The Gaijin and the Japanese: the Gaijin Complex

tunimaal 5 April 2012 20
The Gaijin and the Japanese: the Gaijin Complex

This post is also available in: French

The Gaijin complex is a fact of life that can be observed in Japan and translates the sensation felt by a majority of Japanese when confronted to foreigners. I therefore propose to try to analyze this Gaijin complex through this article. 

Today I want to broach the subject of Gaijin Complex which all foreigners visiting Japan will inevitably face. To do this, I based on serious reading and recognition including the book “Working for a Japanese Company – Insights into the Multicultural Workplace” by Robert M. March.

I do not pretend here to make me look like an expert, but I want to share with you what I know on the subject, what I saw on a daily basis and what some people may feel. 

The Gaijin Complex: what is it? 

Robert M. March defines the Gaijin Complex in his book as a feeling of discomfort and embarrassment that Japanese may feel when confronted with a foreigner. This term of Gaijin Complex has started to be used in Japanafter the 2nd World War and the arrival of the Americans on the Nippon’s land.

The Gaijin Complex explained by History

As you can read in my article entitled Chronology of History of Japan and the Japanese, during the period called Edo, in 1639, Japan decided to completely close its doors to foreigners (almost completely). This closure period stand until 1853 and the arrival of the American Commodore Perry, which forced Japan to open its doors to the outside.

Following this, Japan welcomed for its first time some foreigners but in a very limited quantity. Then this was followed by the 2nd World War and the defeat of Japan (with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

In September 1945, Japan experienced a form of massive invasion after American victory. The country had never experienced this before. It never had so many foreigners at the same time on its land.

I let you imagine the culture shock that to have generated. Some will say “but that date to 67 years ago” and I would answer just 2 things:

  • It takes time for a civilization or a nation to learn a new way of thinking and new way of life
  • Many Japanese of that ear are still alive (Japan is the country in the world with the highest life expectancy).
flag japan, drapeau japon

Drapeau Japon (Japan Flag)

The Gaijin Complex: the experience of Robert M. March

I recently started reading the book “Working for Japanese Company – Insights into the Multicultural Workplace” by Robert M. March, and I can tell you that the content immediately marked me by its professionalism and wealth.

There is a passage that stayed in my mind is the experience he has done to measure the relationship between Japanese males and females and foreigners males and females. To do so, he questioned the Japanese on their feeling when meeting foreigners (Gaijin) of the same sex and the opposite sex. Here are the results:

  • A Japanese male and a foreigner male

The feeling is negative since the Japanese male feel the stress, fear, a desire to escape or a complex relative to his body, when they encounter a foreigner male.

  • A Japanese male with a foreigner girl

The feeling here is ambivalent. Some will feel sexually aroused, attracted, feel envy and desire. Others feel the fear, stress, nervousness and a desire to escape when they meet a foreigner female.

  • A Japanese female and a foreigner male

Same here, since the feeling is ambivalent. Some Japanese women think that foreigners are good looking, nice and gentlemen. In fact, some of them, so underlying, see foreigners as cute “pets” they love to show to their friends and they like to be served by. This is because Japanese women see the foreigners as the opposite of the Japanese who simply want to be served by the Japanese females.

For the negative perceptions they are there to nervousness, stress, fear and a desire to escape. 

  • A Japanese female and a foreigner female

Again, there is a certain ambivalence is present. Some Japanese would feel in a position of stress, fear and nervousness but none of them want to escape.

Positively, there a sense that they can be friends and share a good relationship even though there would be admired by the Japanese who think that the foreigner female are more beautiful.

I suspect that these results can create some reactions, but they are there to demonstrate a situation that has existed and still exists today, although things tend to evolve slowly.

The Gaijin Complex: is it racism?

A recent study of the “J-CAST Company Watch” produced results that raised concerns among people on the web. Here is a significant extract of these:

  • 48.5% of Japanese would be completely closed to immigration in their country
  • 19.3% do not really want foreigners in Japan
  • 16.8% would agree only it was inevitable
  • 14.4% agreed to let immigration into Japan

So yes, when you see these figures, we can say that many Japanese are opposed to immigration.

But if taken in another sense we can see that 14.4% are open to the arrival of foreigner in Japan. This means that 18 Million of Japanese are favourable to immigration (and yes we must not forget that they are almost 130 million inhabitants).

nationaliste japonais, japanese nationalist

nationaliste japonais (Japanese nationalist)

So add this to those who might be open to immigration and seen that you’ll see tens of millions of people who support it.

If I say this, it’s because I often hear that the Japanese are arrogant and racist. Arrogance may be felt and is event felt by many foreigners. But with regard to racism, it is much less imposing minority. Apart from extremist groups, you will not see any racist action claims in Japan.

It is also worth noting that Mr. Shintaro Ishihara known as a fierce opponent to foreigners, or even a racist and arrogant, is the prefect of Tokyo. This tends to still show some of these figures about immigration.

I thinks, and this is only my opinion, that these figures are mainly due t the History of the country, a lack of understanding between the Japanese and Gaijin, and especially a large cultural difference (Japan is a country where everything is extremely codified and Gaijin generally know nothing of these standards).

The Gaijin Complex: my personal experience

Like any Gaijin in Japan, I lived and I keep living situations of Gaijin Complex, and do so daily. One of the best known is the situation of the strain. Let me explain

You are a Gaijin, you are sitting in a crowded train and there is an empty seat next to you and people standing in front of you. They will not sit until another seat becomes available. This shows some fear, some stress that may lead to the presence f a foreigner to some Japanese.

Situations of this kind, there are dozens and I have lived dozens of them, like the children when they become either frightened or curious (no, no I assure you, I don’t make fun to scare them).

To illustrate this, I invit you to read my 3 articles about my Halloween in Tokyo, when I became a Blue Man and I’ve got to experience the Gaijin Complex:

Halloween in Tokyo, how I became a blue man

Halloween in Japan, a blue maid in Roppongi

Halloween in Japan, a blue AK 48 in Shinjuku

To have talked with many foreigners of different nationalities, and for having read it repeatedly, I know that these situations are quite common. After one should not be misinterpreted or taken. We must learn to live with. It will take time before it all changes.

I will conclude this article by saying that the ideal is not to judge this situation but to attempt to understand it. I do not think this is an easy thing to achieve but nothing prevents us from trying. Finally, we can each make our contribution to the building of cultural change that is taking place in Japan by learning how to respect the etiquette, habits and local customs rather than trying to impose our own, something more easier said than done.

And you, what do you think of this? How do you live it or will live it?

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  1. PinkuJessy 16 September 2012 at 4 h 47 min - Reply

    I don´t agree with you- Not all japanese got a complex. And not all Japanese men wants to be served by womans. There are some gentlemen-like japanese men that cook,work and treat their girl like a princess!
    And there are japanese girls who are scared of foreigner or dont trust them, too.
    You shouldnt be influenced by a book this easily lol.

    • tunimaal 16 September 2012 at 5 h 10 min - Reply

      Hi PinkuJessy

      thanks for your comment. Just wanna say: I NEVER EVER SAID that all Japanese where in this case. I know there are always exceptions. But the Gaijin Complex does exist and it is big part of Japanese society. Not only this book talk about it.

  2. PinkuJessy 20 September 2012 at 22 h 18 min - Reply

    You´re right,you never said that ALL japanese where in this case.
    But you didnt say that there would be others either, so I am glad to hear that from you now :P

    • tunimaal 27 September 2012 at 14 h 53 min - Reply

      Yeah, I should be a bit more carefull but it is difficult to always write something and think about the point of view of everyone or the way that others will read it.

  3. lena 24 September 2012 at 11 h 25 min - Reply

    well, as a female I never really had this experience in subway, people had no problem sitting next to me

    • tunimaal 27 September 2012 at 14 h 55 min - Reply

      It doesn’t happen to everyone and always. Depends, but I met many people who shared the same experience, nd I read about it so many times ;-)

  4. Yon 3 October 2013 at 10 h 14 min - Reply

    I disagree with the part about this all started after WW2. There have been gaijin in Japan living in Yokohama, Yamate area in the 1800s as wel as in Tokyo.
    Gaijin is a derogatory word and it means non japanese or outsider. It is also used for outside companies, cars pets and anything not japanese. Its an annoying complex, has been here hundreds of years and will continue to be.You come back to Japan 50 years from now, and will hear the same excuse for antisocial weird behavior..:shoganai! gaijin no koto hajimeta!: or eigo dekinai or hundreds of other childlike excuses. They were here 50 years earlier, and will be 50 years latter. Even children who are half foriegner have tough times here. There is no need to sugar coat it; japan is socially behind most of the world (with exception to China perhaps) maybe 50 or so years. Japan will continue to be the annoying problem child of the world for years to come.

    • tunimaal 29 October 2013 at 15 h 19 min - Reply

      Hello Yon,

      as you say: in Yokohama and Yamate. So how many people in such a small area? Not so much.

      And I think you way of thinking is pretty wrong. Since when you can say that this country is the child of this world, or maybe this one, or the other one? Who can say that a country or a culture is better than an other one? Nobody ;-)

  5. zoro 6 October 2013 at 13 h 09 min - Reply

    Japanese are arrogant and not the least bit sorry for the atrocities of WWII (unlike the Germans) well now they have Fukushima and their arrogance and inscrutability is killing the whole planet. Also note: Japanese don’t speak English or any other language. The people you meet that speak your language you will find have a little mixed blood. Even Japanese whores won’t fuck foreigners. Now that is arrogance.

    • tunimaal 29 October 2013 at 15 h 20 min - Reply

      Yeah Zoro the guy who knows everything better than anybody else and comes here to write only wrong stuff.

      Thanks a lot for that ;-)

  6. yaruyaru 9 October 2013 at 6 h 45 min - Reply

    hello. one point. i am a foreigner living in japan, i am not asian and i am not western. but people treated me with all respect and i have never ever encountered such gaijin sea in train. people offered me their help even though they dont know me. i cant understand what is this gaijin complex in japan that is running through websites. i really cant get it!!!

    • tunimaal 29 October 2013 at 15 h 21 min - Reply

      Maybe you should pay more attention and you will see it ;-) If many people talk about it, if scientist made survey about it it’s because it’s here.

  7. yaruyaru 9 October 2013 at 6 h 47 min - Reply

    in addition to that who said men expect to be served by their women. the japanese women i know at least are not submissive at all like japanese women are stereotyped. i think actual japanese live the same way as europeans or americans, and they have the same degree of womens freedom and sexual freedom!!!!!

    • tunimaal 29 October 2013 at 15 h 22 min - Reply

      Japanese definitly don’t live the same way as europeans or americans, men and women. It’s definitly a different culture, and has you are living here you should have noticed it by now. I never said that they are submissive, I said it’s an image.

  8. Roberto Leon 20 October 2013 at 11 h 27 min - Reply

    I have been approached several times by the police in Tokyo only because I look as a foreigner. They asked for my registration card as I went out from the ticket gate. I had done nothing wrong, I was just walking back home. Even though I have the right documents, I feel very annoyed. Only because my face is different they ask me to show an ID. They didn’t accept no as an answer.

    • tunimaal 29 October 2013 at 15 h 25 min - Reply

      You are not the first one to occur that and don’t think you will be the last one….

  9. Gabriel 3 November 2013 at 2 h 08 min - Reply

    Hello Aala, i have recently started reading your blog and been finding it interesting, i plan to move to japan to study language and work half-time by 2014, my paperwork is being processed, so i have started reading about useful stuff to know for the time when i move, like habits and customs, that’s when i first came across this Gaijin complex thing, and somehow a kind of racism matters, so i can say this is officially the first time i doubt my travel destination.

    How big/noticeable is this complex as a foreigner? i am Latino but at home most people think i am american or that i have american descent, so i am wondering how is the perceived atmosphere, how big this deal is, if it may be possible to ignore at a point even if one is some sort of a temperamental person (temperamental, but aware of more important matters)

    I have learned that i have to be an agent of change, if others act mean towards me i just have let it go, no offense, also if i go to their country i have to adapt to their habits, which is one of the things i have read before, that they mainly dislike people who go to live to their country but don’t try to adapt to it.

    Sorry for the long post, but i think i am at the point that i start to doubt my decision, but if i get over all those doubts, i will be completely ready take to this step..

    • tunimaal 28 November 2013 at 15 h 21 min - Reply

      Hey Gabriel,

      thanks for your comment and hope you will enjoy your stay here in the near future. To answer your question, if you come here and keep in mind that you will always be a foreigner, trust me, you should be able to manage most of the situations. It is mostly not rude, except from time to time, and we all deal with it perfectly, so don’t worry ;-)

  10. Ian 5 February 2014 at 0 h 29 min - Reply

    I think the Gaijin complex is a misconception derived from a Superiority complex on the part of the gaijin themselves.
    Adapt and all races are warm, accept yourself foremost, then accept each person you meet as equal humans, albeit with different personalities.
    I agree that there is a veneer in Japanese society which feels un-welcoming to a gaijin, & the same would be true for any otherwise person who enters a predominantly European/ white society. We are part of a generation (X,Y,Z…)entering a new dawn in racial tolerance.
    That a non-European society dares to behave in exactly the same way as a European one should not be regarded as cold, arrogant and racist.

    • tunimaal 17 February 2014 at 11 h 16 min - Reply

      Hi Ian,

      The Gaijin Complex is a concept made by Japanese researcher, so it can’t really be a “Superiority complex on the part of the gaijin”.

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