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How to Overcome the Gaijin Complex

The gaijin complex is an interesting social phenomenon unique to Japan. What can Japan do to welcome foreigners and be a bigger part of the global community?

By 3 min read 33

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read and comment on my previous article about dealing with the gaijin complex in Japan. I appreciate all your comments.

I wrote the article for anyone who is planning to visit Japan for the first time and for them to know the various aspects of Japanese culture, some of which may be unpleasant. In my previous article, I talked about what foreigners can do in order to make their stay more fun and rewarding in Japan, but the gaijin complex cannot be the excuse for Japanese people to discriminate foreigners.

Gaijin complex and racism are different.

Most Japanese have mixed feelings of envy and inferiority towards certain ethnic groups and this feeling may manifest itself in actions that look like racism but are actually the Japanese attempt to deal with foreigners respectfully and equally.

People discriminate against certain races or ethnic groups because they look down on them and they see these races and ethnic groups as inferior to them. To me, that is the core definition of discrimination. But in Japan, many Japanese people admire and look up to westerners. You can say that it is a form of discrimination but it’s not the same as hate based racism.

How can Japan improve?

As Japan will be hosting the Olympics Games in 2020, I think the Japanese government should try to integrate English education into elementary schools throughout Japan. Japanese children don’t have a lot of opportunities to interact with foreigners in a very homogeneous society like Japan. So it will be crucial for Japanese people to become more open minded about people from different countries and cultures. Even if Japanese people don’t speak good English, it is important that we show more globalized aspects of Japanese society to the world.

But what can we do to really overcome the gaijin complex and racial discrimination?

Japan is one of the most modern industrialized societies in the world, but this discomfort associated with foreigners is still a huge part of our culture. Even though Japan is very homogeneous country, we should learn about other cultures, races and foreign languages (mainly English). I do agree with some of the comments left on my article that it is time for the Japanese government to step up to improve the education system in order to motivate Japanese people to be more open minded and global.

First the Japanese government should really reassess their current English education system, especially given that most Japanese people can’t speak English. I think it is very important for Japanese government to teach the citizens the importance of tolerance. Discrimination stems from ignorance and intolerance. I think that every public and private schools should have a cultural exchange evens in which students can join and experience different cultures from around the world.

Overall I think both sides need to work towards a better understanding of each other’s cultures. Foreigners who come to Japan should understand the reasoning behind the gaijin complex and work to help Japanese people understand their culture. And Japanese people need to understand that we live in a connected world and stop using the homogenous nature of the country as an excuse for their actions and work harder to be part of the global community.

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  • Kintaro Oe says:

    Right now most Japanese have the perception that nationality and ethnicity are the same, at least in their case, and that it’s impossible for a foreign looking person to be Japanese. The young generation needs to be taught that anyone can be Japanese, or any other nationality, regardless of ethnic background or birthplace. I feel terrible for people who work hard to gain Japanese citizenship, and continue to be treated like foreigners, or for the Japanese-born children of naturalized citizens. In a sense, naturalized citizens are more Japanese than someone born here, since they chose to be Japanese. People need to understand that just because someone looks foreign, that doesn’t mean they are foreign.

    The next step is for people to understand that just because someone is foreign, that doesn’t mean they speak English. It must be really annoying for non-Anglophones to have everyone assuming that out of the 6000 languages in the world, they just happen to speak English.

  • schufosi777 says:

    Japanese do not look up to foreigners at all. They see foreigners as being inferior and themselves superior. Japanese have no interest in foreigners essentially and merely tolerate them. Foreigners will always be foreigners and never accepted as being part of Japanese society. It is not overt racism or even racism in the true sense of the word but a form of discrimination.

  • maulinator says:

    If Japanese people, especially women, want to “get over” their gaijin complex, all they have to do is meet Julien Blenc. He is a racist mysogynistic douche-bag and represents all that is wrong the “gaijin privelege”.

    The footage of Blanc, which you can find below, sees him standing in front of a group of men at what appears to be one of his training sessions, telling them that when in Tokyo “if you are a white male, you can do whatever you want“. -from RocketNews24
    This is what happens when you take gaijin privelege too far.

  • Sik says:

    Honestly looking around Japan’s discrimination against foreigners doesn’t seem any different than what happens in other countries. The issue is that Westerners look blatantly non-Japanese so they get picked on immediately (Asian foreigners at least get a chance to try to hide it). We complain about Japan because Westerners are too accustomed to being the center of the world, but we do exactly the same thing and try to ignore the issue (for example, I’m from Argentina, and over here it’s extremely common to discriminate against people from neighbouring countries – and don’t get me started about the US, having so many different ethnicies yet white people still have an easier time than everybody else).

    Honestly I don’t think that improving learning English will help at all… nobody becomes more open-minded by learning another language, seriously. Also English and Japanese are so different that school alone won’t do no matter how hard you try, especially with the amount of grammar exceptions in English. Improve English teaching by all means if you want to improve their skills for e.g. business and such, but don’t expect ideologies to change.

    If you want to change something, instead change how teachers treat their students so students learn to be more open-minded. Something that probably won’t happen, because teachers will resist. I noticed many young people seem more open-minded, but this is very recent and will take many decades before their way of thinking takes over. Sadly I don’t think there’s any other way to fix this.

  • Nathan White says:

    Again, you still have gone ahead and attempted to water down racism. What you’re struggling to understand that at its most basic definition “racism” simply means, “discrimination in any form against someone based on their race or heritage”. Let me put it this way for you, my father doesn’t hate black people, but he doesn’t want to live near them. Would you say hes a grumpy old racist? I would, and have told him many times. In this same case, Japanese people don’t hate foreigners, but they certainly are happy to exclude them from Japanese society.

    I agree with your thoughts that Japan needs to be more open to the concept of globalization, but for you to state that foreigners should “understand the Gaijin complex” or simply put “understand that Japan is a racist society” is a little pathetic.

    Japan needs to move forward, foreigners can only do so much (figuratively and literally, we do not have a lot of rights here). First point of call would be to actually enforce that racism and discrimination is illegal. There are too many people and business getting away with racism using the excuse of “the Gaijin complex”. Articles like this are also furthering the concept of the “Gaijin complex”, allowing restaurants, onsen’s and the like to get away with racism by banning foreign customers because they can put it down to “Gaijin complex” rather than racism and by putting the pressure on foreigners rather than standing up, and taking responsibility.

  • Steve Davis says:

    This subject is so strange to me. A few narcissistic people want to use the word inferior instead of different culture. People leave their comfortable western homes and want the world to baw down to them and speak English. If I was Japanese and visit America, how many people there would be speaking Japanese? I am African American raise in south Dallas, and I always thought it was funny when a few people look down on my black culture and thought we should change it because it made them feel uncomfortable. Japan is a beautiful amazing country, with a deep culture and history, it’s the only country on earth that got hit by two atomic bombs and not only survived but become a rich country again with out oil or other natural resources. I love it here in Japan, the people treat me and my kids very good, I can’t ask for better friends than I have here in Japan. I don’t expect them to speak English because I am the foreigner, not them. Old people are old people everywhere they earn the right to think what they want, my job is to show respect them. As a psych nurse, I believe differences should be shared and embrace, not look down on or think it’s inferior. I never aspect everyone to like me, because I can’t like everybody. My mother once told me that we are who we are and we should take that special thing about us and share it with the world.

  • Jason Beltran says:

    There actually is a huge movement for teaching English in Japan. Whether it is a foreigner giving private lessons or a huge company, the push is already there. I believe the push should be in the society itself. The planned life time from child to college to adult creates a “worker bee” mindset that doesn’t allow room for free thinking. However, this is a huge obstacle because of the cultural push back to such thinking goes from the government all the way down to the household.

  • Tara Babystar says:

    Japanese people distinguish western people. germans for example are far more excepted by them than americans (to quote: “because we japanese were on the german side in the war”). but the racism exists there not only from elder people. we were being spit at your feet, being called “filthy foreigners”. the word “gaijin” itself is also racist. i hate it when someone says this to me/us. i can understand the dislike about foreigners or western people in general because of their history but the “gaijin complex” doesn’t apologize everything.
    Btw. I have the feeling that the people in the kansai area are far more open to western people then the people from the Kanto area.

    • DanteK says:

      Where is that quote from?

      And it’s funny that you would say that about Kansai, because I’ve heard the exact opposite from some westerners. Thus (now) I don’t really believe in the distinction between “Kansai people” or “Kanto people” is so strong in this case….

    • Yumitolesson says:

      that is very interesting. Unfortunately Japan has a long way to go in order to encourage its citizens to become more open-minded. 🙁

  • Jeannette Mendoza Dacpano says:

    My son is an english teacher who wants to teach in japan. He loves japanese culture and knows how to speak and understand some japanese phrases. He loves akb48 so much that he really wants to go to the land of the rising sun and meet them at akihabara. I hope he can teach English in your beautiful country. He would be an asset to any educational institution.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      That is great that your son is interested in Japanese culture and wants to teach English in Japan. I think a lot of people love akb48! They are very popular in Japan.

  • DanteK says:

    There is something that wasn’t mentioned: the older generation.

    Many (not all) Japanese young people that I know are much more open-minded than some older people that I meet in Japan.

    Some older people are very much stuck in a traditional mindsets. They have seen the 1950s, the economic miracle. This is of course because of the amazing spirit of the Japanese people, but to equivocate it with the Japanese “way” being better is, in my opinion, little more than a dying relic of superiority and nationalism left over from the early 20th century that should no longer stick around. It’s just not good for the young people to carry those same views/sentiments, especially with increasing tensions between China, etc.

    Of course, after such older people are no longer with us, their worldviews will continue to fade away as well. But that does not mean it’s not important, because a huge part of the voter base in Japan is the elderly, and essentially it is they who choose the politicians who employ the policies and measures that you are talking about.

    With that beign said, the distinction between 内 and 外 is made all too frequently. (Actually, I have seen something akin to this kind of mindset in China and Korea as well… but I digress.)

    My question to you is this, because I wish to know the answer:

    You have said: “Most Japanese have mixed feelings … this feeling may manifest itself in actions that look like racism but are actually the Japanese attempt to deal with foreigners respectfully and equally. People discriminate against certain races or ethnic groups because they look down on them and they see these races and ethnic groups as inferior to them. To me, that is the core definition of discrimination. But in Japan, many Japanese people admire and look up to westerners. You can say that it is a form of discrimination but it’s not the same as hate based racism.”

    Does this mean that there is no such thing in Japan as discrimination rooted in a superiority complex? Or actually, would you agree with me if I asked you “does it seem like there is a little bit of that among some older people in Japan?” Of course I do not believe that “hate-based discrimination” is the same as “superiority-based discrimination” (which is what I believe the danger of such a strong 内/外 mindset may be).

    • CheapoGreg says:

      Not going to attempt to answer your question, but I do have a problem with your assumption. This older generation being more conservative thing is a fallacy. The older generation is the one that opened up to the world and built the global business empires that Japan still relies on. You may get the impression of the young being more progressive, but those are just the ones that you are exposed to. Ever heard of the Net Uyoku? Basically right wing otaku types that hang out on 2 channeru all day – not many oldies in that group I’d wager. If nationalist sentiment was so closely correlated with age, then all we’d have to do is wait a while and everything would be perfect. It’s more like a tide and IMHO the conservative tide is still on the rise.

      • DanteK says:

        Yeah, I know about that group.

        Thanks for pointing out that hole that I overlooked. I didn’t think these young groups through.

        But I’m still of the opinion that these “younger” groups don’t exist without influence from the older generation of right-wingers. I know a few feminist young men, but I also know a few who believe in the whole stereotype of a “good Japanese wife”; these are things that they have seen in their own families and were taught by there fathers, grandfathers, etc.

        I’m not sure what to think about how truly “global” or “influential” these “global business empires” are. However successful these businesses may be, they don’t necessarily drive Japanese sentiment. Japan is still way behind in English and any other foreign language, etc. etc. even with all these “global” corporations; it’s not because of their lack of global presence, but a long-established sentiment.

        Well, either way, I agree with what you say. Thanks for your comment. The conservative tide is on the rise… I feel you there… But I still hold fast to the hope (even if that’s all it is, ultimately) that it’s because of those in power, not necessarily that the majority of the peoples’ sentiments lie there.

      • Sik says:

        Do you seriously think that the Net Uyoku make up the majority of Japanese youngsters? Because the tone of your comment seems to be implying that. Extremists groups are always the minority. I mean, with that criteria I could argue that the US is composed of ultrareligious christians that will berate anything that they believe contradicts the bible even slightly, even if they commit sins in the process. In practice that’s just a small portion of the US population.

        • DanteK says:

          I don’t think that the Net Uyoku are a majority at all. They’re a minority, and don’t really have any significance on Japan’s long term. They’ll die out eventually. I guess maybe he implied it, but maybe his point was for me to ignore them.

          I would give him the benefit of the doubt: it’s highly likely that they don’t represent the majority of Japanese youth and this is probably obvious for anyone.

          @CheapoGreg:disqus @disqus_qHaDmG6xBq:disqus If you are from the States you may know that some ultra right-wing Christian groups (the guns-and-Bible, promoting “Intelligent Design” in schools group) are the older generation passing their values to a younger generation, etc. This activity on a large scale, especially regarding older-to-younger generation, is really easy to see in religion, but I’d bet it’s the same way things work for nationalism. Since I can’t cover all the bases without wasting time and distracting from my point, I chose to ignore those kinds of groups.

          • Sik says:

            I’m not from the US, it’s just that it’s impossible to ignore that country (in fact, mine is one of their usual victims :P).

            You seem to ignore an important factor: the media (the mainstream media, anyway) is a huge contributor to the spread of those ideas. It’s in their best interests too, since keeping the status quo makes it easier to ignore the real problems and keep the powerful in their place. It also prevents people from thinking. In Japan, for example, the media will say that all foreigners are criminals, because it’s easier to throw all the blame to them than to acknowledge the real problems going on in the country.

          • DanteK says:

            You’re right. The media … I really don’t like to watch Japanese news.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      I grew up in Japan and I do agree with you that Japan’s older generations tend to have outdated mind-set, but I do have to say that they still suffer from “inferiority complex” toward westerns. (even the older generations) This is a general perception. I am sure that some people (the older generations) still judge westerns harshly and they may think that Japan is the best!
      But in general, Japanese people are much more discriminatory toward other Asian people (Chinese, Koreans, S.E. Asians) etc. I am very familiar with this concept unfortunately.

  • Amuse_me says:

    As a filipino of japanese descent and not one of the “non-asian” countries, i have experienced so much prejudice against us people from “inferioir” countries. Gaijin complex or whatnot, people should stop making excuses for this behavior.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      I completely understand and I am sorry for what you have gone through. It is very sad because I know what you are talking about. Gaijin complex is about Japanese people’s general feelings of inferiority complex toward white people. So what you have experienced is probably pure discrimination. 🙁 It is very sad but that’s something Japan needs to really work on.

      • Amuse_me says:

        Apologies for posting in such tone. While i have experienced a lot of unpleasantries, I’ve also forged meaningful friendship with some locals. Best comment i’ve ever got is “yappa, kokoro ha nihonjin da.” Although on my part, i think i have to try my best to conform to Japanese society to elicit such response. And it feels like i have to prove myself every time i meet new people. I feel like i’m sacrificing a huge chunk of my personality by doing so. But then people tend to change their personality when they speak a different language. Do you ever have that experience? You say you learnt english in the US, do you act differently as opposed to when you speak Japanese?

  • MangaEngel says:

    I had stayed in Niigata and had positive experiences with elementary students joining international university students for “language races” (games where they test their english skills) and discussions about the home countries of the students.
    I also met plenty japanese university students that were very interested in visiting America or Europe, but it seems like they don’t have good exchange programs in Japan to allow stays outside of asia (I only met three students that had been out of asia for studies).
    I think, if students would get contact with foreigners as well as regular mothertongue english teachers, that they might actually be able to feel more comfortable and confident with foreigners.
    Europe and America are melting pots regarding ethnicities which made them good at dealing with that while staying who they are (a fear that also seems present, I met lots of students that were afraid that lots of contact with foreigners as well as better english skills would make them loose their japanese culture)

    • Yumitolesson says:

      Japanese students are generally very interested in studying in Europe or America and I do agree with you. I’ve lived in the U.S. for many years and where I live (S.California) is much more diverse than any other states in the U.S. but most states in the U.S. are generally segregated. But I think it is important for Japanese government to put more efforts to improve the relations with S. Korea and China.

  • bernician says:

    The idea that Japanese people can’t speak English always bemused me. Japan is pretty mid level in English, obviously not up there with the super human north Europeans (who cheat due to their languages being so similar to English) but much better than most Spanish speaking countries for instance.
    The problem isn’t English education in the way meant here, it’s that Japanese people tend to be so naturally shy and reluctant to make mistakes. It’s a problem I share in trying to learn Japanese.
    Fixing this is a much more difficult task than simply shoving a few foreigners into elementary schools.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      that makes sense..:)

    • CJ Takeda says:

      In addition, most students enjoy using their learnt English. But the ones who dislike English has a different way of thinking towards the language. I hear some say why should they speak it, “Because we are Japanese..” trying to excuse themselves. They don’t experience English outside the school that’s why they tend to reason it out. They should start using English in their daily lives to make them more fluent and have confidence when meeting foreigners. It should also start at home, the older people at home should have an open mind about incorporate some simple English like giving instructions, etc.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        Yes ideally they should. However Japan is a very homogeneous country and people there generally don’t feel the need to speak English on a daily basis. It is not just Japan but a lot of people in the U.S. don’t feel the need to speak non-English languages since foreigners should conform to the primary language which is English. I don’t think it is just Japanese people who don’t feel the need to acquire a second language.

    • Nicole Parrillo says:

      I agree that Japanese people (and most Asians in general, I think) are not confident in speaking English, but I don’t think that is the only reason they don’t speak English well. It’s only part of the picture. I think the English education system should also be re-evaluated so that the focus is not spent on how to pass exams. South Korea also has this problem. They spend millions of dollars on education where students study English for years, yet can’t speak a lick of English when confronted in a real life situation. Why? Because they study to pass tests, not to to be able to function in an English-speaking situation or environment. I believe Japan has a similar problem. I’m not saying that we should expect everyone to be fluent in English – not everyone has the capacity to succeed in learning a foreign language – but there should be measures put in place that help people become confident in speaking English.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        Yes you hit the nail on the head! A lot of Japanese and Korean foreign students in America really struggle with English communications. 🙁 They can read and write and they are very smart students. But they had spent years studying English grammars in order to pass the college entrance examination..

        • Nicole Parrillo says:

          Exactly. I’ve witnessed this first hand, so I know it to be true in a lot of cases.

          • Yumitolesson says:

            it is a really good point..I personally struggle with speaking in public.. T-T



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