The Seven Stages of Gaijinhood
Notice the absence of a timescale in Fig 1. This is because some foreigners in Japan will ‘plough’ through all the stages in as little as three years while others will remain permanently hung out to dry on one stage or another. In essence, the graph assumes that people become less self-aware (able to regard themselves as individuals distinct from their Japan fixation) and less likeable (to people who knew them before) as their Japan obsession deepens through immersion in Japan and pursuit of related knowledge (also known as gaijin one-upmanship.)
Here’s the breakdown:
A wide-eyed wonderer denotes someone newly arrived in Japan with little prior knowledge of the country. Since it’s not in our game to poke fun at newbies, it’s sufficient to say that doing a Scarlett Johansson in Japan is a pretty fine way to have a dizzying, life-changing experience. In fact, people in this stage usually retain a strong sense of self and are impervious to gaijin supremacy games. For the wide-eyed wonderer, a random public sighting of another foreigner is actually a positive sign that something good must be nearby.
The first dip in sanity occurs when people try just too hard to learn. Eager students may sacrifice critical judgment in the race to absorb their new cultural surroundings. They often stop you while you are eating and say: “You know, you’re not supposed to do that with your chopsticks, it means that the souls of the dead children won’t float to heaven properly.” To which the only polite response is “Christ, there are THIRTEEN of us at the table; we’re all DOOMED, I tell you, fucking DOOMED.” Most of these people actually went to university too, which makes it all the more heartbreaking really. However, to their credit, none of them have yet started to believe that they have ownership rights to Japan.
While some, like Western Buddhist converts and Momus, manage fine without it, cynicism begins as a healthy antidote to the pious Orient-worship of the previous stage. Kept in check it can be a solid friend throughout one’s time in Japan. But a witless cynic is someone devoid of insight who claims to be able to mine humour in holding Japan up to Western standards and finding it lacking. This kind of person is a keen online aggregator of stories about sexual inadequacy or amusing spelling errors in Japan. A reasonably sane person should be done with this stage in the first six months.
Once a person has outlasted the working holiday crowd and honed his Japanese skills he is in mortal danger of mutating into an indigenous wannabe. A raging supremacy complex will likely kick in with devastating consequences for this individual’s likeability as a human being. The issue now is how to distinguish himself. Indigenous wannabes are keen to tell anyone who will listen about their love of something slightly arcane - sumo, natto, enka, it doesn’t matter what - in order to stake an indigenous claim. Provincial wannabes may imitate the rustic flavours of their local Japanese dialect. Make what you will of a person so undistinguished as to have to resort to travelling overseas in order to steal a foreign yahoo’s identity.
Men tend to introduce gruff masculine slang to their speech to show that they never really subscribed to those hard-fought identity politics back home and are ready to embrace chauvinism as a way of life. Unsurprisingly, a lot of Western women leave Japan around this time. Copying those around them, Kansai-based gaijin may adopt a dismissive attitude towards all things Tokyo. Bullishness, small-mindedness, borrowed opinions: didn’t you leave your own country partly to escape these kind of things?
It’s impossible to live in Japan for any decent length of time and not become cynical about politics. In the early stages, political views tend to be half-formed ones like knowing the LDP is “full of shit” but only being able to suggest that the Japanese electorate mates with “the other guys, you know, the good guys”. But the event that triggers the onset of becoming an ill-informed activist is either a horrific racist ordeal involving a Japanese pensioner gagging at the sight of your freakishly dishevelled chest pubes in a public bathhouse or, for people who aren’t Debito, buying a copy of Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons, taking it home and reading it fully clothed.
From this it becomes obvious that Japan is a bad tooth in need of some severe canal work. But the Japanese people themselves don’t realise this; the ill-informed activist alone can save them from their political mire. That is, if he can escape from the clutches of arch-nemesis, Black Vans. Such a person always goes into a paranoid flap at the sight of said nationalist sound trucks, even when the announcement is actually saying: “Takeshima belongs to the Japanese! Advance this position strongly at the next Asian summit! And please buy a lottery ticket!”
Now don’t misunderstand me here. Real activism and self-empowerment are noble indeed. This particular activist, however, shuns actual engagement. He tends to rely on the latest op-ed in The Japan Times for information and his protests never go further than the audience of his English-language blog.
After the inevitable failure of his crusade to change Japan, the unscathed gaijin soldier looks for new battles and finds one. All over the world, foreign journalists are depicting Japan in ways which appear to him naive, condescending, generalized and so on. If you hang around the internet long enough, one of these misguided articles will appear and the gratifying ritual of unsheathing your Japanophile sword and cutting it to bits with expert thrusts can begin. Welcome to life as a semantic gatekeeper.
If only they’d give YOU the job of representing Japan to the world, YOU would do it so much better! Except YOU might not, because YOU have no coherent image of Japan to present anymore, only the semantic darts to puncture other people’s. It goes without saying what a huge waste of time this is for everyone involved.
The semantic gatekeeper is a kind of self-appointed regulator of knowledge about Japan in an endless global chitchat which is entirely peer-to-peer, i.e. among fellow Japanophiles. Japan itself doesn’t feature anywhere except as the patient. This kind of person takes on the role of custodian of Japan the country or of a voiceless group within it as a final grasp at power before succumbing to the inevitable: that Japan can and will manage without him.
Benjamin Disraeli’s famous maxim that “the East is a career” was only true when the field of gentleman scholars was somewhat more restricted. These days “the East is a field” might be a better way of framing the dynamic. Japan, a confined space bursting with things to understand, is a place to test oneself in early adulthood. Experience gained here can and must be put to better use elsewhere rather than used to support a feeble entitlement complex like that which leads to spontaneous verbal attacks on strangers in public parks.
An accidental gaijin then, is someone has come to terms with his being in Japan as no more than a minor detail in the complex arrangement of factors which made him who he is. An accidental gaijin can feel equally at home in Japan or away from Japan because an accidental gaijin is no longer OF Japan. To let his friends know this, the accidental gaijin finally gets around to changing his email address from something like me-san-in-japan-yes-JAPAN@domain.jp to plain old firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Source: via Japanprobe