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Thread: Why do the Japanese make so much fuss about "gaijin" ?

  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Arrow Why do the Japanese make so much fuss about "gaijin" ?

    It is a well known fact that most Japanese tend to be nervous, excited, awed or to panic when meeting foreigners. When meeting "gaijin", many Japanese tend to behave strangely, over-politely, or at the contrary refuse to communicate by making gestures even when addressed in Japanese. Children tend to stare, point their finger or shout "gaijin, gaijin !" or "hello America !". Adults sometimes also stare or shout similar things, or just try to speak English (assuming all foreigners do) even if they can't make a simple sentence.

    My question is, why do you think the Japanese (or I think most other East Asians too) make so much fuss about foreigners ?

    PART 1 : homogeneity problem ?

    I already see the first answer coming "Because Japan is so ethnically homogeneous and most people have never seen a foreigner before".

    This may be true for the non-tourisitc areas of the countryside, but for anybody living around Tokyo (about 25% of the population of Japan), it is very hard for a teenager or adult to have never seen a foreigner, and just impossible in central Tokyo (except if they are blind, because I can't go out one day in almost any area with seeing a Caucasian, Black, Indian or South-East Asian, but mostly Caucasians). The people I am referring to above were also based on my observations in the very centre Tokyo (in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Shinagawa, Akasaka, Ginza or Asakusa/Ueno etc.).

    => Tokyo is not ethnically homogeneous, and we see non-Japanese looking people everyday in the centre.

    Secondly, I also spend most of my childhood in a region that was almost 100% white. The first Black person I saw (although I didn't speak to him) in real life was when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and the first Indian was when I was about 10-11. Even in my secondary school, there was only one Asian guy (out of 1200 students), a Korean who had been adopted. Although he kept his Korean (given) name, he was just like any of us and nobody ever referred to his being different, foreign, Korean or whatever. Some of my friends had a foreign parent, but always European (Irish, Portuguese, Hungarian...), and as they were born and raised in the same country, we couldn't actually tell they had partly foreign origins (or just by their surname, if it was on their father's side). I suppose that the same happens in Japan with half-Korean or half-Chinese or pure Japan born Koreans and Chinese in Japan. The Japanese just can't tell them apart except possibly from their name.

    Basically, I grew up in an environment that was ethnically purer than the Greater Tokyo, and yet I or people around me never made any fuss, feel nervous, panicked or try to speak some foreign language I knew with people who I knew for sure were foreigners (after asking). This is not due to a lack of physical recognition of foreigners, as anybody could instantly tell a person of Italian descent, even among other white Europeans (while Japanese usually can't tell a Vietnamese apart).

    =>Even coming from an ethnically purer environment, most Europeans do not make much fuss when seeing foreigners.

    PART 2 : Most Japanese have few opportunities to talk to foreigners

    I expect people to say that Japanese are uneasy with foreigners because they have never had the opportunity to talk to one of them, even if they have seen some in the street.

    My immediate reaction to this would be, 'what's the difference' ? Does it justify their staring, pointing or saying "gaijin, gaijin !" ? No. This is only a matter of seeing a foreigner for the first time, although Europeans do not behave like that. When the first Black guy I saw came to my primary/elementary school (forgot why), all the children may have been interested and gathered to see him, but not as much because he was black than because he was about 2m20cm. The kids would ask him questions such as "do you play basketball?", but never have I heard anybody saying "look at the (weird) foreigner" or similar comments. I don't even know where he was from, and people didn't really care to know anyway, but also did not assume anything (like "oh he must be American", or "he must be African", or "he must be a local"). He was just a person like any others (well Black and tall), but we just didn't not label him as "gaijin" or whatever, although there are almost no Black people in the whole region (and those that were, were direct immigrants from Africa) and he was the first we had ever seen in real life.

    =>Many Europeans have as few chances to meet and talk to (ethnically different) foreigners in their childhood, but do not make much fuss or call them "gaijin" when it happens.

    I was also wondering if Japan didn't take as many exchange students (from other continents) as it is normal in Europe. Aren't organisations like Rotary Club or AFS common in Japan ? I know some people who spend one year in Japan with AFS. But how common is it for a secondary school to have foreign students ? As an example, my school took from 3 to 5 exchange students every year in the 11th and 12th grade, almost always from outside Europe (except maybe Finland). They came from Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, South Africa, Thailand or New Zealand. People might have been interested to talk to them, but even those who had learnt Spanish did not usually use it with Spanish-speaking exchange students, because we knew they had to learn our language (as they were living for a year with us). It is only natural not to speak any other language than the local language with exchange students. I was myself exchange student (at university) in Germany, Italy and Spain, but the locals did not try to speak English, or French or whatever other language to me, even if they spoke it fluently (which I knew happened among the friends I made).

    =>Is Japan so closed that they do not take "gaijin" exchange students in most secondary schools or universities ? If they do take exchange students, then people do have an opportunity to meet and talk to foreigners.

    I understand that not everyone has an experience of studying abroad, but it seems common knowledge for Europeans (not just students) that the language to use with foreigners should always be the local language, especially if they are residents or exchange students as they need to learn the language to adapt in the society (yes, even for one year - that's the purpose of studying abroad). Therefore I do not understand why Japanese think the exact opposite, and either use English indiscriminately with any foreigners (because they selfishly want to learn, rather than going to an English-speaking country themselves), or in many cases do not want to talk at all arguing that they don't speak English. So what ? that's the chance for us foreigners to speak Japanese, so as to adapt to Japanese society ! I think the problem is that they do not desire foreigners to learn their language, and certainly not to adapt to their society (because that could mean staying longer in their pure country that doesn't need long-term foreign residents).

    => It is common knowledge for Europeans that we should speak the local language with foreign exchange students and residents, not English or those people's language, even if we are fluent, because it prevents them to adapt to our society. Why do Japanese try to avoid having foreigners speak their language, sometimes even when they know that the foreigner has been living in Japan for several years ?
    => Why are Japanese so selfish as to think they can practice their English (for free, instead of going to "Eikaiwa schools") with any foreigner they meet ?


    I am surprised that the Japanese, who are so law-abiding and so concerned about doing like everybody else so as not to stand out at home, are behaving in such unconventional ways in multicultural situations. I don't want to seem rude, but in an international group (of students, travellers, businesspeople...) with people from all around the world, all languages and cultures, the Japanese are often the worst to adapt and sometimes care so little to understand 'all those foreigners' that they always have to find excuses to justify themselves - "oh, but Japan is so unique, Japanese people are not used to international situations, Japan is an island country, Japan is this, Japan is that" => al excuses, as almost everybody is in the same situation as them at the beginning. I saw by myself that it is not more difficult to understand Japanese culture, customs or way of doing things, that it would be for me to understand Americans or Russians or Indians or Arabs. So why all these excuses ? Don't they just want to fit in ? Have they set their mind on keeping an emotional barrier between them and the "outsiders" ("gaijin") ?
    Last edited by Maciamo; Mar 19, 2010 at 21:03. Reason: spelling

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  2. #2
    Regular Member den4's Avatar
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    maybe another question for another thread should be, Why do foreigners make such a fuss about Japanese making such a fuss about "gaijin"?

    You do raise some good points, however. I have seen similar traits again in the US, in smaller communities of circles. I have seen city folk uncomfortable with things rural, because they have never dealt with real animals or things outside the zoo or pet shop. I have seen country folk uncomfortable with city settings because of all the industrialized nature of the big city. I have seen the average Joe or Jane uncomfortable dealing with things technological because they have never had to deal with these things before. Perhaps the Europeans have had better adjustments to various comfort levels such that they aren't fazed or lack the ability to adapt to most any situation?
    Yeah, I've seen the Japanese salaryman in the US or overseas slurping their soba and completely clueless of what is considered etiquette, and I've seen another person, also Japanese, that has taken great care to adapt to the new environment. Then I've seen the typical ugly American pimping the streets of Roppongi, thinking he's God's gift to mankind and that it is only natural that they bow down before him and pay him homage for what his father or grandfather did in Japan. I've seen Spaniards and Germans and French, Canadians and Aussies all get in their groups in Tokyo sharing stories about how weird the Japanese are talking about how they make a fuss about "gaijin." Then I've seen those same foreigners trying to emulate being the "henna gaijin" just so they could get attention when they are alone with their Japanese partners or friends or get-togethers.
    I think it's closer to human nature to point out folks that are different than you are. Japanese folks may be more vocal or obsessive about it, but I think it's a common attitude for people to have with strangers that are from a what-they-perceive-as-a-strange land, or a different place than you.
    But, not trying to change viewpoints or anything...just giving my take on the question....right or wrong or whatever that may be....
    I know nothing...except the answer is 42. You know more than I do.

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    many japanese have an exclusionary attitude and have a lot of pride.it's in their blood.i've known some who love to view all others as suspicious.they tend to receive u negatively. there are japanese who are willing to mix with or interested to be friends with other races but few.my "adoration" for japanese ppl has dropped over long periods of time.

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    Heimin
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    A Japanese person could go to any small U.S. town in the mid-west or the south, take a walk around town, and I will guarantee you he will be stared at.

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    Chukchi Salmon lexico's Avatar
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    Not to divert attention, but good point you make, Leroy.
    I know this from experience, and I was often mistaken as a Japanese around school. So combining my two experiences, it is quite safe to say that a real Japanese in the middle of US will get a real sweating experience.

    Not to turn this into a mutual bashing competition, I think the analogy can be found in the chameleon reflexes. They only notice movement, and given that stimulus, the tongue just shoots out without even thinking. Sentries' long hours of night duty works the same way, and so does a good part of the digital image compression technology that we are using right now, and also the compression/encoding of cellular phone signals works the same way.

    Wait, it wasn't chameleons; it was the frogs. My bad. @_@
    Z: The fish in the water are happy.
    H: How do you know ? You're not fish.
    Z: How do you know I don't ? You're not me.
    H: True I am not you, and I cannot know. Likewise, I know you're not, therefore I know you don't.
    Z: You asked me how I knew implying you knew I knew. In fact I saw some fish, strolling down by the Hao River, all jolly and gay.

    --Zhuangzi

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    Your Goddess is here Ma Cherie's Avatar
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    Well that what happens when you're not exposed to the outside world that often. If you lived in a small community all your life and have never seen a foreigner before in your life (except on television or whatever) it's easy to be supsicous or just simply very clueless. I mean, to me. When you're stared at are even gawked at I think it's only because people simpy don't know anything. Am I saying it's just a display of ignorance? Yes.
    "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
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    Chukchi Salmon lexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ma Cherie
    Well that what happens when you're not exposed to the outside world that often. If you lived in a small community all your life and have never seen a foreigner before in your life (except on television or whatever) it's easy to be supsicous or just simply very clueless. I mean, to me. When you're stared at are even gawked at I think it's only because people simpy don't know anything. Am I saying it's just a display of ignorance? Yes.
    You raise three very important key ideas here, MaCherie. 1) isloation 2) ignorance 3) gawking. Let me add a fourth, 4) responding to gawking.

    1) isolation & 2) ignorance: Geographyand history are in the past and cannot be helped. But is it seen as a problem as such or an obstacle to be hurdled depends on how one thinks about isolation and ignorance. Are the Japanese viewing these as something positive, something negative but without any possibility of improving, or something that can be fixed by planning and work. It seems that some people are disappointed with the complacency the Japanese are expressing. It is a legitimate question to ask, why not do something about it ?

    3) gawking: As a natural result of isolation and ignorance, gawking at novel sights is understandable. Even if the British appropriateness is applied, and somehow people refrain from gawking, is it much better ? A little maybe ?

    4) response to gawking: One can choose to accept the situation, and not take offense whenever seen with uncomfortable gazes. or become ever more sensitive and reactionary by the strange treatment. This is also a cultural matter that is similar to problems resulting from 1) and 2). Why can it not be helped ?

    Going back to the problem of ignorance, it's not inherently bad to be ignorant. A lot will depend on how one goes about "ignorance." Some thing's gotta give to meet on middle ground, but as long as 2) ignorance and 4) reaction refuse to change and improve upon their past, not much will happen. Do the two have any mutual respect for each other ? Neither party would easily admit to being in the wrong; aren't humans all like that wherever you go ?

  8. #8
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leroy_Brown
    A Japanese person could go to any small U.S. town in the mid-west or the south, take a walk around town, and I will guarantee you he will be stared at.
    Interesting. I wonder why that happens in the States, while it doesn't in (the countryside where I grew up) in Europe. Not only are they no Japanese or Asian tourists or residents where my family lives, but when I introduced my wife to my extended family (cousins, uncles, aunts..), not a single one of them (not even the children) asked any stupid question about Japan or Japanese people. At the supermarket, the cashier didn't address her differently from locals (no weird looks, confusion, change of language or whatever).

    Actually, I have travelled with my wife to about 15 European countries , and the attitude of people on this matter varied little from country to country (except maybe in Italy and Spain, where they tend to see Japanese people as "people with too much money and easy to cheat").

    While discussing on this forum I am also learning a lot about the USA. And I have to say, as a European, I find quite a lot of similarities between the US and Japan regarding their attitude to foreigners and the rest of the world.

  9. #9
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ma Cherie
    Well that what happens when you're not exposed to the outside world that often. If you lived in a small community all your life and have never seen a foreigner before in your life (except on television or whatever) it's easy to be supsicous or just simply very clueless.
    Thank you for mentioning that. Maybe that is because many Americans habe never travelled abroad (I mean, not Canada, but some place more different ), while I personally don't know anybody in my relatives or friends in Europe that has never travelled at least to a few countries. Poorer people might not have travelled outside Europe, but most middle-class or above will usually have been outside Europe (about 1/3 of English university students take a 'gap year' to travel around the world, have I read, and so did I).

    However, the Japanese are known for travelling a lot, maybe not as long as Europeans, but surely as often (except older generations, which is a big difference with Europe, where many pensioners spend their time travelling).

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    Go to shopping PopCulturePooka's Avatar
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    Funny story.

    I travelled to Germany at 14 on a school trip.
    In the small town where we stayed we were stared at and watched quite a lot. It was particularly bad for the phillipno girl and aboriginal boy in our group. Daniel (the aboriginal guy) got pointed at by locals a fair bit. He said he didn't really enjoy it at all.

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    Where I'm Supposed to Be kirei_na_me's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leroy_Brown
    A Japanese person could go to any small U.S. town in the mid-west or the south, take a walk around town, and I will guarantee you he will be stared at.
    Not in this southern (very)small town. My husband is just like anyone else. Of course, that might be because his company is here. When his family comes this summer, I'm sure everyone in this town will just assume they're with one of the three Japanese people from the company. I can pretty much guarantee they won't be stared at. We're fortunate that the people around here have been extremely laid back and accepting. Probably not very common.
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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lexico
    Going back to the problem of ignorance, it's not inherently bad to be ignorant. A lot will depend on how one goes about "ignorance." Some thing's gotta give to meet on middle ground, but as long as 2) ignorance and 4) reaction refuse to change and improve upon their past, not much will happen. Do the two have any mutual respect for each other ? Neither party would easily admit to being in the wrong; aren't humans all like that wherever you go ?
    There is ignorance and "display of one's ignorance". I'd say that 90% of the people in developed countries are quite ignorant (regarding general knowledge, not specific knowledge related to one's occupation) by my standards, and this comes close to 100% in not so developed countries (except maybe India).

    In my experience, the Japanese don't seem to be much ashamed by their own ignorance (maybe because knowledge is less valued than in Europe) in the way they ask some questions (eg "Is there McDonald in America ?") or their readiness to display their ignorance (eg. "Is Argentina in Europe ?", "Is Uganda a country ?"). Does the ignorant part of the USA also behave like this ? I think they tend to keep it between them, and the people who don't know don't really want to know anyway.

    What startles me in Japan is that many people want to know and ask lots of questions to foreigners, but are ignorant anyway. My question is, if they are so interested in learning about "other countries" (gaikoku), why don't they just open an encyclopedia or atlas and start learning by themselves (like I have always done since my childhood) ? If they do, they must have serious memory problems (so I can only assume they do not, and the interest they show when meeting foreigners is just hypocritical politeness in most cases).

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by FirstHousePooka
    Funny story.

    I travelled to Germany at 14 on a school trip.
    In the small town where we stayed we were stared at and watched quite a lot. It was particularly bad for the phillipno girl and aboriginal boy in our group. Daniel (the aboriginal guy) got pointed at by locals a fair bit. He said he didn't really enjoy it at all.
    Funny indeed. Some people already mentioned similar experiences in Germany. When I was studying in Germany, people assumed so much I was a local that they didn't even check my passport at the airport, asked me their way (in German, of course), etc. So it could be that more German stare at non-Caucasian people, or maybe the problem was that you were a group of non-German speaking people and might have been noisy or not have respected so German social rules (did you know that many German cities forbid to take a shower or listen to (loud) music after 10pm. In some places, dogs are not even allowed to bark between 10pm and 6am).

    Anyhow, did German people answer to you in English when you tried speaking German to them ? Where you met by gestures by people who didn't speak English (well) ? Did people in the street shout "Hello America!", "foreigner, foreigner !" or other inappropriate comments because your group spoke English ? None o these things ever happened to me (I stayed 4 months in the country + some travelling around), even at the beginning when I was just babbling a few words in German. The staring part alone is quite sunjective I think (some people don't notice it, other imagine it).

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kirei_na_me
    Not in this southern (very)small town. My husband is just like anyone else. Of course, that might be because his company is here. When his family comes this summer, I'm sure everyone in this town will just assume they're with one of the three Japanese people from the company. I can pretty much guarantee they won't be stared at. We're fortunate that the people around here have been extremely laid back and accepting. Probably not very common.
    So the division is not just city vs country, but maybe depends just on how common it is for locals to see non-Caucasian people.

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    Koyaniskatsi yukio_michael's Avatar
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    Now are we talking about New York City vs Tokyo, or are we talking Shikoku vs Amarillo Texas?

    Very Very interesting subject. I've seen people more often glorify a country that I've grown to be very despicable of... I don't imagine the grass is greener some place else, yet still I think sometimes younger people I've met from Japan have an image of the United States just like I have an image of Japan... we're both probably half right and half wrong, and would be surprised at what we didn't know about the other.

    Very interesting, to say the least.
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  16. #16
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by yukio_neko^_o
    Now if we are talking New York City vs Tokyo, or are we talking Shikoku vs Amarillo Texas?
    It would be interesting to compare both. All the experiences I have shared on this forum are based on people in Tokyo. I think there is no so much differences with the Japanese countryside, where people are only slightly more likely to point their finger at foreigners or say "gaijin, gaijin !" (the fact is, it happens in the suburbs of Tokyo too).

    From what I hear, there is a world of differences between big cosmopolitan US cities (New York, L.A., Chicago...) and the "remote" counrtyside.

    Now the question is, why is there such a big gap in attitudes between rural and metropolitan areas in the US, but much less in Japan ? I thought it could be because of the extreme cosmopolitanism of big US cities (so people don't care when they see somebody different anymore), but I see many foreigners in Tokyo every single day, in the street, on the train, at the fitness club, etc. It's normal, as there are 2 million foreign residents in Japan, and almost 17 million foreign visitors (tourists, business people...), including almost 2 million Westerners, most of whom are to be found around Tokyo and Kansai. So, even in this very cosmopolitan environment, the Japanese still act strangely with foreigners. Why ?

  17. #17
    Go to shopping PopCulturePooka's Avatar
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    Actually I have hear that Gaijin in country towns or rural areas do get treated with even more fuss than city gaijin.

    Especially by younger people who may never have ventured out of town before.

  18. #18
    I jump to conclusions mad pierrot's Avatar
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    Just to make note...

    This is a great topic; I've enjoyed hearing what members think about this.
    But let's be careful not to make this a fight about who's country is more or less ingnorant. I only say this because national pride can be a touchy subject for many people. Personally, I think idiodicy has free reign all over the globe. People will gawk everywhere. That, and circumstances count alot. I mean, if a farmer in Kansas saw a guy running down the street in a kimono and waving a samurai sword, he'd obviously take notice. If it was just an Asian guy, he'd probably barely notice. Again, I think much of this is situational.

    I can tell you, living in the countryside here in Japan, I draw ALOT of attention. Hell, when I go jogging people actually will slow down to look at me. Then again, I don't think this area gets many joggers. Certainly not joggers in sleeveless Metallica T-shirts and cut off sweats. So maybe it's not just that I'm a gaijin. On the other hand, there are just way too many odd things that I get asked. Yesterday, while I was eating kimchi nabe, I was asked if I was "surprised" when I first ate it. (Because it's a red broth, like the color of blood.) Uh..... What? We don't have red food in America? Jesus.

    Very Very interesting subject. I've seen people more often glorify a country that I've grown to be very despicable of... I don't imagine the grass is greener some place else, yet still I think sometimes younger people I've met from Japan have an image of the United States just like I have an image of Japan... we're both probably half right and half wrong, and would be surprised at what we didn't know about the other.
    Right on.

  19. #19
    Heimin
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    Quote Originally Posted by kirei_na_me
    Not in this southern (very)small town. My husband is just like anyone else. Of course, that might be because his company is here. When his family comes this summer, I'm sure everyone in this town will just assume they're with one of the three Japanese people from the company. I can pretty much guarantee they won't be stared at. We're fortunate that the people around here have been extremely laid back and accepting. Probably not very common.
    That would be an exception and not the rule. People in such towns appreciate the jobs that the Japanese companies provide and might try not to offend anyone otherwise the company might leave town.

    It's different in a town that's all or almost all white. I went to college in a small town. I once went to a strip bar with a friend, a student from The Gambia in West Africa. People in the bar were staring at HIM more than at the topless dancer!!!!

  20. #20
    Your Goddess is here Ma Cherie's Avatar
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    Yes, thank very much for pointing that out Maciamo. It's the display of ignorance is what I've been trying to get at. And you asked if the ignorant part of the US bahaves like this. Maybe not to that exent, I would say. But then again, maybe they don't know that they're displaying their ignorance.

  21. #21
    Regular Member den4's Avatar
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    thought this report is timely:
    Japan report (8:00)
    The World's Patrick Cox reports on discrimination against foreigners in Japan.
    http://www.theworld.org/content/03174.wma
    even has one of this forum's personalities with a cameo appearance...

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