Foreigners in Japan? Help Me Out With My School Paper

gaijin geishas

(photo by jelsby)

I’m taking a class called 考えるための日本語, or “Japanese for the purpose of thinking.” Each of the students in the small seminar had to pick a topic, and I bit off the not-too-small issue of being a foreigner in Japan. Well, not exactly. It’s a monstrous topic with a lot of opportunity to rant and ramble, so I’ve narrowed it down to the following:

“Residency, citizenship, language, and race are all completely different things, but in Japan, it feels like they’re mashed together into an identity that starts with my face. We’re beyond kids pointing and calling us gaijin, and I have plenty of good friends that take me for who I am without questions of country ever coming up, but moving from foreigner to person in every new interaction gets tiring at times”

The paper moves through a few sections:

-My childhood, as a minority white student in schools full of Asians, in a city where racial and socioeconomic/cultural segregation are large and complicated.

-Going from feeling like a tourist to feeling like a tokyo-jin, but in any given interaction, having the other party start with seeing me as fresh off the boat (ever run into the “can you use chopsticks” five months in?).

-TCK (third culture kids)’s, that small-but-present population of people with complicated and wonderful paths through childhood, spanning cultural, racial, and national borders. LC has a bunch of these, from a guy born to two Americans in Japan and raised there until college, to a girl who moved through Sierra Leone, Sudan, India, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, and Kenya before arriving in Portland. They’re a pretty big counterpoint to any attempt to automatically link language, culture, nationality, and race.

-Race as an artificial construct (a lifetime of study in itself, so this is going to be a really shallow, crudely distilled treatment of it)

The paper’s still in the quasi-early stages; I’ve written some on each part of it, but I’m still working on tying everything together. To help me develop it more, though, I’d love help from all of you guys. Here are a few suggestions, but seriously, any thoughts, ideas, comments, or questions are welcome. You don’t have to be a foreigner in Japan to comment, either :)

-How have your first-time meetings with Japanese people changed the longer you’ve been here? Living in Tokyo for ten months, I suspect I have a different experience than someone living here for ten years, or even someone living in the country for the same period of time. When, if ever, did the questions about “getting used” to the country end? How long does it take you to establish that you can handle the language and the country just fine?

-What’s there to be done? Is this an issue that needs to be addressed by the schools, or what? How did “gaijin” move out of the PC vernacular? Are we so few in number that we need to just wait it out? Is there even a problem? My gut feeling is that I think some semantic changes might be nice, like “where are you from” instead of “what country are you from?”, “how’s the food?” rather than “can you eat the food?”, etc. The questions that start with the expectation that you can’t do something or don’t understand something are kind of weird to me.

-Would you trade the advantages you get as a foreigner for feeling like you fit into the country more? I mean, let’s face it- being an interesting topic of conversation isn’t always the worst thing in the world. I was thinking that dealing with the foreigner consciousness might tire me out ten years down the road, but for a year, or even five, I can’t see it being anything but a helpful thing. I think that might actually be part of what makes me uneasy- it feels like unearned popularity.

If you want to comment, please let me know if you DON’T want your comment used in my paper (assuming it turns out well, I probably will publish it on the blog). I don’t plan on quoting anybody by name, and can leave as few identifying characteristics as you’d like (just occupation, time in the country, and anything else that’s relevant). Please feel free to use Japanese, too- the paper’s all in Japanese, and it’ll save me some translation work and keep the intent of what you want to say intact.

Thanks, and looking forward to hearing from everybody!