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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

Do Foreign Residents in Japan Have an Obligation to Fit In?

The Japanese boss is not happy

I participate in a variety of online groups where foreigners living in Japan mingle to discuss their experiences. Recently, in one such group, a foreign resident posted an anecdote about his work environment. His boss is an older Japanese gentleman, and each day when the employee arrives at work and gives a cheerful ohayō-gozaimasu (“Good Morning”), his boss responds with a minimal nod, but no spoken return greeting. The worker felt this was the height of rudeness, possibly even discrimination, and the comments from other expats generally took the form of, “Your boss is a (insert insult or expletive here)!”


Someone in the group did mention that, for Japanese managers of a certain age, this type of gruff attitude toward underlings is the norm. But that accurate historical note fell on deaf ears. The consensus was that the boss was in the wrong, the need for reciprocation in a morning greeting took precedence over office culture, and these old geezers better make way for a younger, foreign-friendly generation.


For the first time in Japan’s history, foreigners represent a sizeable element of the population. Non-Japanese have been present in small numbers on Japanese soil throughout its documented history. Even during sakoku, that 250-year period when Japan closed its doors to outsiders, foreign traders were issued licenses to continue doing business in specific regions. And of course, Japan had a foreign presence imposed on its territory during the postwar occupation from 1945 to 1952. But those incursions were always limited in scope, size, or duration, and the typical Japanese resident rarely encountered the foreign barbarian.


But this time is different. The immigrant population stands at around three million souls and is expected to grow beyond 10% of all residents by 2070. This is a new thing, where the daily experience of every single citizen in Japan will include gaikokujin. This level of foreign residency will have impacts on the culture. The rigid hierarchical outlook of the boss mentioned earlier will eventually give way to supervisors who understand immigrant expectations for more camaraderie between the classes. The Japanese language, already stuffed to the gills with foreign loan-words, will become even more international as cool-sounding katakana expressions supplant kanji-based terms.


While this may sound like good news for incoming residents, these changes will not be easy or welcomed by all citizens. Some grouches will say, “It’s about time Japan modernized its attitude.” Such statements are made by those who, either in their own countries or in their own hearts, have already made the transition to a multicultural society. Japan has not yet constructed a melting pot, and for enduring cultural reasons, it is unlikely to do so easily. The world sees in Japan one of the world’s most unique and fascination cultures. The flood of foreigners teeming onto Japan’s shores will dilute those cultural distinctives, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that the country would be hesitant to open itself to those who not only fail to appreciate the depth of its culture, but who also insist loudly that it must change.


As immigrants, we have a chance—perhaps even a responsibility—to see this transition through Japanese eyes and help make the expected demographic changes as smooth as possible for the native citizenry. Nobody forced us to live here; most of us wanted to come to Japan, planned it out for years, thought with excitement about what we would encounter. After we arrived, some of our dreams were shattered thanks to cultural and bureaucratic rigidity. While amazing food choices and cute animated characters are ever-present, so are mind-numbing work environments and processes that seem designed to exclude outsiders, a pairing that comes as a shock to many immigrants. Yet we stay. Since we will be hanging around a while, we might as well find ways to adapt to our new environment, even if that means giving up the desire for a greeting from the boss.


Of course, Japan also has obligations to its foreign residents. The nation’s Civil Code even documents this, stating for the record that, in general, foreign residents are to enjoy the same rights as citizens. Yet there have been concerns with visa programs for foreign workers, especially those that import blue-collar staff and other lower-wage, short-term laborers. From restrictions on bringing immediate family members to rules that make it difficult for workers to get away from abusive “black” companies, Japan’s foreign-labor story has been called into question by locals and foreign nations alike. And it was just a few years ago that all foreign residents were blocked from returning to Japan to stave off the pandemic, a decree that also applied to permanent residents who had no home or employment anywhere else.


The country has of late been working to improve the legal framework for dealing with immigrants, expanding visa options for incoming workers and making it easier for foreign children who grew up here to remain in the country. These efforts stem primarily from the nation’s own labor woes rather than any sudden change of heart over immigration policies. But it’s a start.


The road to consanguineous relations between citizens and immigrants will be long and difficult. Therefore, it is in the best interests of foreign residents to find ways to smooth out this path. Correcting a testy boss is, frankly, not going to be part of that process. Instead, foreign residents should seek culture-compatible solutions and processes that broadly alleviate immigrant or domestic struggles, and work to build consensus with the Japanese population to make such programs a reality. There is evidence that such things can happen. Legal changes in corporate governance over the past decade have helped make large Japanese businesses more international in outlook. A new crop of immigrant politicians is working its way up from regional elections with an eye to the national Diet. But such inroads also happen in local communities. One of my friends joins local Japanese residents each morning for rajio taisō group calisthenics. Not only is it good for his health, but his participation shows the native population that even new arrivals are interested in the customs and practices of Japan.


Life isn’t always perfect or rosy for immigrants. There are serious issues that need to be addressed. But seeking ways to deal with them while valuing cultural expectations and standards will go a long way to reaching solutions that benefit all residents in Japan, both new and old.


[Image Credits: こうまる/photo-ac.com]

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