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

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    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 22:03. Reason: spelling

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