The Gaijin Complex
By Yumi Nakata
On June 22, 2014
If you are familiar with Japanese culture, you probably have heard of the word, “Gaijin Compex” (gaijin kumpurekkusu). The basis is that Japanese people generally have an inferiority complex towards non-Asian foreigners.
The Gaijin Complex and is a controversial subject and many Japanse avoid talking about it but I am Japanese and I am not afraid to talk about it.
Japanese people do not have the Gaijin Complex towards people from other Asian countries, but they do have an inferiority complex towards “certain” (non-Asian) foreigners. Mainly towards Caucasian foreigners from developed Western countries.
If you are not very familiar with this concept and visit Japan for the first time, you may feel that Japanese people are not very comfortable with you. Is this about racism? I personally don’t think so. Some people may feel that it is a form of racism but we have to keep in mind that Japan is a very homogeneous country.
Even though Japanese society is trying to focus on globalization and internationalization, it is still a very closed society. As a result Japanese people experience mixed feelings of envy, admiration, suspicion and uncertainty when interacting with foreigners. This uncertainty when dealing with foreigners can sometimes be viewed as racism.
My former student actually told me a story that made me feel somewhat embarrassed about my country. He was visiting Japan and wanted to go to as many local places as possible. So him and his friends walked into a traditional Japanese restaurant but they were refused service because they were foreigners. The waitress kindly refused service by saying the one English word she knew, “no no no” and forced them to leave.
Unfortunately most Japanese people, especially older people in Japan have grown up with limited interaction with foreigners. Since Japan is an extremely hierarchal culture many Japanese people feel this sense of awkwardness and discomfort when dealing with foreigners. The waitress probably felt that nobody in the restaurant could communicate with my student and his friends and to avoid the embarrassment for everyone she thought it was best to ask the to leave.
The sad part is that due to Japan’s limited interaction with foreigners, it probably never occurred to the waitress that my student might be able to speak Japanese. This concept is cleverly illustrated in this video by Ken Tanaka.
While this could be viewed as a racist action, I feel that it is not done out of malice. Rather it’s the waitresses attempt, however poorly to deal with a situation that she is unprepared for.
If you are visiting Japan, what can you do to overcome the Gaijin Complex?
The Gaijin Complex is a huge part of Japanese society. Until Japan opens up and truly decides to be part of the global economic and cultural world I feel that the Gaijin Complex will remain strong.
If you are planning to live in Japan for work or school, the best thing you can do for yourself is to learn as much as you can about Japanese culture and even be ok with that fact that you are always going to be viewed as an outsider in Japan.
This isn’t the easiest thing to do because nobody wants to feel “rejected” but learning about Japanese history and culture can help you deal with the situation better. Most Japanese people don’t speak English, and even if they are able to read and write they often feel embarrassed with their inability to communicate in English.
If you are traveling to Japan for the first time, learning how to say key Japanese phrases can really make your visit more meaningful and rewarding. Japanese people really do want to communicate with foreigners and appreciate it if you can make an effort to speak some Japanese.
Learning a bit of Japanese is the best way to bridge the cultural gap and ease any tensions coming from the Gaijin Complex.