Gaijin: Being A Foreigner in Japan

There is nothing scarier than moving to another country without knowing anyone there. What is even scarier is not knowing the language spoken in that country. There may be a lot of reasons why one would decide to move to another country but probably most of the time the reason is because of a job. There are just certain job opportunities in other countries that one cannot pass up. Moving to another country would mean getting out of one’s comfort zone. If one would be moving to Japan, here are some things that one should know.

The Usage of the Term “Gaijin” in Japan 

First off, the Japanese people call foreigners “gaijin.” The term “gaijin” translates to “outside person,” “alien,” or “non-Japanese.” The word itself is composed of two kanji characters, namely, “gai” and “jin.” The kanji character “gai” means “outside” while the kanji character “jin” means “person.” Just the same, foreign things are referred to with the kanji character “gai” such as “gaikoku,” which means “foreign country,” and “geisha,” which means “foreign car.”

There are other people who view that the term “gaijin” has a negative or pejorative connotation. However, there are also others that believe that the term is neutral and fair. After all, it is just a direct translation. For a more formal term, foreigners can be referred to as “gaikokujin,” which translates to “foreign-country person.” This is also the term commonly used in the Japanese government as well as in media.

The term “gaikokujin” was introduced and also popularized by the Meiji government, which lasted from the year 1868 to the year 1912. The term later on replaced “ijin,” “ikokujin,” and “ihojin.” Another term was used as the Empire of Japan began to extend to Taiwan as well as Korea.

This term was known as “naikokujin,” which translates to “inside country people.” It was a term utilized to refer to nationals of other imperial territories at the time. Other terms became obsolete after the Second World War except for “gaikokujin.” It became the official term used for non-Japanese people until today. Some say that the modern term “gaijin” is a reduction of the original term “gaikokujin.”

While all forms of the terms “gaikokujin” and “gaijin” are used for “foreigner” in general, they are usually used to refer to Caucasians. However, there have been times when these terms are also used to ethnic Japanese born and raised overseas. The reference “gaijin” is also typically used in Japanese events. Such events include baseball events and professional wrestling. During these matches, visiting performers from Western countries are typically referred to as gaijin.

Japanese speakers, even while in other countries, still refer to non-Japanese people as gaijin. This is used instead of saying, for example, the Japanese translation of “American.” People with Japanese blood or of Japanese descent native to other countries may also sometimes use gaijin to call non-descendants gaijin, as an opposite term to “nikkei.” This is especially true for countries that contain huge Japanese communities.

In Japanese history, people used gaijin to refer to the wealth, as well as prestige, of Caucasians in a respectful manner. It was also used to refer to the power of western businesses. Usage of the term was seen as either positive or neutral and some people may still see it that way until today. Japanese speakers may also use this term without negative intent. However, some people view this term as derogatory. Some also say that this term reflects an exclusionary attitude.

Hence, to ensure that the tone is neutral, some people just prefer to use the term “gaikokujin” instead of “gaijin.” Because the term “gaijin” has become controversial, most Japanese TV broadcasters these days try to avoid using the term to prevent offending non-Japanese people. Instead, they use the term “gaikokujin” to refer to non-Japanese people.

Advantages of Being A Gaijin: Getting A Job, House, and Cards

There are advantages to being a gaijin or a foreigner in Japan. For one, foreigners sometimes need only know the English language. Of course, learning the Japanese language is a must in order to truly experience living in Japan. However, many foreigners have been known to be able to live a comfortable life in Japan for numerous years just by knowing and teaching English. Native or near-native speakers of English can use this as an advantage to be able to teach in Japan.

The chances of being able to work in Japan are considerably high for people who are native speakers of the English language. Bilingual people who can speak fluent English also have a good chance of teaching in Japan. Several foreigners now have lived in Japan for several years only by knowing and teaching English as a job in the Land of the Sun.

Many Japanese people who cannot speak English are also known to be envious of native English speakers. This is because knowing how to speak English enables one to travel to many countries that also speak the same language. After all, the leading language in the world is English. The same cannot be said of the Japanese language, sadly.

Another thing to consider is one’s place in Japanese society. While the locals in Japan would have to always consider their place or status in society based on the Japanese hierarchy, that does not necessarily apply to gaijin. This may either be good or bad depending on one’s perspective. Suffice it to say, there is less pressure for gaijin when it comes to this concept.

Typically, Japanese people have expectations of one another when it comes to how one interacts with society. Japanese people must also always be aware of one’s place and situation and be able to interact with other people with the correct amount of politeness. Generally, there really is a high expectation for Japanese people unlike for gaijin.

Because foreigners did not grow up in Japan, they are not necessarily expected to live up to the same standards that most, if not all, Japanese people live by. There are also certain social protocols that gaijin may occasionally get away with though not always. If the same was done by a Japanese person, he or she would probably be judged harshly by society.

Disadvantages of Being A Gaijin: Culture and Society

One major disadvantage of being a gaijin is if one is not proficient in the Japanese language. Although one can get a job teaching English in Japan, not knowing the Japanese can limit one with other job options. With knowing only the English language, it is almost certain that one would not be able to find another job option in Japan. Furthermore, one is also limited to daily activities and conversations with the locals if one does not know a single word in Japanese.

For people who wish to get a job aside from teaching English such as in media, science, or engineering, almost all companies in Japan require applicants to be at least certified that they are JLPT N2 proficient. This means that applicants must be at least in Level 2 in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which is considered to be the second hardest Japanese language exam. This level is basically the business level of Japanese language proficiency.

Another disadvantage is that while gaijin may not be expected to learn the ropes of social situations and hierarchy in Japan, they are also not exactly truly accepted by Japanese society. More often than not, gaijin may feel like they are excluded by Japanese society simply because most Japanese people assume that gaijin do not understand any of the Japanese culture and traditions. Getting accepted by Japanese society goes further than just learning simple Japanese pleasantries.

Some say that one must be of Japanese descent, meaning that one has Japanese blood, and must know the Japanese language in order to be truly accepted by the Japanese people as one of their own. Physically speaking, this may already be impossible for most gaijin living and working in Japan. Hence, it must be hard for them to be in a country where the people cannot fully accept them as part of their society. This is not always the case, of course.

In fact, in more recent years, this stigma has significantly lessened as some Japanese people have learned to love gaijin and consider gaijin as one of their own. While the stigma is still present in certain areas in Japan, it is nice to know that the Japanese people are learning more and more on how to accept people from other cultures as part of their own. 

Some Things to Know As A Gaijin in Japan

Being a gaijin in Japan can prove to be a challenge, especially for first-timers. Hence, here are some tips in order for a gaijin to adjust a little better arriving in the Land of the Sun. The first tip would be to learn the language. Of course, one cannot be expected to be proficient in Japanese just after a few months. However, learning certain greetings and phrases can truly help one in adjusting to life in Japan.

Knowing common greetings such as “ohayo” and knowing how to say thank you in Japanese would certainly go a long way. It is okay to be hesitant at first, especially if one is shy and afraid of making mistakes, but the locals would definitely appreciate the effort. Knowing that it is not just they who have to adjust to speaking to a foreigner in their homeland makes them appreciate the effort of a gaijin in learning how to speak their mother tongue.

The second tip would be to learn how to use chopsticks. Some traditional restaurants in Japan actually do not have forks to offer to guests. This is because almost all Japanese people use chopsticks as their main utensil when eating. The best option for people who do not know how to use chopsticks is to stick to international foods or foods that are skewered. However, if one would like the whole Japanese experience, then learning how to use chopsticks is a must.

The third tip would be to be comfortable in one’s own skin. While being naked is typically seen as a private matter all over the world, this is not always the case in Japan. Yes, people in Japan do dress conservatively, even in the beach. However, this is the exact opposite of an onsen. Wearing a bathing suit in an onsen is considered taboo and rude. The common way of getting into that tub of hot water is by going in naked. The Japanese are used to this and are not modest with other people seeing their bodies in onsens.

The fourth tip is to learn how to enjoy festivals. Numerous festivals are held across the country on a yearly basis. Known as matsuri in Japanese, these festivals are commonly anticipated by the locals every single year. These events typically include food stalls and various performances and rituals for all the visitors to watch and enjoy. Some of these festivals may have weird themes but one should just enjoy the festival while one can.

Singing and dancing are typical forms of entertainment in matsuri. Some people even attend these festivals wearing their yukata, especially during the summer season. Some festivals last long into the night. These festivals are also elaborately decorated and play lively music for the spectators to enjoy. There are also some festivals that follow a certain theme.

Granted, it is only normal for gaijin to make mistakes. Not knowing that wearing shoes inside somebody’s home is taboo is okay for first-timers. There is a lot of social customs and rules that a gaijin would need to know throughout his or her stay in Japan. It is acceptable to make a few mistakes along the way. Japanese people would understand and forgive gaijin for making these mistakes, as it is understandable for them not to know in the first place anyway. The most important part of this process is learning from these mistakes.