Friday, August 22, 2008

That's Miss Gaijin to you

I had to go to the immigration office today to renew my visa. A trip to the immigration office in Shinagawa is always a huge pain in the ass, if not interesting at the same time. There's no better place to be truly put in your place as a dirty foreigner at the hands of the Japanese government. I joked with the beau before I took off, what if they decide to deport me and it's bye bye next week?

First of all, they put the office in the furthest reaches of Shinagawa, surrounded by factories and warehouses. The bus ride out there from Shinagawa station is usually full of mostly non-white gaijin with a few Japanese passengers not accompanying anyone to the immigration office, who glance nervously around like we're going to gang up and take over the country. There's always some screaming half-breed children (I say this in the nicest way possible as I may end up with some of my own one day) and at least one young Southeast Asian or Eastern European woman with a sketchy looking Japanese guy older in age and not up to her level in the looks department (and often wearing rubber shoes). Boss? Pimp? Husband? You never know on the immigration bus. The Japanese government obviously doesn't count biracial children in their statistics because if they ever made a visit to the immigration office they would stop printing headlines like JAPANESE GOVERNMENT SCRATCHES ITS HEAD OVER THE DECLINING BIRTH RATE. There exists no decline among the international couples, just listen to the cacophony of shrieking immigrant children.

The office itself is filled with mixed couples, pimps and hos, large families, Asian exchange students, English teachers, a few suits, Japanese HR people accompanying their charges to the help desks. It's all very visual. Everyone looks at everyone else, trying to size them up, their job, nationality, purpose. There's a lot of shifty glances at passport covers to see what others are holding in the way of citizenship, or maybe that's just me. I've never had much of a problem doing my business at the office but that's not indicative of the experience for many. The immigration department's website is outdated and impossible to navigate and it seems loopholes and holy grail visas that are largely discussed on gaijin message boards are often at the whim of the immigration officer you talk to. The place is large, confusing and not particularly welcoming. On purpose? Conspiracy theory?

I can't complain much about being a gaijin, in fact I tend to feel white guilt at the immigration office which could just be me projecting bullshit (probably) but compared to a lot of the other "immigrants" I have it easy and can even move to an even better place than Japan, should I choose. But wait, I forgot-there is no better place than here! I was the only white girl at my language school here and apart from being ostracized, whenever we would discuss the gaijin experience in class or whether Japan is an "equal society" there would inevitably be comments from my Asian classmates that it was harder for non-white gaijin, particularly those from other Asian countries. I don't doubt it. When the beau first told his mom he was seeing one of Us it was like she couldn't hear him. Too shocked to illicit a surprised or even angry response, she acted like she didn't understand what he was saying. Fears were then allayed when he told her I was a nice Canadian girl from across the Pacific and not from a country across the Japan sea. Phew. His parents are great though, they sure love me. But apparently it could have been a problem if I was from one of those countries.

Despite sticking out like a sore thumb, I often forget I am a gaijin. Not to say that I think I am Japanese but I rarely think about the fact that I am in a visual minority anymore. Yes I still endure staring competitions with rude commuters or people passing me on the street but I walk around largely unconscious of the fact that I am different from almost everyone around me. It usually comes to me when I'm on the train. I'll be sitting there looking around and suddenly it occurs to me: I am in Japan and I am a foreigner in this country. It doesn't strike me as good or bad, but I'm often caught by surprise when I remember this. Before the beau I had no deep ties here. I'd spent way too many years on the language and had lived and studied here. I loved Tokyo and had Japanese friends. As I've mentioned before though, I have no close Japanese friends and even when I'm bored I usually prefer to be alone than hang out with my Japanese lady friends. Japan was always something I could take or leave but after meeting the beau and by extension of him, his family, I now have a stake in Japan.

It's a strange feeling and I remember getting really choked up at the airport when his parents saw us off after my first trip to meet them. I had been really stressed about going to meet them and from the first time I met his parents and his dad made me an ice pack wrapped in a soft towel (I was sweating again, surprise surprise), they were nothing but great to me. What could have been potentially straining on our relationship ended up being better than fine and at the airport his mom gave me her phone number and said to call anytime I needed anything, even if it was about the beau.

The reason I have made you endure this long and tedious post about my gaijinism, is that I recently read an article in the Japan Times by Debito Arudou, a naturalized Japanese citizen who for most gaijin in Japan, needs no introduction. He doesn't like the word gaijin, a lot of people don't like the word gaijin. I don't particularly like it but it depends on what is being said and by whom. Yes it means outsider but whether or not we abolish the word we will always be outsiders and for me, that's OK. In Japan race and nationality are so tied together it's going to take a lot more than a different word for foreigner to change that. What exactly does Arudou suggest they call us? Would it be better if they called us according to approximate colour? In Canada we call people foreigners, immigrants or use their skin colour or looks to approximate where they or their ancestors might have come from. Asian, Black, East Indian, European. Is that any better? Sure I'd prefer to be called the Canadian instead of the gaijin, because at least then I belong somewhere and am not just an "outsider" but how worked up can you get over the word gaijin? (He must speak in hyperbole when he compares it to the N word in the article.)

Gaijin is used in a derogative way by some, and I sometimes wince when I hear it used by Japanese people in an offhand way. On the other hand it does describe us and is convenient to use-try saying foreigner where you would say gaijin and see how long that lasts. Even as Japan's population of mixed families and children grows, it's a long way from even coming close to other countries with large immigrant populations or a high percent of visual minorities. Unfortunate for us perhaps, but I'm OK with being a gaijin.

Before I put you out of your misery and finish this, I just want to mention something that Arudou mentions in the article about Japanese people overseas still calling people gaijin when in fact, they are the gaijin. The beau did that a couple times last week when we were in Vancouver and then quickly changed his tune before I could give him shit about it. In a loving way of course.


Keitorin said...

Thank you for the comment on my journal, and no problem on the linkage. I did so because I find you very entertaining and wanted to share with others :)

Is it safe to assume your year of university in Tokyo was at Waseda? I'll definitely be sure to direct any questions I am stumped over to you.

Lulu said...

I hate the immigration office- I always feel like I will die of boredom from all the waiting and they are always so rude (Which while i can understand because they would be dealing with people that are probably getting shitty at them all day, it doesn`t make it better)

My partner does the same thing saying "gaijin" or " gaikokujin" about people he sees in Australia and I have to remind him that he is the gaijin here. He has never used the word "gaijin" to describe me and always says gaikokujin...not that I would care. I call myself a gaijin all the time when I am in Japan!

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

keitorin-yes, the blessed home of a professor who once said of a student rape circle: boys will be boys. Apart from that it's a lovely place.

lulu-the beau often tells people I am Japanese and the look on their faces is absolutely priceless. It's usually in response to surprise at me speaking Japanese so he puts on a "she's Japanese of course she can speak it" attitude. They're completely thrown off-guard, national identity out the window and they have to decide to either laugh or cry at this white girl who has just been identified as one of them.

Julie said...

I like your blog! The host stories are so entertaining and I'm excited to see what will happen next. Thanks for all the interesting information. I find myself laughing and agreeing with so much of what you write.

I'm Canadian, too, and I have never once heard anyone ever refer to someone else as a "foreigner". That word is from 100 years ago. If I ever heard anyone use that word, I'd think he was either a total hick or over 80 years old or racist. I'd think the same thing about a person who used to word "oriental" or something like that. Where in Canada are you from? It's a huge country, so maybe they say things like that in parts I've never lived. (? ... I hope not...)

Gaikokujin is more polite than Gaijin. At least it gives us a country. To use an SAT analogy, Gaikokusin is to Gaijin as Person From A Different Country is to Foreigner.

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Julie: I guess I should have been clearer. I meant that we have words like "foreigner" and "immigrant" in English. I've never used the English word "foreigner" until coming to Japan actually, where it makes sense to me depending on the context.

That said, I've both seen and heard many Canadians ask visual minorities where they are from and when the answer is unsatisfyingly "Canada", they say, "well, where are you really from" or "where is your family from", which says a lot to me about the level of acceptance among some people. Granted it is a million times better than Japan!

I'm from Vancity and had many friends not born in Canada (a category I am also in myself) but we have always referred to each other's origin by either a hyphenated name or where we are from/ethnicity. As for "gajin", as I've said before I'm not bothered most of the time by it and I find it a bit pedantic to constantly insist on the usage of "gaikokujin", especially when compared to actual racial slurs, which are on a whole other level to our little gaijin/gaikokuin issue.

Phew! Apologies for the long windedness.