Gaijin (foreigners in Japan) explained

Why did the Japanese say “Southern barbarians” (南蛮人- nanbanjin) for the first (Western) European visitors?

Their ships were coming from Macao

Why are there so many Koreans in Okubo, near Shinjuku?

It was the cheapest inner city area, and near the Shinjuku red light and pachinko district where many Koreans worked.

Why do so many Japanese ask foreigners if they have four seasons?

I read an argument that it was because the Japanese used to make such a big deal out of changing their wardrobe 4 times a year, but I’m not convinced. It mainly comes down to education, where the fixed syllabus of both kindergartens and primary schools emphasises starting all topics with a connection to the local area and then expanding out, and making all topics seasonal. The obsession with the changing of seasons is also yet another one of those things that was borrowed from classic Chinese literature (although it was originally classified as many more than four). My usual reply is to say “We actually do have four seasons, unlike the six here in Japan.” (the usual plus rainy season and typhoon season).

Why do the Japanese ask “Can you eat raw fish?” instead of “Do you like sushi”/ “Have you ever tried sushi” etc?

Although there might be a lack of understanding about how common sushi is outside Japan, more often it’s a direct translation from Japanese

Why do blonde gaijin women get so much more attention?

If you are going to go for Western women, you are going to be looking for something really different from the Japanese. There is also the influence of imported porno.

Why are the Japanese police so obsessed with checking if foreigners have registered the ownership of their pushbike?

It’s not just foreigners, of course. Stealing of bikes is actually fairly common, and if you add the people who can’t be bothered re-registering their bike when they sell it or give it to someone, I’m guessing the arrest rate is high. Like the British police, the Japanese police are set arrest rate targets that don’t set what kinds of crimes they have to catch people doing.

Why do some people handing out leaflets or tissues in the street avoid giving gaijin any?

With a dedication to a crap job rarely seen outside Japan, they are giving them only to the specific people the advertising is aimed at. With foreigners it can be an assumption you will not be able to read the Japanese script written on it, but it is more often that you are not in that market segment, e.g. not a young lady who might be looking for a job in their hostess bar.

Why is Japanese deodorant ineffective for most Westerners?

The Japanese do tend to avoid strong smelling toiletries, but the imported roll-on I buy in Nissin in Azabu-juban works perfectly and has little smell, whereas the reasonably common Ax deoderants can really stink.

The classic explanation is that the Japanese do not sweat or smell as much, and the second might be true in some cases. More importantly, the Japanese equivalents of P&G (Kaoo etc.) obviously have some kind of monopolistic hold on the drugstore market because this is one of the few sectors where Japanese companies produce such rubbish products that not even people in most other Asian countries will buy them.

Why do gaijin (foreign) guys who could never score at home always link up in Japan?

Popular theories usually mention how sad the average Japanese salaryman is and the gaijin boyfriend being just a fashion accessory, free English conversation partner or novelty item for a Japanese girl to impress her friends with. Other possibilities include the Japanese girlfriend feeling freer due to not being restricted by the Japanese language (no way to say I love you in normal Japanese conversation!) and his family being several thousand miles away. I believe the main reason is that the gaijin male quickly convinces himself that he can throw off his lack of success at home, and so he does- i.e. pure self-belief. Any unusual social skills can also be passed off as being a foreigner or other cultural or language misunderstanding.

There is also the more general question of why outsiders instantly become better dating prospects in almost any society, which is possibly tied into the desireability of bringing other genes into the limited gene pools that the often isolated groups of early humans would have been.

Why do the Japanese, especially girls, stare at foreigners?

As a foreigner, you are outside the system and so people feel free in a way they wouldn’t usually (and being out of the loop, you are free too). Also, staring at guys is not seen as a come on as someone who is interested would act coy and avoid eye contact, e.g. you can tell when a guy in the office fancies you when they never address you directly during work drinks. Finally, I think you’ll find that Japanese girls are fairly unsubtle when it comes to looking at and commenting on anyone unusual, not just foreigners.

Why do some foreigners shun other gaijin, even avoiding eye contact?

Some are wanting to do the whole total immersion thing and/ or trying to make themselves Japanese (good luck being accepted as a local, guys!) Others might come from places where greeting strangers is pretty much taboo. There are a few who think greeting people who just happen to be the same colour as you is racist. There are others who have been here forever and are tired of greeting newbies. Then there are the many who are confused about what they should do and think it is better to not greet and regret it than to greet and look like an idiot.

Why do some Japanese choose their hostess bar by nationality, e.g. Filipino bar or Korean bar?

They had good experiences in that country they want to reproduce?? (Although it’s less famous than Thailand, they both had and still have fairly big sex tourism industries).

Why are the Japanese particularly prejudiced against Koreans and Chinese?

Because some of the second or third generation kids can actually pass as Japanese and so ruin all the national myths. A kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome also seems to make all nationalities detest the people they have colonised.

Why did Roppongi become the gaijin bar paradise?

There used to be an American army base there and it is fairly close to lots of embassies

48 Comments

  1. December 22, 2007 at 7:52 am

    […] More on Gaijin on the Gaijin explained page. […]

  2. ReallyJapan said,

    May 13, 2008 at 6:18 am

    Ahah, you have an amazing blog! So much fun reading it ;)

  3. crella said,

    June 21, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    I’ve read that it’s because Japan is one of the only countries in Asia to have four seasons, so it was taken up in the Meiji era education as a point in which Japan is unique. Unfortunately they think it applies to the whole world. ‘I bet Boston has no spring!’ was one “question” I got a lot.

  4. alexcase said,

    June 22, 2008 at 12:20 am

    I read somewhere that the original kanji and celebration of four seasons was borrowed by the Heian aristocracy direct from China (like so many other “Japanese” things like the cherry blossom obsession). I guess all the other Asian countries they would have had dealings with might have had less distinct seasons though- Korea being colder, Thailand being hotter (you can still see the Japanese settlement in Ayuttaya), as were Macao, Taiwan and Hong Kong, don’t know where else they would mainly have dealt with…

  5. nikkou said,

    March 6, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    Welcome to the Gaikokujin explains the gaikokujin questions in a classically ignorant Gaijin style… that is “look how wierd an strange those Japanese are!”

    CULTURAL IMPERIALIST!

  6. alexcase said,

    March 7, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Don’t know if it’s possible to engage in rational debate with someone who writes “imperialist” in capital letters with an exclamation mark, but here goes with an attempt anyway-

    My philosophy is that by providing an explanation, any explanation, to something you find strange when you first arrive in a country, you take away the feeling that it is strange- because strange means incomprehensible. This is a collection of such explanations, even mutually contradictory ones, and yes it is mainly aimed a foreigners, although Japanese who have read it (it was mentioned in an English language practice magazine for Japanese) have never given me any negative feedback. I must say that I would have no problem with a similar site written by a foreigner in the UK (“Why do the British eat the scrapings of a beer barrel for breakfast?” “Why is very short hair so popular?” etc) and in fact my all time favourite book, Watching the English, is basically that and what inspired this site. On my other site (which predated this) I have also often written about how the Japanese are similar to Italians, so it’s not like I spend my whole time looking for differences.

  7. Michael said,

    May 2, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    The deodorant issue: Japanese are limited to 5% of the main active ingredient (aluminum chlorohydrate or some variation) while US can get as high as 20%. Also, Japanese have less underarm hair therefore less to trap the bacteria that causes the smell. But the cheap salaryman suit does trap the bacteria and thus the salaryman train odor.

  8. markogts said,

    May 4, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I’m right back from my first visit to Japan. I’d like to answer to nikkou: please don’t feel offended. Many things listed in this blog are exactly the same things I noticed too, independently. For example the extreme discrimination towards Corea and coreans. (I haven’t seen one single korean car in Japan. How come?)

    I’m italian and I’ve been in the USA too, and found a lot of strange things there too, but given Hollywood and some english knowledge, things appear more natural to me. Am I a “cultural imperialist” if I say, for example, that in the USA I was sick and tired of the watch-your-step dumb-warnings? That’s what traveling is, to discover the differences!

    And finally, I suspect, (and your comment reinforces my convincement), that (generally speaking) japanese people have an inferiority complex, believing all the world hates Japan and thinks there is nothing to admire in Japan. Hey! It’s the other way round! We LOVE Japan, for its history, its technology, its architecture, its food, its movies, its anime! You can’t imagine how many people here in Italy told me they were envious for my trip.

    Let us enjoy the differences and respect them.

  9. tungbo said,

    September 2, 2009 at 6:27 am

    “Why are the Japanese particularly prejudiced against Koreans and Chinese?”

    All conquerors and colonialists try to rationalize their subjegation of other groups by depicting them as inferior in various ways. They claim the military conquest was beneficial to the conquered. The Romans did it and the Spanish and British did it too. Japan conquered Korea and Taiwan for quite a few decades. So it is not surprising that the some of the indoctrinations remain. China is a more complicated case as Japan is still enamored of much of ancient Chinese myths, arts, and philosophy. Thus they had to compartmentalize in treating the Chinese ‘people’ differently from the Chinese cultural products.

  10. japranian said,

    February 5, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I have never in my entire life heard about an iranian hostess bar in japan.

  11. alexcase said,

    February 5, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Me neither, Read that one in a newspaper, but now remember no details of it at all.

  12. April 16, 2010 at 4:37 am

    About the deodorant. First P&G as does ‘Nippon Lever’ rack up huge sales in Japan, so I don’t think it’s a Kao monopoly (besides there are several Japanese companies who have sales to rival Kao, so what we have is what the US has–a global cartel controlling another commodity consumer market, breakfast cereal being another one). There are more and more of these products out now, often being sold at convenience stores as well as drug stores and supermarkets. Some are Japanese versions of western brands, like Ban. There are even some smaller Japanese companies marketing roll-ons etc. I think for one thing because Japanese men tended to use strong scents from aftershave, colognes, toilet waters, etc. they thought they didn’t need these.

    Cool Biz guidelines (whereby we all sweat) seems to have helped boost this market.

  13. crella said,

    April 17, 2010 at 9:48 am

    The Japanese have, on average, fewer apocrine glands (the ones that make the smelly component in sweat) than Caucasians. DH hasn’t used deodorant in all his 50+years, but I have to, and poor Junior, he does too :-O I buy him Old Spice Extreme Sport deodorant or something equally strong by the pack and bring it home to him when I go to the US, for the sake of his co-workers ;-)

  14. alexcase said,

    May 30, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Have since found that Kao and similar crappy Japanese companies are surprisingly successful in Korea, so got that bit completely wrong

  15. Ed said,

    September 19, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Nerdy Gaijins: Japan is full of the nerdiest, most badly dressed, oddest bunch of foreign men you will see trying to score with women outside of Thailand. Yes, this is a fact. They mainly seem to originate from France, Spain, Israel and Germany, although there are a fair few of them from UK and States. They will usually arrive in Japan single and on their own, but will ‘team up’ with fellow single gaijins in Roppongi. In Japan if you are foreign then that makes you different and interesting. That attention seems to give nerdy men a confidence boost and suddenly in Japan they become a ‘player’. For this reason I always avoid Roppongi as it is full of some of the most charmless specimens of the male species you will ever meet. Also beware of the Japanese women who are very clearly looking for someone to learn English from or be their ticket to get out of Japan. However, a lot of gaijin men seem happy enough with this transaction to enable them to be near to a woman.

  16. gaijinass said,

    October 16, 2010 at 6:08 am

    ” How do you manage to get a sweet Japanese girl clearly out of your league to fall for you?

    – Be Foreign
    – Be Here
    – Believe”

  17. Aussie Guy said,

    April 9, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Only two types of Japanese girls would date Gaijin(white men):

    1.Ugly ones who can’t get a normal Asian BF, reluctantly date foreign men
    2.Hookers who act as GF of a man by charging hourly rate

    If you don’t believe it, go look at it in the mall and you’ll found, those Asian women who date with western men are mostly lower than average type, and the men are usually losers from their hometown.

  18. crella said,

    April 14, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    And your authority to judge whether the women or men are above or below average comes from……….?

  19. Jose said,

    May 28, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Hey Im one of those guys that married a J woman. Allot of military types do, but dont know what they are in for. I dont like Japan but been here 12+ Paradox aint it? I never go to roppongi, hate that place. I do my trippin to HK and other places. Japan sucks for a social life, people are weird and introverted.

  20. sato said,

    July 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Delusion! lol
    Most Japanese women are not interested in gaijins.
    Certainly,1% of Japanese women might like you.But 99% not interested.
    Japanese women’s international marriage rate is only 0.98%.(2009 data)Since 2006, international marriage rate has declined.
    By the way,most married foreigner man are S.korea.why?Nearest to us (race,culture,food…)
    I think almost Japanese women are the same as my opinion…
    Because I’m japanese woman and I live in japan.

    • June 28, 2012 at 5:55 am

      Sato,

      I would have to disagree with you.
      I have been in Japan for over 10 years and I can tell you from experience (and a lot of it) that more than 1% of Japanese women are interested in foreigners

      And a large number of these women move overseas, get married and stay. This affects the numbers of your statistics greatly.

      And yes, many Japanese women/men think that other Japanese think exactly the same way as them and have the same opinions, but unfortunately this is not always the case.

      Japanese think they share a similar mind, and while at work, etc.., that may be true, it doesnt hold up in the area of personal opinions.

      I have met an incredibly wide variety of people in Japan ranging from OLs, to CEO’s, Housewives, homeless, youth, and more, and I can tell you, Everyone has their own mind. Even in Japan. … no no, ESPECIALLY in Japan.

      But I come back to my point.
      I have yet to meet a Japanese woman who doesn’t like “gaijin”.
      I have met ones who SAY they dont like gaijin, but that just gives me a bigger challenge (^_-) and in the end… they always end up showing me just how much interest they really DO have.

      A lot of it is as you mentioned above, racial, cultural, food, etc.. differences. Many Japanese women are interested, but never allow themselves to explore that interest because they think the two worlds are too different.

      I encourage you to check out: http://www.thejapanrants.com/blog/hottest-brand-in-japan/ and the story that I will post soon after about my roommate, J, who made a living off of how much Japanese women love foreigners~

  21. Bill said,

    September 9, 2012 at 7:31 am

    What Aussie guy said is true. You only have to look around in a big city in Japan and observe. Foreigners tend to have less attractive Japanese gf or wives. The beautiful japanese girls are with handsome(kakkoi) Japanese boyfriends or hubby. No surprise.

  22. Mark said,

    December 6, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Fascinating and erudite blog… wide ranging and fun (I enjoyed the updates on deoderants). My favourite comment on this particular thread…

    And your authority to judge whether the women or men are above or below average comes from……….?

    There is a terrible elitism among some expats in Japan (and elsewhere too)… it appears to revolve around the ‘I’m a winner / you’re a loser’ false dichotomy.

    Meanwhile, I bookmark the blog… arigatou!

  23. Séri said,

    January 3, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    “no way to say I love you in normal Japanese conversation”

    Hmmmm, I really don’t think this is true. There are plenty of ways to say I love you in Japanese. Whether people consider saying it openly, especially in public, to be a good thing to do or not is completely separate from whether or not the language is equipped with the words–and it is, in many different forms.

  24. alexcase said,

    January 5, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I think we are saying the same thing in different ways, that is what I meant by “in normal Japanese conversation”.

  25. Moi said,

    March 28, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Yeah, I’ve heard about that. Guys who no one in their own country likes because they’re jerks go to Japan and get dates with pretty girls. They come back saying “See? I’m so awesome – it’s just that Western women are horrible and don’t respect men!” Ugh, it’s tiring. I can’t believe they don’t see how shallow it is to go to another country for women. Females aren’t some kind of commodity, ya know. They don’t even understand why they got those dates. The women figured an American would be rich, she thought it would give her status with her friends (although if she dates him too long or wants to marry him, she might suddenly be shunned by those same friends), wanted to practice English, hoping for a way out of Japan, something different from the norm (which Japan is so set on maintaining), or any number of other things. Some of the girls who date foreigners are indeed prostitutes, but certainly not all. If he’s weird or jerky, they assume that’s just because he’s a foreigner. Those guys make Americans look like insensitive jerks who “can’t read the atmosphere.”

    What Aussie said was interesting. I didn’t realize that Japanese women were doing the same thing as American men (looking for partners who aren’t from their own country so that the partners don’t realize how “bad” they are in comparison to the rest). Honestly, when most American guys get with a Japanese women, I just feel bad for them both. They think they’re so awesome, but they’ve exchanged depth and authenticity for sex or status. It’s kinda sad, and I hope that most Americans go there for the culture but see that the person is a human, not their fantasy, and that Japanese can be more interested the person behind the American face. Anyway, thanks for the interesting post! :)

  26. crella said,

    March 30, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    ‘ I just feel bad for them both’

    Gosh, stereotype much? I know foreign men here who work in Japanese IT, brokerages, are lawyers, men who own their own businesses…all married to Japanese and all with happy marriages. It’s really amazing for you to assume that any western man with a Japanese man is a loser, and his wife is some kind of deluded social climber. How many long-term married international couples are you friends with?

  27. Rex said,

    May 10, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I have a question. How do Japanese men view (or have an opinion of) attractive gaijin women? Do they have a preference such as hair or eye color. Also, is there any history do you know of attractive gaijin women, such as working for a diamyo or was famous in some way in Japan, like in the 1800s or earlier?

    • alexcase said,

      May 10, 2013 at 9:45 pm

      Are you trying to write a historical novel, by any chance?

      • Rex said,

        May 11, 2013 at 1:40 am

        In a way, Im an illustrator/artist and Im thinking of doing a gaijin geisha picture.

    • TofuUnion said,

      May 12, 2013 at 9:16 am

      Apart from the language barrier, individuality makes more difference than cultural background. How do you view (or have an opinion of) attractive foreign person who is opposite sex ?

      By the way I’d never call someone Gaijin who is Non-Japanese unless I hate him/her. ” Gaijin ” is a kind of racist word.

      • Rex said,

        May 12, 2013 at 9:31 pm

        Im very attracted to beautiful foreign women, so I guess I answered my own question.

  28. TofuUnion said,

    May 12, 2013 at 9:53 am

    In Japan it snows in winter and it becomes very hot in summer in many areas, and there are lots of seasonal foods and seasonal events based on four seasons. Even the short form poet (Haiku) has seasonal words which represent each a season.

    I think the obsession with four seasons comes from the changing of the seasonal foods and events in Japan.

  29. Rex said,

    May 12, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Oh, I didn’t know Gaijin is considered racist. Why, Im an American, I don’t think I would be offended if a Japanese person called me that. It means “foreigner” right? That’s what I am (if I went to Japan). Im not offended by something that is true.

  30. crella said,

    May 13, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Opinion on whether the word ‘gaijin’ is racist or not is pretty divided.

  31. An said,

    September 8, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Gaijin is not offending. Stop that nonsense, now.

  32. Tommy said,

    November 2, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Staring at you can be annoying. Japanese cannot stare at another Japanese, it will encite a kenka or violence. I have never seen a Japanese stare at another Japanese, but plenty enjoy a relaxation of the rules and stare at foriegners. Its a weird stare, almost like he / she is trying to burn a hole in you. The reasons for this are deep, but I wont waste my time on that. What works for me is to (if im in the mood) stare back, like wtf is that Im staring at, or just point at my face and ask are you looking at me? Ill just keep going on and on with hand signals etc until everybody is looking at the person who is staring at me. Granted, it takes awhile to get to this stage, but I tell you it works every time. You can cover your face with a newspaper also or pull down your cap, I done that. Japanese, as was explained to me by a Japanese, play a game in their head. They are laughing without laughing, its part of the staring, a kind of weird thinking outloud. Youll understand it if you live here a long time. Never ever return any rudeness by Japaness with violence, many get a rise out of it, and you will LOOSE, without fail if the police come. I just put whatever they put on me, back on them. Japanese hate to loose face in front of another. ANother thing that just takes them by suprise is to ask them is their something wrong with me? something on my face, look in your mirror, and ask others, something on my mouth or something? why dude is staring at me, all in a jovial manner. He will become aware/ashamed of his behavior and look down or leave )

  33. Katherine said,

    December 23, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Wow, this entire site is incredibly offensive and racist. Against both Japanese and other ethnicities.

  34. Katherine said,

    December 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    And Gaijin is offensive because you cannot tell a person’s nationality by their appearance. Plenty of white/black/otherwise not ethnically Japanese have nationalized. Plenty of mixed race children with Japanese nationality resemble their non-ethnically-Japanese parent. Legal nationality and physical appearance are two different things. If it’s a statement such as “Foreign nationals must obtain a visa in order to remain in Japan longer than 90 days,” not offensive. That’s a legal matter, and you’re talking about the person’s legal nationality. If I am walking down the street and someone says “gaijin da!”… offensive. I am a Japanese citizen, and I had to apply for it and be recognized by the Minister of Justice. That kid just happened to be born here.

    • alexcase said,

      December 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

      Well, I don’t think there’s anything that can be shouted in the street without giving offense. The narrator in the novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” says something like “They say ‘special needs’ is less offensive, but it’s just the same when people shout it in the street”. I wouldn’t say the term “gaijin” is usually used in that way, though – in fact it’s very difficult to generalise about how it is used. There is also no easy way of stopping ignorant kids shouting stuff in the street, it will simply take generations of people like you being Japanese without “looking Japanese”.

      On a related topic, I’ve recently completely changed my mind about the term “half” (haaf) for mixed race kids – there never seems to be any malice in it, and many half-Japanese people seem to use the term with no problem at all.

  35. alexcase said,

    December 26, 2013 at 9:02 am

    PS

    I love how the few people who claim the whole site is racist never give any details on how much they have read of it nor give any examples…

  36. crella said,

    December 27, 2013 at 10:30 am

    :-D Yes..come in, read a bit and dramatically flounce out. Hope they don’t let the door hit ‘em on the way out…

    Have you seen the documentary ‘Hafu’? I haven’t been able to yet, but our son saw it and highly recommends it.

    http://hafufilm.com/en

  37. alexcase said,

    December 27, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    … and they usually make gross generalisations about the site after reading one page, while complaining about the site being full of gross generalisations…

    Hadn’t even heard of it, and looks like the last showing is today! Let us know if it makes it onto video or TV.

  38. crella said,

    December 30, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Will do!

  39. crella said,

    January 5, 2014 at 9:48 am

    They have a Facebook page, and update it as new showings are scheduled-

    https://www.facebook.com/hafufilm

  40. alexcase said,

    January 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks

  41. crella said,

    January 8, 2014 at 10:54 am

    You’re welcome!

  42. Oi Oi said,

    March 22, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Currently on holiday in Tokyo and googled tissue distributors after an uncomfortable incident (husband had a cold and no tissues + man giving out tissues for free = disaster!). Was a bit of a shock to the system as everyone else we have met has been lovely. Found this site very interesting, funny (hey i have a weird sense of humour!!!) and the points made were useful (especially the staring thing…thought I had something written on my face !). I have to say I was a bit surprised with the limited English skills especially in large stores…..please don’t take this as a presumption that everyone must speak English just because I do. Its just based on a number of visits to Dubai and the UAE, which have not been tourist destinations as long as Japan, but pretty much everywhere you go people speak English really well and are very chatty. Its a shame as my Japanese is not fantastic so I haven’t really been able to speak to locals…except for a lovely old chap on my flight into the country!


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