Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Schaedenfreude or Social Duty?

A story about a student who made a decent amount of money selling virtual weapons and gold in the on-line game World of Warcraft has been making the rounds lately. The basic gist of it is that a Chinese man who resides in Japan under a student visa was turned in for possibly violating the terms of his stay by a bank worker who noticed he was sending money home frequently.

The thing that really caught my eye was the fact that the police were notified about this by a bank worker. When my husband and I have sent money home, we have had to fill out forms that state why we are doing so. I wonder if those forms have to be turned over to the police or if the bank only has to do so at their discretion. Somehow, I imagine it must be the latter since the former would inundate the police with a lot of inconsequential paperwork. It's not the least bit uncommon for foreign workers to send money home because they are leaving Japan or they prefer to keep the money in a foreign bank because interest rates in Japan for savings accounts are something on the order of 0-.2%.

One important point about this situation is that one does not have to state one's visa status to the bank when sending money home though we do have to show them our foreign resident's card (often called a "gaijin card" by those of us living in Japan). The gaijin card does show our visa status so anyone who did the paperwork for sending money home who scrutinized the card carefully enough would see if one was a student or using a work visa.

The thing that I find troubling about this is the possibility that this is a sort of schaedenfreude (sour grapes) at a lowly Chinese student raking in the dough while living in Japan. Was he turned in because a Japanese bank worker resented seeing him make more money than himself? Or, was he turned in because the bank worker was civic-minded and told to do so? One thing that I can't help but think is that this wouldn't have happened to a white person.

There is plenty of prejudice against foreigners in Japan but the shape of it varies based on who the foreigner is. White foreigners tend to be regarded as equal or "superior" to Japanese people when prejudice applies to them. They may be seen by some as smelly, loud, overpaid and too culturally retarded to ever really grasp Japanese culture but they are not seen as socially lower than Japanese. Other Asians, on the other hand, are seen as being inferior by some Japanese. So, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if a Japanese bank worker might be upset at seeing what he felt was a lot of cash being made by a Chinese person.

The reports about how much money was being made in this endeavor seem to dramatically range from about $50,000 to $1.3 million U.S. dollars. I know on-line gaming and the claim by the police that he made over a million dollars is far-fetched unless this student was serving as a funnel for a huge operation ran elsewhere. It's inconceivable that a single person could play the game enough to acquire enough on-line currency to make that much money, not even if he played around the clock for years. If the market were that lucrative, you'd find people quitting their jobs to play the game and sell virtual items.

Since the visa status of a student allows the student to work 28 hours a week if he has received the proper permission to engage in activities other than specified by his visa, all it would take for the student to not be in violation of his visa would be for him not to spend more than 28 hours a week handling the "paperwork" for selling the items. It wouldn't matter whether he or someone else played the game as I think the Japanese police would be hard-pressed to call game playing "work", even if it was done in the service of item farming in the virtual world.

From a personal perspective, this offers no real threat to me but it does raise an issue I had never considered. I no longer remain in Japan under a work visa. I'm here under a dependent spouse visa which means I should not make enough money to support myself. And I don't do so by a very large margin. However, a very long time ago, we decided to have my husband's salary paid into my bank account in Japan (which is only in my name) because we didn't want to go to the trouble of opening up another account. If a bank worker were to only look at the record of deposits and not consider the source in any way, it may appear that I make a full salary and in violation of my terms of stay. I doubt anything would ever come of this but it does point out how bank activity can be pretty misleading in some cases and why perhaps bank workers shouldn't be monitoring activity and reporting it to the police.

6 comments:

Tokyo Rosa said...

Interesting post!

I think "Schaedenfreude" is not the right term. In this case, I think racial discrimination is the right term....

But you're right, I think as white gaijin, you'd be treated with kid gloves if there were some question about your bank account. If you were black or a non-Japanese Asian, the situation could be much different.

I recently read that there are no laws in Japan that make racial discrimination illegal. Welcome to living in a quote-unquote monocultural society!

J. said...

I find it ludicrous that everyone from bank tellers to hotel clerks seem to be "deputized" to control the foreigner "problem". I don't know if that government website for reporting overstayers is still up, but seems to me that was leading the way for even neighbors to be spying on each other and anyone who looked "suspicious". And what's suspicious? Obviously, a Chinese person with money. Or maybe just anyone who is/looks non-Japanese!

Shari said...

Tokyo rosa: You're right. Schaedenfreude is the wrong word. I think "vindictiveness" may be better.

There has been talk on occasion of implementing some laws to prevent certain types of discrimination but the propoganda machine always rolls against such laws being passed.

j.: Thanks for your comment. :-) I must say that it is troubling that anyone can report on a foreigner to the police and it can lead to problems for that person, even when they are innocent.

I think it's scarier still because the police don't operate by the same rules of evidence that you see in western countries (they rely on confession rather than evidence and can hold you for up to 3 weeks with no charges and they do not have to allow you to contact a lawyer). If you get hauled in, it can be pretty ugly if they want it to be so.

Durf said...

It has nothing at all to do with racism. My Japanese wife had to jump through all sorts of hoops when she tried to wire money to her brother in Edinburgh; I went through the same crap. This was at Mizuho. It ended up being so much of a pain I just went to Citibank and sent it from my account instead. "Thank you Durf-san, have a nice day!" was the extent of the grilling I got there.

Countries all around the world have systems in place to keep tabs on people who shift lots of money around. And even at the low end of what this kid is alleged to have shifted, $50k is a lot of money. Friends in America tell me that they're getting questioned by bank tellers for amounts as low as $3,000 these days. (It used to be $10,000 and up that tripped the alarm wires.) These are American citizens doing domestic transfers! This isn't an "only in Japan, only against us poor gaijin" thing by any stretch of the imagination.

I can guarantee you that a Japanese person who walked into a bank repeatedly over a period of several months and sent millions of yen overseas would get the same hard questions that this Chinese kid did.

Shari said...

Hi Durf and thanks for your comment. :-)

My bank account is in Mizuho so I know the grilling of which you speak. We've been through it several times. You do make a very good point about keeping tabs on shifting lots of money around.

However, the point I want to make is that the questioning and tab-keeping are not the racist behavior. The part which makes it racist is the step of turning it over to the police. I believe if a Japanese person had sent the same amount of money (that is, $50,000, not the absurd $1.3 million which has to be a lie to the press) overseas, they would not have been turned over the police.

Tokyo Rosa said...

Banking is much different in Japan than it is in the US (I mean, seriously, no 24-hour ATMs and M-F/9-3 banking hours in a city as large as Tokyo?), so I am not surprised that even Japanese find it exasperating. But Shari's right, calling the police on some kid for transfering money is different from just going through the usual hassle of transfering money.

There is a difference between inconvenience and racism and, yes, there are examples of both in Japan.