Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The other foreigners...

The international affairs division of Takikawa City Hall threw a party last Friday to celebrate an award for excellence from the Hokkaido prefectural government. Most of the English teachers in the area were invited, so I caught a bus into town after work and walked over to the cluster of shabby apartments where the foreign teachers are housed. We had a couple of hours to kill before the party began, and spent the time listening to music and bottling a batch of homebrew, drinking the previous months effort while we worked.

These official international events happen on a fairly regular basis. Japanese guests pay $20 or $30 for tickets, but we always get in free. Most of my foreign friends look at the parties as an extension of our jobs – a fair trade of food and drink for the presence of white faces and some English conversation. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to straddle the line between guest and employee, but we’re used to the ambiguity. JET program participants are paid to have a good time in Japan and take our good impressions back home with us. It’s actually not a bad investment on the government’s part. Better than building more bridges to nowhere.

At any rate, it wasn’t until we arrived at the party that we realized this event was not a typical mingle-fest. The hotel was the fanciest in town, and official looking men in black suits were standing about in the entranceway – a far cry from the frumpy middle-aged women, learning English in their ample spare time, who usually frequent these gatherings. In retrospect we certainly should have known that this was a fairly prestigious award the City Hall had received, and fairly prestigious people would be in attendance. Couldn’t be helped now though. Those of us who were wearing belts tucked in our shirts, someone passed around a bottle of cologne and the foreign contingent strolled right past the collection box and took seats at the back of the hall.

It felt like a fancy wedding. The stage was done up with lacy white decorations, the tables topped with gaudy flower displays. Tuxedoed waiters stood at intervals along the wall, hands folded in front of their laps. “Wishing Eternal Happiness in your Blessed Marriage” was written on the placemats. Underdressed, we made the best of it, and I ended up having a great time. The beer was cold, the sashimi was good and it was interesting to watch the various dignitaries give speeches and listen to their exquisitely formal Japanese.

I found that by paying close attention I could understand most of the speeches, but there was one reference that went over my head. The speaker had gone through the laundry list of events and exchanges undertaken by the international affairs division – sponsoring Mongolian students at the local university, organizing an agricultural education exchange with farmers in Malawi, hosting government officials from Bhutan and, last but not least, arranging events with the foreign English teachers in Naka-Sorachi district. But then he started talking about the benefits brought about through these efforts, and mentioned “unfortunate recent incidents, such as the one involving the Chinese woman.”

“Through your hard work and dedication,” the speaker concluded, “we can rest assured that such tragedies will not take place in the wonderful city of Takikawa. Congratulations! Kampai!”

While we took our toasts and the applause died down, I asked the well-dressed woman to my left what the speaker had meant by “unfortunate recent incidents” and “such tragedies.”

“Well,” she said, a bit uncomfortably. “You heard about the murder of two kindergarten students a little while back? It was a Chinese woman who killed them. Her child was being bullied and she didn’t have any friends, so she just…snapped, I suppose.”

The tragic murder had been all over the news, but I hadn’t realized the perpetrator was Chinese. This made the second time in recent months that a foreigner had been blamed for the murder of a child, the first being an unemployed young man of Peruvian descent charged with strangling a seven year old girl. Apparently, the speaker’s point was that by organizing international exchanges, the Takikawa city government was defusing a potential time bomb; the danger posed by an alienated minority.

Something about this didn’t sit well with me, and for the rest of the party, I thought hard about Japan’s complicated relationship with resident foreigners and the outside world. International exchanges are a wonderful thing, largely because they help to dissolve the prejudices that feed discrimination and conflict. But it seemed as if, by bringing up a horrible crime committed by a foreign resident, the speaker gave credence to exactly the sort of unfounded fear that the international affairs division was working to mitigate. Did the Japanese government really see foreigners as a potential threat; as an issue to be managed and contained? Is that why we were here, a gang of sloppy American college graduates getting paid to drink beer and eat sashimi and make memories?

I pictured a solemn circle of old men sitting around a broad table high up in a government ministry building in Tokyo. “We must keep our friends close, and our enemies closer,” intones the chairman, pensively flexing his fingers. “Eighty trillion yen for international exchange programs!”

And despite all the effort that goes into giving Westerners a good impression of Japan, resident foreigners from countries like China and Korea are treated as if they don't exist. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that so many Chinese and Koreans profess a vehement hatred for Japan, and many Japanese think nothing of using "Korean" or "Chinese" as an insult. Wouldn't the money spent on beer for disheveled young Americans be better put towards encouraging international understanding between Japan and the countries that will always its neighbors?

I’m not the only foreigner in my small town, although almost all people who live here think I am. There’s a factory way up at the end of the valley, an ugly one story building with a blue roof next to a dilapidated apartment block. About fifteen young women work in the factory and live in the apartments next door. All of them are Chinese. I’m not sure what they make, because the factory windows are boarded over year-round, but they must work late; light leaks out through the cracks long into the night.

I wouldn’t have known about the Chinese women at the factory unless my predecessor had mentioned them when I arrived. No one here in town seems to be aware of their existence. Compare that to my status as the town’s official foreigner – when I arrived, the mayor came to my welcome party and my picture made the front page of the weekly town paper.

Last fall I rode my bike up the valley and explored an overgrown park on the edge of town. I followed a trail that wound around over a hill and back, bringing me to the edge of an enormous vegetable garden. A group of young women were weeding and watering plants, laughing heartily. With a start, I realized they were speaking Chinese, and that the building on the far side of the garden was the backside of the mysterious factory.

I walked up to the garden, hoping to start a conversation and perhaps arrange Chinese lessons, but when the women saw me approaching, most of them dropped what they were doing and darted into the factory. Two of them stayed behind, casting scowls down into the dark earth. Feeling awkward, I tried out a greeting in Chinese.

“Hello. My name Tim. I American.”

“Ni shur meiguoren ma?,” said the older of the two women, who looked to be in her mid twenties. “You’re an American?”

“I American!” I replied, smiling broadly, struggling to remember another sentence in Chinese.

“I Chinese student! I want Chinese teacher! You Chinese teacher?”

“I have to go now,” she said in strange-sounding Japanese. “And I’m not going to be here for long. Goodbye.”

And with that she and her friend turned around and hurried inside, leaving me alone with the vast rows of flourishing vegetables, feeling unfairly rejected.

As the party for the international affairs division wound to a close, I resolved to make another effort to penetrate the world of the Chinese women at work in the factory, to learn about how they came to Hokkaido and what their lives entail. After all, as the only foreigners in town, we have a lot in common.

I’m writing at the Board of Education, where I usually spend my Tuesdays, and after finishing this paragraph I’m going to tell my supervisor that I want to take Chinese lessons and ask him how to contact the Chinese women living down the road. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. Stay tuned.


Blogger jh said...

Are you sure they are legitimate (100% legal) workers? If not, you may be causing them problems by contacting the authorities.

11:33 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

That's a good point, jh, something I've been thinking about. Utashinai is a small town, and the local authorities are totally aware of the factory already. I found out about it through my supervisor at the Board of Education, who pointed it out one day when we drove past. That said, I doubt the workers are completely legal, and highly doubt that they recieve pay and benefits considered minimal under Japanese labor law (something I know practically nothing about.)

It's a certainly a delicate situation, but I don't think poking around locally will create serious problems for the workers. I'd feel awful if it does.

11:47 PM  

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