Living in Japan Without Being a Gaijin

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.

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22 Responses to Living in Japan Without Being a Gaijin

  1. Tom says:

    Are you a resident or a japanese citizen?

  2. ksuzuki says:

    I’m a Japanese-American who lived in Osaka until kindergarten and studied there in college. I always perceived that truly bilingual caucasian gaijin enjoyed almost celebrity status and I imagined that such status would open doors both social and professional doors. Yet, at the same time, I can imagine that that only goes so far. I’d be interested to hear your stories about encountering such obstacles.

    • Socially, I suppose it can open some doors, but there are many limitations. Many people will want to be your friend because they see you as kind of a novelty, as something different than the norm, and not because of your personality and thoughts. I’m quiet and tend to keep to myself, and I generally avoid the people who simply want lots of foreign friends (some people call them “gaijin collectors”), so I’ve never really experienced the “celebrity” status that many short-term residents talk about. Many people in Japan see gaikokujin as outsiders no matter how long they have been in Japan and no matter what they achieve, which can be incredibly frustrating at times. But in the end, if you have a few close friends who respect you, then all the other stuff just doesn’t seem to matter.
      It can probably open doors career-wise in the realm of English teaching and bartending, but much more talent is required to enter other fields–expats are actually at a disadvantage in that sense, because Japanese fluency is something Japanese have naturally whereas we have work very hard to attain a similar level of proficiency.
      Kind of a long answer, but hopefully I answered your question 🙂

  3. tukusigal says:

    My husband (a white American) had the same experience in Fukuoka 30 years ago. He got tired of being gaijin and returned to the U.S. He wanted to raise our two kids in the U.S. because he did not want them to feel special just because they are “half”. Half-white get a little bit of rock star-like treatment in Japan (if they are good looking (LO)). Best wishes for you. If you have positive attitudes as you do, you should have a fulfilling and happy life in Japan. Compared to 30 years ago, Japan improved quite a bit – in those days, gaijin could not even apply to jobs with Japanese companies. Now they are open to hire non-Japanese, at least!

    • Thanks for the kind wishes! Japan is my home and I can’t imagine living anywhere else, so I’m trying my best to fit in 🙂 Being American, I think I have it easier than some.
      The job situation and people’s attitudes in general have must have changed a lot. I can’t imagine how tough it must have been 30 years ago. However, I do wish some of the foreigners here today would try to cultivate a more positive image, because many of them show little interest in integrating. If gaikokujin would try to act a bit more “Japanese” and avoid adopting superior attitudes, I think Japanese people’s image of us would improve greatly and they would start taking us more seriously regarding employment and other aspects of life.

      • tukusigal says:

        I am flattered that you like Japan and Fukuoka a lot. Sounds like both the Japanese and foreigners have rooms to improve. Yes, 30 years ago, it was tougher not only for gaijin but also for others including female Japanese college graduates like me. I am sure it’s got better now. I hope things will continue getting better.

  4. Leah says:

    My husband and I have both corrected people about calling us that. Most notably, the time when I stopped my bike to yell at a kid who called me “gaijin”–I think I said something to the effect of 「私達は人間同士じゃないか?」It’s really frustrating for me because even when I am going on fluently about this or that thing, people see my (white) face or my (katakana) name and whoops!, there goes my cover.

    One thing we’re really annoyed with is people ignoring clearly posted rules. For instance, I swim at our local fitness center, and the lanes are clearly marked “fast/slow lane, no walking, swim on the right” and “water walking lane.” If a Japanese person walks in the swimming lane, whatever–the staff doesn’t care–but if I do, I’m a stupid foreigner who obviously can’t read. We follow the law (visas, etc.) and the rules (traffic directions, etc.) to the letter because if we mess up, we’ll look bad and make other foreigners look bad, too.

    Not that I’m saying I should be allowed to break the rules, but it gets really frustrating feeling “on guard” all the time.

    • Leah says:

      I should point out that I’m bilingual and my husband is not, but his coworkers and I help him as much as possible and he’s pretty good about picking up on images and cues when he can’t read something. He’s trying, at any rate.

      • Hey Leah, thanks for you comments! Yep, I know how frustrating that can be…many people assume we just don’t understand when we bend the rules, when really we’re just doing what anyone else would do 🙂 It’s definitely good to follow the rules, though, because like it or not we represent other people from our countries 😛

  5. Ken Seeroi says:

    Nice piece and well stated. There’s a tradition in Japan of confusing nationality with race. But hey, don’t roll over so easily. Anybody (yes, even you) can be Japanese.

    You know, nobody gives you rights. Like the right to party, you gotta fight for it. Look at immigrants to the U.S.–they wear American clothes, speak English, and change their names, and they still struggle. Back in China, some dude’s name was Wang Fun, but in the U.S. he’s Sam. Same goes for Carlos from Mexico and Gunther from Germany.

    Already 1 out of 30 people in Japan are “half” Japanese. Many more are a quarter, an eighth, or some other fraction other than “pure blooded.” Just like anywhere else. You might want to check out http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/whos-really-japanese/ , written by famed Japanese white guy Ken Seeroi.

    You’re right that this same thing exists the world over, but to say it’s not racism is uh . . . what’s the English phrase?–a stretch? Okay, “racism” is a loaded word, so let’s just say “discrimination.” When you treat other people differently based upon how they look, that’s what that is. And Japan’s not likely to run out of it any time soon.

    It’s true that Japan enjoys a reputation for, as you put it, “impeccable manners,” but let’s be careful not to confuse “respect for others” with following the rules and doing one’s job. Ways of expressing respect and disrespect are different in Japanese, and systematically excluding groups of people based upon their appearance rarely qualifies as “respect.”

    So yeah, “gaijin,” etc. are objectionable terms. But that won’t change unless people of other ethnicities make it change. Accepting the label, or worse–acting like Uncle Toms–only reinforces the stereotype. It’s not 1950 any more, baby. We shall overcome.

    • Hi Ken, thanks for your comment. I agree with your opening statement completely–anybody can be Japanese. I don’t have citizenship here, but I am definitely a contributing member in Japanese society and this is where I belong. I’m lucky that many of my friends and family understand that about me.

      As for “racism” and “discrimination,” I’d say the latter applies at times, but in most cases I don’t think Japanese people are doing either. Both of those terms imply some form of willful animosity or distaste toward people from other countries, and I think most of the things that people call “discrimination” in Japan result from ignorance and lack of knowledge more than anything else (Note: I’m a white American, so I’m treated fairly well. if I were, say, Chinese or Kenyan my opinion would most likely be very different.) I can forgive people for just being ignorant in most cases, even if it’s frustrating to deal with.

      However we view Japan, I think one thing that all of us expats need to do is cultivate a better image through how we act on a daily basis. If we try to resist and fight against things that are common throughout society, we’ll be doing just what they expect us to, and they’ll dismiss us as annoying, complaining foreigners. I think it’s better to try to integrate as much as possible, and in time people’s thinking will gradually start to change. We are in Japan, after all–they shouldn’t have to adapt to our way of doing things. A lot of times, foreigners are the ones at fault because they’re just not trying hard enough.

      Anyhoo, I’m pretty much Japanese already…some people here just haven’t caught on to that fact yet 😉

    • Dennis in Osaka says:

      Ken: You got me! I thought you were being serious with your link, which I followed up, and has YOUR quote: “You know how all Japanese people look alike? Well, my first job in Japan was teaching English, and it was maddening, since all of my students looked exactly the same. “

  6. Oskar says:

    Thank you posting this deep insight into living in Japan as an expat. Me and my Japanese wife are seriously considering moving to Japan and Fukuoka is on our radar as the final place to settle. I’ve been outside of my home country for 25 years and are got used to be a foreigner but moving to Japan presents a new challenge of becoming a visible one, which is different from being Caucasian in North America. I think that chosing a life of an immigrant carries a price of never becoming fully integrated within the new home country and this is something that one might have to come to terms with.

    • Steve says:

      Being a black man and from America is double tough. Especially when I’m not the stereotype. Listening to rap music and dressing the part. This is my second time living in Japan. I’m not a English teacher. Finding a normal job in Japan is almost impossible. You have to know the language. Unlike in America where there are a ton of spanish people working that don’t know a lick of English.I was rejected the other day because I could not read kanji. I’m taking Japanese classes but it will take years until I’m at a proper level. Anyway I never see foreigners working in stores and everyday jobs. My only option seems to be a low paying factory job which I’m struggling to find. I love my wife which happens to be Japanese. I simply will just not give up. My opinion of Japan. Great place to visit but not to live for a long period of time.

  7. jjgofaster@yahoo.com says:

    I have found this whole subject facinting, and hoping someone can offer me some suggestions and maybe even some guidance. I lived and worked for almost ten years in Japan during the 80’s ( yes I am that old) Married a wonderful Japanese lady from Kushu, and now that retirement is in the near future, we have decided to try and retire in Fukuoka. Any and all advice would be appreciated. I plan to be moving before the end of this year. Thanks in advance.

  8. Jungle Jimmy says:

    Thought I would add an antidotal “Gaijin story from ack in the 80’s. I once was walking back to my “house” in Japan and a bunch of young maybe 6 to 8 year old boys started following me and yelling Gaijin over and over , so with a big smile I turned around and said Hai watashi Gaijin you Ninjin? They freaked out because I had called them carrots instead of Japanese. After that it was always just hello.

  9. Eric Hill says:

    Having just moved to Tokyo for a teaching job myself, I’ve been reading a lot of expat perspectives on adapting to Japanese culture. I’m noticing a distinct trend in which well-adapted gaijins have an oddly recriminating attitude against expats who have the gall to retain the characteristics of their home culture. Surely, one should learn social etiquette (and I am), but if exhibiting the personality I’ve carefully honed by living a real, adult life in America will indeed forever mark me as a “shark at a petting zoo,” I feel like I ought to be booking my ticket home. I came here to teach, make friends and engage a culture I’ve always admired from afar, not to shed my cultural identity in lieu of something more “exclusive.” In your honest opinion, is there a place for expats like me (beyond being merely an English-lesson-dispensing worker drone), or am I wasting my time?

    • kmsuzuki says:

      Depends on what you mean when you say “characteristics of their home culture”. Can you be more specific? As far as there being room for your personality within the spectrum of expats in Tokyo: Yes.

      • Eric Hill says:

        Well, the author seemed to say that his personality being “more Japanese than American” was key to making friends and being accepted by his community… While I indeed enjoy certain aspects of Japanese culture (the art and literature, for one, blows me away), I don’t think I’m anywhere near that wavelength personality-wise (I’m a pretty sardonic guy with good interpersonal skills but an otherwise pretty blase attitude towards social order). Will being a typical American with merely better-than-average manners relegate me to expat circles exclusively?

  10. Dennis in Osaka says:

    Best way of making Japanese friends is by becoming an expert in your hobby, and indicating you are here for the long term. (Developing your Japanese, have a Japanese spouse, have children, and purchase real estate).

  11. As someone who has been travelling back & forth to Japan since the early 80’s, I am pleased to read that other non Japanese see mileage in not making every ‘gaigin’ seem like a complete idiot. For reasons beyond my understanding, first time travellers sometimes get excited and begin to talk and act in a way that they wouldn’t dare in the presence of people they respect in their own country. The question is, why do it overseas?. I’ve seen this foolish behaviour start from when they board their flight & get their first drink. What gives? Immaturity I expect! I’d much prefer to be a ‘fly on the wall’ and go unnoticed, thereby simply enjoying the very things I’ve travelled to see, taste & experience. Something Japan has influenced me with is to be more aware of the feelings of others. I hope that came across okay. Take care all.

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