Mount Fuji

Japan's 'returnees' face rejection,
find that coming home isn't easy

by RONALD E. YATES

(This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune of Sep. 23, 1990)

By every gauge of citizenship, Rika Muranaka is Japanese. She was born in Japan, she speaks Japanese, she lives in Japan's capital city and she carries a Japanese passport.

But in the eyes of her fellow citizens, Rika Muranaka has forfeited her "Japaneseness." To them she is chigau (different) or tokubetsu (special).

Why? Because Muranaka and several hundred thousand like her are "returnees" — Japanese men, women and children who have lived and worked abroad and who have come home again.

But coming home, as Muranaka has discovered all too painfully since moving back from Chicago, is not easy in a largely homogeneous society where, as an old Japanese adage says, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

That adage is especially evident when potential Japanese employers examine Muranaka's resume. Their response is almost always the same.

"They look at my background in Chicago and then they look at me and they say, 'Mo Nihonjin ja nai,' ('You are no longer Japanese')," says the 29-year-old Muranaka, a professional jazz pianist, composer and arranger. "Then I usually don't get hired."

For Muranaka and her fellow returnees, the phrase "Mo Nihonjin ja nai" has become a kind of psychological scarlet letter — a form of rejection that belies this nation's well-publicized attempts at "internationalization."

Adult returnees find themselves spurned by co-workers and neighbors for acting "too foreign." Their children are often harassed by schoolmates for being "too individualistic."

"In the eyes and minds of most Japanese, if you go abroad for anything more than a short vacation you are treated like tainted meat when you come home," says Tetsuo Ohta, a 35-year-old computer software designer who returned from Los Angeles last year.

So difficult is reassimilation that several dozen support groups have been created to help returning Japanese readapt to their homeland.

But for many, like writer Chikako Osawa, 54, it is the rest of Japan that needs to learn to adapt — not Japan's returning citizens.

Indeed, Osawa was so outraged by the relentless bullying of her 12-year-old son Tatsuya after she and her family returned to Tokyo from New York in 1982 that she vented her anger by writing a bestselling book called There is Only One Blue Sky.

The book, which was eventually made into a television docu-drama, riveted much-needed attention on the problem of returnees. But to Osawa's disappointment, Japan's "collective closed mind" still persists.

"Oh sure, when it comes to goods and money, Japan is international," Osawa said. "But in terms of its people, Japan remains a closed, walled-in country. Returnees are not encouraged to share their overseas experiences. Children are punished if they behave differently."

Classmates put pencil shavings in her son's hot school lunches, poked him in the back with umbrellas and goaded him to "either speak like a Japanese, if you are Japanese, or go back to America."

Unable to tolerate the harassment, Tatsuya began skipping school. When he was diagnosed as having a duodenal ulcer, his parents transferred him into an international school in Tokyo for the children of foreigners posted to Japan. Today, instead of studying at a Japanese university, Tatsuya is a student at Lafayette University in Pennsylvania.

Muranaka, a 1979 graduate of Maine East High School in Des Plaines and a music major at Northeastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois, returned to Japan in 1985. And despite her attempts to blend in, she is still regarded as "exotic."

"You have to forget everything you learned while living abroad and you have to cease being an individual," says Muranaka, who moved to Chicago with her family in 1972 when she was 11.

According to Japanese government statistics, there are 340,000 Japanese currently living abroad. Many will return to a nation that will consider them peculiar and where their overseas experiences will be regarded as an unfortunate affliction.

"I wanted to share my experiences," Osawa recalls. "So did my children. But whenever you attempted to do so you could feel a coldness in the atmosphere."

Osawa places the blame squarely on Japan's monolithic education system. It's a system, she says, that stifles individual expression and says everybody must be the same.

There is too much emphasis, Osawa says, on the idea that "we Japanese are unique," and that "Japan is one organism."

Meanwhile, young and creative Japanese like Rika Muranaka are making decisions about their lives and futures that may come back to haunt Japan someday. According to a recent survey of several hundred returnees by Tokyo's Toho Gakuen International School, 78 percent said they were planning to move abroad again.

“If you are creative, you have to leave Japan, otherwise you will be smothered by the system here," Muranaka says. "As long as I'm in Japan, I feel my soul is always wandering around trying to fit in. But, of course, I can't fit in, because this society won't let me. I'm different."

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Editor's noteRonald E. Yates launched his professional career with a BSJ (Bachelor of Science in Journalism) from the University of Kansas back in 1969. Apart from Japan, where he served as Tokyo bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 1977, and once again from 1985 to 1992, his colorful and sometimes hazardous life as a foreign correspondent has taken him to Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, as well as Mexico, and various hot spots in Central and South America.

Besides penning something like 3,000 articles over the years, he has authored and co-authored several books, perhaps the best known of which is The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company with a Japanese Soul — the fascinating story of how a centuries-old Japanese soy sauce maker steeped in tradition embraced modern technology and marketing methods in order to win success in the tough U.S. market.

From 2003 until his retirement in 2009, Prof. Yates served as Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, which includes the Department of Journalism he previously headed. I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for granting permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.