enjoying ochazuke at a Japanese templeAnother way in which it helps to be a gaijin is that being seen as a panda means that you can get involved in more experiences as the Japanese value having a gaijin along as somehwat of a status symbol, as well as just thinking you will be more interested in aspects of their culture than the average Japanese person. Kansai Gaidai has been involved in a traditional dance performance with members of the community for this reason, which was a strange cultural exchange if ever I saw one - the audience was a mix of middle aged Japanese and young foreigners come to see their friends perform - but still fun for those involved!
One of the firsts things we learnt about the Japanese was the generally accepted view of themselves as a unique race, with an ungraspable language and a different brain to the rest of us. This just served to enforce the idea that as a gaijin I would never fit into Japanese society and always be treated as an outsider, which just made me feel intimidated and sure I would find it a difficult year. Having been here for four months now I still think along the same lines - I will always be an outsider in Japan - but my feeling about that has changed. The reason is in fact due to this discrimination; I have only ever found it to be to my advantage. At festivals I have been ushered to the front so I get a better view and I've lost count of the number of times I have been escorted to places I have been looking for, all examples of the kindness of strangers and the willingness to help foreigners.
Japanese people often seem to apply the theory that "I couldn't know any better" to all the annoying questions I must ask my Japanese family and friends on a regular basis; I get treated in the same way as a five year old would when asking "why" all the time! As a foreigner I think it also makes me more comfortable asking questions that might seem inconsequential, but which often yield some interesting answers (as Bestor said they do!). For example I once asked my okaasan why the dogs didn't go outside together, which eventually led to her revealing that she didn't think women who had had a hysterectomy could be considered "all woman".....don't ask how! Japanese people also tend to explain the reasons behind actions that other Japanese are expected to know already, which can lead to some interesting discoveries. When I was staying in a temple we were given ochazuke (tea poured over usually leftover rice) at the end of a meal; while she was making it the lady was trying to explain why it is a Japanese tradition, however all I could get from the conversation was that rice was important, has power and the number eighty eight....having no idea what to make of this I asked the Japanese people I know what she was trying to get at. No-one seems to know, but several people have theories; either that it is the length of time taken to grow rice, the number of gods in a grain of rice or the kanji for rice is made up of the kanji of haachi ju haachi (eighty eight). If only my Japanese was better this could have turned into an interesting discussion on why rice is so important in Japan and why they don't like to waste food! One of the things I like about anthropology is this reflexive aspect, the way it makes people look at their own culture and think about things that they would otherwise take for granted; I often think this is the real purpose of anthropology.
As an anthropologist looking at Japanese culture I have enjoyed the luxuries afforded by the positive discrimination towards foreigners over the last four months. However I might feel differently if I lived somewhere for ten or more years and was always seen as a gaijin while trying to fit in and function as a regular member of society. I am sure the longer I live in Japan the more I might encounter negative discrimination, however as it is I think I will continue to enjoy the remainder of my year here, and make many more interesting discoveries!
two gaijin performing a 'fisherman dance' in Hirakata