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7 May 2011

The "flyjin" thing

filed under: journal  :: earthquake  :: expat life  :: japan  :: media  :: media-suckage

A new word was born after the March 11 earthquake. You may have seen it already - it's "flyjin". It's a derogatory term coined by the expat community in Japan (note: it was not coined by the Japanese media, the Japanese internets, or Japanese people in general) to refer to non-Japanese residents of Japan who fled the country in the aftermath of the quake. It is a play on an existing word, gaijin (外人), which means foreigner. (Incidentally, the word gaijin is regarded by some as a derogatory term used by Japanese people towards foreigners, because the kanji characters mean 'outside person'. Those who think it's derogatory often prefer the longer gaikokujin (外国人), which means 'outside-country person'.) There's even a blog dedicated to the subject of flyjin. (I recommend it. It's pretty humorous in a biting way. Although my first reaction to it when someone tweeted me the link is "Wow, that [blog's subject matter] could get pretty poisonous".)

As I've stated on these pages many times, I'm Japanese born but have been a resident of other places for most of my adult life. Essentially I have been an expat in various places for years. So, I think I can understand the point of view of both sides - the expats who stayed in Japan, and the ones who fled.

The reasons for moving to, and living in, another country are varied. I don't know if anyone has taken a formal survey of expats in Japan who stayed vs. those tho fled (or even those who fled once and went back), but I would not be surprised to find that:

  • The ones who fled immediately had few if any strong ties to Japan in general or to the Japanese community in general. They might be students, temporary workers or on time-limited contracts, and so on. They might have not bothered (or not had the time or resources, or even ability to) learn any Japanese, or make any Japanese friends. Therefore, they most likely have only a limited understanding of Japanese, either written or spoken (as on the news) They probably got all their news from non-Japanese sources - and we all know how badly that went. (If you're reading this and still in doubt that the overseas media really fucked up over coverage of the March 11 East Japan Earthquake and its aftermath, please read my previous posts on the matter. If you're still not convinced, just go away.) If they had kids, they were most likely sent to the local American/French/German etc. school, and barely had a chance to mingle with, and make friends with, any Japanese kids.
  • The ones who did not flee probably were the opposite: they had established strong ties to their local communities. They might have Japanese spouses, Japanese co-workers and friends. They most likely have a pretty good grasp of written and spoken (as on the news) Japanese, and could follow the Japanese news a bit better. But the community ties are probably what made them stop and consider before trying to flee - and what made it harder to do so too.

I think that the resentment felt towards the 'flyjin' by expats who stayed in Japan really just exposed a wide rift that existed already, between those who had established roots vs. those tho hadn't.

Most expats are in a foreign country for a limited time. They did not intend to stay long or immigrate. When you are an expat of this type, the easiest thing to do is to find fellow expats from your own country and just hang out with them. You are a perpetual tourist/visitor in the country, even if you technically live there. If your roots in a place are very shallow, it's very easy to just pull them up and leave. Japanese chuuzaiin (salarymen sent overseas on temporary assignment) communities are typical of this kind of closed-in expat community. If, say, the town of Düsseldorf in Germany had been hit by some kind of catastrophe, the fairly large chuuzaiin community there would have been packing their bags to return to Japan for sure.

The typical no-local-roots type of expat universally is a financial sector worker, e.g. a banker. They're carpetbaggers really, flitting from financial center to financial center at the bat of an eye if it's good for their careers. When the bird flu virus panic hit Hong Kong some years ago, Japanese financial sector workers - and those from other nations too - were out of there before you could cluck. The sloppy article I link to below cites some numbers about banker-types wanting visas to work in Hong Kong but not in Tokyo. I am guessing military families are similarly isolated from the 'locals', unless a special effort is made to reach out and establish ties.

An expat with roots is a very different type. For instance, a teacher in a rural community, in constant contact with Japanese kids and their parents, probably has way more chances to establish roots. If you fall in love with a local person, those are roots again (unless the girl/guy who married you did so because you're not-Japanese and sees you as a chance to leave the country at the first opportunity!)

I'm trying to think back to what the Japanese expat community's reaction was to the events of 9-11. I don't think there was a mass exodus per se, but certainly some people did leave, especially the families of chuuzaiin. (I used to babysit for some chuuzaiin families in the New York area. Most of those mothers barely spoke any English and only hung out with each other. A couple never even went out shopping by themselves, waiting until the weekend when their husbands could take them to the supermarket, the nearest Japanese grocery store, and so on.) There was certainly an exodus of no-roots Japanese expats in the '90s after the Japanese bubble economy collapsed. At the time, Japanese employees of a Japanese company who were sent over from the home office had a far higher status than genchi saiyo (locally hired) Japanese staff, who in many ways were held in less regard than locally hired American staff. So, there was quite a lot of resentment amongst the rooted Japanese expat community towards the flee-ers...fly-chuuzaiin perhaps. (Being in the rooted group, that's when I decided I was much better off trying to work for myself...but that's another story.)

Anyway, I'm not saying that feeling resentment towards those who "fled" (yep I'm using a lot of quotation marks here...) by those who stayed is wrong. And, if those who left did so based on wrong assumptions, I think it's sad (though I tend to blame the media and some governments more for that). Leaving a job without notice is never a good thing either, and I can certainly understand the resentment felt by people left behind to clean up the messes left by others.

My guess is that those rootless temp-type expats will eventually return or be replaced, if there's a need for them in Japan. (I think that there's a much more urgent need for low-level temp workers than the white-collar types...see below.) And as for those who remained...good for them, but they don't necessarily need to be lauded as heroes either. They acted because of calm thinking, better understanding, and the difficulty of tearing up well established roots. And perhaps because Japan is still a pretty awesome place to live in many ways too, earthquakes and all.

And do Japanese people feel resentment towards the 'flyjin'?

Not exactly.

To expand on that: this article in the Telegraph is just sloppy. As I've stated above, the term 'flyjin' is in use in the expat community almost exclusively, save for a couple of bemused mentions in press and in some online communities like 2-chan and Twitter.

Is there resentment towards expats who left the country, sans the flyjin word? Well...not really much towards the ones who have gotten a disproportionate amount of attention (perhaps understandably) in the American or European press - the ones in office type jobs or teaching jobs, or students, from those areas. There seems to be a bit more resentment towards the temporary manual labor workers, mostly from places like China, Southeast Asia and Brazil, who left. But the most popular sentiment seems to run along the lines of, "they aren't really Japanese, you'd expect them to leave". This can be taken as a commentary on how insular Japanese people really are perhaps. On the other hand, the ones who stay and do things like help out with relief efforts and so on get quite a lot of appreciation.

So, if you are an expat who stayed, you may already have gotten a lot of brownie points from your Japanese neighbors, at least temporarily, without even knowing it. But you'll only find out if you reach out and establish roots. ^_^

Comments on this post:

I really think, one of the

I really think, one of the key, KEY things to really getting to know another society/country is to learn the language. I really really do. I am astounded time and again (though I'm not sure why I should be surprised anymore) at the way things get misinterpreted, in so many ways.

So glad you wrote this

I'm an expat (or a glorified immigrant) and I've seen some Japanese chuuzaiin in England as well as people of other ethnicities who are like this. I know Americans who only meet with other Americans!

I wonder how you can really experience a country -- what's the point of moving somewhere else? I guess some people don't have a choice, their significant other or family moved and they had to move too, but it's sad. It's a life experience they really miss out on when they move about in little communities...

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