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A Gaijin’s Perspective of Other Gaijin

I am a very judgmental person. There, I said it.

I am a hypocrite.

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Despite being a Gaijin** in Japan myself, I find myself judging other Gaijin in Japan.

I am a Gaijin, and yet I am surprised when I see a large number of Gaijin in one day or in one place.

The past few mornings I have gone to breakfast with my friend Mary around 7am. The staff always greeted us and explained everything in Japanese, and most if not all of the other people eating breakfast were Japanese people. But then today I entered the breakfast room and was greeted by the same staff member…in English. What. I knew something was different, but I didn’t understand why. Entering the room further, I noticed quickly that the room was filled–and I’m talking nearly 3/4 full–with Gaijin. Other Gaijin being present changed how the staff interacted with me, and I resented that. Other Gaijin being present changed how I interacted with people both in English and in Japanese, and I resented that.

I am a Gaijin, and yet when I look at other Gaijin around me I internally question their intentions for being in Japan.

There are some Gaijin that I see who I don’t particularly question, though I do sometimes wonder how they initially found an interest in being in Japan. The Gaijin who are clearly English teachers, clearly doing business in Japan temporarily or more permanently, are studying abroad, are tourists who are clearly passionate about Japan. And then there are the others. The people who don’t seem to try to be fitting in, who don’t seem to have a clear role within Japanese society, who seem to place themselves outside–or even above–the culture here. I look at people and wonder what there perspective is, why they think this way, why they are acting the way they are, and how the Japanese people they interact with perceive them.

I don’t know why it is that I feel this way–and I know that it is not just me, and that other Gaijin feel similarly toward other Gaijin. Perhaps it is because we are a minority–a relatively small group of people who largely stick out like sore thumbs, and if someone sticks out negatively or for the wrong reasons, that impression can or could easily taint the other Gaijin.

Whatever it is, I can typically tell when I spot a Gaijin whether they are thinking about Gaijin in the same way that I am or not. Particularly when I am in the train station, or walking down the street, there is something that happens when I spot another Gaijin. I awkwardly stare while pretending not to. Usually there are three categories of Gaijin in how they react to me being in their near vicinity.

They briefly lock eyes with you and look away too. This generally means they are having the same thought process as I am. First its “Oh look a Gaijin” followed by “I wonder why they are here exactly” which is generally followed by a more respectful thought like “well they seem to be holding their own” or something a bit more disrespectful like “I bet they don’t appreciate Japan like I do.” See? I told you I am a judgmental person.

Otherwise they are 100% oblivious that you are looking at them. This could be one of two types of people, 1) someone who is so comfortable in society that they don’t notice, or 2) is so much of a tourist and absorbed in their own life that they don’t notice. I find the first type of person acceptable…but the second type of person annoys me. I am strangely bothered by people who come to Japan and who don’t seem to appreciate the culture, adapt to life here, and seem to hold themselves higher above Japanese society and Japanese people.

And then there are the people who are hyper aware of you and don’t know whether to look away, walk over and talk to you, smile, or pretend they didn’t see you. Yes, these would be the study abroad students recently in Japan. They probably are moving in packs and while it is a little ridiculous it is also amusing because you know these Gaijin will move past this stage and eventually be comfortable with themselves in Japan. If they don’t though…if they don’t get past this hyper-attentive, self-conscious stage…well, then its annoying >_<

My perspective of Gaijin in Japan as a Gaijin in Japan is very fluid, though I can’t say that it has ever been entirely positive and I doubt it ever will be. But know that I am aware of it, and if I sort out my feelings or come to an understanding as to why I feel the way I do, I will definitely let you know. But for now, I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on the matter!

**Gaijin 外人: Short for Gai-koku-jin 外国人 which translates to foreigners. In a country like Japan though which is so homogenous, it is interesting to look at the kanji. The first character literally means “outside” while the second means “country” and the third means “person.” All together you get “someone who is outside of the country” meaning “someone who is not Japanese.” America is often described as a “melting pot,” with people of various ethnicities immigrating to America and becoming American in nationality. I am not an expert by far on the topic, but it seems like even the people who have been in Japan for years who are not ethnically Japanese are still considered by Japanese people to be Gaijin.

6 Comments

  1. I admit, I had to google “gaijin”. But that’s why we blog right? To share experiences.

    We’d love to have you rate some of the places in Japan you’ve been on Yonderlist. I’m sure there were places you were pleasantly surprised by and maybe some that were overrated. We’d love to hear about it! Plus, we don’t have many ratings from Japan as of yet. If you submit a rating on Yonderlist, we’ll post links back to your blog. Hope you’ll join the conversation at http://yonderlist.wordpress.com/

  2. Narita says

    なるほど。。。この間「あなたは日本で何をしているの?」というテレビ番組を見ていたら、面白かったのは、長年日本に住んでいるビジネスマン(?)の人が流暢な日本語で、「僕は長年日本に住んでいるから」と答えていて、(他の外国人と一緒にしないで)という印象を受けました。それがいいとか悪いとかいうわけではないですが、どこの国でもあるだろうなあと思います。

  3. I completely agree with you – I too judge other Gaijin when I see them. But because I’m oriental looking I’ve often been mistaken for a Japanese, which can be frustrating at times.
    Inside I feel like a British person as I’ve always lived in London, but my appearance tells otherwise. In many cases when I’ve been with my friends (who look like Gaijins) and we are approached by Japanese, in most cases they will start speaking to me in Japanese but will attempt to speak in English to my friends.
    In terms of learning, this is more beneficial for me as Japanese people assume I’m Japanese so conversation flows that way.
    But sometimes there are moments when I wish I looked like a foreigner – for example, like when my friends are approached by Japanese students at the university I’m studying at because they want to learn English/make friends with a Gaijin. I’m rarely ever approached the same way as my Gaijin-looking friends because I don’t look like I’ve come from abroad, but inside I’m a total Gaijin! Hahaha! Anyway, these are my thoughts on the Gaijin perspective!
    Thanks for sharing your view 🙂

    • Yes, Gaijin who don’t “look like Gaijin” are a whole other story! There are a lot of assumptions made both by other Gaijin and by Japanese people of those who look Japanese (or are ethnically Japanese) but are not from Japan. Thanks for sharing your perspectives! 🙂

  4. I have always found it strange how being such a strong minority here actually ends up alienating me from other Gaijin. I guess I don’t even know what I want from other Gaijin. When I see one I am always curious, too. However, I can’t say that I really want to know them. It’s like I want to know their story, but I don’t actually want to meet them.

    The funny thing is I saw some of the same reactions between Japanese people in America. The Japanese exchange students at my University had their Japanese community, but anytime I encountered two Japanese people who didn’t know each other it seemed like they had a similar reaction. They would always start out by ignoring each other a little, or at least pretending to, and eventually they would end up exchanging very awkward looking conversation. inevitably though, they would end up as far away from each other as possible without surrendering the territory to the other Japanese person.

    I always thought their interactions were really strange, but now I find myself in the same boat.

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