Friday, December 7, 2012

Gaijin: Life on the Outside

Japanese culture is, obviously, really different from Western culture. There are a thousand little differences you encounter everyday that remind you how far away from home you are and can induce culture shock. Like being expected to pay in cash everywhere you go, no matter how big or small the purchase (this is a biggie when you come from a credit-card loving country like America.) Or when you order steak and potatoes at a famiresu (family restaurant) and the potatoes are three, sad, borderline anorexic little things that you eat just to put them out of their misery. (And that's not really a biggie unless you come from an Irish-American family like I do, where we eat potatoes like Asians eat rice.)

It's like the potatoes are trying to hide their sad, shriveled little selves behind the chicken. It kind of makes me want to cry.
The thing is that the longer you live here the fewer surprises there are, and the more these little things just start to seem normal to you. Now I actually like corn on my salads and speaking in a polite, indirect way when the occasion calls for it. Even being naked with a bunch of old ladies and small children at the onsen is not the awkward experience that it used to be.

Looks nice, right? Now imagine it's full of obaachan...
But no matter how long you live in Japan, no matter how assimilated you become, you will always be a gaijin (foreigner). Actually the PC term these days is gaikokujin, but either way what it literally means is "outsider". This is true whether you are are white, black, hispanic or even Asian. Asian gaijin have a slightly different experience because they might be able to blend in a little more, but I'm sure that they're still constantly aware and made aware of their "outside" status.

When I first came to Japan I was in the unique position of already speaking Japanese and knowing quite a lot about Japanese culture and everyday life. There were still plenty of surprises for me and moments of culture shock, but I had a much smoother transition than most other gaijin. The one thing that was difficult for me, however, was getting used to my new identity as a gaijin. People stare at you on the train, in the supermarket, at the bank... Kids at school ask you why your eyes are blue or tell you that your nose is "tall". Cashiers at stores or teachers at work blink at you in confusion even when you speak near-perfect Japanese to them.

The ever-tasteful "gaijin" costume
This is a pretty weird and eye-opening experience, especially if you come from a place where your race is the majority. In the U.S. I don't stand out much- I'm just a pretty normal looking brown-haired white girl with a standard West-Coast accent. I've been blending in my whole life until I came to Japan. At first being constantly stared at made me feel really self-conscious and a bit paranoid, but over time I got used to it. I still have moments of frustration, like when someone refuses to understand what I'm saying because they can't wrap their mind around the fact that a foreigner is speaking Japanese.

I think this sums up the "gaijin smash" face pretty well.
For all that the experience can be disturbing and annoying at times, there are some good aspects to it as well. I think that everyone can benefit from the experience of being a minority; not that being a white person in Japan is at all the same as being a racial minority in the US, but it does teach you a little bit about what it's like to be different. Also, living here as a gaijin, or living in any foreign country, teaches you so much about yourself: about your own culture, identity, worldview, language, etc. I've learned more about myself as an American by living in Japan than I ever could have at home. It has its ups and downs, but ultimately it's an experience that I cannot recommend enough.


  1. I love this post! And of course you're complaining about the potatoes^^.

  2. Thanks! You have no idea how I've suffered these past 3 years, with these sad little excuses for potatoes...

  3. If they think your nose is "tall" they should get a load of mine!

    1. I'm not sure they would even let you into the country with a nose that tall. ;)

  4. Foreigners are not native in any countries. I'm an Asian( not Japanese ), I've lived in New Zealand, USA and some European countries. We are always treated as ASIAN in any countries. Being Gaijin is not special thing in Japan but in any countries including your own country, I think.

  5. That's true, I didn't mean to imply that being a foreigner in Japan is a unique experience. This post was just meant to be about my own experience in Japan and I'm sure there are similarities with the experiences of foreigners living in other countries as well.