Culture / Japan

Foreign Cultural Identity

Living in Japan as a foreigner is a wonderful thing however, what happens to our cultural identity while living abroad? Some foreign nationals choose to deal with this issue while others simply ignore it. Should we change our cultural identity to fit the one of our host country or stay true to our roots and continue to “stick out” in the crowd?

When I visited Japan last summer I was put in a similar situation. My friends and I felt it was necessary to blend in as much as possible all the while maintaining our gaijin characteristics. We wanted to uphold Japanese customs and adopt the culture at every given moment, which resulted in us strictly obeying social etiquette (such as no talking on trains/buses) and keeping a Japanese level of courtesy at all times.

In my opinion, this in itself was not a bad thing. The people appreciated the efforts we put in everyday and admired us for being respectful towards their country and culture. We didn’t want people to think that we were just another bunch of impolite, loud and brash gaijins trolling the streets of Japan. Therefore, we chose to be mindful of our actions at all times.

Before going to Japan, I made sure to read up on all the small customs and proper etiquette in order to avoid any faux-pas. When I went to temples and shrines, I took the rituals seriously like I would have anywhere else. The thing to remember about temples and shrines is that, as much as they are interesting tourist areas for foreigners, they are also actually places of worship for natives and therefore need to be respected. I saw some foreigners being disrespectful towards the environment, and saw how the Japanese looked at them with disdain.

Purifying hands and mouth is an absolute must before entering a Buddhist temple.

The word 外人”gaijin”, short for 外国人”gaikokujin” literally means “person from an outside country” and as such, every gaijin should remember their origins. While it might be the wish of some foreigner to ‘become’ Japanese, it is something that is completely impossible.

My group and I struggled with our identity only whenever we met other foreigners in Japan. This “rejection of self” happened when we didn’t want to be associated, mingle or engage with other foreigners like ourselves. In these moments, we had an elevated sense of self that put us about other foreigners, as if we knew we weren’t Japanese but we considered ourselves ‘better’ gaijins that the others.

By refusing to accept other foreigners, we willingly alienated ourselves from foreigner-owned shops and restaurants, as well as places that most commonly catered to foreigners. Always preferring to choose the “Japanese side” of life, we spent a lot of time exploring Japanese culture which I think otherwise would have been difficult to do.

We didn’t want to be surrounded by foreigners because we wanted to learn from our trip to Japan about the people, culture and customs without being hindered by our own kind. Naturally, foreigners will have a tendency to stick together due to the unfamiliar surroundings and the daunting prospect of total foreign immersion. We found ourselves however pursuing the opposite and always choosing the unknown/unfamiliar path.

“Blending in” with local university students

The question remains, was it really that necessary to “blend in” with the locals? Would it have been such a big deal to be more friendly towards other foreigners? Probably not, and I think that in retrospect I do feel a bit remorseful about it. Being part of a group made exclusively out of foreigners is was glued us together and cemented our beliefs about our culture and identity. I always made sure to carry around my Canadian flag on my backpack out of pure pride for my own roots, and wanting to show to the people “look, a Canadian has come to visit your country!”.

The conclusion: Either we stand out together as a group, or blend in by ourselves.

6 thoughts on “Foreign Cultural Identity

  1. I know what you mean, I felt I had to do the same thing. Adapt and follow their customs but also holding on to how I naturally actin a way. But I must admit its easier when your husbands Japanese. The whole time I was thinking “I’m representing Americans” and none of my Japanese family had ever met Americans before so I was so nervous. I didn’t know they didn’t talk on the bus oh dear… my sister and I kept laughing when we were on the bus because we were standing and the buses in Chiba stop so suddenly. The trains are easy to stay quite on because you get really sleepy, or maybe that was just me. I really like this post, its something I think about a lot.

    • I know what you mean, I felt the same way about “representing Canadians” and so did my group. Trains and buses are a common mistake for foreigners I think. It’s understandable though, considering we don’t have those customs in the West. (Oh and, trains make me sleepy too =.= I think it’s from all the rattling/swaying, it’s easy to get drowsy XD)

    • It depends where you live. In Tokyo, housing is difficult so a full-sized apartment can cost you a lot. Therefore most people live in smaller ones to save on cost. I’m not to sure about Kyoto and Osaka but I’m guessing it must be the same thing since they are both highly popular living areas. From what I saw, when you move to more remote countryside cities, you have a better chance of finding bigger apartments for a reasonable price. Living away from the main cities will offer you better size/price ratios than elsewhere in the country. I think it’s possible to get good living space, it’s just a question of looking at the right places.
      I hope this helps! ^_^

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