Why Did You Come to Japan?

Apr 02,2014

While this is not the sort of question that, in all my time in the United States of America, I ever asked an immigrant--or even a visiting college student--it's one I've heard quite frequently over the past decade I've spent in Japan. I always supposed the answer should be obvious: one immigrates because of more or better opportunities than those in the land of one's birth. It must seem to most that in order to immigrate to a traditionally xenophobic and barrier-riddled society one must have some special (read: strange) reason for doing so. Everyone seems to think of America as a 'country for immigrants'; no one alive today remembers that from its founding through about the first century of its existence pretty much everyone understood that it was a country for white immigrants.

Chinese and Korean immigrants to Japan far outnumber us white folks. They can easily blend in by changing their names and perfecting their accents, while for us it is much more difficult to be allowed to assimilate into mainstream society. A Taiwanese friend once told me she never spoke Chinese to her children in public because doing so would alert everyone in the vicinity that there is a 'foreigner' present. All I said at the time was that that made sense, but secretly I was quite envious of her ability to pass.

The world is changing. There is no longer any homeland for the white race; some embrace this change, others rally against it with protests, petitions and lynch mobs. I fear the same happening here if we immigrants reach a significant proportion. Already in the larger cities neo-facist groups are marching through ethnic Korean communities blaring threats and slander. The greater resentment towards them than towards caucasians is partly because it's more difficult to ostracise and marginalise them in daily life. When you're obviously white, you're usually not taken seriously and it's generally assumed that you can't communicate or really understand anything.

My spare bicycle was stolen two nights ago. This is the fourth time since my coming to Japan. Whenever I experience or hear about a crime, I recall a common sentiment summed up by a friend's mother, who told me 'Japan used to be safe when it was only Japanese, but now there's all these Chinese and Koreans.' The implication being that it's definitely the Chinese and Koreans committing the crimes, because Japanese certainly wouldn't do such a thing. It's the same narrative that says all of Japan's environmental problems are China's and Korea's fault, and all of it's social ones are America's fault. In fact, I'm willing to bet that every thief of my bicycle was a plain-ol' Japanese teenager.

This is because I know from experience and observation that teenagers are the ones who steal bicycles. Mind, in their imaginations they're not so much stealing as 'borrowing', because they don't keep them permanently. They only ride them for a short time and then ditch them somewhere. So it's not 'stealing'--never mind that the owner usually has little hope of finding his vehicle again, and has just lost a chunk of money he could have spent on something else.

I had been riding my spare for two weeks, because two weeks ago my main bicycle was stolen. It had been parked outside a student's house, and when I got out it was gone. I thought it was a safe neighborhood, but he confirmed that in fact lots of high school kids pass through that street.

Both bicycles had had broken locks, and I just never got around to buying chains for either of them. Like Matthew Broderick's character in WarGames, I always thought there'd be plenty of time.

Now, in the town where I went to college, bicycle theft was ubiquitous. In the few years I was there I was robbed in whole or in part several times. The thieves there would take anything that wasn't securely fastened to anything else--the seat, one tyre, whatever--because there was a huge bicycle shop in town that primarily dealt in stolen ware.

I never had anything recovered that I bought there, but out of the four bicycles I've lost over the course of my decade in Japan, one of them was tracked down by the police about a year after I reported it, and the other, my spare stolen two days ago, was parked along the river when I went out for my run this morning. (I wondered, actually, if this couldn't have been deliberate mischief, as it's just a little too coincidental that it turned up in my neighborhood after having been taken from a place rather far away, but my wife has convinced me that if someone really wanted to do mischief there would be more effective means of going about it.)

So two out of four. It's a relatively good track record.

Experiences like this, and having had all sorts of things recovered after losing them, make living here quite nice. At the same time, America of half a century ago wasn't much different; nor were many other places in the world; and some still are. Yes, Japan is 'safe', and people should be content with the mundane reality of its relatively good track record, without the ever-present hunger to hear 'foreigners' praise that or any other aspect of the country, without pointing fingers at certain immigrant groups for crimes they didn't necessarily commit, and without hyperbolic stories that children in Texas go to school with guns stuffed into their underpants or that the reason for the dearth of vending machines outside of Japan is that 'foreigners' would try to break them to get the coins out. (This is one of my personal favourites, actually, ranking alongside the myth that Japanese have longer intestines than any other 'race', and one popular in the US for a while that Japanese children aren't potty trained until the age of 7. I would be tempted to say the Internet is as good as television for fostering an absolutely warped view of reality, but the instestines myth at least was around before the Internet, and hasn't yet had the courtesy to die.)

Sigh. I can't say all that when someone asks the question, though, especially when the asker is a false beginner in an elementary language class. I usually just mumble something about coming 'to work', and temporarily leave them with whatever false notions they have been stuffed with--that I must have owned a gun, that I must eat at McDonalds, that I must be a Christian, that I 'can't eat' raw fish--until time and gentle exposure slowly reveal the individual beyond the stereotype.

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