The “gaijin” myth

For some reason, the notion of “foreigner” in Japanese culture is really fascinating to foreigners. So much so, that Wikipedia has an entry on it. You can also find plenty of blogs where foreigners living in Japan feel excluded or feel like a perpetual foreigner.

I think most people who feel this sense of frustration probably never felt what it was like to be a minority until they live in another country. In other words, only by living in another country do people know what it feels like for others to live in their own. Arun who pens the witty Angry Asian Buddhist often expresses her frustration at being Asian-American, with emphasis on American, but still viewed as a perpetual foreigner in her own country, and her own religion. I learned from my experiences going to a local Japanese-American temple, that it’s not limited to her, and certainly not limited to just Asian immigrants.

But if you think Japan is somehow more exclusive than other countries in the world, try living in other countries in the world. I remember living in Hanoi, Vietnam as a college student, and I can say the stereotypes about Americans were really over the top and frustrating sometimes. Unlike Japan, Vietnamese were more blunt about it too. Or try living in South Korea, the People’s Republic of China, or any other such country in Asia. I’ve also heard stories from friends living in Saudi Arabia, India and other parts of the world who describe plenty of stereotypes or just hostile feelings. Even for me living in the Republic of Ireland, I often felt like a foreigner. There were cultural inside jokes I didn’t understand, my accent was very obviously American (I was even told so by strangers), I felt stupid because I couldn’t understand the accent sometimes, and I wasn’t tuned into holidays and cultural events like my co-workers. I know Irish friends living in the US go through the same ordeal, judging from the stupid questions and comments Americans ask them over and over (no, it’s not all faeries and Celtic music, and no, Northern Ireland is safe now, etc, etc). Another co-worker I know is German and endures all kinds of stupid questions and comments just because he’s German.

When I am in Japan, my 180cm height draws plenty of looks. Some people really stare at me. In Vietnam, they would walk up pinch my belly too, because Americans looked so much more wealthy and well-fed compared to regular Vietnamese. But then, I’ve seen people in the US and in Ireland stare at my wife the same way: the long, stares at someone who is out of place and “doesn’t belong”. That happened last month when we were at a Starbucks near my grandmother’s house, north of Seattle. When we’re in Japan, I get treated as a foreigner, but in the West, she endures the same thing.

But anyone whose lived in a foreign country long enough knows, you tend to have a balance of positive and negative experiences. Living in both Vietnam and Ireland, I had positive experiences in both places; I miss both places. I also had negative reminders that I was a foreigner too. It’s just part of being a “stranger in a strange land“, as Heinlein once said. You have to learn to accept that you are foreign, and you always will be. If you live in Japan and you look different, people will treat you different. Then again, think of how it feels to be a Mexican in the US, and constantly judged as another “illegal immigrant” even if you’re a respectable member of society and a legal immigrant? How does it feel to be Latin American and also constantly mistaken as another “illegal Mexican immigrant” even if you’re not Mexican? In high school, I once asked a girl if she was Mexican (trying to be friendly) and she got very defensive because she was from a different Latin American country (Honduras maybe, I can’t remember), and probably got tired of being mistaken for the wrong country. I always felt bad about that. Even though I had good intentions, I was still being prejudiced and making assumptions based on appearances.

Anyway, getting back to the original point, the term “gaijin” fascinates people for some reason, even though every language in the world has a word for ‘foreigner’. There are even novels and t-shirts that use it. But in contemporary Japanese culture, the term seems increasingly outdated as I usually hear Japanese in media and in conversation use the more neutral term gaikokujin (外国人), unless it’s either intentionally rude, or a joke about someone’s ignorance (like a certain manga I continue to read).

In the end, I think the special status of “gaijin” is a myth by earlier generations of Westerns who were simultaneously fascinated and frustrated with Japanese culture. The romanticized writings a few generations ago reflect this tension. But spend time living anywhere in the world, especially somewhere where you are racially different, and I guarantee it’ll be more or less the same. The only difference might be in severity.

For anyone living abroad in a foreign country, I think the only way to overcome feelings of being a foreigner, or being left out, is to reflect that this is “not me, not who I am“. You can’t do much to stop people from treating you different, people in general are too quick to judge by appearances, even if they consider themselves “liberal” and “open-minded”, but you can change how you react to it. I won’t lie and say “it’s no big deal”, or that you can make it go away. Sometimes it’s painful and frustrating. It sucks. But despite what goes on in the world around you, the problem ultimately begins and ends with your mind. This is what the holy Buddha taught, and I encourage you to explore this yourself.

Namo Shaka Nyorai

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Japan, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The “gaijin” myth

  1. cocomino says:

    We have to feel responsible for our attitude.

  2. Ragnar says:

    Great article, really! And it’s really so obvious that I’ve never even thought of it like that – just as you say, living in a foreign country, any foreign country, makes you foreign and that’s just that, nothing you can do about it. Except how you think of it or “take it.”

    And I really like the last two sentences – there’s something about buddhism that so very much intrigues me – I think I should look into it.

  3. Robert says:

    the term gaijin has never bothered me, but I’ve never heard it with any malice. (My Japanese friends and family must be cruder as I’ve never heard them use gaikokujin.) The weirdest I’ve encountered is some druken salarymen calling out gaijin-san when they spotted me. By and large I feel very at home in Japan, and have been dealt with nicely at all levels, which is more than I can say for the treatment of minorities in the UK. Maybe I’d feel different if I lived there instead of visited, but I’m under no illusions that my privileged white male status would have any merit in Japan. ;)

    (As I’ve been an immigrant for most of my adult life, I’m a gaijin everywhere, even in my homeland.)

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Everyone:

    Cocomino: 外国人は客としてちゃんと行動したほうがいいと思います。僕は原宿や渋谷など、変な外国人見たことがありまして、恥ずかしくなりました。人間として、外国人と日本人は責任がありますよね。Sorry if that is wrong Japanese.

    Ragnar: welcome to the JLR! Glad you found it useful. :)

    Robert: Too right. I’ve seen some bad treatment of foreigners in the US, which can be downright hostile. I think you’re attitude about the whole thing of living abroad is quite right and something we can all learn from. :)

  5. JonJ says:

    The first time I went to Japan, in the late ’70s, I studied up on the country beforehand, and thus learned that a foreigner would find, in every store she or he entered, that the salespeople would scurry around looking for the one employee who spoke a little English. But what I experienced was that all the salespeople I encountered expected me to speak Japanese; if I couldn’t, that was my problem. (I also learned that I would be living in what amounted to a human ant-hill, choking constantly on the polluted air. Both of these “facts,” of course, turned out to be completely untrue.)

    In all my experience there, I have always been treated either quite graciously or just matter-of-factly, as just another human being (granted, a somewhat too-large human being), and have never experienced the stereotyped “外人” treatment (except from a few kids, of course, but these days even they tend to be rather blasé about foreigners). I understand that the real problem, though, is encountered by Asian-Americans, or Asian-Europeans, who don’t know Japanese. Since they look Japanese but can’t speak the language, they run the risk of being treated as mentally handicapped.

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Jonj,

    I had the same experiences that reading about a country and going there were two different things. It happened when I went to Vietnam, Ireland and Japan.

    Basically if you really make an effort to respect local laws and customs, stay out trouble and pay attention to people around you, you’ll survive just fine. :-)

  7. Sammie says:

    Hi there, I log on to your blog like every week.
    Your humoristic style is witty, keep doing what you’re doing!

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