As you all know I keep ranting about the life of (mainly Western) foreigners here in Japan and how they’re treated in my “A German Alien in Japan” series.
When you are a non-Asian foreigner in Japan it’s very likely that Japanese people will stare at you. You’ll get compliments for your great Japanese skills after a mere “arigatou” (thank you) and you might even be treated like a superstar!
You’ll probably hear questions like “Where are you from?” or “When will you go back home?” – even though you consider Japan as your (new) home. You might feel like an outsider more often than not.
Life as a foreigner in Japan can be hard sometimes. You’ll probably feel lonely and isolated. You are “the alien” that will never be accepted as a part of Japan. Most likely you’re seen as a “temporary visitor” who will eventually leave again.
This is hard enough to deal with for most of us. Some manage better than others, but it is – and always will be – a problem foreigners in Japan have to face!
But what about people who were born in Japan by parents with no “Japanese blood”? How do foreigners born in Japan feel?
Foreigners born in Japan are not Japanese
According to the Japanese law you receive citizenship not by location of birth (jus soli), but by “the blood” (jus sanguinis) that is running through your veins. Thus, foreigners born in Japan are not Japanese citizens. As a consequence they cannot vote, for example.
This might sound weird to most of us. I suppose that the majority of my readers come from countries where you receive citizenship by “location of birth”.
If both of your parents are foreign, you are not a citizen of Japan, even if you were born there. If one of your parents is Japanese you can get Japanese citizenship through the “right of blood”.
However, there’s hope for foreigners born in Japan. It is possible to obtain Japanese citizenship as a foreigner. Even you and me can get it! It’s called “naturalization“. This is a bit complicated and it would go too far to explain the details. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.
There are a few disadvantages if you want to become a Japanese citizen, though. One of the biggest is that you have to abandon your other citizenship.
Despite the disadvantages there are a few foreign-born Japanese people (日本国籍取得者, nihon kokuseki shutokusha), people who obtained the Japanese citizenship through naturalization. Probably the most well-known person to the English-speaking blogger world is Debito Arudou.
Being a foreigner born in Japan
To be honest I never thought about this much in my early years in Japan, especially not during the so-called “honeymoon phase”.
At some point we had two “half” kids (children with a Japanese and a non-Japanese parent) at my school. They surely looked different and it was the first time I realized that they might have just as many problems as most of us foreigners here in Japan.
It wasn’t until I met a woman (a former co-worker) who was big, blonde and blue-eyed, that I realized what it means to be a “White Japanese” (白人系日本人, hakujinkei nihonjin). Apparently she had no Japanese blood running through her veins, yet she was born and raised in Japan.
Her parents (both American) moved to Japan before she was born. She speaks English and Japanese fluently. Judging by her looks NOBODY would think she’s Japanese.
I’ve told you how I feel about being treated as an outsider almost every single day here in Japan – and compared to her I might be an outsider. Can you imagine how she must feel listening to all the stupid questions about when she’s going back home or how great her Japanese is and how well she can use chopsticks?
Luckily she’s a very cheerful and humorous person and has learned to deal with it. After all she married a non-Japanese guy and has “non-Japanese” kids now who were also born and raised in Japan. It can’t be so bad. Yet I think Japan still has a lot to work on!
Sometimes when Japanese people have the typical small talk with me I like to experiment a bit:
Japanese person: “Oh, where are you from?”
(Explanation: Literally it’s more like “from where did you come today”. It’s the standard question locals ask tourists, also Japanese tourists who would usually answer from which prefecture or city they come.)
Zooming Japan: “From XY Prefecture, XY City – which is near XY City. Do you know it?”
Japanese person: “Uhm …. no, I meant, where did you live before that? ”
Zooming Japan: “Oh, I see. I used to live in XY Prefecture for 4 years before moving to XY Prefecture … ”
Japanese person: “Uhm … I mean, where were you BORN??!!”
Zooming Japan: “What do you mean?”
(More often than not I tell them at that point that I’m originally from Germany which leads to a stereotype rant about Germany.)
Japanese person: “You’re clearly not Japanese. Oh, are you maybe a half? I mean where were you born? Are your parents French?”
Zooming Japan: “No, I was born here in Japan.”
(I’m lying just to see how they react – knowing that there ARE “White Japanese”.)
Japanese person: “Oh, I see. Your Japanese is really good. When did you come to Japan?”
Zooming Japan: “ Like I said I was born and raised in Japan. I went to a Japanese elementary school and …”
Japanese person: “So, when did you come back to Japan?”
Zooming Japan: “I never left Japan …”
Japanese person: “When will you leave Japan?”
Zooming Japan: “…………..”
Japanese person: “Your Japanese is really good!”
Zooming Japan: “………….”
Well, not all the conversations are exactly like that, but I guess you get the point.
A lot of Japanese seem to be unable to imagine that a foreign person was born and raised in Japan. A foreigner will never be Japanese in their eyes. They don’t know how to deal with that kind of situation. I’ve seen most of the Japanese people I’ve “experimented” with speechless.
Besides conversations like the one above there are so many situations that will remind you of your “non-Japaneseness”.
For example, you’re required to carry some kind of ID (passport, resident card etc.) as a non-citizen of Japan.
[Until recently (July 2012) there was no “resident card” for foreigners, but something called “Alien Registration Card”.]
The police can ask you to show your ARC (Alien Registration Card) or passport at any time and you have to provide it. Japanese people don’t have to do that, of course. They can just use their driver’s license or whatever. (*This has changed with the new system and the ARC being gone. )
But how will the police know if you’re Japanese or not? Judging by your looks?
Maybe you can see how complicated life can be as a foreigner in Japan – and all the more for foreigners born in Japan.
Interview: How’s life as a “White Japanese” in Japan?
I only know from my former co-worker how “White Japanese” people might feel. But how about all the others?
Here’s an awesome video featuring interviews with “White Japanese” expressing how they felt growing up in Japan:
Japan needs to change
Japan is an island. It has been isolated for a very long time. Even nowadays there are only 1-2% foreigners living in Japan and the majority of those are of Asian descent. That’s why you – as a non-Asian foreigner – will stick out – even in our modern times and even in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka!
Of course, there’s usually no aggressive violent behavior against foreigners here in Japan, so I think we’re still better off than most foreigners in other countries. However, I think Japan needs to “grow up”, to broaden their horizon and to accept the fact that times are changing – something Japan isn’t very good at.
What do you think?
Does Japan need to change?
Or is it good that Japan stays the way it is with mostly only “true Japanese” people living here?
Do you think it’s equally difficult for “foreigners” born in other countries?
Are you a foreigner born in Japan or do you know anybody like that? What’s your experience? How do you feel about it?