The Complicated Issue of Going Home

Returning Japanese workers face contradictory pressures to internationalize and preserve domestic identity

By , Merry White is an associate professor of Sociology at Boston University and Associate in Research at the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University and author of "The Japanese Overseas," (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), and "The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America,"( New York: Free Press, forthcoming).

AFTER 30 years of traveling between the United States and Japan, I was drawn up short by a Japanese friend who said to me, "You know, you really can't talk about `returning' (kaeru) to Japan; only a Japanese can use that word."

"Return" has connotations of "coming home," a meaning not available, apparently, to a foreign person whose many "returns" are to a country not of her birth or primary residence. However, there are now hundreds of thousands of Japanese-born and bred people who, while they can technically use kaeru on their way home, experience other, more profound, barriers on return.

Americans are aware of a Japanese presence in their communities, schools, and sometimes workplaces. Japanese affluence and international involvement have produced a boom in overseas work for Japanese. But we are less aware of the issues this presence creates for individuals, families, and for Japanese society as the workers complete their sojourns and return home.

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These workers and their families now form a new class of citizen, problematic and provocative in their diversity. How they are treated on their return home has been the subject of about 20 years of debate in Japan. The debate has focused on the threat they represent to themselves and to the domestic mainstream on the one hand, and on the promise they provide of a more "international" future for Japan on the other.

The debate, along with Japan's economic and international position, has begun to change, and the picture of the returnees' lot - children in schools, adults in community and workplace - is now more complicated.

The large question has remained, however: To what extent can Japanese society tolerate and accommodate overt internal diversity, and will those who have worked overseas become part of a new Japanese version of "multiculturalism"? Further, what impact will these institutional and cultural sanctions have on Japanese relationships overseas?

In the 1970s, most Japanese who worked overseas came from an "elite" track, both in terms of educational background and occupational futures. The Japanese don't inherit elite status; they earn it, mostly through educational credentials. Japanese children educated overseas were not assured of a status similar to their parents' because of academic losses.

But, due to the parent's high status and connections, their pleas for support were heard. Readjustment classes and schools, counseling services, and special quotas in high schools and colleges for returnee children seemed to keep them on track.

But these returnee elites are now being overtaken by Japanese with greater problems and less security. Overseas, the emphasis on high-level managers has shifted to technicians and support staff with fewer contacts and resources. Returnee children are now less likely to be supported by networks and expensive consultations and tutoring to help them win out in the less-than-meritocratic examination system. And their parents, lacking clout and experience, face occupational problems overseas not experienced b y their bosses. Class now complicates the issue of going home.

One of the ironies of the dislocated "internationalist" is the fact that at no time in Japan's past has the cry to "internationalize" been louder. Official rhetoric on every sector of society from the economy to education and employment has extolled the virtues of internationalization or kokusaika, the latest buzz word.

The value placed on knowing a foreign language, on being able to communicate and feel at ease in foreign locations, and generally, to be "cosmopolitan," is said to have increased. But as one returnee said, "I was treated like a creature from outer space." Another, a middle-school student, said, "Everyone looked at me a little differently because I had been to America. I did not like it and tried to hide the fact that I had been there as much as I could.... For instance, I tried to pronounce English words

like Japanese when I read an English textbook."

Japanese overseas are aware of how they will be judged by their compatriots. A banker, recently returned from a post in Chicago, reports that he tried to consider every potential risk before his return. His predecessor, on returning to Japan, had not expected to find his boss waiting at the airport for him and so had not shaved off the beard he had grown in Chicago. He was immediately demoted to a post in remote Hokkaido. The younger banker listened to this cautionary tale and observed every propriety.

Although Japan is certainly not the uniform society it is often said to be, returnees still continue to work consciously at avoiding the stigma inappropriate behavior brings.

Conditions are changing as a greater percentage of Japanese employees have had overseas experiences and as overseas investment has increased. Returnees may be oddballs, but they are now sought in what are called katakana professions (glamorous work in media, fashion, advertising, and other "new" fields). Women especially are welcomed as "bilin-gals" - young women who have spent part of their childhood in a foreign country. They are popular candidates for radio, television, and public relations jobs.

Jobs, schools and lives in general are affected by the contradictory pressures to internationalize and to preserve an apparently vulnerable sense of domestic identity.

Until recently, however, the elite internationalists have for the most part been able to parlay their experiences and skills into secure, if marginal statuses.

To encourage their families, government officials and commentators tout them as the future leadership in Japan's global participation. But some are asking: What does a 10-year-old returnee know of the world?

An elderly sushiyasan with only a middle-school education regaled me with tales of his prewar travels on merchant ships and his postwar work for the Occupation. His knowledge of the world was detailed, up-to-date, and deeply analytical. This working-class kokusaijin (internationalist) was much more impressively global than the protected young cosmopolite with three years of schooling in Westchester.

But a sushi maker cannot foment change; an elite young traveler can.

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