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The Uni-Files

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

October 19, 2011

Has Charisma Man jumped the shark?

We'll call her Terrie. Terrie from New Zealand. She was quite glamorous-- and very aware of it. We worked together as teachers. The previous evening she had met my wife, who is Japanese, at a school-related function. She remarked how attractive my wife was. Thank you-- that's nice to hear. Then Terrie went on...

"White guys can upgrade their girlfriend levels when in Asia, can't they?"
"I mean, you know. Your wife is very attractive. If you were still in Canada or New Zealand you probably wouldn't ... well...". Terrie never had a problem with bluntness.
"You mean, if we were back in the old country guys like me probably wouldn't have a shot at babes like you?"
"Exactly. Now you're getting it!". She was being only half tongue-in-cheek. I appreciated the frankness.

Terrie later married an Irish guy living and teaching in Japan. Ironic, that.

I wasn't bothered about the insinuation that I was living above my allotted 'significant other' station in Japan (as if all the men back in Canada are Porsche-driving Brad Pitt-lookalike investment bankers with Stanford post-doc degrees). Terrie's teasing and my response were both light-hearted. I never get offended by such remarks and I still don't (in fact the only thing I get offended by are people who claim to be offended all the time). But over time I've just grown tired of it. You know, the whole White-English-Teacher-in-Japan-as-Charisma-Man motif. Johnny Bravo Goes to Nova.

Charisma fans...

Like most people, I enjoy the Charisma Man comics. The pretext of the dopey white loser from 'Planet Canada' who is transformed (at least in his own mind) into a desirable English-teaching he-stud superman when in Japan is clever. And everyone gets tagged. White guys are pathetic, untalented, wimps whose egos and self-images soar to preposterous proportions in Japan. Western women, Charisma Man's mortal enemies, are cantankerous, aggressive shrews. Japanese women are treated as goggle-eyed, bimboesque playthings. Japanese men are portrayed as goofy, socially awkward, xenophobes. Non-white, non-Japanese people don't seem to exist. Of course the stereotypes are overblown- and we thus occasionally we spot a bit of ourselves or people we know in the caricatures. Harmless self-deprecating ironic fun.

No, the problem isn't with the comic itself but rather how the personae has been appropriated by the NJ community as a catch-all, go-to prototype for just about any Western male in the EFL profession in Japan. It was once amusing but now it has become too predictable.

The thing is, among NJ circles in Japan the only caricatures among the above that people feel confident about actually applying (without fear of reproach) are the two about the males. (not being Japanese I can't speak for the men here but I think they get the worst stereotype rap, and particularly from the type of people who rail against any type of stereotyping).

Back-home loser

But ok. I'm supposed to be 'privileged' as a WM in Asia so I have to take the lumps that come with it. The group who allegedly controls the power and the narrative has to accept being a legitimate target-- or so the whole social karma meme seems to go. We have to accept the barbs with good grace. So I will suffer the slings of being thought of as a spotty-faced, romantically-challenged, back-home loser, whose only previously qualifications were manning the grill at a fast food joint-- even though this portrayal is highly inaccurate (I got promoted to the drive-thru window!)

But Western WMs whining about oppression is unseemly. So instead, let me put it in terms of the Charisma Man label not only being inaccurate but also as having become tired, passe, hackneyed, overdone, past its sell-by date. It has become the default 'touche' reproach of choice for the most minor of alleged WM transgressions. In short, it has jumped the shark.

'Cholesterol Man?'

Perhaps we need a new character to represent the WM English-teaching-in-Japan demographic (how about a cynical 40-something, left-leaning, highly computer-literate, twice divorced borderline alcoholic, with a bit of a paunch, poor grooming and fashion sense, who thinks 50-year old political slogans are still radically subversive-- Cholesterol Man, anyone?) Why? For one thing, I would say that economics has caused the number of fly-by-night English teachers to have dropped and long-termers are now ubiquitous. Jobs are precious- more teachers are more serious about being serious. And it's also because the reality is that we live with some of the burdens of the Charisma Man image but without reaping any of the benefits. I wish it were true that comely women threw themselves at me with abandon but that hasn't happened -- oh, for days!

And of course attempts to validate the Charisma Man caricature are particularly insulting to Japanese women, since it assumes they are so isolated, naive, or insulated that they have low, or no, standards when it comes to rating the attractiveness of foreign men-- as if they have never as much as seen a photo of men like Jude Law or David Beckham. 30 plus years ago, sure we may have been a touch exotic in the smaller J-burgs perhaps, but in the new millennium, when every Japanese woman under 40 has either travelled abroad or has at least seen a few thousand or so foreign men in their cities? Sorry- dream on, Romeo! Any such illusions of self-grandeur Western men have in Japan these days evaporates about 15 minutes after Mr. Newbie has passed through immigration control.

'You actually have qualifications?'

I also wish that my Charisma-isms were so highly regarded in the workplace that doors opened up for me without effort but really, how many foreigners here can say that their foreignness has been a catalyst, rather than a detriment, in terms of gaining long-term employment or meaningful promotion? I know that in my own position I have to keep proving to some of my peers that I have an academic pedigree, that I can and do produce research and am not simply here as the token ( and by extension, expendable) foreign guy (beautiful as I may be) who chats in English to goggle-eyed students. You know, things like being labeled 'Mike sensei' at faculty meetings (which is particularly galling if your name isn't 'Mike'), being introduced as 'our foreign teacher', or having peers be surprised that you actually have a graduate degree in the field and a list of publications.
(Disclaimer- while only the latter has happened at my current place of employment, I have encountered all of them in various locales previously-- from both Japanese and NJ, male and female alike-- as have many other teachers in positions similar to mine). We don't need these scenarios exacerbated by the Charisma Man shtick.

"Licentious Linguistics"

I attended a presentation called "Licentious Linguistics: White Western Men as English Teachers in Japan" by Dr. Roslyn Appleby from the University of Technology, Sydney at the Beijing AILA Conference earlier this year. Appleby's observations (she hasn't worked or lived in Japan herself) were based upon several interviews with young Australian men, most with minimum teaching qualifications, who had in their formative (between graduation and finding a career) years worked as English teachers in Japan. And... here comes the part that you will not believe so please grip your armrests tightly ...they spent a lot of time carousing with local girls. Moreso, it seems, than in becoming serious, skilled ESL teachers. Whodathunkit?!

Moreover, the presenter noted, the image of meeting an attractive WM chat partner (or more) through the Eikaiwa school was a part of many advertisement campaigns (forget for a moment that just about every such school expressly forbids dalliances with customers since any would-be-lothario is siphoning off potential income from the business as well as the fact that attractive WF are equally present in the ads). Businesses using attractive or eligible-looking role models to lure customers?! Surely not!

And guess what? Germans occasionally drink beer!

Not surprisingly Charisma Man outtakes occupied a good number of Appleby's presentation slides. The problem is that these days just about every white guy teaching English in Japan gets tagged with the Charisma Man brand at some point, especially if his wife/gf is Japanese. I think the current criteria for being labeled a Charisma Man, other than being a white male in Japan, consists of roughly, 1) having drunk a beer in close proximity to another white guy and 2) having ever talked about local women. A typical claim may go like this:
WM: (to the izakaya waitress) I'll have a Suntory Premium. (The waitress goes away. Then, to a fellow imbibing teacher) Hmmm. Friendly waitress.
Fellow Imbiber: Jeez, get a load of Charisma Man here!
WM: That's it. I'm outta here. I've got a softball game at my frat house tonight. (Chugs his beer)

Such Charisma Man accusations occur even if the person in question has been here in Japan over ten years, speaks the language, is happily married, does his academic research, doesn't feel obligated to chat up young ladies in bars, and has no illusions about his worsening metabolism or memories of a hairline. I mean, I can enjoy self-delusion to a point, but as a middle-aged university teacher I cannot allow me to envision myself as Charisma Man to my students anymore than I can daydream that I am Sidney Crosby when I go ice-skating.

Casey's 'unfair' response

Anyway, after Appleby's presentation, I was approached by a fellow Japan-based dead white male university teacher who had attended the same presentation and looked a bit put out. We'll call him Casey. Casey is a man of such gentle countenance, so widely known for his philanthropy and egalitarianism, that he makes Peter Gabriel look like a football hooligan. There is more chance of Ichiro Ozawa starring in a Takazakura Revue show than there is of Casey chatting up ladies in the local izakaya.

"Mike, what did you think of that presentation?" Casey asked. Now, any fist-waving histrionics about it being a man-hate fest wouldn't be warranted-- it wasn't like that at all. It was well-presented, nothing incendiary. I remarked that I didn't understand the point of making this into a presentation theme. I mean, some young Aussie males go abroad to teach English, are less than serious about ESL, and chase girls. I'm not sure how or why that is something that needs to be conveyed at a linguistics conference.

"I thought it was a little.... unfair", Casey replied. "Not really representative of English teachers in Japan". He added (correctly IMO) that the sample of men interviewed represented a pretty narrow sub-culture of white, Western men in Japan, namely 'bogans' (actually, Casey didn't use that bit of Aussie slang but if you're not familiar with it the mere sound of the word should tell you all you need to know). This is far from representative of the WM diaspora in Japan, and although Appleby acknowledged this fact in the presentation itself, the promotional blurb for the presentation certainly doesn't do anything to minimize the "Tsk tsk, Charisma Man= WM English teachers in Japan" association.

Now I'm just waiting for someone to comment about how 'Charisma Man' my attitude is in this article. After all, I've made a few lame jokes, have referred to women, beer, and sports and the article is accompanied by a photo of my badass WM visage. Rest assured that such comments will cause me to pull at my jagged spike of blonde hair and bang my ruggedly chiseled jaw on the keyboard.

« Is this really an improvement for Japanese universities? Critiquing a critique | Main | Workshy, layabout teachers should pay back salaries »


The unfairness of the image of ‘Charismatic Man’ is certainly that it paints a false image of us schlubs here in Japan. The unfairness it suggests is that we, white male amateur academics, are batting higher up in the order than we should be. We’re playing on the first line when we really should be on the bench where we belong. How dare we try to date out of our league?! Is this not also an unfair criticism of western female that she believes this to be a fair criticism to make? I’d like to think that the success of many here is because partners back on Main St., USA or Robson St., Canada, don’t see through the Brad Pitted goggles they wear. A compliment to Japanese women for seeing what so many ‘back home’ were missing. The stereotype really unfairly targets just about every permutation of the actors in these scenarios. Japanese men are being unfairly painted as lacking – well, just about everything, foreign men are daring to rise above their station in life, western women are, as you note, ‘shrews’, and Japanese women are ‘bimboesque’. The only group untouched by this would seem to be the actual lothario demographic. Among many other fine qualities, I am a middle-aged, white male with thinning hair and an expanding waistline. Why shouldn’t I have a beautiful partner? Because I am a (see above) m-a,wm/th+ew? I should sweep the floors and turn out the locker room lights before I leave for a return trip to my lonely basement apartment?! Please, say it ain’t so, Joe! I think the perpetration of this 'Charisma Man' image is made by some who wish it were actually true so perhaps it would explain their own feelings of inadequacy.

I don’t understand this – and neither does my supermodel wife!


Uncharismatic Man

(I, too, have made a few lame jokes, mixed a few metaphors, made references to sports, and women, BUT I made no beer references. So, I think I’m ok.)

Good article, Mike. That "Charisma Man" image is pretty funny. On the other hand, for white females in Japan life can be very different. If one is married, she somehow loses her name and identity and becomes "** Sensei no okusan." No matter what weight, we are too big to buy clothes or shoes and are relegated to internet shopping, and end up feeling like a giant in the land of Lilliput. Not so good for the female psyche.
Just wanted to put in a word for the shrew-like WF. I can't help but think that there is some truth that life in Japan is easier for WM than WF.

I think I might have seen the same presentation, or something similar, at JALT a couple of years ago, and I too wondered about its far-reaching claims. As a JET, many years ago, within a newly-graduate age group, there was a fair number of "Charisma men" but, as time marches on, he hasn't been among the majority of any my WM contacts in Japan (those in long-term relationships with Japanese women), and I think that as people do stay in the country longer, and get more established in their careers, and obviously make lasting relationships with locals and other expats that the "Charisma Man" tag needs to be drastically redefined if it is to fit all WM in Japan. I

t does seem like a strange subject to fill a whole presentation, and I think it might be more fitting as a subtopic in a wider presentation exploring relationships with ex-pats, or whatever the aim of the presentation is/was.The ideas do seem to be lifted from the 90s, but that's not to say that there aren't a bunch of college graduates, and perhaps older, who fit the bill, but I don't think it is enough to say it's the majority, and I think the statement needs to be heavily qualified. It is true, there are two people in a relationship, and your statement that carte blanche comments about "from zero to hero" can be insulting, not only to the WM, but to the partner who has chosen to be with them.

Thanks for the comments.

I think that ex-pats will always be pigeon-holed wherever and whoever they are (often self-pigeon-holed). Almost by definition, an ex-pat or immigrant subculture exists. This will usually include the mixed bag of perps and struggles, and perhaps we should expect this when we make the choice to live abroad.

The big question is, is the depiction from inside this community up-to-date and accurate? As clever and amusing as Charisma Man comics are I think the way the image has been appropriated by much of the Western expat/immigrant/naturalized community in Japan misses the mark.

And yes, I would like to see a clever and amusing depiction of 'Western Woman's' perspective on life here.

I, a white male, studied abroad in Italy. I might as well have been invisible when it came to Italian women. Yet even the mousiest woman on my program got attention from Italian men. Some of the women really liked it. Some knew these guys were only after one thing. They still liked it. It's all relative.

Hi Mike,
I read your comments on my AILA conference presentation some time ago, and would like to respond because I think the blog misrepresented my research. I won’t go into details, but make two quick points. First, there were errors made in regard to my participants’ qualifications and experience. Second, a crucial punctuation point was omitted: my title was “Licentious Linguistics?” With a question mark. In my presentation, I was questioning the old ‘Charisma Man’ stereotype. The point of my research is to hear about men’s views and experiences. Please feel free to email me if you would like to discuss this further.

Thanks for writing Roslyn.

I note that you would prefer further discussion by email but for the sake of a blog response I'd like to point out a few things worth considering below.

Indeed your presentation title included the question mark after "Licentious Linguistics" as you noted but I feel that represents more of a suggestion that this is the case regarding Eikaiwa teaching in Japan rather than a questioning of the stereotype. This would be augmented by the fact your presentation at AILA began with a discussion of the prevalence of the Western man-Asian woman motif maintained by popular media as desirable items to each other. This was later supported by anecdotes from your subjects regarding the role and function of Eikaiwa schools in Japan, that they basically used the 'Gaijin boyfriend' card as a recruiting tool (my paraphrase). The Charisma Man comic samples you showed (qualified Western women losing the job to a completely unqualified Charisma Man) also extended this theme.

As for the subjects that you focused upon from your research, I remember both described as being not particularly interested/qualified in ESL/EFL teaching as a profession (you quoted one saying something along the lines that men who do pursue EFL/ESL are 'gay') and had treated their Japan experience more as a lark in which meeting women played a prominent role (again, which was consistent with your overall theme).

I realize that you weren't making sweeping judgments about men teaching in Japan (although your title might lead one to think so) but I truly don't feel that your presentation was misrepresented in my blog post.


Hi Mike,

thanks for the interesting blog post. I certainly agree with your broader point that the Charismaman motif, while funny, has at times unfairly been used to negatively characterize all white male teachers in Japan. As someone who did attend Appleby's presentation at AILA Bejing, however, I'd respectfully differ with you on two points:

1) Unlike you, I think that the subject of Appleby's presentation is highly appropriate to a linguistics conference (Obviously thats why I attended it!). There has been a fair amount of work done recently on the broader socio-cultural aspects that shape the teaching experience (Patrick Kiernan's exploration of English teachers' narratives is perhaps an illustrative example of such work), but there is much that remains to be done. Racialized and sexualized stereotypes of both students and teachers are, of course, part of this picture, and I see Appleby's work relevant in this way.

2) I guess the interpretation of any presentation is a subjective thing. My interpretation is, to be sure, no more legitimate than yours. But for what it is worth, I don't think that Appleby was suggesting that the majority of white male teachers were actually charismamen at all. Rather, I think she was exploring how her informants are often positioned in Japanese society, and how they resisted/accepted these positions themselves. As I understood it, she was giving voice to some individuals who were offering their unique narratives about teaching English in Japan. That's it.

Anyway, thanks for a thought provoking post.



Hi Lachlan.

I do recognize the validity and importance of the socio-cultural narratives of teachers as a research area. The problem for me in thie AILA presentation case was not that Dr. Appleby was painting with too broad a brush -- (although the subtitle "Western men teaching English in Japan" might give one cause to think so). After all, Dr. Appleby quickly made it clear that her subjects were a certain type of male demographic-- well we know the type.

The problem is that this demographic is a bit narrow (as is the type of language school Dr. Appleby was referring to) and as such, the question of relevancy comes into play. To what degree are such teachers repesentative of the male Western teacher in Japan 'narrative'? Even more, is this Charismaman personfication current? I'd argue (as I have) that this motif has been done to death, that we all know of the caricature, yes- it has jumped the shark- and also that we all know the lure of using attractive people in advertising.

So unfortunately, I didn't feel that Dr. Appleby was saying anything more than such 'lad' teachers and schools exist in Japan (and Inot only Japan!). For those of us in Japan (and probably in many other countries) the response is likely to be, yes well we know of this model.

And if it was intended for an outside-Japan audience... well is it a contemporary and representative depiction? I don't think so... but even if it is, was there any further point beyond that some young lads will be lads and that some businesses use attractiveness to lure customers?

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