The Foreign Expat’s Fantasies of Japan

I’ve noticed in Western media that Japan, particularly Tokyo, enjoys a kind of image of a play to “play”, eat good food and meet pretty girls. Its nightlife is celebrated in movies like Lost in Translation and so on.1 I stumbled on this video on Youtube recently:

As other commenters noted, this video seems pretty suspicious with its bad English, and happy image of Pachinko (and that’s probably not his girlfriend), but it shows how this image of Japan the “exotic Playboy Paradise” persists, even when it’s totally inaccurate (you don’t “spend a night with a geisha”, for example).

This video offends me on so many levels. Really. I could write paragraphs about it, but I won’t. I think the video speaks for itself.

Yes, sushi and Mt. Fuji are two things people think of when they think of Japan, I understand that. It’s just so insulting to the vast number of people of diverse backgrounds (Japanese and foreign) who live there. But on the other hand, I also have heard of expats who only live in certain districts of Tokyo, never venture out or learn the language, and only live shallow lives until they’re old and broke.2 ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

I get the feeling that “expat paradises” exist in many places.

I even remember seeing a small, seedy expat area in tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg when I visited there on a business trip. I remember walking into this one bar in Luxembourg city with my coworker, whose bar owner who was Scottish, very drunk at the time (not because he was Scottish), and yelling all kinds of profanity at one of the customers. His friends were trying to hold him back. I thought they would get into a fight for sure, until the owner suddenly noticed me and said “nice jacket”. It turns out we both wore the same jacket! In another bar, I met a certain Dutch fellow who was a true expat, used his parents money to party until 8am every morning, and somehow everyone in the party scene knew him by name. That whole night was surreal.

I also think back to being a student in Vietnam. I briefly met this one man who was very arrogant and chauvinistic (not unlike the guy in this video), and he had some very hot Vietnamese girlfriends, who would ride in the backseat of his motorcycle. But as I learned later, such girls only wanted his passport (to get out of Vietnam) and his money. I also remember meeting this expat women who was extremely rude to Vietnamese locals when they tried to haggle over prices, and proudly rode an old Soviet-era “Minsk” motorbike everywhere, which was big, loud and obnoxious (albeit a collector’s item). Thinking back, I think that woman may have been genuinely insane. The man was clearly very insecure.

If I’ve learned nothing from these encounters, it’s that appearances can be deceiving, and there are a lot of confused and lonely people in the world.

Namu Shaka Nyorai

Edit: Posted a bit too early, fixed a few grammatical problems.

1 Hated that movie. It was pretentious and distorted Japanese culture in countless ways.

2 As the Buddha taught the lay-person Sigalovada:

7. “And what six ways of squandering wealth are to be avoided? Young man, heedlessness caused by intoxication, roaming the streets at inappropriate times, habitual partying, compulsive gambling, bad companionship, and laziness are the six ways of squandering wealth.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

8 thoughts on “The Foreign Expat’s Fantasies of Japan”

  1. Very funny! I hated Lost in translation too I wonder whether Sofia Coppola has actually been out of her hotel or if she directed the movie from snippets of TV shows.
    That guy first needs to get another suit coz it looks like something from a 100 yen shop, same with the haircut.
    Now that lots of people have blogs or post videos on the net I’m often surprised at the image that they give of Japan … from some young French anime addicts’ blogs you’d think that Japan was a huge Akihabara and that “temeee” or “dattebayo” was used everyday.
    On the other hand I was lucky enough to get a huge apartment in Tokyo from a family’s acquaintance, spent a blissful month there when she was away, lent her books about japan since she was following her husband and they didn’t know anything about the country. When she came back after 2 years she couldn’t speak a word of japanese ! I thought it was a real waste of her time. She had stayed with the French expat community the whole time.
    It’s a shame, just like people who tell you that “yeah they’ve been to Tokyo, spent a week there” so they know !!! or ask how they can visit Kyoto in 3 days to see everything (?!)
    Traveling reveals a lot about you !

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    1. Ha ha ha, I am glad you found it funny. I was pretty mad for some reason, but after reading your comment, I feel a lot better (good point about the suit ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

      Yeah, English-speaking blogs tend to fixate on Tokyo/Anime as well, so it also creates the same kind of image as French-speaking blogs: anime, Akihabara, etc. It’s part of the reason why I am still writing this blog (trying to show as much of the rest of Japanese culture as I can, plus expanding into Korean culture).

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  2. The only way I can cope with “Lost in Translation” is to tell myself it’s not a movie about Japan, it’s a movie about two lonely strangers who happen to meet and happen to connect emotionally. Their exact location is immaterial. Unfortunately, that’s not the dominant impression most people get from this movie: they remember the wacky Japan moments and the “lip my stocking” scene and the weird game show (well, maybe some things in the movie might be valid).

    I hate it, too.

    Those expats you mention? I haven’t just heard of them; I know some of them. Let’s put it this way: I regret not having missed the opportunity never to have met them at all. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    1. The only way I can cope with โ€œLost in Translationโ€ is to tell myself itโ€™s not a movie about Japan, itโ€™s a movie about two lonely strangers who happen to meet and happen to connect emotionally.

      …I tried that, but it only works for so long. :p Yeah, I know someone who found the “rip my stocking” scene really funny, and would quote it out loud. The Japanese people around me didn’t get the joke, and I just shook my head.

      You’re right. It’s certainly based off of some aspects of Japanese culture (the TV game shows are pretty interesting), but it leaves viewers with a distorted view, which is almost worse than a total lie.

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  3. I used to love Lost In Translation but i watched it again recently and found some of it quite uncomfortable. I think for the most part its fine – its a story about two people, location is immaterial, but the ‘lip my stocking’ stuff and general attitude towards the Japanese grates.

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  4. I haven’t watched “Lost in Translation” for the kind of reasons you posted (and others have written on this thread). So it was really surreal to me when Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for it — and in her acceptance speech, cited the likes of Wong Kar Wai as her influences/inspirations.

    Re the foreign expats you describe: there are, alas, too many of them here in Hong Kong. The thing I always find ironic is how in their native countries, they castigate ethnic minorities for continuing to live in ghettos, not learning the majority language, etc. — and then when they move to a foreign country, they do pretty much the same…!

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  5. I saw Lost a long time ago. I remember some scenes causing some discomfort, but I really liked the scene in the hospital waiting room. The elderly Japanese lady kept chattering away in Japanese to the foreigner, sincere in her desire to communicate, and not really accepting that the opposite party could not understand her. So my distant impression of that flick is pretty positive, mainly because of that scene. I’ve probably blocked out the rest.

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    1. Hi Everyone,

      Lots of great comments, sorry I was late in replying (out of town, etc), but I don’t have much to add anyway. I admit I did like the film’s premise of being lost somewhere, and perhaps that was the intent of the movie to begin with. Still, I think the message may have been lost in the “cultural wackiness”. If the film had been somehow more culturally agnostic, maybe it would have come across better.

      John: I forgot about the hospital scene. I’ll have to check that out. ๐Ÿ™‚

      YSTL: welcome to the JLR! The ghetto comment was pretty amusing and certainly true. ๐Ÿ™‚

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