What would Japan do when expats suffered?

In and after Brexit, a vast majority of British residents and some people around in Europe are expected to suffer. Among those, the things will hit worst to the EU nationals that are living and/or working in the UK and British expatriates in Europe, totalling some 5 millions. Their future is very uncertain to say the least. Chances are they will lose both the job and residency, once the UK has withdrawn from the EU. The leading politicians in the UK have made no promise or given no assurance at the time of writing, a month after the referendum. Some hawks have even made a statement of dismissal of anything hopeful.

A few of my friends of British nationals that live in Europe are advocating keeping their status and rights. I was then asked what would happen if a similar thing happened in Japan?

That is an interesting question, if hypothetical. This is an answer from me, a Japanese expatriate residing in the UK.

To come right to the point, I am afraid what would happen in Japan, concerning the Japanese expats and foreign residents in Japan, are likely to be far worse than that in the UK….

For Japanese expatriates

Japanese expatriates, including myself, essentially tell ourselves to expect nothing from the Japanese government. There are plenty of stories to tell how unhelpful the Japanese government is. In the case of (independent) war-zone journalists, they often wish they were not Japanese, so the Japanese government would not interfere or put them in more danger than otherwise.

The worst horror story I have heard of is this. In Nigeria an armed conflict suddenly broke out in the capital. A group of Japanese who happened to be out in a street rushed into the Japanese embassy to seek for a shelter. They were thrown out, being told it wasn't embassy's job to protect them and told to sort out themselves. Fortunately, one of the group members was a British national, and they then ran into the British embassy nearby. They all were accepted inside for a few hours or something, until the shooting eventually subsided. Allegedly, the case wasn't exceptional…

In short, both the Japanese government and embassies cares about expats the least. It seems apparent the government just wishes expats would bother them as little as possible, or better none at all. That is their mentality.

And it is accepted by the Japanese citizens, too. The people would generally feel ashamed when they end up "bothering" the government for anything more than routine works, such as getting a certificate. It is one of "meiwaku" things for the Japanese people. "meiwaku" (迷惑) is an important concept to understand the Japanese customs, and is usually translated as "something to cause a nuisance". However, it is not limited to nuisance, but anything that makes some one else do something for you. Not to cause "meiwaku" is one of the first moral lessons children in Japan are taught. "meiwaku" is a bit like the worst sin for Japanese.

In this case, if a person ends up asking the authority to work for her/him, it is interpreted as "causing meiwaku", hence is an embarrassing thing. In other words, in the Japanese mentality, the government is not something the people expect to serve them as a matter of fact, but it may work for the people out of mercy.

In that sense, it is actually funny the current Abe government insists to change the constitution so they could send troops abroad to "protect Japanese citizens abroad", because the Japanese expats all know that is the last thing the Japanese government would do — to help any expats.

Indeed it is obvious, if one looks back at the history, the Japanese military has almost never served the Japanese citizens, but the states only. Rather it was entirely the opposite — the army willingly sacrificed the Japanese citizens for army's survival far too many times during the WWII. There is no shortage of stories citizens died more, not despite the army's presence there, but because of it, such as forced mass suicide in many places in Okinawa.

And in Japan, the people who suffered or suffer because of such an action by the military or government usually accept it more or less, because it is for a greater cause, that is, for the country.

The most iconic event in the recent days related to this Japanese mentality was, arguably, the case of three Japanese people taken as hostages in Iraq in 2004. Fortunately, all of them were released eventually, after some tense period. However they had to face a severe backlash from the public when they returned to Japan, instead of being congratulated for their lucky survival. Why? Because they had travelled to the area, where the Japanese government posed a restriction, yet they "troubled" (or caused meiwaku to) the government.

One of the hostages, an aid worker Nahoko Takato, was recently featured in an interview by an American radio programme of Sound Cloud (Listen here). Listening to it, you can easily tell how traumatic the experience was for her; being captured was bad enough, but to come back to her homeland was even worse.

I remember the event very well. To me, she was a hero, who bravely went to the war-torn zone to help locals, which the Japanese government was partially responsible for by supporting the invasion by US & UK. I remember well how she looked when she came back and landed to a Japanese airport, where the media broadcast it. She kept her head down, never looking up, and looked seriously distressed, like being bullied.

That incident shocked me deeply. And soon the penny dropped. I understood an aspect of a typical Japanese mentality, as mentioned above, which I hadn't very clearly realised before, even though I had been kind of aware of it. I disliked it, but a fact is a fact.

So, if a Brexit-type incident happened in Japan, what would I do as an expat? I don't think I would call for a help or support to protect my status, because I know I would receive pretty much no support from the Japanese public, or be more likely receive a criticism, being labelled as selfish.

For non-Japanese residents in Japan

How about non-Japanese nationals who live in Japan, then? Look at the Japan's refugee statistics alone, and you would know how awful it is — officially Le Pen admires at it.

The most notable group among them is Zainichi (在日) — Koreans who came to (or was forcibly brought to) and lived in Japan in the first half of 20th century, and their offspring. Some of them, including those born in Japan, have never obtained the Japanese citizenship.

Note that the reason of not having a Japanese nationality is complicated. The fact Japan does not, and South-Korea did not, accept any dual nationality is one of them. The reason there are so many of Korean descendants in Japan is that Korea was a Japanese territory between 1910-1945.

And I should point out there was a surge of immigration from Korea to Japan 1400 or more years ago. The offspring's of those immigrants are somehow not regarded as immigrants any more in the modern Japan.

Zainichi (those who don't have Japanese nationality by definition) numbers half a million now. Their 2nd, 3rd, 4th generations usually speak only Japanese. Yet, their legal right is quite limited even now (though much improved over the years). Worse, acts of discrimination towards them are still not uncommon. The ex-mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara, might be in jail if he was in the UK, for his racist words (he was worse than Nigel Farage).

Would the Japanese care about the status of those foreign residents in Japan, including Zainichi? I'd say highly unlikely for the majority.

Intolerance in the Japan custom

The thing is this.

In the Japanese culture there is a strong moral standard, which every one is expected to follow and obey. The social system works well, because every one behaves well and works hard. The trouble is, you have got to be normal and ordinary to be able to do so. If you are ill or disabled, for example, it can easily be hard to impossible physically to follow it.

If you are different by any means from the standard, then you will be in trouble. Indeed, there is a famous saying in Japanese:

A stake that sticks out will be hammered down.

It means if you are outstanding or distinctive, you will get bashed (so you'd better try to conform to the rest in the first place).

I should add that the principle is applied only for the people in the same social hierarchy. The authority is in the higher hierarchy, and therefore they are an exempt; instead you must obey them. Some professions like teachers, doctors, lawyers etc are in a higher hierarchy. So are the company directors and the rich.

That is why Nahoko Takato received such a harsh public backlash, namely,

  • In terms of the hierarchy, she appears to be in the same league as the rest of us.
  • She stood out, doing what other people wouldn't dream to do.
  • She ignored the authority's order.
  • Yet, she troubled the government. Some interpreted her act (of being taken as a hostage) restricted the foreign policy by the Japanese government.

Now, think of expats. They are not normal. They are doing what standard Japanese would not do, that is, living abroad. So, they can't expect to get a sympathy from the Japanese public.

To conclude, the bright side of Japan is it is a very civilised country with the well-organised social system in a good working order with the lowest crime rate, because every one follows the rules and accepted standard. The flip side of the coin is the society lacks of tolerance. More different you are from the normal or average perceived by the public, less sympathy you may receive from them.

I should point out this principle is applied only to those whom they (Japanese people) regard as "us". The travellers from abroad are different, because they are not "us", but "them" or guests. The Japanese people are well aware their culture and language are different from the rest of the world, and are willing to show a hospitality to guests or visitors, because to show a courtesy and warm hospitality is regarded as a good virtue. Travellers to Japan thus can likely enjoy the full benefit of the good, safe, and efficient social order, as well as welcoming atmosphere, in Japan.

However, if a foreign person wants to live and get assimilated to the Japanese society, I am sad to say, s/he will expectantly face a difficult barrier. Obviously, a barrier to some degree is more or less expected for any expat in any part of the world, while there are also usually loads of genuinely nice local people. Still, I am afraid the barrier is considerably higher in Japan than in the UK, given their average definition of "us" and "them" is quite strict. Also, those foreign residents may not receive as much compassion from the public or government as in the UK. It is very ironic to say that, considering the recent dark rage of ugly racism towards immigrants in the UK.


I dig a little further on the following two points.

Don't stand out, yet you must improve…

As mentioned above, to stand out may cause a trouble in Japan, and to be at the average is kind of a virtue there.

However, obviously people are all different. No one is in the dead average in every aspect. So, by definition every one is off the average in some respects more or less. Then, I am afraid a logical implication is that no one would be happy with the principle…

It is even worse for the less privileged, such as, the disabled, sick, aged people, or even pregnant women, because they are a way off the average and often are physically unable to do what normal people can do and are expected to do, such as climbing up a staircase in line with other people. As a result, they face a certain amount of discrimination, or often feel unwelcome by the public.

You might wonder if this principle more or less discourages people to improve to stand out, and practically begs for death of innovation. That is quite right.

On the other hand, it is also true the Japanese society is extremely competitive. Many products and services by Japanese companies are in the highest quality, probably because of harsh domestic competitions. It may sound contradictory?

The fact is this. Another virtue in the Japanese culture is hard-working. People must work hard, and so do they. You are always encouraged to do a little bit better than other people, though you should not stand out too much so as not to be hammered down. It is a fine balance, and to keep the balance right is not easy at the best of times even for Japanese, and so is often stressful. You can't win, but that is the reality.

Obedience to the authority

As explained, Japanese expats are almost ignored by the government and embassies. The rest of the public is not too far off. The military has never served Japanese citizens. Yet, Japanese people are so obedient to the authority.

You might wonder what the point is for the people to serve the country when the country does not serve their own people. I do.

The thing is, to my best knowledge that is more or less similar to any other country in the world, if not as extreme as in Japan. Any governments I know serve the powerful people, or the rich, better than the less privileged. Yet, patriotism is advocated far more among those less privilege. For example, no child from the rich family stands at the front line of a conflict despite the fact they get a more favour from the government, which wages a war. Conversely, to join the army is encouraged widely for the less privileged for patriotic reasons.

Therefore I never believe in patriotism. History tells patriotism is a quite modern idea invented to make citizens willing to serve a country, which is equivalent to the privileged, for nations are a fairly modern creation after all.

Obviously that does not mean one should not work for the community they belong to, be it a group, village, state, country, region or the world. People should, but only wisely, to make sure the community work for you and all the people around you, especially for the less privileged than you. You should never give the authority a free hand, or blindly approve whatever they do. Otherwise power will corrupt, as it does.

If you think of the Japanese mentality of obedience to the authority as absurd, which I totally agree with, you may reflect what your government and fellow citizens are doing. A lesson shall be learnt.

Masa Sakano,


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