by Lucas Sin
Part of the deal of travelling abroad is being foreign. Wherever you travel, you will be alienated. No matter how well you know the language, how updated your Lonely Planet is, or how “local” you go, your primary identity will be that of a foreigner. Or, as I’ve come to recognize during my travels in Japan, that of the gaijin.
There are few societies as self-conscious as the Japanese one. Where this awareness of one’s own appearance, behavior and social place comes from continues to mystify me but it’s certainly not difficult to find it seeping out of every bit of Japanese culture. Whether it is the conventional use of honorifics or the absence of the eat-as-you-go phenomenon, everyone seems to be constantly self-aware. That is not to say that the Japanese level of awareness has cultivated in me subtle sense of xenophobia. Rather, it’s infectious.
My experience backpacking in Kansai thus far has yielded the following observations. First, nobody eats on the go. Second, after bidding farewell, your hosts make a point to stand still and watch you vanish beyond the horizon before they themselves turn their backs to leave. Third, Japanese people don’t wear shorts. Indeed, it is this last observation that lends this blog post its name, for it is perhaps the most troubling of them all.
June has just begun, and according to a fellow backpacker from the Czech Republic, it’s about 90°F. The Japanese are in trousers. The next day, it began to pour. Below their umbrellas, they’re wearing trousers. Friday evening’s arrived, and nightlife is bustling in downtown Osaka. People everywhere are looking for a bar or a club. Naturally, in trousers.
And so, every morning, I would still struggle. Ruffling through my rucksack, I would come across a pair of jeans, feel the material, remember the sun outside, and return it to my bag. Yet, as I walked down the streets of Osaka, I would imagine the locals staring, pointing, and judging. Are the shorts really that much of a tell-tale sign that I was a foreigner? Is this where my mission to blend into Japanese society ends? Is there no leeway?
Turns out, there is. The younger population, on weekends, dons pairs of trousers, rolling them up a few inches above the ankles to allow for a bit of a breeze. There it was! “Yes,” I thought “The ways of the gaijin have begun their rite of passage into true Japanese society!”
At the end of the day, though, I seem to have fallen into the self-consciousness that so underlines Japanese culture. I began this post with a sense of resignation. Yet, perhaps part of being foreign is a need to cease to be so. Today, I’ll roll back my jeans, and see how the wind will feel.
Lucas Sin ’15 is a Philosophy major in Davenport College. Contact him at email@example.com.