Never has buying bin-bags and tin foil been so satisfying. Pockets jammed full with all the 1-yen and 5-yen coins I have accumulated so far (0.5 pence and 2.5 pence respectively), I set off for my local supermarket, Nishina. As I slowly counted out the coins, much to the annoyance of the nihonjin behind me, I grinned at the shop assistant, and proudly declared “sumimasen”, although I think we could both tell my apology was betrayed by the large grin on my face. Getting rid of change is extremely unimportant, yet also extremely satisfying. And my silly grin, and the fact that I’m a gaijin, meant that the shop assistant found my antics amusing rather than annoying. I am, to my knowledge, the only foreigner in Kojima, and certainly the only one who shops in “Nishina Food Basket”. So I have license to do such things…

Being a “gaijin” in Japan is a strange experience. “Gaijin” is a shortening of “Gaikokujin”, three kanji that mean “outside country person”. The fact that it is shortened from “outside country person” to “outside person” tells you something about the status of gaijin in Japan- if nothing else, they are always regarded as separate from the mass bulk of nihonjin. Compared to Britain, Japan is a distinctly homogenous society, consisting of one large “ethnic group”. Furthermore, although Chinese and Korean immigrants have more chance of at least superficially blending in, me and my Western compatriots stick out like several sore thumbs.

Of course I’d never bother to buy £2’s worth of stuff with 1p and 2p coins in the UK. But being a “Gaijin in Japan” allows me to do such silly things. A blog not so far from this one once commented on how us “gaijin” have taken such a potentially divisive, derogatory term and made it our own. And it’s absolutely true. Last Friday, a merry band of us went to get our multiple-entry visas. Ono-sensei was also with us, and as we couldn’t find a place to cross the road, we just dashed across, avoiding cars. I turned to Ono afterwards and told him it was the “gaijin way”.

Avoiding looking like silly gaijin is nigh-on impossible. When me and Pip were in HMV in Kobe, we looked round but couldn’t see the exit. We were clearly confused. Yet if ANY Japanese person had had this not-so-ridiculous problem, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. However the moment we stop and look confused we are the “silly gaijin” who can’t leave a record store. The moment you get past the fact that you will be judged and observed as “the gaijin” in a shop, on a train, and in Japan as a whole is the moment you have license to do very silly things, then turn and shrug, as if to indicate “well I am a gaijin aren’t I”. Of course this only works up until the point you cross Japanese law, when (as we have joked many times, but is actually quite likely) you will spend 21 days in a Japanese prison before being deported (this happened to a JET who dodged a taxi fare once. And furthermore, cycling back home when tipsy counts officially as drink-driving).

Anyway, this is my last post before I leave Japan for the first time, travelling north to the wonderful city of Seoul, and the fun and happening place that is the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. Hopefully they’ll let me back in the country afterwards…

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