Gaijin

I heard a story.

This is a story that appeared on one of the Reddit subreddits that are dedicated to stories.  It could have been MaliciousCompliance, or ProRevenge.  I can’t remember.  It’s not important.

Our protagonist was working at a Japanese company somewhere in California.  The managers there were Japanese nationals, and the employees were gaijin.  As far as the Japanese managers knew, no one there could speak Japanese.

So they basically ran roughshod over everyone.  It finally came to a head when a manager who had it in for the protagonist tried to railroad him out of the company.  But what they didn’t know was that he could speak some Japanese.  So when they had their big meeting, he mustered up all of the Japanese he knew and told them that the manager was lying.  He then quit.

Apparently the very fact that someone there could speak Japanese and they didn’t know it put the fear of kamisama into them, and they pretty much reformed how the branch was run.  And they sent the problem manager back to Tokyo to become a “window-watcher” (someone who has to come to work every day but has no duties, and then has to give a report every day on what they’ve done to their manager.  It’s a way to shame people into quitting, apparently.)

I’ve heard this story in several different forms.  Japanese people looking down on a stupid gaijin until they prove they can speak or understand Japanese, often in a way that is very embarrassing to the Japanese person.  I read this story once where an American (or some such) was in a Japanese store, and they insulted him in Japanese – and when he called them out in Japanese they were extremely apologetic.  They got caught.

It’s almost as if it never crosses the mind of a Japanese person that a gaijin might be able to speak Japanese.

On the one hand, this is an atrocious attitude, and in my view it is right and proper to call Japanese people out on it.  Us gaijin are not stupid.  We’re just different.  We mastered a language (well, most of us did, anyway) that is at least comparable to Japanese in difficulty, and we have managed to build a pretty cool society – if we can keep it.

On the other hand, sometimes they’re not wrong.  A gaijin coming to Japan without having learned even the basics of Japanese and their culture is nothing but a disrespectful tourist who has money to spend – and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say that those who visit – or even worse – live there without learning any Japanese is showing absolutely no respect to the Japanese people, and they’re at least somewhat justified in having no patience with that.  It’s important to the Japanese people, and at the end of the day, it’s their country.

The Japanese culture is very ancient, and was pretty much literally dragged kicking and screaming by America into the modern age (look it up!).  I think I can understand some resentfulness to this situation, as for reasons I don’t understand, not having grown up in their culture, their cultural identity and their homogeneity as Japanese are extremely important to them.

Unfortunately, the world is moving on, and they’re having to move on with it.  That ship (literally, come to think of it) has sailed.  But the least we can do as gaijin is to recognize this, and at least have enough respect for them to come to their country with a basic understanding of their language and culture.  It’s just the right thing to do.

And in return, I don’t think we’re out of line in expecting some basic respect in return.  I’m not going to say we’ve earned it, but I will say that our effort should not be dismissed.  We’re making the effort, and that should count for something.

As for the “window-watchers”, well, that’s a really Japanese thing, I think.  A way to address the problem without actually addressing the problem.  Kind of like “fixing the glitch” in “Office Space”.  I guess the problem just eventually resolves itself.  It’s interesting to me though that wasting salary on a deliberately unproductive worker is more acceptable than actually removing someone from a company.  Certainly not something we in the west would tolerate.  But as I’ve pointed out many times – they have many of the trappings, but at the end of the day, they’re not western.  They’re East Asian.  With all of the cultural perks and baggage that that entails.

Why I Could Never be Japanese

A couple of weeks ago and a few posts ago, I wrote about a part of Japanese history and culture that really bothered me.  Nothing in it was unfactual to the best of my knowledge, though I was perhaps a little harsher than… No.  No I wasn’t.  That was a topic that I was actually holding back on a bit.

I still lost two followers.  I don’t think I’ve lost 4% of followers from one post on any blog, ever.

It’s not so much that I keep track of these things, as much as I like to know when I’ve hit a nerve.  Obviously the topic bothered people enough that they decided they were done with me.  I’m okay with that, but as with many things in my life, it sparked some introspection.  And I realized that I would never survive for more than a few weeks in Japanese society.

Why?

I speak my mind.

I am outspoken even for an American.  I have, in the past, said things that other people refused to say, for one reason or another.  Perhaps that’s because they disagree with me.  Perhaps I touched on a verboten subject.  Or perhaps I was just plain offensive.  Hey, I’m human too, and I’ve said things in the past that I probably shouldn’t have said.  And some things I still believe I should have said that other people think I shouldn’t have, and I have a couple of words for that idea that don’t go on a “family” blog.

But I’ll never apologize for speaking my mind.

The Japanese culture seems more collectivist.  They seem to want to blend into the crowd, not make waves, go with the flow.  Of course, this makes for a more peaceful society than mine most of the time – there is something to be said for a people that make as much of an effort to get along with each other as the Japanese do – but it also makes for a society where you… go with the flow, I guess.  I’m not that type of person.  I have never been that type of person.  That made my childhood difficult because of being raised in a religious cult that frowned very hard on questions, but I have never lost that quality.  I am not loud and obnoxious like the stereotype many people have of Americans, but I do speak my mind, I’m not shy about it, and I’m sure in many cultures, such as that of Japan, that is a most unwelcome quality for the most part.

My Japanese teacher, after spending several decades in the US, has even expressed a frustration with that tendency.  I told her that she was definitely Japanese, she said she felt more American in some ways, and we agreed that she’s somewhere in between now.  She is Japanese, but she has been exposed to “my” culture for a long time, and it’s rubbed off on her.  Not all the way – there are still culture clashes often – but enough so that she can put up with my outspoken nature.

But I don’t think most Japanese people could.  And the fact that my post had such an outsized negative impact on my small, insignificant blog, bears that thought out.

I am outspoken.  I am who I am.  I don’t care who doesn’t like it.  But it still makes me sad that, for that and a few other reasons, I fear ever going to Japan.  I would not fit in.  I know I would not fit in.  Hell, I don’t even fit in in my culture.

But, for some reason, I continue to learn the language.  It is still interesting.  But I will always be an outsider in that culture, and to be blunt, I’m sick of being an outsider, and no way am I going to put myself in a position where that feeling is exacerbated rather than mollified.

I love many things about Japanese culture.  It is good to learn the language, consume the culture, laugh at their comedic antics and media, and generally broaden my horizons by learning about a different way of thinking.  But the admiration for the culture that I used to have is waning a bit.  Now I see it as I do mine.  A proud culture that mostly works and has some glaring flaws that can’t be put aside or ignored.  And I’ve got enough to deal with in my own without taking on the worries of another.

I am American.  I will always be American.  I was born here, and I was raised here, and daggum it, no bushwhackin’, sidewindin’, hornswagglin’ cracker croaker is gonna ruin my bischen cutter… oh wait.  What was I saying again?  Seriously, I am American.  That’s what I’ll always be.  And there’s no use trying to make it in another culture when I can barely make it in my own.

Honestly, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into studying Japanese.  And I don’t regret that time and effort.  I will continue doing so for the foreseeable future.  But it is just one part of this complete breakfast.  I haven’t really studied piano for a long time, and many pieces I learned to play I’ve actually forgotten how.  I need to remedy that.  I need to push Japanese aside just a bit and make sure my horizons stay broadened.

Maybe some time I spend thinking about how much of an outsider I am in the Japanese culture would be better spent going back over my scales and Hanon exercises.

That’s all, I guess.  Time to review wanikani and figure out what’s next in my life.

It is time.

It is a stormy day in Round Rock, Texas today.

My Japanese teacher has decided that she now only wants to speak to the small group of people I learn with, in Japanese.  I don’t like this, but I think it may be necessary.  I’ve been feeling a little stuck lately – and I have no confidence in anything but the most basic written and spoken Japanese – so I don’t want to.  But I’m going to see what I can do.

That means, I think that it’s probably time that I pull the trigger on the project I’ve been wanting to do for a while.  I want to create a blog, in Japanese, from the perspective of a gaijin living in the US.  The intended audience:  Japanese people.  In Japan.

It will be broken Japanese to begin with, but as I learn it’ll become less broken, hopefully.  There will be a lot of word looking up and probably a little help from Google translate too, but as I get better, hopefully my dependence on those tools will lessen and I will gain some amount of fluency.

I guess the only way to do it is to do it.  Let’s go…

Gaijin

I don’t have any tattoos.  In fact, I think tattoos are ugly and I would never intentionally get one.  Why one would intentionally blemish their skin like that is beyond me.

(and if you disagree, then go ahead, but this is my opinion and I’m sticking to it).

I haven’t put a lot of thought into the topic, but lately a particular image has been sticking out at me, about what I would get as a tattoo, if I ever somehow decided to get one.

Here it is.

外人

This is the Japanese word for foreigner, pronounced “gaijin”.  And I think this word, above all of the other words in all of the languages I know, describes me the best.

For I have no home, no place to which I belong.

One of the reasons that Japan appeals to me as much as it does is that it’s not here.  In fact, it’s about as far from here as it’s possible to get, in all ways.  Physically, culturally, linguistically, spiritually – you name all the ways, and Japan is the exact opposite of my world.

I have never been comfortable being the outsider, but I have always been the outsider.  In every situation I have been in, for as long as I can remember, I have been the gaijin.  I am a gaijin in my own country, I am a gaijin in my own culture, I am a gaijin in my own faith, I am a gaijin in my own skin.  And the most appealing thing to me about Japan is this:  At least in Japan, at least when speaking Japanese, I am expected to be the gaijin.

In my world, others perhaps do not see me as the gaijin.  They see me as a member of the in-group, as an American, as a Christian, as all sorts of things and labels that I could (and often) do take but never fit.  But to Japanese, I am a gaijin (or gaikokujin, if that makes you more comfortable).  I will always be a gaijin.  I will never not be a gaijin.

And frankly, I think in some ways I prefer that.  The low expectations of being a high functioning child in Japanese culture.  In many ways, it beats what I am in my own culture.

Maybe that is why I am learning Japanese.

Gaijin?

When I first created this blog, I had a nearly infinite choice of things to call it.  I could have called it, oh, I dunno…  “Musings on Japanese”, or “My Japanese Journey”, or a whole bunch of stuff.  But I settled on this one.  In fact, it really wasn’t even all that much of a decision.  This was the right name.

But why, when the word “gaijin” had less than savory origins, and some may still find it offensive?

The literal meaning of gaijin (外人) is “outsider”, or, literally, “outside person”.  (the two kanji separately would be pronounced “soto hito”, or “outside person”).  It is a word that was coined for people who are not Japanese.  It was originally a derogatory word, and even now, many Japanese don’t use it, but it’s mostly lost its connotations over the years and now many foreigners, such as me, use it to self-identify.  But for me, it has more meanings than just “someone who’s not Japanese”.

See, I was raised in an environment where I never felt like I belonged.  Ever since I was a small child, I was an outsider.  I never fit in school, I never really fit in church, I didn’t really even fit in my own family.  And, to be honest, none of that’s changed all that much.  I can think of no situation at all in this life where I really feel as if I belong.

I’m not just a gaijin in the sense of being an outsider from Japan, I’m a gaijin in the sense of being an outsider to everything.

So the name of this site has deeper meaning than just a once-offensive-and-some-think-still-offensive word that means an outsider from Japan.  It’s much more involved than that.  And you’d never know if I didn’t tell you.

If a Japanese person called me a gaijin, I might laugh it off – and depending on the tone of voice, I might not.  I do respond negatively to people who deliberately cause offense, and considering how agreeable many Japanese are, that would probably be someone who was deliberately trying to cause offense.  But, truth be told, I’d be just as likely to agree as to take offense.

And that is why I’m a “gaijin learning Japanese”.  For, in all honestly, I even consider myself a gaijin in the Japanese class I’m attending.