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?
I think japanese people have to be more open towards other cultures. It’s unfair that people with foreign origin, but were born in Japan are treated like outsiders. Japan is a beautiful country but it’s still too conservative.
The younger generations seem to be a bit more open-minded and a lot of Japanese are interested in other cultures and want to learn more about it.
Unfortunately that has nothing to do with them accepting foreigners as Japanese citizens. :(
Maybe not natural using Japanese people to a different citizenship is the best solution. Let them stay with a special permanent residency outside of Japan. Give them the same treatment on a reciprocity basis. That’s how visas often work. Do the same for naturalization.
Are you really German? Do you think your country is too different? Maybe you should also concern about how immigrants are treated in Germany. Japan must change. Germany also must change.
Of course, Germany has a lot of problems as well! I couldn’t agree more!
Did I ever say that I think Germany is any better? I don’t think so! In fact, I could rant a lot more about Germany than about Japan, but as a matter of fact my blog is about Japan, so I write about Japan! ;)
well, although I am not Japanese, but a Malaysian, I would like to point out here in regards to being an Asian in Germany. Currently, I am living in Germany and studying the German language, and I must say I do not feel at all being treated as an outsider. In fac,t most Germans are not surprised at all when I speak to them in German (despite my beginner level) and replied me the same with respect. I can’t speak about being born here though, but that is also another long story about Malaysia and it’s many races (and many problems). I guess, unfortunately, we cannot escape these prejudices anywhere in the world.
Thanks a lot for sharing your experience.
I’m glad you feel that way and I hope you’ll only have good experiences in Germany from here on as well.
This was a very interesting post and I have always heard about this condition in Japan since my days as a Marine back in the 1970s (I’m nearly 60). I knew Americans that married Japanese and tried to live there, but eventually left the country because of the way that some people treated their children and it hasn’t changed much over the years except that children with foreign blood don’t seem to be bullied quite as much recently. I hear that Japanese Islanders (Okinawans) treat the mainland Japanese the same way though, so I find that rather strange and somehow satisfying. I do hope that Japan will change one day because I do believe that race mixing is the only way for the world to get along peacefully.
I was born in an area that was rather different than most American cities in that there was a large number of foreigners in the school system due to the hi-tech industry in the area and NASA’s presence. I grew up with many different races and nationalities around as my parents were career NASA employees and I personally had many fun times learning about other cultures and writing to pen pals in several different countries around the world. My best friend in HS was from Guatemala and I got to see his country and learn first hand about how dangerous it was for foreigners there.
While I was in the Marine Corps, I met and associated with many more races, which included many from the far east. I know that my experiences with foreigners are not typical for most Americans, but I feel that as long as someone takes the time to engage you in conversation and are genuinely friendly, then you can find a bond to understand one another; so your article at least has me thinking Japan is ahead of many countries that are clannish and openly hostile towards other nationalities (especially Americans).
I love that Japanese anime and manga (culture) is being exported to the rest of the world and I love many Japanese dramas and movies, but I still see the Japanese government as a big stumbling block before the Japanese people can grow up. They need to change the Japanese constitution and take control of their military (get rid of the US bases) and take responsibility as a world leader instead of keeping the rest of the world at arms length. I see that they are finally developing Aircraft carriers again (which bespeaks a new international foreign policy) and a fully functioning military force. Hopefully, Japan will be able to keep China from stealing their territories and resources in the years to come as their population dwindles and America’s influence and power (to defend Japan) decreases.
I’m sort of optimistic after seeing a Japanese, Kenichi Ebina win America’s got talent and I hope that the Japanese take note of this and understand that America needs Japan’s friendship and support and that there are many American’s that love the Japanese culture and people. America is a melting pot and I hope to see more Japanese influence invade (j/k) our culture in the coming years.
Recently a lot of “half” kids are very popular. Some of them are successful actors, idols or TV stars nowadays, but I bet some of them are still being bullied for being different.
Unfortunately the infamous saying “The nail that sticks out gets hammered” is still true here in Japan! :(
I have the feeling that a lot of Japanese love to hear about other cultures. They love to hear about my country and other European countries. They’re really interested.
Unfortunately that has nothing to do with them accepting that a foreign person could be Japanese / a Japanese citizen.
Especially some older Japanese people still seem to have the WWII image of other countries in their minds. When they hear I’m German, they’re happy. They don’t like America. So old-fashioned!
Hehe, I heard about that Japanese guy who rocked that American show. I think it’s great! :D
Bud, thanks so much for sharing your experience and your honest opinion about this difficult topic! ^___^
Wow, I can’t believe you were hassled like that, but a small part of me isn’t too surprised. Would it be nice if they evolve and adapt to foreigners integrating, yes it would. But I don’t know that’ll happen fast anytime soon. Is it just the minority of Japanese people who feel this way or is this a consensus among most of the population? Do you encounter this everywhere you go?
Of course not everybody reacts like that. Especially younger people in bigger cities seem to be more open-minded (but not all of them).
I do not encounter this everywhere I go, but more often than I care to admit.
Funny that, I thought Germany was also jus sanguinis. In fact, most countries in the world are jus sanguinis (but perhaps with reasonable citizenship provisions to children born to permanent residents). I always think it’s America-centric to complain jus soli is supposed to be normal everywhere (normal in the US plus most of North and South America).
The “where are you come from, really?” dialog can happen to anyone who’s a minority in any land. This includes the Far East Asian American visiting some place in the middle of the country, and your dialog will happen exactly with the roles reversed.
No, Germany has actually both since 2000. There are certain requirements, but as an option “jus soli” can be valid as well!
And just like you mentioned I think more important is how difficult it is to obtain the citizenship of the country you live in / you were born in. In Japan it doesn’t seem to be very easy compared to other countries (e.g. Germany).
I’ve never denied that things like that only happen in Japan. I’m sure it’s similar in any country with a homongenous population, but I don’t know how many other countries have a foreign population of only 1%. Would be interesting to find out.
The reason why I focus on Japan is obvious, my blog is about Japan.
Great and interesting topic. Of course it’d be good for Japan to change but I think it’s a world-wide problem. Look at the discrimination of Arabs in Europe or the blacks and Latinos in America. As a Japanese American, I’ve experienced racism even in liberal San Francisco. I’ve also been told that I speak good English in the middle of the US. What can you do?! A part of the issue is some people were raised to believe certain things about other cultures. So becoming testy and defensive with them only shows that their beliefs are correct. Another issue is that human beings in general are naturally ruled by fear so anyone who doesn’t look or behave like them is a threat.
At the root of humanity is the desire to connect. And if people can extend kindness, courtesy and respect (even in the face of racism or an innocent question you’ve heard a hundred times), then perhaps we can convert that person into a friend or at least a better informed person. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement did just this. These brave people did not fight back with words or fists even when they were being beaten by racists in the chance that the racist would see the humanity in the eyes of the person he was harming and stop.
I apologize for getting carried away but I’m passionate about justice issues and how to create a more tolerant society. In the end, all these experiences are learning opportunities for us to grow and hopefully to not to become bitter.
I totally agree. I even mentioned in my post that I think we have it relatively good in Japan compared to countries where a more aggressive and violent behavior towards foreigners is normal.
It shouldn’t be normal ANYHWERE, though.
I think the problem that is quite unique to Japan is that it used to be an isolated island for way too long and thus it’s a very homogenous population even nowadays. I suppose it might be similar in other Asian countries as well, but as I’ve never lived there, I can’t tell.
The problem I wanted to point out is the fact that somebody thinks they can figure out if you’re Japanese / a Japanese citizen judging by your outer appearance.
In Germany, I never can tell if somebody is German or not just by their outer appearance. Even the muslims who stick out with what they wear are often German citizens. I don’t dare to judge somebody by their outer appearance – at least I try not to.
Thanks so much for sharing your honest opinion and personal experience. I’m sorry that you’ve experienced racism in America.
I want to tell you that in the US as well you have to carry your “Alien Registration card”. But if you are a citizen your driver’s license suffices. In France and Italy you have to have an ID card as a citizen. So nothing strange about the Japanese rule.
You mention abandoning your other citizenship. I think that’s pretty much the norm everywhere. I had to renounce my French citizenship when I became an American citizen.
I find “Sho”‘s experience quite telling.
After almost a year in Germany, and chats with me, my Putzfrau came up with a sigh and: “Ach, die Franzosen sind genau so wie uns!”.
In Germany everyone has to carry around an ID card as well. Your driver’s license won’t be enough in some cases.
But the point was that it’s different for foreigners and Japanese people. Yes, it’s like that in other countries as well, but the issue here is that the majority of Japanese assume that you are not Japanese if you look Western and thus that you NEED to provide a passport or ARC (now resident card) until you prove that you are a Japanese citizen despite your looks.
I am Nikkei. My grandparents (all four of them) were Japanese.
I was borned and raised in Argentina. Since the first second of my life I was told by my family that I was Argentinean and not Japanese. I was not raised in the Japanese colony and I did not know any other Nikkei but my family. And to make things worse my father was in the Army so we moved around a lot.
I never knew anything about Japan, not the language or the culture. I was the most “Argentinean” girl you could find.
That being said, I was bullied all my life. I was make fun of even by my teachers in school, who would make fun of my “weird” lastname.
Everybody knew who I was (because I was so “different”) and trust me, when you are so different everybody knows what you’re up to…
All the questions you are asked in Japan are the questions I was asked in my own country, the only country I knew… “Oh your Spanish is so good”… “Oh I know you won’t remember me because FOR YOU PEOPLE, WE -THE WESTERN- LOOK SO ALIKE JA-JA-JA-JA” and stupid things like that… to make things worse people would think I was Chinese and even scream things at me on the streets like “go back to your country”…
I was not happy, trust me. I hated my parents for marrying each other, thinking if I was hafu, maybe my Japanese blood wouldn’t notice as much and people wouldn’t realized I WAS NOT NORMAL.
In the other hand, Nikkei people (born and raised in US and Canada) during the war were evicted from their houses and sent into some kind of concentration camp… even when their were American/Canadians.
I think this happens in all countries… if you’re different you will be stared at… the difference is that Japanese people (most of them) are not aggressive towards foreigners… however western ARE aggressive towards asians… I’m a living proof of that.
I’m now living in Japan… something I never really expected… life brought me here… and I couldn’t be happier… I AM INVISIBLE HERE… FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE NOBODY STARES AT ME… however, when I do want to call attention I know how to do so…
I think you should use your “foreigneree” at your advantage, the way I learned to use my “japanlogy” in Argentina, where people would think I was good at work and truthsworthy because of my Japanese blood… instead of getting mad at it, I would just nod and keep working… let’s see how that works here in Japan :P
Sol, I’m so sorry to hear what happened to you!
What a horrible experience! :(
I’ve never been to Argentina. Would you say that the majority of the population is Latino? If so, then of course Asian people or even most Europeans would stand out.
I’m really glad that foreigners here in Japan aren’t bullied or treated in an aggressive / violent way.
I wouldn’t say that all Westeners think like that about Asian people. I know that in Germany Japanese and Chinese people (others are a huge minority) are treated well and are welcome. I’ve never heard from any of my Japanese friends in Germany that they had any issues. I also am close to a Japanese-German family and the kids have no problems in Germany at all.
I’m really sad that you had to go through such a horrible time in Argentina! :(
I grew up with German-Korean kids. From the start I was used to it and there was never a doubt that they were not German or that they were any different.
Yes, I should learn how to use my “gaijin-ness” to my advantage. :D
Glad to hear you’re happy here in Japan! ^_____^
While I do obviously think this has to change, as some others have pointed out, it’s not only a Japanese problem. Especially children are just horrible, and as some people in the video said, as soon as they got into high school, things looked up. A German-born Japanese friend of mine got bullied in school, just for sticking out. It’s obviously nothing teachers would participate in though.
I know that I live in a very different part of the country than you (very close to Tokyo), but usually people will mention that my Japanese is really good once and that’s it. Of course it always irks me, I mean what if I had spent my whole life in Japan? My former manager is half-German, but doesn’t speak a word of the language. I asked her how she felt about people telling her her Japanese was great, and she said she just gave up on trying to explain herself.
Hopefully with international marriages on the rise (7.3% in Osaka!) and 1 in 49 children born being half-foreign, things will change soon. I think nowadays, especially in the cities, almost everyone knows someone who is either an immigrant or a Japanese citizen with foreign roots, and I hope that it will just become more and more normal.
Plus, if I remember correctly, Germany always thought the Turkish people would return to their home country as well and were surprised when they stayed. Maybe that’s the point Japan’s at right now. :) But as the people who came to Japan as first-generation immigrants have families and grow old in Japan, they’ll realise things are changing.
Japan is behind in quite some areas (equality of the sexes, anyone?), but with time they will catch up. They will have to.
I would totally agree that things in school – or maybe also in college – are worse.
There are more people and chances are high that you stand out. That’s the same thing everywhere in the world, I guess.
But that’s the thing. All you can do is to give up. Give up and just try not to bother when somebody is asking you for the 100th time how life abroad is and how great your Japanese is…
Yes, it certainly used to be similar in other countries (also Germany), but a lot of those actually live in the 21st century now – I’m not always sure if Japan does! :/
So, just like you, I hope they’ll catch up SOON!
I’m not very sure about this, especially whether it is any different here… My co-worker for example, she’s born here, but her parents are Indonesians. So by blood she’s still an Indonesian, even though by location and everything else, she’s a Singaporean. She even speaks like a typical Singaporean, lol~
I think this is very problematic. Japan is so advanced with their technologies and inventions, yet they are so far behind when it comes to …. dealing with foreigners, or people just look very different from them, and many other things.
Well, the problem you are speaking about is race vs. nationality.
For most Japanese people they seem to be the same. If you are not Japanese (race) you cannot be Japanese (nationality).
In many other countries, it’s not a problem anymore. I’ve seen a lot of African-American mixed children in Germany who were born in Germany, raised in Germany and of course had the German citizenship (nationality), so most people never doubted they were German, although their race might be different.
Guten tag Zoom
I have enjoyed you pages, thank you. Good, in depth info and comes across very flowing and naturally.
Ich hab deutch gelernt von kinder und so ich sprech kinder deutch.
Vielen Dank. Thanks for the compliments. I’m glad you enjoy my blog. :D
My only question is: have you considered getting Japanese citizenship? I certainly have. I mean, if you’re really determined to live here long-term, that would be one way to assert your right to be treated as anyone else is.
As it stands, there are far too many people who stay here for a few years and then leave. Given that, it’s natural (although I agree, not good) for Japanese people to treat non-Asians as outsiders. It would help if people from overseas invested more heavily in Japan.
If I ever make up my mind and decide that I want to live in Japan for a long time – if not for eternity *g* – I would certainly consider it, yes.
I think it would make even more sense if I had family here. It would probably make life easier for my future children then.
At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll stay in Japan forever. Probably not, but who knows? :)
I planned to be in Japan for only one year, but somehow Japan captured me and has kept me a prisoner for 6 years already. *g*
It’s true that a lot of people leave Japan again after a few years and I might be one of them.
It’s a vicious circle. Some people leave because they feel like they’ll be an outsider forever. But if people keep leaving Japan – then “our gaijin image” will never change in the mind of Japanese people – and we are “short-term visitors” after all.
I understand your point but I believe you are victimizing yourself somewhat. I am 100% Japanese but grew up in the U.S Midwest. People in the Midwest also consistently asked me the same questions.
Q1. Where did you grow up?
A1. Here in MI
Q2. Oh okay but were you born here?
A2. No, but I spent most of my life here.
Q3. Where were you born then?
A3. In Japan but I hardly know the country since I spent most of my life here.
Final Line Hmmmmmm…..Interesting…….Okay…..
Do you understand my point. There are plenty of places in the US where residents are not exposed to interacting with people who are neither black nor white. While I agree that Japan is a homogenous society there are plenty of people in the US who share similar experiences. You are not alone and Japan is not special for making you feel that way.
I totally agree with you, Kaz.
I never said that it’s like that ONLY in Japan. How should I know anyways?
I haven’t been to so many other countries in my life, so I can’t really compare. I’ve also never been in the US.
All I try to do is to express how my life as a foreigner is here in Japan and into what kind of problems I run – and stuff like that.
I’m quite sure that a lot of these things are NOT unique to Japan. ;)
Thanks for sharing your point of view.
Sorry to hear that it happens to you in the US as well.
That boy in the video, michael…. from sendai… I hope he wasn’t there in 2011..
So sad, what happened back then, isn’t it?
But the video is rather new (2013), that’s long after what happened in Tohoku, so he should be fine.
Thank you for the reply, Jasmine!
Yea, his story and… mia’s (? The girl whose face was blurred) definitely pulled at my heart.
Thank you for pointing out the year. I was quite worried! :)
This post I really enjoyed learning. Even looked up other videos!
I live in Japan for 5 years and even my husband get the high skill visa which can help us in getting the PR after only 1 year in Japan, i still thinking about leaving Japan because every single moment of staying here, they make me feel that i’m alien, always a gaijin. The facts even more sad when i go to work and my Japanese collueage keeps continue to make fun of Korean. They told that Korean are too proud of themself and why Japanese have to continue to pay money for Korean goverment because of WWII… Even the facts that there are a lot of Korean kids has been brought to Japan after the war and stay here until now without nationality, japanese continue to treat them like shit. I am not Korean and Japanese either but i can feel the smell of discrimination here. Some kinder garden mother also recommend their kids not to play with foreigner kids. Japanese bully is kind of ignore or isolated people that are different from them. And Japanese not always tell their feelings so i feel that they are too fake, i cannot have any true friendship with Japanese as they always compliment and say good things, never actually tell their feelings or thinking. They also never ask you to go out first, and also tell you that some day let’s visit their home but that day will never happen! They say that just a kind of greetings. Somehow, every country have its own limits but i can feel that many people come to America or Australia and after they changed their nationality, they become that country citizen. But i feel that even if i change my nationality to Japanese, they will never consider me as Japanese.