Monday, June 09, 2008

Let's Ecology! 5: The gaijin hierarchy

There was a definite psychological hierarchy among the gaijin (foreigners, literally "outside-persons") when I lived in Japan, a clear albeit unspoken knowledge of who was "better" than whom. Although few gaijin would have been willing to admit it, this hierarchy was based largely on the prejudices of the Japanese themselves. There were some gaijin outside the hierarchy -- tourists, usually laughed at for not knowing their way around like the rest of us; U.S. military personnel, sometimes seen as ignorant "Ugly Americans" (young men on leave, anyway; families seemed to belong more to the "tourist" category); and students, too young to really matter -- but most who lived and worked in Japan eventually gained a sense of how they were categorized.

On the bottom of the gaijin heap were the manual laborers, prostitutes, and bar hostesses -- the Untouchables of the gaijin caste system. They came from poor countries, many overstaying their visas and living in constant fear of the police and the Immigration Bureau, others bending the rules that allow students to work part-time. In a way they were "sub-gaijins," because the word gaijin itself was usually used for people of European descent, with other peoples being known by their region, country, or skin color: "Southeast Asian," "Iranian," "Black," or, in the more respectable mass media, by job category: "foreign laborer," "foreign bar hostess," "foreign prostitute."

Many of them could speak neither Japanese nor English well, and they were widely shunned and feared by Japanese and higher-status gaijin alike. Many, especially women in "men's entertainment" businesses who were often little more than slaves owned by yakuza gangs, were harshly exploited by their employers. Dark-skinned foreigners, unless they were wearing business suits, were usually assumed by both Japanese and lighter-skinned gaijin to be illegal aliens, the men manual laborers, perhaps petty criminals, and the women prostitutes.

One step above them, but at the bottom of the North America-Europe-Australia-New Zealand heap, were street vendors, bartenders, waiters, Caucasian bar hostesses, and English teachers. Many English teachers had questionable visa status, and some worked illegally. Most, of course, were strictly legal and aboveboard. Many arranged a demanding schedule of several part-time jobs; others worked full-time for one employer. Pay, in dollar terms, seemed excellent to the inexperienced, but in yen terms it was far from lucrative. Wages varied widely, from high hourly pay to low monthly salaries, and the pay scale stagnated for years as the high value of the yen brought a flood of would-be teachers to Japan. English teachers were often treated as disposable goods, their concerns far less important than those of the students, management, or Japanese staff. One major chain of schools, in fact, was notorious for firing any of its teachers who worked there more than three or four years, because they got a raise every year and thus became more expensive than new teachers.

There was also an internal hierarchy among English teachers, with fresh-off-the-boat part-timers at the bottom, and full-time English school teachers, teachers at Japanese junior and senior high schools, professional teachers at the few English schools that are considered prestigious by gaijin, and college lecturers and professors in ascending order above them.

Ranking above English teachers, including, to their understandable resentment, the professional and college English teachers, were the holders of Real Jobs. These were the "Local Hires" (LHs) hired by firms while living in Japan. Their jobs included work such as translating, copy writing, and proofreading; sales; office or secretarial work; and lower-level management, for example supervising the teachers at an English school. They rarely held executive-level positions, however. Salary and perks were once much better than those of the LHs' Japanese co-workers, but by the time I arrived on the scene that was less so, because more gaijin were learning Japanese and working in Japan.

Most LHs had taught English at one time or another. Although those LHs who were fluent in Japanese, especially translators, occasionally sneered at those who weren't, and any job related to teaching English was somewhat tainted, the Local Hires stratum was relatively egalitarian. Most LHs were ecstatic at having Real Jobs, and they tended to be supportive of and happy for anyone else who managed to escape English teaching and join them.

At the pinnacle of the gaijin hierarchy were the Expatriates, the diplomats and foreign businesspeople who have been brought to Japan by their companies. Expats were pampered by their companies, provided with large free or inexpensive apartments, long vacations, and other perks as part of their envied "Expat Packages." An Expat almost invariably had a higher salary, better apartment, and longer vacations than an LH or a Japanese doing similar work at a comparable company.

Expats at the middle-management level and below tended to move in the same circles as LHs and even English Teachers, but those in the higher reaches lived in what, to the non-Expat rest of us, seemed a never-never land. They lived in a world of chauffeured cars, private offices, company-rented apartments (or even houses) costing two or three times an entire ordinary monthly salary (although Expats invariably complained that their dwellings were too small), expensive restaurants, cultural events, and free invitations to things that the rest of us couldn't afford even if tickets were available without connections.

For an English teacher to aspire to LH-dom was a realistic goal, although by no means an easy to accomplish one. All you needed to do is find a Real Job. For teachers at Ginza English Conversation School, it seemed that the search for new work was the main purpose in each of our lives. When someone moved up to a better job, the rest of us sincerely congratulated him or her. Still, those fortunate few who moved up to Real Jobs were also secretly envied, and their success often caused despair among the rest of us. There were hundreds of other English schools, with thousands of teachers, and the majority of the teachers were always on the lookout for better -- preferably Real -- jobs. This meant that any good job advertised in the Monday Japan Times, the foreign job-seekers' classified ad Mecca, usually had from twenty-five to 100 applicants.

Next week: Looking for a Real Job in Tokyo

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here.

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

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