Musings on Japan #5 : Gaijin desu

This next installment of my musings on Japan was inspired by a recent incident in my sleepy hometown of Adelaide.

I was happily walking down one of our main drags, when a pair of Neanderthalian louts made some unsavoury remarks to two young Asian girls just in front of me. I’m a fairly large sort, who is easily angered by xenophobic rantings, and decided to bellow a few words that you wouldn’t hear on Sesame Street.

These brave blokes buggered off, with a few mutterings back at me, delivered from a distance.

The girls were obviously shaken up by the boys’ babblings, but they didn’t seem too surprised by it. They shrugged it off and said, in lovely Adelaidean accents, “it happens all the time.”

It got me thinking about what I would do if I had to face constant racial vilification from those who think they are better than me because of colour/creed/nationality.

Then I realised that, to a very, very small degree, I experienced something similar in Japan…

Non- Japanese people hear the word “Gaijin” a lot. An indirect translation is “foreigner”. This is what is meant by the majority who say it, and what is printed on the registered alien cards that all working non-nationals must carry. It is considered a benign word, a word with no hidden agenda, a statement of fact.

However, the direct translation means “outside person”. It is this connotation, the reference to otherness and not belonging, that I occasionally endured.

Usually it was late at night, when some disgruntled salary-man, fuelled on sake, would feel compelled to direct their chagrin at me or any other foreigner that happened to be in sight.

It never amounted to anything more than a murmured “gaijin” or, what I have phrased, the “lip smack of hate”. This was an unusual tut sound they made to express the horror of my existence.

As an example, there was a train line that I had to catch at least 4 days a week called the Mita line, or “the tuttin’ train”, as I liked to call it. The line seemed to cater to very old and very bitter men. They never failed to greet me with a lip smackin’ symphony.

These small incidents never fazed me, afterall, Japan is an amazing place. I miss it every day that I’m away from it. I love its mixture of the new and old.

However, it is because of this mixture that one senses Japan as a nation still very much in search of its identity, with a dialectical battle between homogeneity and diversity being waged to determine just what it means to be Japanese in a global age.

There is a pervasive perception of Japan as a monocultural, ethnically pure society; an idea still widely circulated within Japanese society. Within this framework, comes the quagmire of the gaijin question. As Japan’s foreign population increases, so, in equal measure, do proud assertions of its ethnic purity.

I believe it was understandable for me to think of myself as a perpetual outsider, who will only be accepted as “gaijin-san”. I was only there for a relatively short time, but even if I was born and raised and married and had children there, my eyes are green and my skin is white, so I felt that I would forever be considered as foreign.

Despite this, my personal experience of Japan was generally an incredibly positive one. The vast majority of the Japanese I met were generous and genuinely interested in the World around them. They were also incredibly patient with my mangling of their language and frequent etiquette faux pas. Quite frankly, I’m addicted to the place!

Moral of this story is – let’s all just get along people!

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