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    The Gaijin Complex

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    Kyouri Kai
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    The Gaijin Complex

    Post by Kyouri Kai on Fri 22 Feb 2008, 2:27 pm

    How Japanese view non-Japanese is always a subject of debate. Often there is a mixture of admiration, suspicion, and most often a lot of nervousness about dealing with someone who doesn't look or act like the Japanese. As stated in the Japan FAQ, it is very hard for non-Japanese to get an apartment, or a loan, credit card, etc. There is no logical or rational explanation for this conflict -- since Japanese do not think in a logical, rational fashion, at least in western terms. If you look at Japanese TV ads, the first thing you'll notice is that there are westerners in about a third of them. There are also half a dozen fluent Japanese speaking foreigners endlessly recycled on TV variety shows, constantly ingratiating themselves and amusing the Japanese enough to want them back. They are part of a group called "tarento". Their only real talent is speaking Japanese well, and many long term ex-pats see them as intellectual whores since they must go through the same problems others do, yet they know the rule of getting invited back is to never bite the hand that feeds them. Yet there are also periodically TV infotainment shows following the cops and catching those awful foreigners committing crimes in "our country", with sinister background music shrieking away. Japanese youth generally show positive attitudes about you, from others there is often indifference. And then there is the racial question. Many people coming to Japan ask if the Japanese are racist and cold to westerners. The answer is not that simple. But it is no exaggeration to say that, bending the metaphor a bit, the Japanese see things through race-colored glasses. It must be emphasized though that Japanese racism is in almost all cases NEVER HOSTILE towards others -- so the idea of people screaming epithets at you like in the U.S. is inaccurate. (And lest you feel superior, you won't find skinhead thugs or people in white sheets in Japan, and being a woman or minority religion or race might get you far worse treatment in many countries. Maybe even yours). For some young Japanese, having a western boyfriend/girlfriend is a status-symbol, but when things go deeper (especially for a western man/Japanese woman) some people's attitudes can change dramatically. Suddenly the same people showering compliments to the Japanese with a western lover are asking if he/she is weird, or warning about terrible consequences. The attitudes from the Japanese parents may be even more disturbing. In short, it's cool (kako-ii) to look western on a superficial level, but anything more serious often brings a negative reaction.

    Nihongo Wa Jouzu Desu Neh!

    Upon entering Japan you'll soon discover an unusual trait of Japanese -- they can both insult you and compliment you at the same time. One good example is that on top of a few Japanese "Love Hotels" (which are hotels decked out in glittery pink neon and rent rooms by the hour or night for obvious reasons) you will find a big Statue of Liberty. It may be flattering that such an American symbol is taken for "liberty", but at the same time to see it on top of a sleazy hotel is a little disconcerting. In the same way, the westerner coming to Japan will right from the airport be drowned in the "compliment" Nihongo wa jouzu desu neh, or "Your Japanese is good". It's usually spoken in a "Look Mom, the horse can do math problems" kind of way -- slightly condecending. The problem with all this is that it is put on you a thousand times a day, every time you open your mouth, in exactly those same words -- never once said in a different way. And the fact that it has nothing to do with your Japanese ability. In fact, the better your Japanese gets, the less you hear it. Even more demeaning is hearing "O-hashi wa jouzu desu neh" which means you can use chopsticks well. The fact that a 4 or 5 year old Japanese child is supposed to use them easily but you're never expected to know how is an insult few Japanese are "international" enough to realize. To the Japanese, they are not consciously looking down on you, but rather trying to establish rapport through bombarding you with things they think you like to hear. It's important not to get upset about this and just play humble by denying the praise over and over as they would. All of that is relatively benign. The real problem is dealing with the occasional neanderthal where even if you've attained near native fluency they still have a "See-White-Face, Hear-Japanese, Does-Not-Compute" mentality, or the elitist complaining how you foreigners never bother to learn Japanese, and then you come along speaking proper Japanese and they insist in doing all communication in English. The reason being that more conservative types see language as race, and race as language, and when there is someone not part of the group suddenly among "us", they unconsciously feel a threat. Dealing with such Groupthink is going to be a challenge, but while you never have to like it you're going to have to deal with it. Many Japanese view westerners on two levels -- if you are taken as a temporary visitor, they nearly always treat you extremely warmly and helpfully; even lavishly. But if you are someone trying to become a member of society, there can be quite a different attitude. In contrast, other Asians are expected to pick up the Japanese language quickly, and there often is little tolerance for those that don't.

    The term "gaijin" according to the dictionary means foreigner or alien. In practice however, it always means "white person". Japanese use a lot of discrimination -- Chinese and Koreans are usually referred to by their nationality, not as "gaijin", unless speaking in legal terms. [And whatever your complaints you may have, remember SE Asians have it far worse.] The gaijin = white person stereotype is so deeply ingrained into the Japanese psyche that when the Japanese go abroad they still refer to whites as gaijin, and despite using their passports, US dollars, and going through US Customs, they are still not consciously aware of Hawaii as being a US state. Even though all Japanese know Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods are from America, it still doesn't dispel their notion that ALL Americans are blue-eyed blonds. The term "gaijin" is not in itself pejorative (though it can be used that way), but when one Japanese tells another he's doing something like a foreigner it's a strong put-down. Many Japanese ex-pats who've lived abroad are viewed supiciously. If one's English is "too good", he might be ostracized. For Japanese children who've spent time abroad and can speak English fluently (kikoku shijo), bullying from classmates can be swift and cruel. There is one exception though -- the Celebrity Factor. If one becomes a Japanese celebrity, singer, actor/actress, etc., then paradoxically all is forgiven. Then the cruelty is turned on its ear and you become a paragon of Japanese achievement. This all sounds contradictory, but the Japanese often follow such an irrational and unpredictable course.

    taken from Japanese Culture: A Primer for Newcomers