The Tragedy of the Overseas Japanese

I’ve been in Dubai for almost two months now, and despite leaving Japan, everyday involves speaking, reading and writing Japanese in my personal and professional life. Since arriving I’ve probably met more than a hundred Japanese nationals here, such as company employees, government bureaucrats, waitresses and cooks at Japanese restaurants, and the wives and school-aged children that have accompanied many of them. That’s several percentage points of the whole Japanese population here — according to the local Japanese Consulate General, there are approximately 3,000 Japanese nationals living in Dubai.

The reaction to a Japanese-speaking non-Japanese person is overwhelmingly positive, and I have found it very easy to befriend Japanese nationals on that basis. I think one reason for this is the underwhelming penetration of English language proficiency in the Japanese community here, and the consequent loneliness and insular community that arises thereto.

It’s one thing when I meet Americans and Brits living in Japan who never exert even a cursory effort to learn the Japanese language. I’m disappointed by these types of people, but I understand that English is the lingua franca of the world, the lowest common denominator of language, that people can expect to use for communication in most cities of the world. I know people who have lived in Japan for years, knowing only English, and who have still been able to live a full life in Japan and enjoy all the major tourist locations such as Kyoto, Hakone, Nikko, and elsewhere.

Here in Dubai, I witness the same phenomenon — I meet Japanese people who have lived in Dubai for years and who can barely order food from a menu or instruct a cab driver. This is a city that follows the 21st century lingua franca — 90% of the metropolitan population is foreign, and the common language between Lebanese, Indians, Brits, Egyptians, Iranians, Chinese, Kenyans, South Africans, Pakistanis, Greeks, Afghanis, and every other type of person you can imagine is English.

It’s one thing if a 30 year-old Japanese housewife can’t learn basic English communication after a few year in Dubai. That’s disappointing but understandable. But I’m truly shocked when I meet kids of the ages of 7 or 10, who have lived in Dubai for a year or two, and who have the potential to truly learn English like a native, and yet who can barely muster a sentence in English.

The blame lies squarely with the community and the education. The kids live in a Japanese community, attend Japanese schools that follow an ordinary Japanese curriculum, and basically have to study English in their spare time if they want to learn. And the general lack of English ability by many here has created a highly insular community. The Japanese tend to live in or around the Hyatt Regency, which offers serviced apartments for individuals and families, a supermarket with a small Japanese corner, and a genuine Japanese restaurant. Many other people live in the nearby neighborhood, and most of the authentic Japanese restaurants are in that area. With most Japanese socially cut-off from the rest of Dubai’s expat community, the result is a gossip network akin to a small inaka community. I met a bureucrat working at JETRO who had heard of me from his neighbor before we met — which we forensically determined was derivative to at least the fourth degree, with the information genesis beginning in a meeting that happened merely days earlier.

On the one hand, from a selfish perspective, this is great for me and has created all sorts of opportuities. But it’s also tragic that the Japanese, despite being very well educated and comfortably middle class for several generations, are so culturally isolated in a city where people gather from across the world.

37 thoughts on “The Tragedy of the Overseas Japanese”

  1. Japanese communities in the Middle East have always seemed more insular than those in other parts of the world. I’ve always assumed – on the basis of no evidence at all – that this is because the perceived risk of getting things wrong has always seemed higher. The countries in the Middle East have widely differing laws and regulations but many Japanese seem wary of unknowingly breaking moral or religious taboos in all of them. Oddly, much more so than they do in a place like muslim Indonesia. Add in the terrorist threat and you might have another explanation for the more cautious attitude.

  2. I also feel that I have met a few percentage points of the Japanese community where I am, including quite a few consular staff, and I’ve been impressed with foreign language skill overall. Of course, many of the Japanese that I’ve met are here for “lifestyle” reasons, not as power earners, which is probably the root of the insularity problem in Dubai.

    I feel a bit more pity for many of the Americans and Brits not learning Japanese in Japan, however. I can understand why a power earner in Tokyo wouldn’t take the time to learn Japanese, but so many young English-speakers are stomping on their future earning potential by not stepping out of the eikaiwa ghetto.

  3. Mulboyne, I might agree with you if the city was Riyadh or Doha, but I’m talking about Dubai here — you can buy and drink alcohol freely, “working women” are in every bar, people are in bikinis at the beach, the population is overwhelmingly English-speaking non-Arab, and the city has a sense of being much more free.

  4. M-Bone, my sentiment is the same to the 7 year old, in his third year in Dubai, of whom most of his conscious memories are in the Middle East, who cannot speak English. This guy could grow up to have an amazing career if -he- his parents ensured that he seized the opportunity that is so obviously available. The future career potential for him in learning English now is far greater than the monolingual Eikaiwa, most of whom are recent college grads who will leave Japan and never return.

  5. I really don’t care if people live in insular communities when they are abroad, whether it be Japanese in Dubai or Mexicans in the U.S. or whoever wherever. All knowledge can be viewed as the mythical apple plucked from the tree in Eden. Once you bite from it, your life becomes a lot more painful and complicated. I say this because I was a lot happier with my life in Japan before I understood Japanese. Ignorance was a type of bliss. Beyond that, it’s really nobody’s business what choices people make with their lives. You cannot know their plans, their path, or their potential and language skills are a pretty small piece of the puzzle.

    Also, I reject the notion that future earning potential is lost by not acquiring a second language. For one thing, the Japanese market has been shrinking and losing power for two decades now and the jobs are not going to be very lucrative in the future. In fact, there is every chance that wages will continue to go down and that Japan will seek to fill its workforce shortfall by seeking third-world and developing country employees who are specially trained in Japanese to accomplish the task.

    They’re unlikely to turn to the higher-priced foreigners who inhabit Eikaiwa anyway when there are thousands of Chinese at the ready who will do such jobs at a fraction of the English-native-speaker wages. This is already happening at companies like HP Japan. They outsourced all of their temporary worker/contract worker jobs to China, and those workers speak, read, and write flawless Japanese despite never having set food in Japan.

    At the moment, Americans would be better off learning Spanish than Japanese as it would help them in the home job market and improve future earning potential. Similarly, I’m guessing other languages would help others when they go home as well depending on what the foreign community is like. The bottom line is that there is simply no shortage of non-native Japanese speakers to fill the gaps, and they don’t even live here.

  6. Right about those parents – colossal missed opportunity, culturally at least. It’s not the 2-4 year eikaiwa crowd that I’m worried about, though. On that timeframe, Japanese is a lifestyle choice. What I don’t get is the not insignificant group of eikaiwa lifers who never take a next step.

    The 7 year old could have an amazing career, but just being bilingual doesn’t guarantee that. Not by a long shot. On a career level, I’m not sure that his parents would be wrong to emphasize future entrance exams over English if they are thinking medicine or something. When I think about the bi or trilingual Lebanese, Indians, Egyptians, Iranians, Chinese, Kenyans, South Africans, Pakistanis, Greeks, Afghanis, that I know, many had big ideas but got sucked into IT or clerical work that taps out at a mid 5 figures. And that after being bilingual from childhood and years of paying expensive foreign student tuition.

  7. “Also, I reject the notion that future earning potential is lost by not acquiring a second language.”

    Can you really argue that “person A” is just as marketable as “person A plus a second language” or that Japanese wouldn’t give you different job options?

    “simply no shortage of non-native Japanese speakers to fill the gaps”

    I think that people should perpetually be looking to skill up and find a gap to fill and if it can be outsourced to China, one shouldn’t be doing it.

  8. I have said this on the blog several times before, but language skills are not all that bilingual people make them out to be — “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Getting to a really proficient level of a language unrelated to one’s own (e.g. Japanese for English speakers, English for Japanese speakers) takes at least a year of full-time study, and much longer if done on a part-time basis. In that sort of time frame, one could easily pick up a master’s degree or professional certification which would be much more lucrative, and probably much more flexible in application, than proficiency in a foreign language — even English. Translators and editors are getting cheaper every year, and in a volatile economy you never know which market you might need to focus on.

    My impression of Japanese expats is that their English ability is usually very good, at least in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but they just can’t be bothered to socialize with non-Japanese people, and therefore can’t speak English. A lot of this probably has to do with their structured social upbringing–they expect to be friends with their (implicitly Japanese) co-workers, (implicitly Japanese) neighbors and (implicitly Japanese) classmates/fellow alumni, no matter where in the world they happen to be. This is, of course, also the case for American or British expats in Tokyo. I can’t really say much myself because I have more American friends than Japanese friends in Tokyo — the saving graces for my language skills are that I have Japanese [future] in-laws, work at a mostly Japanese-speaking office and had the privilege of doing a high school exchange in Osaka early in my life. This isn’t the case for most expats, who usually end up wherever they are because of corporate fiat and not because of any particular regional specialization.

  9. I agree with Joe here – another degree trumps another language on the career level. But you can get a huge head start on a second language for free just by living in an environment, so why not? You can also study in that second language and kill two birds with one stone. In addition, if you have the highest qualification in your area you really only have two choices – another language or another area.

  10. But you can get a huge head start on a second language for free just by living in an environment

    People never pick up a language by osmosis. They have to be forced to use it. This is even true for children, who are supposed to suck up language faster than adults. Most expats work and live in their native language and have almost no need to use the local language beyond a few very basic restaurant and taxicab phrases. There’s some benefit in picking up reading skills from looking at signs around you, but that benefit is lost in Japan if you don’t already know the characters.

    This is incidentally why foreigners often learn English where English speakers in the same position would be hard pressed to learn a foreign language. English is the lingua franca of many professional and academic fields, and one cannot progress beyond a certain level in these fields without learning English (at least on a written level) to keep abreast of the latest developments. Very few other languages have such a position in any field, unless you’re looking at particularly obscure and hard-to-market areas of historical or regional specialization.

    if you have the highest qualification in your area you really only have two choices – another language or another area

    “The highest qualification” is exceedingly hard to get in any real-world field of expertise. About the best someone can hope for is to be “world class,” and that usually takes a very long time. A Ph.D. just gives you the right to your bullshit but does not make it inherently authoritative.

  11. I agree with Joe too, japanese companies value MUCH more “social skills” than english fluency. And having lived abroad is assumed to hamper those japanese social skills. That’s part of the reason japanese people try to recreate a japanese environment wherever they go, I think.

    “I was a lot happier with my life in Japan before I understood Japanese.“

    This is funny in a sad way. True though.

  12. “I was a lot happier with my life in Japan before I understood Japanese. Ignorance was a type of bliss.”

    The exact kind of comment one would expect from someone who runs an inane “things I hate about Japan” blog.

  13. In many cases,J-expats choose to send their kids to Japanese schools in non-English speaking countries.And when your kids are too young,such like still in the elementary school years,the merit of being Kikoku-Shijo are far less.Kids may not be able to re-adopt in Japanese school environments both in the means of language and social skills.If you come back in highschool years,English ability would be a plus in exams and many universities have Kikoku-Shijo student quotas.

    Housewives can catch up the language a lot easier than their husbands,since they go shopping in local stores and have plenty of time to go to language class.

  14. I think you might be projecting your go-getter attitude on a group of people who generally are the exact opposite. The kids are placed in a Japanese school system because the benefit of Westernizing is small compared to the soul-crushing teasing they’d be subjected to back home. It would take a level of courage and contrarianism that the average person just can’t muster.

  15. By the way I agree that this is a tragic situation and could not disagree more with Orchid’s comments about the fruit of knowledge.

  16. Joe, qualification is synonymous with professional certification – law degree / LLB would indeed be the highest form of that in one profession, as would certified chartered accountant, etc. in others. A PhD is the highest certification in another area and allows one to teach university level writing and research skills, write curricula, and participate in university administration. It isn’t supposed to be a judgment on the quality of one’s insights apart from the original dissertation on one narrow area – which is why new research pieces are subjected to blind review.

    I don’t think that a PhD is necessarily harder to get than the highest qualifications / certifications in other areas, but I also don’t think that the big buck business of higher education should be severed from the “real world”.

  17. “Housewives can catch up the language a lot easier than their husbands,since they go shopping in local stores and have plenty of time to go to language class.”

    That’s actually very true. When I was studying Chinese in Taipei, my first term class had two Japanese housewives, whose husbands were working at offices in Taipei for, I believe, 3 year stings. The husbands didn’t have the time to learn Chinese, and relatively little reason since they were only there for 3 years and working in a largely Japanese language environment, but the wives had basically nothing to do BUT learn Chinese while their 1st graders were at the Taipei Japanese school. I can’t tell you how much Chinese the kids absorbed, since I was only in class with those women during their second quarter-year in Taiwan, but I would hope that in 3 years, at that age, they learned quite a lot.

    I suppose it is possible that the Japanese expat community in Taipei is as close the the polar opposite of the Dubai case as a contemporary group of Japanese abroad gets, since I would estimate that the majority of Japanese there are actually language students.

  18. M-Bone, my point is that the degree really doesn’t mean jack in and of itself. I can tell you, as a JD holder and licensed lawyer, that you need several years of practical experience beyond the degree and the license before any institutional client will take you seriously as a lawyer. Same goes for accountants and professors. The degree, examination or whatever teaches a professional just enough to be dangerous (and often gives them a license to be dangerous), but there is a lot they have to continue to learn in their own field before they can be said to be on top of their game.

    Throwing another field or a foreign language into the mix is time taken away from developing the core competency, and it ultimately detracts somewhat from that professional’s ability to function within their own field unless it somehow redefines their field — which it can, for better or worse. A lot of foreign lawyers who learn Japanese end up being translators, document editors or account managers rather than “lawyers” as most people understand the word.

  19. Who cares? How many Subways do they have in Dubai?

    Seriously though, what Joe said about having another language without other skills not giveng you the ability to do any job you would want to.

    Also, Orchid:

    ”Also, I reject the notion that future earning potential is lost by not acquiring a second language. For one thing, the Japanese market has been shrinking and losing power for two decades now and the jobs are not going to be very lucrative in the future.”

    For Gastarbeiter type positions, sure, but I’m not sure that’s true of jobs that require a bit more skill. I know that the universities have said this sort of thing before, but:


    In fact, the university does seem to be taking these things seriously. Rather than the usual waffle about kokusaika and whatnot they have issued a white paper on this that took (I think) three years to put together. I’ve recently been hanging out with somebody involved in the administrative side of things at Tokyo U and they seem to be deeply concerned about losing their monopoly on attracting the best Japanese students to American universities. I think they are preparing another. Unfortunately, a lot of their recommendations seem to revolve around treating foreign teachers and researchers as “guests” and thus leading to their ghettoisation in “international houses”, and putting them in English medium teaching situations, but I think this may well change over time.

  20. “my point is that the degree really doesn’t mean jack in and of itself”

    Well, we pretty much agree. I’ve recently been looking at some of my old notes and laughing at how green I was when newly minted. Although we (unfortunately) also agreed upthread that credentials are something that people need to grab to increase that earning power. Sad truth, but you don’t get in the door without them.

    “but there is a lot they have to continue to learn in their own field before they can be said to be on top of their game.”

    Indeed. The ranks of professor – assistant, associate, full – are very similar to the career landmarks of lawyers (and judges are like the assistant dean, dean, provost, president administrative grades). Aside from tenure, which everyone wants, there are many things that people track as dues are paid – research portfolio, teaching evaluations, etc.

    Thanks for sharing your language assessment for law – it is different in academia as a second language or inter-disciplinary focus makes you more qualified to run a diverse program (either grant or curriculum) so it can up your professional mojo. The best way to get ahead seems to be the same, however – just do what you need to do to be recognized as being as good as you need to be for the job that you want.

  21. I dunno, I think I’d be staying in a bomb shelter if I had the misfortune to posted there. The Iranians are going to be liberating the oppressed Shia majority in the Gulf States sometime in the next year or three (well, unless Israel gets the Iranians first).

    Best-case scenario: Israel cuts a tacit agreement with Iran for the latter to do some redrawing of British-colonialist-imposed-bullshit-borders.

  22. Curzon, Bahrain was the 80s version of Dubai – although not on the same scale – and the Japanese community was much the same as you describe above. They were also nothing like their counterparts in London, New York, HK, Singapore, Zurich, Australia etc.

    Japanese housewives often don’t have quite the freedom to learn another language and culture that you might imagine. They have a status in the Japanese community which mirrors their husband’s position. The shacho’s wife usually rules the coop and if another wife gets on ther wrong side then if can affect her husband and her children if she has any. Skipping out on the group activities to mix with the locals is one way to raise some hackles. Anyone familiar with the politics of mothers at children’s play areas will know how that can work.

    In London, there are many wives who stayed on in the UK after their husbands were transferred back home. They didn’t divorce; rather the couple had decided that their kids would go to school and perhaps college there. This happened in other countries too but I can’t imagine too many Japanese electing to continue their children’s education in Dubai.

    I was at a bonenkai lunch in Tokyo the other day with a number of Japanese bankers, from a range of companies, who had all been expats. Many had brought their families, with the kids ranging from early teens to late twenties. (this incidentally raised an important point of etiquette – try not to look like you are hitting on an ex-colleague’s daughter when you speak with her, especially if that’s her mum just to your right). Pretty much all the kids wanted to go back overseas and some had already made the decision.

    When I the title of this post was “the tragedy of the overseas Japanese”, I thought it might refer to those who do find it difficult to fit in back in Japan after having lived abroad. Middle East Japanese really aren’t that typical of the expat communities elsewhere although you might find similar set-ups in a few South American countries.

  23. “catoneinutica, are you talking about Dubai?”

    Mais oui, the Slave-State-Debtors’-Prison-Las-Vegas-in-a-Burkha Entity Known as Dubai. Biggest, bestest skyscaper in the world! Fabulous seven-star (that’s two more than five-star!) hotels!

    We know a Japanese family that was transferred by the husband’s company, Matsushita Denki, to Barcelona. The whole family went and had a good time. Then the good times came to an end: the husband was abruptly reassigned to the Dubai office. The wife and kids returned to Japan; they were horrified at the prospect of living in Dubai. I’d say their fears were well-founded, and the place isn’t getting any safer with the nuclearization of Iran, the would-be Shia hegemon.

  24. catoneinutica-style misunderstanding applied to Tokyo:

    “Oh my gawd, Japan?? I hear all the men are herbivores and marry dolls, all the girls are lolita goths, and everyone has the experience of being randomly imprisoned for weeks without access to a lawyer. And North Korea has nukes, and we all know they hate Japan and want to turn it into a sea of fire! For the sake of Sweet Jesus, get out of there!”

    I.e. You’ve been reading too many mass media news reports and taking them at face value, and have a pretty warped view of Shia-Sunni relations, both domestically and internationally.

    Sure, Dubai, like Tokyo, or New York, or Singapore, or any major international city, has weird and bad stuff — but the lifestyle here is grand, and after almost a decade in Japan, and not wanting to leave, I enjoy life here. If people want to equate it to Saudi Arabia (where the cut off your hand for stealing and don’t let women drive) and are afraid to move out here, great — less automobile traffic to bother me!

  25. I dunno Mulboyne.
    I’ve graduated a highschool in the late 80’s,which is made solely to serve the purpose of educating Kikoku Shijo in Tokyo.All of the 40 kids in my grade(The school only houses 120 students)and came from various countries.Basically you are correct on your post and micro politics of expatriates.However,they are also very cautious about making any small storm in the tea cup.Husbands ranking does matter among the wives of the same company.But then,you don’t usually socialize with people from the same company for numbers of reasons.Beside,there are generational gap between the wife of 30something employees and the wife of 50 something managers.ofcourse the size of the community matter here.I believe places like London,New York,Shanghai and Dusseldorf won’t have too much problem.However,Ulaambaatar(population about 300 and all single males due to the lack of Japanese schools) does.

  26. I don’t think we are disagreeing Ace. I made the observation about the Japanese I met who had engaged with local communities when they were overseas – to the extent that their children wished to return – as a counterpoint to Curzon’s recent experience of the community in Dubai. I wouldn’t want to be caught suggesting that all Japanese families going overseas end up that way because there are obviously plenty of expat kids who do come back to Japan and prefer to stay.

  27. I don’t know whether anyone had paid any interest on late Kawamura Kaori,musician and model who had passed away because of the breast canser.Now she was half Russian and born in Moscow under Japanese dad who worked for trade house and Russian mom during Soviet years.After their parents divorced she came back to Japan to enter junior highschool and faced cruel bullying.Naturally her dad took Kaori to London and was educated in one of Japanese private schools(Shitennouji Gakuen of Osaka’s UK campus) established for these kikoku shijo,more precisely speaking those who can’t adopt in Japan,yet want to graduation certificate from Japanese educational institution.

    When I was in NY,Keio built it’s own highschool and one of the sales point is you can get into Keio highschool or university after you return to Japan.And the peak times,there were about 17 schools in US,Europe and Australia.Only half of them still exist.

  28. “Oh my gawd, Japan?? I hear all the men are herbivores and marry dolls, all the girls are lolita goths, and everyone has the experience of being randomly imprisoned for weeks without access to a lawyer. And North Korea has nukes, and we all know they hate Japan and want to turn it into a sea of fire! For the sake of Sweet Jesus, get out of there!”

    …And don’t forget, everybody lives in capsule hotels these days.

  29. If the parents envision returning to Japan (as I envision the vast majority of them do), and they envision their children also living in Japan in the long run (same assumption), then isn’t there a real earning potential lost by having the students in anything other than a Japanese school? I’m thinking here specifically of the slowdown in learning of Kanji and other aspects of Japanese. I can’t recall the exact quote, but I feel like I heard (or read) a Japanese teacher say that if a student falls behind by even a few Kanji a month in elementary school, they can expect to be permanently behind for the rest of their life. I’m working from a pretty small sample, but while I’ve seen the English ability of Japanese students who’ve done lengthy (6+ months) of foreign homestyle improve dramatically, they almost always fall so far behind in Japanese that their best hope is to spend a year after high school at juku trying to get into college, and the worst case scenario that they have to go to a “lower” level private school. And I think there’s a pretty clear correlation between “rank” of university attended and future earning potential in Japan. Unless I’m just hearing badly filtered information–I’ve been told that Japanese high school teachers often provide views that don’t have a high correspondence with reality (kind-of like Ivory Tower professors in the U.S.)

  30. Curzon and Bryce: Good to know, guys! I’ll take those stories about South Asian slave laborers being worked to death there with a grain of salt from now on! It’s just the human-rights alarmists trying to gin up contributions. And Orientalism. That too.

  31. I’m not too certain that is BS, is it? The “proper” newspapers in Japan have taken it fairly seriously.

    A BS story about human rights in Japan would be the Brazilian repatriation “bribe.”

    catoneinutica, do I know you in real life?

  32. Although I haven’t kept track, I feel like I’ve seen accusations of slave labor-like conditions for foreign construction workers in Dubai in a pretty wide range of media outlets.

    And women from the Philippines who go to work as domestics in the Emirates or Saudi Arabia go with knowing that their is a strong chance their boss will rape them, and he will probably steal her passport, and that she will have no legal recourse if he does either of those things. I’ve seen warnings to that effect in guides to working abroad published there, and spoken to a woman who was looking for jobs like that to support her family who told me the same thing.

    So, you might say that using the phrase “slave labor” is exaggerated and overblown, but to dismiss the concerns as BS when evidence of human rights abuses for foreign labor is pretty strong seems kind of reckless.

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