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Saturday, Feb. 12, 2005


You've earned it: lifetime 'gaijin' status!

Japan Lite reader Peter Miller asks: After an extended stay in Japan, does one ever cease to regard oneself as a "gaijin" (foreigner)?

After toting the label around with us for years, when we do finally return home we may fondly refer to our time in Japan as "the gaijin years." I believe that in the same way you become an expatriate simply by living in Japan, simply by leaving Japan you exchange your expat status for ex-gaijin status.

When I first came to Japan, I was not happy with the status of "gaikokujin" and, like many naive foreigners before me, wanted only one thing: to become Japanese! I wanted to become what I call a "naikokujin." I shunned the bed for a futon, chose a tatami-style apartment over one with chairs and furniture, and vowed to sit in the "seiza" position no matter how blue my face turned. I would live only Japanese style! Now I know why "o-baa-chans" are so hunched over: This lifestyle offers no back support. When I become an o-baa-chan, however, I'll probably be petrified in the seiza position. Someone will have to carry me around on a "zabuton" cushion. No wonder so many people turn to asceticism when they get older -- what else can one do from that position?

Although I was still a gaijin, my Japanese "naijin" friends seemed more than happy to help me make my miraculous transformation. I envisioned before and after photos: Before -- rude gaijin; after -- polite, cultured, self-effacing naijin with blonde hair.

Here is some of the more absurd advice the naijins gave me, which unfortunately I followed:

Making my "inkan" in Japanese. While most foreigners have their personal stamps made in katakana, reflecting their gaijinness, my naijin coworkers were eager to translate my name into kanji characters. After much deliberation, they all agreed on a kanji combination they felt was "intelligent and scientific." Notice they did not say beautiful, comprehensible or having a lucky number of strokes, the usual formula for deciding on name kanji. The first thing that made me suspect the new spelling of my name was that it had three kanji instead of the normal two. To this day, when Japanese see my stamp, they are completely baffled and cannot even begin to read it. After so many embarrassing encounters with my uniquely stamped legal documents at the bank and post office, I changed my inkan to a gaijin-friendly katakana one.

Speaking like Japanese royalty. A naijin friend of mine, while teaching me Japanese, taught me to say "go-kigen yo" instead of "konnichi wa" for "hello." This, she said, was the Japanese used by the royal family, and if I used it I would be highly regarded among regular naijin and that this would prove that I was upper class. I myself was not really up for the Imperial image, but she insisted it was the best way for me to speak. It yielded, however, people greeting me with extra large smiles to cover up their giggles, or worse, a cock of the head as the naijin wondered why the gaijin was using this stiff Japanese out of context.

Demoting myself to student status. At the college I worked at, I was primed for naijinness by 50-year-old female professors who spoke to me in extremely polite Japanese. They told me to always bow and say "shitsurei shimasu" when entering the office and when leaving, to bow again and back out of the room while saying " shitsurei shimashita." I followed this procedure every morning when entering the college administration office to stamp my incomprehensible inkan into the employee book while giving a cheery "Go-kigen yo!" to the office staff. It was two years before I realized that only students entered and exited the room in this manner.

Needless to say, I never became a naijin and I began to realize it wasn't such a bad thing to be a gaijin. As a matter of fact, Peter, I think we should proudly regard ourselves as "lifetime gaijin."

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