Sep 13, 2018
I have lived in Japan for nearly twenty years now. I speak the language. I know the customs. I am respectful. I've never committed a crime. But I know that for most Japanese, I'm still part of the soto--an outsider.
I'm okay with that. I'm not Japanese, and I have no intention of renouncing my American citizenship to become Japanese. It's only natural that I'm not considered Japanese.
I would be lying if I said that being an outsider didn't have its perks from time-to-time. The Gaijin Pass is real, and occasionally gets me kinder treatment when I make a mistake at the city office or need extra explanation at certain establishments. That's a decent perk.
But gaijin discrimination is also real. I have two instances which really stand out for me.
1) The Bike incident
I used to live in downtown Tokyo about a 10 minute bike ride from my parents' place. That made it nice because I could just cruise over for a bit from time to time--maybe to watch a movie or to have a beer with my pops.
Well, one night, it was late because I had just finished watching a flick with my Dad, and I was stopped by a police officer while riding my bike home. In Japanese, I asked him what was wrong, and it was like I wasn't speaking the language at all. (That happens from time-to-time--it's like the brain can't reconcile the disparity between what one is hearing and seeing). He ignored my question and looked for the bike registration information. In English, he said, "Your name?" I answered. Then he said, "Wait here," and made a phone call. He was calling to confirm that my bike was actually mine.
I get it--bikes get stolen. But this wasn't a shabby part of town. I wasn't doing anything suspicious. I got stopped and was essentially guilty until proven innocent.
In the grand scheme of things, this was a minor incident. I also know that other people in the world deal with this as a part of daily life with much more severe treatment and consequences. At the end of the day, I had a five minute delay in my bike ride home.
The second incident, however, cost me...
2) The Parking Ticket
If anyone has ever driven in Japan, you know that a totally common behavior is for drivers to treat the side of the road like a parking lot. Essentially, Japanese drivers can "park" anywhere as long as their blinkers are on. On major thoroughfares, there needs to be at least one occupant in the vehicle to prevent getting a parking ticket, but in smaller towns and shopping areas, it's routine to see folks get out, leave the blinkers on, go into a shop or a bank for a few minutes, and then come out without recourse.
One day, I needed to do that same thing. I only had a short break from work, and I needed to do a bank transfer to pay a fee. The bank had no parking lot, but it had a side shoulder from a quiet street near the train station where folks routinely parked their cars to jump in and make transactions. I had seen it a hundred times before, so I thought, "When in Rome."
I parked the car, made my bank transfer real quick, and then came out five minutes later to see a parking ticket on my car. I looked around. There were four other cars without occupants in them, all which had been parked there longer than mine. No tickets. Boy, did my blood start boiling. I took pictures of all of the other cars, grabbed my ticket, and went to the police station.
I went to the window to deal with the ticket, and I immediately started questioning the officer-on-duty about the ticket. I asked him why my car was the only one ticketed. He said, "Surely your car wasn't the only one. The other cars must have been ticketed, too." Deflecting. I showed him a picture of one of the cars. "Maybe that has a special permit." I showed him two others.
At that point, he knew I wasn't buying any of what he was selling, so he leveled with me. "Look, the people who give tickets are from a different department, so I can't do anything about the ticket. But your car has a Y plate, so that's why you got the ticket and no-one else did. You have to be careful because they like to ticket Y-plate cars." [I used to be here as a member of the U.S. forces, so we all had special license plates. Instead of the standard hiragana character for normal Japanese cars or the 外 for diplomatic plates, people here under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement get "Y" plates]
I had to appreciate his honesty, but I was flabbergasted at the blatant discrimination. I get it, I broke the law, but when the law is only being enforced on one segment of the population, that does not sit well with me. Never has and never will.
Epilogue to this story: I have a hiragana plate vehicle now and blend in with the crowd now, so "When in Rome..."
Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.
Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).