City Life Outside Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto

My mouth was hanging open and I know I was being rude, but it was really hard to pull myself together. The woman I was speaking with was from one of the top Japanese Universities. She has had international relationships, traveled the world, and done work that most foreign anime fans would kill to see. Someone with her experiences, to me, should be open-minded about other cultures and lifestyles. Just the same, I can’t help but to be bothered by what she said: “I feel like anything outside Tokyo’s 23 wards is inaka.”

Most of what you read about Japan and Japanese culture will come from people living in Tokyo. Some of it comes from people in Osaka, Kyoto, or sometimes Okinawa, since the base is there. But in general, Tokyo is seen as the center of the Japanese world.

While people say my new Japanese hometown is inaka, or “countryside,” I can walk to several malls from my house, take a free shuttle to the outskirts of town for even more shopping, and walk by a few schools on the way to work. My town even has its own line from Tokyo that comes by every thirty minutes or so. To me, this sounds like a city but to others, this is a countryside town.

Anything Outside the 23 Wards is Inaka

Chiba-City-Port-Inaka

Photo by Otota DANA

My companion’s quote from the start of the article is one reason why some Japanese people, both inside and outside of Tokyo, look down on the Tokyo citizens.  This isn’t a random saying. I’ve heard it several times and every time I’ve brought it up to people who have talked about Tokyo being “different” from the rest of the country, people sort of shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s Tokyo.”

Now, to be clear, “the 23 wards” is specifically the 23 special wards (tokubetsu ku). Looking over that list might seem a bit funny, since you’ll notice Chiba, home of Tokyo Disneyland, is not in that list. That’s right! Some people think Disneyland is out in the “inaka.” In California, Disneyland’s practically considered it’s own city. It was at this point I had to start asking Japanese people an important question: “What does inaka mean?”

Often, people usually just use what they read in the dictionary, but I learned fast that “countryside” in American English is much different than in Japanese English. For me, countryside means farms. Countryside is driving to see your closest neighbor, riding tractors for work and pleasure, and being able to immediately tell who’s from your town just by looking at them.

When I say this to Japanese people and ask them to explain inaka, the joke is always the same: “Inaka is anything outside of Tokyo.” Osaka and Kyoto, for many, aren’t inaka, but Sapporo, which is one of the few parts of the country where this legendary thing called “insulated housing” exists, is inaka. Okinawa, in general, is kind of seen as “not Japanese” mainly due to the military base and the fact that the people there are viewed as different (you’ll hear about “Okinawa time” if anyone wants to joke about being an hour late). In fact, one person I spoke with said that most people, in general, can refer to their hometown as their inaka, but a person from Tokyo would never dare to do this.

I bring this up not only to make a point about the way Japanese people seem to feel about the word inaka, but to illustrate that Japanese people might think you are from the inaka.

Despite the fact that the cheapest houses in my hometown in America are over a million dollars, have Malibu-priced clothing stores, and a golf course built by Donald Trump, I was assured that, because there is one convenience store, no train, no game center, and no bars, my city surely must be inaka.

Everyday Life in a City that isn’t Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto

Inaka-Alley

Photo by Takato Marui

So you might be wondering how “bad” it really is out here. Truthfully, I’m living in a city, at least by American standards. Great bus and train systems, tons of malls and movie theaters, some of the major stores people visit Tokyo to see, game centers, golfing… and a few rice paddies. Not many, but there are some. Imagine a fashionable mall, famous manga store, well-respected school with a strong baseball team, and major supermarket, all within walking distance, with maybe one field of rice. Honestly, the place is so city that I don’t think I would willingly eat any rice that grew in that field. I swear, it’s in front of a bus stop.

I can still buy some imported stuff, but it’s expensive. Raw peanuts and walnuts, canned pumpkin, oatmeal, peanut butter, buffalo wing sauce… I’ve seen tons of stuff from home, but not at the prices I’d be willing to pay unless desperate (I’m looking at you, pumpkin!). Clothes in my size, however, require a trip to Tokyo or other non-inaka city, except for when I go bowling. Yes, I can get shoes in my size at the alley.

Oddly enough, after having lost weight, I’ve had a really hard time finding an affordable belt in my size (I’m cheap). The pants are often too short here, but the belts, oddly enough, tend to be too large! If you’re a big guy or gal, you can get a decent belt here, even at a 100 yen shop.

For food, while people complain about the price of vegetables and fruits, you just have to make due with the local foods rather than try to rely on what you used to eat. Onions, especially nira, a grass-like green onion, are rather inexpensive. Potatoes aren’t that bad for the small sizes you can buy, garlic is well priced, and, for fruit, look out for mikan (it’s very similar to a tangerine) in the winter and apples in the fall

However, one really big difference is that non-Asian foreigners really stand out. If gaikokujin in Tokyo complain about it, consider it at least twice as bad outside of the city. I’ll discuss this more in the future, but oddly enough, not every foreigner out here is a native English speaker.

Now, to be blunt: outside the major cities, foreigners are not super common and the traditional Japanese politeness may start to go out the window. My second month in Japan, an old Japanese man rode up to me on his bike, jumped off, and started staring at me, just inches from my chest (he wasn’t very tall). This was in the middle of a popular shopping street that always has a few black guys standing outside their American fashion shop, so I didn’t think I’d be that interesting. The guy was amazed, and said something I didn’t fully catch, so my friend translated it: “He says, ‘Is your beard real?’”

The beard wasn’t the end of it. In bathrooms, both young children and old men will lean over to check out my, ah, “foreign member.” Some don’t even hide their curiosity, which is why I am completely uncomfortable going to any onsen other than the ones just for your feet. It’s not as bad as the “bigu dikku” comments black men have to endure (at least, I imagine it’s not), but it’s still rather uncomfortable.

Any stories you’ve heard about kids and a certain “game” involving the thrusting of fingers towards the anus are real. I’ve only had one kid try to pull it on me, and it was a little girl. Apparently she had never tried to do that with the Japanese teachers, but the teachers laughed when she tried it with me. I try to be open-minded about different cultures, but having a child do that to a grown man in public, especially a teacher, just doesn’t seem “okay” to me. It’s funny looking back at it now, but at the time, I was pretty surprised at the “kids will be kids” reaction, rather than the “Sweet Siddhartha, what in Buddha’s name do you think you’re doing!?” reaction I expected from such a bold move.

For me, what’s more interesting is how, if you’re a foreigner, anyone with you becomes foreign, unless you’re approached while they’re speaking Japanese. I’ve had Japanese friends accused of being foreigners by little Japanese kids who just walked up to us and said “Gai(koku)jin(foreigner (foreign person))?” It’s not totally bad though, because then the kids try the very little English they know and will ask the Japanese person for some help. It’s a great time to prep the young generation for dealing with foreigners in perhaps a more respectable manner the next time they bump into one. What’s funnier is when I’m with a non-native Asian person who speaks little to no Japanese while I do some very basic translating for them. More on that later though.

There is a lot of good that comes with the not-so-good. People are usually friendly. Even when I’m “scary”, people will warm up to me if given enough time. Kids and old people I walk by everyday say “hi” or at least greet me. Store owners I can barely talk to and whose stores I barely shop at will greet me. Some even throw in small gifts from time to time (thanks for the little scoops of potato-salad, yakitori-ya no obaachan!). As an introvert, the extra attention isn’t exactly desired but, when I’m having a rough day or if I’m starting to question why I stay in this country, the positive aspects and seeing people grow a little through interaction can really make my day.

Japanese People Don’t Speak English, But They Understand It

Japanese-English-Sign

Photo by bonovox84

Despite the fact that very few people spoke English to me when I first came to Tokyo ten years ago, I remember getting a strong feeling Japanese people understood my English. For that matter, they understood the groups of Europeans who sat around in cafes and slammed Japanese culture, turning noisy cafes dead silent.

If there is one thing I want people to take away from this article, both for those in Tokyo and the inaka, it is “don’t slam Japan in English!” If you must, do it in Spanish, German, Mandarin, Arabic, or any other language but English. English is pretty much the only foreign language Japanese people study, and it’s mandatory. Japanese borrows tons of English words. You’ve heard seemingly random English words in J-Pop, Japanese commercials, and anime, right? Even in the inaka, English is scattered here and there, from tourist attractions to school club posters for the Tea Ceremony club. Japanese people may not speak a word of Japanese to you, but they’ve learned at least six years of English if they’re an adult. They might not understand the difference between “on the computer” versus “in the computer” but they certainly understand when you say, “They’re too polite!” I’ve heard stories from Japanese friends about foreign businessmen saying overtly sexual things about Japanese girls in their elevator thinking the girls didn’t understand them. They did, and those women felt deeply ashamed by the situation. Don’t be the foreigner in those stories!

Let’s switch gears to something a bit more positive. I said the Japanese understand English, right? Even out here, with my poor Japanese, I can usually overcome the language barrier if I speak slowly and try switching my vocabulary. My father doesn’t natively speak English, so I do have a lot of experience communicating with non-native speakers. I think patience is the real secret for adjusting and making connections.

Because Japanese people spend so much time on translating and very little time using the language, they are sometimes literally afraid to speak English. I mean shaking, almost crying, deeply-ashamed-to-try-and-communicate kind of afraid. During one instance, a grown man, upon finding out that the woman I was with was Taiwanese-American, not Japanese, and that I was the one that spoke Japanese, turned obviously pale when I spoke to him in Japanese. He never tried to respond to me, he just kept trying to speak in Japanese to the “Asian” person.

And that’s one thing you’ll need to get used to. While in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, Japanese people may be willing to try to use some English with you, outside, more often than not, people will simply talk to you in Japanese and hope that you can repeat their “translation trick” with their langauge. Despite how often I visit Tokyo, it’s still often a surprise to me when someone replies to my Japanese in English. Out here, even with some Japanese teachers of English, I’m used to getting Japanese replies.

If the example of me being ignored in favor of my Taiwanese companion didn’t reveal the next point I want to cover, than allow me to be frank: even when Japanese people understand you, in English or Japanese, Japanese people may sometimes ignore you or your request if it conflicts with their expectations. Not just in everyday life, but at work as well, and it will primarily be based on what’s expected. For example, during a self introduction, I had a teacher translate that “I hate McDonald’s” into “daisuki” (love) McDonald’s. I even said it in Japanese, but it wasn’t until I explained that I never eat there, I think the food is mazui (unappetizing), and that would rather cook for myself that the teacher believed I knew what I was saying. This has happened when I’ve only asked for one bag for all my souvenirs instead of one for each item, that I didn’t need chopsticks for take-out, or that I didn’t need a fork for my katsu. It happens kind of often in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, but much more often in the inaka. At first, some Japanese co-workers and friends who are good at English didn’t quite believe my experience, but upon witnessing it, became very protective and supportive of me. It can be difficult to keep learning Japanese when your correct Japanese produces opposite results.

I haven’t lived everywhere in Japan. Some people will have different experiences than me, or find what I said to be the complete opposite of their experience. And that’s fine! I encourage people to share their adventures in the comments. This is, however, a collection of what I’ve found to be the most common situations for myself and others from various locations around Japan.

Tokyo may have a lot more imported goods, stylish shops, theme parks, and foreigner-acclimated locals, but life in the inaka is still good. Just different. Foreigners can make a much bigger impact, exposing both young and old to different cultures and slowly showing them that we don’t all fit certain stereotypes. If you’re trying to learn Japanese, living in the inaka will force you into situations where your Japanese will improve. Japanese locals won’t always believe you know what you’re talking about, but it’s better than in Tokyo where, no matter how hard to try to only speak Japanese, they keep replying in English. And your inaka experiences will at least make for some decent stories. After all, Japan is much more than what many travelers experience in Tokyo and some of the “smaller” cities.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Brad Garrett

    I love how the picture reminds me of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

  • linda lombardi

    I was born and raised in New York City and it’s funny how at home I feel when I visit Tokyo. But I had no idea the parallels were so exact. Although we don’t have a word for it, native New Yorkers have the same feeling that everything outside the city is inaka. And everyone hates us for it, too. And I laughed at what you said about Chiba because of this: Sometimes an expatriate New Yorker like me meets someone who says they are also from New York and when you ask where, they say “Long Island” and then you are all “uhn uh no you aren’t.” Well, one time someone told me they were from Tokyo and I asked where exactly, and when they answered Chiba I had the overwhelming urge to say “uhn uh no you aren’t.”

  • Jusilla

    I especially found the part about “conflicting expectations” interesting. How frustrating that must be! To think, “I finally said something correctly, I’m sure of it,” only to have a different result due to expectations… Wow. Thank you for sharing your experience! I hope you write more!

  • Zagros

    Man I like this article! Thanks for sharing your great experience (I was like “teach me Senpai”) .. I want to go to Japan, someday, it’s been a dream for many years, and reading things about the life there is so intriguing for me, so interesting, I felt like I was walking with you while reading! What really got me was the man who asked you about the beard xD .. So you think If I go to Japan I should speak Arabic instead of English … Jeez, no chance for anyone to understand that. とにかく、がんばってね!

  • Ricardo K

    I was raised in São Paulo, Brazil and have been living in Houston, TX for quite some time now. Both are very large cities and the feeling of inaka is about the same, I would say. I live 3-4 miles from downtown, which is where work is, so anywhere where I have to drive more than 10 miles “feels” like I am going to inaka… Growing up, we lived near the outskirts of São Paulo, which is really about 20 miles from downtown… Not really that far, but it used to feel like forever when “going into the city”! Friends who lived “in the city” never really wanted to visit us in the inaka… LOL!

    Now, regarding the language, I’ve had some interesting experiences too. I’m full-blooded Japanese (just born elsewhere) and while I speak Japanese (not so great, but enough), I did get several answers in English while in Tokyo to my questions in Japanese!! I don’t know if it was just the accent or my body language but they immediately assumed I was a gaijin (which I am since I wasn’t born there)! In the inaka, conversations went on in Japanese, even though I couldn’t understand 100% of what was being said…

  • Joseph Goforth

    wonder what they’d think of where I grew up then. : my nearest neighbor was about 2 miles away. I could wander around our farm and never see another person. the school bus ride to town was a long one due to picking up kids on backroads, took about 30-45mins to get to school…and the small town of (at the time) 2k people was only 9miles away over the hills. probably think i was some sort of rustic pioneer settler :s

  • DAVIDPD

    I live in a rural city and South Korea, and I really like it. Sure it is inconvenient to get to the major cities, but I really dig the freedom, the clear air, and relaxed atmosphere. The big cities may have grit, but the countryside has heart! // Thanks Levine.

  • https://twitter.com/RichSatsumaimo Rich

    To those outside NYC (but in NY State), if your not from Manhattan, you’re not from NYC ;)

  • Raymond Chuang

    But what about people living in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island? :-/ After all, these ARE boroughs of New York City itself.

    But a comment on Linda’s posting–people think Tokyo Disneyland is part of Tokyo, but in reality the park is located at the very western end of Chiba Prefecture right next to the Edogawa ward of Tokyo. Technically, the western part of Chiba, most of Kanagawa, and the southern part of Saitama prefectures should be considered part of the Tokyo metro area, too.

  • Laguna Levine

    The rustic pioneer thing would most likely be their first thought. You didn’t even mention a convenience store, and that’s usually where people hit me hardest for some reason. It’s hard to explain that, in the states, convenience stores are really more of a sign of poverty for a neighborhood than a status symbol.

  • Laguna Levine

    Yup! I’ve known “Americans” who were born abroad and spent much of their childhood abroad, but if they looked like a white-American, they were treated as one when they came back to the states. In Japan, it seems that anything that makes you seem slightly less Japanese makes you gaijin. It’s an interesting contrast to me.

  • Laguna Levine

    Haha, if you speak Arabic, no one will have a clue about what you’re saying. I’d speak some German with my brother, and even though Japanese has a few loans words from the language, people gave us some distance when we did that.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’ve lived in the Japanese countryside for 7 years now. And I mean the REAL countryside. The next Shinkansen station was very far away. Basically every bigger city was at least 3h away. No Starbucks to be seen anywhere, no movie theater, NOTHING. Lots of rice paddies, though. And you really needed a car to get around. THAT, dear people from Tokyo, is TRUE inaka.
    And don’t let me get started on all the small islands I’ve visited. That’s what I’d call inaka.

    If you’re still somehow close to Tokyo and there are some other foreigners around and yet you get all this staring, imagine how it is in the “real” inaka. Some people there have really never ever seen a foreigner before. And it’s more than likely that you’re the only foreigner in town.

    Oh, and hey, I’m one of those foreigners whose native language is not English. I’ve never understood why people want to keep speaking English to me when it’s neither their nor my native language. We’re in Japan, let’s speak Japanese. They’re fluent in it, I’m almost fluent in it.

    I’ve had people stare at me, point at me and scream “Foreigner!!!”, I’ve had the strangest conversations …. it’s crazy sometimes. ^^

    But I’m not a big city girl, never was. I love living in the Japanese countryside. ^___^

  • http://www.sid-thewanderer.com/ Siddhartha Joshi

    That was one hell of an article… Completely enjoyed it :) you have captured the small mannerisms of the Japanese really well, I could actually image the little girl trying to poke ur…errr…posterior!

    Hilarious… You write really well, and very sensitively as well buddy :)

  • Mami

    Great article. Haha I grew up in Inaka in Japan. My husband lived outskirts of Kyoto for a while and Japanese people called his place inaka. So when I told him my hometown is inaka, he didn’t believe it….but now he does because it is actually inaka…I’m a real country girl. :P

  • Laguna Levine

    I’ve experienced a little of the “there’s no nearby train station, rice paddies everywhere,” but only for a few days. That plus being a foreigner who doesn’t natively speak English means you’ve probably really got some stories, especially if your Japanese is that good! We really don’t hear enough of those experiences, especially in the states.

    Out of curiosity, what’s the age group of the people screaming “Foreigner!” I’ve had mostly kids in rural parts of Kyoto do that, and one particular mother was just mortified, possibly because I understood the kid (who said “Gaijin” without the “koku,” so someone at home’s saying that ;P ).

  • Laguna Levine

    It’s funny you say that, because my mother’s from rural New York, but when Japanese hear New York, they only think of the city. When I tell them she’s from a small town, they’re very confused!

  • Mari

    one of my friends told me he lives in Shinjuku. Turned out he lived in Higashi-murayama, more than 1h west from Shinjuku by car…

  • Jelly Fisheduc

    Learning Japanese language can help expanding your horizon, ad you will enjoy travelling to Japan

  • Matthew MacEwan

    Coolness, I’m looking forward to visiting the inaka now, perhaps for an eventual total Japanese immersion experience.

    Here’s one test for genuine inaka: does your computer show any wireless networks apart from your own? In the countryside where I grew up, the answer was “nope, never”, and I always felt a little silly setting up a wireless password :)

    You really should cut out the McDonald’s food, though, as much as you love it.

  • Rau

    Sadly(?)I will never experience the full “gaijin experience” of preferential language treatment because I can pass as a native and have a relatively strong command of the language. Even when I spoke in other languages, they still treated me like one of their own.

  • https://twitter.com/RichSatsumaimo Rich

    Me too!
    I always say, “I’m from New York State, the suburbs of NYC – NOT NYC.”
    And Japanese people usually respond, “Oh, a city boy!”

    I can’t stand when people not from NYC claim to be, so I adamantly explain that I’m not, but go ignored.

  • https://twitter.com/RichSatsumaimo Rich

    Technically those are boroughs of NYC, but if someone from the suburbs is going to “the city” it means Manhattan.

    New York is a state and well as a city, so there’s nothing wrong with people from upstate or western New York saying they’re from New York. They shouldn’t say they’re from NYC though, and I agree with Linda, too many people do.

    I once met a guy in Japan who was “from New York City.” When I told him I worked in NYC and asked him where in NY, he replied “all over” – a fishy answer at best.

  • http://amakarablog.com/ Kori

    I heart the inaka. Southern Kyushu is full of angels!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Those were kids, of course. Adults have other ways of being rude without even noticing.
    I do sometimes write about all my experiences in “inakaland” in my tiny blog, so check it out if you’re interested. ^__^ (zoomingjapan.com)

    It’s good if the mothers react shocked. Unfortunately I often had it that the mothers just ignored their kids bad behavior. It’s like described in this article “let the kids just be kids no matter what they’re doing”. -____-”’

  • Sarah

    Insulated housing in Sapporo is an urban myth (unless you’re super rich, I guess?). I offer the last 6 years of a frozen nose and frost bitten toes as proof.

    thenomadsland@tumblr.com

  • Bengie25

    Almost everyone that I know’s family has only been in the USA for 2-4 generations.

    People with Asian, African, European ancestry, but they’re all “American”. I get the feeling that everyone is a foreigner in one way or another, but that is what the USA is all about. We’re young.

  • Lava Yuki

    Oh god i dnt think i could stand japanese inaka since i get hurt easily by direct or snark comments. Ive only been to Osaka, Yokohama, Tokyo and Kyoto so no one stared or anything since theres lots of tourists, but from what you describe I dont think I would ever want to leave the big cities. The only kind of offensive experience was when i went to the pool and this old lady said i have a nice figure, then another one stepped in and said “thats cus she’s gaijin if of course”, but it kinda irritates me.

    Otherwise ive never had anyone respond to me in english when i speak Japanese. I went 3 months without speaking english except to my parents and other foreigners of course. But maybe thats cuz im fron south east asia and dont look western perhaps?.

  • GaijinToy

    Wow, Laguna.

    I know I’ve ragged on you before for being so casual and happy about racism – but seriously, I read this article and all I thought was, “The city is pretty ok, but the inaka is super racist! And I love it!”

    Maybe you just don’t realize what you’re saying. Nearly every anecdote in this story is about how blindingly racist the inaka is. That bit about your teacher literally making up racist crap about you to her own students – she literally couldn’t hear the things you said because she could only hear her own prejudices – that is mind-numbingly racist. You seriously don’t how racist that is?

    And kids screaming “Gaijin” at you on the street? Dude, you should NOT be rewarding that racist behavior with smiles and conversation. If a child screams “Gaijin” at you, you either scold that child (you are a freaking adult, and you have that privilege), or you ignore him. I get kids who do that to me, and I sure as hell do not teach them that that is ok. I walk the hell away. Same with kids who scream random English at me (“I’M FINE!”) I get paid to teach English. Kids gotta understand that every white person they see is NOT their free, private English teacher. Cuz, you know, I’m a human being. Dude: YOU ARE TOO.

    Now, personally, I don’t have store clerks literally ignore the things I say to them. I am a very regular customer at at least one convenience store, and the people know me there. They know that I hate having too many plastic bags, they know that I use chopsticks. They’re actually VERY considerate of me, and actually give a slightly apologetic tone to their voice when they ask if I want a fork with my pasta. That’s not something I’ve communicated to them, so they are, of their own accord, trying to be sensitive of the stereotypes and prejudices people hold against foreigners here. That consideration goes such a long way with me. The card shop I play at (MtG draft) treats me with similar respect, and I am extremely loyal to the shops that do this for me. I specifically go to that shop because no one there ever – never – makes my foreignness an issue. (The manager is an older guy who clearly gets a kick out of having a foreigner in his shop, but he has never, ever asked any of the typical prying, rude questions people ask – he’s so nice.)

    And I live in a city deep in the inaka. So, I mean, seriously, the stuff you’re talking about is in NO WAY universal to the inaka.

    Because, seriously, if a store clerk treated me the way store clerks treat you, I sure as hell wouldn’t go back to that store. I probably wouldn’t bother chewing them out, but I would not just sit and take that. My wife would be indignant on my behalf and SHE might chew them out for me. And she’s not the only one – I had a restaurant comp my drinks and meal once because another customer was screaming racist abuse at me. That is rare, and when it happens, people don’t tend to let it fly.

    Just, wow, though. Laguna, I’m kind of concerned for you. Like, I’m being honest here, not just trolling.

  • GaijinToy

    Yeah, the moms in my life are awful about controlling their kids.

    Here’s something that happens to me – 1) Yeah, kids who shout about “gaijins” rarely get scolded. But, kids rarely get scolded in the first place. But, 2) I’ve noticed that many moms will just half-heartedly tell their kid “Hey stop that” and ignore them. But then when I get fed up and say, “Seriously kid, stop that. That is not nice,” the mom will perk up and go into mom overdrive and say, “I already told you a million times, cut that out!!!!”

    So, somehow, I don’t know. I just feel like I shake up the parenting culture around me. Other parents don’t get upset with the kids – but I’ll openly scold a child that is not mine, and it almost always gets the mother to bring down the hammer. It’s a weird feeling, though, like the moms are powerless against their own children unless another adult backs them up. Like, they clearly want their kids to listen to them, but they just won’t. It’s really kind of hard to explain.

    This is one reason I say: scold racist kids. If a kid shouts “Gaijin” at you, Say, “That’s not polite” to him. Call that child out. Parents, in my experience, respond to that, and you can often get a parent to say what they wanted to say in the first place but couldn’t. You’re not forcing your culture on those parents, strangely enough, but rather just bringing out the latent aspects that they can’t express themselves.

  • GaijinToy

    Yeah, that’s actually just garden variety racism. “Here’s your fork. What? Chopsticks? No, foreigners don’t use chopsticks. Here’s your fork.” It’s an established prejudice that is enforced by an ethnic majority that maintains power over the ethnic minority. You get a fork in Japan because everyone knows” you’re foreign and have to use a fork.

    A lot of people come to Japan and get put through these little routines, where they openly and clearly ask for one thing, but are given another because they are foreign, and “everyone knows” foreigners do it this way. As a JET, you may even be asked to perform for your students – something like, “Show the children how to use a fork.” One word for it is “essentializing,” teaching the children that, somehow, using forks and eating bread are essential elements of being foreign, and that foreignness is equivalent to liking bread and using a fork.

    So, when I say that “you’re foreign and you have to use a fork,” this is something plenty of people experience. They are often given no other choice than the “foreign” choice – especially when you are a JET and basically are subjected to the whims and fancies of your contracting organization.

    So, I mean. Yeah. This isn’t simple cultural misunderstandings, and there’s no real fascinating, mysterious Japanese thing going on here – Laguna isn’t experiencing some fascinating and unique aspect of Japanese language communication here – there is no trick or secret to learn – he is just talking to racists who ignore the words he says and treat him as a stereotype.

    And, again, while this is absolutely common as all hell in the public schools – if you are a JET, your job is basically “perform stereotypes of foreigners for children’s entertainment” – once you finish JET, that constant performance ends, and MOST people will actually listen to the things you say and give you chopsticks when you ask.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I do that when I’m fed up, too. The reactions of the mothers have been different, though.

    I remember one time when I was in a plane (domestic flight) and the kids behind my seat kept kicking the seat in front of them (read: MY seat). The parents told them to stop ONCE and then they fell asleep. The kids got nastier and eventually I freaked out, turned over and scolded them in a very loud voice. The mother finally woke up and apologizend, but the funny thing is that another young Japanese woman who had one of the horror kids behind her seat doing the same, smiled and nodded at me, being relieved. It seems like she wanted to do the exact same thing but just wasn’t brave enough.
    After that we had a pleasant and quiet flight. :D :D :D

  • Guest

    Being called gaijin without the “koku” really isnt a big deal as much as foreigners think. Japanese people shorten their words all the time.

  • Mescale

    Isn’t this the same in America?

    What are hicks, rednecks, trailer trash? Aren’t they those country bumpkins, the funny ones what don’t live in cities?

    Its the same in England.

    London is very different to other cities, so much so that it feels like the country is run for London, the national newspapers are heavily biased towards London, etc.

    People, in cities, not just London, are biased against people from the countryside, they have some idea about how people from the countryside are, how they should act, etc.

    In the countryside, people see them city folk, always trying to destroy their lifestyle, or livelihood, and don’t feel they understand them. They have a very provincial attitude to anyone who isn’t local, or doesn’t share their lifestyle. “Its a local shop for local people, there’s nothing for you here’.

    Tell me, if I went to Louisiana, would I be treated the same if I went to San Francisco? If I went to the boonies in West Virginia, would it be the same?

    What if I was of Asian descent and did so?

    I feel like articles like this are trying to hold Japan to a higher standard than places like America, you know, land of the free.

    Also its often put forward the idea that all Japanese people are all the same and are some kind of monoculture, and yet here we have evidence of the contrary, they turn out to be like everyone else.

  • BlankDino

    So is your beard real or not?

  • GaijinToy

    In isolation, the word is actually not bad. Technically, it means “foreign person.”

    What you’re forgetting is that human culture is a vast, complex web of interconnected ideas the influence each other. In the context of real, actual Japanese life and culture, yes, “gaijin” is a racist word.

    Maybe it also has to do with how invested you are in Japan. I live and work here. I don’t teach eikaiwa – I do teach Japanese students culture and language to work or study overseas, or to work domestically in tourism. I’m deeply invested in the racial sensitivities of the people I live with, so I’m very aware – perhaps hyper-aware – of racism in Japanese society. My children face it – my students express it – and I have to deal with it.

    I’ve had this discussion a million times, though, and people always come up with the “dictionary definition” argument, and honestly, there is no convincing the people who pop up to say “the word isn’t so bad!”

    It is bad. But, honestly? If you’re a temporary worker – if you don’t have a family – if you are here on JET – if you’re on a vacation – then, no, “gaijin” is not really that problematic a word. If you’re a tourist, then, yeah, it’s a perfect word to describe you.

    If you’re living here and raising a family, though, yes – gaijin is always inappropriate.

  • Christopher Stilson

    There’s a very similar attitude in Canada, possibly because all the settlements are so far apart. Every city thinks that it’s the only major metropolitan area in the country and that the rest of Canada’s population must sleep in tents. Toronto in particular can be a lot like Tokyo in its attitude toward the rest of the country.

  • Joseph Goforth

    heh i was far more rural. town was where shops were and that was 9miles away. briefly there was a small ma and pa store run at a tiny community of farming families about 3 or 4 miles farther away, but that shutdown when i was in middle school (and we rarely went there as it was farther off from town than we were). so if by some weird chance a convenience store or a gas station moved near us, we’d have thought the area was becoming gentrified ;P Heck, my father grew up on the same farm, born in 1955, and he remembers when the highway that goes past our farm was still a dirt road :s

  • Jess

    When I visited Japan, my friend experience a similar situations, in city and country areas.
    I’m asian, so I blend in but my friend was white. We went to an onsen in sapporo and he felt horrible afterwards because he had a group of high school boys and they were talking about he’s “dikku”
    My japanese isn’t fantastic, but when I was traveling with a white friend (he’s japanese is fluent). All the japanese people kept trying to talk to me.. when my friend was talking to them in japanese. Very rude… but it’s how they view things.
    I use to think the ‘western’ people stand out and get better service but years later. I’m a bit thankful I blend in and don’t stand out as much. But as soon as I say I’m from another country I always get the ‘Uso!!’ I want to face palm myself sometimes. Yes I’m asian, but I’m not from Japan.

  • Júlia

    Great post!

  • dumpling

    Dude, you are way too sensitive. Are you from uber politically correct America? Americans *love* getting indignant over little things. (Was that statement racist? Perhaps. I lived in the US for 14 years and that’s the opinion I’ve formed based on empirical evidence.)

    Some people just don’t know any better, and have never had the chance or experience to learn otherwise. I currently live in London (very non-inaka), and I’ve been accused of eating dog because I look “Asian”. It was a bit annoying, but I wasn’t mega offended. I don’t know anything about that particular person, and I don’t expect them to know anything about me either. There are so many different types of people in this city that nobody can possibly know about what is acceptable to everyone, so why stress out about it?

  • yoru.morino

    I don’t feel like I know “a lot” of Japanese, but I’ve been learning it…and when I went to Tokyo, I used Japanese with everyone. They never replied in English, and I’m not sure if that was bad or good hahaha But I did survived and didn’t have problems, so maybe I’m not that bad at japanese xD
    I’ll never forget that japanese girl (like 5 years old) who waved at me and said in a pretty good english “Have a nice time”. It was adorable!

  • GaijinToy

    No, actually, it’s completely possible for people to learn how not to be racist. Not knowing any better is a real crap excuse for saying racist things.

    I honestly don’t get the whole, “Racism doesn’t bother me, so why does it bother you?” routine. Someone accused you of eating dog, and you brushed it off? Ok, good for you? I brush off racist comments at least once a month here in Japan, if not more often. I respond to them just as often. It’s actually pretty healthy to work through your emotions. Obviously you wanted to talk to someone about that incident, since you just brought it up unprompted here.

    What are you even trying to say here, though? I mean, ok, so you brushed off a minor racist incident. We all do that, all the time. Are you saying that real, nasty racism doesn’t bother you either? Would you be able to brush off a KKK rally? Or a Nazi Party rally? Or a Japanese “black truck” blaring anti-foreigner music over a loudspeaker? Where do you draw the line?

  • Senjougahara

    I feel that /in general/ Japanese people from Japan have a hard time knowing the actual difficulty of vocabulary and grammar. Sure, the average beginner might not know the difference between 将来 and 未来, or what various mimetic words mean. But they surely will know things like numbers, basic verbs like 食べる, 飲む, etc.

    When I was in Japan, I experienced the whole “they hear you but don’t understand/are unwilling to respond normally” thing a few times. I feel though this mainly happened when I showed hesitation. If you directly say something with a good accent and confidence, I think most people will continue on. People (who speak any language really) can spot confusion, lack of confidence, and bad accents a kilometer away.