On Culture… with a Famous Gaijin

Gaijin – (n) – foreigner. Often used in a derogatory way, as in – Baka gaijin (stupid foreigner). Most gaijins tend to embrace their gaijinness. Reclamation of a foreign word?

This entry will be one from my journal. It sounds like a downer in retrospect, but it’s encouragingly full of my attempts to negotiate the vast differences between my culture and Japanese culture. It’s from my journal on August 12, the day I had a formal introduction ceremony and meeting with the Hikari City Mayor.

Mayor Ichikawa came into office last November. He’s very genki (friendly, happy, joyful) for a Mayor and his English is decent. He’s a nice guy – nice enough, even, that he let me come back after this meeting to personally interview him for Hikari Highlights, the magazine Sarah and I make for the students at our 8 combined schools! The interview was great, and it will be in my first issue coming up in September.

Journal entry:

I met the mayor today, along with the Hikari paparazzi. I’m a celebrity, and my famous talent is being American. I know now how Paris Hilton feels or how the popular girls felt in high school – absolutely loved for everything they were born with and little or nothing of which they created. In America, we idolize whiteness, blondness, money and privilege, but something about our history of puritan work ethic and European descent made that make some sort of sense. Even more interesting is why an affluent, developed, technology-driven economy like Japan, that is so clearly made up of non-whites, idolizes these same traits. If the world is about power, I can (begrudgingly) understand the historical (sick) context under which white is desired, despairing as it is, but at what point will social conditioning kick in… and countries like Japan realize that they’ve done it all, succeeded at the highest point, without being white? (Also, on a side note, shouldn’t this mean that Scandinavian countries are the highest and mightiest and should be worshiped above all, especially above America? Oh, right… they haven’t been imperialistic, militaristic forces to be reckoned with…)

“Freedom” is often synonymous with “America,” but I’ve not often considered it outside the realm of politics. Cultural freedom is a whole other ballpark. Societies are directed by rules (most of them limiting and pointless) in every country – including the US- but compared to somewhere like Japan, the rules are relaxed, open to individual interpretation. My cynicism about American abuse of militaristic force aside, maybe this is what is at the heart of America-envy/adoration here… and in many places throughout the world. Hell, IN America, too. Everyone is too afraid in Japan to break the rules, to fight for change, to speak out against the majority’s status quo… so they watch Americans carelessly flaunt their opinions (gasp!) and fight over health care reform, and amidst their shocked looks and exasperated sights (silly, loud Americans), they wonder what that kind of societal and cultural and self-freedom would be like. Then, I’m sure, they politely bow, whisper “sumimasen” (I’m sorry, please excuse me) and forget they ever thought such blasphemous thoughts.

And the rules win, and gaijins like me become local heroes and celebrities simply because of our nationality, our whiteness, our privilege, our inherent ethnicity based power.

That said, the meeting with the Mayor went well. I introduced myself in Japanese and said where I was from – from memorization. I sat and drank tea with him as he asked me questions about America and my first impressions of Hikari. During the meeting, the Vice Superintendent of BOE (who was there as the official rep. for BOE I suppose), mentioned my love of ninjas when the mayor asked me about wanting to do karate. I could not believe he did that. Jessica (my predecessor) and I had one conversation with him, joking about ninjas, and here he went telling the Mayor and ALLLLL the reporters in the room. In the interviews I did following the meeting, that is all they cared about. I can see the headlines now, “Baka Gaijin Loves Ninjas!” haha I took it all in good-nature, and let’s be truthful – i DO have a thing for ninjas!

Also during the meeting, Mayor Ichikawa asked me what kind of magazine I wrote for in the States. I told him a “women’s rights” magazine, and the two women translating for us to find a way to explain that to him in Japanese. So not only is the feminist movement in Japan obscure, if existent (it is it is, I will find it!), but the Japanese language may not have the words to discuss the movement at all. Language as a tool of oppression – somehow it makes a lot more sense to me now than it did sitting in a college classroom.

That all said, the Mayor is a nice guy who was hung-over at our meeting. I think we’ll get along just fine 🙂


It’s interesting to read this now, even just two weeks later. I am discovering how truly Western-minded I am. I am very American. I’m stringently individualistic, militantly independent. I struggle to understand the Japanese group mindset. The worst isn’t that I disagree with it or occasionally seek to change it around me, but it’s that I often don’t respect it. That’s where the cultural differences and my stubborn adherence to my cultural beliefs become problematic. I can only see good in autonomy and self; this is what I’m working on challenging in myself.  I want to understand these deepset cultural norms I have and look at them objectively, through the lens of an opposite set of cultural traditions and be able to find good in both.

Mayor pictures!

Hikari City Mayor Ichikawa

Hikari City Mayor Ichikaw. He looks stern, but he's really friendly! It's Japanese custom to not smile for official photos.

From the left - Sarah B., Mayor Ichikawa and me. This was after Sarah and I interviewed him for Hikari Highlights! He looks stern, but he's really friendly. It's custom in Japan not to smile for official photos.

From the left - Sarah B., Mayor Ichikawa and me. This was after Sarah and I interviewed him for Hikari Highlights! Ah, here he is looking much more like himself!

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~ by C on August 28, 2009.

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