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.
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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