From Gaijin to Naijin: Becoming an Insider in Japan

Beppu, Oita, Japan

Beppu, Oita, Japan

Japan is a country well known for its strong homogeneity, purity of culture and traditions, and robust group identity. For no matter how long one might have lived in Japan, one would still likely be seen as a gaijin 外人- literally translated as outsider 外 person 人. Despite an increase in mixed-race population, half-Japanese (hafu) born and raised in Japan are still not considered as fully Japanese.

My move to this country was the beginning of my transformation from a gaijin to a camouflaged one living in Oita Prefecture in Southern Japan. My Asian face allowed me to somewhat blend in among strangers in public spaces. But everything else about me - my behavior, demeanor, and general lack of awareness - initially stuck out like a sore thumb in a country where fitting in, not sticking out, is a cultural norm.

Three years of living in rural Japan and countless hours of language study, hundreds of embarrassing language blunders, and many an awkward cultural faux pas later, I finally felt more “in” than out in the Land of the Rising Sun, more accepted as “one of them” rather than as an outsider, more at home and at peace than I’d ever been at that point in my life. Some key concepts have helped me in my transformation into what I lovingly refer to as a naijin 内人- an “insider.”

Amae 甘え


The concept of amae, roughly translated as dependence, cannot be understated in a group-oriented society. Amae is the  desire to be in good favor with or the ability to depend on the people around oneself; it’s the basic component in forging and navigating social relationships.

When I first moved into my new apartment in Japan, I was humbled by my inability to do anything at all without the help of others. Getting internet? Couldn’t do that without someone speaking on the phone on my behalf. Boarding public transportation? Not without someone’s help interpreting complicated maps and signage. At work? It didn’t matter that my job experience matched the job requirements - I had to learn procedures and protocols written in layers of implicit cultural rules to do my job well.

With lots patience and determination, I forged relationships with Japanese friends colored by amae.

When a Japanese person offered me a gift or treated me to a meal, amae allowed me to understand that, aside from my own pleasure of returning the gesture, the act of reciprocating was essential for maintaining (and increasing) the harmony of the relationship.

When a friend didn’t feel the need to reciprocate my gesture of kindness right away, amae taught me that the sense of social obligation has been lifted out of this relationship, and that I was finally a member of that friend’s inner circle.

Amae was born out of the need to maintain group unity and solidarity during ancient times, when different people had to migrate and live together on a small island in early Japanese society. For me, amae became the fabric that wove together my Japanese consciousness and understanding.

Haragei 腹芸

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

Haragei, the implicit exchange of feelings and thoughts, is a Japanese way of indirect communication. Hara means belly, and gei is art.  It can take on different forms like facial expressions, silences, and euphemisms. The idea of haragei is so intricate and embedded within the Japanese culture that it becomes hard to explain in a few words.  For me, this practice took many months to first understand, and then to execute well.

Many acquaintances had invited me to visit their house, perhaps more than once. But when it came to actually accepting the invitation, they’d present a reasonable excuse, a delay of some kind.

It’s simply a polite and respectful gesture for my acquaintances to offer an invitation in the moment. Maintaining a pleasant conversation is always the priority, particularly for those within one’s soto (outsider) circle. But whether or not those offers have authentic intention behind it, is another story.

Because Japanese culture prioritizes the social codes of the group over the individual, haragei becomes an essential tool for  preserving group harmony.

A similar situation in reverse would also require my understanding of haragei. When I sought permission for something: May I please...? Would you like to...? Would it be possible to…? The answer was never an outright no, but rather, 10,000 roundabout answers conveying “no.” Rather than receiving an I’m sorry, that’s not possible, I had instead received many a reply like: That’s quite difficult, indeed…or Perhaps...or best of all, just a long, drawn out Hmmmmm.

Those all essentially mean “no” in Japanese.

In Japanese culture, speaking openly and directly is an assumption that the other person “knows nothing.” Therefore, ambiguity is a quintessential Japanese trait, indispensable for protecting harmony. Only after spending an extended period of time in Japan did I finally break through with certain Japanese friends, who expressed themselves directly after months and months of cultivating our friendship.

Plenty of misunderstandings abounded before I became accustomed to reading context and implicitness. For those who are oblivious to what is actually happening around them in a social situation, the term KY - slang for kuukiyomenai (空気読めない): literally “unable to read the atmosphere” - is jokingly applied… and I’ve found myself “KY” many times.

It has been a few years since I moved away from Japan, but one particular Japanese idiom has stuck with me since: deru kuchi wa utareru 出る杭は打たれる - the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

Though this saying is often quoted by foreigners as a direct criticism of the negative aspects of Japanese culture, the complete opposite is true for me: there is such simplicity, elegance, and beauty in a nail hammered so smoothly in the wood, perfectly aligned to form something with a greater, stronger purpose.

Sometimes it is humbling to be the “nail” that gets hammered down in the often harrowing process of assimilation to a country. Yet assimilation does not equate the abandonment of one’s identity. For me, navigating amae and haragei was but the tip of the iceberg that permanently shaped and molded me into the person I am today.

The key is to find the balance between maintaining one’s integrity while also respecting cultural values and norms. Be yourself - but be flexible and open to throwing one’s ego out the window, too. Revel in the fluidity required to flit between being an insider and an outsider. Only then can one begin the transformation from a gaijin to a naijin, wherever you live in the world.