LOW PROFILE PERFECTIONISTS © Duncan Graham 2005
They form probably the largest group of foreigners working in Surabaya, but their presence is hardly noticed.
For a major ethnic group the 500 plus Japanese, some with families, take a remarkably low profile in Indonesia’s second biggest city. Or maybe it’s because as reserved Asians they don’t stand out like the more effusive Caucasians.
Australian government travel warnings alert their citizens to ‘avoid places where Westerners gather.’ These are listed as hotels, bars and nightspots. But where do the Japanese come together?
One place is the East Java Japan Club, which despite its name is not a drinking hole where backslapping boozers sip sake and lie about their latest golf triumph. Taking up one floor above the Japanese-owned Resona Perdania Bank in Jalan Raya Dharmo, the club is a sedate affair, a place to study, not carouse.
It’s also safe, and like the consulate has installed serious security measures, though terrorists have so far preferred to target Westerners.
The club’s library has hundreds of books and videos in Japanese where the homesick can gather. Here they can absorb their culture, hold meetings, have a chat and catch up with the latest edition of the Daily Jakarta Shimbun, a Japanese language newspaper published in Indonesia.
The club also does charitable works and recently announced scholarships for Indonesian students of the language.
In the past 11 years the club has paid the local university fees of 194 young language students, most of them women. Learning Japanese is difficult for Indonesians, particularly mastering the written word.
Earlier this month (Dec) almost 850 Indonesian students around the country sat the Japanese language proficiency test. The popularity of the language is linked to technology and graphic arts, particularly the Manga comics, according to consul Hirashima Shusaku.
These bland production-line fantasy cartoons have swamped indigenous creative design. Hollywood may dominate the film industry, but Tokyo has a stranglehold on comic books, as a visit to any Indonesian bookstore will confirm.
“Last year 3,600 people applied at this office for visas to visit Japan,” said Shusaku. “Most were tourists but a good number want to study. For them Japan is the second dream destination after the United States.”
When he’s not supervising his six staff as they sort through the visa applicants Shusaku tends to his nation’s affairs and interests in East Java, Kalimantan and Nusa Tenggara. Another office in Makassar looks after Sulawesi.
He’s well equipped for the task having worked in consulates in Indonesia on and off since 1993, with stints in Medan and Jakarta.
Japan is the second biggest aid donor in the world after the US and much of this is in projects and equipment. In Surabaya Japanese companies are helping build a new international airport terminal.
“Most Japanese in East Java are here as technical advisors and technicians,” said Shusaku. “Apart from the projects we are also involved in a big copper smelter in Gresik, and there are other smaller companies in the resource and food industries.
“Japanese tend to keep to themselves. Only a few send their children to the international school. We have a Japanese school in Surabaya which is supported by the Japanese government, with around 50 students.”
One parent who has used both schools is Rika Ueda, originally from Tokyo, and married to an Indonesian she met while studying in the US. The couple run a Japanese restaurant against some heavy competition, though many seem to serve Indonesian food to local diners, despite having lots of cushions and calligraphy.
“I’ve been here five years but my first three were very difficult,” she said. “Japanese are conscious of status and want to stick together as a group. We don’t mix with Indonesians because we think the country is unsafe and the food dangerous.
“We want things done precisely. Many are overprotected by their employers. There’s a strict hierarchy depending on position and company, and that also applies to the wives.
“Workers on different levels stay apart, so a senior executive won’t be in he same block as line managers. They live in a few apartments and if there are any problems they just go back to Japan.”
But Ueda noticed many Westerners appeared to enjoy life in Indonesia. They’d learned the language and were getting involved with the locals. They seemed to be happy and not paranoid about security.
Tired of always being with her own people and doing the same things she decided to join a church and the Expats Women’s Association of Surabaya.
At the time she was the only Japanese among 100 foreigners. Now there are about ten.
“Communication is a real problem,” she said. “Few Japanese speak either Indonesian or English, so we stick together. We tend to ostracise anyone who behaves differently from the group.
“Although we are also a rice culture there are very few other similarities with Indonesians. Fortunately the new generation is less narrow minded and more courageous. But overall I think it’s easier here for Westerners than it is for Japanese.”
There were Japanese living in Surabaya before the Second World War, but information about their activities is scant.
Whatever they were doing, local lore has it that these people were also spying for the advancing forces which bombed Surabaya in 1942 and later landed on Java with little resistance.
Although many Indonesians welcomed the defeat of the Dutch by an Asian military force, any goodwill evaporated in the hardships that followed occupation. The Japanese conscripted thousands of Indonesians as forced labour and plundered food and natural resources to maintain their military might.
Basic supplies ran down and in some areas malnutrition was widespread.
Although there’s little doubt the occupation boosted the Independence movement by allowing Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta to remain active, this gesture made little impact on a population no longer prepared to tolerate foreign forces.
When the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the surrendering soldiers were harassed by independence fighters who saw them as cruel colonialists, not the promised liberators.
With this history of distrust and hatred it’s a remarkable tribute to tolerance and diplomacy that by 1958 a peace treaty could be signed between Indonesia and a Japan which had turned from making war to manufacturing goods. Japan is now Indonesia’s largest trading partner.
The former occupier of the archipelago has also became deeply involved in helping its one-time colony recover its economy with loans, grants and debt relief programs.
There are about 12,000 Japanese living in Indonesia and around 10,000 Indonesians in Japan.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 January 2006)