Being a foreigner in Japan has its good and its bad points and I’m sure everyone who has lived in Japan for several years like me has their own experiences and strange encounters.
I always joke about it, but actually it’s the truth: By now I could write a book about all those experiences.
Instead I decided to share my experiences as a foreigner in Japan with you in this new blog series.
I think and hope that this will be an interesting series for anybody.
For people who live or used to live in Japan, for example. I also love to read about other people’s experiences concerning life as a foreigner.
I also think it’s important to know what to expect for people who intend to come and live in Japan.
As a tourist, it’s maybe not necessary, but sometimes it will help you understand certain situations better and deal with them accordingly.
Tourists in Japan
When I first came to Japan in 2007, it was as a short-term tourist.
Of course I read stories about a few things concerning Japan and so I felt prepared.
One thing was that they’d stare at you a lot, but at that time I didn’t recognize it at all.
I was almost disappointed at the lack of staring.
Yes, they did stare, but not much.
Why is your experience as tourist often so much different from people who actually live in Japan?
Well, there might be many reasons, but I think it’s because most of you (esp. for your first visit) choose the major tourist spots such as Tokyo or Kyoto.
Naturally there are a lot of foreign visitors and Japanese people there are used to seeing foreigners. They even expect foreigners to be there.
Thus, there will be much less staring.
Then, if you’re like me, you’ll be so fascinated and in a dream world and stare at all the awesome things around that you always wanted to see and now they’re RIGHT in front of you that you just won’t notice people staring at you.
Generally you’ll experience Japan in a different way as a tourist. It’s not only the staring! It’s EVERYTHING!
Let’s face the truth, most tourists who come to Japan speak no Japanese or very little. And that’s okay, because they’re just visitors.
Japanese people know that, of course, and try hard to communicate with you in English.
As long as you are a non-Asian foreigner, they will think that you can speak only English. They won’t ever expect you to be able to speak Japanese.
However, that’s okay. You are just a tourist!
If you answer in broken Japanese, they will be super happy and won’t ever stop to praise your “awesome” Japanese.
After a simple “arigato” they’ll enthusiastically shout out a loud “Sugoi! Nihongo jouzu!” (Wow! You’re Japanese is sooo good!!”)
And you might be smiling and happy like a little child.
Foreigners in Japan
Ok, so now imagine you are a foreigner living in Japan! Imagine you’ve been here for many years and you speak Japanese (almost) fluently.
Imagine Japan has become your second home. You have a car, an apartment, health insurance, you pay taxes, buy your food in the supermarket just like everybody else. You separate your garbage properly and bring it out in the early morning.
You’re NOT different from anybody else living here ………………… you’d think!
But you still are a foreigner! And being a non-Asian foreigner, everybody can tell IMMEDIATELY that you are NOT Japanese.
Even worse if you are TALL, you stand out even more. Maybe you’re even black or you have blonde hair and blue eyes? Oh Jeez! There we go!
To the Japanese you’re just that, a foreigner.
And in their mind at least all Western-looking foreigners have to be from America and thus speak English, but surely no Japanese.
Most of the time, they will treat you exactly like those tourists.
After a simple “arigato”, they’ll scream in joy and praise how great your Japanese is. And you, you get annoyed.
They will clap their hands when they notice that you can use chopsticks or like to eat natto or goya.
Conversations will most likely start like this:
Random Japanese person: “Haro, whea aru u furomu? (*Hello, where are you from?) American, yes!!?”
Now, it’s all up to you how you react to that. I don’t know how or what other people answer.
Most of the time the foreigner actually WILL be American or at least form an English-speaking country, so the Japanese have their point in expecting that. It’s simple mathematics, statistics.
However, in my case it’s different!
I AM GERMAN!
I never cared much about my nationality AT ALL before I came to Japan.
However, being expected to be American becomes annoying after some time. No offense to American people, it has NOTHING to do with me not liking American people or anything. It’s just being thrown into a pot I don’t belong to. Do you get what I mean?
Usually I answer that kind of “question” in Japanese.
Whenever somebody approaches me in English I either don’t react at all, esp. when they shout something from behind (I mean how should I know they’re talking to me, right? Just because they’re using English? So what?) or I answer in Japanese!
The kind of faces you get to see, shocked, amazed, perplex etc. are all worth it, but I’m not doing it for the faces.
I live in Japan. It’s just normal to study the language of the country you live in, right? Especially if you want to stay for a certain time or maybe forever. Well, for me studying the language was ONE reason why I came to Japan in the first place. I’ve never been in Japan without at least knowing some basic words and phrases anyways.
And then I also don’t understand why we should communicate in English when this is Japan and I live here and they live here and English is neither their nor mine mother tongue. It just doesn’t make sense at all!
So usually – outside of work – I don’t use English at all!
And it works well because their English level is usually very low and my Japanese – while far from being perfect – is always good enough.
Some foreigners ruin it for the rest of us!
I don’t understand those people who have been here for much longer than me but only speak basic Japanese if at all.
Many of those people are married or have at least a Japanese partner and plan to stay long-term.
Why don’t these people have any motivation to study the language of the country they decided to stay for possibly the rest of their lives?
I know some of those people very well. Some of them can’t even communicate with their own kids because the kids speak Japanese much better than the other language (whatever it is).
And it’s not only the language. I experienced it every day with my previous co-workers, for example.
Whenever I asked them something (e.g. where to get a credit card from, how to do this and that) – because I thought they’d been here longer than me, so they should know it, they just said that they have no idea because their partner did all of that for them.
Now, I tried to avoid using gender specific words in the last paragraph, but to be honest 90% of those people ARE men. Foreign men. Lazy foreign men.
I know they’re busy. They have a family and their work, but they’re in Japan and it’s really EASY to get loads of input and improve their Japanese – at least orally (not talking about studying kanji).
They have a Japanese wife at home. Those people have a perfect setting for studying and progressing fast, but they prefer to use English with their wives because “it’s easier” … yeah, easier for them!!!!!
Japanese don’t always have a “good image” of us foreigners.
For example, we stink, we are dangerous, we keep a gun or a knife with us all the time, we cannot eat with chopsticks, do not like Japanese food (esp. natto, raw fish, anko, senbei etc.), are loud, rude, tall and because we don’t know and understand the Japanese culture we have no common sense. Furthermore, our brains are inferior to the Japanese ones which is why it’s impossible for us to ever master their language.
That’s why – depending on your outer appearance, of course – people might change to the other side of the road, won’t sit next to you in the train – even stand up when you sit next to them.
Apartments are often not rented to foreigners. Most of the time it will be the company you work for that has to rent it.
Why? Well, because foreigners are loud, will have loud parties every night, won’t know how to separate the garbage properly, and and and …
It can be very difficult to get a proper credit card in Japan – even for people who have been here for more than 10 years.
There are restaurants, hotels and other establishments that won’t let foreign people in.
You’re not allowed to vote in political elections. In 99% of all cases it’s impossible for you to get the Japanese citizenship / a Japanese passport even when you were BORN in Japan (but neither of your parents is Japanese).
I could go on for much longer ……
Why do they have such a bad image, you ask?
Well, unfortunately there are quite a few “bad” foreigners out there. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, I’m simply writing about my experience here, ok?!
Most of the time it’s young foreign guys who have barely finished university yet (mostly from America, Australia, Canada, the UK or NZ) who come to Japan to “have the time of their life”. It’s like a loooooooooong vacation for them.
Foreigners have parties, play video games and whatnot every night. They don’t care about the garbage at all, too annoying anyways, so they just throw everything in one bag and that’s that.
They sit in the train and scream their conversations while having 2 or 3 cans of beer.
They’re visiting a historical property site with signs EVERYWHERE in many languages and cute pictures so that the most stupid person should understand that it’s NOT ALLOWED TO SMOKE and what are they doing??? Exactly ….
So, I kinda get where it’s coming from.
However, there are a lot of “normal” foreigners out there, too! Those who actually sleep at night (or at least are quiet), separate their garbage properly, pay their bills on time, cause no trouble at all.
And last but not least, don’t think that all Japanese people are nice, polite and have common sense!
I could tell you stories ….!!
There are many black sheep among them as well. Some of them do party, are just freaking loud, don’t care about the garbage ETC.
Of course, Japanese people will get angry at those people as well, but it’s a whole different story if it was a foreigner who did it!
Fresh oil for the fire, I’d say! They go berserk! Just like expected – and there their rant has started again.
Now, when I’m always saying “Japanese people” this and that, I might not be better than them saying “the foreigners“, so I have to admit that there are quite a few exceptions to the rule as well and I’ve met some of them and will write about them in the future.
To make things easier, though, I will keep writing “Japanese people” in future posts.
I mainly posted about the negative things of being a foreigner in Japan today.
Of course there are some positive things as well. You often can play the “gaijin card” to your advantage in many situations when Japanese people wished they could do it as well!
Feel free to discuss and share your opinion or experience!
I’m totally looking forward to hearing what you have to say!