The Japan Diaries Part Two: Life in the Gaijin Bubble

“If you've ever been homesick, or felt exiled from all the things and people that once defined you, you'll know how important welcoming words and friendly smiles can be.”
- Stephen King 11/22/63

"What was the biggest culture shock for you when you first got here?"

It's a crisp February day and Charky and I are catching up over bowls of udon. She's nearly through her third and final contract year in Japan and while I want to hear her answer, I've selfishly asked the question so that I can answer it myself.

She confesses she didn't experience much culture shock at all and I'm impressed but not too surprised. Charky has a quiet elegance to her that is immediately apparent, something which allows her to dovetail quite nicely into the Japanese culture.

I am not at all like that. I'm loud and opinionated and I crash into life with my eyes closed. Because of this, because I really don't know any other way to be, I've always had a problem connecting. Most people think I'm weird and honestly, they're right. I can't make small talk. When I do, it comes out all wrong, like I've beamed down from Mars to ask about the weather. I've found a handful of people in my life who understand this about me and I am happy to call them friends. I am the hardscrabble friend, I know, but when I get past the initial awkwardness, I can talk about ideas and feelings until I'm blue in the face.

I'm so very American, so very alien, here. I love to talk about emotions. Feelings! Let's talk about our feeeeeelings! 

So what was the biggest culture shock for me?

The Gaijin Bubble.

I know what you're thinking . . . "The what what, now?"

Gaijin is the Japanese word for 'outsider'. It is literally anyone who is "outside the group", but more specifically, a westerner. In a culture where being "inside the group" is of utmost importance, the "Gaijin" label can sting a bit. Though there is some debate about this, a more politically correct term would be Gaikokujin, which means "extra-national" or outside of Japan. For you 'Outlander' fans, it means "sassenach". "Gaijin" in and of itself is not an offensive term. I mean, I am a foreigner. However, it can come out in a number of different contexts. A small child can excitedly whisper it to his mother as I pass them on the street and the mother will tug on his arm and scold him for staring. Or, it can come from one of my students, chuckling and saying it behind his hand to his friend while I'm trying to get a more difficult concept across the language barrier.

In essence, what it means is, outsider. And here's an interesting dilemma; If you're not careful, you can live and work in Japan forever and actually still be considered "outside of it", as if we are walking around inside of a bubble.

That, my friends, is the Gaijin Bubble.

What I said to Charky was, "People don't touch each other here." They don't shake hands, they certainly don't hug and with the actual physical intimacy no longer an option and the verbal intimacy of casual conversation beyond my current grasp, it has left me firmly inside the bubble.

What are the tools I'm left with as I learn the most basic of rudimentary Japanese?

Small talk about the weather.

My forte, right?

It's not just a difference in the tone of a conversation, however, which can parse us out and make us feel distinctly "other".

The Japanese culture centers heavily on respect. Because of this fact, there is a long list of etiquette rules which must be followed to avoid embarrassment. Commonly, we know that, in Japan, it is expected that you take your shoes off just inside the door. Less commonly known is that it is equally important how the shoes are placed. The toes must be facing the door, so that you may step directly into them on your way out. Similarly, everyone in Japan backs in to their parking spaces. Every. Time. Seriously . . . every time. It doesn't matter that it takes, sometimes, 4 times as long to back in to a tight space than it would to pull in forward and simply back out, they will still painstakingly back into that space. There are a number of gifts which are unintentionally offensive and you are expected to take your hat and coat off in the dead of winter before your host opens the door for you when visiting their home. You must also wait until the door has closed behind you to put your coat and hat back on.

With this heavy emphasis on respect, you would expect common courtesy to seep into every day life in Japan. However, it does not. In the west, we go out of our way to help our fellow man, sometimes a bit too much, but I'll never complain about that again.

Just recently, Jordan had an extended stay in the hospital. 10 days, in fact. During those 10 days, the world had to go on as normal, including my teaching job. Since the majority of my classes are taught in the evening hours, when Jordan is usually at home watching Anton, I had to rely on the other ALTs to step in like the Good Samaritans they are. They did not disappoint and I am extremely grateful for their help.

Unfortunately, however, there is a rigid stoicism among many Japanese who have not traveled abroad which prevents them from reaching out to help a struggling stranger, even one obviously in need of assistance. This attitude is called "ganbatte", the root of which is "ganbaru", to stubbornly persevere. Ganbatte can be used as a cheer and my google translate app (remember how we discussed its limitations before?) tells me it means "good luck". Nah, not quite. It means try harder. So,when the Japanese see someone struggling, they might say to them, "Ganbatte!" To do otherwise, to lend a hand, would steal the satisfaction in the struggle from the person attempting to "stubbornly persevere".

The times when I have opened the door for someone, I have been met with either utter bewilderment or base loathing. I now have to make a conscious effort to stop myself from opening doors. To do otherwise, when clearly, it is not desired, would be to put my own feeling of self-righteousness above the comfort level of the person I'm attempting to help. In essence, I don't care if they're offended by my action, as long as it makes me feel good about myself. It's been a hard habit to break and it kills me a little every time I let the door swing shut in front of someone.

During Jordan's hospital stay, I divided my time between work and the hospital, with very minimal time spent at home. Japan has universal health care, however, to keep costs low, there's a lot patients need to provide for themselves. Surprisingly, water is one of those things. So, each day, I carted massive amounts of bottled water to Jordan in the hospital. Along with the water, I carried my personal belongings and Anton.

One day in particular, I was just overloaded with stuff to carry. I simply could not carry Anton and the bags were far too heavy for him to help me. I was pleading with him to use his legs and walk, but he was demanding to be carried. At one point, across the street from the hospital entrance, he began shrieking and trying to climb me, dislodging everything I was holding and leaving me grasping desperately to stop him from darting into traffic.

No less than three able-bodied women and one young man passed me, took in my plight, gave a sympathetic look and . . . kept on walking. "Ganbatte!" they said, without uttering a sound. "Try harder."

I've overcome a lot of obstacles in Japan . . . not just in the initial transition and getting settled, but in learning to lower the flame of my passions. Learning to be a bit less visible. However, I've come to a point where I must accept the fact that I may always be the sore thumb, and perhaps that's okay.

That moment in front of the hospital, though, that nearly broke me.

With all the stress of maintaining home and work and worrying about Jordan, who's condition was life-threatening, I felt like a circus animal, balancing on a ball and spinning plates while the crowds around me stared at the show.

This is not to say that this attitude is universal. It is much less prominent in those who have traveled or studied abroad. Seeing other cultures modeling a less rigid nature seems to be enough for most. As eye-opening as my time in Japan has proved for me, so it is with them. It really is nearly impossible to fully understand your own culture and the way in which it relates to the rest of the world until you've stepped outside of it and looked at it from a wider perspective. There are things I appreciate more about Western culture, like a willingness to offer assistance to strangers, and things which now make me cringe . . . our disgrace of a healthcare system.

The "Ganbatte" attitude, however much it may make me feel invisible, is not intentional. They simply don't understand that there might be a viewpoint other than their own. A mindset they share with many Americans, regardless of how different their respective viewpoints may be.

There is, below this more straightforward surface, a more malicious attitude that one may encounter as a gaijin. This, I'll call ghosting. Sure, ghosting has a different connotation in the dating world, but it's the only word which really describes how gaijin are sometimes made to feel. I'll share this story as an example.

Several months ago, on one of our coldest days of the year, the hot water stopped working. We still had cold water, but were out of luck for bathing. We contacted Jordan's supervisor, who contacted the landlord who contacted the gas company (yeah, that's a lot of middle men between us and our service provider, which is another strange thing about being a gaijin . . . you're pretty much treated like a toddler who can't be trusted with big kid things). A gentleman from the gas company came out to see what the issue was and astutely let me know that our pipes were frozen. Jordan had sent a text to me before the man arrived, letting me know we needed to pay a balance on the gas bill and could I please ask the representative if we were able to pay the balance to him. It's normally just drafted from our account, but that month only part of it was, so we were unsure where to make the rest of the payment, since Japan is pretty much all cash-based and you don't want to drop that in the mail.

I mentioned the payment and asked where and to whom I should make it. He told me he could not accept it, himself, and that I should go to City Hall and make the payment there. Thinking nothing else of it, I thanked him and sent him on his way. An hour later, the temperature outside rose and we had hot water again.


I took a gloriously hot shower and got ready for work, figuring I'd stop at City Hall on my way to pick up Anton. Back then, Anton spent a good deal of time with me at work because of my schedule. I would pop into City Hall, pay the gas bill, pick Anton up from yochien and then head to work.

When I arrived at City Hall, I headed to the central information desk and explained that I needed to pay our gas bill. The woman I spoke with looked utterly confused and informed me that no one pays their gas bill at City Hall. I asked her if she could direct me to where I needed to be and she asked to see the gas bill. I handed it over and waited while she called the gas company.

And waited.

And waited.

I kept an eye on the time, growing more anxious with each passing minute. She was having an extremely lengthy conversation with the gas company. All I needed were directions and I was running out of time. Finally, she hung up and turned back to me.

"They're coming here for payment." she said. I was confused. Here? I thought I couldn't pay it here. "Is their office in the building? Is it nearby?" I asked.

"Please, have a seat." she said, and gestured towards the waiting area.

Still completely baffled, but not wanting to continue pestering her with questions when she was clearly already on to the next task, I took a seat and waited for someone to show up.

I waited and waited . . . called the yochien to let them know I might be few minutes late picking up Anton . . . and waited some more. Almost 30 minutes later, guess who strolls in to City Hall?

If you said, the exact same guy who'd been standing in my apartment two hours ago and told me to come to City Hall, then you would be correct. I was annoyed, but I was also ready to laugh about the ridiculousness of the entire situation, until he took a rather unusual tactic. He pretended to have NO idea who I was. Now, under normal circumstances, I wouldn't expect to be remembered by every person I meet, even mere hours after our initial meeting, but these are not normal circumstances. He had been standing inside my apartment and I am one of only three blondes in the entire city.

He knew exactly who I was. There was no explanation as to why I needed to be at City Hall to give him the same payment he declined to take whilst standing in my kitchen and why I couldn't have simply been directed to the gas company to pay there, as it certainly would've waisted a good deal less of my time. He took my bill, took my cash, handed me a receipt and was out the door without another word.

I stood there for a moment, trying to understand the dynamics of what had just happened and feeling like I'd just been the butt of someone's elaborate joke.

"You sent her where?"

"To City Hall."

"Oh, you did not!" Hahaha, big laughs all around at the silly blonde gaijin.

Sometimes, it's as simple as just stepping in front of you in line at the store. It's not done with a malicious attitude, as in . . . "I'm going to cut you in line." It's slightly more disturbing than that. It's as if you actually aren't there at all.

Gaijin aren't real people. I do not see you.

Either you aren't there at all, or you simply shouldn't be there. One of the most common questions a foreigner hears in Japan when meeting someone new is "How long? When you leave?" Many people who have lived for years in Japan are still met with this rather abrupt question. When are you getting out of my country, outsider?

There are many foreigners who have spoken about 'The gaijin seat." That's when you are seated on a train, packed in like sardines, but there is no one seated next to you. No one wants to touch the smelly gaijin. They would rather stand, thank you very much.

This attitude seems to be common throughout Japan when it comes to public transit. In fact, last year, a train driver in Osaka ruffled some feathers by making a public announcement apologizing for the number of foreigners aboard that day.

"An Osaka railway company is under fire after a train driver made an apologetic in-train announcement to Japanese passengers Monday morning for causing them “discomfort” due to the “number of foreign passengers on board.”

The announcement was made by a train driver on a limited Nankai Electric Railway airport express bound for Kansai International Airport at around 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Sankei Shimbun reported.

“We have many foreigners on board today. We apologize for causing you inconveniences,” the driver in his 40s said in Japanese." - Source: Japan Today

Despite all of this, many Japanese are delighted to see a foreigner and will happily practice their English with you. You can take one of two approaches to this:

A) Whine about it and feel used, or . . .

B) Embrace the opportunity to make a new friend by establishing some kind of common ground.

I've chosen option B, and though it doesn't always work, sometimes . . . it does. And when you are cut off from everything and everyone familiar, that sometimes can literally save you. 

How do you establish a common ground with someone without a shared language? You let them practice their English with you while you practice your Japanese (I've been slower at that last part than I should, but I digress).  

While you're doing that, you ask questions and listen. Find out what they love, what makes them happy and share your own favorite things. Music is a great unifier, for example. If you're a mother, talk to other moms. Ask for advice about parenting in Japan. I've found it is far better to talk about how you have felt than to go on and on about things you have done. The latter comes off as bragging and the former . . . well, that might be new to them, but in my admittedly limited experience, many people will begin to open up and share their own human experience and boom . . . you've made a friend. 

I teach adult English classes as well as school-aged children and cherish those sessions when I can talk over coffee or tea for 45 minutes with my adult students.

Honestly, when we first arrived a year ago, I floundered. I couldn't socialize with the other foreigners in our group as much as I would have liked because I'm a mom, so I felt pretty lonely pretty quickly. The cure was simple . . . I found work with some amazing Japanese women and I made it my goal to be their friend.

I may still be in my Gaijin Bubble, but at least I'm squeezing the hell out of it.

One of these days, it may just burst.

Until then . . . Ganbatte!


  1. Wow! Having just moved to a new country myself I was fascinated to read this, Kendra. What a journey for you and a struggle coming to grips with such cultural nuances. Heavy going. I felt for you, especially your Ganbatte experience outside the hospital ..... I think I would've cracked right up! I'm making the transition from Australia to Scotland and even though I am a 'sassenach' and miss many things about 'home' I am not having to cope with such cultural differences ... the people are warm and friendly towards me and we have similar cultural understandings ..... I can be relaxed with people and not worry that I will offend them ...... I really feel for you in your situation ...... glad you are just being you, though. Hang in there is all I can say.

  2. Glad I stumbled upon this. Will be curious to hear about your experiences.


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