When In Japan…
To put it mildly, certain members of Japan’s expatriate community seem to have a beef with their adoptive country. Their discontent is hashed out in expat bars and splashed across social media—not to mention the pages of this very magazine. The complaints are varied and colorful—being treated differently due to their “gaijin-ness,” robotic service (or is it just “too good”?) and lack of chances to practice Japanese. Other targets are the poor education system, limited availability of shoe sizes and, unbelievably, even a lack of Christian morals. In my 12 years here I’ve heard it all, but what really bothers me is who I hear it from.
I would expect this sort of spewing from just-off-the-boat people who are dipping after a plateau on the culture shock graph. I didn’t think I would hear it from long-term residents who count on Japan for their bread and butter and have started families here. How can people who should be more integrated, still be so unhappy after all this time? I think part of it comes from a failure to climb into Japanese skin, to try to understand how the Japanese view their own country. In short, thinking how the Japanese think.
By this I don’t mean “going native,” eschewing your own values while wandering around Tokyo in a yukata and talking about how (insert your country) sucks big time. I want expats to consider this: if you were Japanese, would you think things were that bad here? You may find the answer is “no.” You would cry about your failed job interview, laugh with your friends about that awesome movie you just saw, fall in love, fall out of love, get a cat and so on. In other words, you would do all the stuff people do everywhere. How would you feel if some foreigner were to suddenly hit you with: “You know, your education system/fashion/food really bites, and here’s why…” Most of us are not rude enough to directly voice these things, but they definitely come through in our negative attitudes.
If I were in that situation, I might try to share some positive insights about Japan. For example, how utterly safe and sparkly clean it is, or how the service—whether at McDonald’s or Chez Cool—is flawless. I would mention that the trains are always on time, how delicious and healthy the food is, how gorgeous the scenery can be and how my Japanese friends and family are some of the warmest and most genuine people I have ever known. Now how do you feel? Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
As expats, we have an outsider’s view, which is both a gift and a curse. It allows us to see many things that may run contrary to our values and way of thinking. Many can set our blood boiling and we are certainly entitled to let off a little steam once in a while. What we shouldn’t do is point the finger at our country of residence, one that is furnishing our lives whether it be in the short, long or indefinite term. We should never label it somehow deficient or “worse” than our own. Constant nay-saying not only makes us sad and limits our world view, it also sets a bad example for other expats and distances us from Japanese people, from whom we have much to learn.
If you are unhappy here, blaming Japan is pointless. That’s likely just your problem. Feeling isolated by your English-only life? Get on the proverbial horse and learn some Japanese. Hate working in the English education system? Find another job or work to fix the system. “Trapped here” by a Japanese spouse? Move somewhere else together, or head to court. However you got here, it’s your choice to stay or go. Whatever you decide, just don’t complain to me about it.