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What is a Gaijin in Japan and how to start your journey

Categories Japan Jobs VISA

Irene Medina

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The term “gaijin” is a common word used by Japanese people to refer to foreigners or non-Japanese people. It directly translates to “outside person” and carries a nuanced meaning when used in different contexts. As Japan opens up more to tourism and globalization, more foreigners visit and even live in Japan, changing the perception and treatment of gaijins over time. This article will explore what it means to be a Gaijin in Japan today and tips for foreigners looking to understand or start their own gaijin journey living in or visiting Japan.

What is Gaijin – What does it mean?

Who is Gaijin? Gaijin refers to anyone not ethnically Japanese. It became more commonly used in the 19th century as Japan ended its national isolation policy and slowly opened to trade and interaction with Western imperial powers. The term did carry some derogatory connotations at the time, similar to how the term “foreigner” makes one stick out as different and unfamiliar.

However, today the word gaijin itself is used in more neutral contexts just to point out someone who is visibly not native Japanese. It draws attention to cultural and ethnic differences. Japan is historically a homogeneous society, with little diversity or immigration until recently. So, anyone who looks different or does not follow cultural norms is quickly recognized as “other” or gaijin by the locals. The term also encompasses foreign-born Japanese citizens and returnees who grew up overseas.

At the same time, gaijin is all relative to who is using it. Second or third generation Koreans and Chinese who were born and raised in Japan are not considered gaijin, while Caucasians and other Asians are. Japanese celebrities like Miss Universe Japan 2015 Ariana Miyamoto faced discrimination for having an African American father. On the other end, being gaijin gives people visibility and exotic appeal in pop culture. Models, tarento media personalities, or gaijin tarento regularly appear on Japanese television.

Starting Your Gaijin Journey as a Gaijin

As Japan relaxes its strict immigration policies and opens tourism back up in the 2020s post-pandemic, more foreigners will become gaijin resident in Japan both short and long-term. The government is proactively trying to draw more foreign workers in industries like nursing, hospitality, construction and more. What does it take to move to Japan and have a smooth start as a new gaijin in the country?

Getting Visa as a Gaijin

The most important first step is understanding the visa and residence requirements to legally stay long-term. Tourist stays less than 90 days just require an eligible passport whereas employment, education, and family sponsorship allow longer stays of months to years. The requirements around documents, minimum income, credentials/degrees, and tracking can seem strict compared to other countries but follow logical processes. Hiring an immigration consultant is an option for smoothing visa paperwork.

Finding Jobs as a Gaijin in Japan

For work visas, having a job offer already lined up makes the application straightforward. Niche positions in technology, marketing, translation/interpretation, journalism, academia and specialized roles in law, healthcare and engineering tend to seek out foreigners with native-level language abilities.

Otherwise, teaching English remains a popular fallback plan as language schools and international school hiring spikes every March/April for April starts. And hospitality brands like Hilton have management training programs welcoming those open to relocation across Asia. Definitely research industry trends and average salaries to make sure the role aligns with long-term aspirations.

Finding Housing as a Gaijin in Japan

Especially in large cities like Tokyo or Osaka, finding appropriate housing that allows foreigners is another challenging hurdle. Language barriers, requiring cosigners, upfront payments make the process confusing.

Online listings through portals like SUUMO are a starting point. Connecting early with real estate agents used to working with foreigners, other expat Facebook groups, international/foreigner-friendly share houses or short-term Airbnbs provide options upon first arriving and figuring out neighborhoods of choice. Corporate housing is also common for those on assignment contracts. While frustrating, visiting potential listings in person does help convey needs better once in country versus entirely remote.

Managing Finances as a Gaijin

As a rule of thumb, have at least a few months reserves of living expenses on hand accounting for large upfront rental payments, furnishings, appliances, commuting costs and utilities. Beyond language and cultural differences, finances are one of the biggest challenges working remotely for foreign companies or building freelance income to afford staying in not-cheap Japan long-term. Research typical costs and plan detailed budgets factoring in lifestyle desires, travel plans around Asia and financial obligations back home before committing.

Overcoming Language Barriers as a Gaijin

Very little English penetrates daily life with average locals unlike modern international cities. Transportation signage, menus, business interactions rely on conversant Japanese language skills for smooth communication. At minimum, learn hiragana, katakana, and basic kanji to make sense of surroundings combined with Google Translate mobile apps as backup.

The above starting tips already require reaching out in Japanese to navigate properly from the start. While many Japanese study English academically, practical listening and speaking abilities vary greatly depending on international exposure. Patience overcoming language and cultural gaps prevents added frustrations.

Cultural Adjustments

Beyond language fluency, understanding and adapting to cultural norms smooths life as a foreigner. Seemingly little etiquette rules around greetings, exchanging business cards, seating positions, public transport manners, removing shoes indoors show respect when followed appropriately.

Japanese society values humility, formality in the right contexts and subtle nonverbal communication. Some assumptions within local collective mentality may not match individualist perspectives common elsewhere leading to inadvertent social faux pas without deeper cultural literacy. Be open-minded rather than judging cultural differences outright.

Gaijin Community Support

Luckily, Japan has thriving expat communities in all major cities providing welcome support adjusting to gaijin life. Attend cultural festivals, join interest groups through Meetup apps, talk to other foreigners at international cafes and coworking spaces to hear about jobs or apartment tips.

Long-term residents enjoy guiding newcomers navigating daily situations like visiting doctors, phone contracts, banking or more. Seek out specialty shops with imported foods when missing comforts of home. Facebook communities allow crowdsourcing recommendations across expat circles online too.

Final Words

Now you have a clear idea of who Gaijin is all about. If you are one of them, you can follow the tips that we shared in this article to adjust to the Japanese society. You don’t need to worry too much about it since there are plenty of support options and resources available out there to consider. 

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