Sunday, May 23, 2010

Being Caucasian there is half the fun

Well, it's been a long time, but while the brainchild of "Just Another Day in Japan," Mr. Blue Shoe, is taking time off in the motherland, ol' Shadow thought he'd slip in and put up a post. To those of you who have successfully torn my blog entries from your memories -- one year ago, in May, I was able to visit Japan for the first time, after spending my entire life living in the urban jungle of New York City. The "Half the Fun" segments focus on my pseudo-adventures, and overall culture shock, during my short stay.

Today's topic? Being a white guy. Or, more appropriately, being the white guy.

Since I'm from NYC, the world's melting pot, perhaps I assumed there'd be a healthy mix of races wherever I went. However, in the suburbs of Itami (at least, I'm pretty sure that's where I was), the only white dudes were the Blue Shoe and Tiembi, too. Venturing out to various tourist locations, our whiteness was still a rarity. During a tour of Himeji castle, I happened to cross paths with a white gal, and at that moment, I knew how a dog must feel when it sees another dog.

"Another white person! Hey, look, another white person! Hey! Hey white person! Arf, arf!"

While in reality, I did not bark nor wag my tail, I did smile and give a polite hello. Then we sniffed each others crotches and went our seperate ways.

Days later, I stumbled across an odd phenomenon in Japan. While walking the streets of Osaka, I saw another white person, a male, coming from the opposite direction. But this was no dog-to-dog encounter. Nay, this was more like a dog-to-saxophone encounter. I gave the same friendly "I am acknowledging you are white like me" greeting, but I was completely ignored (in my experiences, dogs tend to ignore saxophones). I was confused. Did I do something wrong?

A friend of Mr. Blue Shoe (and resident guest-poster Dylan) explained as simply as possible: "He's not a tourist. If you live here, it's more like, you avoid other white people."

Okay...perhaps that wasn't much of an explanation. I didn't understand. Not yet.

Then it happened. Towards the end of my trip, after spending a week touring Japan, Paul and I were visiting some temple grounds, and once again we were just two white fellas in a sea of Japanese. That's when I saw him. Oh, I have no idea who "him" was; all I knew was, "him" was white. And it angered me. How dare he be white! We're the token white guys in these here parts! Shoo! Go be white somewhere else!

Who knows? Maybe I misinterpreted Dylan's words. Maybe this entry isn't as insightful as I hoped. Yet, I like to feel that I gained a little insight at that moment. As a non-Asian living in Japan, considering how little race variation there is there, it must be pretty neat being unique. Perhaps there are feelings of alienation now and then. Perhaps it's tough finding people to relate to. Perhaps it gets a little depressing. But, perhaps there's a sense of pride in being able to strive in a place where you can't help but stand out from the crowd.

Or, perhaps I have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to living in Japan. It's possible. Hey, I'm just some white dude from New York.


  1. In my "1000 Things About Japan" blog, this was definitely one of my "won't miss" items.

    I don't think it is always territoriality (although that's pretty lame - to continue your dog analogy, it's the equivalent of peeing in corners and growling when another dog draws near). Sometimes it's simply people who don't want to associate with other foreigners (because, you know, they can speak Japanese and are perfectly capable of hobnobbing freely and casually with the locals - they don't need the likes of other foreigners).

    The fact that they get ignored by other foreigners sometimes also causes people to stop acknowledging other foreigners. In essence, once snubbed, twice shy.

  2. Even though I've been ignored a few times, I always try and give a nod and smile. It's just friendly.

  3. One of the good things about living in Tokyo...

    White people, in general, stop thinking, Hey, this is my Japan... GTFO! and start getting on with the business of how to live with each other again.

    And join up to bitch about iro iro.

  4. Your post was hilarious! But true. I visited Japan with my daughter in 2008 (going back again with son and daughter as well for 3 weeks at end of year, cannot wait!)and we were very surprised that we were the only white people around most of the places we went to. We are both tall gaijin but never got stared at by the Japanese and we both felt quite at home travelling around. They are so sweet and polite. When we did see other white people I would give a smile but in a lot of cases was ignored. Strange. Aren't we there to experience that fantastic country, we could at least share a smile to acknowledge that fact. Like a small shared secret that Japan is so fantastic and interesting and the few gaijins who encounter each other should smile about the fact that they are there in that country!

    btw I admire that you have learned this language for 5 years. I've only just begun through a distance degree. Hard but fun.


  5. I really enjoyed the article. The dog thing was funny (and true!).

    I've never been a big fan of the "gaijin nod". It never even crossed my mind I should acknowledge someone just because they're the same color as me. That is, until my friend got really pissed because some guy didn't nod back. Now I feel like I have to nod. I probably unintentionally snubbed like 20 people since I've been here. For all I know these people's first, last, and only impression of me is "that asshole white guy who didn't nod back." So now I nod. And when someone doesn't nod back I silently call them an asshole. I also nod at black people but I think they just think I'm weird.

  6. Jennifer - I've been studying Japanese, but I'm not the one who wrote this article. Sorry for the confusion. Shadow is a friend of mine who visited last year and stops in to share his thoughts from time to time.

    Jeff - excellent observation. This is actually one that gets talked about quite a lot in foreigner circles. Personally I don't have a problem being friendly...if someone nods at me, I'll nod back. But I don't go out of my way.