Regular readers of my articles will know that through all of the work I have contributed to this site to date runs a common thread, my great love an enthusiasm for this country, Japan, my home. However, as anyone who has ever been in love will tell you, feeling a deep emotional bond to place or person can at times cloud one’s judgment and somewhat skew one’s sense of perspective.
It would be all too easy to slide into the comfortable conceit that everything in Japan is wonderful, and anyone who says otherwise is just a “hater” who doesn’t understand the society or the culture as deeply as you do. Such an assertion is of course utterly nonsensical, but it is a trap into which I have seen many long term foreign residents fall.
Likewise, there is an equally large and vocal group of non-Japanese who have perhaps stayed here too long and for whom the land of milk and honey has long since soured. Such people are prone to depression, anti-social behavior and become hyper-sensitive to even the smallest cultural misunderstanding. As such even trivial, unfortunate mishaps in their daily lives come to be put down to the “engrained racism and small-mindedness of Japanese society.” I read recently an angry rant by one such writer. The source of his fury: The way some Japanese people say “hello” to foreigners.
Such a mindset is equally destructive and unhelpful. Luckily I believe at the moment I still manage to traverse the fine line between these light and dark sides of settling permanently in Japan. But then again I’ve only been here for 7 of the past 10 years. Maybe when I’ve been here a couple more decades I will become equally dark and cynical, but I certainly hope not.
However, as much as I love living in Japan, I am certainly not under the misguided notion that this country is perfect. It got me thinking, what small changes could be made to daily life here to make things just that little bit better?
For your own consideration and discussion I now present some of my ideas.
End the stigma of non-permanent workers.
As an English teacher here in Japan, one of the biggest issues for us all is job security. Unless you are extremely fortunate, finding employment on a contract more than one or two years is nigh on impossible. As such English teachers are made to sweat it out at the end of every academic year hoping that their contract will be renewed.
To their credit the government did, in its own misguided, bureaucratic way, try to resolve this issue a few years ago. They decreed that anyone employed by a company on a non-permanent basis for more than 5 years (3 years in some cases) should have the right to request permanent employment after completing this proscribed period of work.
Japan needs to make it easier to fire permanent workers who underperform so that non-permanent workers can have the chance to be rewarded for their hard work.
Unfortunately, the legislation was full of holes and created an even bigger labour instability as workers all across Japan now find themselves placed on contracts with a maximum renewal limit of 3 to 5 years. In other words, no matter how hard you work, or how much you accomplish, when your pre-determined limit is up, you are out the door regardless.
So how could this be fixed? I believe it will require a bit of give and take from both sides.
The main problem from a company’s perspective is that they do not want to be stuck with workers they cannot dismiss should their work become substandard. In short, if you get a permanent position with a company in Japan, the laws are so tight that it is almost impossible for the employer to fire you, without facing a raft of legal implications. In short, Japan needs to make it easier to fire permanent workers who underperform so that non-permanent workers can have the chance to be rewarded for their hard work.
A loosening of the restrictions on dismissal of permanent workers should also run in tandem with extending the legal protections covering temporary workers too. In other words, a meeting in the middle which would hopefully negate the current impasse.
Regulate and enforce working hours
It is something of a cliché to those who have lived any length of time in Japan to see the sleepy salaryman on the last train home, briefcase in one hand and a beer in the other, looking absolutely shattered after his 14 hour day at the office. However it is a simple and undeniable fact that Japanese people work longer hours than most other countries and this has a direct impact on their health, their emotional state and their ability to build personal relationships.
The problem has got so bad in recent years that they even created a word “Karoshi” meaning specifically “death from overwork”. The obvious mental damage caused by overwork is also, I believe a contributing factor to Japan’s scandalously high suicide rate.
This is a difficult one to tackle as the tendency to work long hours and dedicate yourself completely to your company is so heavily enshrined in Japanese working culture. Legal enforcement with strong penalties for violators seems to be the only way forward.
In Europe, the Working Time Directive has, by and large, helped to greatly reduce the amount of unpaid overtime for workers. There are a few exemptions from the legislation, police and hospital staff for example, but most office workers are included in the mandated 48 hour maximum work week. A minimum of 20 days annual leave is also part of the directive, and is double the Japanese minimum of 10.
Enforcement is key however, and in Europe companies who knowingly violate the directive can face massive fines, and in some cases managers and directors of companies have even gone to prison. However, given the extremely cosy relationship that the Abe government seems to have with big business at the moment it’s hard to foresee any progress in this area anytime soon.
Expand English and other foreign language education to all grades of school.
The last point is a controversial one, as there are two very distinct lines of thought flowing through this debate.
On one hand there are the liberal thinkers such as myself who believe strongly in globalization and that Japan must do more to improve its English communication skills. Like it or not, English remains the main language of international business and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
In other countries I have visited such as Hong Kong and Holland, I have noticed that the level of English amongst the general populous is exponentially higher than that of Japan. The main reason for this is, I believe down to the early age at which they start studying English. In both countries, English begins in kindergarten and many other subjects are taught exclusively in English throughout your entire school life.
However, starting English classes earlier won’t just impact on students’ language abilities, it will also make them more comfortable with foreigners and foreign culture. I’m a great believer in the idea that no-one is born with prejudice, rather prejudice and racist attitudes are acquired through education, or the lack thereof. Showing Japanese children positive foreign role models from an early age will go a long way to shaping their attitudes toward foreigners as adults.
Take the example of an experience I had while teaching in Okayama.
I was teaching a 5th grade elementary class. I would ask a few students to repeat the new words individually as a means of checking comprehension. They did so very well, with the exception of one girl. This girl would simply look away whenever I asked her a question. I assumed she just had some kind of nervous issue with public speaking, so I let the matter drop.
However, later that same day, I was having lunch with that same class. By coincidence I found myself sitting next to this same girl. The other students at the table were all happily engaging me in conversation, albeit almost exclusively in Japanese. But this girl remained silent. I asked her if she was enjoying her lunch. At that point she stood up, turned away from me and went to sit at another table.
I raised the matter with her homeroom teacher, and his response was sadly all too predictable.
“Oh don’t worry,” he said, “it’s not your fault. Her parents told her never to speak to foreigners.”
I would hope that if this girl’s parents had been exposed to English and to foreigners from an early age, such racist attitudes would not have been allowed to take root.
However, as I said in the beginning, there are two trains of thought in this debate. There is also the notion that children in Japan must acquire skill and proficiency in their own language before trying to learn another. However, research shows that a child’s mind is most susceptible to language acquisition between the ages of 3 and 7. Japanese kids don’t even start English lessons until the age of 10. However plans are afoot to expand English lessons to incorporate third and fourth graders into English studies within the next few years.
You’ll notice that in my heading I said foreign language learning, not only English. The enmity between Japan and its close neighbours China and the two Koreas is well documented. However, again I believe the best way to defeat hate is through education. Perhaps if younger students were taught a little about the culture and language of these places, they would realise they aren’t really so different after all.
I remember a small part of my Catholic school education in Scotland involved being taught, albeit in a brief introductory way, about some of the other major religions of the world. Whilst I personally have long since rejected religious doctrine in general, I would like to think that educational initiatives such as that practiced at my old school are part of the reason why islamophobia and hate crimes in general are lower in Scotland than in other parts of the UK. If it could work in Scotland, it could certainly work in Japan too.
In closing, I think a few points need clarifying. In writing a piece like this I realise I may attract a certain amount of criticism. There are a group of people in Japan who often adopt the attitude that “if you don’t like it, you can go back to your own country”. Indeed to these deluded souls even the slightest criticism of Japan is interpreted as a personal attack.
This kind of borderline racism does no one any favours and if everyone took that attitude society would never progress. And besides as a hard-working, tax paying, contributor to Japanese society, I believe what I have to say has no more or less validity than anyone else’s opinion.
However, I really hope those who read this will have the wisdom to see what I’m trying to achieve here. I love Japan. I have travelled the world and realized that for me and the hopes and dreams I have for my future, there is no better place I can be than here. I love the place, I love the people. I write this critique not to sound like a smartass or to pretend I know all the answers, because I don’t. But when you love someone you want to do all you can to help them realize their full potential. I remain, as always, hopeful, and positive as I look to the future.