Yikes. 2016 is turning out to be quite the year, isn’t it? If we’re living in a TV show, then 2016 is like the episode 9 of a season of Game of Thrones. You know, the one where the shit hits the fan, hell erupts, twists and revelations and betrayals at every turn, and major characters are killed off (RIP Bowie, Rickman etc.)
The US election in November may prove to be the crescendo of this clusterfuck of a year, but so far the biggest turd to hit the blades of the 2016 fan is that of Brexit.
I already made my thoughts about Brexit clear in a video I made not long after the election result. That was a pretty emotionally charged response, bordering on a rant, but I stand by what I said, it was what I needed to get off of my chest, and as with all shitty news that you can barely believe is real, over time that white-hot fury has cooled off, solidifying into a cold steely disbelief.
A considerable amount of water has passed under the bridge since then, though the flood has far from passed – on the contrary, technically the process to leave the EU hasn’t even started yet. So now I can finally come to you with a degree of perspective, I think, on what Brexit means to me as a Brit living in Japan.
Living in a foreign country gives you a whole new perspective on things, most importantly what it means to be an immigrant. To the eyes of the native Japanese folk, I am an immigrant to their country. Now most people are either cool with that or couldn’t care less (and I mean that in a good way: native citizens have little headspace to care for that foreigner they see in the supermarket when they’re thinking about their own jobs, families and what tonight’s dinner will be).
But there will always be a segment of people who will always assume the worst of me. Those who have a dim view of immigrants in Japan tend to fall into two categories: that I either live off the fat of the land on a huge pay packet and benefits with no taxes, or I’m some kind of puerile playa who is only in Japan to hang about Roppongi to hook up with local chicks. I don’t have to defend myself against those kind of assumptions, but for the record my salary is distinctly average, I pay taxes to the same degree as any citizen (yet I’m denied some benefits of being a citizen such as the right to vote), I am married and I HATE Roppongi.
But I honestly don’t care what these people think. They can think whatever they want, it’s a free country, and I know the truth. It certainly makes me sympathise with the vast majority of legal immigrants around the world, who love their adopted country, want to do things right and just get on with life – just like I’m trying to do in Japan.
And 99% of the time, that works just fine. I’ve lived and worked here long enough that, while of course I don’t consider myself Japanese, I often forget that I’m not Japanese, if that makes sense. I feel integrated into society and culture to the point I don’t feel like a foreigner. Oh, I’m sure the locals looking at me think otherwise, but again, it’s all a matter of perspective. But all it takes to break that illusion is some asshole who feels like shouting broken English at you, or refuse you service, or to a lesser extent panic and completely shutdown when you speak to them in Japanese. It reminds you that you don’t really belong here. That you’re an immigrant.
Now you might say that breaking that illusion is just tough luck, that I shouldn’t kid myself and live in a bubble. But then again, I have lived in Japan for nearly seven years now, paid taxes all the way, and contributed to society and economy alike. Is the wish to simply feel I belong here an illusion?
Here’s a recent example. Back in August, I was working on my Nightwalk project, where I walk through Tokyo throughout the night, alighting from the last train and getting on the first train in the morning. It’s a real passion project of mine, I love the atmosphere of Tokyo at night, and as I walked through the streets of the Ushigome and Shinjuku areas I felt wonderful, how happy I was to be in this great city, to call Japan home.
Then a policeman stopped me. He asked for my ID, commented that he could smell alcohol on my breath (this was a Friday night in the Shinjuku area), then patted me down. It was like being in a warm bath and then having ice thrown in your face. It killed my Nightwalk. I felt dirty. Violated. Reduced to something less than the other late-night revellers around me. Because I was in no doubt that I’d been targeted by that policemen because I was a foreigner. He basically served me with an ice-cold reminder that no, this country is not mine, Tokyo is not your city, and you will always be a foreigner here. I took no more photos that night, and headed straight for the station to wait for the first train home.
Now that singular experience made me feel sick enough, but at least I can chalk it up to being an isolated one. I’ve done many other Nightwalks before and since, passing many on-duty officers, and none have them have bothered me.
That is not so with Brexit. I know that for those who voted Leave, it served a multitude of purposes, and yes, some of the reasons for voting leave were fair and understandable. But if you look at it from an immigrant’s point of view, it serves as a huge, widespread and sustained reminder for them that no, they don’t belong in the UK, and no, they aren’t ever going to belong. I can only imagine what that must feel like. Being patted down by a police officer once made me feel bad enough, so what must Brexit be saying to them? To have that feeling several times a day? To be reduced to something less than the other people around you? How about the rise in hate crimes? The lurch to the right by the Conservative Party that sends an enabling message to the xenophobics? Again, I get that not everyone who voted leave intended it to be that kind of message, but as the old saying goes, we are judged by our actions, not by our intentions. I’m sure that policeman had no intention of making me feel like a dirty foreigner, that he was just doing his job, but that is how he made me feel.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but thankfully I can watch the good ship HMS UK swerve into said iceberg from the relative comfort and safety of the HMS Japan. The almost constant news of doom and gloom still stings and I still worry, of course – I will always have a vested interest in the wellbeing of my country of birth – but I have learned to hold it at arms length. And Brexit has had two direct benefits for me: the first is the collapse of the Pound has given me a wonderful exchange rate. This time last year I had to spend 190 yen to get one Pound. Now I only need to spend 125 yen, and that number continues to fall. Seriously, when I visit the UK this Christmas everything will look like it’s on a bargain sale to me.
But the other benefit is the interesting one, because it’s also tinged with a bit of sadness. See, since I moved to Japan I have always wrestled with what I consider my true home, where my long term future lies. I love Japan but I felt that my heart lay back in the UK, that being here in the Land of the Rising Sun was ultimately a temporary gig. To be honest, I have felt a little bit guilty being so far away from my friends and family, and the idea that they are all moving on with their lives without me terrifies me.
Those fears remain, but Brexit has definitely cooled my desire to move back to the UK. The ugly side of the UK that I always knew existed but I always thought to be a vocal minority has boiled over into the mainstream, and my home country seems to be filled with bile fuelled by the media and government. Why should I be trying to make my way back to country that is committed to an economic death spiral as well as hollowing itself out ethically and morally? Is that hyperbole? Maybe, but that is how it feels.
It’s a big world out there, full of possibilities and openings that I want to engage with. My future doesn’t lie with a country that wants to cut ties and close doors.