Yarrow House

Perils of an Expat in Japan: Demotion in Status

June 15, 2015

I lived and worked in Japan for four years in the late 1980s, teaching English to young businessmen and women and editing in an educational publishing company. The Japanese economy was bubbling; the US economy was struggling. Japan was emerging as a global player. It had an environment and lifestyle that were so safe and healthy that Japanese life expectancy was the longest in the world. The pervasive feeling was that finally after a long post-war struggle, Japan had come into its own rightful place in the world.

The Japanese culture is highly hierarchical and focused on the group. Everyone belongs to one or more groups, and everyone is either higher or lower than everyone else, based on age, gender, education, job role, income, and the status of the group or groups they belong to. The language  itself mirrors this hierarchy. Verb endings indicate the positional relationship between two speakers. The choice of verb endings depends on whether the listener is higher or lower than the speaker.

As a white American, I found myself in the unfamiliar position of being a member of a minority group and, I slowly realized, by many measures, an inferior member at that.

Most white Americans never have to deal with the effects of racism. We don’t see racist attitudes, and we don’t have to look at our own particular version of them. My former daughter-in-law, a Chicana, talked about her mother’s reluctance to go into an unfamiliar restaurant because everyone would look, if not glower, at her. My roommate, a young black woman, went to a mountain inn one weekend to get away from the stress of her job and found that the other guests assumed she a prostitute working the resort. Darker-skinned people in the States live with a constant sense of visibility—standing out almost everywhere—and of invisibility—the individual disappearing behind categories and assumptions.

As a white person, I could imagine how this constant objectification must affect a person, but I had no personal experiences that gave me a gut feeling of it. In Japan, my experience of life as a minority person was a remarkable opportunity to develop that gut feeling. I was visible, and everyone I encountered had an attitude about me as a gaijin (literally, outside person). It’s not so much that all Japanese looked down on me but that I was irrelevant to their lives, other than as a curiosity. They had an inherent pride in their Japanese culture, accomplishments, and refinement and assumed them to be better than those of my cultural group.

My sense of myself as a unique and separate individual was challenged daily, even though from the point of view of my Japanese coworkers, students, and friends, my status was a natural given.

It’s easy for white foreigners to see arrogance and condescension when their innate equality if not superiority goes unacknowledged. I heard frequent complaints from my fellow white English teachers about the racism and arrogance of the Japanese, but this was about as close as most of them came to recognizing that they were not individual victims, so called, of racist attitudes. They were also members of a minority that was not considered inherently superior by those with darker skins.

A couple of examples: Andrew, 26, bright, college-educated, from an old, politically active family, tall, good looking, white, had never been in a situation where America, and by extension Americans, hadn’t been the acknowledged number one, the top country internationally. He was a gentle, unassuming young man, who in Japan found for the first time not only his country’s position at that point in the fading years of the 20th century, but his own unconscious status as a white American, not attacked so much as dismissed, invalidated. He was angry, frustrated, and critical of the Japanese he worked with and of the culture as a whole.

David, a white co-worker in the publishing company where I spent three and a half years, was an example of how extreme the response to becoming a minority member can be. David had married a Japanese woman, left his Navy officer position, and gone to work for a string of Japanese companies. Five years later he was vehemently anti-Japanese. His conversation was peppered with sarcastic racist terms—“the master race,” “us niggers”— and continuous derogatory comments about the Japanese arrogance, their rejection of any ideas offered by gaijin staff, his perception of Japanese people as incompetent, and the stupidity of how they dealt with foreigners.

That his abrasive personality elicited the negativity he received from the Japanese seemed obvious to me, but when I got beneath his abrasive demeanor and listened to what his complaints revolved around, I began to hear the familiar minority-based reaction—“because I’m a foreigner, they don’t value what I have to offer, don’t value me, see me as just one of a group, treat me like all the other foreigners, think they’re superior, which must mean I’m inferior, refuse to recognize or offer me any status.”

Whether the Japanese are blameless is not the issue. Of course, the Japanese aren’t perfect any more or less than other nationalities. I’m not trying to make a case in defense of how they behave toward or regard foreigners. Many valid criticisms can be made about Japanese discriminatory practices. The point I want to look at here is not what’s wrong with the Japanese, but what happens to white Americans in Japan when the world no longer provides an unconscious affirmation that we are naturally superior to darker-skinned people.

The longer I lived in Japan, the more a kind of paranoia began to creep into my perception of the world. In my mind, schoolgirls giggling on the train together across the aisle from me become girls laughing at or about me. When I entered a restaurant, people who may have been looking at me because I was different, I assumed were looking with disdain, fear, or rejection. If a seat on the train became vacant next to me and no one took it, I began to assume it was because I was a foreigner. It doesn’t matter whether these thoughts were valid, the point is I found them inescapable. Every interchange was colored by my skin, the screen through which I imagined the Japanese person to be looking at me. I had become both impossibly visible and annoyingly invisible. In a crowd of black-haired, brown-eyed Japanese, I with my blonde hair and blue eyes stood out visibly, and yet, as a unique person, I disappeared into the general category of white foreigner.

Some gaijin I knew acquiesced and tried to erase their own culture, becoming more Japanese than the Japanese. Others, like David, became bitter and abrasive, embattled in an attempt to prove their innate superiority. Somewhere in the middle, I tried to stay conscious of the demoralization and paranoia that came with my unfamiliar minority status. I struggled on a daily basis with interactions with strangers and colleagues, interactions that grated or annoyed or even flattered but were always premised on my otherness with its lower status.

I’ve always been committed to racial equality and elimination of racial bias, so I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to experience firsthand what my fellow, darker-skinned Americans live with all their lives. My experience in Japan deepened my understanding of the problems minorities in the United States face internally. I have an appreciation for the challenge of maintaining a sense of equality and self-worth, and I better understand that although I can regard darker-skinned persons as equal, it won’t magically erase their guardedness or change the world they must live in.

I also have a better understanding about white resistance to increased equality. I have a better sense of how unconscious people can be about their sense of superiority and how threatened that sense is when it’s challenged by the rise of darker-skinned people into positions of power.

I have a more realistic sense, too, of how difficult changing the ingrained inequality in the United States culture will be. The issues will remain intractable for all of us as long as they remain unconscious. If I don’t want to fall back into an unconscious and automatic acceptance of superiority because of my white skin, I must stay alert to the symptoms of bruised ego and assumed superiority.

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2015