Space Invaders
The “small-apartment complex” hints at bigger issues in Japan
By: Rio Akasaka | Sep 13, 2012 | Issue: 964 | 4 Comments | 4,691 views

Rio Akasaka

In a society where stereotyping and racial homogeneity is pretty much the norm, it’s an interesting experience to be Japanese and not feel Japanese. Having spent most of my upbringing in Europe and the United States, the fact I look, speak and write Japanese doesn’t make it easier to be back here. Appearances suggest I’m just like the rest of the salarymen walking around with black blazers and pointy shoes. Inside, however, it’s a whole different story.

After coming to terms with spending double my San Francisco rent to get half the apartment space, I realized that this very small apartment—this little island of isolation—was very much the model of social interaction that, together with the salaryman, could shed a bit of light into why foreigners remain so excluded in Japan.

“Too many people in too small a country,” must cease to be the excuse for Japan’s infatuation with all things small—be it apartments, bonsai or cars. Japan is undoubtedly a small landmass, but continually thinking small erodes the ability to think big. Part of thinking big is having an open-minded attitude towards those who look different from you.

This year, a report released by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government showed more people are living alone in Tokyo than ever before. This could be as much a symptom of social isolation as a byproduct of urban planning. The small apartment is a rest stop for the evening, a place to recharge between days, but hardly the place for hosting social engagement.

Space Invaders
Rio Akasaka is a Master’s student in computer science at Stanford University, currently on leave. Find him online at

Tokyo’s ubiquitous inhabitant—the hard-working, self-effacing salaryman—has no space or time to interact with foreigners except perhaps at work. But even the pragmatic approach Rakuten took to use English as its business language betrays its lack of understanding that working with foreigners is not the same as speaking their language.

The fact that so many foreigners are working as English teachers in Japan reinforces a stereotype—a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. It’s difficult for many fluent English-speaking foreigners to land non-teaching jobs in Japan because of the language and culture barrier. Thus society here creates “buckets” into which foreigners can be easily put—those who teach English on one hand, and the less numerous whose Japanese fluency makes them objects of admiration on TV. This circus show must not be allowed to create deeper rifts of misunderstanding and bias.

Attitudes towards gaijin need to change from the inside out. The numbers suggest, however, that this will be difficult. Fewer Japanese students are studying abroad than ever before, despite government incentives. The reasons for the decline range from increased introversion and risk-averseness to education fatigue as a result of a grueling and unforgiving college admissions process. The idea of studying outside of Japan becomes a choice between being thrust into an unfamiliar environment, language, and culture, and the easy route of ignoring that opportunity in favor of the status quo.

Perhaps a more forceful motivation lies in recognizing the fierce competition from those who are more globally aware. In fact, foreigners with specialized skills are being hired more and more into Japanese firms: last year, 80% of the new hires at Panasonic were non-Japanese. Unless Japanese people can understand what it’s like to be the strangers in a strange land—and step outside their personal comfort zones—Japan will risk becoming, as the director of the MIT Media Lab, Joi Ito, said, “less and less relevant” on the global stage.



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  • johnnyrabbit

    I’m sorry, what?

    If salarymen have bigger apartments they will be able to have socially-rewarding interactions with foreigners? In their apartments?

  • cman

    The “ubiquitous salaryman” does not live in the studio apartments of which you speak. He lives out in peripheral Tokyo, where he can afford to own his own home (in one of the most forgiving residential mortgage environments on the planet). “More people living alone” is indicative of a positive trend, not at all of a societal illness, which you clearly seem to believe. This “living alone” phenomenon represents a healthy departure from the tendency of having your mother do your laundry until you are in your 30s, i.e, that once you become a functioning adult, counted as such in the census, that you figure out how to live and function without mummy packing you a lunch on whatever level of income your wage packet allows. That Tokyo residential prices have slid downwards almost without interruption for the past two decades affords them this chance. As the population continues to slide, increasing the number of households (which means 27-yr olds begrudgingly snipping the apron strings) is one way to band-aid the economic implications. And somehow this reality is lost in your analysis. Your logic can be reduced to, as mentioned in the previous coomment, “if salarymen move to bigger apartments and “engage us socially” then their collective tolerance of foreigners, no, understanding of the universe will increase because we’ve used their toilets. And the notion that we fall into “buckets” of being either language teachers or curious oddities to be examined on television is a gross over-simplication. But I am sure you already know that. I could go on, but the tone of your letter makes you seem like a really well-meaning guy with whom I would much rather discuss the remainder over a beer than in this cowardly ether.

  • jon

    “gaijin”te? That’s Gaikokujin, please. As for Japan being a small country, its twice as big as England. Its just that everything and everyone is concentrated in Greater Tokyo, which is a case of putting all ones eggs in ones basket.

  • booyah23

    There’s a couple myths in place here. (1) There’s plenty of room in Japan for all the people. The problem is all of them can’t fit in Tokyo. (2) “Tokyo’s ubiquitous inhabitant—the hard-working, self-effacing salaryman—has no space or time to interact with foreigners except perhaps at work.” Another bit of myth. Sure they all work late, but after 5 PM, they’re mostly screwing around. I’m a manager for a Fortune 500 company, and I’ve found, in general, Japanese employees do work more hours than Americans/Europeans, but they also tend to get less done in a day. So, they’re kind of screwing themselves (and their wives and children). And did I mention there are many more holidays here than back in the States.