Gaijin Sensitivity


YOU are a Gaijin

Is it just me, or do foreigners (gaijin) in Japan have some serious identity issues? I recently saw a picture on the Japan Today news site of a karaoke establishment that posted a sign saying “Karaoke is Japanese culture. Welcome foreigner.” This resulted in several comments about how racist and xenophobic Japan is. I find it ironic that an effort at attracting and welcoming foreigners is taken as a racial slur. How can a welcome sign be an indicator for xenophobia?

I really can’t see how the word gaijin can be viewed as an epithet. It certainly is not viewed that way by the people using it. I cannot say that I have ever once heard the word gaijin used with contempt. Gaijin is what we are in Japan. We are foreigners. We are strangers in a strange land and most of us reap great benefits for it. Stop trying to deny your identity and embrace it.


I would say that this outrage that ensues every time the word foreigner is used, shows an underlying complex that is common among foreigners in Japan. It is surprising how desperately people need to feel accepted. The tough reality here is that if you came to Japan seeking to be accepted and embraced, you came to the wrong place. For some crazy reason Japan seems to draw all of the US’s cultural rejects. I have seen it time after time. People who don’t fit in in America get into Anime, cosplay and all things Japanese which leads to some deep seeded Japanophilia. This is possibly the unhealthiest obsession that a cultural outcast could acquire. Seeing Japan as some sort of mecca for outcasts they come by the dozen with illusions that they can simply put on the ultimate cosplay and become Japanese. This could not be farther from the truth.

Japan has the single least hospitable culture to outsiders. How do you go from feeling rejected in your home culture to seeking the culture most likely to reject you? In America we like to coddle our foreigners. We walk on eggshells until we know someone’s ethnicity and even then avoid words like foreigner. If you can’t find a place in the US’s come as you are culture, then how can you expect to be accepted in a place as closed off to all things different and foreign as Japan?

Also ironic is how the people most likely to be offended by this are the least assimilated and most eager to assimilate to Japanese culture. If you know Japan at all, then you know that Japanese people have a very strong definition of what it is to be Japanese. A friend of mine once mentioned how a Japanese teacher that she worked with had a daughter that was about to enter junior high school. This teacher said how proud they were that their daughter was going to junior high and would finally become Japanese. To be Japanese is not something guaranteed you by birth. It is something that is indoctrinated through years of attending school and growing up in Japan. So many times when a student does something wrong in Japan, I have seen it met with a surprising accusation. Are you Japanese? Every time a student fails to give the proper greetings, forgets their indoor shoes or in some way doesn’t live up to expectations, teachers will half-jokingly question their Japanhood.

Who are we to judge?

Many cultures are far more accepting of people and would consider blood to be enough. I am half Jamaican and although I have only been to Jamaica a few times, whenever I encounter Jamaicans, they acknowledge me on some level as sharing in some degree of Jamaicaness. Japan is simply different. Even people who grow up in Japan, but end up living abroad can sometimes be seen as foreigners upon returning. I don’t think that as outsiders we can really judge this. It is simply different.

Sadly people react in this way to words like foreigner, because they somehow find judgment in it. They feel that every time someone points out the simple fact that they are foreigners they are accusing them of failure to assimilate. These are imagined accusations. Japanese people are not being judgmental when they call people foreigners. In fact the irony is that when people lash out at the casual use of foreigner, they are the ones being judgmental. They are judging Japan’s culture of homogeneity. They are telling Japan to assimilate to some imagined “world culture” that breaks down culture and mass produces it into an all accepting globalized culture.

What’s worse is that not only do people attack the use of words like foreigner, but they quickly extrapolate anything they find offensive from one isolated incident into the whole of Japan. It is a little extreme to jump from one karaoke sign to lofty accusations of Japans xenophobia.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that Japan is perfect. We are all just humans. I may not like how uniform and sometimes intolerant to change Japan is, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to judge. I am sure there are many things that Japanese people don’t like about western culture, but if they were to start making judgments based on that, we would be up in arms. So let’s stop trying to change Japanese culture and accept it for what it is. Maybe we too can be accepted for what we are and our role in Japanese society.


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