A FOREIGNER IN JAPAN

A FEW OBSERVATIONS


I'm not writing with the intention of offending anyone here, but I'd just like to make a few comments on Japanese attitudes to foreigners. These comments are based on my own experiences and those of people I know, so please bear in mind that they are subjective and different people may have different experiences. I also plead guilty to generalising - as in any country, there are a lot of people who don't fit the stereotype, but in Japan there seems to me to be a surprisingly large number of people whose behaviour does conform to various stereotypical images. Therefore I feel that, to some extent, generalisations are justified.

First of all, anyone who doesn't look Japanese is automatically a foreigner. It doesn't matter if their family has been in Japan for three generations, they speak perfect Japanese and they have acquired Japanese citizenship (no mean feat!); to the majority of Japanese they are still foreigners. The official word is "gaikokujin", which means "other country person" but this is commonly contracted to "gaijin", literally meaning "outside person". The contracted form is mildly derogatory, but there's no point in denying it - it's what we are. No matter how long we spend in Japan, if we don't look Japanese then we won't be widely accepted as "belonging". Of course, there are lots of people who look beyond the skin colour, but there are also plenty who don't. In some remote rural areas, someone who doesn't look Japanese can still sometimes be stared at as if they just stepped out of a UFO! All foreigners staying in the country for more than three months are legally required to carry their foreigner ID card at all times, and they've only this year stopped fingerprinting us as part of the registration process! Even third-generation Koreans, whose families have lived in Japan for 50 years, are classed as foreigners and have to carry these cards.

Some people claim that foreigners in Japan are treated just like ethnic minorities in predominantly white countries. To some extent they're probably right; belonging to an ethnic minority is not something that I have first-hand experience of so I'm not really qualified to comment. But what Western country refuses citizenship to someone who, like their parents before them, was born in that country and has never lived anywhere else?

A short-term visitor, particularly one of Caucasian appearance, will probably hardly notice these attitudes; they're hidden behind a veil of politeness and helpfulness and Caucasians often tend to be subject to positive discrimination in any case. A Japanese friend told me that when her American friends sign up for courses and suchlike they almost never get turned down (if the course is over-subscribed then they will draw names by lottery, or so they say, but it's funny how that American's/ Aussie's/ Brit's name always seems to be near the top of the list - for example I came out as number 3 on a list of 50 names when I signed up for an aerobics class), but Brazilians, Malaysians and Indonesians (for example) are seen as less desirable and it's not so unusual for them to be turned away. They also have much more difficulty finding well-paid work than we do. Even an experienced, fully-qualified teacher who speaks accentless English but has a Malaysian passport finds it considerably harder to get a well-paid English teaching job than, say, a semi-literate American or Brit straight out of college.

There's also a tendency to automatically assume that someone who doesn't look Japanese is an English-speaker, probably from the US, even though there are a lot of South Americans here who speak more Japanese than English. This doesn't affect me too much, except when people ask me questions about the US on the assumption that that's where I come from (they're usually suitably embarrassed when I tell them that I'm British), but it must be irritating for those people who are expected, on the basis of their appearance, to speak English when they don't.

The celebrity status that often comes with gaijin-ship, particularly in rural areas, can wear thin after a while. You can get a bit tired of being praised for your skill at using chopsticks - or even being asked whether you can use chopsticks while the person who asked you actually watches you using them. I usually tell them that if I couldn't use chopsticks then I wouldn't be able to eat in Japan. Then there's the "Nihongo wa joozu desu ne!" ("Isn't your Japanese good!"), often when all you've said is hello or thank you. These compliments are well-meant, and are a part of the culture that you just have to live with, but they can get repetitive. Sometimes a local organisation will hold some kind of international exchange event, which they'll invite a few of the local foreigners along to. Often, when people genuinely want to get to know their foreign guests, these events do result in genuine cultural exchange and everyone gains something from the encounter; however, I've been to one or two where I felt like someone's pet gaijin, brought along just for people to look at. I'm gradually getting more choosy about which invitations I accept!

If you have experience of life in Japan then you might disagree with a lot of what I've written here. As I said before, it's subjective and based on my own experience, so please don't be too critical! On the other hand, if you're thinking of coming to Japan and wondering what you might be letting yourself in for then it might give you some idea of what to expect.

If there's anything I've omitted that you think I should have included, or vice versa, then please let me know.

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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 14th February 2003