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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Japan And The Gaijin - Part 1

I was recently asked by a young woman about what the culture is like; whether it is welcoming of foreigners, and 'does it see all white people as American (are they cool with us Canucks)?'

She also asked about dress code for would-be teachers, and whether or not they were cool with piercings and hair color.

She also asked a bunch of other questions - and I will get to those in another blog, if you don't mind.

Let me start with the second set of questions. Japan is still pretty much wary of such things as piercings and hair color when it comes to its teachers. I saw a photo of the young woman in question - a beautiful woman who has pink hair. As much as I might think she looks beautiful and would be proud to walk down the street with her, just like here in Canada, people will stare as though you are a freak. And in Japan, it is worse.

First off, depending on where you go in the country, people in some areas will stare at you more than others. In teh big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, walking down the street with your natural hair color will not get you stared at. The big cities are used to us gaijin (foreigners). But, out in the do inaka (the boondocks) where your city, town or village may have a small gaijin population, you will get stared at.

When I ws in Ohtawara-shi (City of Ohtawara) in Tochigi-0ken (Tochigi Prefecture) 20 years ago... Out of a population of 50,000 we had about 35 foreigners living and working in the city, including bartenders, foreigner exchange workers on a year or two exchange, the Asian Rural Institute that taught farming techniques to the so-called other Asian and Indian cultures, and a few assistant English teachers (AETs) on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme.

It sounds like a lot, eh? While we were all quite friendly with each other, we didn't all hang-out. Matthew Hall was probably the first to hang out more with the Japanese amongst us AETs, while the foreign Exchange workers lived in dorms with their fellow employees, and so probably went out drinking a fair bit more with them.

Oh yeah... our small city had an International Friendship association whereby they would have a party and invite a few foreigners out and they would all meet and chat with us. It was always fun and allowed people like myself to experience more of the Japanese than i would otherwise have been able.

Anyhow... despite Matthew, myself, Ashley and Jeanne (the AETs) being semi-famous and well known in the city, we would still get stared at by people as we would ride a bike alone (or with others). At that time, in my small city... foreigners simply weren't that common.

Visiting elementary schools, I would be beset with small fry begging for an autograph because I was the first foreigner that had ever seen and touched in person. It's an awesome experience.

The term gaijin, by the way, means outsider... gaikokjin is a polite way of saying foreign person.

My bosses at the Board of Education would correct people who would refer to me as gaijin... but truthfully, I know that no offense was meant. But I love that my bosses would correct others. Not everyone did that.

You asked about hair color and piercings... let me tell you about my friend Jim from Australia, whom I recently got back in contact with. Jim was one of the most fun-loving guys out there in the world, and he and I shared a few adventures that I only partially remember thanks to some intense drinking. But... there was a time when his office came up to him and suggested that it was time for him to get a haircut. It was shoulder length.

Meanwhile, My hair was pretty darn long... about half-way past the top of my shoulder blades, I wore an earring every now and then (left ear because I was 'cool'. Yeah, right), and I wore some colorful, but 1992-stylish clothes. Or maybe I was ahead of the curve because I was wearing a teal dress jacket, or a red silk jacket, stretchy hair bands to match my shirts... and would grow a beard or not as I felt like it. My bosses also came up to me one day to discuss my appearance. They said I looked 'cool'. None of that get a haircut stuff for An-do-ryu sensei! I was Ferris Bueller and I could do no wrong! True. My office, and my city, was pretty damn liberal.

Japanese folk were forever trying to get me to go out with a pretty Japanese girl every time it became known that Ashley and I had broken up... and pretty soon, I listened to them. Matthew... once again ahead of the curve.

I was not the first brown guy in my city... as mentioned there were plenty of them at the Asian Rural Institute... but my predecessor Cheryl Menezes from the U.K. was also of Indian decent. Did they pick me because I was brown and that was what they were used to? No idea. it doesn't matter.

What matters is that they were looking for someone who was a university graduate, a great communicator, great neutral English accent, played sports, taught piano and clarinet, loved to laugh and make others laugh. I knew nothing about teaching English. I know zero Japanese words when I arrived. I had only eaten Japanese food once ( a day or two before leaving), had never drunk sake (rice wine), and knew pretty much nothing about Japan except from watching Hashimoto-san cartoons and Godzilla flicks.

Seriously. I had pretty much no preconceived notion about Japan. Zero. I went in with an open mind and came out with it still open.

Japan will spit you up if you try and make it fit to your notioins about the way a first-world country should act.

Japan and the Japanese are super polite and will give you the shirt off  their back to help you out. Read about my first day in Japan: HERE. But, god help you if you are a woman. Even though everyone knew Ashley was with me, it didn't stop a drunken hand from reaching out to pinch her butt or try and squeeze her boobs, or for students to ask her what her three sizes are.

With pink hair and piercings you mat get stared at anyways - you do get stared at here in Canada, but we're too polite to continue staring after we get caught. The Japanese will continue to stare. It's not rudeness, but rather curiosity. Can the pirercings and hair color prevent you from being hired. I can't answer that. I don't know. My guess is yes. But, my guess tempers that answer by stating that it all depends on where you are applying (what part of the country), and who is doing the hiring.

Japan doesn't like too much of a freak show despite my opinion that it is itself a freak show.

Now... what about Canucks (Canadians)? They might think you are an American, but it is good to correct them friendly-like and gently. I did all the time. No one minds, because they are now even more curious... They knew about Anne of Green Gables (The girls did), salmon, skiing, and that's pretty much it. But that was cool, because I got to teach them not really about Canada, but rather how Japanese I could act... it was done on purpose because Japan is a tad xenophobic... and had (maybe had) a superiority complex about itself. I did my best to break down the stereotypes to show them that Canadians, Americans, Europeans, South Americans, Indians... hell, people... we're the same under the skin despite a few cultural differences.

Yeah... there are a lot of cultural differences, but let me tell you... Japanese people work because they have too. They love, get married, have kids, have affairs, have friends... they live. They don't get paid a lot.... hell, I made more money a year than a 20-year experienced teacher!, but that's life.

Look... I don't want to discourage you about going to Japan... but I would try to fit in. If that means getting the air back to a more (and I hesitate to use this term) 'normal' color - do it. Give yourself the best chance to succeed. If you wan to cahneg your hair color when you are there - go for it.

Piercings... nose, eyebrow? You may get questions. You may get the odd stare... will it prevent you from getting a job? Maybe. It might prevent you from getting a job here in Canada. Take'em out... get the job... ask your boss about piercings and hair color and adjust accordingly.

Unless your hair color and piercings define who you are, you will have to conform a bit in Japan. Don't be so stubborn as to let things like that stop you from experiencing the world. And... like I said... once there... let them experience YOU.

Somewhere wishing it was 1990,
Andrew Joseph    

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