I was born and raised in the United States, and living there during my youth made me into the person I am today. There are many advantages and disadvantages to life in the USA, as with any country. However, my adult life (since I started working to support myself) has been spent in various places throughout Japan, mainly Osaka and Fukuoka. I began studying Japanese when I was 18, stopped studying when I was 19, started studying again at 20, studied abroad in Tokyo for a short time when I was 21, and finally moved here in 2006 at the age of 23 after graduation. My first post-university (“real”) job was in Kawanishi, a quiet suburb near the Osaka-Hyogo border, and my career as a translator started in Osaka.
When I first came to Japan, I was a clueless foreigner, someone who could barely get by conversationally and knew very little about the culture except for snippets of knowledge on Japanese literature and history learned through classes (as well as a little bit about Doraemon). Today I am a professional Japanese-to-English translator, husband to a lovely Japanese woman, a quasi-expert on nihonshu (or so I’ve been told), and a member of my local community here in Fukuoka. I have published a guidebook on Osaka and am currently writing one for Fukuoka, and I have been interviewed for articles about Japan in various publications, including the New York Times. I know very little of what happens in my home country except snippets I hear via Skype sessions and Facebook, I do not speak English most days (although I write it), and everything in my life centers on Japan. Yet I am still a gaijin–now and for the rest of my life.
For those not familiar with the term, gaijin (外人) is short for gaikokujin (外国人, lit. “outside country person”), which means “foreigner” but also carries the connotation of “non-Japanese” and even “outsider” in many people’s minds. Despite the impeccable manners and respect for others shown by most Japanese, they seem to throw the word “gaijin” around without discretion.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not one of those disenchanted expats who feels they are being discriminated against or treated unfairly, which is just not true (most Western expats are treated more than fairly in Japan). I understand the cultural basis, the core thinking, behind the use of the word and the general consciousness that leads people to differentiate sharply between Japanese and non-Japanese. This consciousness may be more pronounced in Japan than in some countries, but it exists in one form or another in every country throughout the world. It is not xenophobia or racism. It is simply the way that things are, and any expat in any country in the world must adjust and adapt if they want to live somewhere besides the place they were born.
Yet I hate being called “gaijin.” That’s because I have adapted and made Japan my home, and because my personality is more Japanese than it is American (this is not an exaggeration–ask around if you don’t believe me). That’s not to say that I am Japanese, because I most certainly am not: I was born in the United States and spent a majority of my life there. But I have devoted myself to creating a life in Japan and contributing to this country that I love, and to be constantly dismissed as a gaijin is, at times, frustrating.
This is the reason most people leave Japan after a few years, or even less. In some ways, Japan is a difficult place for a foreigner to live over the long term, because no matter how fluent one becomes in Japanese, how accustomed one becomes to Japanese culture, and how knowledgeable is on Japan in general, one’s face will always look like a gaijin, and that makes everything harder. Forming lasting friendships, renting an apartment, getting a credit card, having a conversation, buying groceries–all of it becomes harder.
But I encourage people to stay and to try. I want people to live in Japan without letting themselves be a gaijin. What I mean by that is to avoid adopting the “rock star” mentality that many expats have. To learn Japanese (yes, even the kanji) rather than settle for being less fluent than a first-grader. To learn customs and social etiquette. To (this one’s for the guys) stop pretending you are good looking just because desperate girls at gaijin bars want to use you to boost their self-esteem. To avoid breaking the rules and refusing to conform just because people will forgive you for being ignorant. To stop being a clown / human gimmick / free-of-charge native-English-speaking tutor and start making friends based on real interpersonal connections. To live as a Japanese rather than as a self-satisfied foreigner who sticks out like a shark in a petting zoo.
Why? Why is it better to live this way rather than do whatever you want all day, every day? Because it is one thousand times more rewarding. And because you will create a positive image for other foreigners who are really trying.
I am sorry if this sounds harsh, but it is what many of us serious expats think.
I may have come from the outside, but my heart and soul are in Japan. I will probably struggle my whole life with the challenge of being considered a gaijin in a country that I call my own, but it is worth it because I love living here and I enjoy the people in my life. It is my home and I refuse to be a gaijin, no matter how other people may see me or what they may say about me.
Be an insider, not an outsider. Even if you have to force the issue.