Tuesday, January 18, 2005

An American Girl in Asia: Being a Gaijin in Japan.

Gaijin is an interesting word in the Japanese Language. It is a shortened form of the word Gaikokujin, or foreign person. Used by foreigners living in Japan, myself included, it generally means, foreign person trying to make it through Japanese life without making to big of a fool out of herself. However, used by a Japanese person, it is generally an insult.

Foreigners are not always the most welcome of creatures in Japan. Oh, if you’re a short-term tourist, traveling through the tourist Mecca’s of Kyoto or Tokyo your money is more then welcome. Alternately, if you’re a short-term student, on a cultural exchange, willing to help your host sisters with their English lessons, you are a welcome, and interesting diversion. But, once a foreigner starts to settle herself down for an extensive stay the welcome mats seem to disappear into thin air.

Outside the aforementioned tourist Mecca’s a Gaijin is a rare beast in Japan. It’s quite common for me to travel outside Okazaki, look around and calmly acknowledge to myself that I am the only non-Asian looking person in sight. This rarity of other obvious Gaijin means that I am and oddity and therefore must be stared at, really hard, by everyone, while the little kids hide behind their mothers. I have actually taken to carrying a mirror around with me; just to make sure that it’s my Gaijin-ness they are staring at and not a piece of seaweed stuck in my teeth. So far, so good.

While one gets accustomed, eventually, to being stared at constantly, and to the constant questions about ones ability to use chopsticks, and the shock when the Japanese person I am talking to realizes that they can actually understand my Japanese, always being the persona non gratis gets tiring after a while. I walk into the bank and all the tellers look around desperately for the one English-speaking teller, even though I never speak to them in English. I walk in to a hotel, or restaurant, or store and am automatically greeted in English, not Japanese. And when I start speaking in Japanese I am answered with inevitable shock of the person I’m talking too. *sigh*

While all these things are annoying, they are the price of living in Japan, and one learns to deal with them. The hardest thing to deal with here is the constant loneliness that a foreigner feels while living in Japan. The constant isolation, all the little reminders that you don’t belong, you are not, and never will be Japanese. While living in Okazaki I have made friends from Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, and China, but not one, real, Japanese friend. While part of this is because I don't have much day-to-day contact with Japanese outside of my teachers and the store clerks, the Japanese, for the most part just aren't interested. This is not a solitary observation, many Gaijin feel this way.

An article published on January 4, 2005 by the Japan Times (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/) talks about racism in Japan. The article titled "Racism is Bad Business" discusses how Japan's racism is turning international business away from Japan. It is quite common to see Japanese Only signs in bars and restaurants, especially in Hokkaido, the article writes. This exclusiveness of non-Japanese tends to give visiting officials a very negative view of Japan. While I’ve never been to a restaurant or bar that refused to serve me, it is quite common for people handing out flyers to not offer me one, or for security personnel to follow my friends and I around a store as we shop. It’s these little things that make a foreigner feel unwelcome in Japan.

I love Japan and the Japanese people. It is a beautiful country, with a unique and wonderful people. I am happy to have the chance to live and study here. However, every rose has thorns, and racism is one of Japan’s thorns. I can only hope that time, and a slowly growing population of immigrants and foreign businesses will be able to blunt Japan’s dislike of Gaijin.

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