Musings on the topic of ‘gaijin’…

Three gaijin (foreigners) have come to my attention this week, via the media.  One is Roger Pulvers, an American who has been in Japan for 42 years.  The second is Locohama, a blogger living in Yokohama (I don’t know his real name).  And the third is Rebecca Flint, a 14-year-old girl from Ramsey in the Isle of Man, also known as Beckii Cruel.

First, let me tell you about Roger Pulvers.  I came across an article of his which sparked my interest.  In his article “Today’s complex society in Japan spawns a new ‘foreigner complex‘”, Roger Pulvers tells the story of how, when buying a suit in a Tokyo department store, and having a conversation using “pretty effortless Japanese”, the store clerk “chose to assume” he was a tourist and gave him a 15 percent discount.  Clearly, given the conversation and the context, Roger was more likely to be a resident in Japan, yet still the store clerk wanted to give him a discount for being a tourist in Japan.  Well, he was a foreigner, wasn’t he?  Naturally, Roger accepted the discount so as not to offend, and paid with his Japanese credit card.  Can’t blame him – we’d all do the same, right?

Roger’s article discusses the fact that even though Japan is “relatively international and cosmopolitan”, foreigners continue to receive special treatment and can never expect to be treated like Japanese, no matter how long they live in Japan.  Roger says “Often a non-native who asks a question in near-fluent Japanese will be replied to in fragmented English and left thinking ‘Why don’t they realize I am speaking Japanese and answer me in their own language?'”.  I’ve had this experience more times than I can recall.  I have found myself frustrated as I try out my best Japanese phrases and the person I’m speaking too insists on replying in broken English.  I’m usually not sure which language I should speak in, and often leave conversations with a confused feeling of having had a bilingual conversation which possibly didn’t make much sense.

Personally, such situations amuse me rather than offend me, but according to Roger “[Some] non-natives have a new-type foreigner complex. Some of them even feel discriminated against”.  However, he follows this comment by saying “my advice to you, if you feel this way, is to brush it off”.

Here’s when we come to Locohama.  I found his blog about a Valentine’s Day conversation quite hilarious, and got the impression he did too.  In his blog, Locohama retells a short conversation between himself and a Japanese woman he didn’t know.  The woman asks him where he’s from, to which he replies “America”. She then tells him she just got back from Africa, and proceeds to tell him “I love black people”.  I should add that, from his picture, Locohama appears to fall into this woman’s preferred category of people.  Luckily, it seems Locohama doesn’t take life so seriously.  In fact, he comments “you gotta love this stuff, otherwise you’d go Loco for sure”.

Speaking of loco… it seems Rebecca Flint has become something of a minor celebrity these days.  Rebecca is a 14-year-old girl, known online as Beckii Cruel.  Why is she famous?  Well, she’s a cute Manx kid with an interest in Japan, which has led her to become interested in cosplay and dancing.  According to the BBC, Rebecca became “an internet celebrity after she posted videos online of herself dancing and singing to Japanese pop songs”.  Also, “a Japanese publishing company has picked up on her fame and she is set to release her debut album.”  Check out the Japanese website – she really does look the part!

So, three gaijin.  Roger has lived in Japan for 42 years and still gets a ‘foreigner discount’ because the Japanese can’t accept that a foreigner actually lives here permanently.  Locohama gets accosted in the street because of the colour of his skin, but seems to take it all in his stride.  And Rebecca, a minor celebrity at 14, just because she has an interest in Japanese culture and enjoys dancing.

So what do these foreigners’ stories tell us about Japan?  It seems to me that on the one hand, Japan is more foreigner-friendly than ever, and that generally people are really accepting of foreigners living here, or foreigners just passing through.  Japan is even welcoming to foreigners who wish to truly embrace Japanese culture (be it popular or traditional), like Rebecca.  But on the other hand, I think it’s true to say that no matter how long we foreigners live in Japan, we will always be thought of as ‘gaijin’.  Generally, I don’t feel discriminated against. Most people are very welcoming and kind.  I can only recall one occasion where I thought a man was being a little rude.  I was in my local onigiri (rice ball) shop and an old man came in (clearly a regular, too).  He looked at me, quite startled, and started asking the shop clerks if gaijin really ate onigiri too.  Of course, he thought there was no way I could understand what he was saying.  The shop clerks know I speak a little Japanese, so I just smiled to them to show I understood but wasn’t going to start a fight about it.

Japan is an interesting country which seems to be made up of Japanese who want to stay Japanese, Japanese who desperately want to be American, foreigners who want to only be with other foreigners, foreigners who want to be thought of as Japanese, and people like me (of which I hope there are many reading this blog). We just want to live here, learn about Japan and Japanese culture, stay as long as we feel like staying, while making some contribution to society, but remain who we are: British, American, Australian, Canadian, whatever.  We are foreigners living in Japan, and that’s what we will always be.  Feel free to give us a discount anytime! 😉

5 thoughts on “Musings on the topic of ‘gaijin’…

  1. Thank you for introducing me to Locohama! I liked his list of Japanese expresses that helped advance my understanding of some of these phrases. The audio is currently running in my ear, by the way!


  2. Great post. I like what Roger Pulvers said. There are some foreigners in Japan who feel they are constantly being discriminated against. Go to the forum on gaijinpot, and you’ll see a whole collection of cynical gaijin who seem to have declared war on anyone who is having a good time in Japan. I get stared at rarely, people seem to treat me like a resident (except on some occasions in touristy areas), and I’ve been living here for 5 years.


  3. Nice article! Having lived in Japan for a year I can kind of understand where Roger Pulvers is coming from. You certainly do get used to it, as ridiculous as it feels sometimes.


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