A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Gaijin, The Novelty That Never Wears Off

As the time that I’ve spent in Japan reaches almost 2 years, I’ve noticed that I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to one aspect of living here; the vacant, boggle eyed, gawking stares, that often follow me when I’m out and about.

Although this has always been part of life here, for some reason, I have found myself becoming increasingly more pissed off by it in recent months. In the early days during the honeymoon period, I found it somewhat amusing that I should draw so much attention simply for being non-Japanese. After all, in those days, the new world of Japan was just as much of a novelty to me, as I was to the world of Japan. But as the months ticked on and the excitement of octopus tentacles, okonomiyaki restaurants, and capsule hotels faded, living in Japan just became normal and homely to me. But for the local Japanese population, my distinct non-Japanese-ness always seemed to be worthy of a stare, and the novelty never did, and perhaps, never will, wear off.

Now, I realise that on a global scale of racism and discrimination, this ranks pretty low down on the list of complaints. After all, to my knowledge, I’ve never been openly called names (other than gaijin, meaning foreigner), I’ve never had to put up with any sort of violent behaviour, and overall, the Japanese who’ve crossed my path have been extremely kind, helpful and generous towards me. However, this doesn’t mean I still don’t get annoyed at the obvious stares, and under-the-breath muttering of “Look! Gaijin!”, which then causes every other Japanese person in the vicinity to stare too.

It’s now got to the point where I often just can’t be bothered to go out on my own to the supermarket or a restaurant, because I know I’ll end up getting pissed off with being started at. When I do eat out, I now select the most hidden table I can find to try and stand out as little as possible. Sometimes you just want to get on with your chores or eat your meal, without having your shopping basket scrutinised, or you menu selection talked about.

I acknowledge that a large part of this unwelcome fame is due to living in the so called inaka (countryside), because there are very few other foreigners here. For example, in my town of Ono which claims a population 40,000, there are only 5 other foreigners that I know of. In that respect, it’s not really surprising that you turn a few heads, because you are a rarity. Yet, I just find it down right rude to be so openly and obviously stared wherever I go. There have been foreigners living here for at least the last 18 years so why are we still getting started at like we’re from outer space?

As opposed to every other country I visited, Japan has a very homogenous population, and I think this leads to somewhat of a “Japan VS The World” mentality. It’s Us Vs Them; you’re either Japanese, or you’re foreign – there’s no middle ground. This is always illustrated at the immigration desk at the airport upon returning to Japan after a visit abroad. Written in English and Japanese, a sign explains the two queues at the passport check; one is for “Foreigners”, the other for “Japanese or Those Holding Re-entry Permits”.

As we have a working visa and a re-entry permit, we are entitled to join the Japanese queue, yet this is always guaranteed to cause a stir. Upon returning from Seoul last week, myself and The Bran Pan Man were joking about this very situation as we walked up to the Japanese queue. Sure enough, we were instantly accosted by a large Japanese airport official, who told us we were in the wrong queue. We then explained we were entitled to be there, and realising her defeat she threw in a quick “Well make sure you’re not carrying any meat or fish!”. Don’t worry, we weren’t.

Then five minutes later, a little Japanese kid came up to us, pointed at the foreigner’s queue, and told us we should go over there. We told him that we lived in Japan, but it just didn’t compute and he eventually walked away puzzled as to why two obviously non-Japanese people could be in the Japanese queue.

It’s one of the reasons why foreigners find it hard to live in Japan for a long period of time, because even when you feel like a local, you’ll always be seen as a foreigner. Even some of my friends who speak fluent Japanese say this never really changes, and it tends to lead to a slightly bitter feeling amongst long term expats -because the novelty of your foreignness, just never wears off.


Anonymous stu said...

I hear you mr drummer - sometimes it's hard to be positive about it all. I think more language helps a little, makes one more accepted. possibly you are still on the outside because you don't understand so much - like me. aren't able.
but even in glasgow - now a fairly multicultural town, my wife would get called a chinky from time to time by the local neds.
so you are right - the situation could be a lot worse. that's probably the best view to take as you ignore the ignorant.

Thursday, April 06, 2006 10:10:00 pm

Blogger mohumble said...

calm yourself down. you were stared at here too- for being a wazzok..

Friday, April 07, 2006 8:37:00 am

Blogger Benito Aramando said...

"Well make sure you’re not carrying any meat or fish!"

haha! fantastic retort, there! she wasn't scraping the barrel at all. oh, no.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006 10:20:00 pm

Anonymous NiHao said...

As a blonde girl growing up in Singapore, I used to have random strangers touching my hair ALL the time. The mixture of delight and fright on their faces got old after about a week!

Friday, April 28, 2006 5:12:00 am


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