Some time ago, was on an extended stay in Tokyo for work. When one is living there, there are things one must do, like make an effort to live up to being a henna gaijin.
I must disagree with those who translate that as “strange foreigner.” The proper translation is “crazy foreigner.” I’d never heard henna softened to strange before visiting Maiyim-Baron-sama’s web site.
One of my co-workers there was an American chap who spent at least part of his childhood on Okinawa, married a Japanese woman, and was living permanently there. He helped greatly in my craziness.
The term isn’t precisely an insult, and it isn’t precisely a compliment. If you came to lunch and two Japanese on extended stay were discussing Marlowe, Sheridan, and The Great Vowel Shift in their comic stereotypically bad accents, you’d see a bit of what henna gaijin means. Being a henna gaijin is a bit like being a dancing bear. The people watching you throw yourself into their culture are amused, a bit admiring, a bit repulsed, and a bit piteous that you might think enough you could succeed at any degree of assimilation.
It’s harder for a Brit to be a henna gaijin than an American because part of the craziness is the things you get wrong. Brits won’t get into the wrong side of the car or look the wrong way when crossing a street. Having to do a right-left shift along with everything else adds to the dancing-bear-ness of being a henna gaijin. Having to re-learn to read and write is also a lot of it.
However, I knew my place and threw myself into the craziness aspects. Since it’s impossible to blend in, I dressed to stand out. It was winter, so I wore a long black coat and a white silk aviator’s scarf. I came in to work in the morning with a breakfast of sushi rolls and heated cans of oolong tea (which I used as hand-warmers in my coat pockets, having left my gloves back in New England). I’d go do traditional things natives never did, such as go to the Kabuki theatre. I’d sign my name in a mix of kanji and (shock horror) hiragana.
Most importantly, I’d point out other things that were crazy. I would playfully suggest that actually “gaijin” means “barbarian.” No, no, no, no, they’d insist. I’d be amused, because it isn’t true, but the disdain gaijin get makes it closer to barbarian than a culture that has no irony is comfortable with. Brits will find themselves asking forgiveness for ever suggesting Yanks don’t do irony. Japan is an irony-free zone and when you forget this you must follow through or cause your hosts to lose face. Do not say anything like, “Oh, that sounds the the perfect way to spend a Sunday” because you will be spending your Sunday in precisely that way. If you mix irony and natto, you will get a side-spitting tale you can use for the rest of your life.
My fellow henna gaijin and I would refer to each other as firstname-kun and our colleagues as lastname-san, partially for effect (the ostentatious use of -kun) but also because gaijin call each other by their given names rather than surnames. How henna.
I also insisted that *I* was the Easterner, and they were the Westerners. My proof was simple. What direction did I go in when I came to Tokyo? East. And what direction did they go in when they went to Boston? West. Therefore, while Japan may be the land of the rising sun, that’s because it’s in the far west rather than the far east. If it weren’t in the west, the sun couldn’t rise in the east. If it were in the far east, the sun would rise overhead. QED. (And yes, the sun does rise overhead in Boston. If you don’t believe me, come find out for yourself.)