Gaijin, in Japanese, roughly translates to foreigner, but more correctly as outsider. In Japan, there are two groups of people: Japanese and not-Japanese, and no matter how long a foreigner lives there, they will never be Japanese, no matter how well they speak or how flawless their manners. Gaijin is gaijin, and being gaijin can be amazing.
There is one primary advantage to being a gaijin. Japan is a land of strict rules and behavioral codes, and it’s assumed that foreigners are simply too dumb to figure them out. It’s incredibly liberating to be expected to screw up–when you do, no one cares, and when you don’t want to conform, you don’t have to. For example, it’s required for people in a company to go drinking after work if the boss wants to. Yes, mandatory. Several of my friends lamented daily about being dragged out until midnight to watch their boss drink, but they couldn’t refuse, because you just don’t say no to the boss. Unless you’re a foreigner. My boss (who was a psychotic flaming bitch, more on her later) once told me we would all go drinking one night, and all of the foreign teachers said, “No thanks, we’re going home.” Our Japanese coworkers’ jaws hit the floor. I suppose that’s why she only took the Japanese workers to Universal Studios, but one of them quit after the boss got drunk and felt her up there, so I didn’t feel too bad about not being invited. It didn’t affect our job at all, because we couldn’t be expected to understand that it was important.
All foreigners are automatically friends. The default greeting is, “Hey, Gaijin!” I met people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Senegal, Tanzania, and many other places, and somehow being “not-Japanese” together made us friends. the man from Senegal greeted me on a crowded Tokyo street with, “Hello, Gaijin! There’s an English bookstore here–let’s go and shop!” So we did, and had tea. I had many short interludes like this, and even though we didn’t stay in contact, it was nice to have an hour of camaraderie.
The Japanese people in my neighborhoods were startled when I moved in, as in some of the areas foreigners had never been seen before, but they soon accepted me. When I lived in a quiet suburb of Tokyo, I had to walk down the main road of shops every day to get to the train. Everyone called me Gaijin-chan, “our little foreigner.” The people across the street ran a snack shop, and gave me snacks every night for free. The elderly lady who ran the cake shop called every day, “Gaijin-chan, you look tired! Come have cake!” and she made the best cake I’ve ever had, so I often did. Others took me shopping, taught me recipes, helped me repair a burst pipe and gave me an umbrella when mine broke.
One day, when America’s war with Iraq was starting, I thought there was a festival outside because I heard drums. I went running out to see, and discovered it was, in fact, a protest, and a very anti-American one at that. Military, police and emergency crews were marching, holding up anti-American signs. (While Koizumi supported America in that effort, the Japanese people absolutely did not, and things were tense) The crowd that had gathered were not local, and I was the only foreigner there. Many of them were glaring at me, and I heard some muttering. I got scared and went into the 7-11 behind me, which was under my apartment. I must have looked panicked, because the charming lady that ran the shop came over, hugged me, and said, “Oh, Gaijin-chan! It’s not you! You belong with us!” The others in the shop loudly agreed. She gathered food for me, knowing all my favorite things, handed me the bag, and said, “It’s better you stay inside today, just in case. But you need anything, you come in the back door and we’ll get it for you. Don’t worry! You’re our friend!” A man walked me out and up to my apartment. Eventually the protest broke up and everything went as it was before, but I was always so grateful to them.
Need a date? Foreigners are a hot commodity. (Be careful, though–for some, it’s merely a status thing, so many aren’t serious) I went from being almost constantly single in America to having such a full social calendar I was never home!
Need a job? If you have a bachelor’s degree in anything, you can teach English. It’s easy and the pay is great. You can make extra money on the side tutoring at an English cafe. One of my coworkers made money by performing weddings at a local wedding center, which was a giant fake church. Since they didn’t speak English but just wanted a foreigner there, he would show up in a suit, read aloud from Lord of the Rings for twenty minutes, and they would pay him $100.
Overall, living in Japan is liberating. You have the freedom to really be yourself. As long as you try to generally be polite and safe, no one cares if you make mistakes or break some of the rules, and that is a glorious thing.