[Editor's note: Every few years, Japanese society seems to go through a period of deep national reflection about whether or not foreigners are really needed in the country, and if so, what kind of roles they should be allowed to play. This essay was conceived during one such memorable period of national reflection in Japan, and may well turn out to be my first and last foray into social satire and parody as a writer. Any resemblance to actual persons, Japanese and foreign, living or dead, is both coincidental and intentional. —BC] The Day the Foreigners Left [part 1]
BRIAN COVERT I. IT WAS MONDAY MORNING when the postcards started arriving, right on schedule. In homes all over Japan in which overseas people lived, the cards were dropped into mailboxes by the young, new employees of Japan Post: women in their 20s, no more than 25 years old, wearing red-and-white cheerleader outfits with a picture across the chest of a megaphone over which the logo JAPAN-1 was superimposed. The sights and sounds of the short-skirted cheerleaders on shiny-red Japan Post motor scooters, zipping from foreign residence to foreign residence, were seen and heard all over neighborhoods in Japan from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu and even Okinawa to the south. Japan Post had long become a fully privatized government service, and the new “Cheergirls on Wheels” promotional campaign was proving to be an immensely popular marketing tool for carrying out the postcard distribution plan by Japan Post’s new corporate parent company — a carpet-cleaning company based in Shizuoka Prefecture.
Even the current prime minister of Japan, no stranger to cheerleaders, had praised this new mail-delivery strategy devised by Japan Post: “If America can do it successfully, so can Japan.” The nation nodded in agreement.
Though the postcards had long been debated and discussed in Japan by the news media in Japan, and by foreign residents themselves, the arrival of the cards in their mailboxes that day still came as a shock. The translation of the contents of the postcards, for those foreign residents who could not yet understand Japanese after years of living in Japan, read officially as follows:
Dear Sir or Madam:
How have you been? It is now the end of summer and autumn is approaching. Please take care not to catch a cold.
By the way, today is the day that all foreigners must leave Japan. We, the government of Japan, have decided that it is in the best interests of all citizens if those who are not of 100-percent pure Japanese origin would be so kind as to depart the country on the allotted day, which is today.
Your port of departure is reconfirmed in this postcard. Please make the appropriate arrangements to be at the nearest Alien Departure Processing Center today at the port listed on your card and at the time listed. Please make haste to be on time for the processing, so others behind you do not have to wait.
Thank you for your support of Japan these many years. We wholeheartedly welcomed your initial arrival, and now we offer you best wishes for your future as you depart our beneficent nation.
For your kind understanding and cooperation, thank you very much.
Sincerely, The Ministry of Excellent Affairs
That was all it said.
II. A super-fleet of bright-purple tour buses had been chartered by the newly privatized transport ministry, and one by one, the reluctant foreigners boarded the buses. The sidewalks of roads, streets, avenues and boulevards all over Japan were starting to get clogged with Japanese citizens, waiting for a glimpse of the bright-purple buses going by on their way to all the Alien Departure Processing Centers. The long banner-advertisements painted on the sides of each and every one of the buses made the vehicles easy to spot: on a backdrop of orange, the now-familiar logo of a smiling drop of blue water, named Mizu-chan, saying “Pure Water for My Pure Life!” The advertisements were the brainchild of the parent company of the Ministry of Transport — an auto windshield-wiper manufacturing corporation in Aichi Prefecture.
One by one they filed onto the buses: foreign residents of every nationality, race, religion, gender, gender preference, age and occupation. There were Latin American factory workers from the rural areas of Japan and Asian students from all the Japanese universities. There were teachers of European extract from all the language institutions, from the highest-ranking to the lowliest, including the most popular language-conversation school chain of all, HG (Hello-Goodbye) Academy. There were high-level diplomats from nations all over the African continent, as well as business executives from the Middle East. There were foreign families from every country and culture you could name. Not one of them looked happy about leaving Japan.
But it was too late to do anything about it now. Japanese public opinion had long been moving in favor of expelling all foreigners, and this being the middle of the 21st century, Japan was now finally finding its place in the Rising Sun after many long years of reflection. The Alien Terrorist Fingerprinting Law, in which every foreign resident of Japan aged 16 and older had to be fingerprinted and photographed each time he or she boarded any train, bus, subway or other form of public or private transportation anywhere within Japan, was simply turning up too many cases of suspected terrorists. There was no other choice: the foreigners had to go. But to make the departures smoother and less traumatic for the foreign residents, the “Mizu-chan Buses,” as they came to be called, were created. It was a brilliant marketing strategy, and by morning on the allotted day, the Japanese public turned out en masse on sidewalks throughout the country to bid farewell, one last time, to their foreign friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbors.
On the “Day of Dispersal,” as it was officially named, a Japanese left-wing political party newspaper reported the first Mizu-chan Bus as leaving a local hotel for Fukuoka Airport at 10:01 a.m. Other similar reports from around the nation were coming in. All TV channels were broadcasting the events — live — though a few TV hosts wondered aloud if anybody would be at home watching television on such an exciting day as this. The scenes were played and replayed on each channel: Crowds of Japanese citizens from all walks of life, standing shoulder to shoulder, waving small Hinomaru flags in the air as the Mizu-chan Buses rolled past and shouting to the foreign passengers inside, “Gambatte ne!” [Give it your best!]
Waving arms of every size and color extended out of the small bus windows, some waving excitedly, some wearily. Close-up scenes of Japanese housewives with tears rolling down their cheeks were shown on the TV screens, along with faces of bewildered-looking Japanese children, as the buses rolled through the towns and cities all over Japan. In interview after interview with Japanese citizens, especially of older, overweight, balding Japanese businessmen in their 50s and 60s, the comments were nearly unanimous: “It’s all for the best.” “It is the right thing to do.” “They will survive and so will we.” And “What more could we have done? Shikata ga nai — it just can’t be helped.” There were even a couple of interviews on one TV channel in which the interviewees, Japanese university students in their early 20s, said, “I wonder if this is really such a good thing,” but those comments were drowned out by the voices of the pro-dispersal crowds.
Behind each caravan of foreigner-filled Mizu-chan Buses weaving through the crowded streets to airports and seaports around the nation, there was inevitably a parade of sound trucks belonging to some Japanese extreme-right-wing underground organization or another, shouting slogans against the “retreating foreigners” and the rise of the “new, glorious Japan,” all the while blaring at eardrum-splitting levels the newly adopted Japanese national anthem, Rokko Oroshi (The Hanshin Tigers Song).
III. It was indeed a day for reflection, announced the former Japanese public broadcasting service, now a fully privatized firm that went by the name of Nippon Unified Telecom (NUT). This reportage sparked a wave of similar stories on TV and in newspapers nationwide, reflecting on just how Japan had come to this point in its history.
It was a period, all agreed, not of han-gai ron (“anti-foreignism”) but rather shin-Nichi ron (“pro-Japanism”). After being so long in the cold, dark shadows of the American Eagle, it was time for the Japanese Crane to extend its wings and fly over the horizon, into its own destiny. Of course, Japan would continue to borrow American and other foreign ways and customs, but always with an eye on bringing out the pure Japaneseness in whatever was being undertaken. Japan would pay its respect to the American influence, all right, but now on its own terms.
The rather inexperienced, though widely respected, young statesman of Japan, Prime Minister Nagajima, in several TV interviews on the Day of Dispersal, had taken pains to reassure the public that he himself had decided to accept his appointment as prime minister after seeing one of his former rich American celebrity friends become president of the USA. So, he said, he decided to do the same in Japan. And yet he had been able to strongly maintain his Japaneseness by insisting on being called simply “Mister,” after his great-great-grandfather, the famed “Mister Baseball” sports star of Japan. The young Prime Minister Mister, as he was affectionately dubbed by the media, cited this trait in himself as an example of how the new Japanese people, having borrowed extensively from America and other countries, could still keep their own values and sense of identity in the world of the 21st century. The TV ratings soared.
All agreed that it was not an easy road Japan had taken up to then. Foreign residents in Japan had protested each of the Diet deliberations in which discussions centered on “the foreign problem.” Many foreign residents pointed out in news interviews that they were not criminals, but rather law-abiding residents who enjoyed living in Japan. Petitions by foreign residents were created and signed and sent to the prime minister’s office, but to no avail. The word gaikoku (foreign country) was quickly becoming an unpopular word in Japanese society. The first clear sign that things were not going well was the change in the name of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The word “foreign” did not sound appropriate for an official Japanese government agency, some bureaucrats said, and so the name was changed to the Ministry of Excellent Affairs (parent company: the electronics manufacturing firm Excellent Tech K.K., based in Osaka Prefecture). Things seemed to go downhill from there.
Not surprisingly, of all the foreign residents in Japan, the Americans had made the most noise. Though actually a very small percentage of the number of foreigners living in Japan, the American residents in Japan, especially leaders in business and government in Tokyo, had insisted that the talk of potentially expelling foreigners from Japan was a violation of their First Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. Japan should continue the democratic course set out by the U.S. military after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the highly successful occupation under General Douglas MacArthur, they noted. Japanese pundits and commentators snorted at the thought. After all, the Japanese commentators retorted, Japan’s recent discovery of a vast, seemingly permanent tract of natural gas in the South China Sea had changed the geopolitical map in the Far East forever. And, they added, hadn’t the earlier U.S. invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Madagascar, the Canary Islands, Eritrea and Spain, among many other “much weaker enemies” of America, utterly failed? Where was the so-called “freedom and democracy and liberty” to show for those efforts?, the Japanese asked. The Americans were aghast.
As for diplomatic negotiations in the upcoming renewal of the longstanding U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, there were no emotional outbursts, no pounding of fists on tables, no slamming of doors. In fact, there was nothing at all. The relevant Japanese government officials simply stopped returning the telephone calls of angry American government officials in Tokyo or avoided greeting the U.S. diplomatic delegations and economic missions that waited impatiently in the lobbies of Japanese government buildings. The Japanese government’s official silent treatment infuriated the Americans all the more. So it was to no one’s surprise that the deadline of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty renewal eventually came and went, without even one official round of negotiation having taken place. Now, the Americans would get the message.
Once Japan had the United States of America off its back, it became much easier for the official Diet deliberations on “the foreign problem” to move apace. And move they did. Within a short time, a consensus was reached by the government of Japan, key economic organizations in Japan, labor unions in Japan and all political parties — of leftist, rightist and religious ideologies alike — that the Japan of the future belonged to the Japanese people themselves. Here, finally, was a Japan that could say “no” and mean it. Japan would decide its own policies on dealing with outsiders and terrorists, even if it meant “dispersing,” as the term came to be called, such unwanted people from the nation. One public opinion poll after another, sponsored jointly by the major liberal and conservative newspapers, showed very little public resistance to the idea. An average of 92.5 percent of Japanese persons regularly polled in such surveys indicated that they had no desire at all to sit next to foreigners of any race in public places, whether it be in trains, buses, subways or anywhere else.
The Alien Terrorist Fingerprinting Law was passed by the Diet not long afterward. Those foreigners who refused to be fingerprinted each time they boarded a train, bus, subway or any other form of domestic transportation in Japan would be asked to leave the country. This would naturally include the large ethnic Chinese and Korean population of Japan as well. According to Japanese news media reports, a number of foreign residents were choosing to do just that: leave Japan for good. But they were in the minority. The majority of foreigners in Japan just put up with the bureaucratic nature of the system and continued living in the country, hoping things would get better. Things never did.
As a supplementary measure, an official tourist campaign called Sayonara Japan, led by Prime Minister Mister himself, was implemented to dissuade any foreigners from entering the country in the future, noting how expensive and overcrowded Japan really was. The Sayonara Japan de-promotion campaign proved to be immensely popular with the Japanese public and profitable for the business community, and was cited in the nation’s top economic newspaper as being one of the indisputable factors for the new upswing in the Japanese economy.
On the softer side, the cultural desks of the nation’s top newspapers were reporting a general increase in society in the number of “sayonara parties” and “sayonara speeches” being hosted by ordinary Japanese people for their foreign friends and associates. According to the reports, the main topic and talk of such events tended to be: “What do you think about Japan, now that you’re leaving?” The writing was clearly on the wall.
By the time the official Day of Dispersal was decided on by the government of Japan, there was hardly any energy, let alone unity, left in Japan’s various foreign communities to fight the system. The foreign residents had seen the futility of their ways and had graciously decided to leave when asked to do so, the Japanese news media reported. And this — the Japanese prime-time wide shows all concluded, on the evening of the day the foreigners left — was how Japan was able to efficiently get so many thousands of its overseas residents sent back home within a period of just 12 hours.