Wednesday, 23 January 2013

99 problems and being a gaijin ain’t one.

I recently viewed this appropriation of the Jay-Z song title over at Japologism (formerly Tepido). The context of this rather pithy one liner is an ongoing discussion around issues of belonging and exclusion in Japan for predominantly Anglosphere immigrants in Japan. At the heart of this discussion is a tension arising from a growing critical counter voice to popular/widespread/dominant Anglosphere knowledge on Japan.

This polyvocal position consists of mostly Anglosphere immigrants who have resided in Japan for significant periods of time, who frequently possess Japanese language literacy and often have made the commitment to call Japan “home”. It is a position criticized by the “old guard” gatekeepers of English knowledge on Japan whose positions, like their oppositional counterparts are complex, are frequently of a Western universalist position in which Western institutions of politics, law and human rights are posited as original and uniquely correct articulations. The result is that local articulations are accorded an inferior position and can only ever have inferior truth value and legitimacy. Any position falling outside of this framework is dogmatically posited as being “apologist”.

In my mind the tension between these two positions can be distilled as follows:

Expat versus Immigrant
The economic and military of the Anglosphere West created a global context in which the expat laborer was created. S/he jets out to a foreign land, frequently outside of the Anglosphere and arrangements such as housing, transportation and amenities are made by the company for a seamless transition of the worker from “here” to “there”. In many cases the expat worker is able to live in a strictly delimited community of peers with similar interests and aims while performing their work on foreign soil. S/he is able to return home at the end of a contract with minimal impact on the host culture, some pleasant (and often not so pleasant). The expat is a longer term tourist who frequently refuses local linguistic capability and has little opportunity for preconceptions and stereotypes to be unpicked by discourse with locals.

The immigrant on the other hand is a traveler who has decided to make the new local, a new home. S/he may start out as an expat or a tourist but for various reasons finds her/himself in a position where returning “home” is no longer relevant. Naturally, the type of home created and the path taken to permanent residency and naturalisation is dependent on the type of immigrant, the experience of Anglosphere immigrants is starkly different to that of Eastern European women, Chinese factory workers, Nikkei Brazilians and long term Zainichi Koreans and Chinese to name a few. Nevertheless this type of immigrant identity is characterized by a sense of becoming, a movement away from foreigner and toward resident and citizen.

To summarize: belonging is a complex and difficult issue for both expat and immigrant, however, the process of belonging and the commencement of an authentic local identity appears to be largely dependent on the concept, location and prospect of home. For the expat, belonging is neither a priority nor a necessity. For the immigrant it is an inevitability. Belonging is always a process, it is never complete. It is a constant negotiation.  

Linguistic Capability
The extent to which an immigrant (of either type mentioned above) attains local linguistic capability is a primary determinant of her/his ability to integrate into a community and find home. The dominant Anglosphere knowledges on Japan (which is invariably portrayed as weird, wacky, high tech and kinky) tend to draw on the same pool of translated information. As is the case in the present age, it takes only moments for information to gain currency and veracity through frequency and density of representation. Tracking down original sources can be quite difficult and for the dominant Anglosphere knowledge maker a brick wall of linguistic incompetence further frustrates the situation.

This linguistic incompetence is further compounded on a daily basis as her/his various interactions are mediated and translated. Glimpses of complex truths are viewed through lenses of incomplete comprehension and further interpreted by individuals within a matrix of exclusion, exceptionalism and hierarchy. The failure to integrate with community outside of the expat demarcations allows half-truths and interpretations to be perpetuated through un-reflexive repetition. This in turn is played out on a larger scale within the informational world of the internet where negativity as an outcome of culture shock, dislocation and exclusion is the primary mode.

The linguistically competent immigrant on the other hand, has her/his identity shaped by daily interactions in the language of the local. S/he is able to grasp first hand, without mediation local knowledges and issues. S/he frequently inhabits a context in which various issues, behaviours and events can be discussed and analysed from multiple view points. And while life may not be inherently any more/less sweet for the linguistically capable (after all, most of us could do with more money, more time, more peace, less stress and more love) it is easier to go about developing a rich and authentic, complex local identity.

This is one of the most contested areas of the expat/immigrant debate. Anglosphere immigrants (especially when of the ethnically white variety) tend to be monolingual and have enjoyed the benefits of cultural superiority find adopting local culture and customs difficult if not impossible. They see local behavior as beneath them, uncivilized and improper. They frown upon those immigrants who do make attempts to participate in their new culture.

Perhaps the pain of participation results from a primal human condition of shame. Adopting the unfamiliar requires an act of vulnerability, a giving up of the individual’s long held position in order to enter into the unknown. This type of shame and anger is frequently seen by the outbursts and red faces of white men as they loudly disapprove of their peers’ participation in distinctly Japanese cultural spaces from sports, to dress and traditional arts. After all, the Anglosphere has a long tradition of expressing disapproval of those who have “gone local” and thus “diluting/polluting” their original culture.

The other issue at stake is fixation. In the mind of the expat, the other is a fixed, known quantity it is defined against the known self, hybridity is not only considered undesirable but impossible. For many who have inhabited the heart of colonial empires, hybridity is akin to pollution, it is inauthentic and morally improper. They are them and we are us, superior.

Yet what many of these old men (though there are women and younger people caught up in this logic too, physical age is not always the best indicator of mental age) forget or are ignorant of is the speed and flexibility of the children of immigrants in regards to hybridity and becoming one, becoming other, both and neither. Youth the world over assimilate novelty and subject it to repetitive and rigorous, playful interpretation and reconstruction. The father and son live on the same planet but their life worlds are distinctly different. If only the Anglosphere universalist was capable of such intellectual and psychological reflexivity, perhaps (mostly) his passage through the place that is not home would be smoother, happier and more integrated.

The results.
Currently Anglosphere universalists are engaged in a dogmatic dismissal of complex becoming other immigrant positions. They reject the possibility of becoming other and see social change only if it can be imposed from above. The Anglosphere universalist further isolates himself from both mainstream immigrant experience as well as vanguard thought as he wraps himself in second hand knowledge and unbalanced despair at the hands of cultural chauvinism. The conclusion here is exclusion and the perpetuation of a gaijin identity apparently worthy of protection and promotion. But time is not on his side.

As China’s economic, social and political relevance continue to expand and influence Japanese affairs and former Anglosphere knowledge exclusivity about Japan is flattened by mass availability on the internet, we can see a changing landscape for Anglosphere immigrant. The old monolithic expert voice is being reduced to relic status and myriad, polyglossal, integrated, hybrid identities take his place.

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