I don’t often think about being a “migrant” in Japan, or about racial politics much at all, though I suppose having been here five years and with at least another four years on the cards it’s time I started conceiving of myself as something more than a tourist. It’s not often discussed here amongst the white, English-speaking “expat” crowd, for complex reasons that often don’t reflect well on us, but as Japan changes and accepts more migrants, and as more and more white foreigners live here beyond the mythical three year mark that supposedly is our usual limit, it’s being talked about more and more. This is especially true since last year’s tsunami, when a lot of foreigners fled the country and those of us who stayed behind were offered the perfect opportunity to define ourselves in solidarity with the Japanese, or to think about just how deep the commitment of foreigners to Japan really is – or indeed, how much they expect of us.

This led to something of an explosion of commentary by the Japan Times‘s resident “voice” on foreigner issues in japan, Debito Arudou, whose claim to fame is that he is an American who took Japanese citizenship. He objects to any form of negative characterization of foreigners in Japan, and even reacts against the patently obvious – that foreigners commit more crime than Japanese, and that we were more inclined to flee the country than were Japanese when the tsunami hit (hence the amusing term flyjin). Since then, Debito has upped the ante a little, and in May he wrote a controversial post at the Japan Times about the daily microaggression that foreigners face in Japan. “Microaggressions” are a kind of tiny little phrase or behavior intended to reinforce status – to make one seem inferior or to put one in one’s place. The phrase works well in describing how women can be made to feel uncomfortable in some spaces, or how black people in American can be reminded of their racial difference. In the case of Japan, these microaggressions supposedly remind foreigners of their “inferior” position here. But if you listen to the list of microaggressions they are really rather pathetic – comments on how well one can use chopsticks, questions about where one is from or how many Japanese women one has had sex with. I don’t understand some of these supposed microaggressions – no one ever asks me how many Japanese women I’ve had sex with, for example. But even the ones I have heard are, in my opinion, not intended to denote any inferiority at all. Many foreigners can’t use chopsticks and many foreigners don’t speak any Japanese at all, or can’t read at all, and it’s not unreasonable for Japanese people to be surprised by those who can. Debito presents their surprise as a kind of ingrained racial superiority, but much of Japanese response to foreigners’ ability at or interest in Japanese things is driven by their amazement that anyone would bother with Japanese culture when they live abroad. They are surprised that anyone in Australia would learn to use chopsticks, thinking that we would just be sensible and use a fork; or that we would try to learn to read when Japanese people will just help us read anyway. In short, they’re a mixture of appreciation and a kind of delicate formalism that Japanese people use to enter into conversations, a formalism that (as has been pointed out to Debito) they use with each other too.

There is some truth to the greater issue underlying these “microaggressions” – they do serve as reminders that we are guests here and that we are different. Japanese immigration policy hasn’t ever really been founded on the notion that foreigners will stay, and so much of Japanese cultural interaction with foreigners presumes that we are temporary, guests, who should be treated well but assumed to be leaving. This is a source of constant complaint for Debito, who has assumed citizenship here and so naturally would like to be seen as permanent. However, he is (as we would say in Australia) pissing in the wind, because most white foreigners (and let’s make no mistake – he’s not interested in the much greater macroaggressions that Chinese migrants experience!) don’t like to think of themselves as immigrants. Indians and Chinese seem to be willing to see themselves as part of a migration diaspora; whites see themselves as expats, and though they will happily move in amongst each other’s countries, it’s very rare to meet white people in Asia who see themselves as immigrants. Coincidentally the Guardian has a delicate article on this today, by an Indian columnist comparing how British see themselves when they live abroad (as expats) with how they see foreigners in their own country – as immigrants. And this phenomenon is probably nowhere truer than in Japan, where the vast majority of white foreigners are here temporarily as English teachers, either escaping their poor home economies and looking for easy work, or chasing Japanese women. This phenomenon is no doubt common across the region – white foreigners in Asia act like foreigners and they often act very badly with it (Thailand being the best case in point of this). So while Debito is arguing for a greater degree of acceptance of foreigners as permanent members of Japanese society, most foreigners here are on the lamb, or doing smash-and-grab raids for a Japanese woman. Japanese society seems to be infinitely patient with this phenomenon, but it doesn’t encourage them to consider long-term integration, I think, or to see foreigners as anything except oddities.

In keeping with his interest in migration issues, Debito recently had an article about how the Japanese government is planning a new immigration policy, and rightly points out that they don’t seem to be consulting any foreigners living in Japan about how they feel on the matter. But in this article he raises positively the spectre of “assimilation”:

Sponsored by the Cabinet, these meetings are considering assimilationist ideas suggested by local governments and ignored for a decade.

This shows how limited Debito’s thinking on immigration policy is, and how removed his vision for Japanese policy and cultural change is from what he personally is capable of giving back. Does he seriously think that if the Japanese government and society do the hard work on developing a society that accepts foreigners, he will in turn “assimilate”? Assimilation is a strong term, at home in French immigration policy but never adopted by any migrant anywhere in the world. Assimilation is impossible, because it means adopting morals and manners that it’s impossible for one to understand or bend to. For example, it’s unlikely that Debito would be able to write his column in a similar confrontational tone and style in Japanese, and if he were to “assimilate” he would have to adopt a much more consensus-building and conciliatory tone. He obviously hasn’t done that, ergo he hasn’t assimilated. He routinely points out aspects of Japanese culture he doesn’t like and won’t adhere to. This is not assimilation, and in general “assimilation” is not what white westerners do. Wherever we go, we think we can improve the locals and Debito’s constant crusades – from his efforts to force universities to improve employment law for foreigners to his attempts to force brothels to admit non-Japanese – are a classic example of a western way of doing things that isn’t particularly well accepted in Japan. If he – a foreigner who has become a citizen of Japan – won’t do it, why should he think that the rest of us will, and why should he applaud central government policies to encourage this shibboleth? Much better than assimilation is multiculturalism, which allows people to keep their own culture while obeying the laws and codes of the local culture. This is about all that the Japanese can ever expect of us whites, since we’re a proud and fractious bunch, and frankly I think it’s better for Japan that it be this way. To the extent that I have anything to offer this country, Japan is much better off if I don’t become too Japanese – whatever I have to offer the culture will derive from my difference, and there’s little benefit to anyone (me or them) in my submerging my identity under a facade of Japaneseness that will ultimately be shown to be false. Anyone who doubts this about the special case of supposedly unique and pure Japan need only look at the debt their culture already owes to foreign ideas – a good portion of their written culture and one of their two main religions are entirely imported. Even their biggest mistake (world war 2) was heavily influenced by their constant awareness of foreign ideas.

The same, incidentally, applies to the rest of the world. Australia is much better off asking its migrant populations to retain whatever they like of their own culture, within the laws and codes of Australia, than to demand that they leave the lot at the door and just become Australian. Putting aside how hard it is for us to even say what an “Australian” is, there’s little benefit to us from people doing this. You don’t learn new ideas by asking people to hide their own way of thinking. Australia doesn’t make any such crude demands of its new citizens, and this openness to change and diversity is in my opinion one of Australia’s great strengths. It’s a very different attitude to Britain, for example, where there is a much stronger element of guest worker mentality on the part of both the British and their migrant workers (though to be fair the European situation complicates things there). I think that Japan will naturally end up with a multicultural immigration policy, because it suits their historic attitude towards foreign ideas, but they certainly don’t need people with as shallow a view of migration politics as Debito encouraging them to think about assimilationism, or demanding that we ignore any of the realities of foreign life in Japan that need to be accounted for in managing increased migration. The lesson of Britain in the past 15 years, and also of France, is that ignoring the problems that migration brings with it – both the imagined problems of the racist tory working class, and the real problems of infrastructure, crime and poverty – just leads to a powerful backlash against the most vulnerable. It’s much better to confront them openly and deal with them honestly, which Debito is obviously not interested in doing. This makes him, in many ways, just like the classic swarthy muslim firebrand that every Daily Telegraph reader is scared of, standing on his pulpit and ranting against the racism of white society while refusing to accept that anything is going wrong in his own community. This is not how one builds constructive dialogue and it’s an approach to immigration politics that Australia and Japan have up until now largely skipped. Keeping it that way would be good.

Finally, I can’t resist but pile on to the obvious problem with Debito’s account of microaggression, and the implicit lack of solidarity between white and non-white foreigners in Japan that it contains. These aggressions really are micro, and many of them don’t apply to those who suffer the worst discrimination in Japan. Does Debito think that Chinese people regularly get complimented on their chopstick skills? No, they don’t. Instead, they get denied housing and treated like potential criminals by a sizable minority of Japanese they meet. They experience discrimination in employment and bad things get said about them quite openly by the minority of Japanese people who don’t like them. They are the cipher for illegal immigration and poor international relations that are almost certainly – you can be sure of it – not the fault of the average Chinese person working in Japan. They are also expected – because they’re east Asian – to learn the language quickly and not rock the boat. They don’t get the same leeway on polite language and Japanese-style interaction as do white foreigners, or foreigners from South East Asia. There is a definite hierarchy of foreigners in Japan and we whites are at the top – which makes it all the sadder when I read a response to Debito by someone bemoaning the microaggression of having people constantly say “you’re so handsome.” You poor dear! Not only does that not happen to your average dweeby foreign resident when they return to their own country, not only are they punching way above their weight in the women they pull because of it, but do they seriously think that the average Pakistani migrant in Britain experiences the same type of microaggression from white British women? Or that black men in America are just being beaten down by this constant racist attention of being seen as sooo good looking? No, it’s probably not happening to anyone except the privileged white resident in Japan. And don’t think for a moment that foreigners here aren’t happy to trade on their foreignness when it gets them free meals, attention from cute girls, or special consideration in service. I’ve never seen a foreigner in Matsue refuse to accept the discount foreigners get on entrance tickets to museums there. I don’t remember any foreigners in my previous town protesting against the fact they were paid more than local staff in the same university. No, they were happy to suck up that little bit of difference, and have their heads inflated by their experience of suddenly being so very special.

While Debito has kicked off an interesting debate on the guest status of foreigners in Japan, I think he’s letting the side down with the shallowness of his analysis and the brazenness of his rhetoric. I also think that he’s fighting a losing battle, because most (white) foreigners here in Japan won’t assimilate, and don’t want to give up their special status as honoured guests; nor will they do the hard work required to fit into this very different culture when they don’t need to. Without addressing the very special way that white anglo-saxons think of ourselves when we travel and live in other places – as enlightened expats rather than grudgingly accepted immigrants – and without accepting also that most white foreigners can’t imagine themselves as permanent migrants in Asia, he is making demands of Japan on our behalf that he knows we can’t repay in kind. It’s very much a take-take-take, self-centred kind of political resistance he is presenting, and it’s sadly all too consistent with the cultural outlook of foreigners abroad. My guess is that more of us have to work harder to think of ourselves from outside our historical, often colonialist perspective before we can engage in a properly mature debate on migration and race in Japan. I fear that the rest of Asia and the Japanese will have come to a mutually acceptable accomodation on immigration long before the white westerners here have adapted to such a way of thinking, and then Debito’s harsh words will just look like pointless posturing – a kind of American microaggression against a society that, ultimately, has treated us all very well. I hope that we white foreigners in Japan can do better, but my experience of life here tells me we won’t, and we’ll always arrive here expecting, by and large, to be constantly thanked for having deigned to visit. I hope I’m wrong and I hope it’s possible for white foreigners to come to understand some of the migrant issues that the rest of the world faces – I think it would do our own countries good to see a white diaspora of migrants treating themselves as such. But the debate going on amongst westerners here in Japan now doesn’t encourage me to have much confidence in the possibility…