Expatriates in Japan are divided into several camps: Japanophiles, those content with the country, and those who can’t stop complaining about it. On the latter, The Japan Times has a penchant for publishing the vitriolic ravings of self-styled activist Debito Arudou.

Mr. Arudou is a Caucasian American who adopted his name after he naturalized as a Japanese citizen and couldn’t be more miserable because of it. Most of his articles have a subtextual persecution complex with a hackneyed view that Japan is the most racist country in the world.

Japan is undoubtedly one of the few democracies behind on civil rights among a laundry list of social headaches. But the level of ire in Arudou’s writing make it sound like it’s still trapped in the worst part of the Showa era. To make matters worse, many of the things Arudou writes are belligerently racist to the point where several of his fellow expatriates have even turned against him.

DVD cover for the movie version of David Henry Hwang’s Broadway hit “M. Butterfly.”

Yet, he still maintains a heavy following from other Western-born permanent residents in Japan. So what’s the deal? If they hate Japan so much then why are they there? I have a theory on that and it coincides with the people who fall in love with the country and steadily grow bitter once the exoticism of the Orient has lost its charm.

In Singapore, there’s neologism called Pinkerton Syndrome that describes the tendency of some Asian women to prejudicially fawn over Caucasian men. The term us derived from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly,” where a Japanese woman falls hopelessly in love with a naval officer and kills herself when she can’t have him.

I’m not going to deny the veracity of this stereotype, but there’s also no ignoring that there is an inverse to this stereotype — which I’ll call Gallimard Syndrome — that describes Arudou and his ilk.

David Henry Hwang wrote a satirical play titled “M. Butterfly” in which the protagonist, French diplomat Rene Gallimard, falls for a Chinese opera singer. Wait, there’s a twist. The opera singer, Song Ling Ling, is actually a cross-dressing spy. Gallimard’s misperception of the Orient enabled him to fall in love with a woman who never existed except in the corridors of his own imagination.

Expats like Arudou similarly fell in love with a Japan that never existed. There’s no other explanation as to why these people who so frequently obsess over its prejudices didn’t fully comprehend the country’s “evils” before deciding to anchor themselves to the floor. Open up a history book from the Edo period to Japan’s modern history and anyone would understand that it’s had mixed treatment of Westerners at best.

On one hand, Westerners receive special treatment. They’re frequently the guests of honor or the main attraction at dinner parties among Japanese friends. Westerners settling in Japan grow addicted to this “rock star” status until it loses its luster. The flip side of this is that Westerns are treated like children, draw stares in crowds, and are eternally viewed as foreign no matter how long they stay.

The notion that Arudou and countless others who decided to permanently settle in Japan are ignorant of this leads me to believe that their expectations met with reality until it was too late.

Japanese xenophobia aside, some of the other recurrent complaints from expats regard the glass ceiling for foreigners in the English teaching field. If they did their homework, then they would realize that the profession was always marred with low mobility. Foreigners in that field aren’t allowed to unionize and while they start off with a decent salary for recent graduates, there aren’t any pay raises or chances of career advancement depending on where they work.

Even if they got tired of teaching English, the notion of switching careers to more specialized and highly skilled fields always had low odds given that recent graduates fluent in Japanese struggle in the job market and this grows harder for them the longer they stay unemployed. Even native-born Japanese have a difficult time switching jobs unless it’s with a more flexible international company. What made Arudou and others think it would be easier?

Gallimard faced a similar situation in that he faced the cold reality that his lover (The Orient) wasn’t what it seemed. While Arudou and others don’t have to cope with the predicament that their wives are lady boys in disguise, they still have to reconcile the flaws with the country that they once loved.

Anyone who has ever loved someone eventually learns that his or her partner is far from perfect and chooses to accept these flaws for their relationship to survive. Many people do this, as is the case with the multitude of happy international marriages produced in Japan. Arudou couldn’t. That’s one of the reasons why he divorced his Japanese wife and seems to act more like a heartbroken ex (like Gallimard) when he writes about Japan.

This brings us to the Millennials. Theories on this generation vary from critic to critic but the one consistent thread is their heightened level of exposure to information through social and mass media, both of which have enabled an elevated and often fictional exposure to Japanese culture.

Take manga, anime and Japanese dramas, for instance. All three have ramped up Japan’s influence and soft power, but have residually seduced people into desiring or even believing in a fictional portrayal of the country. It’s a silly sentiment, but I wouldn’t underestimate the gullibility of people whose only exposure to a country is through a television set.

Even New York Times reporter Sam Anderson expected Tokyo to be completely cosmopolitan after reading Haruki Murakami’s novels. He eventually learned that it was much to the contrary. “Japan — real, actual, visitable Japan — turned out to be intensely, inflexibly, unapologetically Japanese,” he wrote.

At the end of “M. Butterfly,” Gallimard realizes that his idealization of the Orient was nothing more than a dream. Despite this moment of clarity, he declares that he chooses fantasy over reality and falls deeper into his own world. In the end, he kills himself after failing to reconcile both. Hwang pinpointed how self-destructive that kind of Asian fetishism can be.

The “Bubble Generation” of Gallimards eventually grew up and became bitter and grumpy because of it. It’s too early to say for the Millennials. There’s always the possibility that this generation of otaku-like Japanophiles never relinquishes their delusions and remains trapped in a self-imposed fantasy forever.


Brett Fujioka can be contacted at Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. Where else in our domestic media could this motley collection of journalists, scholars, pundits, activists and general malcontents consistently splash their views across a page (now two) every Tuesday — and have their presence permanently recorded in this country’s best online archive of English articles on Japan?