Thursday, March 08, 2007


One of the most disturbing realisations for a foreigner living in Japan is (the realisation of) the way that foreigners are viewed by the Japanese. Depending on the person and the situation, one can go from being the embodyment of foreign cool to the sh*t on the sole of someones shoe.

I wouldn't claim that the Japanese are unique in this 'viewing' of the outsider, but like the tea ceremony, the Japanese have taken a simple thing and made an art form from it. Unlike the tea ceremony however, there is no good that can come of this, for either the foreigners or the Japanese themselves.

When you first arrive in japan, you get used to the epithet "Gaijin" (外人), an abbreviated form of "Gaikokujin" (外国人). If we look at the (chinese) characters that represent the sounds and the concept, we see that Gai (外) can be translated as 'outside', Koku (国) as 'country' and Jin (人) as 'person'. So what is the big deal about being called foreigner?

In short, nothing. However... regardless of your nationality, your level of Japanese, your involvement in the activities of daily life in Japan, or your ability to use chopsticks, you will always be a Gaijin before a native of your own country. So, for example, I will be recognised (seen) as a Gaijin before being recognised as English.

This conversation is old and tired. One might point out that ones friends don't refer to you as a gaijin. Another may say they are not discriminated against or offended by this, and why should they be? I agree, to a point. But here's the rub. This little epithet has a dark side. It is the gateway to the nationalism that is lurking in the Japanese body politic.

The foreigner as meat. The foreigner as a resource to be used and displayed. This is the dark side of Japanese history that this article refers to, and as you read it you will notice that it is an ongoing struggle to have people recognised as people, with rights the same as any other.

Denial is to politics like wetness to the ocean. This being said however, it is shocking to see such denial, and sad to see the same denial on the faces of those who should know better, or to see the ignorance of a population that, by leaving their fate in the hands of deniers, are tarring themselves with the same brush.

Not all people are ignorant, and not all deny, just as not all call me a Gaijin. I should hate such a realisation to affect the way I take photographs in Japan. I would hate to become one of the long time foreign residents of Japan whose bitterness chains them to this country (thankfully I have met only two people like that in 7 years).

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