Old-School Fools
If a longtime expat starts offering you advice, walk the other way. Quickly
By: Trenton Truitt | Jul 29, 2010 | Issue: 853 | 16 Comments | 8,347 views

illustration by Phil Couzens

Old-School Fools
Trenton Truitt is a freelance writer based in Tokyo

I’m not sure why this is, but foreigners who have lived in Japan for a long time consider themselves experts about life here. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been pseudo-“advised” or “educated” by an old-school expat. Tips have ranged from “Don’t drink tap water; the Japanese all drink bottled” to “You won’t be allowed into an onsen with a tattoo.” And those are just the most coherent nuggets of wisdom I’ve heard from long-termers.

Certainly, there is some insight to be gained from a wizened expat entering his second decade here, or a family man with the obligatory Japanese wife and mixed-race child. But what these sages too often ignore is that Japan is a dynamic country, one that’s constantly evolving. Big cities are different than small towns, Kyushu is different than Hokkaido, and Tokyo has a heart thumping to a beat all its own. The hard-and-fast rules espoused by these gurus serve, above all, to create a kind of expat mythology that thrives on anecdote, circumstance and generous helpings of stereotype.

Now, on to what set me off on this rant: I was recently approached by a manager at a foreign company I sometimes work with. He pulled me into his office—much like the disciplinarian at my Catholic high school had done circa 1996—to inform me that my blonde highlights were unacceptable in the Japanese workplaces to which I was sometimes dispatched. He indignantly explained that this hair lightening had a particular “resonance” in Japan, and he went further to suggest that if I didn’t know what this means, maybe I should “look it up.” Scoff scoff, wink wink.

So that’s what I did. I searched around for hours looking for something, anything, to give me insight about the offense I’ve caused by lightening my hair. Guess what? I couldn’t find a single thing. Sure, I’d heard that Japanese with brassy blonde hair and tattoos run the risk of being seen as yakuza-affiliated. But certainly the Japanese clients I worked for would not mistake me for a potential gang member? Even the older ones must have seen photos of Brad Pitt or David Beckham. Surely they wouldn’t go running in terror from the gaijin with blonde highlights?

Ever since this “talk” with my boss, I’ve begun noticing more and more people with frosted hair. Sure, most of them are youngsters who have not yet been roped in to the stereotypical Japanese corporate world of black hair, black suit and no soul. But they’re visible and they’re out there. So how shocking or offensive do you think it would be for a 50-something salaryman in a Japanese investment bank to lay eyes on a foreigner with blonde highlights? What was I missing?

Nothing. Old-school expats need to take a serious step forward. Perhaps when they first arrived in Japan as (gasp) English teachers back in ’92, they were the rock stars of the local izakaya. But it’s time for an update. Contrary to the stereotype, Japanese society is a dynamic creature, and the tried-and-true “rules” are going by the wayside. What’s more, the mythology created by long-termers is collapsing thanks to the experiences of a new generation of expats.

I appreciate the advice, Master Gaijin, but let’s give the Japanese a little credit. Some of them use Brita filters instead of bottled water, and most could even stand being in an onsen with a tattooed foreigner. They know that highlights are a Western fashion thing; they’ve seen it and they can handle it. My highlighted hair has perhaps disturbed your notion of what the Japanese think, not the Japanese themselves. Like the proverbial old wives, your tales have reached their sell-by date. It’s well past time to bring that “Gaijin Handbook” into the 21st century.



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  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/jamesch/ Charltzy

    Great advice!

    I always take advice from old-timers with a pinch of salt; “you need to have this to work there, they make you do this before you can this, in Japan it’s impossible to buy such and such” etc etc

    More often than not they’ve just been here too long doing the same old routine, and because of that, are completely wrong about many things!

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/daywalk/ Jimmy

    Why is there so much self-hate in this magazine as of recent?

    “I’m not sure why this is, but foreigners who have lived in Japan for a long time consider themselves experts about life here.”

    The foreigner-hating-foreigner thing is such a tired subject, and by making generalizations about long-term expats, you’re no better than the guys who stereotyped you!

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/mistertroy2010/ superflycharismaguy2010

    “Ever since this “talk” with my boss, I’ve begun noticing more and more people with frosted hair. Sure, most of them are youngsters who have not yet been roped in to the stereotypical Japanese corporate world of black hair, black suit and no soul. But they’re visible and they’re out there. So how shocking or offensive do you think it would be for a 50-something salaryman in a Japanese investment bank to lay eyes on a foreigner with blonde highlights? What was I missing?”

    What? Another cliche foreigner complaining about how he’s judged wrongly in another country. How many professionals back home do you know of that go to work with frosted hair? I mean people who are not in the fashion or art world (like Brad Pitt). The youngsters you’re seeing with frosted hair are a) artists/musicians/or other related b)college/high school students c)construction workers d)unemployed. Black hair and black suit does not mean no soul. Are you saying that frosting your hair gives you soul? I think it just emphasizes your shallowness as does this article.

    You may not have found the info when you looked it up because, being the new guy in town that you claim to be, you can’t read Japanese or ask a Japanese person directly. These things are just common sense, unwritten rules. You’re right about Japanese people not thinking you’re a gangster with your tattoos because you’re a foreigner, but why should they relax the rules for you? Wouldn’t you agree that it would be best to treat everyone the same? Otherwise, they’d just call it racial profiling. I don’t know what this “foreign company” you work for is but if it’s anything but an English school, it probably wouldn’t go over very well ANYWHERE you go. I was even super reluctant to just grow facial hair (as I would have been even back home) but since I keep it trimmed well no one complains.

    I guess the only thing you were “missing” was common sense and professionalism. Go ahead and frost your hair before you go out to Roppongi but just make sure to dye it back in the morning.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/deruo/ Bill

    Boy this brings back memories!

    Was taken aside by a gaijin Nova “manager” once and told that my taste in dress shirts was a little too “loud” for Japanese tastes. Apparently, something other than white or beige was a little more than could be expected from a wacky gaijin.

    This, from a guy who always looked like he slept in the clothes he wore and smelled like washing them wasn’t something he’d ever thought of.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/meme/ Clive

    “a kind of expat mythology that thrives on anecdote, circumstance and generous helpings of stereotype”
    “the stereotypical Japanese corporate world of black hair, black suit and no soul”

    … and to be a family man I would think a wife and child were indeed “obligatory”.

    And blonde highlights? You deserve everything you get, mate.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/notnato/ Notnato

    I gather this isn’t a parody. You’re at least pushing 30. It sounds like your typical client is a “50-something salaryman in a Japanese investment bank”, and that you are dispatched to these places representing another company.

    You don’t really believe that blond highlights in dark men’s hair are acceptable at US investment banks, do you? It’s not a question of gang affiliation (seriously?, that’s all you could think of that might be wrong with it?); it’s a question of professionalism.

    You don’t really expect that your free spirit is more important to your employer than the image you present to his/her customers, do you? You don’t really think that it’s a clever thing to badmouth one of your superiors in print, do you?

    Tapwater, sure. I drink it all the time, but the other two pieces of advice are pretty solid.

    Maybe you’ve never had a friend asked to leave an onsen (some of us have), and maybe you’ve never had a direct complaint about your hair. That doesn’t stop them from being rules that Japanese people follow, and using your gaijin power of feigned naivete is often likely to make Japanese people uncomfortable. But hey, if you’re comfortable saying a huge number of Japanese men have “no soul”, you’re probably not especially concerned about what “the Japanese” think.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/tokyoexec/ tokyoexec

    I had to laugh after reading this! Here is another know-it-all gaijin new to Japan with the typical (let me guess “American” all about me attitude) commenting on the advice of a veteran ex-pat living in Tokyo.

    To assume you are an “Expatriate” would assume that you had talent from your home country and were either recruited or transferred to Japan because the company was in dire need of your expertise. I would guess that was not likely the case as you hop around office to office if not teaching English then probably fixing some “Expats” computer.

    Your assertion that there is a new generation of expats “…the mythology created by long-termers is collapsing thanks to the experiences of a new generation of expats.” uses the term Expatriate as casual as you take life in Japan.

    Many of the “long time expats” living in Japan have succeeded by avoiding the likes of the “henna gaijin” or obnoxious foreigner who arrives in Japan and ignores the traditions of the past and flaunts their tattoos and kinpatsu hair in the face of Japanese who the mainstream majority can’t stand.

    The fact that you think its ok only confirms the level of social status you have achieved in Japan. So if your aspirations in Japan are to hook up with a “Kogyaru” and return to the “hey dude” life from which you came, then of course ignore the long-timer’s advice.

    You already knew what Japanese thought about people with kinpatsu hair and tatoos, you didn’t need to look it up. You just didn’t give a @#$ and didn’t like the fact that some “Expat” who sounds like he has actually succeeded here called you out on it.

    Truly succeeding in a foreign country means….. Oh yeah, you already have that figured out.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/chimpana/ ChimpanA

    Looks like this article touched a nerve. I certainly can’t agree with all the observations or remarks in the article but I can tell you, as an employee of a US investment bank, it is highly likely that no one would care that you had highlights (though it depends a bit where in the bank you work; sales team might perhaps frown on it a bit). There are Japanese guys with blond hair in the bank. Some of them are over 40 even.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/chimpana/ ChimpanA

    Oops scratch that, meant to write it is unlikely that anyone would care that you had highlights. Especially if you are good at your job.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/spudnuts/ Neil Crick

    A winning combination of hyperbole and spat dummy. You’ll go far fella.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/dontfeedthetrolls/ John Rockefeller

    For everyone who wrote a well thought out and well written comment trying to educate Mr. Trenton Truitt, I appreciate your effort and your believe that someone that self-centered and hypocritical is capable of improving through critical feedback via his peer group.

    However, I think the best advice in this case, and I’m going to phrase it in a way that even Mr. Truitt can understand, is:

    Don’t feed the troll.

    That is all.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/karoshi/ Karl

    Capitalism’s doomed anyway, so f**k the bankers. You wear your highlights Trenton, if you wanna. Also, I suggest beach sandals and a T-shirt. Stick it to the Man, dude.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/boku1/ Dave

    I agree with this guy. I mean, Japan is the only country on earth that the longer you have lived in, the less you know. No doubt that someone who has lived here for a decade or so would not have a clue that Japan is a dynamic country, despite having lived here long enough to actually experience the dynamism. I am sure most never knew until they read this article.

    I would also suggest this young fellow avoid learning Japanese too, for such a thing helps distort one’s view. That, actual experience, and real knowledge all have a detrimental effect on one’s ability to understand this or any country.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/chrisyoung/ chrisyoung

    I think what this and other recent Last Word articles (Half-Baked in Tokyo) need are some statistics. It’s much better to back up generalizations with data whenever possible. Say the writer of this article had spent an afternoon on the streets of Tokyo actually interviewing members of the public, Japanese (What do you think of my highlights? Would you take a bath with a tattooed person? What do you think most Japanese people’s opinions are about such and such?) as well as foreigners both fresh and experienced (What advice would you give to a non-Japanese just off the boat? What do you think about long-termers? Do you think Tokyo has changed much in the past 10 years?). Then it would have a lot more substance and people like me with my “obligatory Japanese wife and mixed race child” won’t get so offended. Just my two yen’s worth.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/abhisri/ abhisri

    Chrisyoung and Dave(with all his sarcasm) are bang on. One should not implicitly trust all advice offered, but that does not automatically imply that all such advice is nonsense. For example, has Mr. Truitt actually attempted to look at the websites of a few onsens first? Heck, even Tokyo Summerland clearly says on their English website that they will not allow anyone(not even girls) with a tattoo. Not all actual onsens ban tattoos but a few do. If you are happy with limiting your options or simply do not like onsens, that is your call, but that doesn’t means that it is not a good idea to avoid tattoos if you are in Japan, for long term.
    Apart from that, what has not changed in Japan or anywhere so far, is the simple fact that people prefer the familiar and comfortable. You wouldn’t be too comfortable with say, a Pakistani chap sitting next to you, digging in the steak or spaghetti with his fingers, if he was visiting your country. He could take the same stance as you and assume that most folks would be used to this stuff. He will even point to some kids and bag-ladies who skip on the knife and the fork. But in your head, you secretly would have probably filed him under “weirdo”. If you happen to be a millionaire investor or some senior manager, hell go ahead and be the eccentric weirdo. Success gets quite a few transgressions forgiven, after all. But till then, it will probably be smarter to fit in. Unless you are just visiting and don’t give a damn, of course.
    “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” has NEVER been an outdated advice.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/genkimark/ Mark Flanigan

    Interesting analysis. I think you do raise some good points. I wonder what you might think of my article “Found and Lost” in the most recent edition of The Last Word? Cheers and happy Year of the Rabbit!

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