The Japanese Overseas: Can They Go Home Again?

The Japanese Overseas: Can They Go Home Again?

by Merry E. White

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The success of Japanese corporations throughout the world has transplanted millions of Japanese into foreign lands, but returning families face a crisis—a problematic, sometimes traumatic reunion with an inward-looking culture. Drawing on scores of in-depth interviews, Merry White explores the personal and social consequences of a problem that is fully recognized


The success of Japanese corporations throughout the world has transplanted millions of Japanese into foreign lands, but returning families face a crisis—a problematic, sometimes traumatic reunion with an inward-looking culture. Drawing on scores of in-depth interviews, Merry White explores the personal and social consequences of a problem that is fully recognized as a national issue in Japan. She pays particular attention to the plight of the returnee Japanese child—a stranger in his or her own land. "In this knowledgeable and perceptive book, [Merry White] describes how families who have returned from prolonged sojourns abroad endure damaged careers and spoiled educational prospects."--Joan Cassell, The New York Times Book Review "An invaluable source of insights into the problems that Japanese overseas face and the strategies they pursue, both in adjusting to life in foreign countries and in preparing for what may or may not be a hospitable welcome when they arrive back home."--Theodore C. Bestor, The Journal of Asian Studies

Editorial Reviews

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"An invaluable source of insights into the problems that Japanese overseas face and the strategies they pursue, both in adjusting to life in foreign countries and in preparing for what may or may not be a hospitable welcome when they arrive back home."The Journal of Asian Studies

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
Product dimensions:
6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.43(d)

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The Japanese Overseas

Can They Go Home Again?

By Merry White


Copyright © 1988 Merry White
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00871-4


Families at Risk

Iki wa yoi, yoi; kaeri wa kowai [Leaving is good, but it's frightening to return]. —Japanese children's game chant

This chant, which accompanies a playground circle game, conveys some of the costs borne by Japanese who venture abroad. The children unclasp their hands and raise their arms to signal that the one who is "it" may leave freely. Then they grab hands and move together again quickly to prevent the child from getting back inside. The tight closed circle may be taken as a symbol of the exclusion often felt by families returning to Japan.

Japanese families who have gone overseas are caught in a paradoxical culture warp—agents of Japanese international economic growth, they themselves have derived little domestic benefit from their sojourns away from Japan. In fact, these fathers, mothers, and children must bear the brunt of a cultural ambivalence about foreigners that belies Japan's success in the international market.

When these families come home to Japan, they suffer the "crisis of return," a well-publicized and constantly analyzed reentry problem. The crisis—experienced by children in schools, mothers in the community, and fathers in the workplace—requires conscious adjustment and strategizing by individuals and by families. This book is about the people who must negotiate this difficult return from an outward-looking economy to an inward-looking culture.

Rapid modernization has caused a breakdown of traditional social structures and values in many cultures. But—despite perhaps the most dramatically swift rise to industrial success the world has ever seen—Japan does not give much evidence of such a breakdown. Indeed, even as the world expects the costs of modernization to catch up with Japan, few significant rents have yet been spotted in the country's social fabric. One key to the mystery may lie in the fact that Japanese groups—among the most important, the family, community, and workplace—are both adaptive and self-protective. Accordingly, Japan is a "survival culture" whose success is based on the capacity of such groups to ensure their own perpetuation.

The governing concept, the core, of a Japanese group is the idea of the uchi (home, inside), a primary place of affiliation. The uchi is where one is taken care of, where one receives support and encouragement, and where one owes one's central commitment and effort. It is where one comes from and where one returns. Although a family home is the central and archetypal uchi, other groups assume the characteristics of an uchi as well, notably the company or place of work. When, for example, a person introduces him- or herself, it is frequently by company name, as in, "I am Tanaka of Mitsubishi."

The uchi protects itself in various ways, most notably by its privacy and exclusivity. Families, communities, and companies monitor members' behavior and performance, and although permanent membership guarantees that only extreme cases of deviation will be openly punished, the rewards of acceptance and the threat of banishment encourage conformity. Especially in times of rapid and turbulent change, the predictability of one's identity in an uchi environment offers essential security and comfort.

There are threats to the individual and to the personal uchi, however. Returnees, for example, may be marked as different, or as having been away too long to be trusted, and may be subtly isolated or directly confronted by the results of their "apostasy." While returnees are not absolutely abandoned by most uchis, they may nonetheless find themselves with permanently flawed identities or isolated within the group as functional but problematic or marginal members. The existence of this cordon sanitaire of Japanese domestic institutions encourages growth and change in the international arena but marks those who implement the desirable as themselves less than fully desirable.

The reentry shock experienced by Japanese overseas employees is a complex object of inquiry. Observers charting Japan's continuing "modernization," in which Japanese organizations are seen as moving awkwardly toward Western models of development, may see it as of ephemeral historical interest. Alternatively, the existence of this shock may signify basic cultural differences that can influence what "modern" means in the world today.

My perspective on the returnees is strongly influenced by an active view of "culture." I do not think that we can regard "culture" as merely exotic manifestations that lend diverse color to the world's societies and provide some local flavor on the menus of a Hilton or Holiday Inn in Frankfurt or Samoa. Instead of such a superficial view, this study affirms the centrality and active power of cultural meaning even in one of the most "modern" societies in the world, Japan. We need to understand basic cultural values and principles of organization to facilitate communication and to improve the uneasy workings of a global economy.

The specific Japanese problems documented will be looked at from several perspectives. First, it offers a way to consider Japanese identity. One can also observe changes in contemporary family structure, corporate organizational dynamics, and cultural conceptions of individual virtues and life chances. All these aspects of life are brought into high relief by the threats to identity created and implied by the internationalization of Japanese people and work.

We will look at the many contexts in which families experience the results of their international sojourn. Chapter 2 outlines the historical experiences of Japanese foreign sojourners, gives an overview of the contemporary setting, and provides a description of a family on the verge of departure from Japan. Chapter 3 paints portraits of three returnee families. Chapter 4 looks at the returnee child in school and Chapter 5 at mothers and fathers in the community and workplace. Finally, Chapter 6 analyzes the broad role of the "border broker" in Japanese organizations and considers the state and prospects of internationalization in Japan.

The Japanese Family Today

A few years ago there was a "movement," both engendered and encouraged by the media and commercial interests, called maihomushugi (my-homeism). This called for making the family the emotional center of activity and consumption. In this "ideal" family the children happily played electronic games, the father practiced putting on a small, artificial indoor green, and the mother demonstrated her cooking skills in elaborate meals that the family ate together. Although my-homeism sold many toys, do-it-yourself kits, and gourmet cooking utensils, the home itself could never compete with the company and school as arenas of activity. Most of a man's waking hours are spent at work or with colleagues, and most of a child's are spent at school or studying. If the housewife so chose, she might indeed find time to devote to the magnificent meals of the microwave oven advertisements, but she might equally well end by eating them alone.

This compartmentalization of activities was not always a fact of Japanese life. In the past the family served as the unit of economic production, the socializer of children, and the source of an individual's status in the community. Its demands for loyalty and obedience were strong, and membership was permanent. It was a true uchi. But the modern nuclear family, although still very much an uchi, seems to serve only as a place where children are supported and where the breadwinner can relax. It is the locus of an active identity only for the mother, who, through her nurturing support of the others, maintains the household in service to the outside (soto)—to the workplace and school—which has different norms and rules for the behavior and performance of individuals.

The Central Role of the Housewife

With the number of its functions reduced, the Japanese family has emerged as an institution that is strong, flexible, and adaptive. It is based not on the role of the provider-father or on the relationship between husband and wife but on the nurturing, organizing, service role of the mother-housewife, and on her relationship with the children. She alone is completely focused on the tasks and goals of the family, and it is to her that all important domestic decisions and budget matters are referred. In general the responsibility for the house, children, and community activities is hers. The primary roles of other family members are located outside the family, and although their success in those roles is vital to the happiness and security of the family unit, they are not identified primarily by their function within it. They are employees of Company X or students of School Y, working for themselves and their soto groups and not explicitly for Family Z. The housewife, however, works for the uchi and is identified by it, however residual it may have become as a primary group for its other members. She is Z no okusan (the Z housewife)—defined by her role as homemaker to the house of Z.

The returnee housewife may be very much less "in control" of her family's destiny than the woman who has never had to cope with being away. Her role as a mother is strongly affected by the strains the educational system places on her children, and her role as a wife is affected by the difficulties her husband experiences as a corporate returnee. Finally, her role as a member of the community is influenced by the personal changes generated by the overseas experience, by the choices she makes as a result, and by her community's perception of the shift in family members' status in the educational and occupational systems.

Family, School, and Workplace

A closer look at the middle-class family will help us to understand the role of the housewife and the relationships the family maintains with outside institutions—relationships on which the success of readjustment for a returnee family hinges.

Most middle-class families interact with the community at several points. First, the children are members of their school, and the mother belongs to the PTA. Through these relationships the family learns what the outside world expects of children as future members of other social institutions and what it expects of the family as a participant in the children's socialization. The mother acts as a bridge between family and school, a role that requires much time and energy. The school, even at the height of the examination struggle, helps to integrate the mother into her children's education—through the PTA, through conferences with teachers, through advice to parents on how to help their children. The mother supports the children and encourages them to feel that their efforts are important to the family as a whole. She does not use force or overt discipline but (ideally) encourages them to study without alienating them from school or from the family.

The mother knows each child's strengths and weaknesses and thus knows best how to foster each child's desire to work. She must constantly monitor her children's work and must teach her offspring how as well as what to study. The assumption among mothers is that children need to be encouraged, that study for exams is a cooperative effort, and that without the mother's support, the child cannot perform effectively. Mothers say that there is little choice: They must either be kyoiku mama (education mothers) or shikata ga nai (there's no help for it) mothers. They see little in between.

The mother is also a bridge to the neighborhood, to ward offices, volunteer citizens' groups, cleanup teams, the retail trade, and to other families. She represents the family on residents' committees and to official and commercial agencies as well. The Western image of the Japanese housewife is of someone who is humble and retiring, but in her own sphere she can be self-reliant, independent and even aggressive. Few women in Japan respond to door-to-door salespeople, public opinion pollsters, or census takers by saying, "I'll have to ask my husband about that." In uchi matters, the housewife is very much in command. She shops and sits at the playground with other mothers to learn and share the lore not just of motherhood but also of the community.

The father, on the other hand, finds himself mostly in the world of business. The father's interest in and involvement with his family are seen as important to his personal well-being; company rhetoric has it that a good worker is supported by a happy family. But if he appears to neglect the work group for family activities, he is accused of being too family oriented, too self-centered, favoring his private affairs over his work. He does, of course, have a vital role in his family—he provides its economic support and social status. However, for the neighborhood, the critical criteria for a successful family are that the mother be a good housewife and that the children do well at school.

For the family, then, the father has an "external" life. The work he does is not well understood. Some women might easily say that their husbands just shuffle papers, which is much less important than raising children. Other women, however, are more deeply involved in their husbands' careers; they listen to their problems and provide encouragement. In neither case do women visit their husbands' offices, and only rarely do they entertain his colleagues or their wives. Exceptions include families living in company housing or those who have been relocated overseas or to regional offices where they have no other affiliations than those made through company connections. In these instances, wives and children of colleagues may socialize with one another, although women say that they are too aware of their husbands' delicate status relationships at work to be truly comfortable with other company wives. Children often have little idea of what their fathers do at work or what their firms do, although even a small child usually knows the name of the father's company.

The separation of the father from family matters does not in general create major problems, but in some families it causes strains that cannot be ignored. The father often feels like an outsider, and in extreme cases he may be actively excluded from his wife's sphere. Mothers may sometimes feel insecure about their ability to make decisions. Separated not only from their husbands but from the support of an extended family, they may suffer extreme anxiety. However, it seems that this pattern of role separation, though perhaps exaggerated now, is a fairly long-standing one that does not in itself mar marriage or family life. Japanese families have always centered on parent-child relationships rather than on that between husband and wife. A woman's sense of accomplishment comes primarily from motherhood and not from her relationship with her husband. The children are her responsibility, and the father's long absences from the home provide few opportunities for sustained intimacy between father and child. There is even a saying among Japanese women that the good husband is "healthy and absent."

Partly because of the demands of the examination system and the mother's role as sole support of the studying child, and partly because their other roles in the home are less active and compelling, mothers encourage dependency in their children long into adolescence. So it is that Japanese teachers say that children are spoiled at home and don't know how to take care of themselves. Mothers will confess that their teenage daughters don't know how to make tea or sew on a button and that their college-age sons have never tidied their own rooms or even opened the refrigerator to get themselves a snack. Since the mother's role is centered on nurturance, she is unwilling to minimize her importance to the home by assigning household tasks to children whose energies are, in any case, seen to be better spent in study. By keeping them in a state of relative dependence, she maintains autonomous control of the household. Moreover, in an isolated nuclear family, she relies on the children for companionship and loyalty and is afraid of alienating them by making too many demands.


Excerpted from The Japanese Overseas by Merry White. Copyright © 1988 Merry White. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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