This conversation took place with a Japanese friend at a cafe in Yokohama:
Me: …I thought it was a very interesting article! What do you think?
Yoko: Of what?
Me: His argument that both Gaikokujin and Gaijin essentially mean the same thing: Not so much foreigner, but not-Japanese.
Yoko: You think so?
Me: Well, yeah, actually, I agree totally.
Me: Let me give you an example. I had an experience recently. I was in Hawaii, in Waikiki, and I overheard two Japanese guys talking about a party they’d gone to the night before. Both agreed that the party was ok but would have been better if there were less Japanese there and more Gaijin. It rubbed me the wrong way, being referred to as a foreigner in my own country. Hell, I’d taken the vacation to get away from that for a spell. So I took issue with it, and told them as much.
Yoko: Really? What did you say to them?
Me: I told them that this is America, and that they were the foreigners, not us!
Yoko: That was rude!
Me: A little, I guess, but I guess I am a little sensitive about that kind of thing, for obvious reasons. But, no more rude than they were. Presuming if they spoke in Japanese none of the Americans sitting in their vicinity would understand they were calling us foreigners.
Yoko: But, if you feel that Gaijin means not Japanese then why did you say anything?
Me: I hadn’t really thought it through until I read that article; which was after the fact. And even if I had, the way Japanese were behaving in Waikiki, I was already pissed anyway.
Yoko: How were they acting?
Me: Like they owned the place! Like they were in some Japanese resort, not guest in a foreign country, in my country. I feel like if I can be on my best behavior in their country they can certainly be on theirs in mine!
Yoko: I see. (Sad expression on her face)
Me: What? Was I wrong?
Me: Seriously! They were behaving the way many Japanese do in Japan. I mean, in Japan I have to accept the excuse that Japanese are not used to foreigners so they are shy around me, to put it nicely, but if you go to foreign country that excuse because invalid.
Yoko: I see…
Me: And I think I know the reason why.
Me: Because, some Japanese don’t even know Hawaii is America! Maybe they think it’s Japan.
Yoko: That’s ridiculous!
Me: Seriously, Yoko. I ask my students…and this has happened many times…I ask them, have you ever been to the US? And they say no, but they’ve been to Hawaii! Hawaii is America, I say. And they get this look like…”Oh yeah, that’s right.”
Yoko: You don’t understand Japanese people…
Me: Tell me something I don’t know…(said sarcastically)
Me: Nothing. Listen, I don’t claim to understand Japanese. I don’t even understand Americans, sometimes.
Yoko: Of course we know Hawaii is in America. We’re just being humble.
Me: Humble??? You mean ignorant!
Me: I mean, come on, if a Japanese person on vacation, say, in NY, asked me had I ever been to Japan and I answered, “No, but I’ve been to Okinawa,” would they think I was being humble or that I was an ignorant American?
Yoko: But, you’re not Japanese.
Me: I don’t get it.
Yoko: America, the mainland, is…expensive to visit. Plus, you have to know some English to get around. Hawaii is cheap to visit, and you don’t need much English.
Yoko: So, if we say we’ve gone to the US, then that’s just like boasting that we have money and we can speak English. We are humble so we don’t say such things.
Me: But, like you said, I’m not Japanese. And, presumably, I don’t know the rules of humble etiquette. So, why, at the risk of appearing painfully ignorant with no benefit, would Japanese be humble with me?
Me: I see…
Yoko: I don’t think you do. Because you are Gaijin. (Smiles) I mean, gaikokujin.