The Strange Thing Foreigners In Japan Do When They See Each Other
By James Winovich
On June 17, 2015
If you’ve spent any amount of time living in Japan, you already know exactly what I’m talking about. But in case you’re not familiar, or you call it something else, I am talking about The Gaijin Nod.
You’re walking down the street, admiring the sakura while the sounds of your city provide a pleasant Japan soundscape. As you approach a traffic signal, you notice something. Maybe it’s curly blonde hair, maybe it’s a strange lack of a man purse, maybe it’s just the person’s height, but something tips you off that a possible fellow foreigner is coming your way.
You play it cool and continue walking, knowing that you’re destined to cross paths in a few moments. As that moment draws near, you will lock eyes. At that point, you’re automatically engaged in an uncomfortable game of chicken, never sure which side will make the first move. Eventually though, one of you will perform The Nod: the slightest bowing of the head, which is usually reciprocated in precisely the same manner, and then both of you will continue on your merry ways, happy to be past that awkward encounter.
What is that? Why do we do that? (And yes, I’m saying “we,” because I’m just as guilty as anyone.)
More specifically, why do we do that instead of actually saying hello? Does another foreigner in Japan make us feel slightly less special about being a foreigner in Japan? Is it a Fight Club situation, where we’ve all independently started to believe that the first rule of being a gaijin in Japan is never say hello to a fellow gaijin in Japan? Or is it like when you’re leaving the adult section of TSUTAYA and someone else walks in, and your eyes meet and you have to scramble for a way out of the situation?
Are any of those the actual reason we do The Nod?
I guess in some ways The Nod makes sense; once you lock eyes with someone, doing nothing is usually the most weird/creepy option. But why do we escape to the cranial bow, the lowest form of greeting gestures?
Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to say “Hello” in cases where I would have previously given The Nod, with mixed results. I have no official data for my study, but the results were roughly as follows:
50% still responded with The Nod.
25% responded with “Hi!” or something similar.
20% didn’t respond at all (and gave me the creeps).
5% responded with “Hi, James-sensei!” (← mistakenly did test during school twice)
Is The Nod necessarily a bad thing? Well, no, not necessarily. People do similar stuff all over the world to acknowledge someone without having to actually engage with them. In a lot of circumstances, it’s a “knowing glance” that can help you and your fellow Nodder to feel more at home. But it’s certainly not the best option to accomplish this goal.
In the end, it’s totally up to you to decide how you respond when you see a fellow foreigner. You could continue nodding, but I’d recommend you try upgrading your nod from time to time. Throw in a “Hello!” and/or a smile every once in a while, and see what happens.
You could brighten another person’s day, feel proud that you were slightly more human, and you might feel better yourself as well.
I know Japan has crazy/creepy/scary people; so does every other country in the world. You don’t have to stop and have a conversation, but try to think of that shared “foreigner” title as something that puts you two on the same team. If you were a Yankees fan and you were watching a baseball game in Houston, and you saw another person wearing a Yankees cap, that’s the kind of potential camaraderie you can imagine.
You could brighten another person’s day, feel proud that you were slightly more human, and you might feel better yourself as well. The best possible case is that it’s a hottie on the other end of your greeting, and he or she thinks you’re just the cutest, and you hit it off.
Worst case, they think you’re weird-looking or just odd for saying hello, and they rush past. Most of the time, it’ll fall somewhere in the middle, where they either smile and say hello back to you, or just give you that classic Nod. That’s a pretty good risk-reward balance in my book.
If you think I’m crazy, or you just want to stick by your tried and true Nodding ways, that’s fine, too. I’m sure we’ll pass each other on the street one day. We’ll end up in each other’s gaze because of that invisible force that always makes it happen.
And it’ll be up to you: lean your head down 5 degrees and walk on by, or say “Hello!”
…and THEN walk on by?