ROCKSTAR SYNDROME How Everyday Foreigners in Japan Live and Die as Celebrities

July 20th, 2012By Category: Culture

Hello, my name is Justin (pictured left). I am a Rock Star.

Thousands of Westerners come to Japan each year to experience the traditional to the ultra-modern wonders the Land of the Rising Sun has to offer. In a country not as diverse ethnically as many others, a Westerner can easily feel juxtaposed against the background of millions of Japanese. You realize you are special in Japan and everything is new. These feelings of new discovery each day and the feeling of being loved by almost everyone (it seems) can last up to several years.

The short lived ‘15 minutes of fame’ phenomenon most Westerners encounter during their first experiences to Japan is known by many names, but for our purposes it shall be known as “Rock Star Syndrome.”

I have been invited to festivals from acquaintances, employers, and community members. I have been given gifts that were too expensive for me to even touch: work from a calligraphy artist with pieces in a Paris museum, tastes of alcohol worth more than my weekly salary, and Japanese ceramics known for their beauty and large price tags. Members of my Rock Star band, i.e. my other foreign friends, have all had similar experiences. Our egos were only boosted when we found ourselves being interviewed for television shows or newspaper articles. I even had the cleaning lady at school come up to me one morning with a big smile when she told me she saw me on television. Another time I received a frantic string of text messages on my phone one early morning from my host family. They saw a picture of me with some quotes in the local newspaper about a sweet potatoes harvest (yes, sweet potatoes).

Ignorance is bliss. Of course every society has rules, but some Westerners purposefully disregard the rules out of convenience or realization that they can lie or feign misunderstanding linguistically or culturally to get out of trouble. Westerners in Japan refer these acts as a “gaijin smash.”

As a Rock Star, you literally feel at the top of the world, so you make the rules. Have you ever heard that fame can get to your head? Perhaps it is similar to the false belief that after watching a kung fu movie you can beat up twenty bad guys. Ignorance is bliss. Of course every society has rules, but some Westerners purposefully disregard the rules out of convenience or realization that they can lie or feign misunderstanding linguistically or culturally to get out of trouble. Westerners in Japan refer these acts as a “gaijin smash.” The word gaijin is an abbreviation of the word gaikokujin, meaning outsider or foreigner. We all know what smash means. Smashing techniques include not sorting your trash, pretending to misconstrue the train system to pay for a cheaper ticket, or wearing shoes inside. Locals may become mad at some of these actions, but an “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t know” is enough to smooth things over for multiple offenses. You are a superstar; the rules don’t apply to you. Oh, and then there were the fans.

How many times have you been asked for your autograph? I lost count after a hundred and my hand is starting to numb. Volunteering and teaching at schools made me the cool guy in the eyes of students. They laughed at every joke. They all asked me for a “sain” –a play on the word ‘sign’— which means autograph in Japanese. The dozens of children paraded me to the parking lot, waving frantically in hopes I would return soon. Other fans went out of their way to: a passerby on the street drove me to my destination when I was lost and a lovely woman guided me through the chaos of Shibuya station. These are the fans every icon adores, but there are more hardcore fans.

I am talking about the groupies. Groupies are people that follow the Rock Star and are occasionally impossible to escape. There are the more desirable groupies looking for relationships for the long term or just a night. Japanese women approaching Western men, and to an extent Japanese men approaching Western women, is just part of a Rock Star’s life. People want to talk, to date, and sometimes do more with Westerners purely because they are Westerners. But there are other groupies that Westerners do not enjoy meeting. An overwhelming number of foreigners in Japan have experienced the English speaking groupie. This groupie usually has just low to mediocre level English, but you are a native speaker in a society with few around. It would be considered strange and probably rude if I went up to a Japanese person in the US and just asked to practice Japanese with them, but that way of thinking with an English speaker has not made its way across the Pacific. How many of these people want to be a friend and who wants English lessons? Gradually, the polarity of Rock Star Syndrome starts to reveal itself.

Like a Rock Star stretching out their fading career, the Westerner in Japan starts to notice changes after staying past their supposed welcome. Living in the same place and seeing the same people on a daily basis leads to an accustomed lifestyle. Things don’t seem as new and exciting as they used to be and you receive less hospitality than before. You are seen as more Japanese, so you need to start acting like the society you live in.. From here there are two paths; the first is the foreigner that stays in Japan long term. He or she has periods of stardom, and far too many unwanted groupies, yet ultimately their Rock Star life becomes normalized and most symptoms of the syndrome wear off. The other route is far more destructive.

There is nothing worse than when a Rock Star drug overdoses, breaks up with his band, or is criticized in the tabloids.

Combine these fateful events and you end up with the Rock Star that has left Japan and returned to their country. In effect, the Rock Star’s 15 minutes of fame is over, but Westerners’ egos are so hyped up from their experiences in Japan that a one day airplane ride is not going to change anything. For the most part, you are not unique in your own country. You are nothing special, but habits are hard to break. We were put on pedestals in Japan, but then we are back with the masses. Hitting on girls in Japan was easier and overly harmless, but in the West it is seen sexist, gross, and unwanted. No one recognizes the Rock Star offstage. The only people that will want your autograph will be bill collectors. Much of your money was probably spent on your luxurious trips in Japan, and fans are no longer giving you gifts or inviting you over for dinners. The only thing left of your Rock Star life will be the memories.

Author of this article

Justin Velgus

Justin Velgus is in love with Japan. In addition to his over 60 published articles about Japan, he is author of "Ai, Love You? Finding Friendship, Romance, and Heartbreak in Japan." Buy it on Xlibris ( or on Amazon. With a stay on a military base near Hiroshima, study abroad in the wintery northern Tohoku, and travels through Sapporo, Sendai, Akita, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and more, he has lived the Japanese experience. He enjoys sharing his passion through writing about the culture and people of Japan, being featured on media outlets such as Japan Tourist, Japan Today, and GaijinPot. He is continuing his Japan studies and is currently working on his next feature book.

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  • Tjoepoe says:

    Unfortunately I think this only happen to western people in Japan. But not to another foreigner.

  • I call it being “Brad Pitt” because it seems every Japanese girl thinks you are… I had a friend that taught in TK HS and would talk about how girls would just come up to him and grab him in the hall and say “Hello Mr. Clay. How are you?”

  • I like the way foreigners are treated in Japan, I lived in Chiba for a year. In the US or Europe, sometimes all I get is discrimination for being Latino, from people who think that we are just immigrants that want to take their jobs.

  • JMMADOJO says:

    Mmmm, not everyone witnesses this..
    If you live in areas heavily populated with foreigners you might cop the odd stare or glance every now and then but no randoms trying to talk to you in public or asking for an autograph often if at all.

    Not in Tokyo or Osaka atleast…

    Especially if you don’t walk around hanging out with other foreigners or doing your best to stick out.

    I could imagine it being like that in Tohoku or somewhere a little less crowded by foreigners though.

  • zoomingjapan says:

    “This groupie usually has just low to mediocre level English, but you are a native speaker in a society with few around.”

    You keep writing Westeners, but then you assume that all of us are native speakers of English? I know most Japanese assume that, but you should know better, right?

    I’ve never ever had any issues with those “free English lesson leechers” – or whatever you want to call them. I guess it’s mainly because I refuse to speak English. It’s not my native language and we’re in Japan after all, so I speak Japanese only in daily life.

    I don’t think that everybody will experience the kind of “Rock Star” lifestyle you described here.
    Yes, as a person who doesn’t look Asian you’ll be stared at. You’re exotic to the Japanese and they like that. If it’ll ever go beyond the staring or the typical question “You, America?” (ahem…) depends on too many things.
    I know NO foreigner who was ever asked for a “sain”, for example.
    I think part of it is also because you were on TV.

    I agree, though, that some foreigners use the “gaijin status” to get out of things and cause trouble for us others by their bad behavior.

    Thanks a lot for this interesting article!