Hello my faithful readers! (Do you really exist?)
Life has been pretty intense since my last post as I have somehow managed to settle into an apartment, find some kind of rythm at work, and overcome the language barrier day after day. On top of that, I spent the last four weeks travelling all across the country visiting my friends and sightseeing the most significant of locations in Japan. With just a backpack, shoulder bag, and a hip pouch with my camera in it, I rode on plane and train alike from one destination to the next without taking a break. Now I'm finally back in Kanazawa and resting before classes start up again in two weeks. Photos of my month-long vacation can be found on my Picasa web gallery. I hope to create albums for Osaka and Kyoto soon.
As I traveled, each destination greeted me with a new role to play as a foreigner.
Visiting with my friends in Nagoya was a good start as we noticed that each store, restaurant, and movie theater had at least one other foreigner. Since Kanazawa has very few foreigners, I was reminded what it's like to be part of the somewhat common crowd once again.
In Sapporo I was the guest being shown around by my Japanese teacher (a very wonderful person for being so kind to me!). Although she wanted me to do many 'gaijin-like' things just to see the Japanese reaction, I continued to try and act as Japanese as possible.
In Tokyo, the Japanese paid me little attention and would always use what little English they knew when speaking, making me feel like any other citizen.
In Shizuoka I was a bit of a spectacle and became even more of one when my ability with the language showed.
Fukuoka refreshed my perspective of being foreign when I took a day trip to South Korea and experienced for a few hours what it's like to have a complete lack of understanding of the language, both spoken and written. This experience improved my empathy for similar foreigners in Japan as well as my enthusiasm for dealing with the foreigner identity thrust upon me in Japan where I have better understanding.
My presence in Hiroshima felt welcome as I visited a World Heritage sight with many other foreigners and I was interviewed a total of four times at the annual memorial ceremony of the A-bomb.
The way I was treated in my last two destinations seem to have made me forget about the foreigner identity in Kanazawa. Osaka and Kyoto both are ripe with foreigners and as such I was not treated out of the ordinary in the least bit, other than my friends laughing at my attempts to use the local dialect.
Now I'm back in Kanazawa with a grander view of Japan and the way foreigners fit within its borders. Already tonight I had an incident that reminded me of the reason I started this blog in the first place. In my three months of work and one month of travel, I became comfortable with a carefully crafted ignorance that I had created for myself in hopes of adapting to this culture. Let me first tell what happened before I reflect on it.
After the gym, I headed to a kaiten sushi restaurant for a delicious dinner of fish and rice. I was aware from the moment I walked in how awkward the sight of me must have been. Revolving sushi bars are an especially Japanese place that every foreigner needs to be shown how to use upon their first visit. Because of this, a gaijin sitting alone in a sushi bar is a rare sight, especially in the relatively gaijin-free areas of the country. So when one of the sushi chefs came over to my end of the bar halfway through my meal, I thought I saw a little fear in his eyes as he noticed me. What happened next confirmed my suspicion. He hid behind the long-haired chef stationed at my end of the bar and whispered something. The long-haired chef, with whom I had already placed an order, responded and made a motion with his hand in front of his mouth that appeared to indicate the speaking of words. I immediately understood that the frightened chef was concerned about 'the gaijin' and he was being assured that I could speak just fine.
At first I laughed to myself about the situation, almost speaking up and letting the frightened chef know in his own language that I understand Japanese. But then I felt a bit of panic myself as I realized just how great the separation is between native Japanese and foreigners in this country. No matter how much I study, or how long I spend here, I will always encounter people who are scared stiff by just a single look at me. I felt somehow responsible for the chef's feelings and realized that this is just the fringe of a very real racism. It made me nervous and a bit sick, unable to easily finish the rest of my sushi.
It's easy enough when with friends to laugh about being a foreigner and it's fun to make jokes about taking advantage of it at times. But now that I feel like I have a life here, that sort of separate thinking has become redundant and tiresome. I started to get upset when visiting one of my friends during vacation and it seemed like every other sentence out of his mouth began with "I'm Japanese..." or "You're American..." And when I'm alone, this sort of thing just makes me feel like I'm unwelcome or out of place.
That, I believe, is the root of gaijin syndrome. Each one of us must come up with a coping mechanism for dealing with the different behavior we receive on a daily basis simply due to our looks.
As a white male American, I am incredibly humbled.
Now that I have unearthed the cause, I must ponder on a solution. If only people had labels, I would give myself the sign "Japanese OK!"