I’m the only gaijin in the village. When I go out for a walk in the park or around the local area in Minamihanada, everyone else I see is Japanese. I am also the only white person (though not the only foreigner) in my workplace of 800 people, and normally the only one on the train as I commute to and from work. This is not surprising, because 99% of the people in Japan are Japanese, and many of the remaining 1% are “invisible” foreigners; Chinese or Koreans (often 2nd or 3rd generation living in Japan) who don’t stand out like I do.
The word gaijin, meaning foreign person, is for some reason sometimes considered (by Japanese people) to be a bit rude, and so they often use the term gaikokujin (foreign-country person) instead. However in my experience it is a completely neutral word and carries no offensive or malicious intent. I am often referred to at work as gaijin-san or gaijin-sama, where -sama is a polite way of saying -san—mister.
Being obviously different in such a homogeneous society is a largely positive feeling, and makes you feel like you’re a bit special. Many people are very friendly and stop for a chat, especially when I am walking the dogs. Children tend to be openly curious and very forward. Some people get nervous when I approach, obviously fearing that I will make them embarrassed by speaking to them in English.
The assumption that all white people are English-speakers is very strong. I feel sorry for someone from, say, Russia living in Japan and constantly addressed in English by well-meaning Japanese people.
There was recently a favourable change in the status of non-citizens resident in Japan. Up until now, we have had to register as aliens and carry our 外国人登録証 gaikokujin tourokushou—alien registration card. This was separate from the 住民票 juminhyou Japanese family registration system. For households (like ours) with some citizens and some non-citizens, it means that all members of the household will from now on be included in the juminhyou. My gaikokujin tourokushou will be replaced with a zairyu residence card.
However, non-citizens will still not be registered in the Japanese koseki family registration system. It doesn’t affect me very much, but it is symbolically important for long-term residents (some of whom have lived here their whole lives and know no other home).
I found a funny list online describing the gaijin experience, some of which I can relate to, while other references I am not familiar with.
Note on the word of the day:
外国人 gaikokujin is written with three simple characters: 外 meaning outside, 国 meaning country, and 人 meaning person; so “foreign-country person”.