A German Alien in Japan: Outsider

Living in Japan as a foreigner can be very interesting, weird, annoying and sometimes also frustrating. Japanese people might be scared of you, stare or even point at you shouting “FOREIGNER!!!

All of that happens because you are something exotic, you are the unknown, you are a phenomenon that just appears out of nowhere and then disappears just as fast as it came.

But what if you don’t?
What if you stay in the land of the rising sun and continue to be this “exotic, mystical” person called “gaijin” (外人, outsider)?

It’s okay. After a few years people will recognize you.
After all you’ve been in Japan for a very long time. You speak Japanese fluently, you know Japanese etiquette and how to use chopsticks.
You might have even married a Japanese citizen, drive a Japanese car and work in a Japanese company.
You live a normal life – not much different from any Japanese person! Right???


 Disclaimer: The following is written based on my own experience.


1. “Hello I live in Japan”:

I’ve been in Japan for many years now. I speak decent Japanese.
I have no difficulties traveling through Japan all by myself. I can handle Japanese hospitals without any problem. Japan has become my (second) home.

And yet the Japanese people around me remind me every single day, that it’s NOT my home. At least not in their eyes!
First of all there’s all this staring that clearly shows me that I’m different, that I’m an outsider.
I still get compliments for how well I speak Japanese although for me it’s just normal that I can speak it – now that Japan is my home and I’ve been here for so many years.

I run into random people when traveling and usually there’s some small talk involved.
Often conversations go like this:

Japanese: “Oh, where are you from?”
Me: “XY City, XY Prefecture.” (obviously where I live in Japan)
Japanese: “Uh, no, I mean, where did you live BEFORE that?”
Me: “Oh, before that I lived in XY prefecture for 4 years!”
Japanese: “Uhm …. no, I mean WHERE WERE YOU BORN??? You are not Japanese, right???!!!”
Me: “Originally, I’m from Germany!”
Japanese: “Oh, Germany!! [insert some typical cliché blabbering]”

Yes, conversations are not always going like that and I have to admit that I answer like that on purpose! smilie
But if they ask me where I came from (lit.: どこから来ましたか, “Doko kara kimashita ka?”), then I naturally answer where I live in Japan and not where I was born!
If somebody asks you this question, you would usually tell them in which city you currently live and not where you were born unless they explicitly ask for it, right?


2. “I was born in Japan”

Sometimes I stretch the conversation above a bit just to see how they react:

Japanese: “Where were you born?”
Me: “Oh, I was born here in Japan.”
Japanese: “………………!??! Oh!?”

To be honest, even after saying it, some just pretend they didn’t hear what I just said.
Or they say I don’t look like a “hafu” (ハーフ, that’s how they call people who are half Japanese and half foreign).
And when I tell them that both of my parents are foreign, it seems like their brain is about to explode. smilie

Of course I’m totally making this story up, BUT:
One of my previous co-workers is exactly like that! Her parents are from America, came to teach English at a university in Japan and just stayed for good.
She was born and raised here in Japan. Obviously she doesn’t look Japanese AT ALL!
However, inside she’s Japanese through and through. My former co-worker is fluent in Japanese as she went to a Japanese kindergarten, school and you name it!

How do you think people like her feel when they have a similar conversation like the one above?


3. “When are you going back home?”

This is just another question a lot of foreigners – including me – often have to face.
Japanese people don’t expect that you’ll stay in Japan forever.
They see you as a short-term visitor – even if you tell them that you’ve been in Japan for several years!

Again, imagine my previous co-worker! What do you mean by “going back home”???!!! Japan is her home!


4. “Keep the outsiders out!”

Japan is the perfect country to keep the outsiders out. After all it’s an isolated island!

Apart from its geographical feature there are some other things that “help” with the great endeavor to keep the outsiders out!
There are still some establishments with signs saying: “No foreigners!”
Foreigners are not allowed to vote. It’s almost impossible to obtain Japanese citizenship!
Japan also doesn’t allow dual citizenship, so if you’re a “hafu” you’ll have to choose eventually.
And if neither of your parents is Japanese, then you can’t be a Japanese citizen – even if you were born in Japan.
Home, sweet home!


5. How foreigners might feel about it:

When my family came to visit me in Japan, it was very interesting to see how they were happily answering questions and were glad that Japanese people approached them asking where they were from.
After a week they were so annoyed, so I asked them: “Can you imagine how annoying it must be when this happens to you almost every single day?”
Of course, they nodded.

How about you?

Have you been in a similar situation? How do you feel about it?
Can you imagine that it can be difficult to be seen as “the outsider” for almost all of your life when living in Japan?
Please share your opinion and / or experience! smilie


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