Gaijin Syndrome was created as a multipurpose blog for the brief period of my life that I will be spending in Japan. I will be publishing my experiences for friends and family, reflecting on my personal growth in a culture much more different than my own, and generally keeping in touch with any who wish to pay regular visits to this corner of the web. So please feel free to bookmark, comment, e-mail, share, etc.
Now on with the explanation of my chosen theme...
The word "gaijin" is Japanese for "foreigner". It is written with the characters 外人 that literally translate into "outside person" and is more colloquial than "gaikokujin" (a term nice enough to indicate that the person is from an outside country, and not just alien in general). Foreigners studying the language who come to the country for the first time often don't expect to find a large cultural niche around the idea of "gaijin" but many times they are quick to identify with both the benefits and disadvantages of being such.
The gaijin mentality comes from the fact that Japanese culture is highly structured and highly sensitive. Children learn the structure from an early age and must conform throughout their lives if they wish to lead successful conventional life within their home country. Naturally, a foreigner who does not have the benefit of growing up around such influences is assumed to exist outside the Japanese social system. It is generally understood that foreigners do not and can not fit in, and obvious foreigners (those that don't look Japanese) are often treated like aliens upon first sight.
A quick Google search for the phrase "gaijin syndrome" turns up many pages that employ the phrase as a reference to the way many foreigners find themselves being treated in Japan. But it is used more appropriately, I think, to explain the effect on the individual being subjected to such treatment. Exchange students in Japan get the most entertainment from the situation they find themselves in and often exploit it. Suddenly social rules don't mean anything to you as a foreigner, so you can get away with anything that doesn't break actual laws.
Another aspect of gaijin syndrome, or "gaijin complex," is equated to Marco Polo Syndrome, which describes the interaction between foreigners of a country rather than between the foreigner and the country's natives. I find this characteristic the most intriguing, particularly the following:
...the Japanese-speaking foreigner contingent is in constant battle with themselves, vying to prove linguistic abilities, obscure knowledge, and depth of societal penetration.
Symptoms of gaijin syndrome can include any of the following:
- Laughing obnoxiously at, and even recording, everyday occurrences that you consider exploitable
- A lack of fear for the consequences of erratic behavior in public, as inspired by cultural isolation
- A strong urge to ignore other foreigners randomly encountered on the streets in hopes that they don't remind you of your own foreignness
- Bleak, utter loneliness resulting from an inability to connect with the natives on a level that is culturally familiar to you
I think most cultural anthropologists would claim that all the above are the effects of long-term culture shock. Actually, I would agree with them. But the phrase "culture shock" is most frequently used to express a particular nuance or behavior that a foreigner finds odd upon first encounter. When subjected to culture shock over a longer period of time (greater than the 6-weeks of my previous stay in Japan), culture shock can turn into a persistent state, a syndrome.
My hope is that through an objective look at the next 3+ years I will be staying in Japan, I will be able to circumvent these symptoms and provide valuable insight to others who may look to follow a path similar to my own. Assuming a strategy of acknowledging my obvious foreignness while proving just how Japanese I can be (I'm up to 80% according to my Japanese friends), I will be able to maintain my identity as an American while finding my own place within their society.