Japan is one of the most homogenous countries in the world. Some 98.5% of the population are native Japanese. But hey, this is a country of 130 million people, right? So even from that remaining 1.5% we still have some 2 million foreign nationals. However, nearly two-thirds of these are of Asian appearance (ie. Chinese and Korean), and don’t physically stand out. Which is not to say they are not treated as foreigners – anything but – but that’s a whole other blog post. Although that whole 1.5% are often bracketed as ‘Gaijin’ in Japan, I am going to stick with what I know and have experienced here – the Gaijin of non-Asian appearance.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: what is a ‘Gaijin’ (外人)? It is the Japanese word for foreigner, along with it’s more formal version, ‘Gaikokujin’ (外国人). The two kanji characters that make up Gaijin literally translate as ‘outside person’. It really doesn’t pay to take the Japanese language at face value, mind, because the true meaning is usually quite crude and mundane. Take Tokyo, for instance. The word literally means ‘East Capital’. Because it’s the Capital City. In…the East. Someone was working late in the office on that one.
But the conundrum of the Gaijin is a strange one. Because is Japan a racist country? Compared to other developed nations, yes, absolutely. But they are usually really, really nice about it. You see, I can’t stress enough that you will very, very rarely see or hear about violent racism in Japan. But lest we forget, this is a nation of 98.5% shared Japanese-ness. And it has been that way since…well, since there’s been a Japan. There’s a fair chance you and I don’t have to go too far along our family tree to find immigrants, emigrants and a whole mish-mash of nationalities in our backstories. Ask a Japanese citizen to do that, and they will trace lines back to the shoguns of the feudal period and beyond. All contained in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan is a nation proud of it’s history (for the most part), culture and social fabric, and fairly so. And as far as they are concerned, Japan is a country for Japanese, by Japanese. To be Japanese is to be ‘in’. Not ‘out’. Not ‘Gaijin’.
But they are not mean about it. All it means is that they are as patronizing as hell to Gaijin. Because they assume you know nothing about Japan. How can you? You’re not Japanese! Of course, there are flipsides to this, which is why tourists return from Japan raving about the hospitality and how polite the people are. And that is nice. But there is a vast difference between polite and friendly. Politeness is good for about 6 months. Then you kinda wish the cashier at 7/11 would stop complimenting your Japanese even though you use it every time you shop there, and you wish the local ramen shopkeeper would stop looking so shocked that you can use chopsticks. You think I’m exaggerating or making mountains of molehills? What about the mixed race kids who are born here, lived here all their life, yet they are the ones handed a knife and fork when the family goes out to a restaurant?
Because Japan is comparatively new to the game when it comes to immigrants, their equal rights record for foreigners is pretty shocking, despite their Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for all. Companies still refuse employment to Gaijin. It’s very hard for Gaijin to buy and rent homes. And some stores even outright refuse to serve Gaijin. Well, I did say they were usually really nice about it.
I could go on forever about this issue. There are piles of essays and blogs out there who have this topic covered in endless detail already, and I doubt I will have any fresh new angles to rant from. But I will finish off by saying that, honestly, despite the situation described above, it really isn’t as bad as some make out. Trouble is, we Gaijin are far too self-conscious of our situation – and who can blame us! – and often fail to see the bigger picture.
Yes, overarching issues like jobs, equal treatment and representation do matter. But day-to-day, with interactions with the Japanese on the ground, most of the time they just don’t care about you, and I mean that in a really good way. That whole small-talk of ‘Your Japanese/use of chopsticks is good!’ are the icebreakers of a shy nation of people who are curious at the kind of face they see one time out of, I dunno, 300. When we’re away, that 98.5% have their own lives, troubles, bills and hangovers to worry about. Day by day the whole Gaijin problem doesn’t factor in to them.
And frankly, the more people who are indifferent to me, the better!