Death By A Thousand Cuts – 1 year later series

(Part of a series of posts marking 1 year since I left Japan)

It’s a year to the day since I left Japan after exactly 10 years and 1 day of living there.
It’s no secret that my departure was long overdue and that by the end I loathed so much about Japan and Japanese society that it was damaging my physical and emotional health continuing to live there.
I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t write about leaving at any length until a year later to give the vitriol time to subside and hopefully be replaced by a more balanced and thoughtful critique…

The short film “Not With A Bang” I made just before I left offers a visual explanation too.

This is long and not as coherent as it should be, but I hope it begins to explain something about why I left, for myself if not for anyone else.

When I first moved to Japan, I knew I understood nothing (or very little) of it as a culture but as time progressed and I learned the language and culture I slowly began to feel like I understood Japan and it’s people. Gradually though I slipped down the other side of the bell curve and increasingly felt like I understood less and less as so much of it made no sense to me.

I can speak a reasonable level of Japanese, I paid my taxes and never committed a crime on Japanese soil. I was polite and courteous unless given a reason not to be and did my best to respect the culture or at least the parts I thought were worthy of respect.

And here comes the first of my problems, almost universally in Japan if one criticizes or wishes to discuss some element of Japanese culture as a foreigner you are greeted with cries of “Why do you hate Japan?” and “If you don’t like it leave”.
There is precious little room for any discussion and more often than not an impasse is reached with the statement “This is Japan. This is how WE do things”.

Much has been written and discussed about the Japanese word for foreigner “外国人”, Gaikokujin – – outside, 国 – country, 人 – person, and the the more commonly used “外人” , Gaijin – 外 – outside, 人 – person, which seems to me at least closer to “outsider”.
Most if not all Japanese people will tell you that the nuance (unlike ALL other nuances in Japanese) is not important and that “Gaijin” conveys none of the supposed slight I always felt from it.
Even if taken that way, to be referred to merely as “foreigner” and not say English, Spanish or Nigerian smacks of an “us & them” attitude frowned upon pretty much everywhere else in the developed world.
But in a country that values belonging to the group above all else, to be constantly referred to as “outsider” and told it means “foreigner” seems at best disingenuous.

Those German guys

The workplace presents another insidious annoyance born of Japan’s age based (as opposed to merit based) hierarchy and institutional xenophobia.
Everyone older and more senior must always be referred to by their surname and the honorific “San”, Suzuki San translating as Mr. (or Ms) Suzuki. This is a hard rule, no younger staff member would dare to call Mr (or Ms.) Suzuki by his/her first name when anyone else was present and if he/she did, the consequences would not be pretty.
At every place I ever worked, however, I was always referred to by my first name “Adrian” or at best “Adrian San” even by much younger staff members.
No big deal you might say, but again, in a country where nuance of language is so terribly important, it displays a lack of respect and more of that “not one of us” attitude that grates.

Japanese people often told me that Kabukicho (Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, famous mostly for its open sex trade and less open but equally famous drug dealers is a part of Shinjuku) was the most dangerous place in Japan and often asked if I wasn’t scared of the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) who openly parade the area.
My reply was always a simple one, “The Yakuza and Kabukicho aren’t scary, if you don’t mess with them they don’t mess with you. The Police? Now that’s a different story. Hands down scariest thing in Japan is the Police & the Justice system”.

Shall we dance?

Uniformed and plain clothes policemen (93.2% men hence the gender biased noun) are everywhere, you see far more of them on a daily basis than you ever would here in the UK. (even in London I can count the number I’ve seen in a week on my fingers, the same fingers wouldn’t last me till lunchtime on a single day in Tokyo). They often cover their faces with the white paper masks Japanese people are so fond of and cover up their badge numbers if you try to write them down.

I was stopped many times just walking down a street minding my own business, often surrounded by 3 or more officers who stood within a few feet of me and did their best to be as intimidating as possible. This was usually for a “gaijin card check” (sic) and bag search.

I fought the law…

Bag searches are common practice and are in fact illegal, unless consent is given, without a warrant and suspicion of committing a specific offense. But having refused on those grounds on a number of occasions only to be met with “Don’t quote the law at us!! What have you got to hide?” and aggressive anger I soon learned that in Tokyo like everywhere in the world, it is best not to question the Police even when they are breaking the law themselves.

Japanese Police can hold you for up to 30 days without charge and with no contact to the outside world. Amnesty International has stated that despite denials they believe beatings and sleep deprivation are common techniques used on people in police custody.
There are numerous cases of people being seriously injured or even dying whilst in Police custody.
No recording of Police or prosecutor questioning is required by law (except in some very limited cases).
Confessions can not later be retracted in court even if the accused claims they were forced.

Scary enough if you are Japanese but, all these powers in a police force that was ordered by 3 time former Tokyo Governor Mr. Ishihara to “regard all foreigners as suspicious”?

Japan has a 99% conviction rate.

In 2009 Japan introduced its “Lay judge” system, a watered down version of a western jury, to try cases of serious crimes. However, the presiding judge can still override the lay judges verdict.
Studies have shown that the lay judges often give out harsher sentences than the prosecution is asking for.

Japan retains the death penalty in a particularly cruel way, giving prisoners typically only a few hours notice sentence will be carried out, with some given no notice at all. Their families, lawyers and the public only notified after the execution has taken place.

There are no “Hate speech” laws and only in May 2016 the first national law to condemn the advocacy of hatred (“hate speech”) towards residents of overseas origin and their descendants was passed. (pay careful attention to that wording so as not to misunderstand that the law criminalizes hate speech itself because it doesn’t)
It is not that uncommon, even in Tokyo, to see shops, bars or other establishments with “No foreigners” signs on their doors, usually justified on the grounds that the proprietors only speak Japanese and foreigners would, therefore, be “troublesome” to accommodate.

Japan is 72nd (Out of 180 countries) in the world for Press freedom but with its super fast internet and therefore access to the whole worlds press that shouldn’t matter.

It does.

The level of English in Japan is shockingly low, despite everyone studying it for 6 years at school. I honestly think it is kept deliberately low, people have access to the web but they can’t understand the English 90% of it is written in so there is no need for Chinese style censorship.

Japan is also 111th (down from 101st last year) in the world gender equality rankings.
This sexism is palpable everywhere, perhaps most troublingly in the artificially high pitched voices and subservience of the average Japanese woman.
This attitude to women is perhaps nowhere more disgustingly portrayed than in the violently sexual manga that can be bought in every convenience store and men read openly in public.
Graphic images of high school aged girls being abducted, raped or otherwise abused and dehumanized interspersed with photographs of real pubescent girls in their underwear in suggestive poses that seemingly no one in Japan seems to find worrying.
Possession of actual child pornography was not illegal until 2014 and that law does not cover anime or manga. It also gives the offender up to a year to dispose of it before facing prosecution.

No country I’ve ever been to hides itself behind a screen of cultural elitism quite like Japan, which considering their architecture, traditional clothes, chopsticks, sushi and writing system are all Chinese is a bit rich.
They are masters of appropriation, I’ve been told straight faced on more than one occasion that pizza is Japanese.
It feels like The Borg made real.

There is at once the 建て前 (tatemae – official stance, public position) of “We feel inferior to westerners, whom we were the victims of in WWII” and the 本音 (hon-ne – true opinion, real intention) of “We are far superior to those filthy unsophisticated animals, we won’t even call ourselves Asians because we are better than those ethnic savages that we killed 20 million of in the same WWII”

The Japanese are true masters of this passive aggressive politeness, the only positive of which is that it’s way better than aggressive-aggressive non-politeness.

The famous Japanese saying “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” nicely illustrates Japan’s shame based culture in which the stick is the fear of failure or losing face as opposed to the carrot of the (false) promise of success used in the West.

I’ll happily admit that as a white, middle-class male I’m not terribly used to having discrimination aimed at me and that these soft Hello Kitty forms of xenophobia pale into insignificance next to the much less cuddly versions people experience in the UK. But levels of unpleasantness is not a competition, discrimination is discrimination whatever form it takes.

I came slowly to understand over my time there that a great deal of this xenophobia is born of ignorance rather than malice.

In one of the most (on the surface at least) developed, literate countries in the world this ignorance is, at best, a poor excuse for attitudes that would be met with derision in more enlightened 21st-century countries.

That’s not to say that some nasty malice isn’t present because it most definitely is. I lost count of the times when, say, for example, politely pointing out to someone that there was a queue and they shouldn’t push in that the immediate response was a very angry “BAKA GAIJIN” (stupid foreigner).
I have been and know personally several other people who have been assaulted whilst the perpetrator used similarly racist language.
What we in the UK would call a hate crime.

It was somewhere I lived for 10 years, it was never my home, could never have been my home. Regardless of how good my Japanese language skills became or how much I had tried to become like them, I would never have been fully accepted, never been allowed in the club.

It led to a mild form of Stockholm syndrome just to survive everyday life and some of its effects still linger.

Now back in my country of birth, I’m often asked “How was living in Tokyo, it must have been amazing!” only to be greeted with confused and disappointed faces when I reply how much I hated it. “Why?” they ask and it is difficult to answer because it is not one big thing that I can point to, but rather a “death by a thousand cuts” that I have tried (as much for my own mental health as for anyone to read) to enumerate here. There are things I have left out, forgotten, blanked from my memory or would take too much explanation and long recounting of anecdotes to bother with.

Don’t, for example even get me started on cycling in Tokyo.

Japan offered me many opportunities and I dearly miss my friends there but the country and I had a deeply toxic relationship and I made a pact with myself the day I left that I would never set foot there again in this life.

A year on and I still hold fast to that promise.

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  • Claros

    Very interesting! Like most of the people that asked you why you left, I did not know all those things.

  • ukraina_phla_v_evropu!

    OMG, dude, you should really stop projecting your unsocial attitude to the whole country :D I’m Living and working here in Japan for almost 9 years. Yep, I’m called by my first name. “not one of us” my ass! We call our president by his first name, just because he thinks himself “cool and progressive” and like to be addressed that way. Police are scary? Maybe if you look as a typical rapist, tattooed like shit or walk naked. I’m not. That’s why I only talk with police officers, when I need them, talk in Japanese and actually get help. If the whole country is “damaging physical and emotional health” of yours, maybe it’s something wrong with YOU in the first place?)

  • komrath

    What about accepting the fact, that your experience may be completely different than his, and that’s okay? Maybe as Ukrainian (as your nick would suggest), anything is better for you than the shit-hole Ukraine is lately (corruption, and constant breath of Putin on your necks). He lived 10 years, didn’t like it, just accept his story. No need to be passively-aggressive, and completely disregard his perspective, “because you have it good” ;-)

  • komrath

    Hah, I get constant “why do you live in Germany if you don’t like some obscure retarded rules we have here?!” quite often, so maybe it’s not only Japan that has that “our club” mentality? ;-)

  • Something like that is understandable though. For most of us how we do things is just what we’ve grown up with and consider it normal even if, compared to the rest of the world, it isn’t. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that most people who come to live in another country do so voluntarily. As insane as the local customs and culture might seem, it’s not up to those people to change that and the locals would be justified in considering it insulting. If somebody comes to my country and hates the fact that prostitution and euthanasia are legal, drug use is decriminalised, and that some gay people are celebrating their 16th wedding anniversary, then they are entitled to their opinion and even disapprove, but there’s no way in heck I’d allow them to attempt to change any of that. Then yes, they’re better off leaving. Similarly, I don’t expect to be able to do anything about the culture of a country that I visit, even if for an extended period of time. The us vs. them mentality is probably quite strong in many cultures.

    That said, I can totally see how all of the things in the article would lead to getting disillusioned and eventually just hating the country. It’s good that he got out.

  • Daire O’Neill

    Lived in Tokyo for 5 years, doing business there for 8. I strongly disagree with many of the claims in this article. Many of them are absurd or simply untrue, so I’ll just pick a couple here.
    “At every place I ever worked, however, I was always referred to by my first name “Adrian” or at best “Adrian San” even by much younger staff members.”
    I worked as a software dev at 2 very traditional Japanese companies. I was usually referred to “First name” – san, sometimes as “Family name”-san. Close friends or colleagues would sometimes call me by first name. I’m quite sure this is due to Japanese people’s misunderstanding of first and second names in the West. If you introduce yourself as Adrian, they will probably call you Adrian-san as they may not be sure if it’s your first name or family name. That’s how their own naming convention works, as you can see by observing how they introduce themselves. They are not purposely trying to offend you or show a “lack of disrespect”!
    “I was stopped many times just walking down a street minding my own business, often surrounded by 3 or more officers who stood within a few feet of me and did their best to be as intimidating as possible. “
    I was never stopped once in 8 years, nor were any of my many Western friends. All my dealings with the police were pleasant, they were always respectful and willing to help me.
    “Bag searches are common practice “
    No. They’re not.
    “a police force that was ordered by 3 time former Tokyo Governor Mr. Ishihara to “regard all foreigners as suspicious”? “
    Shintaro Ishihara is an extreme right wing, xenophobic lunatic. This is a guy who also blamed Japanese people for the 2011 earthquake stating, that “punishment from heaven’ because Japanese have become greedy”, and denies that the Nanjing massacre ever happened. He is unpopular even in Japan and is hardly a credible data point.
    “It is not that uncommon, even in Tokyo, to see shops, bars or other establishments with “No foreigners””
    This is also not true. They do exist, but it is not common. (I would struggle to think of anywhere in the thousands of place I’ve been to in Tokyo and greater Japan).
    “Don’t, for example even get me started on cycling in Tokyo.”
    Have you tried cycling in Dublin? Or Paris? I think the author is just searching for things to complain about now.
    “The level of English in Japan is shockingly low, despite everyone studying it for 6 years at school. I honestly think it is kept deliberately low”
    This is the quote that actually prompted me to reply, because it is so absurd and divorced from reality. Does the author actually believe that the Japanese government would systematically prevent their nation in becoming fluent in English? Their domestic market is shrinking and so they need their companies to expand outside Japan if they are to survive at all (just look at the disasters at Toshiba, Sharp etc.)
    On the contrary, METI (i.e. the Japanese government) have actually rolled out a new program since 2014 to reform the English education system in Japan to address the poor level of English. Not to mention that Tokyo will host the Olympics in 2020 and the lack of English will be a national embarrassment if they don’t get their act together. To suggest that English is “kept deliberately low” indicates that the author is delusional at best.
    Some of the points made by the author are valid, particularly regarding gender equality and sexual exploitation. Japan has serious issues there that renders it very outdated and alienated from modern societies.
    However during my time living there (and still today as I do business in Japan regularly), I made lasting friendships and formed incredibly close and rich relationships with many Japanese people. I’ve attended their weddings and dined at home with them and their children. I find Japanese people (for the most part) to be extremely kind, helpful and considerate. Of course there are some unpleasant and offensive people, but that is no different to any other country in the world. Therefore I needed to challenge this misinformation, out of respect for the many Japanese people who have been so good to me over the years.
    I’m surprised that the author lived there for so long, and still came away with such a distorted and narrow point of view. Overall, this article portrays years of pent-up frustration and homesickness. I hope that a break in London will help to see things in a different light.

  • ukraina_phla_v_evropu!

    But he doesn’t just cry ‘I have it rough >_<'. His posts are filled with words like 'Fascists', negative attitude towards the whole country and useless advices :)
    And for the record, i'm Russian, and my nickname states, that ucrainians are welcome to embrace their 'european path'. And its exactly, because many of them stupidly believe (just like you do) in 'constant breath of Putin'. Its hilarious, how many people tend to blame foreign politicians and the whole countries for their own failures. Seriously, calling it 'shit-hole Ukraine', when all you know about it comes from fake shit of cnn and bbc propaganda :) you don't stop amusing me, people :D

  • Candide Ijon

    I live in the Netherlands and I can say similar things about the Netherlands or rest of Europe (particularly about xenophobia). The essence is same flavour is different.
    I am sure one can easily challenge UK or any other country.
    Saying that, I am actually not defending or opposing to what you tell in your story but after many years I came to the conclusion that in any country today, average intellectual capacity is very low (hence the overall average for the world is low), on top of at that, mix some cultural bias… Then you eventually end up with 1000 cuts.
    Particularly inevitable, if you are an observant/thinker type.
    We keep ourselves busy with suckers game of x (developed country) is better than y (any country) in respect to let’s say law (put any subject) so it is better to live there… The problem is none of those comparisons (particularly using rankings which we barely understand how they are calculated) help with hard decisions. We need a bit more holistic approach because unfortunately things are quite different than how they look…

  • sidlr

    uchujin, adrian.

    you are a pig and a creep

    seriously, u are exactly the type of ingrate and hypocrite gaijins that japanese people fear live among them
    earn their pay checks and blame their societies and laws

  • I arrived at the same conclusions as you, but not after 10 years. I took me one year to find out that Japan wasn’t for me, and I got out, for the same reasons, and with the same vow to never return.
    There are surely a number of intelligent Japanese, I keep saying to myself. They must exist, don’t they?

    But I fear the average intelligence and education levels in Japan are much lower compared to Western Europe. It’s the Bible Belt of the East, with “JAPAN JAPAN JAPAN” being their only religion.
    I don’t want to live in a country of halfwits. It’s tedious.

  • Well, it all depends on how you feel about the place you come from. For some people, Japan is better than what they know. For some it’s worse. I made the experience that the people who really like Japan and are able to put up with all the bad stuff described come from severe circumstances or are the often cited “Losers at home”. I mean if I had to live in Ukraine or any of the ex-CCCP countries, Japan probably wouldn’t look so bad in comparison.
    But for an intelligent, true European person from Western Europe, the dirtiness of Japanese culture is an affront to all senses.

  • Germany is bureaucratic and rule-obsessed, sure, but compared to the totalitarian, nationalist, racist shit-swamp full of imbeciles that’s Japan, Germany feels like a hippie commune to me.

  • Go live in Japan and you’ll find out that the analogies you think exist actually don’t. Japan is waaaaaaaaaay worse than any European country, not even in the same ballpark. It’s only comparable to North Korea, really.

  • Found the weeb with nothing to show for himself but “I love Japan”

  • DudesonMcDudeMan

    Found this in my Google feed. Great Post!!! I can totally relate from being a former Chinese Expat. F- that place. Only took me 6 months..

    But you have to admit, the most shitty part of western culture is the brainwashed cultural plauralism. IE: Other cultures are different and must accepted and celebrated.

    No. Not true.

    Different isn’t always better, as good, or interesting. Most of the time its just ignorant. Or as a wise boss once told me on an unrelated task: There’s one right way and hundreds of *other* ways (wrong ways).

    I now apply that to culture. I am no longer a plauralist.

    But yeah, explaining to people that working in China totally sucked is a dead end conversation. Seems the West doesn’t want to believe it.

  • Sam Zipursky

    Like anything in life it’s all about mind set and perspective. I can find numerous things about any country I don’t like or I can spend my time and focus on the things I like, which serves me way better so that’s how I choose to live and where I focus my mind and thoughts.

    I lived in Japan for 4 years and come here very often, truly love this place but at the time that I did live here, there was things that were starting to bother me about it.

    That being said I just started focusing on what I love about Japan and this very special and unique country and I didn’t try and compare it to other places which really helps.

    Also I’m based in Osaka and the Kansai region which is a whole different ball game than Tokyo.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, for many people including myself Japan is one of the most fascinating and challenging countries in the world but luckily there’s hundreds of countries out there so I’m sure there’s other than that you’ll definitely love this place is for surely not for everyone.

  • ukraina_phla_v_evropu!

    ‘for an intelligent, true European person from Western Europe, the dirtiness of Japanese culture’ blablabla :D
    Its not about Japan and ‘intelligent western europe’. It’s all about psychology. Nice people are loved everywhere, and those feelings are mutual. While snobbish and arrogant fools, that call everyone ‘fascists’, and believe that they are better than others without valid reasons are hated even by their close relatives.

  • gullevek

    I miss you bro. Reading this, I truly miss the discussion we had on Friday nights. Ranting on twitter about shit is not as fun as ranting over a beer.

  • ukraina_phla_v_evropu!

    And remind us. how many years have you lived in North Korea to say that?)

  • Yoshiko Tsukamura

    I’m writing this since there aren’t many (actually almost nil) Japanese commenting on your article. You are not alone feeling rejected and alienated in Japanese society, the Japanese women are in the same position as well. Those Japanese who find this society hard to live in, often leave the country and seek asylum. (Not too many in numbers though)
    The things he mentioned made so much sense to me since I am a Japanese woman and that means I am a second class citizen in this society. We have so much in common!
    BTW, to those who called Japanese terrible names, you should be aware that there are actually “some people” who can understand and read English.

  • Yoshiko Tsukamura

    Very precisely written. Found it quite interesting especially the part you mentioned about English level in Japan. Always wondering why English education goes so wrong in Japan. I also have lots to say about Japanese society as a Japanese woman. You probably know exactly what I mean since Japanese women are regarded as second class citizens in this society. So sad to learn you went through a lot while you were here and they ruined some of your favorable memories as well.

  • Uchujin

    Thanks for all the comments on both sides.
    Just as an FYI I will not be deleting the negative ones, they have as much right to be there as the positive ones.
    Also I’m sorry but I will not be responding to individual comments.
    Thanks again to everyone who has read the post and all those who’ve commented.

  • Kohsuke Ohshima

    I’m a Japanese living in Tokyo, but feel stuck like you said in this blog with keen eyes. At a loss though I’d like to break this circumstance down.
    As a first step, can I translate this blog into Japanese and share in SNS ?
    I’d happy if you allow it. Thanks.

  • John Debacco

    Racist trash. Everything written is a complete fabrication.

  • Makura Makura

    Very interesting.When i lived in Australia,i feel the same.Abstracting of your experience is very difficult.
    When i was treated differently , identifying the cause was difficult.
    From racism?from dislike of Asian people?form dislike of my clothes or something ?form my sex?
    Treated differently make me think i may be wrong with something.
    That was really sad. i know your feeling.

  • Takahiro Katsumi

    I feel you as self-proclaimed “Martian”myself.
    That’s how my ex-wife’s folks called me. For real.
    Twenty years on back here in Japan and I still feel ‘alienated’.
    Hence I still call myself “異邦人” – literally, a “non-Japanese”.

    Oh, by the way. I AM a native Japanese with domicile, passport, voting rights, and everything.

    And still, one can feel the alienation when you have lived elsewhere for a mere 13 years of your life. I am 43 now. Lived the rest of my 30 years here in Tokyo. And still feel the same as you.

  • Ahahaha

  • I think you smoked too much of that strange “debacco”, eh Johnny-tits?

  • Kohsuke Ohshima

    I’ve finished translation!
    http://aewshyae.hatenadiary.jp/entry/2017/07/30/death-thousand-cuts-1-year-later-series
    I’ll be really glad if anyone reads and comments.

  • Uchujin

    Thank you!

  • Lucy Zheng

    I think their inflexibility is the crucial part of Japanese society. They never permit any exceptions. Everything should be under their rules. That’s the problem and the reason why we feel we are offended.
    … and of course there are exceptions for what I said. There are flexible Japanese communities. Very few though. My high school was the only flexible Japanese community I’ve ever belonged.
    *I came to Japan when I was 5 and now 23 going to leave Japan