Traveling Yellow Peril: Race, Gender, and Empire in Japan's English Teaching Industry
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Traveling Yellow Peril:
Race, Gender, and Empire in Japan's English Teaching Industry

Chris, a 42-year-old white man from the U.S. West Coast, had been living in Japan for eight years when I spoke with him. During our three-hour semistructured interview he described a long line of bad luck, marked most memorably by a rocky U.S.-based employment record and a history of run-ins with the Japanese police. Despite these setbacks, he had recently been offered a lucrative, direct-hire, English teaching position by a local public school district. When marveling about his stroke of good luck, Chris presented a vision that was to reappear throughout my fieldwork with U.S. citizens working in Japan's English teaching industry: the specter of Filipino labor threat. In his own words:

This job . . . two hundred people applied for and I got it, which is cool. But they confirmed for me also there's all these people from non-native English-speaking countries who have master's degrees, from the Philippines and stuff like that, and [they] have experience and they're willing, they're more than happy, to do it for chicken feed, because for them it's not chicken feed.1

Chris's focus on job qualifications betrayed a concern about whether his own checkered past would undermine his competitiveness. The key factor that presumably gave him a competitive advantage was his ability to uncomplicatedly [End Page 29] inhabit the category of "native English speaker," an identification that he denied to people from the Philippines. During my two years of fieldwork in Nagoya's English-language expatriate venues (2009–11), the ambivalent status of Filipino English ability routinely took center stage when the U.S. men I met cast Filipinos, and specifically Filipinas, as yellow peril harbingers of an impending loss of transnational white male privilege.

Recurrent anxieties about increasing Filipina presence within Japan's English teaching industry highlight the confluence of multiple discursive histories of postcolonial inequality. The exclusion of Filipina/os2 from the native English teacher category aligns with the longue durée histories of colonialism and racism that have shaped who is imagined as a legitimate bearer of "western" knowledge and the worry about job competitiveness indexes rising concerns about neoliberal policies that have produced increasingly precarious living conditions for the majority of workers in Japan, a country that has been in an economic slump for more than two decades.3 On a demographic level, transnationally mobile Filipina migrants have become a potent sign of the flexibilization of the global labor market.4 The vast majority of Filipina/ os living in Japan are women (79%), while the majority of U.S. citizens working long-term in the country are men (≤73%).5 Hence, fearful responses to neoliberal scarcity that echo much older "nativist" desires to protect white male labor power in the United States take on new gendered meanings, while also intersecting with the historical traces of U.S. civilizing missions across Asia.

Asian American studies scholars have demonstrated that since the nineteenth century both Asian geopolitical spaces and mobile Asian bodies have served as phantasmic screens for the projection of fears about the loss of masculine, white integrity within the domestic United States. Whether portrayed as a deceptive seductress, an emasculated coolie, or an inhuman or infectious horde, "Asia" has served as a flexible amalgamation of racialized, feminized menace.6 At the same time, Asia has also been a central geopolitical arena for U.S. civilizing missions, which have transitioned from first saving Asians from supposed barbarism to later saving the region from the deleterious effects of Soviet influence and, more recently, rescuing Asian leaders from potential skepticism about free market globalization. In this way, Asians have alternately served as objects of fear and peril and as objects of U.S. rescue and education. Histories of U.S. engagement in both Japan and the Philippines have alternated between these twinned poles of racialized paternalism and racialized panic.7 When Filipina and U.S. migrants meet within the triangulated space of contemporary Japan, these discursive histories come together to create a uniquely "threatening" position for Filipinas, who...


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