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 – 外 – 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.
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”.
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.
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”?
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.
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.