"Do You Really Like Living Here?" A Foreigner's Perspective on Tokyo

(This article originally appeared in Newsweek Japan on October 28, 2010 in Japanese)

"Do you really like living in Tokyo?" is a question I am often asked here. Despite living in Tokyo for two years now, I cannot discern if this question expresses national modesty, a sense of inferiority, or ignorance of the experience of daily life in the United States.

So many television and movie images of the United States circulate around the globe, including in Japan. Perhaps these images give Japanese an idealized familiarity with a place many have not visited. In contrast, most United States citizens rarely view representations of foreign countries in their mass media, except perhaps for war images. For the United States, a sense of superiority requires only the most superficial knowledge of other places.

I frequently hear a common lament from Japan's top corporate executives, university professors, and government officials. With the rise of China and India, the United States government and its most mobile and educated individuals are no longer interested in Japan. The so-called "China shift" sparks Japanese anguish that includes and exceeds economic and diplomatic concerns.

It is flattering and perplexing that Japanese consider the presence of North Americans and Europeans to be a barometer of Japan's economy and its place in a changing world. Are we truly so important to Japan's national identity, or is this another example of Japanese politeness that United States people have so much trouble recognizing?

The United States government and people are rarely concerned with their nation's reputation abroad. Immigration concerns revolve around fears of illegal and unskilled newcomers. There is minimal public discussion about whether the world's best and brightest desire to gain their education and launch their careers in the United States.

Since the Lehman shock, the contracting world economy has affected every nation. Yet Japan seems to be in a particular, long malaise that is simultaneously economic, political, and cultural. The so-called "Lost Decade" has entered its third decade, amidst heightened political instability. Most recently, the discovery of the 230,000 missing centenarians has raised cultural self-questioning to new levels of dismay and outrage. Longevity statistics that until recently signaled Japan's high quality of life now seem the product of government inefficiency and filial betrayal.

Along with the common question of whether I "really" like living here, Japanese also want to know if I am here because of work. I have learned over time that it is easiest just to answer "yes," despite the answer being false. These two questions make me wonder why Japanese do not value the unique qualities of their urban life and culture. Why is it hard for Japanese to imagine Tokyo being attractive to foreigners? Do Japanese think that money is all that they have to offer the world or themselves?

In the Bubble years of the 1980s, larger numbers of Americans and Europeans came to Japan. Whether they became bankers, architects, or book editors, most long-term expats I have met in Japan initially came because of cultural interests, whether literature, Buddhism, or gardens. Now I meet other foreigner newcomers with many different interests, including not only anime but also mahjong, the Japanese language, graphic design, and even boy bands.

Japan's place in the world is certainly changing. Population decline and persistent deflation create an uncertain future that would have been unthinkable during the now long passed, super-growth era. The world may no longer be rushing to copy Japan's business management techniques. Yet Japan still has much to offer the world in terms of ideas and culture.

Post-Bubble Japan has shown remarkable resilience and creativity in meeting challenges faced by both developed and developing nations. How to live with limited natural resources? How to create dense cities that are safe and enjoyable? How to embrace the new without erasing the past?

In my work, I encounter many visionary Japanese who are working to solve difficult national and global problems. Art organizers and agricultural innovators are launching wonderful experiments to revitalize Japan's depopulated countryside. Technology developers are creating new platforms for community, commerce, and media. Businesses and youth are bringing nature back to the city for social and environmental health.

Japan's economy may no longer be the envy of the world, nor the place where foreigners dream of getting rich quick. Yet its culture and people continue to attract foreigners eager to explore new ways of working, living, and being in the twenty-first century. Many of us foreigners like living here. I wonder if the Japanese asking me such politely strange questions do not see Tokyo's positive qualities.

Jared Braiterman PhD writes a blog about Tokyo Green Space, and his research has been published in Japan, China, Europe, Latin America, and the United States.