Gaijin Evolution


Originally published on on May 2013

Rewind two decades to the first issue of Metropolis in 1993. Japan was a juggernaut—about to roll to Number One on an unstoppable export machine. My time here tracks this magazine’s existence, so for the 1000th issue let me hazard a few thoughts about the changes in the Western population that constitutes our readership.

Like many new expat arrivals, I knew little about Japan other than it was the land of sushi, Sony, and Kurosawa—and that its economy was red hot. I alighted at Narita and within a week joined a small army of eikaiwa sensei in one of history’s more quixotic efforts at linguistic exchange.

The economy was booming, the biru flowing, and it wasn’t hard for young Western grads to enjoy some Eastern soul searching and adventure, while profiting off the backs of Japan’s hardworking sararimen and long-suffering housewives.

Japan’s Western population was exploding. Yes, there were a few karate students and Zen disciples among us. But the main draw for most was easy wages earned in a rising currency.

The Bubble had been punctured, but it didn’t deflate quickly. Even after the late-’90s Asian financial crisis, Koizumi’s era saw a new flood seeking riches in Japan’s financial Big Bang. The savings of Mrs. Watanabe were to be invested by Roppongi’s alpha males.

And then came the collapses of Lehman Brothers and NOVA language school—and finally the 2011 disaster and notorious flight of the “flyjin.” The resulting decline of ready employment and fast cash not only sapped the foreign population, but also changed its makeup.

Western twenty-somethings landing at Narita today often already speak Japanese. Thanks to the internet and the “Cool Japan” phenomenon, they know a lot more about Japanese culture. Less a land of Oriental mystery, it’s the world of the Murakamis (Haruki and Takeshi), Ichiro, Miyazaki—and a thousand expat blogs.

Though fewer in number, young Westerners frequently arrive with marketable skills aside from native English, and can integrate more quickly into Japanese companies. They also help fill the tech-savvy ranks of the Google and Apple crowds who have replaced the Roppongi Hills bankers, or are themselves tech entrepreneurs.

If Bubble-era expats were seekers of the profit and spiritual kind, along with some slackers, today has brought forth the post-crash strivers and thrivers.

Born of troubled Western economies that make the ’80s look like a joyride, this tribe is a rather levelheaded bunch. Instead of partying through wads of cash in Roppongi, they may have a ¥300 beer at a standing bar in Shibuya before heading home for a quiet evening of social networking.

Not just schoolteachers, resident Westerners may also be parents and PTA members. Pricy international schools are not for them. The crises that peeled off the less committed left a hard nut of well-integrated gaijin married to locals. It seems that we onetime seekers and slackers may even have ended up strivers and thrivers ourselves.

Nova, Lehman and Fukushima left more of the reduced group acculturated and/or biracial—even if they’re still only a sliver of Japan’s population. Immigration policies have been redesigned to make things easier, with streamlined visa procedures and no more re-entry permits. Japanese companies are even making noises about employing more foreigners. With more local hires and fewer expat packages, strivers and thrivers, married to locals or not and occupying a wider sphere of jobs, are going native like never before. Many are learning how to live more economical and tidy existences—like their Japanese neighbors.

If Japan can pave the way for these new 21st-century strivers to thrive, they could provide a source of innovation—and children—for its demographically challenged future.

So where are the seekers and slackers? A few still reach Japan, but more are to be found where the action is—in China or other booming BRIC-type destinations.

Nearly twenty years of Metropolis have seen changes in Japan’s gaijin population. Will Abenomics reflate the economy enough to draw in a new wave? Will the promise to double the number of JETs be met? And how will the next 20 years reshape an expat community living in an aging and declining, yet still alluring country?

Direct your Google Glass 5.0 ahead to Metropolis #2000.