An unexpected “gaijin moment”

English: Signage for hostess bars in Kabukicho...

English: Signage for hostess bars in Kabukicho, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Robert Moorehead

At the beginning and end of each semester, my college faculty and staff gather for a fancy meal at a restaurant before a smaller group moves on to an Irish pub for a nijikai (second round of drinking). The nijikai crowd eventually shrinks down to a smaller group that heads to a third bar, for a sanjikai. At each place, everyone shares stories, laughs, and enjoys each other’s company in a mix of Japanese and English. Despite the fun, at the third stop I had a “gaijin moment.”

A “gaijin moment” is my Japanese adaptation of Eli Anderson’s “n**r moment,” in which non-Japanese are starkly reminded of their outsider status in Japan. In this case, the reminder came despite the smiles, laughter, and joyous karaoke singing of my colleagues.

The sanjikai took place at a small Japanese-style bar. The 16 people in our group settled in on couches in the back of the bar, as three Japanese hostesses came over to pour drinks for us, serve us snacks, and engage us in conversation. Thankfully, these women avoided the more dramatic flirting found in hostess bars, where the job is to flirt with customers, smile, sing, and get customers to buy drinks—what Rhacel Parreñas has defined as a form of sex work. (Anne Allison and Parreñas have produced great ethnographies of hostess work, for those interested.)

A Japanese woman in her 30s sat across from me and another foreign professor, poured us some watered-down drinks, and asked questions that non-Japanese often get—do you speak Japanese, where are you from, how long have you lived in Japan, etc. To her credit, she avoided exaggerated responses like “Oh really? Wow! That’s great!” Or maybe she read the look I probably had on my face.

English: Kabukicho, Tokyo

English: Kabukicho, Tokyo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I understand the history of the hostess role, I also understand the gender dynamics of paying women to serve me. Pouring drinks, wiping moisture off the glasses, re-filling drinks (with extremely watered-down booze), clapping their hands in time to the karaoke singing, and pretending to be interested in whatever I might say. I couldn’t separate their smiles from the fact that they were being paid to show those emotions … that I was paying them for those emotions.

At that moment, I realized that I am unable to turn off the sociologist in my head. I couldn’t get comfortable with the hostess-customer relationship. While there’s no shame in working as a hostess, I would have preferred to have gone to Ing, a rock bar that several of us had unsuccessfully lobbied for. At least the bar we went to was better than the place we’d gone to previously, a depressingly dark bar where the hostesses routinely yawn, check their watches, serve stale snacks, and pour drinks that are essentially watered-down gasoline.

Then came calls for me to join the karaoke. I demurred, as I listened to my colleagues sing one Japanese song after another, from pop to rock to dance music, generations of Japanese songs I had never heard. A few English classics, like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Frank Sinatra, made their inevitable appearance. But it was the endless medley of Japanese songs that made me feel like a gaijin. Everyone was nice enough, and even the hostess eventually moved on to other people. But sitting through song after song that I had never heard before, but all my Japanese colleagues seemed to know by heart, made me realize that, despite all the music that we had in common, we grew up listening to very different things.

Black Sabbath 1977 Ozzy Butler Iommi - "R...

Black Sabbath 1977 Ozzy Butler Iommi – “Reality Show” (Photo credit: Whiskeygonebad)

Odds are that if my Japanese colleagues had found themselves listening to people (try to) sing the heavy metal and rock tracks I grew up with (time for some Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden karaoke, anyone?), they would have felt similarly. As people pushed me to look for songs to sing, I drew a blank. Feeling like an outsider, I couldn’t even think of what I’d look for. Not that I really wanted to sing, but I felt like such an outsider that I couldn’t imagine anything I liked being in the computer system.

Eventually, I got forced to sign the last song of the night, and while people were originally searching for “Hey Jude,” I got stuck with “We Are the World.” Seriously. It would not have been my first choice, or my second, or my 153rd.

The next day, all sorts of songs popped into my head, making me wonder even more about what had set me off. After more than 7 years in Japan, it’s interesting to see that I can still feel like a total gaijin.

So a little empathy is in order whenever a native complains about foreigners not fitting in. Fitting in is a long, bumpy road. And just when you think you’re in the clear … more bumps.

頑張ります.

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The Impacts of Immigrants in Japan

by Yurika Chiba

The number of foreigners is small in Japan compared to other countries. Basically, it is said that Japan is mono-cultural, homogeneous and monolingual society. For example, all of my classmates in high school were Japanese who have black hair and speak Japanese. We did not have opportunities to interact with foreigners in Japan. When we see foreigners, we feel they are “different” because they do not look like Japanese. It is hard for foreigners to live in such a society, I think. For instance, there was an international student in my high school. She was from America and had gold hair. I mean her appearance was completely different as Japanese. We saw her as “gaijin.” We did not know how to communicate with her although we wanted to get along with her. Finally, she could not fit in our class. One of the reasons why Japan has few foreigners is that Japanese society is said to be homogeneous. Therefore, Japanese people tend to refuse foreigners and different cultures. However, it is time to change Japanese society to make comfortable society for foreigners because globalization has been expanding. I mean that Japan needs foreigners in order to lead to economic growth.

The number of immigrants would be increasing if Japan became comfortable place to live for foreigners. Immigrants are important to solve some problems in Japan. In particular, the problem about the declining birth rate and a growing proportion of elderly people. For example, immigrants come to Japan in order to work and marry Japanese people. Their children probably will also work in Japan. This will help increase the population long term and help to solve Japanese population crisis. Immigrants have an important role in Japan.

However, Japan has difficult problems to solve in order to absorb immigrants. There are strict rules of immigrants in Japan. In addition, the rules are different from their countries. It is said that the crime rate will go up if immigrants increase. Japan might not be ready to receive immigrants. Japan should make new laws about immigrants. For instance, new laws to allow immigrants to live in Japan easily. The laws suitable for immigration should be established. Besides the laws, Japanese people need to change values like understanding different cultures. For example, Japanese children should be educated in English since a kindergarten. They can go abroad more often and communicate with foreigners easier if they can speak English well. I think English has a important role to accept immigrants.

Japan has some difficulty of absorbing immigrants. Japanese government and Japanese citizens should be aware of and solve these problems. Of course, things cannot be changed soon. It takes much time to make better society for immigrants. Japan has to do what it can do for immigrants immediately. I hope that my children or grandchildren would be free of prejudice and live in multinational society in the future.