This blog has a general “no mentioning Debito” rule because with the topics we cover here, he is the gaijin/Japanophile equivalent of Godwin’s law – the topic of conversation becomes instantly derailed into what people think of him and his views and actions. And on the occasions when the man himself has chimed in it has never gone well. The Internet can be an inhospitable place, sadly.
But today I am going to make an exception because he uses his most recent Japan Times column to give us a glimpse at his worldview from a different angle and it caught my interest.
To sum up, he has a problem with the old Charisma Man comic strip from the 90s. As many of our readers will remember, it was a funny caricature of the many young white Western men who come to Japan to teach English and find their luck with the ladies and general social status is much higher here than it was back home. So far so good. Where he takes offense is that there is a character “Western Woman” in the comic that can see him for the nerd he was back home and bring him back down to that level. These people he calls Identity Police and scolds for trying to label people and put them back in a social pecking order they are escaping in Japan.
Basically, I can agree with his point. People have a right to live with dignity even if they’re different and it isn’t fair for someone to come along and insult them. And he’s right that the picture painted is overly broad, though that’s kind of why it was funny to begin with.
Unfortunately, dealing with the topic of a label like this is inherently fraught. Merely by mentioning it we are in some small part accepting the premise of its author. For his part, Debito alternates between denying CM is important and addressing the entire column to anyone who thinks the label might apply to them (presumably a broad group of Western white men living in Japan). Oh well, such are the cards we are dealt.
Thing is, I don’t think this group is exactly under constant attack. There are definitely haters out there, but it’s overdoing it to call them “police.” If you let a detractor have that much power over your life decisions, it’s time to develop a thicker skin.
Any group of people that makes a decision outside the range of possibilities for the majority is going to meet with misunderstanding, ridicule, and even outright hostility. It just comes with the territory. “Charisma Men” are sometimes used as a safe target. For example, this entry on satire blog Stuff White People Like summed up many Americans’ attitude on Japan pretty well: “All white people either have/will/or wished they had taught English in Japan. It is a dream for them to go over seas and actually live in Japan…White people love Japan… but you have to be careful about how much you like Japan. If you know how to speak Japanese, you kind of ruin it for everyone else.”
On the other hand, the spread of the Internet has given rise to many ways for such outsiders to compartmentalize themselves. Unfortunately, a kind of siege mentality often develops where people pat each other on the back and find camaraderie among their ilk. These same people will then turn around and scorn some other group they see as different or inferior. In the process all hope of mutual understanding is lost. Something Awful’s Weekend Web feature has many, many great examples of this self-justifying, indulgent, and cliquey behavior.
Probably the best way to bridge these gaps is to appreciate and respect people who are different and resist the temptation to define yourself by putting down the things that you’re not. It’s an impossible task, but it’s important to at least try.
In the column Debito seems to accept the premise that most Westerners who come to live in Japan would be “losers in their home countries.” In effect, he is making the Identity Police’s case for them! He also defends “those derided as Charisma Men” as ”providing valued, profitable service to society,” which again is just playing the same game as the detractors. It seems like he doesn’t have a problem with Identity Policing as long as he gets to wear the badge.
There are probably tens of thousands of Westerners living in Japan for various reasons, with hundreds if not thousands coming and going every year. And almost 30 years since the founding of Nova and more than 20 for the JET Program, many of the original Charisma Men have become Charisma Husbands and Charisma Dads, and maybe even Charisma Grandpas. So many people and such a long history make for an incredible amount of diversity. And that includes the nerds and losers remaking their identities along with jocks, former soldiers, nice people, criminals, weirdos, and completely normal and boring people. In fact, I am willing to bet that more than a few of them actually do “coast on charisma” as Debito insists they don’t.
He closes by asking his audience of self-identified CMs to “unite” in pride as nerds-turned-immigrants. I find the idea hard to comprehend. It’s like asking everyone who ever got cosmetic surgery to unite. Despite the superficial similarity, there’s simply very little to unite around. I don’t mean to sound antisocial or apathetic. Organizing and getting together is important for groups that have a reason to unite, like teachers’ unions or people who actually share cultural traditions. I realize that the question of identity has special resonance for the type that might be drawn in by a “Charisma Men, unite!” message, but these people should have more important things to worry about.
So I have an alternative recommendation for Debito’s readers: rather than worrying about what someone might be saying behind your back, why not work on being a better husband, spending time with your kids, or improving your career? Or maybe go back to coasting on your charisma if that’s your thing?