Generally seen as highly homogenous, Japan is changing fast. In Tokyo, Kawasaki and Osaka recently, I encountered quite a few non-Japanese working at convenience stores and restaurants, and saw many more on the streets. Japan’s largest immigrant groups are Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Brazilians. Though the last are mostly ethnic Japanese, they maintain a separate culture, so are perceived as Brazilians.
In Kawasaki, a city just across a river from Tokyo, I entered a Peruvian restaurant with two Japanese friends, Ryo Isabe and Samson Yee. Born in Hong Kong, Samson spent parts of his childhood in England, has traveled all over and is married to a Japanese, and his spoken Japanese is nearly perfect, I was told. Immediately, Samson identified the woman serving us as not Japanese, although she appeared native enough to me, and had barely said anything. The more she talked, the more her Japanese deficiency was exposed, however. She was Peruvian.
Ryo is a critic, mostly of rap and electronic music, and the author of a book on Kawasaki. On the ribbon over its cover is a question, “Is Kawasaki hell?” Crossing the Tama River from Tokyo, I did notice a row of shacks, erected by the homeless, but by the time the train rolled into the station, everything seemed sparklingly modern and sophisticated. Walking around, I ran into plenty of chic stores and restaurants, and a swanky shopping center, La Cittadella.
Ryo explained that although Kawasaki may appear perfectly normal, there are many underlying problems. In 2015, the city shocked Japan when a 13-year-old boy was tortured and killed, with his naked body tossed into the Tama. Since his main killer, Ryuichi Funabashi, was half-Filipino, immigration, assimilation and ethnicity became uncomfortable subtexts.
For conformity to unite and provide collective strength, it must punish deviations, but this always triggers resentment, if not rage.
On the other hand, the list of successful half-Japanese is long. Half-Taiwanese Renho Murata briefly headed Japan’s Democratic Party, the first woman to do so. Americans are most familiar with half-Iranian Yu Darvish, half-Haitian Naomi Osaka and half-American Hideki Irabu. With the last, I noticed with interest that the half-Yankee insisted on going to the Yankees. Perched on the third deck, third base side, I did manage to watch Irabu pitch at Yankees Stadium. He always seemed like a very isolated, lonely figure. In 2008, the big man assaulted an Osaka bar manager after downing 20 beers, and in 2010, he was arrested for DUI in Redondo Beach. After his uneven career flamed out, Irabu didn’t return to Japan but moved to California, although he associated mostly with other Japanese while there. As his wife and kids were about to leave him, Irabu killed himself, but we can only guess at the multilayered, complex reason.
I asked Ryo to take us to a regular, working class bar, what I’m used to, whether I’m in Kiev, Mexico City or Missoula, so we ended up in some tiny, brightly lit joint that was owned by a Korean woman. That night, it was filled with older Okinawans and a half Russian, half Japanese man who didn’t look typically either. Born in Japan, he was simply Japanese, like the rest.
“Do I look Japanese?” I joked to a septuagenarian, missing a few teeth.
“No, you look Cambodian!” We all laughed.
Sitting at my table, another Okinawan said, “I’ve never known a Vietnamese, but I’m glad to meet you. You should spend more time in Kawasaki, and get to know us.”
“I already feel very comfortable,” and I meant it.
During the Vietnam War, the septuagenarian was paid $20 a day to clean American corpses, killed in action, “It was ten times the average wage, so I was glad to have the job, but I had to quit after six months, since I couldn’t eat.”
In Kawasaki for four decades, he didn’t miss Okinawa, “I don’t have anything to return to.”
When he said he had to work later that night, I thought he was kidding, for he was well past retirement age, not to mention trashed. “I work for the railroad,” he elaborated. “I’m a painter.”
At his table sat a couple, also old, with the man in a felt fedora. “Although I’m married to Frank Sinatra,” she said of her husband while bantering with the painter, “you’re more my type!” She rubbed his bald head.
Though it was Ryo’s first time at the joint, and Samson and I were not Japanese, we were treated so warmly, so so much for Japanese reserve or aloofness, but the English, too, I’ve always found to be mostly friendly and chatty. Damn the stereotype.
Taking a photo with me, the Korean owner planted a kiss on my crown, and the old painter shouted towards the end of the night, “Now, you look very Japanese! You belong here!”
There is a universal brotherhood of lowlife drinkers. My blood brother, a Yahoo employee who says “darn” and “shoot,” wouldn’t feel welcome there, or at Philly’s Friendly Lounge, for that matter, not that he would enter either
In Osaka, the sociologist Masahiko Kishi took me and others to a seafood restaurant, Taiyoshi Hyakuban, that’s housed in a wonderfully-preserved, two-storied 1908 brothel. Wandering around, I marveled at its carved columns, beams and ceilings, fine vases and scrolls, and well-executed paintings of scenes from centuries past. Our three waiters were all South Asians, most likely Bangladeshi. They had no problems communicating in Japanese.
Taiyoshi Hyakuban is located in Tobita Shinchi, Japan’s last traditional red light districts, where the prostitutes are openly displayed through wide doorways, facing the street. Tastefully dolled up, each is seated among decorative elements, such as a basket of plastic flowers, stuffed animals, a heart-shaped pillow or a giant Maneki-neko, etc., but with an old woman, the madame, perched in a corner. Though the contrast between youthful beauty and aging ugliness is rather jarring, at least it serves its purpose as a warning and an urge. Get it while you can, and while it’s still fresh!
Tobita Shinchi is nothing like what you’ll find in, say, Amsterdam’s De Wallen, where not much distracts from the red-lit meat of the matter. Though prostitution is illegal in Japan, the Tobita Shinchi joints are kosher because, well, they’re classified as restaurants, so if you suddenly find yourself inside a waitress, it’s because she’s quite smitten by you, that’s all, and your wallet. It’s love at first sight. Maybe you’ll get lucky the next time you visit your town’s Dairy Queen or White Castle!
In Amsterdam, most of the whores are in fact not Dutch, but come from Eastern Europe, South America, Southeast Asia or Africa. The last time I was in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, most whores were also foreign, and in Barcelona, Chinese massage parlors spread. Assuming a similar situation in Tobita Shinchi, I asked Kishi-san what percentage of these lovelies were aliens, and was surprised to hear, “None!” Well, at least one corner of Japan remains absolutely pure.
A 15-minute date with a Tobita Shinchi waitress will set you back $100, and she’ll time it with a stopwatch, too, such is Japanese precision. If you can’t quite afford that, look for a foreigner elsewhere, for immigrants always translate to cheaper labor, since it’s the main, and often only, reason they’re allowed in.
A Japanese convenience store chain, Lawson, has opened two training centers in Vietnam for jobs in Japan, and near me in Saigon, there’s a billboard recruiting workers for factory, construction, farming and food processing jobs in that country. To qualify, you must be between 18 and 35, “pleasant to look at, in good health, without a contagious disease, HIV or hepatitis B.” Fair enough. The catch is that you must first pay them for lessons in the Japanese language and culture. You will learn when and how to bow, to obey traffic rules, and to refrain from using all public spaces as trash cans, etc.
After months of studies, most bitterly realize they’re just not made to say konichiwa daily, but some do manage to pass all the tests and gain a visa to Japan, where they will be paid $1,300 a month, a handsome sum in Vietnam, but dismal in Japan, especially after taxes and mandatory health insurance. Most still manage to send money back home, however, for they live four to a room, ride a bicycle and skim on everything.
In Osaka’s Ikuno Ward, Koreans have lived for three generations, but now there are also a few thousand Chinese and Vietnamese. Walking its streets and alleys over several days, I found them quiet and clean, with a nice mixture of old and new houses. Inside its quaint though somewhat run-down shopping arcades, there are many Korean barbecue joints and groceries, as well as karaoke bars run by Chinese women. Passing a rare Vietnamese store, I noticed a hand written-sign in Vietnamese, “Friends who come to shop / please be careful to / Not sit on other people’s bicycles / Not gather and be loud in front of the building / And only throw trash at designated places / Thanks, friends” National traits can’t always be modified.
Though only the fourth largest immigrant group, Vietnamese commit the second most number of crimes, behind only the Chinese, and Viets outstrip all in crime ratio. In 2013, 839 Vietnamese were arrested, a pace that’s only increasing, with shoplifting the most common transgression. A Vietnamese website explains, “Working in groups of two, three or four people, they target supermarkets and drug stores […] The items targeted by Viet criminals include rice, beer and liquor, all types of food, vitamins, cosmetics, diapers, powdered milk and whatever else that’s requested by their customers!”
This business practice must be fairly universal. In Philadelphia, I knew a couple of white shoplifters who regularly sold stolen goods to Center City merchants, and these thieves, too, took orders. If you wanted a specific item from Whole Foods or Target, they’d get it for you before the day’s over.
With shoplifting an increasing problem, it’s ironic that there’s a new, critically acclaimed Japanese film, Shoplifters, that sympathetically portrays a family of thieves.
Vietnamese crimes in Japan, though, aren’t just petty. In Osaka in 2015, a 25-year-old Vietnamese man was killed by six of his compatriots. Surveillance footage shows them chasing him down to beat, stab and stomp him to death, before “leaving the scene as if nothing had happened,” to quote Thanh Nien, a Vietnamese newspaper. The group also seriously injured two other Vietnamese that day. Last month in Osaka, a 22-year-old Vietnamese woman died after being stabbed in the neck by her Vietnamese boyfriend. Since violent crimes are rare in Japan, these murders grabbed headlines.
In 2015, two Vietnamese were arrested for stealing and slaughtering two research goats, kept in a park. One explained that to pay a Vietnamese labor broker, he had to borrow money, with his home as collateral, but in Japan, he was overworked and underpaid, so he kept switching jobs, but he was still destitute, he said, so he resorted to stealing bento lunches and other food from supermarkets. His partner in crime was his unemployed roommate, a man who had dropped out of a junior college because he couldn’t afford tuition. None of this explains why they had to feast on goat meat, or why the Japanese should put up with such lawlessness.
It’s worth noting that the worst behaviors by Vietnamese in Japan are regularly highlighted by the Vietnamese media, since this labor conduit is too lucrative to wreck. As for the Japanese, immigrant criminality is still a small price to pay in exchange for much needed workers. Increasingly withdrawn and celibate, Japanese don’t have nearly enough kids to replace its huge population of retirees, who simply live on and on. Immigrants, then, must be flown in to change their diapers, and turn them over to prevent bedsores.
Japanese media have run many stories highlighting the abuse of foreign employees. Weekly Playboy quotes a Vietnamese woman who was cheated of her worker’s compensation after being hurt at her shipping depot job. Though she had to go to the hospital, she wasn’t even allowed the rest of the day off. Commenting on this story, a Japanese salaryman tellingly relates:
A few years ago I had an accident in Japan riding my bicycle to work. (A truck struck my arm.) Luckily I wasn’t hurt (as in broken bones), but quite bruised, in pain and shocked of course.
So, since I didn’t have any permanent injury and like the good salaryman I was, I bit my teeth and went to work anyway. I was late of course and also wanted to make sure my employer understood what happened, so I reported to my supervisor.
At first he was mildly curious, but then he just wanted to know if I could work today. So that was that.
A while later he came back to me to inform me that I would be censured because I took my bicycle to get to the station, which was against company regulations […] Frankly I think, that such a regulation is a cowardly and irresponsible act on behalf of the company. Also, due to my low salary I couldn’t afford anything close to the station […]
So, instead of “are you OK?,” “do you want to take a day off?” I basically got censured for being the victim of a traffic accident due to breaking a cowardly “no responsibility” rule. So THAT’s what’s important eh? …
Recently, a video surfaced of a Japanese boss dunking a subordinate’s head, twice, into a boiling shabu shabu pot, during a year’s end party, as a few guests laughed. Though this happened three years ago, the victim never reported the horrible incident to the police, and is only suing now.
Word has certainly gotten out about the often harsh Japanese work environment, so the buzz in Vietnam, for example, is that it’s better to aim for South Korea. Still, many dream of Japan, for there’s never a shortage of desperate people who would do just about anything to live in a First World country.
Employing five Vietnamese, a Japanese construction boss told Nikkei Asian Review, “Foreign trainees learn faster than Japanese. They are more serious, more hardworking, and take fewer days off. They are keen to learn and work hard for money. Few young Japanese show such guts these days.” They’re also cheaper, I repeat, though new laws have been passed to erase this difference.
In a Pew survey, 58% of Japanese are content with the current, record high level of immigration, while 23% actually want even more. This places Japan third among 27 nations, behind only Spain (28%) and the US (24%). Though most immigrants to Japan arrive with only a three-year visa, many will stay longer, even if illegally. Turks in Germany were also meant as temporary solutions. With its newfound openness to immigrants, Japan is becoming more colorful, yet more diluted, maybe for good.
After my last article on Japan, “Telfoed John” brilliantly commented, “All technology which makes the far-away close, makes the close far-away. Whether it’s Shinkansen, Walkmans, pornography… Japan is at the forefront of making the world come to the individual, but at the same time shrinking the soul and personal relations.”
In other word, Japan leads the world in replacing the actual with the virtual, so you have teens who won’t go outside, men screwing sex dolls and old people being comforted by creepy robots, but these arrangements aren’t too satisfying, apparently, for Japan is erasing itself at a frightful pace. In 2017, only 946,060 babies were born there, the lowest number since records began in 1899, so discounting immigrants, its population declined by nearly 400,000. That’s twice the number of people obliterated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki! At this rate, there will only be 500 Japanese left by 3000, according to Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.
What’s happening to Japan is relevant worldwide, for all the most advanced and accomplished populations are shrinking, while the most backward recklessly breed. If you think each child is a blank slate, with roughly equal potentials, then there’s no cause for alarm, but many among us are convinced a nation’s heritage is simply its biology, manifested, so the Cathedral in Siena, for example, is really a chart of the Italian DNA. Japan is one of humanity’s most spectacular yet nuanced achievements.
Judging by its history, Japan is eminently capable of reinventing itself, so with its tremendous human capital still largely intact, perhaps it won’t just save itself, but show us all what to do next.