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Being a gaijin in Japan

Posted by: under Travel Updated: November 30, 2011 - 6:31 AM

Anyone who is planning to head to Japan should be aware of one word: gaijin. Loosely translated, it means foreigner. Sometimes, it is wrongly translated as “alien,” as I saw when I applied for my work visa where a sign said “Aliens, please wait for your number to be called” While funny at first, this sign had a deeper meaning than I realized then: in Japan, westerners are really aliens. Compared to the Japanese, they walk differently, look differently and dress differently.

To help try to abate this problem of being labeled as an “alien,” I will share some advice on how to become more intertwined with the Japanese society.

1. Learn the language

While this may seem as obvious, most foreigners coming to Japan can say one or two words that get tossed around a lot, such as “konichiwa” or “sayonara.” While these words are useful, even if you spare one hour a day trying to learn the language, it will make your experience much more interesting.

2. Research in advance

There are so many places to see in Japan, and it would take a lifetime to be able to experience them all. For this reason, if you plan to journey to the land of the rising sun, have an idea in mind what you want to see. If you go to see the city life, figure out beforehand if you want to go to Tokyo or Osaka, or some other big city. If you want to more of Japan’s history, have in mind the places you want to see in Kyoto. Once you set foot in Kyoto, you will see that the place is a lot larger then you had in mind, and the distance between temples and other attractions is further than one imagines.

3. Talk to the Japanese

While this may pair along with my first tip, I think it’s important enough to stress again. Most Japanese take English while in middle and high school, so they are able to sometimes to communicate with you in English. But don’t rely on this alone. By trying to pick up the language, you will not only impress the Japanese (who will, most certainly, say that your Japanese is “jouzu,” or skillful), you will also have a more rewarding experience.

4. Expect to get lost

While Japan is connected by a very hand train system, at first it is very confusing, and while most signs are translated into English, it is still hard to follow. On my first day, I remember walking around the train stations trying to find the right train, only to find that I took the wrong one. This experience, while frustrating, is something that most foreigners experience.

5. Expect to be stared at

Even though I have been living in the same city for three months now and I’m sure that most of the people living in the city have seem me at least once, I still get stares all the time. This is kind of surprising at first, but after a while, it becomes natural. The intent of these stares are nothing but benevolent: I asked my Japanese friends and they all say that the stares come out of curiosity.

While I could keep going on about how to become accustomed in Japan, the main point is that you are probably coming as a tourist, and for that reason, being labeled a “gaijin” is something that cannot be easily shaken off. However, by following these rules, that label may be proven wrong. 

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