Note: I’ll use “gaijin” for the majority of the article. Not in a derogatory sense (I’m a gaijin too) because it’s much cleaner than “foreign student”. And of course, to highlight that foreigners for the most part are foreigners in Japan.
So in my one and a half years in Japan and studying at two different universities, it seems that for the most part Gaijin students tend to fit into three major groups – and three very differing approaches to Japan. I’m not saying one is better than the other (or, more importantly, I’m not saying one is worse than another), but it is interesting to see how people slide into various “gaijin roles” after they’ve spent some time here. I hope that by reading this (these stereotypes, essentially) you can look inside yourself and notice if you are falling into one of these categories. Maybe you’d rather be something else! Now you have the power to notice what you are becoming.
Type 1: the “Gaijin?”
The Hollywood version
Motto: When in Rome do as the Romans do
And thus when in Japan, do as the Japanese do.
This person is probably the one you find with perfect keigo mastery. The one who goes “Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu” or the person who can seiza properly for 20 minutes without collapsing.
Often can be seen in Japanese university student clubs, especially the very “Japanese” ones such as karate or judo. Probably has hopes for living / working in Japan in the future. His goal is to immerse himself in Japan and try his best to integrate – be a member of Japanese society – as much as possible.
If you’re looking to experience Japan then this is obviously good. Furthermore, if you really want to practice your Japanese (and particularly your keigo) then this would be a great way of going about doing your business.
If you’re also looking to make Japanese friends then this is perhaps one possible way to do it. More on this in the third section but there are actually many foreigners who leave Japan after a year or more without any Japanese friends – and this approach might avoid it.
Probably the hardest out of the three to do. You have to be fluent in Japanese to at least a near-native level and be able to “空気を読む” (lit. reading the air or social situation) which may be hard too. And it takes time – a lot of it.
Furthermore, once people know that you’re a foreigner, you’ll have an giant “gaijin” tag superglued onto your head. If you look vaguely Japanese, then maybe it’s possible. But even then, unless your accent with all the intonations are correct – you are gaijin. If a Japanese person mucks up their keigo, he or she is “poorly-educated”. If a gaijin mucks it up, it’s cute – but very “gaijin”.
Every small non-Japanese thing you do will reinforce your status as a gaijin – so being fully “integrated” is extremely difficult to say the least, so expect to be pretty stressed out at times if you decide to take this path.
Type 2: the “Gaijin gaijin”
Motto: I’m not Roman so why should I care?
If the above person tries to remove the gaijin tag stuck to his head, this guy takes advantage of it. He knows he’s a gaijin, they know he’s a gaijin, and he makes sure that they know that he’s a gaijin.
Basically, he is everything that the Japanese expect from a “gaijin” – brash, extroverted, frank, loud, “kuuki yomenai”, whatever.
Everyone knows him and he almost is a campus mascot. Inwardly he probably revels in the attention too.
Through assuming the gaijin stereotype, you get awarded “gaijin space”. Basically, you won’t be accepted as part of Japanese society but you will be accepted as a “gaijin”. This means that you can often do what you want (with some limits) – keigo? Who cares? Hierarchy? What’s that? The Japanese assume that you don’t care or don’t know, so don’t worry about it!
This is also the other way of making Japanese friends – after all you’ll be known throughout campus and so you’ll have a tremendously wide social circle of people who know you (and who you don’t know). Get to know them and the problem is solved.
If you’re the feminist/gay/environmentalist/etc activist type too this approach may be good. Because the gaijin status does accord you the right to be vocal about things – whether the Japanese listen is a different question though.
How some people may see you
Not everyone is going to take well to you – because you will be indicating that you’re really different from them. Some people will find an gaijin extrovert overpowering and some people can’t forgive the lack of keigo. But you will be attracting the more internationally minded Japanese so there is a give and take.
This requires some finesse and charisma to it too. You can’t just be the critical brusque foreigner that says uncalled-for stuff all the time. That’ll earn you discrimination (as it would in the rest of the world). Also, doing this would pretty much disqualify you from joining many Japanese student clubs (with their strict hierarchy) – there would simply be too big a culture clash.
Aside from this, this is not recommended for people who dislike being the center of attention – obviously.
Type 3: The “Ghetto Gaijin”
Motto: “I am in Rome?”
From my experience this is really the default that a majority foreign students find themselves in. Basically, gaijins who clump with other gaijins – and there are many. If you go to any university with a sizable foreign population there’s usually a very obvious “foreign table” at lunch in the cafeteria.
For the most part this can’t be helped. Because you’ll likely be living in a dorm with other gaijin. If you’re taking classes in English they’re likely to be populated with other foreign students (maybe not so much for grad school). This is not to mention language barriers – if you can’t speak Japanese then you’ll be limited to interacting with other foreigners, and perhaps a limited number of Japanese who can speak your language.
There’s other things too like “soto” and “uchi”, shyness etc. But those have been written about to death already so I’ll skip that.
This is extremely ironic, but lots of people come to Japan and end up making lots of friends from other countries that aren’t Japan. So it isn’t rare that people go away from Japan with an extremely diverse group of friends and people to visit all around the world. Plus, having classes, discussing and interacting with other foreigners is, in its own way, a form of “global education” too.
But the main reason why gaijin clump is that to be frank – it is much easier than the above two approaches. After all, this does not require any Japanese ability and in school you’ll likely be together anyway. Plus there wouldn’t be any need to deal with culture shock etc.
If the point of coming to Japan is to experience it, then this approach cuts out half of the experience.
In addition, the best way to learn Japanese is to use it and be exposed to it continually – if someone is mainly speaking English with Japanese only being used in the classes then it’s really no different from Japanese classes you would get back in his or her home countries. Lots of “ghetto gaijin” go back home with an improved level of Japanese – but it would certainly be better if they were using it more regularly when they were in Japan.
To Sum Up
I think from what I’ve observed, the first one or two months many foreign students start with the “gaijin?” approach – they try to join student clubs, go for international exchange parties etc. However as time passes more and more drop out of the clubs and as the Japanese tend to clump, the foreign students do so too and “ghettoize” themselves.
Anyway, there is no “superior method” among the three here. Your personality type, Japanese ability, interests and even how your classes are arranged will affect greatly the method which you will choose. And there’s probably other sub-types and mixes and whatever that can be talked about too. But just pick the one that fits you best or maybe one that was written about in this article. But no guarantees though – your mileage may vary.