Another tragic case of death from overwork (過労死) highlights a culture of labor abuse. Reform is needed.

As the Abe administration tries to accelerate “work style reform” to address the issue of chronically long working hours, probably in an ultimately negative way, another case of karoshi (過労死) also known as death by overwork, was made public by family members of a victim last month. A 51-year-old sales manager working for Sansei, a mold manufacturing company in the city of Oshu in Iwate Prefecture, passed away after an intracerebral hemorrhage in 2011. The family waited many years before finally deciding to take the case to court. The man had been working up to 111 hours of overtime in a month. Family members of the victim insist that the company should have taken necessary measures to lessen his workload. They held a press conference this month.

The business friendly Japanese government fails to prevent death by overwork.  In January, the Labor Ministry did put up signs saying” Stop Karoshi”,  urging an end to death by overwork, “for a society where people can continue to labor”. In essence, “work overtime but don’t die on the job”.

 

The father of two children, the karoshi victim, was hired as an engineer working at the company’s plant in his hometown of Oshu in 1989. After being assigned to sales manager’s position, his daily tasks included sending out invoices and promoting the company’s supplies to potential customers, making several business trips a month. In addition to those tasks, he had to assess the work of his team members to determine their bonuses. He was also asked to organize company sponsored softball games and annual end-of-the-year parties. His workload began to gradually increase and the records his family members were able to collect show he continuously worked 60 to 80 hours of overtime a month since 2002. His son recalls that since he always left home at 7:00am and came home very late at night, sometimes later than 11:00pm. They were able to dine with him just once a week, on Sunday nights.

Even the worker himself became aware of being dangerously overworked. He once told his wife, “I’m working way too much so that if something happens to me, don’t hesitate to sue the company.”

Several months after he collapsed in his home on a Saturday afternoon in front of his family, his wife, certain that it was the work condition that pushed him to die, applied for worker’s compensation which was later accepted by the labor standards inspection office in Hanamaki, Iwate. However, the company insisted it was actually his preexisting health conditions that was the main cause and refused to apologize or compensate for his death. His wife and the two children decided to take the case to civil court. “The government concluded after investigation that this is karoshi but the company decided not to admit. Now, it needs to be held responsible for what it has done to my father,” the son stated. The first hearing is to scheduled to be held in January 2018.

Cases like this are not at all uncommon in Japan. It was 1978 when a doctor specialized in occupational diseases first introduced the term karoshi, literally translated as “death from overwork” in Japanese[i]. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one in eight (12.6%) full time workers work more than 60 hours per week; the government considers death from overwork becomes a serious possibility if working more than 60 hours a week[ii]. The government finally passed legislation, the act on promotion of karoshi prevention countermeasures, in 2014, amid increasing pressures mainly from a group of karoshi victim family members[iii]. However, the number of karoshi incidents has been held steady. In 2016, 198 cases of suicide karoshi (or karojisatsu) were filed to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in addition to 261 cases of karoshi from brain and heart related disorders[iv]. Experts say this is an extremely conservative figure because many workers and their families simply do not know what to do when their loved ones suddenly pass away. Even if they come to conclude work is the cause, they must find ways to prove victims actually worked excessive overtime. Many companies forge timesheets, ordering to clock in and out on a fixed time everyday, and the rest do not keep track of work hours at all.

“It is extremely difficult for family members to find evidence of overwork. They are not experts of labor law and often those companies hide the evidence or even try to persuade family members not to speak out by offering a small compensation,” Haruki Konno of POSSE, a labor rights organization that has been supporting the family in this case. “There must be so many cases that fly under the radar. We need to support karoshi victim family members or those faced with bad working conditions so that they can to take actions against management.”

 

[i] http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/publications/WCMS_211571/lang–en/index.htm

[ii] http://www.jil.go.jp/kokunai/blt/backnumber/2017/01/064-072.pdf

[iii]https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/11/15/editorials/getting-a-grip-on-karoshi/#.Wi4TzUtpHOQ

[iv] http://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/houdou/0000168672.html

Hey, Baby? You’re fired, don’t come back. Maternity Harassment (MATAHARA) and The Working Woman in Japan

Fighting Against Maternity Harassment is a grass roots effort
Fighting Against Maternity Harassment is a grass roots effort

 

Working at one of Japan’s megabanks, a workplace notorious for old-fashioned male attitudes, it wasn’t uncommon for Mrs X to be told, “Don’t you dare get pregnant!” or “If you get pregnant, we won’t give you any work!” from her colleagues.*

It was then that she became pregnant from her long-term partner. Unmarried unsure of how her workplace would react, she consulted with one of her colleagues.”It was then that a manager from another department heard from chance. He got angry and said, ‘Quit messing around! I will never allow the pregnancy of someone who isn’t married. If what you’re saying is true, then I will not treat you like a human being!'” she told JSRC.

“Eventually I couldn’t stand the atmosphere and fear in the workplace and chose to abort (the child).”

The Peeling Face Of Womenomics 

Japan faces a tough hurdle of an aging population coupled with a low birth rate. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2013, pledging to solve the low birth rate and impending labor crisis, embraced a policy dubbed “womenomics,” and reviving the economy by raising the number of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020. A pledge he has since backed away from.

It’s a hard task, considering that Japan’s business world is dominated by deep-rooted sexist attitudes that favor male workers over females and women, who are considered a bad investment due to the belief that they’ll quit when they marry and have children. Japan ranked 101 out of 142 assessed countries in 2015, according to a study released by the World Economic Forum.

And if a woman does become pregnant, while working, some are subjected to what the media has dubbed matahara (マタハラ).

According to Japanese Trade Union Confederation, matahara is an abbreviation of “maternity harassment.” The word refers to mental or physical harassment that some workingwomen go through when they announce to their colleagues that they’re pregnant or after they come back to the office from maternity leave. Some women come back to find themselves demoted or receiving a pay cut. In the worst-case scenario, some are even pressured to quit or fired. Harassment comes not only from men in the office but other women as well—sometimes out of irritation that their workload will increase, sometimes out of a kind of jealousy.

Prime Minister Abe’s former education advisor, Ayako Sono, infamous for publishing a column in a major Japanese newspaper advocating apartheid as part of immigration policy, said that “maternity leave is an unfair burden on Japanese companies” while still advising education policy.

Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, employers are required to pay consideration to pregnant women by offering them shorter work hours or flexible work schedules. They’re also banned from firing or demoting expectant mothers due to pregnancy and required to give them maternity leave. (Men are also technically allowed to take maternity leave as well to help in the first few weeks after a child is born.)

In practice, however, the law is hardly followed—and the local courts are hardly sympathetic. A physical therapist in Hiroshima was stripped of her job title and her managerial allowance following her second pregnancy—and her request for a “lighter workload”–in 2008. The woman, who had been working at the hospital since 1994 and was promoted to vice-director of her department in 2004 was told that there were no vice-director positions available when she came back. She sued her employer for violating Article 9.3 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Article 10 of the unwieldy Act on the Welfare of Workers Who Take Care of Children or Other Family Members Including Child Care and Family Care Leave and gender discrimination.

The Hiroshima District Court and High Court rejected both of her claims on February 23 and July 19, 2012, with the District Court arguing that “the plaintiff never objected to the shift to a lighter workload.”

It took until October 2014 for the Supreme Court to strike down the decisions make in the lower courts. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Supreme Court ordered the woman’s former employer to pay 1.75 million yen in damages. The court sent the case back down to the Hiroshima High Court, arguing that the proceedings regarding the necessity for a demotion were insufficient.

Maternity harassment sometimes extends outside of the workplace. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has been producing pregnancy badges since 2006 that say “I have a baby in my stomach” for expectant mothers to wear on public transportation to let other passengers know that she is pregnant.

A large percentage of the Japanese male public is unaware about these badges. A government survey released last September revealed that over 60 percent of Japanese men had  never heard about the badges, Jiji press reported.

In some instances the badges have instead become a source of trouble, even harassment for the women who wear them. One Mainichi Shimbun reporter who followed an expectant mother on her daily commute and found that even though her source stood in front on the priority seats—special seating on the train reserved for elderly, disabled, and pregnant passengers—other passengers rarely stood up to give up their seats.

Other expectant mothers wearing the badges have alleged on social media websites such as Twitter that they had experienced verbal and physical harassment from strangers such as being  elbowed or knocked down.

One anonymous poster on an online forum wrote  in regard to the pregnancy badges, “Do [these badges] mean ‘I want you to reward me because I’m pregnant’? I just think it’s strangely brazen.

So Abe faces a tough task in changing business and societal attitudes towards women in order to solve the country’s labor shortage, especially when members of his very own party display the same chauvinistic attitudes that pressure women in the corporate world to leave their careers.

The policy has failed horribly. Of the record five female ministers appointed to Abe’s second cabinet to set an example, two resigned in the same day due to misuse of campaign funds. Two other female ministers came under fire for links to extreme Nazi groups.

Deputy Prime Minister—and Shinzo Abe’s second-in-command and a likely candidate for being the next Prime Minister—Taro Aso said at a speech in December of 2014  in Sapporo, “There are many people who are creating the image that (increasing numbers of) elderly people is bad, but more problematic is people who don’t give birth.”

The Abe government even abolished the babysitting discount ticket system,  the Sankei Shimbun reported. The tickets, which were distributed to 3, 000 people through 1, 300 companies, allowed working women to place their sick children, who are unable to attend a daycare when ill, with babysitters for a discounted price.

On March 31st 2015 the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare decided to consider the termination of a female worker’s employment within one year after the end of her maternity leave as “illegal” and issue warnings to companies who violate this law.

“In regard to companies that violate the law, we will provide administrative guidance to rectify the situation by advising them, then guiding them, and then making recommendations. If they do not follow our recommendations, we will publish their company name,” said Hitomi Komorizono, an official from the Equal Employment Opportunity Policy Division of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

However, the move still has victims doubting that it will change the situation.

“I don’t think that just because this notice came out the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, that things will improve,” says Sayaka Osakabe, a former victim of maternity harassment who founded an online network for other victims called Matahara.net.

“However, because of this notice, I think that it will be easier for female workers to raise their voices.”

During a session of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, when Ayaka Shiomura was giving a speech on women’s issues, members from the Liberal Democratic Party section of the room yelled out jeers telling her to “hurry up and get married” and “why can’t you have babies?”

It’s a tough spot for Japanese women. On one side of the spectrum they’re being punished in the workplace for giving birth to children. On the other side they’re being told to breed. Either way, simply existing as a woman in Japan seems to be considered an inconvenience. The lack of affordable day care is another problem altogether.

Is it any wonder the number of women giving birth declines?

* Previously published on September 16, 2016.

 

 

 

 

Japan’s PSA: “Don’t Work Yourself To Death So You Can Keep Working!”

The Japanese government, particularly the Abe administration, has had a lacklustre attitude towards basic human right and worker rights, since taking power after Christmas in 2012. By 2013,  the word ブラック企業 (black company/burakku kiygo) meaning “evil corporations” had become a well-known buzzword. Japanese labor conditions are getting worse, hours are getting longer, and wages are stagnating.

Death by overwork has always plagued Japan but in recent months, one case after another has come to light. As noted in this article written for Forbes, Japan Is Literally Working Itself To Death: How Can It Stop, “NHK, Japan’s state-run news channel, reluctantly admitted this year that overwork had caused the death of a 31-year-old NHK female reporter in 2013. The Labor Standards Board reached the conclusion in 2014 but it was not publicized. Miwa Sado, who worked for NHK in Tokyo, died of congestive heart failure in July 2013. She had worked 159 hours of overtime with only two days off in the one-month period prior to her untimely death (She was found dead with cellphone in her hand). Chronic overwork, even when it doesn’t result in death, is a serious blight on Japan’s society. There’s even a word for it: karoshi (過労死). Her death is only one of the suspected thousands of deaths from overwork each year.”

Well, just when it seemed that Japan Inc. just didn’t care, the Ministry Of Health, Labor, and Welfare took decisive action. They declared November to be, “Special Month Of Raising Awareness Preventing People From Working to Death And Other Things”  and have adorned the stations with these powerful (not) eye-catching (not) posters.  But the unintentional irony is the sub-text of the poster which loosely translates all together as, “Don’t work yourself to death so we can have a society where you can keep working!”.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan is combatting death from overwork (過労死)with a sign that says, “STOP death from overwork!”. Brilliant. The subtext is “(Don’t work yourself to death) so we can have a society where you can keep laboring away.”
Work will set you free in Japan, if you work hard enough.

 

 

 

 

Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare offers plenty of tips for not working to death but what is needed is a change in laws, more labor inspectors, and a fine for more than $5,000 dollars for companies that work their employees to death. Human life should be a little more valuable, one might think.

I searched for the words, “Work Will Set You Free”, but they haven’t added them yet. However, in consideration of how much the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his second in command, Aso Taro,  admire the Nazi regime— I guess it’s only a mater of time.

 

Note: Thanks to Rachel Padilla who copy-edited this article. 

Have you been a victim of sexual assault in Japan? How did police respond?

Good signs: Japan’s APU graduate creates successful deaf cafe in Indonesia

“Fingertalk” a cafe run by the deaf in Indonesia has become a successful philanthropic business in Indonesia. It owes its success to the experience and determination of Dissa Syakina Ahdanisa, a graduate from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU). APU is a university located in the famous hot spring city of Japan — Beppu, Oita prefecture. It was after her graduation that she has embarked on a path to become a social entrepreneur focusing on helping the deaf community in her home country of Indonesia. APU is renowned for having multicultural environment with foreign students from 86 countries (as of May, 2017) and for having a strong bond between the university and Oita community through various local activities. The school aims to give students more than just a four-year higher education, but also a unique life experience, which is hoped will result in producing open-minded, brilliant, and inspiring graduates who embrace the term ‘differences’ and challenge the world to do the same.

Dissa founded ‘Fingertalk’ in May 2015, a business which has expanded from a single cafe to two fully operating cafes, one workshop/craft store, and a recently branched out into a car wash business. What’s special about Fingertalk’s business model is its goal to connect the deaf community with the hearing community by hiring all deaf employees. While aiming for that long term goal, Dissa hopes that for now, Fingertalk can create job opportunities for the deaf, be a fun place where people enjoy universal pleasures, such as food and artwork, and be a place where people can learn something new — particularly sign language. Hence, ‘Fingertalk’, named by the young social entrepreneur herself, represents the way the deaf community communicate by sign language. In Indonesia, sign language is called Bisindo.

On 2 June 2017, Dissa came to APU’s Tokyo campus to give a talk about her life after APU, specifically about the Fingertalk business and her recent visit to schools for the disabled in Oita prefecture, supported by the local government. The event was flooded with interest from APU alumni owing partly to the fact that in September 2016, the former president of the United States, Barack Obama, had spoken of Dissa and praised her for her inspiring work in the Youth Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) in Laos.

Dissa said when she was 10 years old, she became fascinated with sign language having met a deaf person who taught her how to spell her name at an event in an old folks home where she accompanied her mother. During her time in APU, she found her passion for volunteer work and took several trips to many countries with a mission to contribute in some way to a better society. After graduating from APU, Dissa obtained her masters’ degree in Australia and worked in the Singapore headquarter of one of the world’s top financial institutions. However, she continued to pursue her passion for volunteer work. During one of her volunteering missions, she spent three months in Nicaragua where she heard of a cafe with deaf employees called ‘Cafe de Las Sonrisas’. She decided to visit the cafe and was very inspired by the concept. Having remembered the man she met as 10-year-old combining with her passion for the non-profit field, Dissa felt an urge to create a similar cafe in Indonesia. After  a considerable amount of research, she found that Indonesia has more than 6 million people with disabilities, and of which, more than 470,000 are deaf. And the more prominent problem is that more than 70% of people with disabilities there are not working, let alone receiving proper education.

Fingertalk cafe & car wash business

At the event in Tokyo, when asked about her biggest obstacles in opening ‘Fingertalk’, Dissa admitted that she had a rough beginning. Though some people supported her idea, it was hard for her to raise funds to realize her cause. So, she decided that she would have to do it all by herself. She intended to save as much money as she could from her job in Singapore and at the same time, she started learning Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) in order to understand more about the deaf community and make new friends. Eventually, she kickstarted ‘Fingertalk’ in Tangerang City, Indonesia, and soon after, left her job at the financial institution to pursue her dream full-time.

‘It all started by getting to know someone from the deaf community. Then, they started introducing me to their friends and people they know. That’s how I started recruiting people for Fingertalk. I started by interviewing them with pen and paper when I wasn’t fluent at Bisindo. I needed to find out what they can do, and what they aimed to be. Through the process, I luckily met one deaf lady who allowed Fingertalk to use part of her house as the first cafe for free. This jumpstarted our business.’ says Dissa. Despite the hurdles of the financial obstacles, the location, and the staff recruiting she had to manage, the cafe took off and people started coming into the cafe. In the cafe, there are sign language posters everywhere in order for the people from the hearing world to try and communicate with the employees. With this, Fingertalk took one step closer to its mission—connecting the two worlds and teaching people something new. With more and more people coming in, the employees also feel more motivated to communicate and work hard. More importantly, this help them to believe in themselves and their abilities. According to Dissa, the biggest challenge she faces is ensuring that the employees’ self esteem remains intact; that they don’t feel any less confident than those who hear.

This year, Dissa and some of the staff from Fingertalk came to visit Beppu, Oita where APU is located. She also visited schools for children with disabilities. The city government of Oita Prefecture generously supported Dissa fully in all the trip arrangements. Together, they visited Oita School For The Deaf  (大分県立聾学校) and Beppu Special School.

Oita School For The Deaf

According to Dissa, the schools have such great facilities for children that can support their learning and creativity. The atmosphere was warm and fun. Even in a deaf school, they have a piano where the children can enjoy music through the vibrations on the floor. Dissa felt like Japan is at least 40 years more advanced than Indonesia in terms of educational and life opportunities support for people with disabilities. She was also impressed with how caring the teachers are. One teacher in particular, a deaf teacher who did not let his abilities be an obstacle for him to doing things such as learning English, she found to be very inspirational. Other than the schools, she also visited Taiyo no ie (太陽の家)or ‘The Sun Industries’ — an organization established in 1965 after the Paralympics in 1964 with the motto that more than charity, what’s more important today is creating employment opportunities for disabled people. To provide employment opportunities to people with disabilities, Sun Industries have made partnerships with large companies such as Sony, Omron, Denso, Fujitsu, and others. This is another example of a good support system that Japan has for people with disabilities. After the trip, Dissa is determined to make use of her new knowledge to help people in Indonesia through Fingertalk.

Dissa mentioned how supportive APU alumni and the faculty members have been to Fingertalk.

APU event in Tokyo campus – Dissa signing ‘Fingertalk’

Not only have friends from APU  paid visits to the cafe, but also Professor Kenji Yokoyama, a vice-president of APU. Dissa finds suggestions from alumni from all over the world useful and interesting since each country has different pros and cons in the support system toward people with disabilities. At the event, one alumni even suggested a tool similar to Google Translate for sign language, something to consider in the future. Some others asked about the future of Fingertalk whether it is the expansion of business into different areas or expanding its focus to people with other types of disabilities. Dissa’s answer was that she is now focused on helping deaf people but the long term goal is to definitely help people with other type of disabilities as well. Now Fingertalk is still small but she is aiming to expand its services and footprints.

After two years of founding Fingertalk, the business has attracted interest from media and local government and received awards such as Tokoh Metro 2017. Fingertalk’s crew have also been invited to attend many events such as Inovasi Indonesia Forum & Expo and Festival Kewirausahaan. When asked of what keeps her going with such positive energy, her answer was that “I want people to learn something from me when they meet me, even if it is just the sign of Beppu”. She taught use our right hand to create something that looks like number three and our left hand as a horizontal C to cover the base of our right hand, making the three fingers visible. With two hands pounding each other twice, it becomes ‘Bep-pu’ — the three fingers represent steam wafting from hot water, for Beppu is famous for its hot springs. Later, she personally taught me how to say ‘Thailand’ in sign language. It’s a very clever and fun way to sign my homeland. You use an index finger to point to one’s nose and slide the finger down and outward from yourself. This represents elephants, the symbol of Thailand. It’s something I’ll never forget. And that is part of why Fingertalk works so well, because the people working there and those visiting are always learning something from each other. It’s not just a meal and a drink, it’s a rewarding experience.

Bisindo (Indonesian Sign Language)

The Amazing Japanese Wife Part 3: A Man Needs His Carcinogen

This is the third in a series of short fiction by Ms. Kaori Shoji  entitled “The Amazing Japanese Wife” about international marriages in Japan gone off the deep end. Any similarity to real events, persons, or incidents are your imagination and probably means that you really should have a stiff drink and contemplate the meaning of happiness, karma, and the universe. You need Suntory time. Previous chapters are below, although not all stories are clearly connected. 

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 2 “Fucked Up In Six Trees” 

***

I bought a new car and my wife hates it.

Or more to the point, I bought a new car knowing she’ll hate it. So what? So this snazzy little Mazda sportscar – a black Roadster to be precise – is all mine. I’m not particularly fond of driving in Japan, the roads are too narrow and parking is sheer torture. It’s my wife Seiko who does the driving when we go out together, in her beloved white Mercedes purchased 4 years ago on the occasion of our seventh anniversary. In Japan, the number 7 is extra special, expected to bring all kinds of luck and wealth. Besides, I had just had a windfall, business-wise and figured it was about time. “Let’s get a new car, a good one this time!” Seiko had said, and I took her in my arms and said yes because I hadn’t seen her so excited in a long time. The next day, we were at the Mercedes dealers. That’s Seiko. She always goes for the adamantly mainstream, heavily conservative Japanese choice. They all love the boxy Mercedes (which everyone here calls ‘Bentsu’) color white. The plasticky and ridiculously expensive Vuitton handbags. Those painful Ferragamo shoes. Terrible French restaurants with Michelin stars. I could go on all day.

The white Mercedes and Seiko have been inseparable. In the beginning, she had willingly drove me to the train station in the mornings and picked me up again in the evenings. I would text her the time of my train out from Tokyo, and she would be come meet me in Yokohama with the seventh anniversary car. That worked for awhile, until Seiko started making excuses and ducking out of our routine. First it was yoga classes and then it was cooking school. When she finished learning how to make the perfect roast beef, she started meeting friends from said school to hang out at that new Italian joint. I protested because it felt like she was cutting me out of her life, to which Seiko flared up. “I’m not your chauffer, I have my own life.” She said that in English and then she said it in Japanese, which is her habit when making a point.

I briefly let my mind wander over that memory and then shrug it off. Now that I have my own wheels, most things about my marriage have lost its urgency. I know this is textbook male menopause stuff – I’m 54 – but the Roadster has been a godsend. It soothes over the rough spots, especially on those days I know Seiko won’t be home to greet me. Fuck it, I thought all Japanese wives waited on their husbands and cooked elaborate dinners just for the two of them, every single night. That was the deal, otherwise I wouldn’t have…what, gotten married? No that’s not it, Seiko was the best thing that happened to me. I was tired of playing the field, tired of one-night stands and each new date with a Japanese woman who didn’t speak much English, grated on my nerves. I longed for a relationship where I could talk with the girl all night, and then in the morning, make love over champagne cocktails. I wanted to be a cooler Woody Allen, to a Japanese version of Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.”

“Even the ones who talk in English aren’t all that interesting. I mean, where have these women BEEN all their lives, is what I want to know.”

Cathy said that, a couple of months after Seiko and I were married. Cathy was a friend of some years, and since we both grew up in Houston, we got each other in a way that was impossible with Seiko. “Hey dude,” Cathy would say when we met to talk, either in a bar or at a little Mexican restaurant that served Tokyo’s most authentic burritos. “How y’all doin?” I loved Cathy with all my heart but the physical attraction wasn’t there. Banking on that, I treated her like any other guy friend and poured out my apprehensions of life with Seiko. Then one night when Seiko was at her parent’s house and I was with Cathy in her apartment, things got boozier than usual. Cathy put her bare foot in my lap, and then the foot began digging gently into my groin. And before I knew it, we were making out with the kind of ferocious hunger I hadn’t known since college. Cathy yanked her shirt off and then her bra.

“At least you don’t have black nipples. Most Japanese women do, I mean, all across Asia, women are fuckin’ gorgeous until they take off their bras, man last time I was in Manila I was with this girl who…” Then I felt a gust of wind. Cathy had quickly disengaged herself and sat up. She gazed at me like a sliver of bacteria under a microscope and said with quiet finality: “Just make sure I never have to see your face again. I mean EVER. Are we clear?” Somehow I pulled on my pants and stumbled out and that was the last time I talked to her.

My problem is this: after 20 years in Japan, I’ve gone from being an American Male to an American Male in Asia, which are two entirely different entities. I’m uneasily aware that much of what I say or how I act would never be tolerated back home. Apart from Cathy, I haven’t been close with any white women here, though I know many of them are attractive and smart and worthing talking to. At ex-pat dinner parties, I’ve noticed how some of them would just get up from the seat next to mine, to go talk to someone else. Later, someone told me how so-and-so remarked that I never spoke of anything except Japanese women, which bored her stiff and was plain offensive.

To hell with it. Of course I talk about other things, like this car. My friends all whistled and cheered when I drove into town to show it to them. They didn’t take me up on the offer to let them drive it though, because their girth would have made it it dismally uncomfortable. Okay, it’s a tight fit for me too, but one of my resolutions is to lose the weight and glide in and out of this baby with ease. Secretly, I’ve named my car Sandra after my high school crush. I sure as hell wasn’t going to call it Cathy.

And I also talk about work, because I happen to be CEO of my own translation company. It’s mostly technical translations which bring in the most cash, and I’m proud to have had the foresight to set one up immediately after my arrival here in the mid 1990s. I sold the company, moved out of Japan and went to the Philippines to start another company, sold that, moved back and here I am. So I sure as hell wasn’t about to let some broad from Oakland sit judgement on what topics I choose for discussion. She should be thankful I even took the time to talk to her. Bitch had a face like a rock anyway.

I’m driving over Bay Bridge now, and the Kawasaki smoke stacks loom on my left. I freaked out when I saw this place for the first time, and made the mistake of breathing in the black factory fumes that rose to the sky in towering spirals. Kawasaki is an ungodly sprawl of fossil fuel industry, sex shops, Korean barbecue restaurants that serve every kind of cow innard including rectums, and a sizable residential area thrown in for measure. The air is leaden with grease and smoke, mindful of late 19th century London. Not that I would know, but Arthur Conan Doyle described this stuff in the “Sherlock Holmes” books. Which reminds me, must get a new audio book for when I’m with Sandra.

It strikes me at this point that Sandra is a consolation prize for the hurtful fact that I haven’t slept with my wife in over a year, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Not. One. Bit. Some time after Year Five of our marriage, when I was on the brink of diving into the big Five Oh and Seiko was in her mid 40s, she completely turned off sex. I had to cajole and negotiate every time I felt like it, and was deeply humiliated to discover that she never felt the same.

Oh wait, there was that time when we were having dinner in this fancy ‘kaiseki’ dining bar and she started flirting with the waiter. They were giggling politely together as they discussed the menu and I looked at Seiko’s face and saw how badly she wanted this guy. He was nothing special, just a young Japanese in his early 20s, pencil thin like most of them, with glasses and short cropped hair. I watched and bided my time, and during dessert I said some of the worst things a man could say to a woman: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You do realize you’re old enough to be his mother and he’s laughing at you behind your back, you know that, right?”

Instead of snapping back at me, Seiko fell silent. She seemed so vulnerable at that moment, pale-faced and more adorable than she had ever been since the early months of our marriage. A single tear fell from her eye as she said: “he looked like my boyfriend in college. It’s just nostalgia.” I could have apologized, but like the white male idiot that I am, I forged on. “Ahhh, nostalgia. The Japanese are just so hung up on nostalgia. What the hell’s with the memory lane thing? You guys lost the war. We put you back on your feet. And your college boyfriend? He’s an old man now, he’s fat and bald and riding a packed commuter train as we speak!”

Seiko forgave me but after that little incident, we had sex less and less. I said we should get counselling but she practically snorted with derision. “Why do American men want sex so much? Are you sick? Is it a disease? I wish you would express your love for me in other ways.” And when I tried to bring it up again, she turned her face away, cried and said in Japanese: “I’m tired, leave me alone, please leave me alone.”

My American buddies who had married Japanese women had warned me this would happen, especially after babies came into the picture. Tim, who had divorced his American wife to marry a Japanese woman named Yoko (of course we called him Da Lennon after that), laid his woes on bar counters all over Tokyo. “Man, I need to get laid,” he would whine, and recount how Yoko had moved out of their bedroom and laid a futon in the baby’s room for easy night nursing. “Japanese women. They stop being women and just turn into fucking mothers. Why don’t they just tell me before I booked the goddamn church?” Poor Tim. He and Yoko are still together, and raising two boys. He’s always taking the kids out for soccer practice and baseball games but Yoko never goes. Tim always says the same thing: Yoko is resting and wants to have the house to herself. “Yeah, Seiko always says that too, and she doesn’t even have the excuse of kids!” I laugh. I let my heh-heh-hehs sink in, but no one laughs along.

Once I get past the Kawasaki rust belt, I get off the highway and ease Sandra by the curb. With some difficulty, I get out of the car and place my feet on dirty pavement. I look out again over the factories and gas tanks. I do this maybe twice a week, just to breathe in the awful fumes and contemplate the red and white checkered oil towers, the colossal chimneys vomiting up all kinds of toxic gas. And it gives me such a thrill. Men are like factories, I think. All the internal pumping and churning, the permanent furnace sitting between our legs, the enormous clanging and hulabaloo to produce…what? Something no one really wants or cares about, probably. But at these moments, I understand exactly why Donald Trump wants to brings back these factories, and the millions of men in hard hats who support him. We can’t help it, we ourselves are factories. Born to Spew.

Tonight, I’m getting take-out Chinese at my neighborhood place, and then relaxing on the sofa with Netflix until Seiko comes home. Not a bad life, I tell myself, steering the car around to face Yokohama again. Sandra and I take off, and for once the roads are pretty clear. I estimate another half hour until we get home. Later, maybe I can tell my wife about the man-as-factory thing. Maybe she’ll laugh, and we can hang out together on the sofa and be friends.

Seiko and I still share the same bedroom but sleep in single beds placed two feet apart, because she claimed my snoring bothered the hell out of her. I understand this arrangement is the most popular among Japanese couples. Salariman husbands only come home after the wife and kids are asleep anyway. Two single beds work just fine. The other day, one of the younger Japanese men at my company, said casually that he hadn’t spoken to his wife in a month even though they’re currently sharing a double bed inherited from his brother. “And that doesn’t worry you?” I asked. “Don’t you miss talking to her, what if she’s having an affair?” He smiled and said that lack of communication was the secret to a long-lasting bond. “I don’t know what she’s doing. She doesn’t know what I’m doing. But we are good.” Those were his exact words.

But we are good. Fuckin’ Ay.

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part II “Fucked Up in Six Trees”

This is part two of series of short-stories by culture commentator, movie reviewer, and fiction writer–Kaori Shoji–on international love gone wrong in and out of Japan. 

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By my personal estimate, the lives of most white foreigners in Tokyo start and end within the confines of a town called Roppongi, which means ‘six trees.’ Apparently, before the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships, this area was blah and nondescript save for the presence of its namesake. There were the trees and there was very little else.

A hundred and fifty years later, the trees are gone but Roppongi is prominently featured in every Japan guide book and online travel site. It heads off most tourists’ agenda in terms of must-go, must-see, must-experience. They think this is Tokyo, and a good chunk of its best offering. That’s not a lie but everyone who’s been here longer than 6 months will tell you Six Trees isn’t really Tokyo and certainly has nothing to do with Japan.

Roppongi is the white male’s extra-territorial sanctuary as well as metaphorical catacomb, where pleasure draws a last gasp before crumpling into a heap of old bones. The white man’s loop of entitlement extends from the famed Roppongi intersection to the concrete mausoleum known as Roppongi Hills, then down to a quaint little neighborhood called Azabu Juban and back again. Once you get on the loop, it’s damn hard to get off so you keep repeating the run until you’ve lost track of what life was like before you thought of moving to Japan and immersing yourself in Roppongi’s cesspool of slimey privilege.

Because hey, the deal is this: if you can’t get laid in Roppongi, you may as well move to Mars. There’s no other place on Earth that promises and delivers sex with the same reliable standard. I’d give it 90%, 100% of the time you’re there. Never mind sushi – they’re overpriced and the tuna is imported from Indonesia. Forget Toyotas, they take too long to assemble and what’s all the fuss about anyway? Sex in Six Trees – now that’s Japanese quality control honed to an art form.

Jesus, I’m getting literary which means it’s past 6 AM on a Saturday morning and I’ve drunk the night away. This is not good, no fucking’ good, I chant to myself as I lurch my way past other drunks (but very few disorderlies, because this is Tokyo), on the side street that leads to the Roppongi intersection. I was at Tim’s house with a few other guys, then we hit that bar and then went over to the Cedar’s Chop House in the newly opened Remm Hotel which is supposedly a big deal but really just turned out to be a raucous gaijin hangout with Jack Johnson on the sound track – really, who are they kidding? Still, the place was kind of cozy which is a rarity in Six Trees. Not that this nice vibe is going to last. Soon, Remm Hotel will be overrun by what I call the International Working Girl Association (IWGA) and their foreign clientele, just like every other hotel in Roppongi. With the Russian Embassy on one end of the loop, the Chinese Embassy on the other and the American Embassy on the far left of the intersection, what the hell else can you expect?

Aaaaanyway. We ended up at god knows which drinking hole though I remember the toilet was filthy and Tim bleating on and on about getting pancakes for breakfast and where should we go for pancakes? What a tiresome bastard.

This time of morning the sunlight’s still feeble and I could bear to bask in its gentle rays. I hear snatches of loud conversation and automatically straighten my back, turning my feet towards the direction of voices. A pimp with broad shoulders and a bull neck in a dress shirt, is clutching the shoulder of a thin girl with bobbed hair – maybe 23 years old, it’s hard to tell at this hour. He’s trying to sell her to a potential customer, a youngish salariman in a dark suit. “I guarantee she’s nice, sir” he says in sing-song Japanese which annoys me no end. “If you won’t take her, then she wouldn’t have had a customer all night and that’s bad for her reputation, all the other girls are going to look down their noses at her. You wouldn’t want that to happen now, would you?” The salariman mumbles a few words, casting furtive glances at the girl who’s wearing nothing but a slip dress and sandals under the pimp’s oversized jacket. She looks cold and depressed and purses her lips, not about to pull out any encouraging sales talk. “I don’t have much time…” the salariman says. Inwardly, I snort with laughter. You mean, you’re not ready to shell out 20,000 yen for a throw, that’s what.

Maybe the pimp could hear inside my brain because he notices me observing with what I hope is a casual, bemused detachment. “And you sir, what about you? Japanese girl, velly velly nice!” The last bit was spoken in English and the pimp’s accent wasn’t bad. He’s been doing this long enough to know the value of a white male in Hugo Boss jeans and I’ve been stomping these streets long enough to know I’ll be treated better if I pretended zero Japanese language skills. I amble over and the salariman makes himself scarce. I get a better look at the girl, whose glassy stare gives nothing away. Her hands are pretty and lily white though, clasping the lapels of the jacket around her body like Jody Foster in that movie. I like a woman with petite, well-cared for hands and Japanese women have the loveliest pairs in the world. We exchange a look and I feel her stiffen under her sheer, thin slip.

It’s all the same to her. BUT she does need to chalk up a number on the board in the girls’ locker room, at the sex shop where she works maybe, 4 nights a week. Who else is going to do it, if not for a benevolent white guy like yours truly?

“Okay, okay.” I say this a little too loudly, with an exaggerated shrug. The pimp is wreathed in smiles. “Okaaaaay!,’ he mimics and makes a polite little gesture toward the doorway. The establishment is downstairs in a narrow, dirty, three story building tenanted by a mahjong parlor, a reflexology salon and a pizza restaurant according to the signs out front. “You will be happy, happy!” he says and leads the way into a tiny elevator stinking of roach repellent, and pushes the B1 button. I look at the girl and smile. She smiles back, grateful for even this useless token of friendship. We both know that if the salariman had taken her he wouldn’t have cracked a smile. He wouldn’t have said two words to make her feel better about her life, just stood there and waited for her to unbuckle his pants, and then would have taken pleasure as his due. White males may be self-entitled jerks but Japanese guys are the worst. No wonder the women in this country hate the lot of them.

When I emerge back out, it’s past 8 and Roppongi is teeming with tourists. The bill was 22,000 yen and I reflect that in the past two years I’ve always had to pay for sex in Six Trees. A tad humiliating, I know. I’m not young anymore – 34, and even white male entitlement has to end sometime. But I reason that the girl had been extra willing and “velly, velly nice,” which takes the twinge off the hurt. I yawn, put on my shades and consider walking to Starbucks in the Ark Hills building down the hill from the intersection. What I needed now was an espresso kick in the nerves and a blueberry muffin.

The local volunteer group is out and about in their logo-inscribed vinyl jackets (“Green Roppongi!”). These are mostly men in their 60s or older, picking up overnight litter from last night’s debaucheries, scattered in the spaces between gutter and curb. What most foreigners don’t realize is that there’s a sizable number of ordinary Japanese folk living here and they care enough about their community to do this. I stop for a moment and watch as they shuffle methodically, wielding steel tongs in one hand and clutching garbage bags with the other. Their faces are obscured by white surgical masks (one way to tell a Japanese from an Asian tourist is to see whether or not they’re wearing masks), making it impossible to read their expressions.

When I first came to Japan as an exchange student at the age of 17, my host father also volunteered at the local trash pick-up, clearing the beach of debris every Saturday morning. He worked for the municipal office, so participation was more or less mandatory. He seemed to enjoy it and I would pitch in because no one else in the family did and I felt sorry for him. When we were done, he always treated me to matcha icecream or iced coffee and said over and over how much he appreciated my help. “Brian, you are wonderful,” he said. “No, YOU are,” I would reply like a dutiful son, and we would look at each other and laugh politely.

I was home-staying in Chiba prefecture, near the Boso coastline and I was having the time of my life. Never had I felt so welcomed, valued and protected. I was loved in a way that seemed impossible back home in Illinois – not that I was abused by my biological parents or anything. But I was nothing special, just a scrawny kid with acne and too-thick eyebrows. I couldn’t make varsity on the track team, had no girlfriend and definitely was not one of the cool crowd. At school, I dreaded prom and was deeply grateful that my year in Japan would absolve me of that particular American teen torture.

In Chiba, I was a prince. On my third day in school, a girl in my class presented me with a hand-made bento and another very nicely gave me a blow job in a public restroom down by the beach. Later I learned the two girls were best friends, and they had played ‘janken (paper, rock scissors)’ over which of them would have the bento duty and which would be in charge of rolling out the sexual red carpet. I was flattered, but also baffled. What had I done to deserve such treatment? Others offered similar gifts and liaisons – in little secluded areas around the beach, in their parents’ car at night, in their rooms when they invited me over to teach them English. They baked cookies for me, presented me with handmade chocolates on Valentine’s Day, held my hand under the desk and guided it to their thighs. One or two told me that they loved me, to please marry them so I could take them to America.

By my last month in Chiba, I had the Japan experience all figured out. It was so ridiculously easy here. My acne was gone, thanks to the sea air and the string of casual girlfriends who took real good care of my teenage hormonal needs. I had learned a lot of the language, enough to ingratiate myself to my host family, school teachers and guy friends. Having run on the track team back in Illinois helped a lot, because most Japanese are ardent runners and fiercely dedicated to school sports. “You’re great, don’t worry,” said my friend Haruhiko as he inducted me into the school’s short-distance track team. Haru trained like a fiend and could whip my ass on the track any day of the week but he was also big enough to make a foreigner feel good about himself. I was a lazy bum who skipped practice to hang out with one girl or another but Haru looked the other way and pretended not to notice.

Naturally, I was far from stoked about the idea of having to leave Chiba and Japan. In the plane to O’Hare, I said to myself over and over that I would come back no matter what it took.

What it took was an MA in theater from the University of Chicago and then a 3-year stint working as a Congressman’s assistant on Capitol Hill. I fulfilled my teenage resolution on the day before my 26th birthday, March 2010. I arrived, back in the Promised Land where I planned to get laid by the prettiest girls with the smoothest pale skin and go drinking with the Japanese buddies I would surely acquire as soon as I exited the airport. In a year or two, I would find the most amazing woman and get married. She would make incredibly elaborate meals, just like my host mom made every night – potato croquettes, Japanese fried chicken and rice encased in a fluffy omelet. We would have beautiful bilingual children who would grow up to attend Ivy League colleges on full scholarships. (Haruhiko, my old friend from Chiba, had gone to Yale and was now working on Wall Street.)

That was Plan A. I didn’t think to work out Plan B. And my line of defence is: Roppongi interfered.

As I walk down the long hill from the Six Trees intersection to the office complex called Ark Hills, I notice my eyes are suddenly itchy and moist. What the fuck, dude, a pathetic self pity party? I tell myself it’s just some unseasonal pollen allergy but I can’t shake off the sense of what, sadness? Regret? For a long time, no one has told me that I was great or wonderful. No Japanese woman has said she loved me, and to please take her to the United States. Now I had to pay for love, and friendships consisted of alcohol-infused rant fests with like-minded assholes. What the hell went wrong with the scenario? I had somehow played a colossal and perverted joke on myself, and could barely muster the courage to laugh. “Fuck this,” I mumble and thrust my hand into my front jeans pocket. My fingers touch a crumpled pink ‘meishi’ – the Japanese business card. It’s from that girl I just had intercourse with, and she had given it to me just before I left. “Come back soon!” she called out, but I was already closing the door behind my back. Now I smooth out the meishi to read her (professional) name: Amika. Uh-huh. Sorry, Amika but I couldn’t care less at this point. With a sigh, I toss it to the pavement and start to walk off. On second thought, I circle back and pick it up again.

You can say what you like, but I don’t throw garbage on the street. It’s the thought of making extra work for those volunteers in their little vinyl jackets. It’s also to honor the memory of my host-dad. Six Trees has at least, taught me that much.

“Womenomics” is working just as well as Abenomics–badly. 女は辛いよ

Japan is getting serious about gender equality—and there were absolutely no bribes paid by Japan to win the right to host the 2020 Olympics—and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima is under control. Decide for yourself which of these three statements is the most untrue.

Womenomics was touted by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as his progressive policy to elevate the status of women in what is still a very sexist and unequal society, where women are far from being empowered. The Global Gender Gap report published last year noted that Mr. Abe and the LDP’s pledge to bridge the gender divide resulted in actually widening the gulf, with Nippon sliding down a few notches to 111th in terms of world gender equality. 

It’s hard to see women in Japan being “empowered” when they can be sexually assaulted with near impunity. The odds that their assailant will be arrested, or prosecuted are low–less than a coin toss. And if he is actually prosecuted–he can sometimes walk free, with no jail time and no criminal record,  by paying damages and saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s a situation that the Abe administration could have changed but neglected to do so, tabling newly revised criminal codes to instead focus on passing a conspiracy bill that the United Nations warns could erode civil liberties.

Of course, some would argue that “womenomics” have never been about elevating the status of women in Japan—it’s always been about keeping Japanese business thriving and hopefully encouraging woman to work—and breed. Of course, pregnancy in the workplace often is greeted with bullying from all sides. Abe’s vision of Womenomics has certainly never been about improving the lives of Japan’s single mothers, 50% of whom live in poverty. In fact, other than talking about “shining women–it’s not clear exactly what he wants for Japan’s future potential birthing machines.*

The current Minister of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, is of course, also a man, and also in charge of improving Japan’s birthrate. Do we need to say more?

Yes, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe and the LDP are gungho about Gender Equality. Meet Katsunobu Kato, his home page will convince you.

Recently, Bloomberg published an interview with Democratic Party leader Renho, in which she pointed out the obvious, Womenomics is all talk and no walk.

“They should be ashamed to use the word ‘Womenomics’,” Democratic Party leader Renho, the 49-year-old mother of twins, said in an interview in Tokyo late Thursday when asked about the term Abe often uses to describe his efforts. “It’s an embarrassment.”

Abe had vowed to eliminate waiting lists for childcare in a bid to draw more women into the workforce to make up for Japan’s shrinking population. He also sought to have women take 30 percent of management positions in all fields by 2020.

On both goals he’s falling well short: Japan was 111th in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap ranking for 2016, down 10 places on the previous year.

“About 80 percent of those who take childcare leave are women, and if they’re forced to wait for daycare, that means unemployment,” Renho said. “You either get demoted or you give up on work. What’s womenomics about if women are being forced to make such sad choices?”

For the rest of the article, go to

Abe’s Policies Failing Women, Japan Opposition Chief Says

 

*Reference to women as “birthing machines” is sarcasm. We know that the LDP also thinks of women as much more than that–as potential nurses for the elderly, expert green tea brewers for the office, and caretakers of the children that they should be giving birth to right now for the greater prosperity of Japan. 

 

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

Japan Subculture Research Center is proud to present a series of short stories, by our resident book reviewer and social commentator, Kaori Shoji, on the often tragically mismatched marriages of foreign men and Japanese women. If you see echoes of someone you know or yourself in this story, be rest assured that you’re a cliche—but take solace in the fact that misery is universal.

Note: Ms. Shoji should be credited for coining the word WAM (Western Anglo-Saxon Men) also (White American Men)–a more understandable term for the Charisma-man type of entitled self-important foreigners that once flooded these shores but now mostly live in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore. Also, it should be noted that Ms. Shoji has always been an equal opportunity misanthrope, as evidenced in her book review entitled 21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck.

Without further ado, welcome to the first in the series…..

 

Smothered in Silicon Valley

We are on the patio of my parents’ house in Palo Alto – my wife Eriko and I, on a sunny Sunday morning in March. There’s a sharp nip in the air but no wind, and the lone cherry tree in my mother’s garden promises pink blossoms later in the month. Sunday brunches at this house has turned into a weekly ritual, ever since we left Tokyo for Northern California a year ago. When I tell that to people, and that I Iived in said Tokyo for 16 years before returning to the Land of the Free (note the irony in my voice), eyebrows go up. In some cases, mouths turn downward in a reverse arc, depending on the listener’s experiences or their image of Japan. (Pearl Harbor. It’s always Pearl Harbor.) I was 24 when I finished up my graduate studies at Cal Tech, and took off for a country I hardly knew. Cool Japan wasn’t yet a thing. Anime was for hard-core geeks. But I had read two novels of Haruki Murakami and decided that in some tortuously inexplicable way, I belonged in the Far Eastern capital.

“So how did you like that? Wasn’t it just very busy and expensive?” asked Tim, my supervisor during one of five interviews I had, in order to land the job at a tech company in Oakland. “Oh yeah,” I replied, with a self-deprecating chuckle – a mannerism I picked up from living in Japan. The Japanese are excessively modest, and self-deprecation with a laugh is a national pastime. “Seriously though, I learned a lot. Japan’s been good to me,” I added cautiously. What I really wanted to say was that I poured my whole youth into the experience. I made my bones. I fell in love, time and again. And if you really want to know, Tokyo is a lot cheaper than the San Francisco Bay Area. But all that would have been inappropriate in a job interview. Besides, Tim – who is laughingly WAM (White American Male) and whose trips abroad has been limited to London and Mexico City, couldn’t care less about my back story.

I stretch out on the deck chair. Behind my Oakley shades, my eyes are closed and I’m only half-listening to my wife Eriko converse with my mom about the new farmer’s market that went up near Safeway, 5 blocks from my parents’ place. I reflect that my brother and I grew up here, and the chair I’m sitting in has been around since my teens, and my mom is basically the same woman she’s been for the past 30 years.

Eriko is saying what she’s always saying. “It’s very expensive, everything is expensive. One daikon is 3 dollars! In Tokyo, I bought daikon for under 200 yen.” My mom clucks, and sighs that Palo Alto has gotten so expensive and crowded they are thinking of selling the house and moving. I let out an exasperated sigh. How can my parents move? Three years ago my dad’s name was struck off the faculty list at Stanford where he had taught American Literature for 30 years. They’re still paying mortgage on this house.

Mom and Dad are used to this 3-bedroom place with the 2-car garage, their friends and Safeway where the Mexican staff always helps my mom carry groceries to her car. If they moved, they couldn’t afford to buy, at least not in the Bay Area. The housing market is astronomical and prices on everything including water, have gone through the roof thanks to the protracted California drought. Young techies fresh out of coding boot camp are told off by their bosses that they can’t afford to live here, not even on a six-figure income. Right now, the median rent for San Francisco is something like 3500 dollars. The average monthly daycare cost for one pre-kindergarten child in the Bay Area is over 2000 dollars. (Eriko and I don’t have kids but that could change.) The Thai salad with quinoa I had for lunch the other day? Fucking 18 dollars.

“You’re much better off where you are and you know it,” I say to my mother. “Just don’t get a new car.” My parents are living off their savings and what money Dad gets from tutoring jobs. An awkward hush settles over the patio like a foul odor and my mom purposefully looks in another direction.

As soon as the talk turned to money, my dad shuts down like an old, clunky computer. He gazes at the sky with his coffee mug cupped in both hands and I feel a sting of real sadness. I know what my father is thinking, he’s thinking that he’s fine, that this is all good. But it could be better and as a WAM with a Ph.d and his Stanford career, he should have more. A better car than his 10-year old Honda, a nicer home, all the latest gadgets, vacations, dinners out with my mom and their friends. A glittering Facebook update. They’ve never even been to French Laundry though that’s been on my mom’s wish list for a decade.

Eriko gets up and goes inside the house, undoubtedly to the kitchen. I watch her retreating figure with…what is it, boredom? I actually feel bored when I look at my wife of 6 years, though I tell myself it’s more like placidity, contentment. She herself is very comfortable in Oakland, and professes that she never wants to go back except for short vacations to her parents’ place. When we lived in Tokyo, life was much harder for Eriko. She cooked 2 meals a day, worked in an office and had a daily, two hour commute. She was also about 12 pounds thinner and seemed oh, so fragile. I’d give her a hug and feel her small rib cage under my big hands, her little breasts and narrow hips. We were both in our mid-30s when we met but she looked to me like a girl in college. Now I get comments everyday from people who have met my wife about how pretty, how slender, what a good cook, considerate, polite, supportive, accomplished…Even Tim likes her, and I’m not sure if he’s about to make some moves on her, the bastard.

The truth is, Japanese women are amazing. Half the time I spent in Japan was about chasing them down, chatting them up in my appalling Japanese and getting them in the sack as soon as humanly possible. The other half was spent bragging about my astonishing success rate to expat bros. But then it was like that for most white men anyway, unless they were spectacularly ugly or had hygiene problems, and even then they never had much trouble finding sex. Life in Japan frequently turns white men into sexist, racist, male chauvinist assholes, without our being aware of it. I call it the Japan Creep. I have said things to Japanese women that I would never say to a white American female. I took it for granted that they were only too happy to do things for me, including schoolgirl cosplay during sex (don’t judge me) and sushi dinners on their tabs. No Japanese woman I slept with seemed to resent any of that. They in turn seemed to take it for granted that they should please American men because…well if it wasn’t for us and our democracy, they’d still be wearing raggedy kimonos, they couldn’t eat at Shake Shack and they’d be forced into god-awful marriages with god-awful Japanese men, whose international popularity rates just a notch above Nigerian, according to some poll I read once. Right? I mean, COME ON.

But a couple of years after turning 30, I realized that the classiest and most well-bred of Japanese women rarely have anything to do with the average white man apart from gracious socializing. To them, we were loud, stupid and ill-mannered. And the pool of casual sex was slowly but surely, drying up. It just wasn’t as fun anymore and I felt less inclined to spew the same old tales to the same old bros, who suddenly seemed obnoxious beyond words.

And then I met Eriko at my local gym. She asked me with a shy smile if I knew how to work the elliptical, and I could tell she was trying hard to carry out our conversation in correct English. I was so touched that a sob caught in my throat. It hit me that I didn’t want to date anymore. I wanted a Japanese wife – to iron my shirts and cook my meals and greet me with a smile every time I came home from work. Japanese men had that for more than a millenia, so why couldn’t I, I mean we – all of us American jerks? Three months later, I proposed and Eriko said yes, on condition that we have the wedding in Hawaii with just our families and closest friends because we were both in our mid-30s and “too old” for a big ceremony in Tokyo. Eriko adored Hawaii. Her girlfriends adored Hawaii. Most Japanese women do.

It’s regrettable to say but Japanese women lose some of their flavor once they leave Japan. It’s only been a year but Eriko has assimilated so completely to American suburbia she may as well call herself Ellen. Not that she’s become part of the white community of Oakland. She bounces inside a comfortable bubble consisting of our house, her car (a Toyota Corolla) and a close-knit circle of Japanese housewife friends. She’s with these women all the time, texts them incessantly to cook Japanese dishes together and schedule jogs around the neighborhood. Now Eriko’s ribcage no longer feels like it might break if I squeeze too hard. She no longer smiles in silence, but laughs out loud. Her hair and skin – once moist with Asian humidity, is drier, tougher. Her neck is thicker, connecting to shoulders that suddenly seem broad and strong. I’m happy that she’s happy here. But inside a secret, inner recess somewhere in my soul, I feel like I’m being quietly smothered.

Before marriage and Eriko, I lived the Tokyo bachelor’s life in a place called Zoshigaya. The area had several temples and a big shrine, with a rickety candy shop that’s been around since the mid 18th century. My abode was on the third floor of an old apartment building, standing on a narrow street that led to the shrine. Two fairly spacious rooms facing southeast, and a wrap-around veranda for a cool, 790 a month. (Our current 2 bedroom house in Oakland is 2850, which everyone assures me is an absolute steal.) Most of the time, I complained. I whined about the heat and humidity in summer, the whipping cold winds in winter. I hated the commute to work, and the subway cars with announcements in three languages (Japanese, English and Chinese) that came on before each and every stop. I cringed every time I heard a salariman cough or talk too loudly, because most Japanese men have really ugly voices.

I longed for sunny California, and the sight of white womens’ tanned legs stretching out of denim shorts, strolling the malls on a Friday afternoon. California Dreamin’. It had developed into a definite thing.

After my 40th birthday and 5 years after my marriage, I was done with Tokyo. I got my Japanese wife so had no further use for Japan, like a mercenary with his loot looking for a fast exit. I wanted to go home where there were no puddles on the sidewalks. Never did I want to stand in a crowded train again, chest to chest with a salariman. I wanted to back my own car out of my own garage, and drive my ass over to Crossfit classes. I would work on my abs. Binge watch on Netflix USA. And I would finally get to watch Superbowl with my dad. Besides, Eriko made it clear, during our numerous discussions about crossing the Pacific, that if she had wanted to stay in Japan she would have looked for a Japanese husband. “I want to go away to California” she said. “I want to change my life.” That clinched it. I applied to job openings in 5 mid-sized tech companies in and around the Bay Area, and landed one after 2 months of meetings and interviews.

Not surprisingly (for isn’t that how things work out?) I regretted the move to Nor Cal almost immediately. I missed Tokyo’s tiny alleyways, the narrow, labyrinthine streets. Most of all, I missed the complex texture of things like linen shirts and tatami mats, women’s arms, the taste of Japanese citrus. I missed the air, sticky with fumes and redolent of centuries of history. I missed the rain and how the thick, gray clouds seemed to hold the city in an unclenched fist. Sixteen years in Tokyo had spoiled me in many ways but I didn’t bargain for an annoyance – an irritation really – for the blithely ignorant, have-it-all American lifestyle. I had dreams of walking down an alley, turning the corner and seeing a cat bound across the pathway and my heart will be filled with gratitude, before I woke up to relentless sunshine streaming through the window. No fault of Nor Cal and certainly no fault of Eriko. It was me. Too far away, too long. Adjustment was going to take some time.

“Hey Eri,” I call out. “We need more potato salad!” “Okay!” I hear her yell cheerfully and I feel my mother cast an ironic glance in my direction. She doesn’t like it that my wife is the one doing the chores while her son sits around like a big galoot. On the other hand, I could see that she thinks it’s maybe okay – about 70% okay – because Eriko is an Asian. If I had married a white woman, it would be different. I would probably go into the kitchen with her and help her prep the salad. And our conversation on the patio would be more…lively? In-depth? Friendly but a little controversial? I ponder these things as Eriko emerges with a large wooden bowl. “My special potato salad,” she beams.

And my dad rouses himself from his torpor. “Did I hear potato salad? You have an incredible wife, you know that,” he says to me. “Of course I do. That’s a given,” I reply. And then we all gather around the table to help ourselves.

Japan’s Labor Ministry Names and Shames “Dark Companies” For Labor Abuse

Burakku kigyō (dark companies, exploitive enterprises) are probably the epitome of everything that’s wrong in Japan today. In 2013, it was among the top trending words of the year. They’re so much a part of the social misery in Japan that they even are incorporated into board games like The Hellish Game of LifeLast year between April and September, 6,659 businesses in Japan violated labor laws and were ordered to correct their illegal practices by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor.

Haruki Konno, head of POSSE, a group that helps young people with problems in their working environment, says black companies typically hire young employees and then force them to work large amounts of overtime without overtime pay. While specifics may vary from company to company, conditions are generally poor, and workers are subject to verbal abuse, sexual harassment and bullying.

“Outside of Japan, immigrants bear the brunt of such treatment,” Konno says . “In Japan, it’s young people. Originally the term was popular among college students looking for jobs. It was shorthand for a company that worked its employees into the ground.”

It was also a term the police used to refer to “front companies”––firms owned or operated by the yakuza, Japan’s mafia.

Konno says black companies are able to flourish due to existing conditions in the labor market. In 1985, regular employees accounted for 85 percent of the workforce. These days, the number is roughly 60 percent, a shift in job security caused by the easing of labor dispatch laws.

“Good jobs are hard to find and people are willing to put up with a lot before quitting,” Konno says.

It’s worth noting that black companies are not entirely a new phenomenon.

In July 2000, advertising giant Dentsu Inc. admitted it was responsible for the 1991 suicide of a 24-year-old employee who had become depressed due to overwork. Dentsu agreed to pay his family about ¥168 million in damages.  Last year, they were found responsible for the death of another young employee who was so overworked that she became depressed and jumped out of the company dorm on Christmas. Merry Christmas Dentsu–you’re synonymous with evil corporation now—try fixing that brand image.

The Japanese government has long promised to do something about this problem but under the reign of “Money Over Life” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, no one expected much. However, this month, much to the surprise of everyone, the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor published a list of 334 companies that had made repeated violations of labor laws. Of course, Dentsu, is on the list.

The full list in Japanese is here:

For the sake of non-native Japanese readers, Makoto Iwahashi, an intern at POSSE and a budding journalist, working with Japan Subculture Research Center put together a list of companies that are listed on the stock exchange and/or are affiliated with listed companies. Why? Because perhaps if investors have second thoughts about putting their money into companies that can’t uphold basic labor laws, maybe these companies might suddenly care about how they treat their workers. They may not be afraid of labor unions but they may be deathly afraid of their shareholders. Let’s hope.

If we have missed any companies, or notice mistakes in the chart, please let us know. We don’t have an army of abused workers at our disposal (苦笑い)—nor would we want them. Comments, suggestions, or corrections, please send to japansubculturesearchcenter@gmail.com

It is indeed a shame that so many Japanese companies don’t take care of their workers better than they do. That would be good business practices and the right thing to do.

Listed companies and affiliates singled out for labor law violations by Japan’s Ministry Of Health, Welfare, and Labor