2014 Fall Steven Tang

Gaijin Stories Part 1

Being foreigners, in a culture that seems to be the complete opposite of America in various ways tends to create a lot of interesting “gaijin moments” as me and my friends call them. (Gaijin is the Japanese term for foreigners). While being a gaijin gives you some perks (since residents don’t expect you to know any better), it also makes it more difficult for you to fit in. My original plan was to accumulate enough of these stories to make a dedicated post about these kinds of stories, but the gaijin moments are getting less and less frequent as my group becomes more accustomed to Japan’s culture, so I figured now would be a good time to post some of them. Some of them are quite funny, while others are meant to be a cautionary tale. Anyways, I hope they prove to be useful and entertaining!


Normally the train system is very easy to figure out, but every once in a while, Japan throws us a curve ball. Once, my friend and I rushed onto a train on our way back from Shibuya. After a couple of minutes of wondering why there weren’t any guys on this train besides us, our eyes landed on this sign.

Ops, we accidentally boarded the women’s only train
Oops, we accidentally boarded the women’s only train

Fortunately, the looks we were given were the “oh, another gaijin got in the wrong train.” But then, my friend thought it was a good idea to take a picture of the sign. His phone made the camera sound, and everyone immediately turned their gaze in our direction! Luckily, there was no one in front of us and everyone figured out that we were just taking a picture of the sign, but we were quite embarrassed once we realized our mistake.

While we are on the topic of trains, earlier this week, a friend of mine, exhausted from a long day at school, noticed a seat available next to an elderly man, and intended to ask, “Suwatte mo ii desuka?,” which translates to “can I sit here?” Instead he mispronounced the phrase and said, “Sawatte mo ii desuka?” A terrible mistake, which translates to “may I touch you?” The man give my friend a really strange look, while I hurried to drag my friend out of the situation and told him to apologize to the man. The man realized what my friend was trying to say and laughed. My friend and I, on the other hand, were about to die out from the embarrassment. Lesson of the day, changing a vowel can completely change the meaning of a word.


Anyone that does a little research on Japan’s culture always happens to find that Japan’s innovation has no limits, and even extends to their toilets. I fortunately read about Japan’s famous toilets beforehand, and knew just enough kanji to figure out the function of each button. Unfortunately, one of my friends did not, and while trying to find the flush button, instead got sprayed in the face. Lesson here, you should probably do some basic research before going abroad to avoid a lot of embarrassing mistakes.

One of the rules I didn’t find online.
One of the rules I didn’t find online: that light is important!

See that light at the top of the door? That is the only difference between an occupied shower, and an unoccupied one. As I a teenager, I never understood why the “walking in on someone” scene was common in anime. Upon arriving in Japan, I discovered that none of the doors in my house have locks (besides the toilets). Suddenly, it all made sense. If you want to avoid awkward situations, you should definitely stay vigilant.

As a side note, the bathtub is treated more like a Jacuzzi than a bathtub (my friend apparently made the mistake of washing himself in the bathtub instead; pretty sure his family wasn’t thrilled when they had to drain all of the water). The bath is more for soaking and relaxing, not for cleaning your body. You should definitely shower first before you enter the bathtub. As for the shower, there is usually a small stool for you to sit on while you wash yourself, with a giant mirror in front of you. At first, my friends and I all thought it was kind of awkward and strange, but we understood the logic, and have grown accustomed to it.

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