There is a well subscribed group for “Business in Japan” on the Linkedin business networking site. A member recently started the debate “Do you feel offended by somebody calling you gaijin?” This started an absolute avalanche of posts, 260 or so to date, which with the exception of those from a few people, were fairly negative.
Comments digressed into areas where people felt there was obvious discrimination towards foreigners in Japan and that it was difficult for non-Japanese to integrate into Japanese society. My own experience and understanding is that in an insular society that was built around the concept of “uchi and soto” , it is not surprising that there are collective terms for outsiders, but that these references are seldom malicious.
Looking at the spread of comments, I was forced to reflect about the wide range of situations, reasons for being there and motivations of foreigners in Japan. Gaijin or gaikokujin , ((kokusaijin for the most sensitive) , range from 3rd generation, “born in Japan” individuals to those on assignment, under protest; who carry on their lives in an ex-pat social circle that has little to do with the country that they are in. In my experience foreign kendo people in Japan are different.
If anything, we lean towards being “henna gaijin”, literally strange foreigners. This does not mean the obvious – strange because we are different, but strange because we do not meet the stereotype of non-Japanese who cannot speak Japanese, or use chopsticks, or who wear the toilet slippers on the tatami. As a fellow blogger described, henna gaijin “creep the Japanese out by trying to be too like them”. OK, that is probably harsh, but the term refers to individuals who try to adapt to Japanese culture, learn the language and take an interest in things Japanese.
Foreign kendo people in Japan are fortunate. They have a real point of contact with Japan. During my three or so years living there, it was like becoming part of a big extended family; not just for me but also for my wife and my born-in-Japan daughter. The friendships we made seem unchanged through time and when I go back to Japan and to dojo where I was a member many years ago, I find that nothing has changed. In the Shudokan in Osaka, I recently found myself sitting between the same two people who sat either side of me thirty years before; and when I visit kendo friends in any part of Japan; there is an automatic feeling of being part of the group.
I know many kendoka from other parts of the world who share or shared the same experiences and there are currently a number of my UK Kendo kohai in Japan who seem to be having a great time. Having read the thoughts of the Business in Japan Group, I would be interested to learn what my kendo friends and colleagues who are currently in Japan, or who have spent time there, think of their gaijin status.