Gaijin identity management: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t

When I was growing up, my family had a much-loved black Labrador retriever named Eric. Eric was indeed one of the family, except when he needed reminding he was not quite one of us. This usually occurred when he overstepped the bounds of his family membership by forgetting his essential doggishness. He’d jump up onto the sofa and set himself among us, with a look of canine enthusiasm that said, “Isn’t this great?”

My mother, however, did not agree, and would scoldingly order him to get down. Eric seemed embarrassed and dejected as he found a spot at our feet, and I’d lean down to give him a pat to let him how important and cherished he was, even though he wasn’t quite the same as the rest of us.

I’ve lived in Japan for almost 40 years — roughly two-thirds of my life — and 10 years ago I became a Japanese citizen, but every now and then I feel akin to Eric. I’m suddenly made aware of my underlying non-Japaneseness. I don’t feel different from the people around me and feel more out of sync when I return “home” for a visit to the U.S.

Instances of “othering” are not common in my daily life, and I’ve rarely sensed a spiteful intention behind questions or comments related to the fact that I do not appear to be Japanese. Nevertheless, it happens and is somewhat exasperating when it does. But indulging in pot-calling-the-kettle-black gaijin-bewailing would be specious. As the creator Ken Tanaka’s highly amusing YouTube videos make clear, stereotyping based on race and nationality occurs both in Japan and the U.S.

Identity management theory, developed by communication analysts William Cupach and Tadasu Todd Imahori, emphasizes the negotiation involved in intercultural communication, and they identify 11 facework strategies to cope with “identity freezing” — when someone views another only as a representative of their culture and disregards any other facets of their identity. The tactics include things like requesting the other person to stop the stereotyping, humorous counteraction, accepting the stereotype as a compliment, and avoiding interaction related to the ascribed identity.

Such strategies are efficacious to varying degrees, according to the particular circumstances. Sociolinguist Stephen Moody has made a qualitative study of an American intern named David at a Japanese manufacturer, noting the ways in which he constructs his gaijin identity to his advantage. David particularly engages in the strategic use of English when approaching colleagues, discomfiting them playfully before shifting to Japanese.

Moreover, he exploits the gaijin image of ineptitude as a way of freeing himself to intrude on his co-workers with questions and requests, commenting to Moody: “Well, I’m a gaijin. I don’t understand anything. I’m just going to go with that. Yep.” Moody’s contention is that David doesn’t attain his objectives because he is a gaijin but because of how he skillfully sets up his gaijin identity to fulfill his needs.

Not all attempts are as successful as David’s. Conversation analyst Chie Fukuda has parsed a Japanese TV show that features newlyweds, choosing an episode in which a Japanese woman, Yukiko, and her Australian husband, Scott, appear. They are immediately confronted by over-the-top surprise at Scott’s un-gaijinlike command of Japanese, the audience following the MC’s lead in finding this astounding.

Scott initially plays along, aligning himself in agreement with their perceived Japanese image of a male foreigner, actually mimicking what he anticipates the MC and audience might expect of a typical gaijin, speaking Japanese with an English accent and pretending to present a business card in an overly casual manner a la the clueless foreigner.

Scott apparently hopes to establish that he diverges from those cliched representations. However, in a setup eerily reminiscent of the popular film “Groundhog Day,” in which the main character wakes up each new day facing the same irritating situation as the day before, Scott repeatedly establishes his nonconformity with the stereotypical gaijin image, but never manages to surmount the gasps of astonishment. Each and every demonstration of Japanese-culture acuity is further fodder for laughter at his aberration. The MC and the audience just can’t get over it.

Most staggering is Fukuda’s assertion that a four-second close-up of the MC closing his eyes and frowning in discomfort was added post-production as a reaction to Scott’s proper use of a Japanese proverb corresponding to “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” As the MC didn’t know that Scott was going to say this, he was apparently unable to be sufficiently dumbfounded by Scott’s preposterous eloquence in real time, and additional editing was required to fully relish the discombobulating revelation. Scott’s intended point, that people should adapt to their circumstances, ends up a particularly ironic casualty of non-Japanese othering.

Sometimes things are not what they seem. A few weeks ago, I was at an outdoor cafe near my home. It’s a place where various people in the area go to casually catch up with each other. On this day, as a group of us were chatting in Japanese, a man I’d never seen before suddenly asked me in English, “Where are you from?”

A bit annoyed, I muttered, “The U.S.,” but my reluctance made it hard for him to hear me correctly, and he thought I had responded affirmatively to a wh-question. “Yes?” he repeated, puzzled. “I live in…” — and he mentioned a vicinity nearby. I realized he just wanted to know my local neighborhood, which I, relieved, was happy to share.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.