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Gaijin Engineer in Tokyo (medium.com)
286 points by ingve 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 155 comments

  You’re Not From Here

  You are a foreigner. You were a foreigner before you arrived, you are a foreigner while 
  you are in Japan, and when Japanese go abroad they will still refer to you as a 
  foreigner, ironies be damned. This cannot be understated and will be a recurring theme 
  in the stories to come. Never forget, you’re a foreigner. They won’t ever forget.
Well, I experience exactly the same situation and I'm a Greek living and working in the UK, so it's not something that's particular to the Japanese. It seems a sizeable chunk of most people you'll meet when you live abroad will be constitutionally unable to let go of the fact that you didn't grow up within the same national borders as each other.

I'm a mixed-race (African-American and Korean) American citizen and I found Wainzinger's (author of OP) discussion about Japanese people being careful or indifferent to the use of the term "gaijin" reminiscent of the way some of my colleagues sometimes speak about minorities or about me when I'm around.

The signals are subtle and people seem intent to not cause offense when broaching topics concerning race and class.

But it's also a reminder that I am not perceived quite the same. At best, it can be an acknowledgement and affirmation of my experience and feelings. At worst, well, in the spirit of Wainzinger's wonderful article, I'll not talk about what sometimes happens at worst. :)

I am an American born and raised in Puerto Rico living in Georgia. I am treated as an immigrant every day. You will be treated differently everywhere if you are even a bit different. Such is humanity.

I'm an American with mediocre German living in Berlin, I've been here for a decade. I don't feel like a foreigner whatsoever. My social circle is 70% German and the rest is a mix of nationalities.

I would absolutely feel like a foreigner in any other city in Germany, but not here. If being a "foreigner" disturbs you significantly, like it did me when I lived in Vienna, I would say moving is worth it. There aren't many cities where there is no such thing as a "foreigner", but they do exist and are not exactly mysteries.

New York City is like this too, or, at least, I think it is. I'm American so not the best person to judge.

Can you expand on what living in Vienna felt like? I loved visiting there and didn't feel unwelcome at all, but of course being a long stay resident exposes you to different experiences than just being a tourist.

It took a while to feel unwelcome in Vienna, and it was really a pileup of small things that didn't sit right with me, many of which on their own would be easily dismissable. It may also be my particular heritage that made it more difficult.

The primary annoyance was my Jewish heritage. I'm completely secular, it's not a big part of my identity and something I rarely mention, but it's also not something I conceal. It would only take a drink or two at some social event for people to decide to unburden themselves in one way or another. I would have to listen to people apologizing for their racist/backwards countrymen, I would have to let people try to set the record straight about how Austria is misunderstood and actually Hitler's first victim, and I would have to watch people's expressions grow pained and conversations go dead when I honestly answered questions about my heritage. Eventually I learned that it's easier for everyone if I stopped mentioning it, and eventually I grew resentful that I had to hide it.

Generally, Austrian-ness played an uncomfortable role in social interactions. Older people, upon hearing my standard (Hochdeutsch) inflected German would react with hostility and tell me that their language is different (I had no intention of learning the Austrian dialect), and that Americans need to learn to distinguish Austrians from Germans. I found the constant "in Austria we say 'x' instead of 'y'" and "in Austria we always do this in 'x' way" corrections to be tiresome. Generally, I was reminded that I was a foreigner much more than I felt was justified, and gradually I came to understand why many expats in Vienna cluster together as opposed to integrating.

> "in Austria we always do this in 'x' way" corrections

Just for "colour", can you give an example or two?

I concur, as an immigrant who lived in NYC for a couple of months, not once I felt like a foreigner. Some other cities in the US where I've absolutely never felt like a foreigner - Bay area, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC. Surprisingly, I felt like a foreigner in London, which is the most culturally diverse city and also in Singapore.

Never been to London and I see it is up there, but the most diverse city by various sources is actually Toronto.

Non-American in NYC; I read somewhere that ~50% of New Yorkers weren’t born in the US, so being a foreigner is as much a rule as an exception

It really depends on the setting though. Where I'm from, I'm one of the four people in my office with my ethnicity and the only one in my graduate program. I've got about 500 colleagues and in my city and 100 students in my graduate program, my ethnicity represents about 9% of the population, and on the whole the aggregate diversity is extremely high here.

In short, I represent 9% of the population but 0.8% of my office and 1% of my graduate program. At the same time I'm associated with all the other things my ethnicity is stereotypically known for, in which there is overrepresentation. (the usual issues linked with socioeconomic shittyness, like crime).

As such I frequently feel like the other, despite living in a very diverse city. It's like we put water and oil in a pot and say look there's multiple things in the pot. But is it a melting pot? To me, not nearly enough. It's still shocking to me how much segregation there actually is, we've kind of left the discussion of segregation behind us since there's no more segregation by law (inputs), but the outcomes are still very much there.

I'm confused, why is Berlin unlike any other city in Germany in this regard? E.g. what would be different in Frankfurt?

Berlin's culture is proudly post-national, cosmopolitan, and bohemian - a place that doesn't care where you come from, and doesn't ask, you're accepted simply for partaking in the low-rent offbeat way of life that's on offer here.

Of course that's all theory and reality is much less rosy with many more shades of gray. But even having that self image is already half the battle. And no other city in Germany has such a self-image, except maybe Hamburg to some degree.

Berlin is more like Brooklyn than the hamptons... different notions of what is considered “belongs here” mediated by history and local culture.

Probably doesn't hurt having grown up with parents and grandparents who remember first-hand where nationalism and racism can take a society, either.

One of the factors is that Berlin is more "American friendly" (not that other cities aren't) but its relationship with the US is more special

I'm from Texas and I'm always referred to as a Texan even in other states in the US. I guess its just a part of being human

The coolest thing is, your a Texan in Japan or New Zealand too :) Texas is a state everybody is familiar with and seems to hold some special status overseas. Go Cowboys, go Spurs haha :)

Texas is not necessarily seen as a positive thing, though. At least in Europe it's seen as the exponent of the 'worst' things that the US has to offer (guns, cars with terrible gas mileage, AC in giant McMansions running 24/7, etc).

> It seems a sizeable chunk of most people you'll meet when you live abroad will be constitutionally unable to let go of the fact that you didn't grow up within the same national borders as each other.

So what’s the problem with that? I’m an European, currently living in Singapore. I am a foreigner (Angmoh). People know that. I know that. Cultures clash here and there but there is no problem with it.

> So what’s the problem with that?

It's not a problem, in the sense that I realise there is no malice; on the other hand, it's a problem in the sense that after many years living in a country, having acquired citizenship and having built a family here, I would like to think you are part of the community.

Constantly being reminded that I am never really going to progress past the status of outsider can be really bothersome.

How long have you been living in Singapore? Things start to change after a few years in my opinion.

EDIT: I just wanted to point out that the positive aspects of migrating to a new country, in my case, still greatly outweigh the negative aspects such as the one described above. Also, I am lucky because the cultural differences between my native country (Italy) and my adoptive one (Australia) are relatively minor.

>> So what’s the problem with that?

To clarify, my comment above was primarily meant to point out that the behaviour we're discussing is not something unique to the Japanese. I felt it was a bit unfair to single them out for having a culture that continuously reminds people of being foreign, when everybody else does it also (well- as far as I can tell). I didn't say whether I thought it's a problem or not.

So- is it? I guess that will depend a lot on the situation, won't it? For myself I've been in both kinds of situations, where it was a problem and where it wasn't. Say, when I first moved here I worked menial jobs and the people I worked with tended to not care much about social niceties (although there may have been other reasons I attracted the wrong kind of attention, by some). Nowadays, I'm a PhD researcher, so it would be a really big surprise if someone brought up the fact I'm not from around here as a disadvantage; most people I work with are not, anyway.

It's just that, there are situations were anything that singles you out can spell trouble- and being foreign singles you out. In such situations, you have to tread carefully in a way that locals don't.

To be perfectly clear, I personally take things in my stride and I generally fare very well. But not everyone is the same as me, neither have I always been as confident and self-assured as I am now. The target is, I think, to have an environment (a society, if you will) that accommodates all kinds of people, those who aren't bothered as well as those who might be.


Edit: "neither have I always been as confident and self-assured as I am now". Actually, now that I think of it, I always have. I'm a tough cookie :)

In my opinion that is the right attitude to have. I actually enjoy being a foreigner!

I'm happy to follow the social protocols while never feeling like needing to belong (which is already hard enough even if you were born a native...).

> I'm happy to follow the social protocols while never feeling like needing to belong

I used to be a "digital nomad" before coming to Australia, I lived in many cities across S. E. Asia and South America and, like you, for a while I really enjoyed being able to "taste the soup while not diving into it"[1].

However things change when you decide that the place where you are living is where you want to settle down and build a family (see my other comment in this sub-thread).

[1] This is a (probably not accurate) quote by writer and journalist Tiziano Terzani, unfortunately I'm unable to find a link to a source at the moment.

Not everyone wants to build a family. Some people are quite happy to be single throughout their life.

Sure, I wasn't implying that, just pointing out that it may be a possibility. Also, being single doesn't preclude you from deciding that you want to live somewhere indefinitely (the point that I wanted to make in my comment was more related to nomadic vs resident lifestyle, than single vs. married).

I'm actually not nomadic. Born in India, but moved to Canada a decade ago.

Things are pretty good here. Because of cultural differences people don't necessarily have to 'accept' me as one of theirs (it is just human nature to be so). And that's fine by me. If being emotionally accepted was a factor, I would have chosen to live among my extended family back in India.

It's not about national borders, it's about culture. Culture is something you learn young, and it's very hard to acclimate to a new culture. You can move to a new country and be successful, have friends, etc..., but it's unlikely you'll ever truly understand that culture. Just like they can't move to Greece for a few years and understand your culture.

It's merely a statement of fact. I know this well, I speak French, have some French relatives, have a French name, travel to France all the time, and while I can get on, can have a great time and have made friends in France, I'm not French (I'm Canadian) and never will be. People there still treat me great, I know a lot about their culture, but I don't know their culture, just like they don't know Canadian culture.

Japan is a very rigid, closed and unique culture. Their country is extremely developed (could even say over-developed), and I have no doubt that growing up there, living from birth to death in that society marks you in a way that living there for 10 years won't.

There's a reason Canadians emphasize diversity over assimilation, because complete assimilation is impossible. You can't simply ignore one's upbringing and life experience and pretend we all had the same experiences.

>> There's a reason Canadians emphasize diversity over assimilation, because complete assimilation is impossible.

Well yes- unless we become like the Borg, innit.

I will add my anecdote. I am an American living in Thailand (many of them on HN from what I can tell). I have lived here for more than 10 years, speak Thai, have a family, etc. But I am definitely a foreigner and always will be. In fact, it is institutionalized by the Thai government that foreigners will be treated as such. For example, I pay 10 times the Thai price to enter a national park. And many, many private businesses take their cue from that policy and charge higher prices for anyone who does not look Thai. A constant reminder that you are a foreigner and always will be.

You are a foreigner. Even your children may be foreigners. But their children and generations after them, if they all have children with non-foreigners, won’t be.

>Well, I experience exactly the same situation and I'm a Greek living and working in the UK ...

JFYI, a "classic":


Thanks, I love that sort of thing. Will see if I can find a copy :)

Do you have some examples? I'm in the UK and work for a small company that hires a lot of people from all over, and I'd like to think I'm not unintentionally doing the same thing.

It's really hard to overstate just how bloated emails are in Japanese. They seem to follow a very strict script. Once you learn the key words, it's easy to write and understand, but it's so much fluff for so little meaning. I've gotten dozens of lines from single emails just asking me about confirming a skype interview date, while any normal English message would literally be no more than, "Sure, let's talk at X:XX PM. Contact us beforehand if you have any troubles."

There are also small details that you will learn the first time doing it wrong.

For example, when contacting with someone outside of the company, you would NEVER refer to anyone in the same company as you with -san honorific (Mr./Ms.) via email even in maximum formality mode, e.g. "I'll forward this to Tanaka-san, head of sales" may be considered rude. Instead, you will have to skip -san, as in "I'll forward this to Tanaka, head of sales."

These small details are so subtle and there's a lot of them. Many people don't really mind if you use it wrong, but some do, so you have to always be cautious with.

That's not a small detail, that's how basically everything about Japanese honorfics work... I.e. the uchi/soto is an important distinction.

Interesting rule. Do you know why that is? Is there some implied level of familiarity with coworkers?

IIRC from what my senior explained to me few years ago, this has to do with the inward and outward aspect of the Japanese business society and the Japanese language itself. The Japanese honorific is usually used from inward to the outward (e.g. to stranger, customer, partner, etc.)

I think the easiest way to think might be that you won't refer to your sister/brother with honorifics when talking about them with someone.

When you (an outsider) email a company, everyone in the company who replied to the email are considered belonging to the same group, so they should not use honorifics to refer to themselves regardless whether they are CEO or just random employee (even if you call them with honorifics in internal email.)

There's also another small rule regarding this, such as you can say something like "Uchida, the CEO" (CEOの内田) but NOT "CEO Uchida" (内田CEO) because the title in the latter is being used as a suffix, and considered a honorific (equivalent to -san). It's a weird rule.

Talking about your own “team” honorably (-san) is not humble. To be fair Japanese people have trouble with it all the time too; There are tons of results for on Google for phrase + polite or phrase + business

I consulted for a Vietnamese tech company some years ago and was surprised to see that most internal emails among top management (most of whom had attended university overseas) were in English, rather than Vietnamese.

The reason? Written Vietnamese is too formal, and they prefer English for getting to the point quickly.

I'm Vietnamese, some of us prefer English as it lack the formality for pronouns, those who have studied oversea are even more likely to use English in their daily conversation.

(interestingly, my friends point out that I seem to have different personality when using English instead of my mother language)

> interestingly, my friends point out that I seem to have different personality when using English instead of my mother language

You may be interested in this thread from a few weeks back with numerous people testifying to that: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13758623

I am a native Slovenian speaker who speaks a bunch of different languages to varying degrees of "speak". I definitely feel each of them changes my personality somewhat in its own way.

I assume part of it is due the language used and part due to cultural traits you pick up when you learned it. Would be surprised if there was no feedback loop between language and cultures that use it.

I heard that South Korean airline pilots were required to speak in English while piloting so that copilots can let the command pilot know of dangerous situations. The formality in Korean would lock everyone into social roles that made it harder to have safe flights.

Two seperate Korean Air 747s have been piloted into the ground as a result of mistakes that went unchallenged due to the strict cultural power hierachy.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Air_Cargo_Flight_8509

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Air_Flight_801#After_th...

http://askakorean.blogspot.hk/2013/07/culturalism-gladwell-a... has a little bit of a different take on this - mainly aimed at Malcom Gladwell's _Outliers_ discussion of these incidents.

The article goes a bit broader and it's been a few years since I read it in depth, but you might be interested the counter-perspective.

That was an insanely long article that I don't want to read carefully, so I'm not gonna refute it, but I'll just say that as a Korean citizen I have absolutely no problem believing that "Korean workplace culture" inside Korean Air contributed to these accidents.

Yes, sure, if anyone claims that such a workplace culture is an inherent, inseparable part of Korean culture, then that's bollocks. But most people aren't saying that. We're just saying that there's a hierarchical culture problem widespread in Korea, right now. Which is absolutely true.

For a less tragic and more comical example of what the culture is like in Korean Air, look up the "Peanut turnaround incident" of 2014 (땅콩회항) which earned Korean Air the memorable nickname of "Peanut Air" (땅콩항공).

(...the nuts were actually macadamia nuts, but "Macadamia Nut Air" doesn't roll off the tongue as nicely.)


Here is a counter-counter-perspective: Gladwell twists the truth a bit to make a good story, however AskAKorean also twists the truth a bit to make a good refutation. Based on the transcript that AskAKorea posted, it's very clear that the first officer is acting deferentially to the pilot. Specifically, the first officer uses polite speech with the pilot, and the pilot uses familiar speech with the first officer. This indicates quite a big social status gap. As an example, in my company (I am working in Korea), neither my manager nor my manager's manager uses familiar speech with me, I'd have to go up 3 levels for that to start happening. What Gladwell mentioned in his book about hierarchy does not feel exaggerated, and there's likely a large grain of truth to Gladwell's representation of what happened. Also, if you look through AskAKorean's previous blogs, you can notice a fairly nationalistic streak in his posts, which may explain his strong opinions regarding Gladwell's assertions.

I find this explanation for their choice hard to believe.

I live in Vietnam, speak Vietnamese, and see millions of people post not-formal, to-the-point things on Facebook and Instagram every day.

Oh, don't be daft. You're comparing the way people act and speak on Facebook with how they are expected to act in a formal setting such as work?

Totally different ball game.

Maybe I should rethink how informal I speak at work. Or how formal I speak to my friends.

I absolutely think there are people where there's a huge gap and others where it's hardly noticeable ;)

What do you mean by formal?

I’ve always assumed Asian languages to be very informal as a lot of it has to do with context. At least that’s how some of my friends talk to each other. And one of the reasons why it’s so hard to blend in. It could also be possible that they rarely talk formally in person, and I’ve yet to experience it.

> I’ve always assumed Asian languages to be very informal as a lot of it has to do with context.

I'm not sure what you mean by this, but if you're thinking about "East Asian languages omitting 'necessary' grammatical parts all the time", then you might be talking about this:


Note that this is a grammatical phenomenon exhibited by some languages (i.e., the characteristics of a language as a whole). Formality/informality is a concept associated with a particular "speech" inside a language, which is orthogonal to this. (You can say a particular speech in English is formal or informal, but it makes little sense to say that "English" as a whole is a formal or informal language.)

Interesting. I’ve mistakenly assumed that there is a relative difference between formal and informal counterparts. Considering the extreme informality of Eastern Asian languages, I didn’t think their formal language was on the opposite end of the spectrum.

When it comes to written language, there are formal and informal styles. I am a Mandarin speaker and can read texts and social media pretty well because it follows many spoken conventions. But I have great difficulty with the styles employed in most Chinese newspapers. It's not just the vocabulary, there are written conventions that I don't hear in conversational settings. One exception: The Apple Daily (蘋果日報) which uses a different written style for headlines, infographics, and body text. It's less formal, more colloquial, and easier to understand.

At least with Korean and Japanese, they are highly formal as they have different conjugations depending on the level of the person you're speaking to.

With Korean, spoken language among roughly same-age friends is informal, of course. But if someone is older, then there's a different ending, unless you know them well enough to speak in informal language.

If you're speaking to your boss there's a different level of formality, and people like your grandparents get honorifics which are also conjugated, but alongside with formality.

It also reinforces social pressures of obeying your boss/elders, which stem from Korea's roots in Confucianism/Neo-Confuncianism.

It's no wonder people like to use English sometimes.

On the contrary, both Chinese and Japanese are very formal as to the written. Ancient Chinese has a high bar between formally written and oral ones. In recent centuries the difference got smaller, but there is still a big difference. On the plus side, most Chinese write emails colloquially.

I've been living and working in Japan for 10+ years and totally know that feeling .. I even wrote an article about it: https://getworkjapan.com/2018/02/26/why-are-japanese-busines...

It doesn’t necessarily make anything easier that the natural default of courtesy in Japan is, when in doubt, “maximum formality is employed.” To be honest though, I prefer the sometimes confusing formality of Japan to the curtness (or downright rudeness) of the US. Especially when it comes to customer service, the people pumping your gas in Japan are more friendly and polite than most waiters in Michelin starred restaurants in the US.

Funny, as a Brit I found the super-servile attitude of US waiters really creepy. And if anything Japanese service is less formal in a way that makes everything more efficient - you call the staff over when you want something (or to pay) rather than having to wait for them to come to you.

Yea there’s a weird disjointness where customer service or service industry workers can be relatively rude or arrogant in person, but online you get the super courteous maximally formal (although usually templated) emails.

Most of the stereotypical Japanese salaryman things exist in the US, they just exist a lot more strongly in Japan.

Are there companies with an overwork culture in the US? Oh yeah, definitely. But how many expect everyone to work, say, 9-7:30 at a minimum, plus some time most Saturdays, and to go out to the bar after work as a team multiple times a week? That would be extremely rare, maybe some finance companies and startups have that kind of culture, but not many.

I don't know if the US is necessarily that rude in comparison to countries other than Japan. It also definitely depends on the situation. Checking out at a German supermarket makes self checkout in the US seem friendly.

For what it's worth, people tend to be more courteous in smaller and more rural areas of the U.S.

Tend? Perhaps. I've lived, worked and traveled all over the U.S. The smallest town I lived in was Sherwood, Maryland (population 44 at the time), and I now live an hour outside NYC. It really totally depends on the person you're interacting with, their personality, the kind of day they're having, the days they had before that. Culture certainly determines a lot of it, but that is harder to reduce to small town/big town dynamics. In America some of our most densely populated places (i.e. New Jersey) have some of the lowest rates of depression and suicide. People may appear to be ruder to each other in those places, or not, but something about the proximity of so many other humans creates some sort of social behavioral order that allows them to get along. People are strange, is really the tl;dr.

It seems to me that when you interact with fewer people per day, you can put more time and energy into courtesy. There's also a higher chance you'll run into someone again, so there's more incentive to treat strangers well. And small towns tend to be less diverse, meaning there are fewer incidents of rudeness resulting from different cultural expectations.

> People are strange, is really the tl;dr.

My tl;dr would be "the US is big and complicated." I've seen people working stressful service jobs be incredibly polite in Houston, and baristas being checked-out jerks in small-town Colorado. Overall, I would say that people tend to be more polite when they have more mental energy to spend. That tends to be in quieter towns, but not always.

I read his sample bloated email and found it interesting that they are writing it in the exact same way a (US) business would write a customer service email.

Agreed, it's a simple, polite request to a business partner.

George says: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usN3rpfFoGA&t=30s

Companies do this via E-Mail? Where I work you send someone a Google Calendar invite and they click "yes" or "no", and they can see if you have a free spot in your schedule beforehand, so it rarely goes wrong.

Google Calendar invites are still transferred over email, generally.

Sure, but the transport part isn't relevant to what the GP is mentioning, which is that apparently Japanese etiquette requires you to write some amazingly long E-Mail. With a calendar invite all that's abstracted away and you just get "can you make it at such-and-such date at such-and-such time? yes/no/maybe".

I think you should try working at a smaller company. I've also been an engineer in Japan for a while and found startups a lot easier to deal with than mid-sized or larger companies. For example, you almost never have to send e-mails because everything is over Slack and surprisingly casual. Working with other teams is easy because there are only a small amount of engineers and everyone knows each other. Google Docs instead of Excel so you don't have to worry about SHIFT-JIS. Go somewhere without middle management where you work directly under the CTO or at most one other guy and you'll see less meetings. Of course, you'll still see some of the classic Japanese bureaucracy, but nothing compared to the bigger places.

My main gripe with Japanese companies is that they simply don't pay as well as American ones do.

> My main gripe with Japanese companies is that they simply don't pay as well as American ones do.

Fair, but Tokyo can be much, much cheaper than SF or NYC (in my personal experience, rent alone is up to a 2-3x difference. Same with dining out - a 1500¥ dinner easily runs you $30-40 with tip in SF).

I think the implication is that Japanese companies in Japan pay generally less than American companies in Japan, which seems true at least when comparing Japanese and American big names. It's also the case outside engineering/tech. It's fairly common knowledge among Japanese workers and foreign residents living in Japan. One hypothesis (which I like) is that Japanese companies offer a higher non-monetary compensation (I am not talking about flex-time).

Oh I see. I didn’t get the “American companies in japan” subtext. Yes, that makes sense.

I don't know why this is always made a topic, but I never felt offended by "gaijin" or the Chinese counterpart "laowai". No big deal.

However I also don't think that "they don't think it's offensive" has any relevance. Some people think the N-word is not offensive. It still is. Some men don't think calling a female colleague "babe" is offensive. It still is.

I lived in China for more than 8 years. I found laowai amusing when I was in the transient long term vacation mindset when I first arrived. But after being there long enough to become fluent, marry a local, and deal with difficult situations unique to foreigners, I did find a bit of offense in the term. Not strong enough to say anything. But the subtext I heard in the term from some people was to intentionally keep this uncultured foreigner at arms length, and make sure he knows he will never fully integrate.

The word is a pun, and also means "always outside". This secondary meaning is not lost on Chinese people.

It's the same in Hawaii with the word "haole" (same meaning: foreigner). Doesn't matter if you were born and raised on the islands, lived here your entire life, married a local, and had local kids. If you're white, you're a haole. Almost always, the word is a harmless descriptor. Sometimes even white kama'aina (those born in Hawaii) use the word to describe other white people. But it can be used as a racial slur and it's immediately obvious when it's being used as a racial slur.

Sounds very similar to New Zealand, where the term Pākehā is used to describe NZ European people, both by indigenous Maori people, as well as people of European descent.

The vast majority of the time it's just used as an easier way to describe New Zealanders of European descent, it's even used on the census form, but I've heard it used on rare occasion as a pejorative.

Having lived in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan I take a pragmatic view to whether I should be offended by peoples use of the term foreigner.

The Cantonese "gweilo" (lit. "monster/ghost person") and Taiwanese "adoga" (lit. "big nose") are more clearly offensive in literal meaning.

Both are extremely casual, and in most cases no ill will is intended.

But for each I've encountered situations where it wasn't so pleasant.

Notably once in a remote guangdong town, some people stopped on a motorbike, pointed at me and said "Gweilo" before riding off laughing.

Equally at a good friends wedding, his mum kept referring to me as "adoga" in the 3rd person.

"Adoga comes from England" rather than using my name, which she'd known for the past 3 or so years.

In China, I can't think of a specific situation where I was offended by the use of "laowai".

"Hello monster/ghost person." Yes, that's me?

This made me think of a wonderful article titled "While Teaching in Japan, it Took an Enemy to Make Me Feel at Home" [0] which was on the HN front page at the end of 2017. [1]

That article is about the friendship/enemyship between a teacher and a child student, formed by the student’s teasing hostility toward the author as a foreigner.

[0] https://catapult.co/stories/on-campus-yuka-my-enemy-friendsh...

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15992603

EDIT: grammar, clarity, readability.

"When I told a group of kids my eyes were naturally blue (they thought I wore colored contacts), they backed away and whispered, “Scary.” The first time I went to the grocery store, my appearance alone caused a small child to burst into tears."

"big nose is from England, he's my son's good friend"

I spent a year abroad studying in Japan with a group of 10 westerners. At the beginning of the year some people were apprehensive when they learned about the word 'gaijin'. By the end of the year every member of the group used 'gaijin' in their regular conversation.

This was far outside of Tokyo and seeing a 'gaijin' was a genuinely rare occurrence. More than anything the word seems to fit a real communicative need. "I had an interaction with someone that was different from the norm because they did not look Japanese" is quite a mouthful and invoking the word 'gaijin' starts to happen quite naturally.

My biggest problem with the word is that it is used sloppily. It conflates race, culture, language and nationality and assumes a kind of all or nothing approach to them. My black student who was born and raised in Japan fulfilled 3 out of those 4 categories but would be considered gaijin everywhere he went.

> My biggest problem with the word is that it is used sloppily. It conflates race, culture, language and nationality and assumes a kind of all or nothing approach to them

Westerners are no better - the US does the same for everyone who is not "default" (i.e. white) where they are differentiated by a prefix, usually their heritage, which conflates "culture, language and nationality". Your black Japanese student would be considered "African American", which is beyond absurd.

> Westerners are no better - the US does the same for everyone who is not "default" (i.e. white) where they are differentiated by a prefix, usually their heritage, which conflates "culture, language and nationality". Your black Japanese student would be considered "African American", which is beyond absurd.

Isn't that the grandparent's whole point - that we at least have distinct categories for "whatever-american" and "foreigner", where "gaijin" conflates both and others.

>Your black Japanese student would be considered "African American", which is beyond absurd.

No they wouldn't, for the same reason Americans don't call Africans "African American."

They would. Listen closely to how you and your friends tell stories next time. Race and gender are almost always used to describe people. "My landlord, who's a black guy, <STORY DETAIL THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BEING BLACK OR BEING A MAN>"

>Race and gender are almost always used to describe people. "My landlord, who's a black guy, <STORY DETAIL THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BEING BLACK OR BEING A MAN>"

I don't refer to people primarily by their race, and I don't recall my friends doing so. While I don't deny that sort of conversation happens, it's probably not as idiomatic as you seem to believe.

I'm sure you can understand how easily a stereotype like that can fail when applied to a country as populous and diverse as the US.

Hm, in China black people, Indians and other Asians are all not considered "laowai" but have their distinct terms. Not sure about latinos. They might be mixed with either laowai or black people into one category.

I think the speaker's intent and beliefs about the meanings of the words they're using is relevant. Context is everything in language.

I think the issue that sort of overlaps what you are talking about is sometimes when people assert things "aren't offensive", what they really mean is that they think they should be free to use derogatory language without others being upset.

When Japanese friends refer to me as gaijin, I never feel offended. When some teen punk at a metro station in Tokyo shoved me and yelled "GAIJIN" in my ear, somehow it upset me. Go figure.

Calling a female colleague `babe` is not definitely offensive. Using the word `nigger` is not definitely offensive.

Offence is the position the interpreter. ie offence is taken, not given. This is not to say that offence is not to be expected, nor is it to say the person who offends should be exempted from all repercussions - but it does temper what a reasonable repercussion is (in a society that deems it viable to censor through offence).

It should be noted that words like nigger did not always hold their current offensive status (especially not outside of America) [1].

It should also be noted that words have geographical offense, the term 'lass' was one that I grew up hearing and using - appropriate when referring to a person to their face in an informal manner regardless of age (note that if you don't already know this usage then you are unlikely to be on informal enough terms with someone who would accept it to use it) - yet if I were to say this in the south of England I would be being patronising.

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigger#British_usages

I cannot think of any office situation where a man calling a woman a `babe` is acceptable. It’s patronizing at best, and sexist at worst. Note that parent comment specifically said calling a woman that. Not merely using the word itself.

In England, it's quite common to use informal affectionate terms. They vary regionally - love, pet, hinny, babs, duck, cock, hen, flower, petal, princess etc. Their use isn't uncontroversial, but they're widely accepted by a large proportion of the population and frequently used in many offices.


Fair enough, as with most things in life, it's context dependent. I'm speaking from an American perspective, and even in an endearing manner I would never use `babe` because that's something you'd call your significant other. Not a professional colleague.

Anecdotally, I hear babe from female to male coworkers much more often than the converse. That or 'hon'.

Its common to use informal affectionate terms in the US too.

I gave some thought as to cultures where it might be acceptable when writing the first comment, but I am a victim to my own experience here and so turn up nothing.

I have heard comments that surprised me from women in the small company construction trades, haulage, F1, and darts; I also expect that what was acceptable with respect to `babe` has changed over time.

It should be noted that the post I replied to referred to 'calling a female colleague', and you are talking about an 'office situation'. Certain kinds of businesses make less use of offices and hire different kinds of workers - it is not much of a stretch to expect them to harbour different language standards.

It is also notable that you introduced the specification of a 'man calling a woman'. This is the situation I had been considering, yet when I open it to women calling women I know I hear the term `babe` used between women at work all the time - I also hear women calling men `babe`.

I didn't introduce the specification of a man calling a woman. The parent comment did. Specifically, when a man calls a woman a `babe` or a pet name like that, in my opinion it's a tad sexist, unless they have a friendship close enough for pet names, etc.

I also don't think it's appropriate for a woman to call a man a pet name like that either, but in a different sense.

I shouldn't have assumed an office environment, but it still stands for the most part. I can't think of any situation where I'd call a colleague `babe`, even if I've known them for many years.


But that applies to everything. Surely you're not that much of a reductionist that nothing people say can move you. "I have never loved you" is also just some vibrations in the air.

That's a straw man criticism. Emotions are real. Feelings are real. Being offended is real.

The world just is the way it is. One's reaction is the only thing one has power over.

And you’re just a bag of (mostly) water. What’s your point?

My point is that people get offended. No object nor any person nor action can have an inherent property of offensiveness.

This is a valid point and you are right to rise it!

However, we need to add that there are people who both know a word might be offensive and still decide to use it. I believe this is the critical distinction OP was trying to make with his point

No, I don’t think most people think of it in the same sense that we do.

I lived in Korea, not Japan, but they also have a word for foreigner—외국인. I never got the sense that a Korean person found the term offensive to us and still used the word. Korea, like Japan, is just so highly homogenized as a society that it’s common to refer to foreigners that way.

I think we find offense in the term, because as many people come to realize, foreigners generally get treated like a second class citizen. So then, being called a 외국인 is a reminder that we look different, and thus Koreans have premade assumptions (like that we don’t and won’t speak Korean). Which isn’t exactly wrong though, as many foreigners / expats / sexpats don’t bother to learn Korean.

Again, I don’t think Koreans are intentionally using the term to be offensive to us. It’s just a descriptor.

Mister Wainzinger,

Sorry to ask for your time, but if it is possible for you to let me know, I would love to read about a Japanese engineer living in the US. Are you aware of any related articles or response articles on this topic? I understand that it may be an inconvenience to tell me about these articles, but your cooperation is greatly appreciated in this matter.

Apologies and thanks,

Thien, Chip

I don't think you'll get a reply to this because this article wasn't posted to Hacker News by its original author, and I don't think the original author is participating in this comment thread at all. You might want to find a different way of contacting the author.

I don't blame him for trying, the number of times I've seen someone pop into the comments of a submission saying "Hi I'm ________ and I wrote/made/did/worked on this" is pretty high on this website.

I'm 99% sure it was a joke, written in the style described in the article.

Could be! Poe's Law has come up pretty often on Hacker News recently; maybe I'm the latest "victim". :-)

It appears to be a reference to the part of the column discussing trouble crafting emails.

I think people put too much meaning in Japanese set phrases, imagining them to have their literal meaning when that is not what they actually mean. The author provides this transcript:

   Me: This is clearly broken!
   Tanaka: Yes, you’re right.
   M: Shouldn’t we do something about this?
   T: Nothing can be done.
   M: This is easily patchable!
   T: I’m sorry.
   M: Who’s responsible for this code?
   T: Team X.
   M: Somebody on our team should talk to them.
   T: Yes, you’re right.
   M: Well, can I talk to them?
   T: Ah, it’s not impossible.
   M: Does that mean I can?
   T: Who knows.
   M: …
I've had this conversation in English with American coworkers more times than I can remember:

   A: This is clearly broken!
   B: Yeah....
   A: Shouldn't we do something about this?
   B: It's not a priority.
   A: This is easily patchable!
   B: I have to work on Project X now, they've been bugging me about it for months and their manager is getting mad at _me_ now.
   A: Who's responsible for this code?
   B: Team X.
   A: Somebody on our team should talk to them.
   B: I already have 8 meetings this week, I don't have time.
   A: Can I talk to them?
   B: They never answer my email.
   A: I'll email them.
   B: Good luck!
It all boils down to the same issue: the person you're conversing with doesn't consider the matter as urgent as you. The words used are different but the message is the same: "meh". This isn't a Japanese thing or an American thing... it's a people thing. And honestly, a lot of times, they're right.

I noticed something similar in my company:

- Meeting, a lot of meeting, on average 2 hours a day.

- Scrum is also meeting heavy, for a 5 days Sprint, the first 3 days is to write the document, splitting tasks into smaller subtasks (so that anyone can code for it), the rest 2 days are for actual coding.

- It's very hard to track responsibility due to 'group think' - HoRenSo.

- Disputes aren't resolved completely but just shoved under the rug. The one who tries to pursue it will be alienated. They have a proverb: "The nails that stick out shall be hammered".

- A lot of engineers don't have formal computer education. But they make up for that by putting a lot of effort in learning how to code, so they can catch up with their peer in one or two years. For example, one programmer was working as a system admin for 2 years, and before that she studied marketing in university.

- Community events are mostly for middle aged people, not students or young one.

Overall I think it's interesting to work in a Japanese company, there are a lot to learn from them.

EDIT: Format

Had the same experiences in western corporations. I think people like the idea that this is all a Japanese phenomenon.

The majority of “engineers” I’ve worked with (including the best) don’t have computer science degrees.

>The thinking goes, if everyone is involved in the decision-making process, then when something inevitably goes wrong, there’s no individual person to blame! Problem solved.

This is _exactly_ how life in the US Govt. IT sectors go.

A co-worker gave me a great phrase for this: Fix the blame. I've run into a bunch of companies that spend far more time fixing the blame, then actually fixing the problem. Good luck with that business model.

Most of the 13 year experiences I have there can be summed up as: if it isn’t broke, fix it until it is.

Bit off-topic but I don't think the "Cultural Differences" dismissals are unique to Japan; One of my friends from the US will often try to explain disagreements away with "must be different over there" and other similar statements. It's endlessly infuriating.

In the US, that roughly translates to "I'm tired of this conversation; go away".

Depends. It could be, "let's agree to disagree and still be congenial."

Apart from the specific Japanese language specifics, I didn't read anything that I wouldn't expect in more than half of the American companies that I encounter outside of SV. There may be differences in how prevalent these things are, but I can't really use this account to draw conclusions about that.

I've noticed their thing about paper before. Oddly, it was in videos of Japanese offices during earthquakes, where my concern was that people were going to get hurt by all the falling binders and documents that were coming off the bookcases.

Funny thing, although the PDCA process is always popularly related to the Toyota Production System, apparently it was created by Deming, "father of modern quality control", who divulgated it through Japan. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA

And before Deming, there was Sarasohn (http://honoringhomer.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/cringely...). In fact, Sarasohn recommended Deming for the job.

Reminds me of the more military OODA loop https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OODA_loop

You’ve reminded me of the horrors of “keep, problem, try”

Let’s discuss this every week, and then not take any actual action

Got a design meeting? Print high-quality printouts of the mockup for every person in the room. Then mark them up with pens, make the changes digitally, and reprint everything and repeat.

I work in a design studio in Silicon Valley. We do this, and it is extremely common in any design studio. Essentially, there is simply no digital device that matches the ease of annotation, the resolution, and the size compared to printing on a 11x17 piece of paper. You can put them up on the wall for everybody to see, and have a 10 meter wall covered in comps if that's what you need... impossible to do with any digital tool.

Almost everything under "real cultural differences" seems to describe culture as it exists in corporate America as well.

Edit: even some of the other stuff seems to be more about tech vs non-tech, as opposed to Japan vs US.

A little late, but I think one of the most important distinctions between "otherness" in a place like Tokyo versus a place like the US is the fact that you can "become" an American in at least one sense if not completely, but you can basically never be Japanese in almost any sense.

It's always felt that America is the kind of place that once you've put in your 6 years (I think it's 6 now) on the way to citizenship (or however you get your citizenship), and are sworn in/become a citizen, the next person that implies you're un-american you're free to punch in the face (most of the time not not literally). People may imply it, but the way the country is built/the culture is structured is at least supposed to imply that once you choose to join "Team America" so-to-speak, you're a team-member and that's that. America struggles with the divisions and history between the cultures/races within it, but I think that's natural, sometimes healthy, and to some degree inevitable -- there's no way you're going to have lots of cultures mix without conflict/racism. So if you start with the preconception that friction is a 100% certainty, the question is whether you can see it, and whether the culture is one where you can freely discuss it or not.

Japan on the other hand, is like 95%+ Japanese last I checked -- there just isn't enough mixing at any sort of scale to widen the idea of what a Japanese person is, and much of the segregation is intentional (which is fine by me). Even Japanese people who go abroad for a long time as children and return are treated differently, and have to be careful when re-entering society, there just isn't any hope of melting into the society in any reasonable sense for someone who is in actuality 100% gaijin (and looks nothing like a japanese person).

While I haven't lived in the UK, I imagine it's the same, they seem to have a melting pot culture very similar to the US in this sense, in some ways they seem even better mixed than the US -- I feel like I see less overt racism there.

I don't think this phenomenon is limited to Japan of course, just happens to be on topic right now -- I imagine being a white person in Nigeria or some other prosperous African country would be a somewhat similar situation as far as otherness goes.

This is excellent. I would love to read one written from the same outsider (gaijin?) perspective about Silicon Valley.

The closest thing that springs to mind is https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/11/western-elite-chi...

You wouldn't be seen as a "perpetual foreigner" (gaijin) like that, and American culture is much more lenient on foreigners carrying along their old customs compared to in Japan. Overall I'd expect an easier time, particularly in that it's always achievable to be seen as American (more in some areas than others, especially SV, not to say the US doesn't have any problems with discrimination), but in Japan a foreigner or even foreign-looking native is never truly accepted as Japanese, as pointed out here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16612178

SV is segregated based on class far more than race or ethnicity. Not all of America is lenient, but more so than any other country I’m aware of (though Canada seems close), anyone can become accepted as a citizen.

>> Do they have X in gaikoku? (you’ll be amazed what people will ask about, I was once asked if gargles exist in gaikoku)

What are 'gargles'?

I think he's referring to gargling. I've gotten the same question.

I've also gotten "How many colors does a rainbow have in your country?" which is just beyond me

Perception, or rather expression of color is cultural, so that question is quite astute.


Similarly, when my cousin from Ohio asked if the French people I was visiting in the winter celebrated Chrsitmas, it was ignorance, but a well-intentioned question none-the-less.

Once you reach certain good level of Japanese mastery, suddenly those phrases and behaviors you considered very polite and which deeply impressed you, turn out to be jokes, fun Japanese had with you. Or talk to Japanese escapees to Europe that work for non-Japanese companies and hence can have some life for an explanation.

Does Japan still have the crazy working hours they were famous for?

> You are a foreigner

This is a big pro than a con. You can really think and act on your own with out bothering too much thinking about society pressure. One can act independently in a manner which is not possible within the society he was brought up.

This holds true for Japanese companies outside Japan, my wife was working as a developer for TOTO Mexico and they had a lot of personnel rotation because of these differences, mainly the meeting culture, it would often get in the way of the work and people ended up quitting or getting fired. It was however a good experience because of the high quality and standards it kept up with the product.

Great novel (and movie) about cultural misunderstandings in Japan from prolific author Amélie Nothomb. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear_and_Trembling_(novel)

Although this blog post is about work in Japan and its "foreigner" consequences. In my opinion, this writing explains exactly why the USA is the best place for work, and perhaps the most welcoming environment for foreigners.

Are mechanical keyboards frowned upon in the silent open offices of Japan?

I would frown upon it in our not-silent-at-all open space, so I suppose yes. No idea what the reaction would be though!

They're frowned on in my full-of-banter-and-music office in London. When i arrived, i asked for a specific new keyboard, and the IT guy, thinking it was a loud mechanical one, said i would have to get permission from my manager before he'd order it!

I've never saw cherry blue switches in the office but browns, blacks and reds are common. While switches themselves don't give loud feedback, keys hitting the keyboard frame are loud enough. No one makes a fuss about it. Not to mention that not all open space offices are that silent. Mine isn't. Not that everyone is listening to a music but chatter can be heard all around.

Don't, unless you want to drive your colleagues crazy

Aren’t some of these things actually good? Preserving social harmony. Lean into it more. It’s a job it doesn’t matter so much. Adapt yourself to these values and enjoy your time more. Being in another culture you get the chance to do things their way so try it. Give you a chance to maybe see that the things you think are so important don’t actually matter. Maybe you can have a better time and enjoy your life more if you just go along with the way that everyone does them there.

Power harassment. Stop being such a savior and assuming that your morals are better. Open your eyes and see what’s good and see how things got together.

You managed to be vastly more condescending than the author.

Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, noticing and commenting on them is fine.

Nice article. In my experience, the "Real Cultural Differences" section sounded like every enterprise company I've interacted with in the US.

TL;DR “I moved overseas it was sometimes frustrating, challenging and different”

Having lived and worked overseas myself in European country none of this persons experience comes as a surprise honestly.

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