Memo #94 (Japanese translation available here)
By Etsuko Kato – katoets [at] icu.ac.jp
The term “self-searching” (自分探し – jibun-sagashi) has become a cliché in Japan since the early 1990s, when the high-growth period ended. Economic stagnation obliged many new university graduates to get unstable and unfulfilling jobs. Since then, an increasing number of young Japanese have become “self-searching migrants” forming a new category of trans-Pacific migration. Just as migrants around the world have for centuries, Japanese young people are embarking on journeys across the Pacific in search of a professional or personal calling.
“Self-searching migrants” are young, single temporary residents in foreign countries. After several years of working, some have quit their jobs. Some move overseas, typically to English-speaking countries, including Canada.
Vancouver and its surrounding areas, where about 26,000 Japanese nationals (including immigrants) reside, attract at least half of the 3,000 students and 6,000 working holiday visa holders coming from Japan every year. The majority are in their mid to late 20s. Unlike China, the Philippines, India, and other major source countries of immigrants, Japan sends a significant number of students and workers, who are not immigrants.
Some extend their stay to improve their English skills, for work experience, and above all, to prolong a self-reflective life, which they found impossible to pursue in Japan.
Their quest for a “true self” is often synonymous with a quest for work they truly desire. A transnational, English-speaking job is the ideal for many who were former part-time workers or specialized full-time workers. Their common inclination is “internationalization” (国際化 – kokusai-ka), a proclaimed national policy for Japan since the 1980s.
But these migrants do not often stay in Canada permanently. Their limited English skills and the break from past careers often lead to manual jobs that do not require English skills, such as serving at Japanese restaurants. Unfulfilled again, they seek another temporary residence in another country.
Moving around the globe itself is actually central to their ideal self-image. Thus, the global tour of “young” Japanese migrants continues, often into their 30s or 40s. Canada benefits in many ways from their journey.
Etsuko Kato – Senior Associate Professor in Cultural Anthropology, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan.
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- 「自分探し」の移民たち ─ カナダ・バンクーバー、さまよう日本の若者 (Book by Etsuko Kato on self-searching migrants, in Japanese), 2011
- Canadians Abroad project, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada
- Our other Memos about Japan