Team Japan

I often wonder what it is that drew me back to Japan. I grew up here of course and have that sense of belonging but so did my siblings and they are happily living in the US. What specifically made me want to come back and not them?

First, I can’t discount the influence of a single encounter. I was living in Colorado at the time when my sister told me about a ski resort that was looking for staff. Having nothing better to do I thought, “what the heck” and spent the Winter snowboarding in Shiga Kogen. I didn’t have any plans to move back to Japan until then and that single introduction probably changed my life. Who knows if I would have found a different path back to Japan (I have the feeling I might have) but when I spent that Winter in Nagano I knew I had to stay.

Now that I’m here though, there are a few specific reasons that I just like Japan better than anywhere else. First, Japan is an endlessly interesting place to study. Churchill’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma quote actually describes Japan better than Russia. There is a simultaneous depth of culture and weirdness that in my opinion is not found anywhere else. For example, any aspect of Japanese culture from its history, food (which has it’s own branches), art forms, religion etc. is a rabbit hole that you could spend years going down. As a guide, I’m constantly making new discoveries because of the sheer volume of things I want to know. After living here 23 years I’m still asked questions about Japan on every tour that stump me. Second, I relate to Japanese peoples’ personalities better. Most Americans are willing to bare their life stories within a couple of meetings but in Japan – as with myself – it takes some time. It’s not that Japanese people don’t open up, someone just has to be in the inner circle before they do. There are a few ways to get into that inner circle including alcohol and speaking Japanese so I often experience a side of Japanese people that someone who doesn’t speak Japanese simply can’t. And perhaps superficially, Japanese food is just healthier and higher quality than American food of the same price. It’s easy to eat healthy and feel good here whereas in America it takes a conscious, concerted effort.

Another reason I have stayed is that I feel like I have more to contribute than I would living in the US. Speaking English and Japanese in Japan is a valuable skillset whereas in the US it wouldn’t be a significant advantage. In the US the competition for everything from houses to jobs to venture funding is fierce whereas in Japan, there just aren’t as many people competing for the same resources. Macro economically competition is good so it’s the reason the US is so far ahead but as an individual, it’s nicer being in a small pond. I definitely have a competitive advantage here that I wouldn’t in the US. I stand out here and while I hated that as a kid, I realize that it’s valuable as an adult. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone who meets me remembers me because I’m this weird white guy that speaks perfect Japanese and those connections often come in handy sometime later.

Finally, this is a bit simplistic but despite its issues, I fee like Japan is still one team. I hate to say it but being ethnically homogenous probably helps. And while I am not, as you may have noticed, ethnically Japanese, I do feel like I’ve been let onto the team. I feel like I have skills that can contribute to making a better society, to brining more business here and to diversifying Japan in a positive manner. That’s what makes living here interesting for me.

Permanent Residency

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I recently made the decision, with advice from my immigration lawyer, to apply for permanent residency in Japan. I realized that even though I have lived here around 23 combined years, I still feel like a guest of the Japanese government. Permanent residency, if I get it, is just that: permanent. Excluding the ability to vote, I will be treated like a Japanese citizen, no need to ask permission to start a business or provide a reason when I leave or enter the country. Applying for visas every 3 years isn’t that big of a deal to be honest, but it’s the mentality more than anything that bothers me. I have spent most of my life here but I could be denied a visa at any time. The life I built up in Japan could vanish at any moment at the whim of an immigration official having a bad day. Perhaps that is a bit dramatic, but that’s how entering the immigration office feels anyway.

Before they grant permanent residency though, they definitely do their research. They want to know everything… how much I paid in taxes, how much my parents paid, my Japanese language certification, my work history, my bank statements, my driving record, my school records, a guarantor, my pickleball credentials, recommendations letters, the list goes on. I even have to write an essay about why I want to live in Japan and how I am going to contribute to society. It feels a bit like begging but I have to remind myself that it’s all part of the process and that once I finish, I never have to do it again.

I will say though, if I am denied permanent residency I will have a seriously diminished view of the Japanese system. Japan says it wants to become more international by increasing immigration. And for both demographic and economic reasons, it desperately needs more people. If I am not the type of international who Japan would want here, frankly I’m not sure who is. The one catch is that typically permanent residency requires 10 consecutive years of living in Japan (I had to start over when I left at 16) but I am applying after 6 years because of exceptional circumstances. Not to toot my horn but I have lived here 23 years, have the highest level Japanese language credential, bought a house, pay taxes, have brought hundreds of people here and started a new sport in Japan. Also I’m not saying this is right but I am one of the “desirable immigrants” from Western countries, not a “suspicious character” from Southeast Asia, Africa or the Middle East. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. I don’t agree with categorizing people like this, but the reality is that it happens in all countries and I got a lucky roll of the dice for being born American.

Concurrent to applying for permanent residency, I am registering my house as a Japanese style inn or Ryokan and registering it on Airbnb. Why do I have to register as a ryokan? Great question. To prop up the hotel industry, the Japanese government basically cut the number of airbnbs in half a few years ago. If you aren’t registered as a hotel, you can literally only rent out the property for 180 total days a year. In addition, the local ryokan association in my town got together and decided to limit rentals on certain days when they make money. So rentals during golden week (early May), silver week (late September) and the entire months of August, October and December are not allowed. Since I can’t beat ’em I decided to join their ranks, which is why I am registering my house as a Japanese style inn. It’s more expensive up front, but I’m choosing to see it as a barrier to entry. Like many things in Japan, the bureaucracy makes it expensive and difficult to get started, but once you push through the crowd there are fewer players to compete with. I’m playing the long game, even though it means investing more up front.

All that to say, my life in Japan feels much more entrenched than before the virus. I enjoyed my globetrotting life before but I’m not sure it was the healthiest. In the last year I’ve started working out, eating healthier, and made more friends/business contacts in Japan than ever before. Like the permanent residency or the airbnb registration, circumstances are what they are so it’s better to make the best of them. Dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy is a practice in stoicism but there is a lot of good in it. I’m hoping to take some of the lessons from this pandemic into the post-pandemic world. Before, I tended to think of work as a sprint to make as much money as possible, saying yes to everything as a result. Being somewhat bored for a year, I have realized that I never want to retire anyway. I will go back to traveling the world and a busy lifestyle but I want to remember that it’s a marathon. The pace needs to be set accordingly, running but taking time to take it all in as well.

Internet in China

It has been a couple of weeks now since I returned from China. The people and country surprised me almost daily and I am excited to go back, whenever that happens.

But I feel obligated to present the yin and the yang so to speak, the enjoyable parts of travel and the “learning experiences” a country provides. The internet in China is one of those for me.

It’s not that China doesn’t have internet access. Connectivity is actually fast and there are tons of internet companies. The problem is the government blocks certain international websites from infiltrating into the public eye and replaces them with their own, government approved sites. The official reasons for this are threefold: blocking competition, sensitive content and national security. I have no comment on sensitive content or national security, but with eliminating competition I have something to say. I hate it, but I think it actually makes sense for China. Here’s what one blogger wrote:

Without blocking Google, Baidu cannot succeed. Without blocking YouTube, Youku cannot succeed. These huge International Internet Companies do not need to pay taxes to China’s Government, but the Internet Companies in China pay taxes. In addition, they want to “protect” Chinese websites and hence block successful International websites.

China has enough people and resources to find successful internet companies around the world and copy them, keeping revenues and tax dollars in China. If you want to communicate with people in Mainland China, you have to download WeChat, a Chinese version of WhatsApp that you can use anywhere in the world. It’s the perfect protectionist policy. Brilliant.

Now if the blocked sites were obscure Dalai-Lama sponsored hackers calling for Tibetan independence I would not care. I can live without reading up on my Free Tibet news for a couple of weeks. Not that the Dalai Lama would hack anything anyway…that’s besides the point. The websites that China blocks are much more intrusive to the average social-media reliant millennial like myself. As mentioned, Google (and all its branches like Gmail, Google Maps etc.), YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Instagram, Amazon… you name it, there are over 3,000 websites blocked.

I had no idea just how reliant I was on these websites until they were suddenly, mercilessly yanked away. 90% of the websites I use became non-existent to me overnight. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t whittle away the time watching people wiping out on YouTube, I couldn’t stay updated on the comedic happenings at the White House. I felt like I could suddenly relate to the “land before time” series. Okay, I exaggerate. But it really is crazy how much I NEED the internet to exist in the modern world. I don’t even use it as much as most people my age. Maybe that’s just what I tell myself. I definitely don’t even support giant companies like Google, I think they need some competition or they will monopolize the industry. I’m just enslaved to they’re conveniences.

This is how I felt the first few days in country. It was the first time I seriously contemplated crossing an international border exclusively for internet hunting. Then I discovered a magical thing; the VPN or virtual private network. I’m not smart enough to describe how it works, other than saying it lets you use blocked websites in China. I was back in business, at least for the sporadic instances it worked. At least I could reassure the world of my existence via Facebook.

I would love to conclude this post with some meaningless saying about how I learned to rely less on the internet during my time in China and that as a result I became a better person or had some light bulb ah-ha moment. I can’t say that. What I do know is that the internet connects people but it can’t be our sole connection. We must use it as a means to an end of interacting with real people. It should be a catalyst, not a crutch. Yes, we need it in today’s world but it should never take the place of the real, face to face interactions with the always interesting, sometimes bizarre, often hilarious thing called humanity.

Thank you so much for reading.