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Japan, Foreigners and the Unspoken Contract


Omnipotence personified
15 Mar 2003
== The following is from a very interesting and hefty on-line book the author has posted in parts to the "Gaijin in Japan" web forum.

"One of the biggest obstacles I, and the foreigners around me faced while living in Japan was the inability to be recognized as part of the Japanese society. Regardless of how much we studied the language and culture, regardless of how hard we tried to conform to the Japanese way of life, regardless of how well we adhered to Japanese etiquette and manners, regardless of how "Japanese" we became, we were always assigned a position "outside" of the Japanese population.

We were, and always would be, "Gaijin in Japan."

Treated as "gaijin", we longed to be treated with the same decency and respect that Japanese demanded for themselves. We longed to be able to live by "one" set of rules, instead of having to live by a "double" set of rules.

I have come to the conclusion that it is not a deeper immersion into the Japanese language and culture which will allow immersed foreigners to become members of the Japanese society, but the education and realization by the Japanese population that we have actually earned the right to be treated the same as members of the Japanese population."
Dan Venz PhD.

Take a look. While I don't wholeheartedly agree with all of it, it does hit very close to home at times...Enjoy.

Hefty, but a very interesting read! A clash of stereotypical expectations.

Many foreign informants also stated that when they are not brash, nothing gets accomplished in their favor. They cited the stereotype itself for this situation. One foreigner had this to say: "When a foreigner wants something to change, his only real way to get a discussion going about it is to be direct and to the point. I agree that this is not the typical technique used by Japanese. The difference is that the Japanese can use tact, and not be direct, yet the Japanese management will "read between the lines" of what the Japanese person is saying. Foreigners do not have that option. When we try the Japanese way, our comments are taken at face value, instead of being thought about deeply, as is the case for Japanese people. The reason is because the Japanese expect foreigners to be too direct and brash, and therefore when we are not, nothing happens. After trying the Japanese way, and seeing that it will not work for us, we are left with no other option than to be direct and to the point. Then, we are considered as brash by the Japanese. If someone can tell me how to get the Japanese to "read between the lines" of our indirect and tactful attempts, I am all ears."
Yes, very interesting indeed although I readily admit I only read the first few chapters thus far. The author raises some interesting points and I think the section you highlighted Thomas speaks volumes about the general demeanor of many Japanese towards foreigners specifically in the workplace, at least from my personal experience. Interesting stuff.
there is nothing more amusing than to watch nihonjin get flustered when you fail to live up to their stereotype of their image of the foreign gaijin (I know, redundant, but I know many nihonjin that keep using "gaijin" when they are the gaijin outside of japan)....

my efforts were mainly that I didn't drink coffee.. :D

'sides, rules were made to be broken, and from what I've seen on the news, there really are no rules, spoken or otherwise, that people follow these days, so I wouldn't be so concerned about whether you are too direct or not....look at the folks in Osaka? If they aren't direct, then I don't know what is.... :p
Hmm. I keep wondering and thinking this "gaijin" issue, and I guess I'm a bit scared of it too, since I'm trying to stick my nose in to Japan one year later..
The question in my mind is, that why do we foreigners want so badly to "fit" ourselves in to the japanese culture? Why can't we just accept the fact that if we aren't japanese (and so, a part of japanese culture), then we just aren't.
Somehow I think I understand the japanese in this issue, maybe it's because I am myself a part of the finnish culture, which want's still to be very independent and very proud of it's roots. Basicly, if you're not born to be something, then you just aren't. Live with it, remember it, but be openminded to everything that happens around you..

But something lighter(?) to the end. I have also had the impression that women, and especially foreign women are somehow "below" japanese men in the upreciation. My boyfriend knew this finnish woman, who went to Japan to work in a some sort of management job. She didn't get any professional attention what so ever from the japanese men collegues, until(!) she wen't to dine in a business meeting with these japanese men and business associates..what happened was, that the men passed out of sake before this finnish woman did. After that, she got all the professional upreciation she needed. Yey! :p

P.S. Sorry for my bad language ;)
Hmm... you raise some interesting points Chipi and I tend to agree with you about the whole "Gaijin" issue in general. I think a lot of foreigners tend to take it as a personal affront when despite their best efforts to "fit in", they will always be relegated to gaijin status. I felt this way myself early on and actively sought to include myself in as many extracurricular activities as I could in order to stave off this feeling. It's really just something that everyone has to deal with on their own terms I suppose. At first the idea of "No matter how hard I try to fit in, i'll always be a Gaijin..." was something that troubled me. After awhile though it really became an issue of no consequence as I found my niche so to speak. You learn the language, you make your circle of friends, and you try to get by as best you can. And like you mentioned, sometimes you fit in and sometimes you don't-simple as that. I think if anything the sum of my experiences has really given me a better appreciation of the whole situation from the Japanese perspective.

Re: The idea about foreign women being viewed as somewhat inferior, I can only say that the few I had met through chance encounters always seemd to be treated as an equal or peer by their colleagues. Perhaps this was only on the surface as I can not say for certain although I never received the impression it was otherwise.
For me it is an issue of double standards. I know I will never be Japanese, nor do I want to be. What I do not appreciate is having the simple fact that I, or others, are not Japanese as an excuse to be treated differently or expecting some kind of behavior (窶廾h, its okay, she窶冱 from New Zealand. 窶弩ell, they don窶冲 personally clean their schools in America so he can go home early.窶 Both of which I have heard and). There is no excuse why foreigners should be not treated as social equals once they have gotten to know their way around. It is not that foreigners shouldn窶冲 be different, but they should not be handicapped or because of such differences. Too often they are.

Also, some foreigners learn early to exploit their status as perpetual guests to behave abominably like the never would in their home countries. These people deserve to be beaten. Sorry, personal rant窶ヲ
This is such an interesting topic to me. Having married a Japanese man , I have been through many interesting situations and scenarios.

All of this reminds me of something that happened a few years ago.

My husband sometimes(rarely compared with Japanese businessmen in Japan) would go out with the businessmen when the president of the company would be visiting or something. As a hard-headed American, I found myself thinking, "well, why can't the wives go?!". Especially since it wasn't to talk about business, really. I really didn't like the fact that the wives were just expected to stay home while the men got to go out and have a nice meal and drink.

Well, one time my husband asked me if I wanted to go. I asked him if the wives of his boss and his other co-worker were going, and he said something like, "well, no, they'll stay home, because they are kind of expected to"(they were Japanese). Well, when I heard this, my adrenaline kind of kicked in(partly because his boss was a real jerk, anyway), and I said that I'd go. The looks on all of those men's faces were priceless. I wish I had taken a picture of them and the way they looked when I walked right into that restaurant and sat down at that table like I didn't have a care in the world.

After I did that, though, they soon seemed to warm up to it and by the end of the evening, we were all talking and laughing and having a good time. I think since then, his boss and co-workers know that I'm that American woman that's not to be dealt with...lol That I don't go for all this "working" until all hours of the night and I don't want my husband to just take off on some business trip at the last minute without some good explanations, and that me needing help with our children when they need to go to the doctor or something is a good enough excuse to miss a couple hours at work...etc. etc. I don't make it a secret that he's married to an American and he lives in America now and he is employed by the USA version of his company--not the Japanese one anymore.

As for the gaijin label, it really doesn't bother me. I know it does bother a lot of people, though. I named my group Gaijin Wives of Japanese Men and a few of the members thought it was distasteful when it was really meant as a kind of joke. You know, because we're even considered gaijin when we're in another country or even our home country. I just take it in jest.

I have so many stories about this kind of thing, though. So many.

i liked your story, kirei_na_me.

i worry a bit about going to (and eventually, living) in japan. i think i can accept the fact that i'll never fully fit in but i'm not accustomed to standing out yet. my brother told me when he visited korea that there was always, at any given time, someone staring at him when he was in public. is it like this in japan?
Yes, unless you live in a small town where people see you often. In the big cities I have always gotten stares, but this might be because I am perhaps one of the most attractive men on the face of planet earth. You get used to it after awhile. Best thing to do is just give them a nice smile. They are usually so embarassed that they were staring that it solves the problem. Don't take it personally. Stare back if you wish. Let's face it, everyone looks funny in their own way. :)
This whole gaijin issue is getting a bit worn out if you ask me...

If you're not of that ethnicity, race, or nationality, then you won't be recognized as being part of the society. That's just how it goes in Japan. Even people of Japanese descent aren't seen as Japanese once they've left to another country. It's called xenophobia; and the general public in Japan have it. That isn't to say that 99% of individuals in Japan have these values and beliefs (*my gen isn't like older Nihonjins), but that's just the case.

In America, or most countries that don't have an overwhelming ascribed ethnicity or group of people (even though caucasians make up nearly 70% of America's population), fitting in isn't an issue. But if you go to a country where less than 1% of the population are foreigners, that's going to be the issue. So either get used to it, or stop trying so hard. There's no reason you can't live in Japan and still live a normal life (whether you believe your "officially Japanese" or not).

Now discrimination against foreigners in Japan is a completely different story. That is something that needs to be addressed, rather than "assimilation into the society." Let's talk about that.
But for a lot of people "living a normal life" means not being treated like a child when they go into some places of business or live constantly under the assumption that they are going to be going back "there" sometime soon. These are not issues of discrimiation (which we agree are bad news) but quality of life. These are just as important, because foreigners come into contact with them more often that out and out discrimination and do shape their impressions of Japan. In turn it impacts Japan's image abroad.

I'm afraid I can't agree with your "get used to it, or stop trying so hard" approach. Things usually don't change by ignoring them. The problem is with attitudes on both sides of the gaijin line. Foreigners in Japan need to show the patience and take the time to help Japanese people see that we are fully capable of living under their system and playing by their rules. Japanese people also need to let us.

Also being in a majority doesn't excuse xenophobia. It explains it, which I think you did well, but it is a fairly weak cop-out. Too often explainations become excuses by those who don't want to face their faults (both foreigners and Japanese people need to think about this).

This doesn't mean "becoming Japanese." I don't think anyone who has lived in Japan long-term really thinks they can. Adapting to social norms shows a basic level of respect for those around you. Not letting people (ie once a gaijin, always a gaijin mentality) is insulting in the way it ignores the efforts people have been making. It is like throwing a compliment back in someones face.

I don't think many foreigners want to assimilate into society to the extent that they throw away their identity. I just feel they don't want to have to play by two sets of rules. I think it is a very timely issue and one that deserves air time.

Thanks for the post Jian!
I think the reason why so many western people have such a problem with being treated differently is merely because of comfort issues. Most western societies have rules of conduct that are much more relaxed than in asian countries.

Most are used to, for the most part, being treated equally and have the idea that if you are able be intelectually on par with everyone you are around you should be treated fairly. And, of course, when all your efforts to be treated equally are ignored you become frustrated. You wish to lash out and demand your respect. Westerners do not like to sit on the sidelines and keep quiet when things are unfair to them. They have a certain level of patience and then enough is simply enough.
this is a good topic, i have wanted to address this for some time, but really havnt had a reason, as ive never been to japan, but plan on going for animation school. the attitude that japanese display when regarding gaijin is not unnatural, cruel, or un-called for. it is a simple fact that many countries would like to keep their cultural biases, not for racism, but for traditional quantification and idiology. this is natural. i am very proud to be caucasian and have embraced my celtic roots with facination and admiration. i would not deny this feeling to anyone. i admire japan. not just the ppl, but the landmass itself. the archipelago that makes up japan is a wonderfully diverse and beautifull place. the rich history and tradition only adds to its mistique. i think it is most probably a right of native japanese to feel as if a non-native is not a cultural equal. i feel if i was to experience this attitude first hand i would understand it. but the fact remains that no matter how hard we try, we can never be something were not. as a caucasian american, i can accept anyone, color or no, as a cultural equal, if that person is an english speaker, has lived in my country for a decade or more, has studied my countries history and makes a general effort to appreciate its traditions. but i am american, and that is what we do. we try our best to accept everyone, but just because we do does not mean everyone else is obligated to react the same way towards outsiders. actually, it wasnt so long ago that america itself did not embrace outsiders. while our country was founded with the idea of acceptance, this has not always been the case. i dont think i have to elaborate. america is a very young country by comparison, a mere 300yrs old, and has some historicaly radical ideas towards society in general. we cannot expect others to feel the same way we do. its an over-expectation on our part.
anyway, i could care less what anybody, including japanese, think about me or anyone else, i love the country all the same, taking in the sights through eyes that work the same way. i can love the country and its ppl desipte the cultural taboos placed by traditional japanese. i think you will find that when you have reached a deep seeded friendship with anyone, no matter where they are from, they will respect you as an equal. the fact remains that i am not japanese, and my best friend who is, will never be an american.
I look forward to reading an update after you have had the chance to actually live in Japan and gain some practical insight into the question.
"Foreigners and the Unspoken Contract"

I found this thesis on BigDaikon that Mad Pierrot had provided a link to which I think every "gaijin" living in Japan should read to gain a better understanding of the Japanese thinking towards foreigners. I feel his theories are well founded and researched. It's a shame he never finished it.

These are only excerpts. For the complete partial thesis: http://www.bigdaikon.com/mystory-20030304.shtml

Japan, Foreigners and the Unspoken Contract
-- March 2003 by Dan E. Venz PhD

"One of the biggest obstacles I, and the foreigners around me faced while living in Japan was the inability to be recognized as part of the Japanese society. Regardless of how much we studied the language and culture, regardless of how hard we tried to conform to the Japanese way of life, regardless of how well we adhered to Japanese etiquette and manners, regardless of how "Japanese" we became, we were always assigned a position "outside" of the Japanese population. We were, and always would be, "Gaijin in Japan."

...Treated as "gaijin", we longed to be treated with the same decency and respect that Japanese demanded for themselves. We longed to be able to live by "one" set of rules, instead of having to live by a "double" set of rules.
I have come to the conclusion that it is not a deeper immersion into the Japanese language and culture which will allow immersed foreigners to become members of the Japanese society, but the education and realization by the Japanese population that we have actually earned the right to be treated the same as members of the Japanese population."

...One main reason many of the barriers for foreigners attempting to assimilate in Japan exists is that a large percentage of foreigners residing in Japan, given the alternative of not immersing themselves into the Japanese language and culture, choose not to learn the Japanese language or culture, reinforcing many of the stereotypes that the Japanese population have regarding foreigners and perpetuating the inability of the host population [Japanese] to distinguish between immersed foreigners and non-immersed foreigners. This inability of the host population [Japanese] to distinguish immersed foreigners from non-immersed foreigners leads to stress, anxiety, paranoia, self-alienation and emotional trauma for the immersed foreigner as he/she is presumed by the host population [Japanese] to be non-immersed.

...This "gaijin grouping" by physical appearance has led to the inability of certain distinctive groups of foreigners to shed the stigma of being a foreigner, regardless of their knowledge of the Japanese language and culture. The aforementioned "stigma" stems from the tendency of the host population [Japanese] to assign foreigners to groups rather than to see foreigners as individuals. Each foreign group comes with pre-conceived stereotypes and behavioral patterns of that group by the Japanese population and any foreigner assigned to that group is regarded and treated by the Japanese population as if those stereotypes pertain to him [the foreigner] regardless of whether or not those stereotypes are characteristics of his [the foreigner's] personality. As a result, these physically distinctive foreign groups are forced to cope with a great deal more stress in Japan than other less physically distinctive foreigner

...Being assigned a status of perpetual foreigner and having to cope with the stigma of being a foreigner in Japan, regardless of quality of immersion [of the foreigner] has lead to the realization of many foreigners that being accepted as a member of the Japanese society is virtually impossible.

...The "unspoken contract" consists of a broad range of rules and stereotypes that a foreigner must learn in order to ensure tolerance from the host population [Japanese]. A summarization of the "unspoken contract" is that in order to ensure host tolerance a foreigner must conceed the he/she is part of a powerless minority group which is tolerated but not accepted [an observer but not a participant] into the host population. Furthermore, it is expected that foreigners must conceed (publicly) that it is the very fact that they are "non-Japanese" that they feel discrimination in Japan and are led to believe that the deeper they immerse themselves into the Japanese language and culture, the lessor the feelings of discrimination will become (In other words, the host population [Japanese] believes that discrimination does not exist in Japan, but rather, it is the foreigner's perception of discrimination coupled with the need for a deeper knowledge of Japan, which makes foreigners feel as if discrimination exists in Japan).

It was discovered that by adhering to the rules of the "unspoken contract" foreigners were able to ensure host tolerance to a certain extent, however adherence to the "unspoken contract" created feelings of anxiety, paranoia, emotional trauma and self-alienation for the majority of the foreign population. It was also obvious that though most foreigners do attempt to adhere to the rules of the unspoken contract, there were many situations in which they [foreigners] could not. Each time an immersed foreigner failed to adhere to the rules of the unspoken contract strengthened the host population's [Japanese] stereotypes and distrust towards foreigners as outsiders that regardless of Japanese language ability and knowledge of Japanese culture can never really be integrated into the Japanese society.
I call this inability of immersed foreigners to acknowledge they are still part of the powerless minority regardless of Japanese language ability and knowledge of the culture "gaijin denial", for these immersed foreigners are actually attempting to deny their assignment to the foreign population [by the Japanese] and would like to believe that they have reached some sort of "almost Japanese" status due to their quality of immersion into the Japanese language and culture.

...The study showed that foreigners in Japan are assigned a position as a powerless minority in which the host population tolerates and sometimes enjoys the company of, but which cannot be accepted as members of the Japanese society, regardless of the foreigner's quality or depth of immersion into the Japanese language and culture.

Any comments?
Should've used the search engine first 😌. I'm fairly new here and forget just how huge this site is :sorry: . Anyway, it's been 2 years since it was posted. Maybe it's good to repost it once in a while as the debate continues to rage on and will probably do so forever. Thanks.
That's pretty interesting! I've read about half of it(the original text). I'll read the rest after Mythbusters. : - )
Less contribution, but more questions...

Being new to the subject, I only have general comments to make and three questions to ask. It comes as a surprise that a modern, and often considered futurist, society as Japan can be so backward and uncosmopolitan in treating fully acculturated foreigners.

In the past, I had thought that the Japanese' discrimination of foreingers was limited to Koreans only, so I am very surprised that this has been a genral phenomenon affecting "all" foreigners, whether Korean, Asian, or non-Asian. I would be interested to know why such a strong tradition of mentally segregating foreigners persisted in Japan in it's nearly 200 years of active contact with the outside world. I would also like to know what the historical conditions might have been.

If we can understand that better, then it will be possible to formulate a Japanese version of "perestroika," more in the mind than in material culture. It almost makes me wonder, how Japan could have made vast progresses in many aspect of life with such a closed and petty understanding of the world outside it. Delusion has never helped a culture to cope well with reality. So this is another mystery that needs to be addressed and answered with historical precision. I would appreciate contribution from anyone knowledgeable in these areas of specialty.
Your thoughts coming from first hands experience are also valuable.
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i'm not sure if i understand the whole text, but i think it is normal that you will be treated/looked upon differently becouse you are a foreigner.
i don't really understand about the stereotypes. i learned at school that stereotypes are ordened by exterior looks, as in clothing.
i'm a bit confused about that. what pre-judgements do they have towards foreigners then? any examples?
Mcspi said:
It was a very interesting read. Although I don't know what it is like to be a foriener in Japan.

Don't feel bad. No two foreigners can ever agree on what it is like to be a foreigner in Japan anyway.
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