Becoming Japanese – an impossible task?

  • Whether you’ve spent the last decade in Japan or you’ve just fantasized about how it’d feel like to live there, from your cozy room at home, there is a tendency among Japan lovers to try to identify as much as possible with the Japanese natives.

    From an American and European point of view, there is nothing wrong with the above statement. You go to any country in Europe, live for a certain period of time and learn the language: that’s all you need to perfectly blend in that certain nation. Not to speak of the cultural melting-pot that is the United States.

    Why is it so difficult then to do so in Japan?
    Is it a question of race/language barrier/mentality? Is it a lack of adaptability from the foreigner’s side or from the Japanese natives’ who are supposed to perceive the gaijin as one of them. This article will offer an insight in one of the most debated social issues in nowadays Japan.

    1. What is a gaijin?

    Well, technically, the word gaijin should not be publicly used, and yet we keep hearing it in Japan without any note of discrimination. Sometimes gaijin-san sounds even cuter and warmer than any other name you might be called as a foreigner in Japan.

    However, gaijin, an abbreviated form of gaikokujin done by leaving out the “country” (koku) part in the noun, becomes a combination of “outside” and “person” (外人). An outsider, soto no hito 外の人. It’s not that bad, right? After all, you are a person from the outside.

    However, there are 2 factors that make the word not a very pleasant one. One is the actual amount of time spent in Japan. Of course, you can be considered an outsider for the best part of let’s say the first 2-3 years of your stay in any place, depending also on your adaptability and your willingness to blend in. However, there are people who spent half or even their whole lifetime in Japan and are still treated as foreigners. Is this a personal choice? Maybe, but are we witnessing something like this anywhere in Europe or The US? Is Arnold Schwartzenegger or Obama less American than any American(we’re not talking any discrimination here, just pure cultural identity)?

    Why is Japan so different then?

    And here we have the second factor which is the “island country mentality”(shima guni konjou 島国根性) and the concepts of uchi and soto. Japan has been a secluded country for the best part of the middle ages and pre-modern times. This naturally causes the synthesising of a pure local, pure Japanese culture and identity which the purer it is the more incongruent it makes it with any other mentality. Of course, one would say that the Japanese adopted many foreign concepts after the Meiji ishin in 1868 and after the second world war they even Americanized their society to a point that you can barely tell the difference between New York and Tokyo.

    I would say that the Japanese indeed adopted many foreign concepts and rules but only after adapting them to their own mindset. That is they have never been Europeanized or Americanized. They turned every borrowed concept into something Japanese or close to their original culture.
    Even so, the foreign concepts stick out with all adaptation. And this is what happens to foreigners too. They adapt and are adopted but they will always be sticking out. Some people say, no matter how long you stay in Japan you will never become Japanese.

    I’d say this is an extreme statement, too extreme even for Japan. The blending might not be indeed complete, but is it ever complete in any country? Can any foreigner stay in a country that is not his, that he totally became a native of that country? The blending is full at a superficial level, it is never complete though at the deep identity level.
    Therefore, maybe we have been viewing this gaijin concept totally wrong throughout the time. Maybe it’s not discriminatory or treating foreigners as outsiders. Maybe Japan is actually the only honest culture that warns you from its very syntax that it’s impossible to change who you actually are.

    2. Language barriers

    For most foreigners learning Japanese is the first wall to break on the way to “becoming” Japanese. And it’s not an easy wall to break.
    In a study from 2007 Japanese was declared on of the most difficult languages in the world. With three writing systems, and a system of honorifics that could make even geniuses scratch their brains, it’s not difficult to imagine why.
    It is said that it takes at least 3 to 5 years of constant and sustained study of the language to manage to reach the Japanese Language Proficiency test N1 level, which technically allows you to maintain a proficient conversation and read a newspaper without problems.
    But how far or close is this N1 level all Japanese learners strive to reach, to native level? And how is this important in the quest of “becoming” Japanese?

    First of all, N1 level brings you somewhat close to an adult Japanese native level, as far as kanji and grammar are concerned. I heard from many foreign friends though, that even though they passed N1 there are sometimes words and phrases children would use and they’d not understand, which would make them wonder which their real level is.

    The truth is that apart from having the immense number of kanjis and somewhat complex grammar, Japanese is probably one of the few languages whose vocabulary expands every week, month and year, with hundreds of words. Even natives have a hard time keeping up with this pace. Also take into consideration the fact that Japanese has dialects, almost as many as its cities. So, to become near-native in Japanese it takes more than passing some test. It means also keeping track of the linguistic changes, expanding the vocabulary from honorifics to slang, and being able at least to understand and/or speak the local dialect.

    I met dozens of foreigners who reached this level of proficiency and no Japanese would ever say they are not native (until of course they saw them, since most of them were European). They say it’s extremely flattering, but it also has a few setbacks. This level of command of Japanese language would make the Japanese interlocutor also expect a 100% Japanese attitude. Which most of my near-native level friends did not possess and which resulted in disappointment on the Japanese side and hurt feelings on the foreingner one, leaving behind the always present question: What do I have to do to become one of them?

    3. Identity
    My question is: are you sure you even want to?

    We’ve seen so far that the amount of time spent in Japan and your proficiency of the language does not make you Japanese but it takes you closer to a superficial blending. It makes you able to fully understand the culture and habits even though you may not capable to always behave according to them.

    Let’s see now what makes you different. You are most likely fluent in two other foreingn languages one being your native language and the other English. If you’re American, the second language is probably Spanish but let’s skip the details. You have your own cultural background: French, German, Northern, Latino, Slavic etc. You have the ability to understand the mindset of European/American people. You know how the US or EU economy works, and you know the best way to negotiate with people with the same cultural background as yours.

    If there was a way in this world to trade all the above to become solely and exclusively Japanese would you do it?
    Now, I’m only saying that people with the above qualities are a rare commodity. I have met many foreigners in Japan trying hard -even too hard- to lose whatever gaijin-ity they have left and become fully Japanese and I always wondered why you would like to lose a part of what you are to become something else.

    So, in case you are still struggling with the dilemma of whether you can or cannot become Japanese, the answer lies in yourself and nowhere else. The best way would be to keep a duality at the level of your identity just as you are bilingual or multilingual. Be careful though not to lose your real self in the transfer. After all, living in a foreign country is also a form of translation, just that we are not translating words, but cultural identities.

    1. Brylie Ann says:

      Loved this article!

    2. Anonymous says:

      I think this is the most substantial, informative and truthful article I’ve read here in Japan Info. It’s refreshing to read an article about Japan that’s just simply talking about the realities of being and living in the country without sugarcoating or making light of the issue.

    3. Anonymous says:

      The article reminds me of a kind friend saying things that no one else would tell you, for your own happiness.

      Becoming Japanese is not really a process under an individual’s control. It takes longer than a lifetime. Japanese-born children of naturalized citizens will be completely at home in their parents’ adopted country… and in some ways, still not as “Japanese” as their friends.

      I would expect many people to argue that last point angrily.

      This is not to excuse prejudice or discrimination in any form. Those social sins come from “justifying” unfair exclusion with irrelevant and hateful thinking.

      Still, cultural identity is complex, surprising, and cross-generational (I would say). This is not a bad thing, I think it is good to acknowledge that our roots run deep.

      On the other hand, I would like to ask Japanese people to understand why foreigners might want to become assimilated. It’s not from any desire to deceive, or to realize an immature fantasy of Japanese life.

      I think there are two praiseworthy motives. For one, everyone instinctively wishes to feel comfortable socially, and to make others comfortable with their presence. For this reason, even people born in the same culture imitate each other. Sameness reduces disharmony.

      For a second motive, the aspects of Japan that attract an honorable emulation are so many, and so obvious — no one should be surprised if an outsider appreciates Japanese ideals, customs, pastimes… and hopes to take part in them.

      Accept the implied compliment, it is as sincere as it could be. Awkward moments aside, it would be good to encourage people who want to adopt certain Japanese ways. This form of sharing leaves nobody poorer.

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