A while back, when I wrote an article about racial categories in Japan, I got a response from Baye McNeil, the author of the Loco in Yokohama blog, and the two books that I will be reviewing in this blog post. That response led to me reading his books, which are primarily about his experiences as a teacher of English in Japan. This is a topic about which I also have quite a lot of direct knowledge. In fact, we have been in Japan for very similar lengths of time, and we live close to one another; Yokohama and Kawasaki are adjacent, in the west of the Tokyo sprawl.
I can definitely recommend both books to anyone with an interest in what it is like for someone from overseas to live in Japan long-term. They are engaging, memorable, and thought-provoking. However, I would caution against assuming that this is what it is like for all foreigners who live in Japan. Despite the similarities in our situations, we seem to live in different worlds. How to sum that up?
One of his students invited him to a brothel; one of mine invited me to see the Emperor officially open the Diet.
It’s not just the difference in the sorts of events we get asked along to. He has a whole chapter about the empty seat thing, where majority Japanese appearance people avoid sitting next to people who look foreign on the underground, but that doesn’t happen to me. He has a lot more problems with his co-workers and employers than I do, as well. He spends a lot of time teaching in Japanese schools; I have never done so. We even experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake differently, even though the direct effects were quite similar.
This, obviously, raises the question of why our experiences differ so much. I think it’s safe to say that we have rather different personalities and interests, and that accounts for a lot of it. Baye is American, while I was born in the UK, and that also makes a difference. Indeed, parts of the books are about his life in the USA, and they brought home to me just how racist the US is. Growing up in that environment would, as he says himself, have a strong impact on anyone. Of course, he is black and I am white, which might also be important. I suspect not, however, as I have heard similar stories to his from other white people in Japan.
The difficulty in pinpointing the cause is to be expected. For all our similarities, we are quite different, and with only two examples, it is very hard to pin down what makes the difference. This is one of the things that made the books valuable for me: they provide good insight into someone else’s life in Japan, which helps me to remember that mine is not representative of everyone with foreign roots.
So, let me finish by recommending the books again. Baye’s experiences are an important part of the story of expat life in Japan, entertainingly told. Just remember that they are what they claim to be: one person’s experience.