On Being From Somewhere Else in Japan


One of the most useful discoveries of a recent trip to Italy was that I had remembered some Italian curse words overheard during my childhood at my grandmother’s house, where older relatives would engage in a memory contest of their native language after a few glasses of wine. A corrupt Roman hotelier and later, a hostel that would not refund my money, resurrected those words that had been buried in some unconscious graveyard of language.

This was in sharp contrast to the language I’d acquired in Japan, which was rudimentary at best and skimmed from textbooks. Though my grandfather sent language exercises to me from Japan in the mail, it wasn’t the background noise of family outings. The language, when I used it, was cold and academic; nothing like the joy of telling a condescending desk clerk to va fan culo.

It did, however, resurrect a curious fantasy from my Japanese life: overhearing a conversation demeaning me for my foreignness, and then speaking up and correcting them in Japanese. On a train once, after a bout of collective hanami-viewing in which foreigners and Japanese were equally drunk on cherry blossoms and beer, an angry teen in a mullet shouted at us in broken English to “Shut up on train!” and then muttered something about gaijin going back to gaikoku, a sentence that literally means ‘foreign people (gaijin) should go back to the foreign country (gaikoku).’ A moderately fluent Australian friend responded in Japanese before blurting out in English, “Where the f–k is gaikoku?”

The fantasy features prominently in other stories by foreigners in Japan. David Zoppetti is a writer and an Italian who was educated and raised in Japan. His book, 1999’s Ichigensan (‘First-time Customer’), features a scene in which he is ridiculed by a Japanese man in an onsen. He retaliates in a perfect local Japanese dialect and goes on to school the Japanese man in proper onsen conduct – the guy then disappears in shame.

Genkan Wit
My Japanese ability always condemned my rebuttals to l’esprit d’escalier  — a staircase wit, with the staircase leading away from my Japanese class. But these fantasies of the quick comeback speak to a perfect placement of non-Asian foreigners within Japanese society: The half-in, half-out visitor. Three years is too long to be a vacation, but too short to be a native. In an essay by Rumi Sakamoto, “Writing as out/insiders,”  she writes that non-Asian foreigners in Japan participate in the ‘same life-space’ as everyone else – slurping noodles, quietly riding trains to similar offices, singing in karaoke bars, getting drunk at the same office parties, but nonetheless are constantly treated as something from outside. For so many people, Japan isn’t a community, it’s a solitary experience.

Japan, after all, has the lowest ratio of immigrants among Western countries, and few Japanese want more coming in. And while that study showed that meeting and mingling with foreigners – and speaking English – raised the level of comfort among native Japanese with increased immigration, it also shows the country has a long way to go before it embraces anything akin to multiculturalism.

This leads to a particular kind of homelessness that I find in common with some people who have gone to Japan: It’s not about the formation of friendships, per se, or acceptance in an office of coworkers that made us feel lonely, it was the sustained and ever-present presumption of difference. In so much literature about migrants living in other adopted homelands, the sense is that it is always possible to integrate to some extent, to form a hybrid identity, to negotiate between your old home and the new.

Living in a global city like London, as I do now, I am surrounded by difference to the extent that it lacks notability. The woman on the phone speaks Hungarian next to a Nigerian man reading an American newspaper, the Italian restaurant is run by a family from Mumbai. Certainly, they are not ‘insiders’, but anyone who matters would allow them to call themselves “Londoners.” But watch what happens when a white guy living in Japan tries to say he’s ‘Japanese’.

For foreigners, being ‘Japanese’ means negotiating your difference while defending your right to belong. If you find your globally minded friendship group, or even start a family, you will nonetheless cause a cashier to tremble as she asks if you want a bag, fearing her confrontation with somebody who is from somewhere.

Even if I said something in Japanese, they all look as if looking at a clever doll, and say ‘very good’ with a Japanese smile, and either answer in English or fall silent. I don’t know WHY.
I don’t understand why this is the way it is.
-Levy Hideo,
“A Room Where Stars and Stripes Cannot be Heard.”

The frustration I felt in Japan was the frustration at the imaginariness of it all – the pain of knowing that everyone is subscribing to an ideology of racial similarity and difference that is arbitrary to the point of silliness. The Japanese are not unique from any other nation constructed by human beings, but many seemed to insist upon it, at the expense of connecting to the foreigners who live and visit.

Assimilation Tag
The pleasure in my fantasies of a quick-witted rebuttal is from proving I had a place. It was part of that strange unconscious drive I always felt urging me to assimilate into Japanese culture.

I suspect it’s why so many expats play weird games of one-upmanship. I remember, when my (now ex) girlfriend arrived to live with me in Japan, trying to fill her in on how she was supposed to use the sidewalk. It was a dickish example of ‘assimilation tag,’ where I got to remind myself of my acculturation by being pedantic about it to somebody else. It’s tag because it’s like tapping on the shoulder and declaring that they’re now ‘it’: The new person, the one who has to chase all the little details they’re supposed to learn.

I was taking pride in the small steps I was making, because the rest of the country sure as hell wasn’t going to. There’s a hierarchy of belonging, and it feels good to prove you belong by condescendingly telling some fresh foreigner how much you’ve figured out.

The joke, of course, is that Japanese culture celebrates the most ‘assimilated’ foreigners (so long as they are white, middle-class or higher, and educated) on talk shows to marvel at how someone so different can adopt so many of the same characteristics as those who were born in Japan. The implication is that, as close as we come to ‘adopting’ a Japanese identity, we’re really just mimics.

Wishing I Was Two-Faced
Typically, going to a new place poses two challenges to who we were in the old one: There’s acculturation, the adoption of basic culture such as speaking, eating and dressing like a local; and social assimilation, in which immigrants are fluent in the social and institutional expectations of their new homes. New identities are formed, rejected, and negotiated in the process of mastering these roles in a new context.

In Japan, the balance is skewed toward acculturation. I can eat with chopsticks, but I don’t know how to stop being asked if I can eat with chopsticks. As such, I have acculturated to a place that acknowledges that I am learning, but never acknowledges my right to master it. On the other side, I feel an internalized sense of humiliation when I feel an urge, as I still do, to bow after I’m complimented by a teacher, or when I feel weird wearing shoes inside someone’s flat (I get just as much shit for being an American who says ‘flat’).

The assumption is: You’re a fraud. And when I explain, “Hey, I lived in Japan for three years…” the response is, to varying degrees of politeness, “Yeah, get over it.”

In and Out
Since leaving Japan, I’ve become more aware of the artificiality of culture. My life in London is the opposite of Japan and the constant awareness of difference. Here we’re steeped in cultural indifference, or we’re assholes. Japanese ideology meant that I would never make progress toward authentic belonging. No wonder it was so frustrating!

Sakamoto’s survey of expat literature in Japan showed that home and community aren’t part of their story. The relationship between the authors and their adopted Japanese identities, and their homes, are solitary. The experiences that bind us to a community are supposed to be shared, but the constant assertion of difference in Japan, the refusal to disrupt the traditional Japanese way of life, a refusal to meet someone from somewhere, and an insistence that the starting point of being Japanese was being from Japan, all get in the way.

I have often described Japan as being a lonely experience, or at least, a deeply personal one. I know why: In London, when you get a pint at 5 p.m., you’re a guy getting a pint at 5 p.m. In Japan, I slurped ramen noodles, felt the personal satisfaction of executing a perfect bow before a shrine, discovered a deep appreciation of cherry blossoms and will forever associate the sound of cicadas with summer. In any other country, that would bind me to a community and a language of traditions and belonging, but in Japan I was doing it in a sealed-off room. To the salarymen at the ramen shop, I wasn’t one of the guys slurping noodles — I was a foreigner playing at noodle-slurping. Perhaps the expat in Japan is best summed up in the words of the notoriously language-mangling Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn:  “Include me out!”

I’ve learned that all cultures are hanging on imagined ideologies of belonging and difference. So when I landed in Italy I was skeptical of feeling any connection to the place that my father’s parents came from almost 75 years ago. Italy was a country like any other, like the UK, like France, like Japan. But then I found a long-forgotten style of pastry my relatives used to eat, and then the words to tell the concierge where to stick his head, and suddenly the connection between place and identity became understandable: Home is where the stuff we know and love hangs out, the place where you can be surprised by nostalgia instead of novelty.

It’s just hard when the ‘home’ we yearn for always insists we never really lived there.

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16 Responses to On Being From Somewhere Else in Japan

  1. Oh, I always fantasize about being able to pull off witty comebacks in Japanese… but I’m not much good at them in English anyways. Possibly my proudest moment was when I caught a group of Japanese tourists calling me a gaijin… in TAIWAN… and kindly reminded them in Japanese, to their shock, that they were gaijin in Taiwan, too.

  2. JDobinsky says:

    Reblogged this on A Jodi Abroad and commented:
    A friend of mine posted this blog on Facebook today and I felt the need to pass it on. [A note, this is not an article I wrote. This is someone else’s post that I thought was interesting and insightful.]

  3. Brilliant post. The low ratio of immigrants is both a blessing and a curse I think – it’s one reason that the country is so unique, but it’s also a reason that it can be really difficult to be a foreigner there.

  4. Reblogged this on !an Exclamat!on and commented:
    On living in Japan as a foreigner, this is spot on in a lot of ways. Brilliant read.

  5. Buugabuuga says:

    It’s kind of ironic. Japanese is full of shy people, so I don’t know why foreigners will come here, and expect the country to just open up to them. YOU have to be the one to take the lead of your experience. Ask people questions about themselves. Steer the conversation topics away from what makes you different. If you’re sitting at your desk and just expecting people to make friends, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re just sitting at the bar counter and expecting friends to just walk up to you, you’re doing it wrong.

    The ones who constantly force your foreignness on you are not worth your time anyway. Believe it or not, this country does have some cool people who will talk to you and hang out with you. Don’t worry if you spread some 違和感 on the dumb ones while you are trying to find the cool ones.

    • Nyasha says:

      I think it depends on the person. I like that Japan is full of shy people and I can blend in nicely. But I also like to socialise too.

  6. hanikas says:

    Reblogged this on what ought to be and commented:
    for myself to keep note in the future!

  7. footintheface says:

    With all the traveling and cultures you have experienced…It’s refreshing to read that you felt some emotional bond from your visit to Italy…after all…you are an Italian…and it has been said ( maybe by you) that travel makes us more aware that we never escape ourselves…and the wonderful red shoe clicking knowledge, that there’s no place like home…

  8. zoomingjapan says:

    I wrote about this before, too. I feel that anybody who doesn’t “look Japanese” will always be treated like an outsider. I think that’s also one of the biggest issues for those of us who decide to make Japan their new home.
    I’ve been here for over 6 years now and the funny thing is it actually bothers me more the longer I stay here.

    I feel very “safe” in this homogenous country, though. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s like I know what to expect. I know I will only run into a few of foreigners, most of them are tourists and I know that the majority of people are Japanese. It’s “easy” to deal with that kind of routine.

    I sometimes visit my home country, Germany, which has changed a lot in the past few years. It’s pretty much like you describe London. Even in my small home town, I hear so many different languages, rarely German. It has become a multi-cultural country. Crime rates have gone up, too.

    As a foreigner living in Japan, I wish we would be properly “included”, but on the other hand I wonder what will happen to Japan if it becomes a multi-cultural country with lots of immigrants. I just can’t see that.

    Great article! :)

  9. Nikki says:

    I find this well written, but parts of it are a little baffling.

    Those lines by Levy Hideo? What is with the vitriolic necessity to make it seem like ALL Japanese people (“they all” according to Levy) are the same in their reactions to foreigners? I have been living here for 9 months, and have rarely if ever felt pandered to by your average person. I’m nowhere near fluent, but I do stick to Japanese only for a lot of my interactions, and I live in Sapporo, the fifth largest city in the country, so maybe those factors have something to do with it.

    Shop employees are casual and ask me the same practical questions and make the same observations and jokes as they might with a Japanese person. My coworkers have invited me to their houses to meet their families, and while they do initially appreciate the novelty of my speaking ability and interests, I can also engage in conversations with them that have little or nothing to do with foreignness. It’s the same thing as any other conversation. Any pandering reaction is purely surprise that I know anything about their culture, which I suspect has everything to do with the fact that they don’t get to interact with many of them, and that a lot of the foreigners who come here do so without any understanding of Japanese culture or history beyond whatever anime du jour has spurred their obsession. At least, this is the case with a lot of the expatriates I’ve met, and they also happen to be the ones who have the greatest difficulty dealing with their daily lives and their coworkers.

    I’ve only been asked once if I could use chopsticks, after meeting a person for the first time, which I interpreted as their attempt as a very shy Japanese person to break the ice. My view of the chopsticks goes like this; it’s used as an in, with the hope that the foreign person will answer “Yes, I’ve been using them since…” and then the conversation and the friendship can begin. It’s a door, not a wall.

    Is it any wonder that the same people who lump all Japanese people together in the “they all” umbrella also feel like outsiders? Because they are already viewing them as different, it naturally makes them internalize the feeling of being different from them. In my work and life here I treat Japanese people the same as I would American versions of the same people, just with different quirks. A bow here, some of the rehearsed keigo that everyone says at certain times around the office there; stuff I expected to have to do. As a result, I often feel like I’m treated as one of the gang, even if I am an outsider and don’t interact as much as I could – I’m can be shy, too.

    • owwls says:

      To be fair, the “they all” in Hideo’s quote is specifically referring to a group of school children, not the entire Japanese population, but I see how I left that out- and your point still stands. (Hideo is also born and raised in Japan, but was treated as a foreigner because he’s white).

      • Nikki says:

        Oh, that changes it a bit! But I have still heard statements like that from other expatriates. And being born and raised… I think that’s a whole different issue, and does deserve some sympathy in the same way that minority populations in the US are judged on a daily basis even though we proclaim to be an enlightened society. Don’t get me wrong, I love and hate aspects of the US and Japan, but I can’t help but feel like if the shoe were on the other foot, Japanese people with a rudimentary grasp of English would feel left out among peers in America. It can be a universal program, but it’s never accurate to say it’s one way or the other 100% of the time.

        Thank you for responding and for clearing that up! I really enjoy your blog.

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