Gaijin Complaint


I'm feeling sick of having my differences pointed out.

It's a condition I think most foreign residents in Japan suffer at some point. For some people, it gets so bad their only treatment is to return to their home countries. Others find a suitable remedy and recover with time. I've been relatively symptom-free for over eight years but all of a sudden, I'm struck down with Gaijin Complaint.

What are the indications?

1. "We Japanese" phrasing starts a raging fever.

For example, a friend's Japanese teacher did it to me the other week. "We Japanese use those as sewing boxes," she said when I was showing my friend a beautiful Showa-era cabinet I intended to use as a jewelry box. Would she have said that to a Nihonjin? Certainly not. Did I need to be corrected? Certainly not.

Then a few days later, a shopkeeper called me mezurashii (unusual) because I filled in a form without actually looking at it and wrote my name on the address line. "Japanese people would have put their name here," he said, pointing. If I were Japanese, would he have said that? I think not.

2. Assumptions about my eating preferences make me lose my appetite.

I do not want a fork with my conbini salad; I'd prefer chopsticks just like all "you Japanese." Thank you.

3. Excessive staring causes me to withdraw.

I grapple with a desire to blend in and the knowledge that I never will. I am sized and colored differently to 99% of the population. I am a novelty who is tired of being noticed. On the other hand, I don't want to hang around the gaijin hot spots like the Pink Cow, Yoyogi Park or the foreign ghettos in Minato-ku

4. Presumptions about my comprehension make me to prickle all over.

Whether it's what they are saying or some aspect of culture, it aggravates me when people think I don't understand. I'm sure in lots of ways I don't but I'm not entirely clueless.

For example, yesterday there was a handwritten notice in our lobby stating "Futons are bulky trash and need to be collected by the city for a fee; please contact the management office." When I left the building in the morning, the manager caught my eye and rose from his desk, which he only does if I am stopping by to pay the water bill. Did they assume that I had thrown away a futon? Ha, ha. It wasn't me.

I don't like this dis-ease. I love living in Japan. I want to be comfortable again, so of course I've been thinking of possible palliatives. Cheerfully embrace my gaijin-ness, or strive to behave more like Japanese? Improve my language skills, or bury myself deeper in my English-speaking bubble? Point out discrimination in a polite non-confrontation way, or pitch a screaming fit every time I'm offended?

Somehow I think some of these might work better than others. What do you think? How did you handle your spell of gaijin complaint?


As long as they don't have bad intentions, I try to let it slide. But sometimes mean is just mean.

I try to think of all the bonuses of language ignorance (or that sort of semi-ignorance that most of us gaijin float around in) such as being in a huge, ad-saturated metropolis but having almost 0% of that advertising targeted at you, or being able to plead ignorance in certain situations.

As for hanging out with other gaijin, I think it's a weird thing that lots of us wrestle with. But just by being gaijin we have a shared experience in common, and a majority people who take the plunge and try to make it in a foreign company are really cool and interesting people (or really sleazy).

I hardly ever used to notice the things I outlined above and when I did, I chalked them up to good but misplaced intention. But over the last couple of months, it's all descended upon me in a heap of bad feeling.

Unfortunately, my language ability isn't so poor that I can't understand the advertising. It's just not good enough to make pleasant conversation.

And I do have wonderful, interesting foreign friends who I love to hang out with. I simply don't want to go to with the areas where the "expat" crowds live and frolic.

I get annoyed by a lot of things in Japan, but having someone try to discuss with me the traditional use of a Japanese cabinet or correcting me when I muck up the filling out of a form aren't among them.

2 is bothersome, but the people are trying to be helpful in most cases so I try to take it as such.

3 is annoying, I guess you are just too nice to look at. Try being a bit less attractive.

4 is again annoying, but it sure is helpful when you actually don't understand, and was probably a big help to you when you first got here. I'd say most of these lemons make great lemonade.

I realise that these complaints would make a lovely fruity drink. I used to be perfectly sanguine about it all. Where's my equilibrium gotten to? And I think point one isn't so much about the correction, as it is about the inclusive/exclusiveness of "we Japanese."

I'm not sure how the people are saying we Japanese in Japanese, but I sometimes get the feeling that when a Japanese person uses "we Japanese" along with an explanation of a certain behavior way of doing things it is less of an inclusion/exclusion thing than when an American would say we Americans, and more of an "I wouldn't try to force my way of doing things on you, but normally..." type of vibe. Of course I wasn't there, don't know the context, and you've been here longer than I. Maybe it was just as nasty as you felt it was.

I have been through periods of this as well. It IS irritating - especially the "we japanese" thing but as Bob suggests, I think it is a lost in translation error rather than a deliberate exclusion/inclusion exercise. What used to really bother me was the standard first 5 questions that people asked - "where are you from.." etc and depending on what type of mood I was in, I would either answer facteously or ask them where they were from too. These days people tend to suggest that I have been here a while after the ice has been broken.

However recently more people I come across assume that:
a) I can speak at least some japanese;
b) I didn't fall off the last boat;
c) I can use chopsticks/onsens/train ticket vending machines; and
d) I know where I am going.

I do think though that people pick up on the non-verbals that we put out. If I look like I know where I am going then people tend not to stare.

It is odd though for a city the size of Tokyo that there are still so many country bumpkin type attitudes of locals here... I mean there are so many people on the streets that look non-japanese these days you would think that people have lost the novelty factor of seeing one of us barbarians.

I do like it when shop keepers in my neighbourhood smile in recognition when I walk in.

I too don't feel Japanese (gladly) but I still don't feel like an outsider. Perhaps that is the vibe that I put out and either I don't notice any negative treatment or perhaps I just don't let it get to me. I am a fairly friendly person by nature so I do believe that people take my lead on that and respond in kind.

That said, I do get mightily pissed off when a taxi driver won't stop and assume it is out of prejudice... their loss as they have missed out on a fare.

here is knowledge:
unfortunate as it may be to point out the obvious:
yr whole being, as evidenced by yr blog, shows that you like to be noticed and stand out. from yr pond-parties to yr penis sketches, you are a person who prefers to be different.
if you live in someplace like cleveland, you would feel as if you are special because of yr oddness and you would revel in it.

here is reality:
but you live in japan. a few weeks ago you told us all that you want permanent residency. this is schizophrenic behavior.
you know that japan is conformist.
you know that japan embraces solidarlty.

but here is hope:
you look at harajuku fashion and wonder why you cant fit in.
you look at the great variety of youths exhibiting some western sensibilties and wonder why you feel rejected.

but i want you to look deeper. you will find the answer.
japan allows all of its residents, not just citizens, freedom within the circle. but dont think you can enlarge the circle. the circle doesnt expand to fit yr needs.
if you want to feel special, you must feel special within the prescribed limits. if you must demonstrate yr individuality do it in a japanese way.

by all means know that language is key, but yr brain's pathways have already been mapped to a different pattern before puberty. unless you are one of the lucky westerners who are pretty much predisposed to already thinking like the japanese before you ever learn about japan, you need to understand that your current desparate longing to be a part of japan is not going to happen.

be happy as a part of the social and very tolerant fabric that this great and beautiful society offers. you fit in this society as a foreiner. that is yr place. and the place of foreigner can be as good and meaningful and and fullfilling as you want to make it. but dont think you are a japanese. you arent.

you dont want to be japanese. your whole id is crying to be heard in such a sad way (currently) that your family should be very concerned about you right now. instead of gioing to triennials and having heatstroke, you should consider going to next door korea for a two or three week visit. it is similiar to japan but enough of it different that you will begin to see japan for what it is and possibly get you back on track.

dont give up. but knowing what to give in about is important to survival and health.

i wish you and yr husband the best.

I disagree about the "we Japanese" being a translation error. It's a whole belief system about Japanese identity (nihonjinron) as defined in contrast to perceived American identity. Its insidious and it used to drive me nuts too.

Racism sucks. theres no two ways about it. I handled badly, grumpily, obnoxiously, sarcastically and occasionally by remembering that most of the world suffers it at some stage or another, so consequently my understanding and ability to feel compassion has been expanded. Apart from that, ther only way to regain your equilibrium is to allow yourself to be distracted away from it. If you feed it too much of your attention, it will get worse.

I wasn't saying that I think "We Japanese" is a translation error so much as a different shade of the meaning. It can be taken as inclusion/exclusion, but it can also be taken as "In our culture we generally do things this way." The cultures ARE different in places, and in places where we do differ, I see nothing wrong with pointing it out. I guess basically I'm saying it's a fuzzy line, but I choose to give the benefit of the doubt there. There are plenty of other, much more blatant forms of racism/exclusion to get steamed about. Racism does suck, but there is plenty of it to go around without hunting for it. Just for the record, spelling your as yr also sucks.

I really like niji's comment tho. Pretty perceptive for someone who doesnt seem to know you.

(Looks like niji has been texting too much and cant get out of the yr habit. Me personally, im having great trouble getting out of the tmrw habit.)

Id like to add to nijis comment and suggest that even here at home ive been running up against the boundaries here and there, and its uncomfortable, but it happened before i left, and its happened since i got back: i think it just happens sometimes. Especially to people who live out on the edges most of the time. Poor Ken hits those boundaries on a pretty regular basis in his job i think, and i suspect its driving him nuts, despite his gaman attitude when he talks to me about it... And as far as racism goes, hearing the prejudiced and racist comments of the people around me irritates me nearly as much as hearing it directed towards me. Ive had some very confrontational exchanges with people (mostly in supermarkets actually) who were INCREDIBLY rude to other non-white shoppers. Im very embarrassed to be Australian at these times. I despair of people's intelligence. I feel sharply the ways in which i dont fit in. I feel angry and hot. And then i say something rude and stupid to the rude and stupid person.... Im still working on that part.

(oh dear, proof-reading is so hard in these tiny boxes!)

Your trash story reminds me of the time the college girls were moving out of their dorms and left a mess of trash behind. That morning I went straight to the head teacher and said, "I want to tell you before someone else does that the college girls did not sort their trash and they left a big mess. It wasn't me. I know how to take out MY trash properly." How well trained I was!

I always felt comfortable being different in Japan. Niji has me pegged. I was always weird. In America my weirdness left me feeling excluded and I wondered why I didn't fit in. In Japan, I knew why I didn't fit in and so it never bothered me.

I had just the opposite problem. I was intensely curious about Japanese culture and would ask, "Why do the Japanese do this? Why do the Japanese do that?' My head teacher interpreted my questions as attacks on the Japanese way of doing things and got quite defensive. (Mostly because she didn't know--she'd go home and ask her mother and report back the next day.)

I love the differences. I'm always comparing and contrasting. If tells me "We do it this way." (and I get this from my English in-laws, too) I either reply, "Really! Why?" or "Really! We do it like this."

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  • M Sinclair Stevens: Your trash story reminds me of the time the college read more
  • j-ster: I really like niji's comment tho. Pretty perceptive for someone read more
  • UltraBob: I wasn't saying that I think "We Japanese" is a read more
  • j-ster: I disagree about the "we Japanese" being a translation error. read more
  • niji: here is knowledge: unfortunate as it may be to point read more
  • T: I have been through periods of this as well. It read more
  • UltraBob: I'm not sure how the people are saying we Japanese read more
  • Kristen: I realise that these complaints would make a lovely fruity read more
  • UltraBob: I get annoyed by a lot of things in Japan, read more
  • Kristen: I hardly ever used to notice the things I outlined read more