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Expatriate and ‘Local Hire’ Japanese in Hong Kong and the Struggle for the Soul of Japan

Ayako Sone and Gordon Mathews

This article is based on research conducted by Ayako Sone in 2001-2002 on the cultural identities of Japanese in Hong Kong; but it places that research into a broader perspective.  We discuss the conflict between “Japanese” and “non-Japanese” among Japanese in Hong Kong: the conflict between expatriates and local hires—between, we argue, those who represent the postwar Japanese social order and those who have rejected that order, a conflict that we maintain has much to say about not just Japanese in Hong Kong but about the changing definition of Japaneseness.  In an increasingly globalized world, Japan is no longer confined to Japan, but plays out on a global stage (Befu and Guichard-Anguis 2001). At the same time, many Japanese, even those who live overseas, continue to try to keep the world beyond Japan at arm’s length.  It has long been noted that many of those Japanese who are discontented with Japanese life leave Japan and its social pressures to live overseas, where they can lead freer lives.  What has also been the case, however, is that many of those Japanese who are deeply committed to the conventional structures of Japanese life are also leaving Japan, sent by their companies to maintain their companies’ profits overseas: the latter group may employ members of the former group as cultural brokers between Japan and their foreign locale, but despite their common ethnicity and citizenship, conflict often arises, conflict that can teach us much about the nature of Japan today and tomorrow.  In the first part of this article, we examine the gap in Hong Kong between these different types of Japanese.  In the second part of the article, we consider the gap in Japan between the two groups exemplified in Hong Kong: the conflict between the young, the female, and the foreign as against the old, the male, and the domestic, a conflict that we see as one for the soul of Japan.

“Japanese” and “Non-Japanese” Among Japanese in Hong Kong

There are some 14,000 Japanese living in Hong Kong, according to the official figures of the Hong Kong Immigration Department (Fraser 2003); the Consulate General of Japan estimated almost 23,000 in 2001 (Sone 2002: 2).  Workers within this total are divided occupationally into two distinct groups.  There are the chūzaiin, those who were hired by a company in Japan, and sent to Hong Kong. There are also the genchi-sayō, “local hires”: Japanese who came to Hong Kong of their own accord, without being sent by Japanese companies, and were hired in Hong Kong by Japanese or by other countries’ companies. This distinction between chūzaiin and genchi-saiyō–between expatriates and local hires, as we will hereafter call them–is not simply analytical but is known by virtually all working Japanese in Hong Kong as a crucial divide.  In this paper we argue that the conflict between expatriates and local hires in Hong Kong is fundamentally a conflict over the future of what it means to be Japanese.

Sone is by no means the first researcher to discuss the distinction between expatriates and local hires among Japanese overseas.  A number of scholars–Sakai, discussing Japanese workers in London (2000) and Ben-Ari and Yong discussing Japanese workers in Singapore (2000) have also explored this distinction.  Ben-Ari and Yong characterize single Japanese female locally-hired workers in Singapore as “twice marginalized”: from, on the one hand, the Japan they had fled and the Japanese expatriate community in Singapore, and on the other hand from Singapore, which most cannot fully culturally enter (2000: 82). Their lack of language skill, as well as their different cultural background, blocks them from full entry into Singaporean life, just as their departure from Japan may make it difficult for them to “go home again,” Ben Ari and Yong argue. Similarly, Sakai analyzes locally-hired Japanese female employees in London as betwixt and between the Japan they have left and the host culture, which, even if they marry British husbands, many feel that they cannot ever fully enter (2000: 214-239).  Wong also briefly discusses the situation of locally-hired female workers, in his analysis of a Japanese supermarket in Hong Kong (1999: 146-156).  Sone’s research builds off this earlier research, but differs in that it focuses not simply on local hires and their views of the world, but on the conflict between local hires and expatriates, as revealed through their interactions.  This tension has implications transcending these particular groups.  In this paper, we will first briefly describe these two groups, then discuss their interactions, and finally explore how the conflict between these two groups echoes throughout Japanese society in Hong Kong and in Japan.

Japanese expatriates are those who have been sent by corporate headquarters in Japan to Hong Kong, often along with their families, for a definite, limited period. They enjoy numerous benefits because of their Japanese corporate membership, but also have little control over the length of their stay in Hong Kong, being at their company’s beck and call.  They themselves generally have no particular interest in Hong Kong; they tend to see local Hong Kong employees, as well as Japanese locally-hired employees, primarily in terms of the benefit they can bring their home company.  Their point of reference, the axis upon which their world revolves, is their company headquarters in Tokyo. There are, of course, considerable variations among members of this group, with a few forming friendships with local Hong Kong people as well as with locally hired Japanese in ways that transcend the workplace and business.  But by and large, members of this group have little interaction with Hong Kong and with life in Hong Kong, a result both of language limitation (many speak only Japanese) and attitude.  Befu has written that “some of the worst culprits of…ethnocentrism are [Japanese] business expatriates stationed abroad, who readily disparage locals for everything that is not like Japan….Whatever is not Japanese-like in the local culture is the reason for the economic backwardness of the country of assignment” (Befu 2001: 68).  This certainly characterizes some, although by no means all, of the expatriates Sone interviewed.

By contrast, Genchi-saiyō, the Japanese locally hired in Hong Kong, have comparative freedom, in that they themselves decide the length of their stay in Hong Kong.  Their salary and benefits, however, are almost always far lower than those of Japanese expatriates, and they may also be socially discriminated against in various ways by those expatriates.  Most often, they are young women in their late twenties and thirties who have opted out of life in Japan, at least temporarily, to go and live and work overseas.  There are a wide variety of local hires, with some, at one extreme, opting on a brief overseas adventure before returning to Japan and taking on conventional Japanese lives, and others, at the other extreme, marrying Hongkongers and leaving Japan behind, to “go native,” perhaps for the duration of their lives.  There is also a great difference in cultural and linguistic proficiency among them, with some largely confined to Japanese in their social and professional interactions, and others wholly fluent in both English and Cantonese.  Despite these differences, their role, if hired by Japanese companies (as most of them are), is largely to serve as an intermediary between Japanese expatriates (both within the company and corporate clients) and local Hong Kong employees, as well as an aid to expatriates in settling in Hong Kong.  In one local hire’s words (Sone 2002: 60): “I have to act as a mediator between Japanese clients and Hong Kong Chinese staff….It’s the…raison d’etre of Japanese like me in Hong Kong.”  However, this role may be fraught with ambiguity, an ambiguity played out both in local hires’ own perceptions of their lives, and in their interactions with expatriates.

For example, in interactions between the two, expatriates may wonder if they can trust local hires and local hires may strive to demonstrate that they can indeed be trusted as Japanese.  In one local hire’s words (Sone 2002: 64):

When I meet my Japanese client, and he comes to know that I’m a local hire who can speak Cantonese, he becomes alert, because he thinks I’m pro-Hong Kong and anti-Japan.  I can feel it.  He seems to choose the topic of our conversation very carefully.  But if I say to him something like, “Don’t you think that Hong Kong people are noisy and have bad manners?” the tension is relieved…

This man is not typical among local hires, in that he speaks fluent Cantonese; but his expression is important, in indicating how, in Hong Kong, Japanese who interact with Hong Kong people too closely may be seen as suspect.  As the above words indicate, local hires may be seen as having questionable Japanese cultural loyalty, and thus must demonstrate their loyalty to expatriates.

Indeed, we may go so far as to say that instead of a simple binary division between Japanese and Hong Kong Chinese, a tripartite division is more apt: at one pole, expatriates as Japanese, at the other pole Hong Kong Chinese, and local hires in the middle, between these groups, neither one nor the other.  Expatriates are seen as both ethnically and culturally Japanese; Hong Kong Chinese are, of course, seen as neither ethnically nor culturally Japanese.  Local hires are seen as ethnically Japanese but culturally suspect.  Unlike the expatriates, who are “Japanese” Japanese, the local hires may be characterized, more or less, as “non-Japanese” Japanese.  This is implied in the following statement by a local hire, discussing her ignorance of her Japanese company’s year-end party in Hong Kong (Sone 2002: 38): “Yes, I guess my company holds a year-end party.  But I don’t know, because I don’t get any notice.  I think the Japanese circulate e-mail among themselves [Nihonjin doshi de meiru mawashite iru’n ja nai kana].”  For this locally-hired employee, the term “Japanese” refers only to Japanese expatriates; she herself, as a local hire, has somehow become exempt from the category “Japanese,” no longer designating herself as such, at least in the context of her company.  Her linguistic usage was somewhat idiosyncratic, but does reflect a dominant view among local hires: unlike expatriates, they are not seen as full-fledged Japanese in Hong Kong.

This difference between “Japanese” and “non-Japanese” is very much linked to gender, and gender relations.  Expatriates are generally men, often middle-aged; local hires are often women, much younger; and there may be a profound tension between the two.  As one young woman reported:

In a foreign country, what is most troublesome is dealing with Japanese men.  It’s the hardest part of overseas life….I still remember a locally-hired girl being asked by a Japanese expatriate, “You came here alone to Hong Kong to fool around with men, didn’t you?” [Dōse onna hitori de kite koko de charachara yatte iru’n deshō], whereupon he tried to molest her….After I heard this story, I realized how I am looked at….Japanese expatriates seem to think, “This locally-hired girl hasn’t been brought up in a good family, and that’s why she has regressed as far as Hong Kong….She must be very loose…”   (Sone 2002: 70-71)

There are several interesting themes in her words.  There is first the implicit male assumption that (in somewhat overstated terms), “Japan is morally pure, the land of chaste, virtuous women; morally impure women leave Japan to flaunt their depravity overseas, in places like Hong Kong.”  Aside from all the obvious sexist implications of this assumption, it ignores the fact that Hong Kong is in general more sexually conservative than Japan. If a young woman were to seek to “fool around with men,” Tokyo would seem to offer better prospects than Hong Kong.  Beyond this, there is the Morganian and Tylorean assumption in this statement (see Langness 1987: 30-36) of an evolutionary ladder: “regressed as far as Hong Kong” seems to mean that one has descended the ladder of cultural advancement from Japan to Hong Kong—left the heights of Japanese modernity to enter a lower and less civilized Chinese realm.  This view of course reflects the complex history of China vis-à-vis Japan: China as the master now debauched, surpassed by her pupil.  This view ignores the cultural particularities of Hong Kong, as a society more open to the world’s influences, and more capitalistic and more transnational than Japan.

It is, however, notable that many of the locally hired women seem to see the relation of Japan to Hong Kong in exactly opposite terms; many women Sone interviewed said that if they were men, they would not have quit their jobs in Japan and come to Hong Kong, because if they were men, their companies would have appreciated their ability more, and they would not have been frustrated by their treatment from male colleagues.  Hong Kong, in many young Japanese women’s eyes, is seen as a gender-equal and meritocratic society where women can pursue their careers more equally and more aggressively than in Japan.  As one young Japanese woman told Mathews, “Hong Kong is more advanced than Japan is, because in Hong Kong women and men can work equally, with equal compensation; that’s not yet true in Japan.  Hong Kong is modern, but Japan is still backward when it comes to gender relations.”  This view reverses the evolutionary ladder that may be assumed by expatriates such as the man depicted above; it is, in this view, Hong Kong that is modern, because it does not repress women in their talents, as does what they see as the more chauvinistic, even feudalistic, Japan.

The gender issue was generally obscured by the expatriates Sone spoke with, who seemed often to focus instead on “race” as the crucial marker of difference between Hong Kong and Japan.  In one Japanese manager’s words, reflecting the words of a number of others as well, “The Hong Kong Chinese work ethic is quite different from our Japanese work ethic.  We would give them the same status as we have if they could have loyalty towards the company.  But they can’t.  We are racially different…” (Sone 2002: 46).   The term “race” in comments such as these is ambiguous; while some of these expatriates seem to use it to refer to fixed biological differences, (a usage which is obviously incorrect), others seem to refer by “race” to cultural differences, which undoubtedly exist—there are indeed complex cultural differences in attitudes towards work between many Japanese and many Hong Kong Chinese.  Nonetheless, the expatriate quoted above may confuse cause and effect when he claims that Hong Kong workers “racially” have no loyalty toward the company.  When there is a long-term reward for being loyal, as there has been for expatriates and for Japanese salarymen in general, who may be still more or less cocooned within “lifetime employment,” then employees will by and large be loyal.  (This is giving way in Japan in recent years, as lifetime employment is increasingly being called into question, but it still largely remains among middle-aged employees such as these).  When there is no such long-term reward, as is the case for Hong Kong Chinese employees, then only a fool will be loyal beyond a certain point.  This is thus not a matter of “race” but of reward structure.  The local hires, again, are lodged ambiguously in the middle. They are “racially” Japanese, yet they are under the reward structure of Hong Kong Chinese, and thus it is hardly surprising that their “corporate loyalty” too, as Japanese, may sometimes be called into question by expatriates.

These local hires are often viewed, by both expatriates and by themselves, as “fugitives from the Japanese system.”  They may be seen by the more liberal expatriates as those who have left a Japanese system that is outmoded in the new world of today, a world of flexible accumulation in the global market. In this sense, they could be seen as representing Japan’s future—a wave of necessary change.  Many other expatriates, however, see them as “culturally different” if not “racially different,” in their conscious choice to forsake Japanese life to live overseas; indeed, they may even be seen as “traitors to Japan.”  To many expatriates, the very fact that they encounter these women not in Japan but in Hong Kong, a foreign society that they have chosen to live in over Japan, makes them automatically suspect as to their cultural loyalty, as we have seen. In a Japan today that is suffering from a continuing crisis of confidence, these local hires, in their choice to forsake Japan at least temporarily, may evoke strong feelings in those who have not made such a choice.  These women themselves often agonize over their ultimate loyalty: will they return to Japan to work and live, or will they remain in Hong Kong perhaps marrying a Hong Kong man and leaving behind their Japanese lives? The questions as to loyalty that expatriates may ask of local hires are, in this sense, not unwarranted: where does their home and loyalty ultimately lie?

However, the questions of loyalty asked by expatriates to local hires are not really about Japan and Japaneseness, in all the broad connotations of these terms, but rather about a postwar Japanese social order that is now crumbling.  The tension between expatriates and local hires is not a tension over whether these local hires are Japanese—of course they are—but whether they are part of “the ‘Japanese’ project”: whether they are willing to base their lives on the premises of the postwar Japanese social order.  But what is this postwar Japanese social order, exactly?  We suggest that it contains at least the following fundamental premises, among others:

1) men’s primary role is at work, earning money for one’s family; women’s primary role is at home, raising children;

2) age and seniority are markers of wisdom; lifetime employment and seniority-based pay and authority are a natural consequence of this;

3) the world beyond Japan is not to be trusted; the Japanese individual must grow up and live within Japanese institutions in order to be fully trusted; and

4) these parameters define a prescribed way of life, without much tolerance for the plurality of life patterns that may exist within various other contemporary societies.

The expatriates we have considered live out these premises—they may be stationed overseas at present, but the world of their daily lives and deepest ongoing commitment is Japan in its postwar cultural, social and institutional structures and configurations.  The local hires more or less reject these premises—they make their lives in Hong Kong, forsaking Japanese institutions, except those of their Japanese workplaces, which they cannot reject since this is the best and perhaps only way they can earn their living in a foreign country.  Thus the tension between these groups is not at all surprising.  The conflict between local hires and expatriates in Hong Kong is in essence a conflict between the young, the female, and the foreign versus the old, the male, and the domestic—a microcosm of the conflict apparent in Japan today, as we will now explore.

“Japanese” and “non-Japanese” among Japanese in Japan

The gap between Japanese expatriates and local hires that we have discussed in Hong Kong exists in many other cities as well.  It exists in London, as described by Sakai (2000: 222-227), and in Singapore as described by Ben-Ari and Yong (as one woman they interviewed said of her expatriate Japanese male colleagues: “They don’t understand why I want to come to Singapore to work; why I can’t be like the ‘typical’ Japanese woman in Japan—stay in Japan, work for a few years, find a husband, get married, stay at home and be a housewife”: 2000: 101); it no doubt exists in New York as well, and today, increasingly, in Shanghai, among many other large cities across the globe.

This gap also clearly exists in Japan itself.  The conflict between expatriates and local hires is most directly a conflict between those Japanese who choose to leave Japan, (the local hires), and those who choose to stay within the Japanese social order, (the expatriates).  However, it is also a gender gap (the large majority of local hires are female; the large majority of expatriates are male: as we have seen, much of their conflict revolves around gender issues) and a generation gap.  The majority of local hires are in their twenties and early thirties; the majority of expatriates are in their late thirties, forties, and fifties.  The latter have “bought into” the Japanese mainstream way of life, while the former are at least temporarily outside that mainstream and may or may not return to it as they grow older.  Let us now briefly examine each of these conflicts.

The struggle between the domestic and foreign in Japan has been discussed at length in the literature exploring foreign migrants and workers in Japan.  Most of this literature is clearly sympathetic to the plight of foreign migrants. Komai (2001: 156), for example, sees foreign migrants as “potential stimuli for reforming the closed-mindedness of Japanese people and the rigid systems of Japanese society.”  However, equally clearly, many Japanese do not share this sympathy.  As Douglass and Roberts write, “The challenge for Japan is to decide whether the response to the increasing presence of foreign workers and families will be one of trying to marginalize these alternative expressions of social and cultural identity…or one of creating the political and social atmosphere for a multicultural society to flower” (2000: 5).  Such a society would presumably allow for a pluralism that Japan at present largely lacks in its institutions and attitudes, a pluralism that would not only welcome foreign laborers, but also encourage, rather than discourage, the kinds of lives that the Japanese local hires in Hong Kong have for the time being chosen to live.

More directly applicable to the situation of Japanese local hires and expatriates in Hong Kong is the literature on Japanese “returnees” coming back to Japan after years lived abroad.  White asked of Japanese company workers and professionals who had lived overseas, “Can they go home again?”: “Returnees may find themselves with permanently flawed identities” (1988: 2).  She explains this in terms of the relational nature of Japanese group membership:

Membership in a Japanese group is mandated not by a particular contract, behavior, or belief but by active presence and participation in the social network….There is no acceptable substitute for being there….When Japanese leave Japan, their membership is suspended.  Every year they are away, reentry as members of the group…becomes more difficult. (1988: 105-106)

This was certainly true in the 1970s and 1980s, when White did her research, and to a lesser extent, remains true today (see Ben-Ari 2003: 121).  But things may be changing: returnee children (kikokushijo) were pitied as outcasts in the 1970s but by the 1990s had come to be seen as a privileged elite (Goodman 2003); there has been a similar trend among Japanese who attended universities abroad (Mori 2004).  Before the mid-1980s, according to Mori, these Japanese were seen as unemployable by most Japanese companies; by the early 1990s, they were viewed by Japanese companies as “functionally useful…yet…morally objectionable” (2004: 162), necessary in an era of internationalization but suspect in that they were seen as having lost their Japaneseness by attending university overseas.  By the late 1990s, however, they had become more generally acceptable to many Japanese companies, who began to welcome them for their expertise and independence.

The same trend seems to be the case for Japanese corporate returnees, such as the Hong Kong expatriates interviewed by Sone.  Unlike the Japanese expatriates interviewed by White twenty-five years ago, these corporate employees will probably not have a significant problem upon their return to Japan, at least if their Hong Kong stay has been limited in its length, since an overseas sojourn has become an accepted part of elite Japanese corporate employees’ lives.  However, the local hires interviewed by Sone have a more uncertain prospect. They chose to leave Japan for an overseas stay of unlimited duration; they may learn ‘unJapanese’ patterns of gender equality in the workplace that may not bode well for them upon their return to Japan.  If these local hires go home relatively quickly, they may be able to fit back into Japanese life, perhaps becoming company workers or wives and mothers, fitting into the expected Japanese pattern; but the longer they stay in Hong Kong, the more indelibly Hong Kong will mark them as different from their Japanese compatriots. Because, as noted above, there is not yet much acceptance in Japan of a diversity of Japanese lifecourses, these people may indeed face the question, “Can they go home again?”  And yet, to the extent to which they do go back home, perhaps they can help expand the Japanese social imagination: perhaps they too can be fully accepted as Japanese despite their “overseas contamination.”

The next conflict to be considered is that between men and women.  A huge amount has been written about Japanese gender roles and relations.  Some of that literature (Iwao 1993: 7, Mathews 1996: 101-102) indicates that many women, seeing the lives that their husbands lead in their companies, do not want to live such miserable lives themselves, preferring the relative independence of staying at home as full-time housewives instead.  However, within the company, women continue to be distinct second-class citizens.  Ogasawara, in her insightful ethnography of Japanese company life, analyzes “office ladies’” acts of resistance to their male bosses in considerable detail (1998: 114-138): “not taking the initiative”; “declining to do favors”; “refusing to work” overtime; and “telling tales to the personnel department.”  She sees this resistance as due to the fact that “office ladies” can leave the company, as men, expected to support their families, cannot: “office ladies,” unlike their male counterparts, remain corporate outsiders, comparatively powerless but also comparatively free.  Some of the young women Mathews has interviewed in Japan felt this strongly; in one women’s words, “Lots of young men think about gender relations very much as my father’s generation did….But none of the young women I know think that way.” A young woman who worked for a finance company was scathing in her scorn for her male corporate elders: “Many of the men who are senior to me here…really have no common sense at all….They lack a basic foundation as human beings.”  She attributes this to the fact that they were hired in the 1980s, during the “bubble years” of the Japanese economy, when “companies hired anybody [any man] even those without any ability.” Today, because of lifetime employment, they are entrenched above her, to her frustration.

The young Japanese women interviewed by Sone very much fit within this pattern: despite their own potential abilities, they are automatically relegated to the status of “local hires,” distinctly inferior to the expatriates in their power and salaries.  This is ironic, since many came to Hong Kong to escape Japanese gender distinctions in the workplace; nonetheless, they have indeed escaped those gender restrictions in their positions vis-à-vis their Hong Kong colleagues.  As local hires, they are treated more or less like their Hong Kong colleagues, both men and women, but all are in common under the authority of Japanese men.   If these Japanese female local hires become linguistically proficient in Cantonese, they may be able to eventually leave Japan in their employment as well as in their society of residence; but as long as they are not linguistically proficient, they will probably remain within the Japanese employment orbit.  In this, they will join their female counterparts in the workforce in Japan, whether they themselves return to Japan or not.  It has sometimes been said that one reason for Japan’s economic stagnation over the past fifteen years is its failure to fully utilize half its population, that female half which seems most flexible and open to the world beyond Japan.  What of the next fifteen years?  Again, the issue is one of the diversity of lifecourses: what will it take before gender is no longer a prime determinant of one’s career position and possibilities in Japan?  This battle today is being waged primarily between younger women and older men, not in terms of collective action of any sort, but in terms of millions of individual decisions, such as those which led Sone’s local hires to leave Japan—only to be immersed in the old Japan once again in their work lives.

This brings us to the third gap to be considered: the generation gap between young and old.  There has been a huge outpouring of books and magazine articles in Japan on the Japanese generation gap (see, to mention only a few particularly perceptive works, Kotani 1998 and Sakurai 1997; see, for a discussion in English, Mathews and White 2004).  Some of this literature is not fully convincing in its discussion of potential generational change because it deals with secondary school or university students, who may easily enough modify their behavior when they become adults; as Edwin Seidensticker once commented, when the current generation reaches forty, they’ll “act just like everyone else at forty” (Tergeson 1990), as may be the case for many of today’s rebellious young people just as much as in the past.  However, young people further along on the path to adulthood may have made decisions in their lives that they cannot easily go back upon: young men seeking not to live lives like their fathers, and young woman seeking not to live lives like their mothers, who have made decisions that will cause them, contra Seidensticker, to probably be living lives very different from their parents at age forty. Over a million (and perhaps as many as three million: Majima 2002: 16) young men and women in Japan today have become furiitaa, young people who cannot or will not enter career-track jobs, but who take temporary, non-career-track work instead.  Given Japanese employment structures, allowing young people a very brief window of opportunity for pursuing career-track employment, (Mathews 2004: 121-124), this step seems irrevocable: these young people probably never will be career-track employees, as were their fathers.

We have seen the gap in understanding that exists been expatriates and local hires in Hong Kong, as fellow Japanese working side by side and yet in some sense living in different worlds.  Similarly, in many companies in Japan today, career-track workers labor side by side with furiitaa, yet do not understand or trust those part-time, temporary workers; as one career-track employee told Mathews in Tokyo in 2002, “I work with furiitaa every day, but I really don’t know what they’re thinking about in their lives.”  Furiitaa have expressed similar sentiments to me about the career-track employees they work with—there is a gap in comprehension and in trust, based on the fact that sarariimen have bought into the system, whereas furiitaa—whether from choice or necessity—have not (Mathews 2004: 128-129).  The relation between expatriates and local hires in Hong Kong represents a playing out of this tension in a non-Japanese locale, but with a similar degree of mutual incomprehension. Although it is structurally not quite the same, the relationship between expatriates and local hires clearly parallels the relation between regular sarariimen and furiitaa in Japan.

Career company workers and full-time housewives are the embodiment of “Japan,” the postwar Japanese social order.  Just as furiitaa threaten the idea of the career-track wage-earner, parasaito shinguru (“parasite singles”: Yamada 1999: young women and men in their twenties and thirties who do not marry but live at home with their parents instead: see Nakano 2004) threaten the idea of marriage and family, and the full-time housewife.  Furiitaa and parasaito shinguru represent a rejection of the postwar Japanese social order, even though they themselves may not recognize that fact.  The local hires interviewed by Sone also represent this rejection of the postwar Japanese social order, in their refusal to follow the conventional lifecourse of living for work or family in Japan.  Like furiitaa and parasaito shinguru, most are largely unconscious of being in rebellion against the postwar Japanese social order; yet this, in effect, is how they are proceeding in their lives.  The more Japanese young people who follow in their footsteps, and in the footsteps of all those Japanese who in one way or another resist entering the postwar Japanese social order, the more rapidly that order will crumble.


In this paper, we have examined the conflict between Japanese expatriates and local hires in Hong Kong.  We have argued that the conflict between expatriates and local hires is a microcosm of the conflict in Japan between the upholders of the postwar Japanese social order and those who erode that order: between the old, male, and domestic as against the young, female, and foreign.  It is hardly surprising that this dispute is taking place beyond Japan as well as within Japan: as Japan becomes increasingly globalized, cultural conflicts within Japan extend beyond Japan, and yet at the same time, older ideologies of Japanese difference from the world beyond Japan continue to retain power.  One key ideology of “Japan,” as we’ve seen, is that of Japan as pure and innocent, as opposed to the evils of the world beyond Japan.  Such ideology has been central to postwar Japan, but these local hires have transgressed this ideology.

Japanese have always gone overseas, but it is new over the past several decades to leave Japan and then work alongside those who have, in effect, stayed in Japan, which is the state of local hires vis-à-vis expatriates.  In this sense the local hires are bringing the dispute over the future of Japan beyond Japan; but it is also true that, more directly that their counterparts in Japan, they are rejecting Japan for the world beyond—although, as noted earlier, this rejection is only partial, since it is the old Japan that employs them.  Befu has written that “one might entertain the hypothesis that Japanese society is able to retain its relatively conservative social structure and value system because the very people who suffer most from these institutions and could challenge them tend to leave” (2000: 40). Today, however, it is both the inhabitants of the old Japan and those who reject the old Japan who meet again in places like Hong Kong, to play out their latent or overt antagonism on a world stage.

And what will become of their struggle?  Earlier writers discussing the situation of overseas Japanese as local hires—Ben-Ari and Yong discussing Singapore and Sakai discussing London—tend to offer pessimistic findings: these people, they find, have more or less irrevocably left Japan and yet cannot fit in their new society (Sakai 2000: 215). They are “betwixt and between,” rendered rootless, and largely unable to go home again.  Sone’s findings, in conjunction with the changing nature of Japanese society, offer more room for optimism.  In a globalizing Japan, the gap between Japan and other societies may be lessening; the local hires interviewed by Sone, like Mori’s (2004) college graduates and Goodman’s (2003) schoolchildren, may find that they indeed can go home again, and be accepted.

The postwar Japanese social order, as earlier described, left little room for multiple paths in life.  The challenges represented by part-time workers, by those who don’t marry, and by those who go abroad, are in a sense calls for pluralism, for the acceptance of these variable life paths.  The more the numbers of these ‘outsiders’ swell, the more pluralism will have to become an accepted social reality in Japan.  The postwar Japanese social order has been antithetical to pluralism, since pluralism could only undermine it. The participants in the tensions between expatriates and local hires in Hong Kong, as described by Sone, might not recognize it; but ultimately their struggle is over the soul of a new Japan.

There is indeed astonishing diversity in Japan as compared to thirty years ago. Sone’s local hires in Hong Kong hardly existed thirty years ago; nor did furiitaa or parasaito shinguru, at least at no more than a tiny fraction of their current numbers.  However, although individuals may be changing, the institutional structures of Japan are more resistant.  Lifetime employment remains largely intact (Holzhausen 2000), although it is under pressure due to Japan’s less-than-stellar economic performance in recent years; gender discrimination in the workplace remains pervasive, with women’s ultimate place still viewed as the home in most Japanese offices (again, see Mori, this volume); shūshoku katsudō (“looking-for-career activity”), the narrow period of just a few years in which young people can seek career-track employment remains intact, making the youthful trying out of different paths dangerous in its potential personal consequences;  and the examination system, through which young people are fed into universities and employment, remains largely intact, thereby continuing the necessity for obtaining one’s education within Japan.  Japanese institutions are mutually supportive and interdependent—if lifetime employment gives way, then women will probably gain a greater role in the workplace; if the examination system gives way, then a major structural basis of lifetime employment will collapse: these institutions support one another, and in a sense ensure one another’s ongoing survival. The implicit goal of these interlocking institutions is that of creating a common “Japaneseness”: “Japanese” such as that of the expatriates described in this paper.  More and more young people, epitomized by this paper’s local hires, are seceding from this “Japaneseness.” What will it take before the institutions creating this common “Japaneseness” give way before a greater diversity of institutions, accommodating a greater plurality of lives?

This process of this giving way is already happening, year by year, but is being resisted, and for good reason:  if these interlocking institutions give way, replaced by a plurality of institutions supporting a diversity of life paths, then “Japan” will vanish.  That version of Japan has been based on an alternative version of capitalism, one unlike that of the United States or Western European societies: based not on an acceptance of pluralistic life choices, but on adherence to a single set of ideal life patterns, bisected by gender and ranked by age.  That alternative version of capitalism was highly effective for forty years, whatever its costs to individuals, creating the Japanese economic miracle.  However, it will not last much longer, we predict; the world, and its dominant variety of capitalism, cannot be kept at bay.  Sone’s expatriates represent the Japanese recent past; but for better or for worse, it is her local hires who represent the Japanese future.


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Ayako Sone and Gordon Mathews


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