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The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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05 June 2006 Blog Home : June 2006 : Permalink

J vs K

Over at the Marmot's Hole, the proprietor is wondering why Japanese bloggers etc. seem to have a more positive overall view of Japan compared to the view of their fellows on the other side of the Japan Sea do about their land of residence. First a key disclosure: I've never been beyond Seoul airport so any statement I make about Korea is derived second hand whereas I lived in Japan for two years over a decade ago and been visiting it for 2-4 weeks a year every year since.

Robert writes:

At the risk of seriously over-generalizing, it really does seem at times that Western expats in Japan are, by-and-large, much more “into” their host nation than are Western expats in Korea. Much of it, I’d have to assume, is political—it’s been hard, at least as an American, to line up behind the Roh administration and the ruling Uri Party, especially on key foreign policy issues like North Korea and the Korea-U.S. alliance. I could certainly see how Westerners, or at least Americans of a conservative bend, might find Koizumi’s vision much more palatable.

But there’s more to it than politics. Are expat forums in Japan full of the same kind of non-stop bitching about the host nation’s society and culture as they are in Korea? Do you see the same kind of derision leveled at J-pop and J-dramas as you see leveled at K-pop and K-dramas? I, for one, don’t see it. If anything, I’m impressed by the number of Westerners who are willing to serve almost as honorary ambassadors for Japan, promoting Japanese arts and culture in their homelands. Japan—it’s cool. It’s got anime. And cute little trees. And beautiful gardens. Korea? It’s got ugly cities. Populated by girly men and rude, xenophobic ajeossi’s. Who drink a lot. And puke on the sidewalks. And beat their wives when they come home from the red-light district. But at least its got beautiful women.

The first thing to say is that Japan is not perfect. It isn't all anime and cute little trees etc. etc. I think every expat who lives there has a few nasty experiences such as witnessing (or if female being the victim of) perverts on trains, being told "Gaijin Dame!" etc. and anyone with eyes to see will see the nasty underside of Japan where ever they look. There are plenty of "pavement okonomiyaki" to be found in places where the drunk salaryman stagger home, there are a heck of a lot of homeless people (all those blue shacks on the river banks and in parks), and Japanese TV is as "quirky" as it comes.

Oh and Japanese cities are quite astoundingly ugly. In fact one of the things that pisses me off about Japan is the way that the Japanese seem to have little or no reverence for their past architectural treasures and seem only too happy to stick ugly electricity poles, garish neon signs and vile buildings coated in bathroom tiles next to ancient temples or gardens and if they don't do that they make the whole thing a theme-park to cuteness. Politically, while Koizumi may be an acceptable politician he is about the only one, almost everyone else seems to be either hopelessly corrupt, politically extreme or both.

I could go on. There is a lot to bitch about in Japan but there is also plenty to enjoy and it seems to me that this may be the key to the different views between Japanese and Korean expats/bloggers. To begin with, for every racist insensitive moron in Japan there seem to be hundreds of nice polite Japanese who are apologetic about their bigots and who frequently go far beyond the call of duty to try and help the foreigner. I have to say that in my experience the desire to help frequently outruns the performance - when I lived in Tokyo I found that it was generally speaking a bad idea to ask a Japanese for directions because they mostly didn't know but tried to help anyway so you ended up getting even more lost. In fact all but the worst bigots are polite and helpful to foreigners when they encounter them in person and they are usually polite even when they aren't being helpful. I recall a friend describing how he was given a truly fascinating potted history of Tokyo's Shitamachi while being told that he wasn't welcome to rent a particular apartment and I can personally attest that in many cases the dislike of foreigners seems to be grounded in the belief that they can't communicate with said foreigners. Once you talk to them in (broken, grammatically terrible) Japanese and/or show up with a Japanese friend/colleague many of the objections seem to melt away.

Japan has also welcomed foreign products, money and ideas in a way that Korea doesn't seem to, witness the foreign interest and importance in trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchnage and the yen. There is no doubt that some parts of the Japanese economy remain effectively protected (rice and construction are two that spring to mind) and there is no doubt that the Japanese have figured out the "protectionism through bogus consumer protection" scam that allows them to slow down imports of beef, cars etc. Yet the integration of Japan into the world economy means that they are not too shocked when Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch buys some struggling Japanese financial institution or Renault ends up rescuing Nissan because they also recognise that Nomura or Sony does the same thing to British or American (or...) companies. In fact I'd say that the Japanese, on the whole, believe in "win-win" and don't see trade as a situation where one party is always the "loser" whereas my experience of Koreans is that they usually see trade purely in win-lose terms and hence are far harder to do business with.

Finally, and possibly as a result of the openness to trade, there are a lot of foreigners in Japan doing a lot of different things in a lot of different areas of the country. I get the feeling that in Korea the vast majority of (English speaking) foreigners are either teaching English, working for the US Military or translators. There are plenty of people doing the same jobs in Japan but there are also many many others doing different things from running their own restaurants, bars and trading companies (and in at least one case ryokan), working for financial institutions, working for both foreign and Japanese high tech companies, working in Japanese universities and research institutes and so on and they have been doing this for years if not decades. I think this means that even if the bloggers are less permenant members of the expat community they probably know longer term residents and hence understand the positives as well as the negatives of Japanese life.

As a control expat comminity consider country F(rance). Every expat I know here bitches about something. Most of us seem to think that the president is a crook (although many natives do too) and that the country's political system ought to be reformed. The bureaucracy is a pain and generally seems to be pointless, the tourist visitors are annoying, the local builders and other service providers usually seem to be incompetant when they aren't out and out crooks and so on. Yet very few of us would leave and very few of us would consider that all these negatives are worse than the positives. Perhaps more importantly most of our native neighbours bitch and moan about the same set of problems and don't moan especially about us, and I suspect that that may be one reason why we don't go permenantly negative on the country.

I suspect that may well be the case for Japan too. No Japan isn't perfect but the locals complain about many of the same things as the foreigners and don't complain about the longer term foreign residents. I'm not sure but I suspect that may not be the case in Korea.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin