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This is a very long post. To summarize for the TL;DR crowd, what I’m getting at is that the stereotype of “Gaijin-san” doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that there is a host of racial problems in Japan and that’s part of what makes Gaijin-san so aggravating.

Recently I found out about All Nippon Airways’ unfortunate decision to air an ad featuring a man in Japan’s ubiquitous “Gaijin-san” costume: a large nose and a blond wig. Honestly it left me stupefied because 1. the nose used was extremely large even by Gaijin-san costume standards, and 2. I had come to believe that the Gaijin-san costume was fading out of use. I remember seeing it in the variety shop InCube, being sold with Halloween costumes in 2009, but never again after that year in that store. I’d always check for it because the first time I saw it I was blown away. Can you imagine a “Mr. Black Guy” mask being sold in the U.S. in the year 2009 with no repercussions?

The "American" and "Indian" patrons of an "International Sushi Shop"

The first time I saw the Gaijin-san costume: August 2009, on some sort of variety show. The premise here was that people from different countries were eating at an international sushi restaurant. Here are the “American” and “Indian” patrons, both with fake noses. To my disappointment, neither a samurai, ninja, sumo wrestler, nor geisha showed up to represent Japan. The inclusion of a Japanese stereotype would’ve at least opened the door for the interpretation that the show made fun of everyone. And wouldn’t it have been funnier if the sushi chef was preparing the fish with a katana?

As I spent more time in Japan, I came to find the Gaijin-san costume increasingly offensive. It popped up everywhere, from TV shows to skits at school, and no one ever questioned it. I don’t think it would bother me as much if the extent of Japan’s stereotyping went no further than that, or if Japanese people would at least acknowledge that yes this is a stereotype, or if all the stereotyping did was make Japanese people think that all white people have humongous schnozes and hair in a Barbie shade of blond. But none of these scenarios is the case. Gaijin-san’s nose is just the tip of the iceberg.

In a country with so few foreigners, why would you need a phone to have

In a country with so few foreigners, why would you need a phone to have emoji of a white man (the only one shown in profile to showcase his splendid proboscis), a thinly mustachio-ed slit eyed Chinese man, and a turbaned Indian? What did the text message say, “Guess what I just saw on the train?” And where’s the stoic karate master or the sumo wrestler? If Capcom could do it for Street Fighter on the Super Nintendo, I’m sure SoftBank and Panasonic could’ve done it on this phone. At least newer phones seem to have the emoji of the white guy from the front rather than from the side; this is the phone I got in 2009 and had all 4 years in Japan.

On the Lack of Intent, Criminal or Otherwise

One of the most common ways Japanese and non-Japanese alike justify things like Gaijin-san is by saying “No one is being hurt by this,” and “It’s just a joke.” True, between seeing someone put on a toy prosthesis and display their ignorance, and being followed around in the mall by clerks because I’m Hispanic, I’ll take Gaijin-san. The problem with this idea is that it only takes into account immediate, direct harm. But can anyone say with certainty that making a toy out of an entire group of people doesn’t harm the real human beings of that group indirectly? When students don’t take ALTs seriously, when schools don’t take ALTs seriously, can we say with certainty that constantly presenting foreigners as punchlines isn’t reinforcing this type of behavior? How much English and cultural awareness can students get from a person whom they may subconsciously view as little more than an entertaining distraction, a break from the academic rigors of their real classes? When Japanese people see a gag more often than an actual foreigner, is it surprising when they do things like stare, or say rude things in Japanese assuming the foreigner won’t understand? What’s that attitude going to do to the country’s bottom line?

Another common excuse is “Japanese don’t mean to be racist.” For the most part, I think that’s true. But saying “Japanese don’t mean to be racist,” means that they are indeed being racist, just not willfully. And if that’s the case, I don’t think that the conclusion “and therefore people shouldn’t speak up about things that are bothering a whole lot of them” follows logically from “Japanese don’t mean to be racist.” I think students donning Gaijin-san costumes, or the ANA commercial, are chances for real-world dialogue and learning that should not be missed because of the idea that lack of intent justifies slighting people.

Disclaimer: Neither (clockwise from top right) Kim Soo Hyun, Takumi, nor GACKT had anything to do with the making of this illustration.

Disclaimer: Neither (clockwise from top right) Kim Soo Hyun, Takumi, nor GACKT had anything to do with the making of this illustration.

The above image is based on a student’s English Passport (a name card which students could either attach purikura of themselves to or draw themselves on) that I saw in my first or second year on JET. I had directed the students to draw an arrow pointing to themselves if they used a photo that had their friends in it, so that I could learn who was who faster. To my surprise one girl labelled not only herself, but also the three other people in the photo, writing in “me,” “friend,” “friend,” and “Korean.”

I’m sure the girl who did this had no malicious intent. I’m sure she didn’t get the implication of not labeling the third person as “friend” like the rest. It may well be that the student who did this loves Korean pop culture, and feels like being in a photo with a real Korean person gives her some street cred or cool factor, and that’s why she wanted to let it be known that the person was Korean. But doesn’t that turn the person into a sort of status symbol, like wearing a sweater whose main feature is the massive logo “Marithé + François Girbaud” in huge letters across the torso? And is it not worthwhile to address this possibility with the student, regardless of how much she didn’t intend to offend anyone?

If I get drunk, crash my car into a pedestrian and kill them, I’ll still get charged with a crime, right? The charge might be manslaughter rather than murder, but no one will say, “She didn’t mean to kill that pedestrian, so let’s just leave that corpse in the street and act like it’s not there.” And if some guy asks me to deliver a package somewhere, but I don’t ask what’s in it, when the police catch me with a box full of meth, “I didn’t know what was in the package” will not be an excuse. Is it in Japan’s best interests to insist that their box is empty and completely ignore people who tell them there’s some racism in there? Especially when it will be hosting an international event like the Olympics in a few years?

If Japan chose to shut itself off from the world completely, none of this would matter. It’d be their decision to make. In their isolation they’d be totally free to think whatever they wanted to about anyone. But as long as Japan wants to buy products from abroad and sell its products abroad, it doesn’t seem wise to play the “we didn’t know” card rather than the “we didn’t know, thanks for telling us, can you explain it further so that we may understand?” card. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with true cultural awareness and understanding springing up from a need to protect one’s pocketbook. It’s not ideal, but it seems more realistic. It’s a fairly easy concept to understand, after all: “Anger these people, and they won’t give us their money.” I don’t for a second believe that a lot of the progress Hispanics have made in the U.S. wasn’t due to the economic and political power that Hispanics came to wield as an ever-growing group.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

It was almost painfully predictable what would happen if I tried to bring up the subject of discrimination against foreigners in Japan to a Japanese person: “But when I lived in X country the people there treated me like I was different and asked me rude things.” “Oh, but America had slavery, didn’t it?”

These things are logical fallacies. Since when does one fact cancel out another fact just because it’s a fact too? Both are true and neither can make the other go away, nor does either justify the other.

I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany's in 2013. I couldn't believe the character of Mr. Yunioshi.

I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 2013. I couldn’t believe the character of Mr. Yunioshi. I’m sure that to audiences in 1961 it was no big deal, but live and learn eh? No need to make the same mistakes.

If it’s okay for Japanese to strap noses to their face and put on blond wigs to become Gaijin-san because white people have done black face and yellow face, and otherwise discriminated against people of color, when will it stop? I mean, a character as blatant as Mr. Yunioshi would probably not make it into an American movie these days. Yes, Asian characters are often portrayed by Asian actors of a different ethnicity (e.g. Japanese-American soldier Jim Morita played by Kenneth Choi, who is of Korean descent, in Captain America: The First Avenger) but that’s a step up from casting white people in those roles. So for how long do people have a right to stick it to the white man when the white man’s ability to stick it to minorities (at least in media depictions) has been curtailed? For as long as there was slavery? For as long as Breakfast at Tiffany’s has existed? For as long as white people command vast amounts of political and economic power? And if so, is that the best we can do, as people of color? Poke fun at how big The Man’s nose is?

Gaijin-san doesn’t do anything to rectify these wrongs, it just creates more problems. And not only for white people in Japan, but for non-white foreigners there too.

Half the World Doesn’t Exist

I have a problem with how differences are emphasized in Japan to the point of completely ignoring similarities. There’s a hilarious but sad example that illustrates this all too well in the book Hi! My Name is Loco and I Am a Racist. That same conversation is also up on author Baye McNeil’s blog (this post).

My last October as an ALT I whipped up what I thought was a witty lesson introducing Halloween, its precursor Samhain, and the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. I made sure to include the vocabulary words “ancestor” (which the students had just had in their Vocabulary book as well), “grave,” “altar,” “offering,” and “spirit” on the handout with Japanese translations, as well as show many pictures of Day of the Dead festivities, which center on cleaning ancestors’ graves and making food & drink offerings to them at altars. Before moving on to the last part of the lesson, a Venn diagram, I asked the students, “Samhain and Dia de los Muertos especially are both very similar to a Japanese holiday. Can you think of which one?” When no one would answer I told them to read over the passage about Dia de los Muertos again, and to look at the Japanese in the vocabulary list again. Out of 10 homerooms of 40 students each, only in one homeroom was there a single student who immediately saw the similarity between these foreign holidays and the Japanese festival Obon, during which cleaning the family grave and making offerings at altars is also very important. In other homerooms, the first answer shouted out was Oshougatsu (New Year’s), and there was even at least one spirited yell of “Taiiku no Hi!” (Health and Sports Day, which is in October).

An "ofrenda," or altar for the dead, and a butsudan, or Buddhist altar, with Obon offerings. The tiers, the lights, the photo and/or plaque for the deceased...yeah, not similar at all. (I found the ofrenda photo on several blogs saying it was from Wikipedia but couldn't find it there. The butsudan comes from Hasegawa Butsudan, a company that sells altars & altar accessories.

An “ofrenda,” or altar for the dead, and a butsudan, or Buddhist altar, with Obon offerings. The tiers, the lights, the flowers, the food offerings, the photo and/or plaque for the deceased…why did I ever think the similarity was obvious?
(I found the ofrenda photo on several blogs saying it was from Wikipedia but couldn’t find it there. The butsudan comes from Hasegawa Butsudan, a company that sells altars & altar accessories.)

I was blown away by how hard it was for the students to make the connection between Obon and Dia de los Muertos. By the fourth or fifth time I’d given the lesson, I was ending it, perhaps too gleefully given some of the weird looks I got, with the revelation “Every culture has a death festival! EVERYBODY DIES!!!”

Some of the teachers blamed the students’ inability to make the connection on their being young and therefore not familiar with traditional Japanese culture. But I find it very hard to believe that they didn’t know the very basics of Obon. Are 399 of the students in that grade in families with zero filial piety? To me a much more likely explanation is that students have never been asked to find similarities before, so when they get asked that simple question their brain crashes. What students are constantly asked, at least in their 3 years of high school, is what are the differences between Japanese and Westerners. How and why are students who by and large have never been to the West expected to answer such a question?

But getting to a story that more directly illustrates the problems that the Gaijin-san costume causes:

The high school English Communication I textbook ELEMENT for the current academic year is generally pretty good. I read the entire book before classes started and of its ten chapters I only had a problem with one: Chapter 3, “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently.” I figured I was in store for sweeping generalizations, and indeed I was. I don’t remember many details now, only that the bulk of the chapter cited a study whose subjects were Chinese and American children. So why wasn’t the title “How Chinese Children and American Children Think Differently?”

Anyway, the school I was at sometimes had to host demonstration English classes. Teachers from other schools as well as people from the Board of Education and college professors would come to sit in on and evaluate the new English-only English classes. One of these demos used the chapter mentioned above. So the teacher giving the class opened the lesson with the question, “What do you think are some of the differences between Japanese and Westerners?” A student was called on, and after hesitating a while, he offered a wonderful answer: “I don’t know.”

I was so glad in that instant. “I don’t know” is a perfect answer when you really don’t know and are being set up to display a bad kind of ignorance, which is ignorance masquerading as knowledge. But the student was prodded for an answer. And what he came up with was: “Westerner’s eye color is different.”

Hopefully this wasn't the face I was making on the outside, but I was certainly thinking "for real now?" when I heard the teacher say that yes, Westerner's eye color is different.

マジで? This is the Westerner who works in your school, whom you’ve been seeing for several months, and what you come up with is “Westerner’s eye color is different”? And the teacher just co-signs on that? While I’m in the room?

The episode made me realize the monumental proportions of the stereotypes and ignorance that I, as an ALT there for cultural exchange as well as English education, had to fight. I was disappointed by the student’s answer but at the same time I was fully aware that he was only regurgitating what his culture had fed him.

Brown eyes are the most common in the world. Even if we assume that “Westerner” excludes Mexico, Central America, and South America, there are brown-eyed Europeans. Only you’d never know that when you’re constantly presented with the caricature Gaijin-san that tells you Westerner = Caucasian = blond & blue-eyed.

Every now and then, you’ll see representations of Westerners that aren’t white. Unfortunately, many of those tend to be mere stereotypes as well.

Coke with a music downloads promotion (I think) in 2009.

Coke with a music downloads promotion (I think) in 2009.

From the same bottle. Somehow I doubt the American Coca-Cola would've put something like this on their products Stateside.

From the same bottle. Somehow I doubt the American Coca-Cola would’ve put something like this on their products Stateside.

I Ain’t Been Dropping No Eaves, Sir, Honest!

Being a foreigner who can understand Japanese can feel like being an eavesdropper, only it’s not hard to catch what people are saying because they say it right in your face.

My first year on JET, I pretty much kept to myself. Being dark-haired, dark-eyed, and silent kept me safe from prying eyes. I didn’t feel at all the sort of discomfort I’d end up feeling in my second through fourth years, when I would more frequently be around other foreigners in public.

One time I was going home from Japanese class with 3 other ALTs who lived in the same jutaku. One was a Japanese-American man, another was a white American woman, and the other was a white New Zealand woman. We were talking, not too loud but louder than everybody else, and I noticed an older Japanese man staring daggers at us from the priority seats. I lowered my voice hoping the others would follow, but it didn’t have much effect.

We got to our station, but it was the old man’s station too. He was on the escalator, I directly behind him, followed by the guy and the 2 girls, who were still talking. As we rode up slowly the old man huffed and puffed, till he could take it no longer. He leaned forward a bit to speak over me and address the guy behind me, saying 「女はどこでもうるさいね。」(=”Women everywhere are noisy, huh?”)

I was flabbergasted. The statement was sexist. But perhaps more than that, what punched me in the gut with bittersweet irony was that the old man skipped over the foreigner who understood what he said perfectly, to say it to the foreigner of Japanese descent who probably didn’t catch half of it! Without thinking I blurted out at the man in the overly textbook-y Japanese I had in my first year, 「必ずしも外国人の女性は日本語を話せないわけじゃないです。」(“It’s not always the case that foreign women can’t speak Japanese.”) The man was taken aback, asked me if I spoke Japanese (D’UH what did I just say to you?!), and grumbled on his way once the escalator reached the top.

The ANA commercial is like this old man on a much wider scale, and far less excusable. Japanese is a language largely written and spoken on the assumption that the people who will read it and hear it are Japanese only. Even if it’s true that there are few non-Japanese who have a solid command of the Japanese language, the news media exists. Stuff gets translated and spreads around on the internet. No company, no public figure, should assume that what they say won’t go all the way round the world and sneak up behind them to bite them in the tush. Even private citizens have to be careful what they post online, lest they lose a job because of a raunchy Facebook photo.

On a lighter note, this reminds me of Tiziano Ferro, an Italian singer who was also popular in Latin America. In 2006 he went on an Italian talk show and said that one of the things that made touring abroad hard was having to compliment each place he was in. Among other insulting remarks he said that Mexican women all have mustaches. To his surprise the Latin American media got wind of it and his popularity in Mexico plummeted.

But Even When People KNOW You Speak Japanese

I had this hilarious exchange in Japanese with some sweet English club girls in July of 2013:

Student A: It’s said that foreigners who speak Japanese start to have the facial features of Japanese.
Me: Really?
Student A: Yeah, the ones who live here.
Me: Hmm.
Student A: (Turning to speak to Student B) Once you get used to looking at them [=foreigners], you lose that sense that something’s off [=違和感], don’t you?
Me: The sense that something’s off…? *Bursts out laughing*
Student B: Ah! No no no…
Student A: Sorry…
Me: *Still laughing*

The conversation had started off with something I hadn’t exactly heard before but was no stranger to: the idea that there’s some physical component to being able to speak a language other than the movements of one’s mouth and tongue, such as the belief that only those with Japanese blood can truly speak Japanese. I suppose it’s possible that speaking another language could change the appearance of one’s face if a radically different set of muscles is being put into motion, though I have no science to back this up. They say long-married couples end up looking like each other, so maybe there’s something to this foreigners-turning-Japanese thing. In any case, the idea struck me as odd, but no biggie. It was the 違和感 (“iwakan,” a feeling that something is a bit off) comment that really surprised me. Even though Student A wasn’t directly addressing me anymore, without thinking, I just said, “Iwakan?” Student B seemed to catch on immediately that I was saying, by simply repeating that word, “There was a time when you looked at another human being and felt like their face was a mistake?”

Granted, Student A didn’t seem like she realized she’d committed a faux pas until Student B started apologizing on her behalf. Student A really is a very good-natured individual so I’m sure she didn’t think she was being rude. But it still felt like maybe she’d forgotten, for a brief second, that I could understand what she said and had even been conversing with her in Japanese just seconds before. Or maybe she forgot that I was a foreigner because I was speaking in Japanese!

Investing in Japan

When I was volunteering in City Year, I was heavily invested in the outcome of my work. Not just because I take pride in anything that’s gonna have my name on it, but also because I was a resident of the City of Detroit, working with the youth of the City of Detroit. Indeed, one of the things that had made me want to find a way to help my city was the many destructive things I’d see kids doing in the street. Ripping branches off trees for no reason, throwing rocks at birds trying to kill them for the fun of it, joining gangs and walking down the street talking about how they “run this” while probably not having the faintest idea of what real power looks like, and the fact that real power is not at all inconvenienced by people with no power killing each other off with drugs and violence.

When my City Year team was at a school in Southwest Detroit, AKA Mexicantown, it was easy to reach out to the students and have them respond to me. I was Hispanic like them, I was an immigrant like them, I had come to this country not knowing a lick of English like them. In my second year my team was at a K-8 school on Detroit’s primarily black east side. But I could still tell them, and indeed I did, I care about you because you live where I live. This is my city too. Your future is my future. There are people who want us to fail, because we’re from Detroit, or because we’re minorities. Are you gonna play into their hands? Even the boys most hell-bent on being thugs had to stop and think for a minute.

In Japan I likewise did the best I could as an ALT out of personal pride, but also out of the sincere belief that I could reach the students based on our mutual experience of learning English as a second language. I’d say to them, I had to learn English like you’re doing now, I made many mistakes in public but it’s okay, the U.S. is a nation of immigrants and we’re speaking English with different accents but we can still understand each other.

Four years and about 3,000 students later, I feel like this had no effect on the majority of the students I had in Japan. Perhaps the problem was that no matter what, the students had been conditioned to see foreigners as different from them. Idealistically I could have said that in a global world their future is my future even if we’re thousands of miles apart. But that’s much more abstract, and it’s a little bit harder to be personally invested in reaching people who are heavily invested in keeping you at arm’s length.

In Conclusion

This has been a very long, semi-stream-of-consciousness post. A lot of these things are things I’d been thinking about for years and just couldn’t find a way to put them together and express them. The ANA commercial served as a trigger to get all these thoughts out of my head. All of this, all these 4000+ words of thoughts, are the context in which I take Gaijin-san as offensive. ANA isn’t the first nor will it be the last to use Gaijin-san, though I hope we’re nearing the end of it. The United States still has a LOT of racial problems but I think it’s something to at least have moved away from stereotypes like Sambo and Mr. Yunioshi. I’m also of the mind that humanity isn’t GOING to hell in a hand basket, it’s been trying to LEAVE hell by way of a slippery ladder that we take two steps back on after going one forward. Humans seem naturally inclined to segregate themselves, stereotype, and give preferential treatment to “their own.” Maybe this will never stop. But I think it’s worth it to try, and we can’t try if we don’t acknowledge that it’s even going on.