Thursday, June 16, 2005

Fourth of July in Tokyo

I live out in the sticks, and there are probably only a total of 50 or fewer American's in these parts. Before I started working in Tokyo, one of the highlights of my social season was the annual 4th of July party at the American Embassy housing compound. The first time I went was at the invitation of one of my uncle's former colleagues when he was working for the state of Oregon. This colleague was an embassy staffer, and got me tickets, and I thought 'wow, I am special, I get to go to this exclusive party with embassy people and the like, and meet Walter Mondale (then the U.S. ambassador to Japan) and shoot the shit about his speech at my graduation.
Now I know better: You can get tickets at the American Chamber of Commerce of Japan (ACCJ) for 1,000 yen. No biggie. Eleven years ago, the expat community seemed like this glittering community of people who had it made. Now I work with a fair number of them, and it doesn't seem quite as cool:
  • No job security: A lot of the expats at my company won't have a job to go back to, and are here on short-term contracts. (this contrasts with my own cush situation, where I would basically have to committ a felony for my company to fire me).
  • No respect: Most of the employees (Japanese) don't respect the expats, saying stuff like 'they don't know shit about the Japanese market, so why in God's name has HQ sent them to Japan to run things?' Good question, uncomfortable answer: HQ doesn't understand Japan, either, and sends people with equal levels of ignorance (or other Asians: there is a Dutch-Chinese guy, a German-Korean guy, an American-Japanese (who needs an interpreter), a Lebanese-Swede, and some other interesting contributors to our melting pot.
  • Because of the two above facts, backlash is a fact of life: We just got a new president, an expat, ironically, who has recently been regularly saying that expats can't do the job, that we need to have Japanese in the important roles, and so on. I happen to be white, but am not an expat. Unfortunately for me, the backlash against the expats sometimes spills over to people like me who are local hires, speak the language, and have long and extensive knowledge of the Japanese market. c'est la vie.
Alright, there is definitely an element of jealousy: My boss, and expat, has a huge house in Denenchofu, one of the more exclusive neighbourhoods in Tokyo, paid for by the company, in addition to a car, and much nicer phones and computers than most others. In her case, I don't grudge her these things at all, as she has worked for the company for a long time, and probably deserves what she has. But there are quite a few young Dutch guys that have a certain bluntness bordering on rudeness (the polar opposite, in other words, of a Japanese conception of good manners), along with a certain assumption that they know what they are doing (they generally do, and it wouldn't hurt my Japanese colleagues to listen occasionally...), but with lots of youth. To see these guys in luxury apartments in the best areas of Tokyo might gall some...

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