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The Complicated Issue of Going Home

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

By Merry WhiteMerry 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). / December 7, 1992

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."

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"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.

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.