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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Struggles of Being Foreign in Japan

Disclaimer: I am writing this to shed light on my life as a foreigner in Japan and focusing on negative aspects of it. Overall, living in Japan has far more pluses than minuses, so please don't think I am "bashing" the country in any regard. I love Japan and its people! Please read with an open mind, and I would love to hear about your experiences or opinions on the matter or any similar matter.


I've started this post a number of times and always find myself unhappy with it. Sometimes it feels too factual, other times I sound defensive, and sometimes it feels like I’m being too defensive. It’s a topic that is very pertinent to my daily life and the lives of many of my friends. I've talked about it at length with a number of different people from different backgrounds and I still  think the extent to which I completely understand how I feel about it is lacking. Simply put, I’m a foreigner in Japan. I have spent three years living in a country that I sometimes feel doesn't even want me around or doesn't take me seriously.

When I first heard about Blog Action Day I sat in my apartment wondering what exactly I could give to the topic. During my life I've never really felt discriminated against for my race or gender or the things I have liked. I grew up in white middle-class America, I have no college debt, and I never really had to work until I wanted to. While I am a woman, which presents its own issues with inequality, I've never been personally affected by those problems. Even still, I feel as if my struggles with inequality are minimal compared with those that have struggled historically.

In the three years I have lived in Japan I've lived in towns of various sizes. I started in a small city of 150,000 people in rural Yamaguchi prefecture. Seven months later, I moved to Hokkaido to live in a small village of 5,000 people where there were only two foreign girls in the entire place, myself included. Currently, I live in Sapporo. It is Japan's fourth largest city and home to nearly two million people. In 1972 it hosted the Winter Olympics and in 2002 it hosted a few games of the World Cup. Every winter season the area is flooded by foreigners who are here to visit the various ski resorts as annually the city gets roughly 20 feet of snow (600 cm). Seeing someone who isn't Japanese should be fairly common, at least by Japan standards.

Of course, it is a country where over 98% of the population is ethnically Japanese, so you aren't likely to see someone who doesn't look Asian on a daily basis. Many Japanese people don’t even see a foreigner until their first English lesson with an ALT (assistant language teacher) who will be a native speaker of the language from a different country. Coming from America it is still strange to see so many people who are of the same ethnicity walking around. I grew up in Orlando, Florida, so it’s easy to say that I am very used to seeing people of different nationalities on a regular basis. The homogeneous nature of Japan is very foreign to me.

Japanese people may be some of the kindest and most polite people in the world. On the subway I don’t even think I've seen someone talk on their phone outside of a few brief seconds to say they can’t talk. I can’t even remember the last time I heard someone’s phone go off in public. Crying children are promptly taken out of public spaces and in general the children keep to themselves. When you go shopping the clerks make you feel like royalty, bowing and walking you to the exit as if that $10 purse you bought was actually made by Jesus. The decrease in customer service is something I always have to adjust to when I go back to America.

I am not Asian.
Perhaps this cultural stress on being polite and minding yourself around strangers is what makes the Japanese mindset towards foreigners that much more insulting and frustrating. When I go out in public I am always being watched. If I want to pop out quickly to buy some milk at the convenience store down the block there will be at least one person who stares at me the entire time. If I am sitting in a café reading, there will be people looking at me every time I glance up. It’s something Japanese, and even foreigners who look Asian, don’t experience. Oftentimes I’ll walk with an Asian-looking person and they’ll say things such as, “this never happens to when I walk alone.”

Other times people try to get as far away from me as possible. The number of times the last seat on the subway is next to me is every time. It is also common for a group of Japanese people argue among themselves as to who will be the one to sit next to the foreigner, laughing and trying to get the shyest member to sit next to me. It’s as if just sitting beside someone who isn't Japanese is a huge deal, like I’ll suddenly start talking to them.

When I lived in Yamaguchi prefecture I went to visit the festival in the city neighboring mine. I don’t even think I had been in Japan for four full months at the time. It was crowded, with people cluttered in the streets watching the shrine procession go past. I was alone, snapping pictures on my camera and trying to absorb some Japanese culture when I heard snickering behind me. I turn to look, thinking maybe something funny was happening, but there was nothing. A group of maybe five high school boys were standing there, huddled together, looking at me. When they caught my eye one of the boys grinned and shoved his friend, who stumbled out before me and quickly went, “Hello! How are you?” then ran off with his friends. I stood there silently, frustrated. It felt to me like I was some sort of sideshow freak out in town, when in reality I was just a girl with curly brown hair, pale skin, and blue eyes standing on a sidewalk.

Since then I have these encounters on a weekly basis. Just this past weekend I was walking down a street with some friends and a group of (drunk) Japanese guys did the standard “Hello!” only to giggle and not even care if we responded to them. The worst of these is when the group starts speaking in Japanese assuming you can’t understand and you hear things like, “wow she’s so big,” or “her nose is very tall!” Even the blatantly positive comments about me being “beautiful” and having “water blue eyes” are often unwelcome. While these things are never done out of malice, the knowledge that I am constantly being watched, constantly being examined, constantly being judged is tiresome. I can’t even go grocery shopping without feeling as if everyone is looking in my basket to see what I am buying, since most times they are.

There are other situations in which being a foreigner is a huge disadvantage. When I was looking for an apartment I could only go to a small selection as the others wouldn't want to rent to me. When I got my cell phone I had to buy it outright because they don’t trust foreigners to do the monthly payments ($500 dollars vs. a $20 monthly payment). There are also the times when I have walked into a smaller café or bar and had the owner look at me as if I was the biggest piece of scum they have ever seen and all the want is for me to leave.

It is scary, too, at times. I am a woman and oftentimes I am on my own. The number of instances I have had of an older Japanese man getting right in my face and just looking at me silently without saying anything is too many. While Japan is a relatively “safe” country, things still happen (and have) so this gross invasion of my personal space when I am just waiting for a friend in a public space is extremely off-putting.

What perhaps makes me the saddest are the Japanese people who use foreigners for their own personal benefit. It’s not uncommon for me to be invited to parties to just be a foreign face. Oftentimes I’ll say I’m going to an event with some foreign friends and it will suddenly be advertised as an international party where Japanese people can come and speak English. It’s as if these people don’t care about getting to know me as a person, they just care what having me on their Facebook friends list means to others.

I understand that I am a visitor in this country, that my purpose here is to broaden the Japanese global perspective and allow Japanese children to get used to the idea of a “foreigner”. I am, however, still a person. I’m not some amusement attraction allowed to be on their own and I am not some monkey in a zoo. I am also not a status symbol that you can use to make yourself feel cultured and more globally aware. I am a person with feelings and boundaries. I’m not that different from a Japanese person. I get hungry, I get cranky, I have days where I just want to relax and not put on a “good” face, and I care about what people are saying about me even if I don’t know them.

I am sure these experiences are not limited to just Japan, and may be things expats experience in general regardless of the country and regardless of how much they stand out as being foreign. In this day in age, however, I think it’s important to keep in mind that we are all humans on this planet and that we all have similar wants and needs. Just because we may look different from each other, may speak a different language, and may have had a completely different upbringing doesn't mean we’re a different species, just a different race.

I wrote this post for the 2014 Blog Action Day please click here to learn more about the event and read other great posts about the topic of "inequality".

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