“Brainwashed” Foreigners in Japan

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    Koizumi Yakumo

    The following article was submitted via e-mail by a Japan Probe reader who would prefer to remain anonymous.

    Last night I read Christopher Johnson‘s “special investigative report” on the people attacking him on the Internet. If you’re not familiar, this is a guy whose paranoiac account of getting detained near Narita for apparently working on a tourist visa was picked up by the Economist and reported as a real story, despite major issues. Most of this follow-up blog is an ill-considered dumping of Johnson’s personal dirty laundry, regarding a dispute he had with the NHK, which he believes to be secretly manipulating public opinion against him (which explains why he was referring to bloggers as “NHK agents” in February), and some other beliefs he holds about the Internet users who criticized him.

    I have no interest in Johnson’s personal life and don’t see the need to comment on his accusations towards other bloggers. I don’t think it was very wise of him to bring his personal issues to the fore like this. I was interested, though, in the conclusion he tacks on to the end, which is quite a bit more coherent, although I wouldn’t exactly call it “sensible”.

    From the outside, they seem brainwashed by NHK’s repetition of government lines that the Fukushima meltdown is under control, radiation is at safe levels, and the food chain is uncontaminated. NHK World’s Peter Pan portrayal of Japan, where Everything’s Zen and nothing is ever that bad, has whitewashed their view of the country. Led by author and TV personality Matt Alt, they are quick to defend the image of Cool Japan, a myth propagated by ANA, state agencies, and especially NHK World.


    In order for Japan to grow economically and culturally, people have to learn to deal maturely with constructive criticism, and the fresh ideas that emerge from vigorous debate. Yet many Japanophiles reject any challenge to accepted wisdom, any investigation into corruption, any shattering of myths and illusions. In the words of some observers, the “fly-jin” have fled, and the “deny-jin” have taken over.

    Sadly, the outrage of many “deny-jin” over the Gaijin Gulag story is only the latest manifestation of a reactionary mentality that’s been draining the intellectual vitality out of the foreign community in Japan for years.


    While many Europeans and southeast Asians have become multilingual and joined the global market for English culture, Japanese haven’t learned English enough to appreciate the offerings of their gaijin neighbors.

    Thus I’ve seen talented foreigners give up on Japan over the years. Former Tokyo Journal editor Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote Speed Tribes in the mid-90s, then left for better things in Hong Kong. Andrew Marshall, after delving into the yakuza in his book with David Kaplan, took his incisive wit to Myanmar. Instead of becoming Japan’s leading activist or educator, Alex Kerr, author of Dogs and Demons and Lost Japan, moved to Thailand and wrote Bangkok Found.


    Despite fluency in Japanese and decades of paying taxes, many foreigners continue to languish as temps, freelancers, spell-checkers or teachers without tenure. They are permanently second-class residents, not fully 100 percent human in Japan. It’s a hard reality to swallow, and many “deny-jin” (like I was for two decades) will deny this applies to their situations. With little hope of climbing the social or corporate ladders, they do their best to hold down their positions and avoiding rocking boats that need a good tipping. In the case of NHK World, they only have to look at my story to understand what happens to someone who dares to step out of line.

    With little or no chance to ever vote, get elected, or lead a corporation, many of these chronically frustrated gaijin have been marginalized and pushed into a bizarre subculture laced with heapings of hate. Lacking powerful voices in their Japanese communities, they turn instead to commenting on English-language websites teeming with vitriol and spite.

    As I said, this is a coherent worldview and seems to be a lucid explanation of his own actions. I think Johnson should be applauded, at least, for understanding himself well enough to be able to explain his philosophy in such a straightforward way. I believe Arudou Debito probably believes something very similar. However, I think his interpretation of today’s foreigners in Japan is wrong.

    The foreigners which Johnson calls “deny-jin”, and which I would call the Yakumos, have a fundamentally different conception of residency and citizenship than Johnson and Debito’s generation. He spells out his own view with both his words and his actions: Johnson and Debito believe the fundamental benefit of residing in a country is enjoying the protection of its legal system. They believe the fundamental failure of a country would not be the failure of its citizens to protect their country, but the failure of the powerful to protect them. I could easily imagine Debito addressing a government worker as a “servant of the people”, with the implication that the kōmuin is his servant. They did not come here to live in a nation, to embrace a society that contains both talents and flaws, but to live in a perfectly clean room.

    Yes, a clean room. They want to live in perfect hygiene, with a white bed washed clean of hair and dirt, white sheets, and white plastic walls. This room could conceivably be anywhere in the world; Japan is just a place that can promise this room to Johnson and his ilk better than any other country, at least for as long as the vision of it holds out in their mind’s eye. When the clean room is finally dirtied, by “No Foreigners” signs or NHK office politics or nuclear disasters, then their vision is destroyed and they finally find themselves again in a nation, a pitiful, all too human nation made of well-intentioned people who promised cleanliness and were unable to deliver it.

    These people then try to clean up their room, almost pathetically, by resorting to the Japanese legal system, as if the legal system could change how the society operated. I suppose things like that work in America sometimes, or at least pretend to “work” legally even as they tear the country apart.

    They might talk about how much they love Japan, but they grow increasingly opposed to the people of Japan because those individuals are betraying their image of Japan as a perfect, metaphysical space. Naturally they would also grow opposed to the Yakumos, those foreigners who are fitting into that society.

    Johnson and Debito are the true “deny-jin”, for they deny that Japan is a place in a world. They are precisely the same sort of cosmopolitans that G.K. Chesterton bemoaned in his 1905 classic Heretics:

    Mr. Kipling is naturally a cosmopolitan. He happens to find his examples in the British Empire, but almost any other empire would do as well, or, indeed, any other highly civilized country. … The great gap in his mind is what may be roughly called the lack of patriotism—that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically; for all finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons.


    It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places [by merely passing through and seeing the sights] is to lose them.

    My apologies to the family of Rudyard Kipling for grouping him together with Debito and Johnson.

    Now that I’ve established how I would respond to Johnson’s worldview, let me go through his characterization of non-cosmopolitan gaijin writers. I think the name “Yakumos” would best reflect our world view, because we cannot view Debito as our role model. Instead, I think we can find precedent in Koizumi Yakumo, that is to say, Lafcadio Hearn. Japanese people frequently remember this man’s adopted Japanese name more quickly than they can recall his Christian name, which I believe to be a unique status among Westerners who came to Japan. Skim Hearn today and you might be fooled into thinking that he was merely adopting Japanese fairy tales for the public. But read closely, and you realize the following things:

    1. At a time when Mr. Kipling was writing gobs of stories about India based on pure whimsy and the colonial assumption that whatever he wrote was better than anything Indians could come up with, Hearn was translating actual stories told to him by Japanese people. As Chesterton writes elsewhere, Kipling’s stories could not have been told in India, because their Indianness and foreignness is the chief entertainment. Kipling would never birth an Indiaphile. But Hearn’s stories are about their subjects, like any good folk tale. The cultural elements of a good story can only stoke interest in that culture, just as how the Japaneseness of anime and manga is creating thousands of new Japanophiles today.
    2. Hearn’s adoptions of stories are piously faithful to Japanese culture. Buddhist terms, old calendars, foreign conceptions of the world are all conveyed with complete respect for the Japanese tradition. But at the same time, they are incredibly compelling tales for the English-speaking reader. They lose none of their relevance or mood for taking place in a foreign country, and almost certainly made people feel more familiar with Japan as a result. Anyone who writes about Japan today must recognize that this is far harder to accomplish in writing than it is by translating a manga.
    3. Hearn knew Japanese fluently, but throughout his writing career he never once bragged about it or used a Japanese word where an English one would do. He was naturalized and took his wife’s family name, by which he is known today in Japan, but he never portrayed himself as Japanese or discussed his personal, legal affairs.
    4. Hearn wrote at a time when Debito and Johnson would have been right at home in the expat world. The expatriate British living in Japan were so incensed by the primitiveness of their adopted country that when Japan and Britain went to war against Russia, the British expats in Japan supported Russia. And the Japanese government, ever the naive supporter of treason, let them print newspapers and pamphlets decrying Britain’s support for Japan and demanding Britain rethink their policy. In this climate, Hearn did not react with his own self-righteous political hatred. He simply enjoyed his life in Japanese society, not really “fitting in” with strangers, perhaps, but definitely making many friends and learning much of the language. He only took occasional visits to the expat world, and was bewildered by what he found.

    Getting back to our main subject, let us see how Johnson describes these Yakumos, the people for whom living in Japan means living in a nation of people.

    “Led by author and TV personality Matt Alt, they are quick to defend the image of Cool Japan, a myth propagated by ANA, state agencies, and especially NHK World.” We can see how Johnson thinks this way, because Yakumos write and talk about things they like in Japanese society, not its failures as a clean room. That does not mean our lives don’t have problems or personal feuds. We just don’t air them like he does.

    “In order for Japan to grow economically and culturally, people have to learn to deal maturely with constructive criticism, and the fresh ideas that emerge from vigorous debate.” I’m not going to claim that foreigners can’t teach Japanese people interesting things, but he’s referring to his long rant about being detained for an improper visa! He never seems to have learned the Japanese concepts of public and private, and how personal issues like his are basically dealt with in private, and then happy announcements of solutions are made in public. Instead, he thinks that making a public complaint against the Japanese legal system is just some vague white man’s “vigorous debate” that Japan needs to learn how to deal with– never mind that the concept of how to debate is entirely different in France and Britain and Germany and America.

    Here we see Johnson’s dream country, which always acts on complaints no matter how minor, and how reality failed him. Japan may be the third largest economy in the world, but they have not “grown” psychologically. They were unable to clean his room. Japanese people, to him, are like children, and they need to be educated about the proper way to have a debate. He cannot accept that Japan is a real society.

    “I’ve seen talented foreigners give up on Japan over the years.” Note that the examples he lists are clearly cosmopolitans. They wrote about things they liked and disliked in Japan, but like Kipling they could have been writing about anywhere in the world. Then they moved on. They admired but did not love.

    “Japanophiles reject any challenge to accepted wisdom, any investigation into corruption, any shattering of myths and illusions.” An utterly incorrect view of Yakumos based on a totally different idea of what it means to live in Japan. For Johnson, Japan was a myth that needed to be shattered, a room that became dirty and needs to be investigated. Yakumos reject that view of the country because it doesn’t match our goals for living in Japan.

    Take the Fukushima disaster, for example. A minority of Japanese people are actively protesting the government because they feel betrayed. Clean-room types will join them, not based on some logical analysis, but because their emotions lead them directly to this feeling of betrayal. Many Yakumos who blog are angered by the entire line of thinking that governments (not just Japan, at least not for me) always betray people. To counter the fearmongering, we push back with skepticism. This is not equivalent to “the establishment view” because anyone who actually watches the NHK knows that they report on every anti-nuclear protest and regularly host commentators who denounce nuclear energy.

    I also think of the response of Matt Alt, whom Johnson hates for some reason. On his Twitter account, Matt regularly links both positive and negative articles about the responses of TEPCO and the government. I wouldn’t call this being brainwashed by the evil Japan media complex that doesn’t exist, or being taken in by anti-nuclear radicals. Rather, his motivation comes merely from a desire for people living in Japan to get accurate information. He doesn’t have a dog in arguments with Debito– he’s moved completely beyond that, focuses on his own interests, and thus could be a good role model for bloggers alongside Lafcadio Hearn himself.

    “With little or no chance to ever vote, get elected, or lead a corporation, many of these chronically frustrated gaijin have been marginalized and pushed into a bizarre subculture laced with heapings of hate.” And in this final quote, he simply reflects his own frustrations onto others. Note that all of these things are legal rights. What he is demanding from Japan is not a nation but a way to achieve his dreams, although I’m pretty much 100% certain that Johnson has no interest in starting a business. And I don’t know why a first-generation foreigner would even want to get elected in his adopted country!

    It’s hard for new immigrants to get ahead, especially in a country with a struggling economy, where even native citizens have trouble finding work. But it’s not impossible. Bill Totten, for example, founded a long-lived company here despite having weak Japanese. It’s not a matter of legal rights coming first, and success second. I’m betting Mr. Totten has a lot of friends in Japan, and that he got considerable help starting his company, growing it to success, and becoming a naturalized citizen. His unique political views alone qualify him as the Yakumo type: someone who truly loves Japan, beyond all reason, and would do anything to support Japan.

    Also, I would point out that immigrants actually get a lot of support. Many of us are privileged with white-collar office jobs. Japan supplies 5,000 foreigners a year with high-paying, easy work through the JET Program. The tools are there: you just need to have the attitude and the know-how to use them.

    People like Debito and Johnson are a dying breed, the colonial type who spat on his Japanese servants in the 19th century, the missionary type who printed thousands of pages of invective against pagan culture in the 1930s, the cosmopolitan type who wore Halloween costumes and had drinking parties on Tokyo trains in the 1990s, the type of person who, now that the money is disappearing, has only his clean-room dreams to keep him in the country.

    The Yakumos, foreigners who are willing to sacrifice themselves to live in Japan, have no need for your advice. You will not be missed.

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