The Gai-jin Treatment – Then and Now

I am American, but of Japanese ancestry, so when I’m in Japan, I don’t get the “gai-jin” treatment – gawked at, overly praised for rudimentary Japanese, etc.

When Syd Hoare moved from England to Japan to train in judo in the early 1960s, he found the “constant attention” irritating. As he related in his book, A Slow Boat to Yokohama, “Wherever I went I was stared at, which was not that surprising since gaijin were bigger on average, with different color of hair, eyes, and skin.”

Hoare went on to tell this strange-but-true phenomenon where certain Japanese are so un-used to dealing with foreigners that they can’t quite rationalize one who speaks Japanese. Even though Hoare describes an incident from the early 1960s, as you can see in the above video, this brain cramping still occurs with certain Japanese. Both the story below and the video above are hysterical.

One time, when I was in Kyoto, an old shortsighted couple came up to me. The man asked me in Japanese where the Kiyomizu Temple was. Just as he neared the end of his question, his wife noticed that I was a foreigner and began badgering him. ‘Gaikoku no kata desu yo’. (‘He is a foreigner.’) By that time I had told him in Japanese exactly where the temple was. He was trapped between the information I had given him and the warning from his wife. The problem was that one part of his brain was telling him that he did not speak English, while the other half was telling him that gaijin cannot speak Japanese. I repeated the directions and walked on.

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