some reflection, I believe that many Japanese prefer to use their plastic shopping bags for garbage waste disposal, giving the same bags double-duty (so to speak), not to mention that Japan is light years ahead of other countries in their efforts to recycle and reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, many people prefer to bag their own groceries at the store, making it easier to sort things when they get home.

In short, there are usually some underlying logical reasons for they way most Japanese do things that don't necessarily seem so obvious on the surface. Next time you come across something that makes you go "Hmmm" and scratch your head, perhaps some reflection into the underlying reason(s) behind the apparent odd behavior will lend some insight into why things are handled differently, as many people have already realized and acknowledge here. Thanks for the insight.

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