What Are You Looking At?
Intra-gaijin relations: Giving them the once over
By: Henry Watts | Apr 26, 2012 | Issue: 944 | 13 Comments | 8,246 views

Shane Busato

“What are you looking at, chump?” is not something I’ve ever said, but something I’ve inadvertently conveyed on occasions when on the end of some unwarranted scowling. In recent memory, I’ve only had to call upon the look when confronted by menacing troublemakers on the train, and in the tax office, when a foreigner could apparently do nothing else but gawk at me for the whole time we were waiting. Sure, we were the only foreigners there, and I probably stood out a little, but there is a line, and he had crossed it. Then I started to ponder: Is there actually a “line?” What is the social etiquette amongst foreigners?

If I know the Japanese expat community at all, everyone will have their own burning views on this. I’m envisaging visceral retorts from the nihilistic breeding ground of internet trolling known as Gaijinpot. If you’ve had occasion to visit the site’s forums you’ll have had backroom access into the world of intra-gaijin squabbling, where all manner of dick measuring goes on. “I’ve been in Japan longer than you. You don’t know squat,” is the kind of thing we’re talking about. I suppose it’s to be expected when people feel able to unleash their innermost rage from behind the safety of their computer screen. In fact, far from decrying Gaijinpot (a salient source of info on practical matters), by broadcasting the gripes of foreigners, the forums are actually illuminating. They reveal a competitiveness and egotism among foreigners. In a country with a foreign population of 1.2 percent, you couldn’t blame a foreigner for feeling as though he/she is privy to arcane cultural knowledge on Japan. Living here is the closest many people get to feeling like a celebrity. It just has the unfortunate side effect of making some foreigners rather inhospitable to others—particularly online.

In real life, such competitiveness means that even a passing nod or a smile can cross the line. The more competitive you are, the more likely you are to recoil at the prospect of interaction with a foreign stranger. One simply cannot give the impression of being anything other than resolutely indifferent to the sight of another foreigner, no matter how predisposed one might be to size them up.

What Are You Looking At?
Henry Watts is a politics and international relations graduate and freelance writer

Of course, most of us are not nearly as intractable as this. Take for instance those who accept the futility of attempting assimilation and play up to their gaijin status by acting outside the rules and expectations of Japanese society. In the right mood, these guys will cast off the façade and offer a passing nod or a smile, but might feel a tug of guilt for doing so, since acknowledging a stranger on the grounds they are a foreigner suddenly feels rather cliquish. The result of which is a comical display of terribly awkward facial twitching.

This manner of fidgeting occurs not so much on the expat-filled streets of Roppongi or Shibuya/Harajuku, but crops up at moments when one least expects to encounter another foreigner—in a conbini, in an elevator, etc. Nonetheless, foreigners like observing other foreigners. To chance upon a foreigner who has mastered the language, or likewise, one who looks lost, affirms one’s own performance in Japanese society. It’s no terrible thing to identify with those in similar circumstances as your own.

For me, a chance meeting is reminscent of hikes in the English—or Japanese for that matter—countryside, where encounters with passing strangers are few and far between. The only thing people have in common is being in the same place at the same time, yet most are keen to shoot off a smile, or a “Hello/konnichiwa.” Indeed, it is even customary. Needless to say, the megalopolis is remarkably different. A face-full of sweaty armpits on a sardine-packed train or a lung-full of exhaust on a gridlocked street is enough to squeeze the cordiality out of anyone. But, even so, the sight of a foreigner wandering around and enjoying Tokyo’s enigmatic concrete jungle compels me to tip the hat to them in much the same way as I would to nature-goers during a country ramble.

I won’t stare a hole through your face, but I have no scruples about a gentle nod when our eyes meet. Just as I’d offer a pleasantry to any Japanese passerby who maintained eye contact—so long as it wasn’t that “get out of my country, you dirty foreigner” sort of eye contact. My courteousness stops at nobody except the trolls.

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  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/jamesch/ Charltzy

    I’m a smile and nod to ANY foreigner kind of guy, I want to make foreign friends – who else am I gong to talk about more serious things with? I can only talk about food and EXILE for so long. (3 mins to be exact)

    I like to “punish” people who ignore me on the street, if I see someone is avoiding me or giving with a wide birth, I go out my way to get eye contact, maybe even say “Hi!” to make them notice.

    Worst case scenario, they pass by without saying anything but feel awkward about it (I win, douchebag)
    Best case scenario, they “hey” back and maybe strike up a conversation (We both win!)

    Personally I just don’t get it, do people not want to make new friends? What do they do at work, sit chatting up the Jpse staff and ignore all the foreigners? (Actually I think I know the answer to that)

    I absolutely adored this article – Henry put into words something I’ve felt ever since I got here – 6 stars out of 5!

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/meredith/ Meredith

    Ah yes, GaijinPot. I have found helpful people there who provide answers I can’t find elsewhere, but it’s also a rat’s nest of one-upmanship, as you describe. I find Reddit’s japan and japanlife forums to be much more friendly.

    As for greeting other foreigners, I am the “gentle nod and smile” type. All I’m looking for in return is a gentle nod and smile back, but it’s rare to get it – in fact, it’s rare to get eye contact, so perhaps the people I encounter have just trained themselves into Japanese ways of interaction with strangers on the street. I don’t usually get scowls, more often I just get ignored. And if someone’s having a bad day, that’s fine, I get that way too, and I ignore overtures at friendliness. But sometimes I get the feeling that the person doesn’t want to interact with me because – gasp! – I’m another foreigner.

    But we do have something in common besides being in the same place at the same time: we are both strangers in a strange land. And length of stay does not make one any less of a gaijin…perhaps it just makes you better able to handle being in the minority. Or, in some cases, less able to handle it!

  • johnnyrabbit

    I’m of a different mind. I find the unwanted advances of foreigners who want to bond with “their kind” creepy and racist. I don’t really want to interact with people who can’t form meaningful or ‘serious’ relationships with Japanese people.

    Trying to “punish” strangers on the street for not saying hello to you is not normal acceptable behaviour. It’s creepy.

    I’ve had one foreigner freak out on a train in Tokyo because I didn’t say hello and go over to talk to him. He completely lost it.

    None of you have the right to dictate to strangers how they should react to you.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/globalzennetwork/ Gerrit Slembrouck

    Various aspects of social etiquette (or lack there of ) amongst foreigners well summarized, some coinciding with my own observations.

    When a resident foreigner avoids making eye contact, could it be that the person came to Japan for interacting with Japanese and is not interested in the same old exchange of information conversations in a fleeting moment on the train, on the street, in a convenience store? Or just on a tight time schedule? OK, I accept. Social etiquette is the question remains unanswered.

    Charltzy, you would definitely get your existence acknowledged of me with a smile and a knod, but punishing looks if ignored?

    Thanks Meredith for the Reddit’s japan and japanlife forums info, I’ll check it out, hopefully not as much propagating the culture of criticism as gaijinpot…

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/jamesch/ Charltzy

    You should at least say “hey” if:
    *You live in a small town where you may be the only few non-Jpse people in miles.
    *You noticed each other several times over the course of a few weeks, you obviously live/work nearby.

    Not a big deal if you don’t want to chat, maybe just a raised eyebrow or nod:
    *You work for AEON, GABA etc and are surrounded by foreigners all day.
    *You live in central Tokyo, Ropponghi maybe, there a thousands of foreigners around you at all times.

    @johnnyrabbit I’d never freak out at someone, that’d make it awkward for ME, I just want the other person to realise they’re being rude and they aren’t the only foreigner living in my town. I’m educating politeness, not stalking them!

    Has anyone ever noticed that even short-term visitors do the same thing? I’m talking backpacks, huge suitcases in tow, no Jpse ability at all, looking lost.
    I saw a young couple looking frantically around them like they were about to miss a train and I said “are you guys OK, need any help?” and they gave me a look like I’d asked them to empty their wallets into my bag!

  • johnnyrabbit

    Well, if you are getting those kinds of reactions from people and are still insisting that other foreigners acknowledge you in “your” town, then I think it’s time to rethink how you interact with people socially!

    I have encountered foreigners like this, there is one guy who lives across the street who wants to be everybody’s friend and gets in a huff when I studiously ignore him. Unfortunately he has a rather dorky sense of fashion and I wouldn’t be seen dead talking to him.

    How should I handle the situation?

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/jamesch/ Charltzy

    You know what now you mention it, I think that’s why I don’t have any friends, am still single at 30 and generally feel depressed and lonely here.
    I came to Japan looking for adventure, possibly a girlfriend, but the local girls don’t even look at me!
    I’ve always felt ugly and a loner, my fashion sense is just like the guy you described…I think you’ve helped me come to a realisation. Time for me to stop bothering strangers and just go home. :-(

  • johnnyrabbit

    yes, perhaps it’s for the best.

    when relationships with strangers take precedence over relationships with friends and neighbours then isolation is to blame.

    that uber-dorky guy debito arudou has a piece in the Japan Times about how he can’t go outside anymore because a taxi driver or bartender might ask him where he is from and so he has become an angry hermit, banging away at his oft-abused keyboard.

    I often wonder why foreigner’s relationships with Japanese people and with each other become so tortured in Japan.

  • yagmot

    I’m with @johnnyrabbit on this one. @Charltzy Just because I’m foreign does not mean that we’re instantly friends. The fact that you want to “punish” people for not going out of their way to acknowledge your presence (purely because you’re foreign) shows a serious lack of social skills. It is not OK behaviour, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    Also, if you think that all Japanese people talk about is food and EXILE, you need to wake up and make some real friends. However, judging by your attitude, I can understand why you probably don’t have (m)any.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/sekina/ Janelle Truman-Seki

    When I first came to Japan we always joked that you could tell who was “fresh off the boat” and who had been here for ages, just by whether someone ran if they saw you or smiled and said hello. I don’t go looking for contact with other foreigners on the street, but if I happen to lock eyes with someone I will give a small smile and nod. However I do hate it when people just expect I should talk to them just because we are both non-Japanese. Though out in the boonies where I live there is usually a bit of general excitement to find another foreigner living in the vicinity – and that is fine, but in central Tokyo? Um. No.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/jamesch/ Charltzy

    Ah well, looks like my facetiousness went over your head there, my point was the highlight online bullying from people like you could turn into something serious.
    I guess it’s kind of a given that the people talked about in the article would come to defend themselves.

    Not only do your comments come across as arrogant and hateful, they also call into question the “moderation” system of the Metropolis comments section.

    “Living here is the closest many people get to feeling like a celebrity. It just has the unfortunate side effect of making some foreigners rather inhospitable to others—particularly online”

    I was joking about being single and alone at 30, how about you guys?
    Perhaps neither of you will have to worry about people coming up to you.

  • pauly

    I come from a country where its kind of normal to acknowledge people you meet on the street, shops & where
    ever. Just a Hi or a Hello is cool. I’m not gonna stop now. Even if it blows thier I’m the only gaijin in japan dream.

  • johnnyrabbit

    Yes Pauly, but you’re not meeting people on the street are you?
    You are just walking past literally thousands of people in a place like Tokyo.

    If you were saying hello to everyone, Japanese and foreigners alike, it would still be mighty strange but at least it would be fair!

    Ignoring Japanese people all day and vigorously nodding at every foreigner you see just seems racist to me, although in a backhanded fashion.

    Now Pauly, does it really matter what you do in your country?
    I’m not from there and both of us are over here so what possible bearing could it have on our (non-existent) relationship.

    Please everybody nod and smile as you please but draw the line at the enforcement of nodderation on others!