Gaijin Space

Gaijin Space

Gaijin Space

Gaijin space, if you don’t know, is the space left on the sides of foreigners on the train seats. I’ve experienced it plenty. Often people will stand rather than sit next to me. One time a fellow, even though there was plenty of space between us on the seat, got up and moved to a different seat when one came available. Another time, when a mother pushed her little girl towards an empty space beside me, the girl looked at me with wide, terror-stricken eyes, pulled back, and came close to tears, while her frazzled mother kept pushing her. I got up and moved to a different seat so they could sit down.

My office mates had never heard of gaijin space and tried to come up with explanations.

“It’s probably not really discrimination,” said Gondo-san, an enthusiastic young materials scientist whose desk is littered with wires, small tools, tiny sticky notes, and textbooks on business English and entrepreneurship. “I don’t think it’s that sophisticated, not to that level. It’s more at a subconscious, inarticulate level.”

“I think they’re probably afraid that you’ll speak to them in English,” said Mit-chan (the for-women-only nickname for Miyazawa-san). “They think, what if she talks to me, asks me for directions, how will I respond?”

“Yeah,” said Takeshita-san, an even more enthusiastic young software programmer who eats candy and cakes all day long. “You should wear a sign that says, ‘Japanese OK.'”

“Um,” said Mit-chan, giving him her lethal big-sister look. “That might make things worse.”

Monorail Men in Black

No gaijin space for these folks

I don’t mind the gaijin space. I can spread out and breathe a little. And I understand. I generally don’t really want to sit next to them, either, at the end of a long day.

(No sitting happens in the mornings. I just hope the wheelchair corner has some open wall space, so I can rest my bag on the rail.)

Occasionally, though, I’ll get the opposite. It’s as though they pick me out of the crowd as the perfect train benchmate, and they cozy up right next to me, even when many seats are open. Tonight this happened twice.

Modern Monorail Samurai

This young man sometimes takes the wheelchair spot on my first, emptier train. That's okay. I think he needs it more than I do.

The first time was a young fellow with longish, shaggy, bleached red hair, green knit hat, shiny patent leather purple and black high tops, rolled up jeans, and orange puffy jacket. He was petite, but when he plopped down he took up about three spaces. When someone stood in front of him and tried to sit down, he surprised me by sliding towards me rather than towards the gentleman in black on his other side. He scooted right up next to me until the fur on his hood tickled my cheek. He plunked his white patent leather sports bag onto his lap and pulled out an iPad. He started looking at photos.

My Morning View on the Monorail

I got lucky this time--wall space!

Really, iPads weren’t designed for discreet viewing on crowded Japanese trains. I wonder if Apple did a user case scenario of this situation. The photos weren’t outright porn, and there were some cartoons mixed in, but I blushed at a couple of them (the one with the Ronald McDonald statue–really!). He seemed rather bored by the whole business. I tried hard not to see, to focus on my Zadie Smith novel on the much, much smaller screen of my old iPhone.

Still, he seemed a tame enough, squeaky clean young ruffian, and it was rather novel to have someone sit so close. I was sorry to see him go.

He disembarked at Ibaraki station, and a long-legged, cool-as-ice, hot-as-fire middle-aged woman walked on, probably about my age, but with a whole lot more ambiance than I can ever hope to achieve. She wore a knee-length blue linen jacket over a fuzzy red sweater, a multicolored sparkly scarf, tan ankle boots, red knit hat, dark blue-black jeans, and a nonchalant the-world-is-my-cherry attitude. I wondered if she was from a different country, or maybe Tokyo, she walked with such lanky, laid-back grace. No makeup; well-manicured, short nails with no polish. I wanted to be this woman.

She started towards the bench across from me, paused, then turned and with a slight smile and the tiniest bit of eye contact with me, slouched down right next to me and pulled out her iPhone and started reading. I came close to hugging her. I didn’t want to get up when my station came. I wanted to talk to her and find out her story.

But my transfer station was announced, and reluctantly, I got up and left.

My Last Train of the Day

There's always plenty of space for everyone on my last train home at night.

I have an overactive imagination, but I thought that maybe for these two people tonight, at a subconscious, inarticulate level, I felt like a safer alternative for a seatmate than the tired, serious businessmen in black trench coats.

About July McAtee

American gal turned Japanese "salaryman" for a while. I'm blogging my experiences as my daughter and I move from Silicon Valley to Japan and beyond.
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11 Responses to Gaijin Space

  1. When I studied abroad in Chiba, I always got gaijin space. But now that I’m working down in Nagoya, I’d be hardpressed to point out a time when someone hasn’t tried to squeeze in down next to me on the train. No, they’ve never talked to me. No, eye contact was never made. But… Yeah.

    Maybe it’s a regional difference thing?

    • July McAtee says:

      Hi 栗子. That’s interesting. It probably does depend on location, and maybe on the train line, and of course, on the individual. Also, I bet it’s easy to think it’s “gaijin space” more often than it really is.

  2. Mr. Reader says:

    Hey July! Where are you? I miss your musings and your visions of the world!

    • July McAtee says:

      Mr. Reader!! It’s so good to hear from you! Thank you for reminding me…I keep thinking of posts and then never writing them. But I will. Thanks for being my reader.

  3. Onini says:

    I wonder how much is imagination. I got on a crowded Midosuji train one time, sitting so close to a teenage girl that we could not help but touch one another. As the train moved through Ueno and thinned out, she didn’t budge even though by that time there was plenty of space. (I didn’t move either, because I had my favorite spot with my other side at the end of the seat.)

    Anyway, I think she got up and left at Shinosaka or someplace like that. The whole time she was plugged into her phone playing a video game. I honestly don’t think she noticed I was there.

    I’ve seen Japanese give other Japanses space too. As time passed during my Osaka sojourn I came to be less convinced that gaijin space was that big a deal.

    • July McAtee says:

      It probably is imagination to a great extent, though not always. Anyway, the Midosuji is a totally different culture from the Osaka Monorail. Midosuji is much more down-home Osaka, full of all kinds of oddballs, so you were probably practically normal there. 🙂 Truth be told, ever since I wrote this post, I stopped noticing it at all on any trains.

  4. Onini says:

    Where I noticed a strong reaction to my big gaijin self was whenever I entered an izakaya. Initially I was shunned. Then when people heard me speaking to the itamae-san in Japanese, they would begin to warm up. By the end of the night we would be regaling each with tall tales, and I would the center of attention. (Well, I probably was anyway.)

    I am firmly convinced the reaction was essentially completely the fear of Having to Speak English. Once that fear was alleviated, curiosity took over.

  5. NyNy says:

    OMG, I’ve never experienced that in Japan! :O The only time I really took the train though was in Tokyo though.

    By the way, I have my own blog which focuses on Asian culture and entertainment such as video games and I wonder if it is possible for you to view it and tell me what you think and how to improve my blog in the “About the Writer” page please:

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