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.
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.
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.