The Problem of the Gaijin

Coming back to Nagano after almost 10 years, one of the biggest differences I notice is the amount of Gaijin (foreigners) around. Seeing other white people where I grew up was quite an event. I always stared at them in fascination, wondering how they ended up in such a random place in rural Japan (only later recognizing the irony in that they were probably wondering the same thing).

Granted, I now live in tourism central with the Snow Monkey Park just minutes away, where upwards of 50,000 international tourists visit every year. Shiga Kogen, the largest ski resort in Asia, is 30 minutes up the mountain. Yet things have changed too. All of the sudden Japan is on the world’s travel map. People have realized that Japan does not equal Tokyo, it’s cheaper to travel to than America or Europe, it has amazing food, history and culture, and that it gets some of the best powder snow in the world. Even with the tsunami of 2011, inbound tourism to Japan has increased 30% per annum over the last several years.

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This presents a problem and an opportunity. In the age of cheaper Chinese manufacturing and depopulation (Japan has the lowest birth rate in the world) industries like tourism are necessary to the country’s long-term financial viability. I have wondered for years why Japan did such a poor job marketing themselves to the outside world. They have finally got the word out, but as a result of so much foreign influence, Japan (or the part of Japan that I know) will not stay the same. For Western cultures built on immigration and mingling, adding more people groups to the mix feels like a positive, diversifying influence. In Japan it makes me feel nostalgic, like part of their heritage will be lost forever (again, ironic because I am part of my own so-called problem).

Through the observation of international tourists, however, I have realized that there are constructive and infuriating people who come to this country. It’s well-known here that ski resorts like Hakuba and Niseko and are filled with more Gaijin than Japanese (these resorts are called little Australia). Two weeks ago, I went to something called a fire festival in Nozawa Onsen, where they burn that year’s New Years decorations and ornaments. I was excited to see a cultural event that dates back centuries, and to get some free sake. Instead, I found drunken foreigners (and Japanese for that matter) stumbling around yelling obscenities in the streets and getting into fights. It was unfortunate. I found it disappointing that in the one place that values respect above almost everything else, these people had none.

But I suppose that’s what travel is about. Once everyone has discovered a place it’s not exciting – at least for the genuine traveler. Hawaii is relaxing but I would not call someone who sips pina coladas on Waikiki Beach a very adventurous traveler. The most genuine cultural experiences happen when there isn’t anyone else who looks like you. And even if there is, it’s about wanting to know more about a place’s people, food, values etc. As a person who loves this place and loves travel, those are the types of travelers I appreciate the most – and welcome back.

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”

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