Living In The Inaka – Part One

In Japanese, the inaka is the countryside. Of course, as everywhere, the term “countryside” is relative. To someone who lives in Shibuya in Tokyo, Nagoya is almost the inaka. To someone from Nagoya, my local “big city” is the inaka. To someone from the Big City, I live in the inaka. I think that if you can get to 3 convenience stores in 10 minutes, it’s not quite the wilderness. But anyway.

Living in the inaka is very different to living in Tokyo or Osaka, or even a big city. You are usually the only white person in the area, possibly even the only non-Japanese. This automatically makes you something of a celebrity, but not the good kind of famous where people want to talk to you, more the kind that just attracts staring.

The Japanese have a word to describe you – gaijin. Gai means outside, jin means person. Together it means outsider. “Gaijin” can be considered a little bit rude and pejorative, but get used to it, that’s what you are. Even if you learn Japanese to perfect fluency, marry a local, take on citizenship, have 5 kids and 25 grandkids and spend your life growing rice you will never be Japanese. You will always be a gaijin. A more polite word is gaikokujin (outside country person), a person from a foreign country, but noone really uses this. Best to just get over it and accept your gaijin status. Or rather, you can revel in it. You see, not being Japanese frees you of many of the obligations and responsibilities that the Japanese have. You can get away with a lot. Also, you’ll always have a free seat next to you on the train, even if the train is totally packed and people are standing face-to-armpit in the aisles.

Anyway, not only am I white, but I’m the kind of white that’s almost blue. I don’t tan, even after I burn. You can see my veins. I have blue eyes and freckles, and (dyed) blonde hair. The only things that would make me more stare-worthy are 1) if I had naturally red hair, or 2) if I was black. (Both these things are rarer than pale blonde white people in Japan.)

This staring happens everywhere – on the street, in the bank, on the train, in the supermarket, everywhere. Most people will look away if you notice them staring, but children who don’t know that it’s rude to stare and old people who don’t care will just carry on. If you are really out in the sticks, many children will never have seen a white person in real life. When they first clap eyes on you, one of two things will happen. Either they’ll rush over and natter away in their baby Japanese, trying to paw your face and claw at your hair, or a look of total shock and fear takes them over and they’ll be locked into staring. My favourite is when they can’t stop looking at you, but their little hand reaches out to find the reassuring leg of their mother. Sometimes they even run away, crashing into the nearest pair of Japanese legs they can find and clinging on for dear life. Sometimes, it’s not even their mother. While traumatising small children is undoubtedly a fun pastime, eventually all the attention does get a bit wearing. I need other things to fill my time.

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