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Should We Pity the Poor Western Man ‘Trapped’ in Japan?

Categories: Japan, Citizen Media, Education, Human Rights, Humor, Labor, Language, Media & Journalism
Parent's_day_at_Eirfan's_Kindergarten (1)

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A recent article in the newspaper Japan Times has caused a commotion in Japan's resident English-speaking community.

Titled “Spare a thought for the Western men trapped in Japan [1]“, the article documents how tough life can be for Western men who get work teaching in universities, get married, and find it difficult or impossible to return to their home countries.

The article uses the example of “Jim, an American in his late 20s”:

Jim… used to be a very passionate young man. He claimed he was a communist — a Stalinist, even. He would engage in endless political debates during smoking breaks and drinking sessions. He dreamed of graduate school, an academic career and, one day, even leading a riot. But instead, he got married to a Japanese girl and already had children by the time he graduated. She did not want to leave Japan and insisted he earn a stable income, so he ended up teaching English somewhere in the sticks, far from any big university. “It is only for the time being,” he insists, but it’s difficult to see how he will ever have the money or mobility to realize his dreams.

Olga Garnova, a Temple University student and author of the story, says, “Japan can be the best place in the world for some, but for others it can be a trap. And sometimes I think it’s far easier for Western men to be sucked into this trap than women.”

While Japan recruits temporary workers from China and other Asian countries to work, often very little pay, on farms and in factories, the vast majority of Westerners who come to Japan work as teachers. The goal is to move up the ladder from teaching conversational English to securing positions in colleges and universities.

The problem is, just as in North America, working conditions for teachers in Japan's post-secondary institutions have fundamentally changed over the past 20 years.

As Japan's population ages and birthrate declines, enrollment in colleges and universities has also declined. To save costs, administrators are opting to hire instructors on part-time contracts for lower pay.

This shift in working conditions has made it difficult for Westerners to establish themselves in Japan. But after spending time away from their home job market, it can be difficult to find a way back.

Even for male teachers who do find steady employment, Garnova suggests that life in Japan can be challenging.

The article touches on Japan's infamous long working hours, Japanese women's reported love of money, and the cultural divide that can confront some Westerners in Japan who are unfamiliar with other cultures:

Japanese men have it tough, but foreigners might have it even worse. Unlike Japanese, who have been raised in the culture of strict gender roles and long work hours, foreigners — especially Westerners — may have very different expectations, lifestyles and ideals.

What's the solution? According to Garnova:

Having non-Japanese friends and co-workers helps a lot. Not only can you use your native language, but the patterns of communication, expectations and levels of self-disclosure tend to be quite similar, and therefore it is often easier to build and develop relationships. The fact that we are all foreigners here “in the same boat” is a perfect icebreaker.

But perhaps the most important thing is to admit and fully accept that we can never fully assimilate in Japan.

Social media reaction has been mostly negative:

The Japan Times, an English daily, has occupied a central role in Japan's non-resident community for more than one hundred years. Before the Internet era the print version of the Japan Times was used by non-residents to find jobs, buy and sell items as expats arrived and departed from the country, keep on top of world events, and generally remain connected to the outside world.

As the Internet has impacted traditional media around the world, the Japan Times has been no exception. While the paper is still popular with English-language learners, readership has declined over the past decade. The paper sometimes attempts to generate clicks by printing outrageous articles.

One of the top-rated comments on the original Japan Times article states [11]:

Instead of isolating yourself from Japanese people to protect your sanity, which this author appears to be suggesting, I would suggest a different approach.

People, after all, are not that different from each other. People all over the world appreciate, for example, things like kindness and honesty. So try to find those in Japanese people. And try to show Japanese people that you, too, have those qualities.

In other words, try to see they are the same as you, try to show you are the same as them.

Eido Inoue [12], an American-born naturalized Japanese citizen, is harsher in his criticism of the Japan Times article [13]:

These I-don't-wanna-try-to-fit-in foreigners, with their own private lost decade(s) in Japan, prioritized alcohol, debauchery, and the English Internet. They were then forced to double down and say that yes, they CHOSE to not learn Japanese and do The English Life because that's the better path. Because not to affirm this would be to admit they wasted their prime years, having been given a unique and rare opportunity of life in another rich and wonderful country, and settled for less — the quick and easy and superficial route.

Jake Adelstein [14], an American journalist, crime writer and blogger who has spent most of his career in Japan, says moving back home may not solve these Western men's problems anyway.