It was in Japan that I first encountered the term "bubble" in the context of migration. Foolish literal-minded me was a bit confused at first because "bubble" in my mind is 1. what small children create with soapy water and wands; 2. extravagant prices for tulips or stock; and 3. a way to keep a pleasant reality in and an unpleasant reality out. Using those definitions/images I could not immediately connect the term to migration. Clearly, it meant something else to the people who were using it here.
"Bubble" in the context of the English-speaking migrants in Japan is a metaphor for what is referred to elsewhere as a "[country of origin] ghetto" or, to be more politically correct, "[country of origin] community." Metaphor because people don't actually live in "[a] thin sphere of liquid enclosing air or another gas."
Why eschew the old and venerable term "ghetto?" Maybe because a strict definition of the term implies extreme poverty - something that I think it's fair to say most Americans, British and Canadians don't experience in the destination country. It may also be because "ghetto" implies spatiality; it's a place that you can point to on a map and where the well-meaning native counsels the tourist to avoid. The ABC's (and continental Europeans) simply aren't numerous enough in most places in Japan to completely overwhelm a neighborhood and call it theirs, though they can shape its character.
At best they live in a part of town that caters to the "international community" or apartment complexes that are "foreigner-friendly" but even there they are rarely a majority. In 2008 there were 152 Americans per 100,000 residents in Tokyo which meant about 18,000 Americans in a city of 13 million people. In Osaka there is a neighborhood called "Little America" (Amerika-mura) which is 99% Japanese, other Asian and African youths.
"Ghetto" is also pejorative; it's a place where we imagine that people are trapped and can't easily leave but there is a certain ambiguity introduced when the people in that space are a culturally and linguistically homogenous community of migrants. There are arguments for and against their agency: choice versus forced segregation. I note that when such an area becomes an area of interest for the cultural tourist it is elevated to a "town" ("Koreatown" or "Chinatown.")
"Bubble" when used in the context of migration here is combined with a not very nice word for foreigner. Added together these two terms become "gaijin bubble." Unlike "[country of origin] ghetto" a "gaijin bubble" is mostly disconnected from physical space and describes a combination of actions and intent on the part of a migrant in Japan and both concern integration. A migrant living in a "gaijin bubble" is one who has not integrated - much or most of their daily life is spent speaking their home country language and having very little contact with Japanese and Japanese life - and chooses to remain unintegrated. The notion of agency here is powerful - there is no ambiguity as with the word "ghetto." A "bubble" is a choice and with a little or a lot of effort (I've heard both) a migrant/expatriate can step out and be an active integrated member of Japanese society.
Is the term more descriptive or prescriptive. I would make an argument for the latter. When I hear an Anglophone in Japan use the term " gaijin bubble" they aren't talking about themselves, they are referring to how other people live. They are making a moral judgment that says "my way of living in Japan is superior to yours." Put that way it doesn't sound like very attractive behavior - it smacks of a sort of puritanical policing (as does, I would admit, the accusation that some Americans in France are living in an "American ghetto.") And, yet, I can see why they would do it.
The fact that such terms as "ghetto" and bubble" exist as epithets says to me that those migrants who consider themselves integrated are paying attention to those who they perceive as unintegrated. They claim to be on the outside looking in and yet (unless they have no direct experience with such people) they do have connections to them - some window into their lives which leads them to believe that they know and can judge them. However, outside of one's immediate circle of colleagues and friends the Japanese are likely to make no distinction between those who have integrated and those who haven't. Those who are integrated find this to be extremely frustrating and I can understand that. There is an argument to be made here that the behavior of those who don't integrate does affect the lives of those who do.
How can one change this situation? Well, asking the Japanese to approach migrants/expatriates differently would be one possibility, but is it realistic? Given the numbers, probably not. Asking 100,000 people to be more open to the possibility that some gaijins are fluent in Japanese so as not to hurt the feelings of the 152 foreigners is unlikely to work. As minority migrants and citizens they just don't have that kind of power or influence, and that's not likely to change anytime soon.
Another possibility which is easier and may seem more likely to produce results is to go to work on those who persist in living their "gaijin bubble" lives. Alas, this usually means: insinuating that their manner of living in Japan is all wrong; criticizing them for not speaking Japanese well enough or being illiterate; whispering, "he/she is still teaching after 10 years in the country" and so on. There are several reasons why this doesn't work.
First of all there is the lack of a clear and common definition of integration. The Japanese themselves don't seem to have an integration policy with regard to this population. (Perhaps it would be easier if they did.) So it's a very subjective thing. Since most migrants are on some sort of integration continuum just about anyone can point to some things they do which would make "bubble" or "ghetto" inapplicable to them. So when they hear those words they assume that the article or comment is referring to other people.
Another difficulty is that, frankly, there are migrant/expatriates who are not integrated and refuse to do so and those who are integrated have no real leverage to convince them otherwise. They don't care one whit about the good opinion of the integrated foreigners and are inclined to say that it's none of their business how they choose to live in Japan.
Last possibility I see is to simply let it go. In the schemes of things this is hardly the most important issue of the day. As they say, keep your own side of the street clean, live in accordance with your principles, negotiate your own integration in your community, and don't worry too much about what other people do.
That's how I see it. Feel free to disagree in the comments section. I will end this post by making three suggestions to those who can't/won't let this one slide.
The first is that with all this angst about whether or not a migrant/expatriate is integrated (enough) perhaps it might be worth asking the Japanese what their definition is and requesting some sort of official policy. Here is what we expect and if you do these things you are integrated to our satisfaction. At that point I think we could safely say that the debate amongst the migrants/expats would be over.
The second is that who feel they are integrated and are frustrated by those who aren't might want to consider moving the discussion away from talk of "bubbles" and superior versus inferior integration and toward a discourse that sounds like this: "Look, folks, things would be much better for all of us if, say, we all spoke, wrote, and read Japanese more fluently." Make a case. Make it here if you like.
And thirdly, complaining incessantly about and slapping labels on other people is like moving air - it accomplishes nothing. Or if it accomplishes anything it is the accumulation of resentment and the sparking of contentious debates. I'd take another look as well at the "choice" because, yes, there are those who refuse to integrate but I suspect there are many more who want to and are struggling. Personally, I would have much more respect for the position of those who talk of "gaijin bubbles" if they were actually doing something concrete to help people get out of them. My .02.