New and Old Encounters: Social Dynamics in Japan’s Foreign Community

Photo: Ari Helminen on Flickr

New and Old Encounters: Social Dynamics in Japan’s Foreign Community

Liam Carrigan

Deciding to move to Japan was a huge step for me. Indeed it is quite possibly the most important decision I have made in my life to date. Choosing to move to somewhere as radically different from most Western countries as Japan requires huge degrees of thought and consideration.

“Will I be able to master the language?”

“Can I adapt to Japanese culture?”

“Will Japanese friends and colleagues ever accept me as an equal?”

These are just some of the existential questions that most if not all foreigners are forced to wrestle with in their minds prior to coming here.

Indeed entire books have been written (though not always from a balanced viewpoint) on these very issues.


Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wikimedia

However, there is one area of assimilation into Japanese society that seems to have largely escaped such scrutiny, and that is the way in which we interact not with the Japanese, but with those from other nations.

I won’t use the term “expat”, as that seems to be an outmoded manifestation of white privilege. Instead I prefer to call it as it is and use the term immigrant.

As an immigrant in Japan I have noticed the foreign community here is quite different from other countries I have lived in, such as Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the foreign community is a lot bigger and given the country’s colonial past many western influences and cultural relics remain.

Likewise, there seems to be a greater diversity amongst the foreign working populous in places other than Japan. Here, probably about 80-90% of the foreigners I encounter are English teachers. Again, this could be my own bias as a white male that perhaps somehow limits my social scope, but I will confidently bet that English teachers make up a far higher ratio of foreign workers here than they do in the likes of Hong Kong.

However the term “English teacher” has a pretty wide ranging meaning in Japan. Whilst the bulk of teachers do still seem to come from the US and Canada, smaller populations such as Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and of course the UK are well represented too. In recent years, in an increasing number of positions it is becoming clear that one does not necessarily even need to be a native English speaker to work in some schools in Japan. This has opened the gateway to people from places like Brazil, Malaysia and the Philippines.

With such a proverbial melting-pot of cultures, creeds, languages and ideals, the term “foreigner” really doesn’t do this societal group justice.

However, with such a diverse group of people, communication and social interaction can, at times, be somewhat fractious.

I should add at this point that I realise that not all foreigners in Japan are English teachers, however I can only go on my own experiences, and having worked as a teacher here for several years, that is predominantly the group in which I have operated.

So, what are the potential flashpoints when dealing with other non-Japanese in Japan? Let’s look at a few examples:

1) Religious Beliefs and Faith Ideals


JoshBerglund19 on Flickr

I have to admit, one of the things I like about the Japanese education system is the way in which, in the public sector at least, religion stays on the sidelines. Coming from a city wrought by centuries of religious intolerance, Glasgow, I really appreciate this facet of Japanese society. Here, such doctrine is kept out of the classroom and in the place of worship where it belongs.

2) Politics


内閣官房内閣広報室 on Wikimedia

Joking aside, politics, especially UK and US politics are best kept off the table when you are meeting new people here, as would be the case in most countries. Much like religion, I also do my best to avoid people who are overly political, especially in the case of right wing extremism. Thankfully such people are rare in Japan, as they seldom possess the necessary education to qualify for a working visa here!

3) Working Conditions and Salaries


Beatriz Garcia on Flickr

This is a particularly divisive issue among teachers in Japan. There seem to be two distinct camps to this debate.

On one hand there are those who are so in awe of finally realizing their dream of coming to work in Japan, that they will seemingly accept anything that is given to them. They work all the hours given them, they do all they can to serve the customers and the company, and they never ask those awkward questions about their missing pension payments, health insurance or such like.

Then there are the “old-timers” like me. Newbies may think I am being overly negative in my criticism of companies who employ such teachers. However, as I see rights being abused, entitlements denied, I cannot help but feel that these admirably enthusiastic young people are being taken advantage of in a very cynical way. But then again that’s just my opinion. For these less-experienced teachers, I can totally understand their point of view, indeed many years ago I wasn’t so different from them in my opinions.

The important thing to remember in all of this, is that, regardless of your personal, political or social differences, as immigrants trying to better yourself in Japan, there are far more things that unite us than divide us. By building friendships, cooperative partnerships and support networks we can all make our wonderful lives in Japan even better!