Today is a lovely summer’s day in Tokyo, so I decide to venture out on my jitensha (which has been widely acclaimed as being awesome – by me). As I whiz along to the furniture shop to buy a sofa, I weave between a couple of 8 year old boys on their bikes. They’re slowly idling along and taking up the whole footpath, exactly the same way I did on summer days when I was 8. As I fly by, I say “Sumimasen!” (excuse me). The boys look around, a little shocked, and when they incorrectly think I’m out of hearing range, I hear one excitedly whisper to the other “Gaijin!“.
Oh, that’s right, I remember, I’m a gaijin (foreigner, or literally “outside person”). Although, I’ve since been told off for using this term – the politically correct form is gaikokujin (literally “foreign country person”). The term gaijin is usually applied to Westerners rather than natives of nearby countries like China and Korea. The number of gaijin in Japan is estimated at around 140,000 out of a population of 125 million, which makes a percentage total of…. not many. I live on the east side of Tokyo where not quite so many foreigners live, and it’s quite common for me to finish up a workday without seeing another foreigner the whole time.
It’s not unusual to get a few curious looks and smiles sometimes when you are doing something decidedly non-touristy (riding a bicycle, not being in a tourist area, speaking any Japanese, however bad). However, talking to another Aussie ex-pat who has been here for over 5 years put that into perspective. He has studied Japanese for a long time and is more than fluent, and he used to be based in one of the rural prefectures in Japan. He said he would sometimes be walking along a street next to a field, and farmers would halt mid-shovel, staring at him, slack jawed, as he walked past.
For some reason, I think it fascinating to see other foreigners go about their daily business in Japan. I instantly wonder what might have brought them to Japan, and what they do here. Many teach English – so many, in fact, that rather than being asked what type of job I have, sometimes I’m just immediately asked which school I work for.
Strangely enough, it’s a shock to see other foreigners in certain places sometimes. I was walking out of a convenience store (combini) near my home recently, and standing right outside the door was a Westerner lady. Caught off-guard after a long work day, I remember being quite surprised at myself for how jarringly incongruous it felt, and after such a short time in Tokyo.
One nice benefit of being noticeably foreign is that it’s often assumed that you cannot speak Japanese very well. In my case, this is an assumption that would be correct. So, the next challenge getting up to speed with Japanese – more on that soon!