Life in Japan

Sad and Surprising Facts About Foreigners Born in Japan

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!
Foreigners born in Japan

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? smilie

Zooming Japan: “Oh, I see. I used to live in XY Prefecture for 4 years before moving to XY Prefecture … smilie

Japanese person: “Uhm … I mean, where were you BORN??!!” smilie

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:smilie 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’m Japanese American living in the Midwest in the U.S. I’m experiencing the same thing what you’re experiencing in Japan. People have asked me where am I from. And have told me that my English is so good! i get stared at too. When I was in college (in suburb), my professor recommended me to do my internship in a large city. I’m in a health care field, some clients don’t feel comfortable working with Asian. I don’t know what kind of America you know but don’t blame on Japan so much. Also, yes, people think I’m from China, and have asked me if I was moving back there. it’s the same way everywhere. People just don’t talk about it.

    • Hi Snow,
      Unfortunately I don’t know America at all. I’ve never ever been there, but I thought as America is naturally very multi-cultural there would be less staring and such things.
      Guess I was wrong? :/

  • Well, Japan is wonderful, the people are wonderful. I always thought the world would be a better place if we all behaved like the japanese. I’m from african american descent and one of the things I noticed was that no one in Japan stared at me.
    I am amazed at the friendliness and concern I am shown every time I go to Japan.
    My daughter has lived in Okinawa for 6 years and travels often to Tokyo and other places in Japan and she can’t stop talking about how great everyone is.
    I mean people at the mall, the jewelry stores, salsatinas salsa dancing, restaurants, everyone is extremely polite and welcoming. Once I got lost in Okinawa at 11:30 at night. A woman heard me asking for directions and volunteered to navigate for me. She said “follow me”. She went out of her way and drove a mile to show me where the expressway was.
    Once I caught a cold and went to a japanese hospital to see a doctor. What an experience. The japanese doctor was fluent in english, clean, well groomed, polite, patient. His posture was straight, his words precise. I sat there thinking, wow, this is Japan.
    At the Shogen Ryu dojo the sensei,Maeda, and every one stayed late every night to teach me everyhing they could before I left back to the US. They even provided me with two different english interpreters who refused to be paid. They also stayed late every night. And I mean
    two hours late until midnight at times.
    In fact, as I am writing this I feel tears coming on.
    What a magnificent place – A magnificent country.

    • Yes, that sounds like Japan.
      I think most of us have experienced something like that.
      But that’s only one side of the medal – and some of my posts exist just to remind people that not EVERYTHING in Japan is 100% great with pink unicorns flying around. ;)
      I’m glad to hear that you never had a bad experience and that you didn’t have the feeling that people stared at you.

  • I have a confession to make. When I went to Japan and saw the foreigners – I secretly relished in the fact of how much they stood out. Almost like a sorethumb, because that’s how I felt in Australia. I was so jealous of white people and how they can getaway with so many things just because they have their mates and country to back them up. Just because they grew up speaking australian and knew the local ways of life. I even wished I was born white and not asian. Especially when my asian parents are very asian and not white-washed, I had to balance both lives – being able to communicate to my parents, to my asian relatives, but communicating to my teachers and white peers. Trying to conceal my asian upbringing and be like I’m not asian. Being in Japan was the first time I blended in. The first time I wasn’t looked at for having small eyes.

    It’s truee that Westerners are more aggressive than Asians on a very general comparison. And I take my hats off to my parents for being able to endure that when they moved here. But it still was hard for me growing up, especially being the sensitive child I was.

    But I realised we’ve both had the same experiences, just in different worlds. We both know what it feels like and would never want someone else to go through the same experiences. We see the need for change.. worldwide. But we can’t impose this on the people, the majority, the country to make a change.

    You know, I’ve met people who’ve never left their town let alone their country in their entire life. How can we tell these people to stop behaving so inconsiderately when they’ve never experienced cultural diversity for themselves?And as cheesy as it sounds, the only change we will see starts with us – people who understand and know what it feels like.

    So the next time I meet a foreign-looking person in Japan, I’ll be sure to be as considerate as possible if that can make their day happier. Same for Asians in western countries who come for the first time. Just being decent, sensible people and giving people the benefit of the doubt.

    • I’m a white person of Polish/Lithuanian descent and there are times I wish I was Asian. I’m so in love with the culture and the unity they have. Here in the west, we don’t care about our own culture, people, or communities. It’s very self centered and soulless in my eyes.

  • This was really interesting to read~
    I’ve never been to Japan but I would love to one day, but I know it would be pretty hard…
    I was in South Korea for a month a couple of years ago and I had an amazing time but it was hard sticking out so much haha I am blonde and 5’10….so not very easy to blend in…

    This got me thinking though, it’s really not just certain countries, or even certain languages that are like this. I was born in England but when I was 12 my family moved to Canada and we’ve been here for 8 years now. I work in a shop and I still get people saying to me things like “oh where are you from?” “How long have you been here?” “Say something English! It’s so amusing” or “are you just visiting? Do you have a visa?” ……like really is it any of their business? Haha I have Canadian citizenship but I definitely don’t feel Canadian…on the street no one would be able to pick me out as a “foreigner” but as soon as I start talking suddenly I’m not one of them.
    And it’s hard, cause people say some horrible things sometimes….
    But in the end I don’t think a couple of bad people should stop you from being where you want to be in life!
    Thanks again for this great article! ^_^

    • Robyn, you are right.
      Stuff like that can happen anywhere, but like you said in most countries people wouldn’t be able to spot you as a foreigner until you open your mouth.
      So, I find it much tougher in countries where your appearance tells them immediately that “you are not one of them”.

      But I do agree that this should NEVER keep you from living where and how you want. ^____^

      • You need to accept that DNA is just as part of your identity as your government issued one is. It’s hard for us westerners to understand that DNA, blood lineage, is more meaningful and historic than some government created identity that literally anybody can have which would get rid of the uniqueness of that identity.

  • The most important thing about a country is its people. Japan has done well to be cautious about immigration. Highly skilled workers are fine but I hope Japan will learn from the mistakes of Europe about the disadvantages of mass immigration. Europe would be a a paradise if it hadn’t let in millions of foreigners. Japan and Korea have kept their doors shuts and in my opinion this is for the better!. It’s better to be extremely xenophobic like Japan than to be extremely welcoming like Europe.

    • I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be welcoming.
      However, Europe (esp. Germany) has NOT seen this coming. I’m sure if we knew that in ONE year we would let in 1 million immigrants to Germany, we wouldn’t have done it.
      There were not enough staff members, not enough space, facilities etc. to take care of the masses and now we have to face a lot of problems because of this. It’s not the fault of the immigrants, but the people who decided that this would be ok.

  • SORRY FOR MY BAD GRAMMAR. I think some Japanese are racist. i was born in japan and my parents are Vietnamese by the way. My neighbors and classmates are rude af. I went back to japan last year with my mom and my baby brother. My baby brother cries a lot so i went to my neighbor’s house with a Japanese omiyage gift box and told her that we are sorry if it was loud and the old lady was like “THEN WHY DONT U LEAVE HIM IN AMERICA?” we cant leave him in america because nobody is gonna take care of him and hes a baby, i was about to say ” are you fucking dumb?” but im in japan and we respect elders. Then she started to lie about the neighbor up stair was Vietnamese and they were causing troubles and they got send back to Vietnam, i told my grandma about it and she was like ” i moved here month after this appartment was built, there was no Vietnamese other than me and your grandpa” I could’ve go back to her house and sass at her. My old classmates back when i still was in japan are now avoiding me because im not fully Japanese. What they don’t understand is that my body might be Vietnamese but soul is Japanese.

    • Yumi, I’m very sorry to read about your bad experience in Japan. :(
      I’m not so surprised, though. I have the feeling that some are especially harsh to other Asian people. *sigh*

  • RESEND with corrections

    Stupidest page I have ever seen. Makes it seem as if only Japan gives nationality by birth to those with at least one Japanese parent. In fact, this is the way most of the world works, not just Japan.

    As for the few countries that DO give it by birth, look at them. USA, UK, etc. YUCK! They have become more-or-less garbage cans for the rest of the world. In USA they have “anchor babies” where foreigners, mostly Latinos and Chinese, go to USA while pregnant, give birth, and leave with their newly-born USA citizens. Of course when these children get older they return for work and then sponsor their whole families! Aye yai yai! NO wonder entire cities look and smell like a burro’s rear end.

    As foe Debito Arudou, I have read a few of this works and believe me, he is nothing but an anti-Japanese bigot. Why he took Japanese citizenship is totally beyond me.

    Oh, and as far as being accepted, Westerners should not talk. We lived in USA for 20 years and both my boys were born there. Hardly a day went by when my boys were not asked “where are you from” and if they said “America” then next question was sure to be “where are your parents from.” They were always “different” in USA so Americanos who think that their country is the land of equality should think again. After all, USA has brutal killings of their minorities, such as blacks and Native Americans, so again, that country is nothing to go by.

    • It’s not only about what happens when you’re born, but also how easy it is to get certain rights or even citizenship of that country afterwards.

      I don’t know much about the US, but in Europe we’re now in trouble because some people thought it would be okay to let millions of refugees in without considering that we neither have the money, the resources nor the space to keep this all up. Yet, I’m sure that the majority of them will be staying in Europe for the rest of their lives, also obtaining the citizenship of those countries quite easily.

      I don’t say that Japan should do the same stupid thing as Europe. I just feel sorry for the people I know personally who were born in Japan, but will NEVER be Japanese, not even on the paper.

  • Hello – interesting post.

    I would just like to say that I have experience this kind of thing, not in Japan, but in Germany. I am Canadian – was born and raised there, but my parents are Malaysian. I moved to Germany when I was 19, and then later to the Netherlands a few years later. It seems that a lot of the older generation find it hard to believe that I identify as Canadian and was born in Canada. I realise that this problem is not at all the same as what you’re writing about – foreigners in Japan get it a LOT more often, but more than a handful of times, I’ve always been met with “No, where are you _really_ from?” Interestingly, this only happens in Germany and not in Canada or the Netherlands, and I wonder why that is.

    I also get a lot of “Oh – I’m impressed that you can read that, being Chinese and all” when I’m seen reading a German book on a train, or “Warum sprichst du eigentlich so gut Deutsch?” as though an Asian person being born and raised in Germany (and thus having gone through the German education system) would be impossible.

    Like you, I’ve also experimented with telling people that I was born in Germany, but they (the older generation) seem more interested in the “kind of blood” I have in my veins as well.

    • Very interesting – and you’re not the first person who tells me that.
      I find this hard to imagine as we have so, so, so many foreigners, migrants, refugees here in Germany … it’s so multi-cultural now that it’s even hard to define what’s German.
      If I find someone who doesn’t look European but speaks German fluently, I don’t even give it a second thought. But I’ve grown up with the world being like that, the older generation hasn’t. So, maybe that’s why it happens with the older generation?

      But I’m glad to hear that you’re not facing the same fate in other countries. :)

  • Interesting to see white people at the receiving end of cultural-racial discrimination. Jus sanguinis, though, is a good thing, a *very good* thing that in fact makes sense for every country on the planet.

    As a side note: since you’re a European writing about Japan, I thought I’d share a little about the kind of thing I experience in Europe, specifically in the Netherlands: I’m a Latin American-American, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had Dutch people tell me I’m not American because of my appearance or name – seriously, these people have the nerve to simply say “no” when I tell them “I’m American”! Not a single American has ever even questioned my nationality, yet the Dutch feel entitled to tell me what I am or am not.

    • Well to be fair, American to them refers to the first “Americans” which were the white Americans who rebelled against Britain. Since whites are the majority, they make the image of the country while Latins make up all of South America.

  • So I was just an exchange student, from Australia, living in Goshogawara, Aomori-Ken Japan. I spoke tsugaru-ben before I spoke standard Japanese.

    I used to get constantly bullied as a foreigner. A number of the boys would sexually attempt to touch me or expose themselves to me, taunt me, or use me as a way to appear cool and edgy to their friends. The girls wouldn’t even talk to me for about 6 months, running away screaming.

    Once I could speak Japanese pretty fluently, which took me about 6 months, I started to feel included, but never accepted.

    I even remember having some guy jump on me at shorinji Kempo national championships that year, in the hotel and say to his friends ‘It doesn’t matter if he’s a guy, because he’s a foreigner it’s worth having sex with them’.

    Having grown up being heavily bullied anyway at the time I didn’t really realise how messed up it was, and I just kept trying to be seen as a person and gain
    I got to a camping site once with my host dad to go fishing, and this arrogant guy came up to us and was like Oh, A GAIJIN is HERE!! And I was so angry. I wanted to punch him in the face because the way he said it was horrific. Turned into a joke. C

    The constant complements about chopstick skills, Japanese language skills etc are the least of it for a lot of white Japanese I feel.

    • Hi Matt,
      I’m so sorry to hear about your experience.
      I’m not surprised that one is treated as an outsider or the typical “oh, your Japanese is so good!” thing, but I’m shocked to hear that there are stupid people out there who would actually sexually harass you like that. :(

      I’ve heard stories from a few women in Japan (most of them quite busty), but this is the first time I hear that from a man.

      Thank you so much for sharing your honest opinion and experience with us!!!

  • Grow up. I spent a number of years in Japan. If you act like a foreigner than you will be treated like a foreigner more so if you are not Asian. If you don’t act like some daft foreigner dressed in foreigner class, speaking foreign language, following foreign religion, etc. then you will get less regard.

  • You need to be more open minded to the Japanese and sympathetic with their culture. Stop thinking about yourself and stop thinking Japan needs to change for you. The reason why Japan is so attractive is because it is conservative which allows it to maintain their history, identity, language, culture, and way of life. The fact you want to change Japanese from an ethnicity to just a government created nationality is disheartening.

    Japan along with most of the eastern Asian countries are among the last few countries in the world that are heavily developed and still haven’t fallen plague to the western mindset of “fuck your people and culture, you NEED to change”.

    The “times are changing” is not a logical argument, at all. Just because times are changing does not mean Japan needs to go with the bandwagon. That’s such a high school mentality. Japan is still a great place with great people. Understand the eastern Asian culture is very different from our western one, and at least they have something we don’t- the love they have for their own. That’s beautiful and makes the country so much more exotic.

  • I think the strict rules are there for a reason. It’s such a small country with such old traditions. They can’t just make it easy for just anyone to get in, you have to really want it. It will separate the serious from the not as serious as they thought. I was born to a Japanese mother and American father in Japan. My father learned to read, write and speak fluently. He even became a professional shakuhachi musician and teacher. I have nothing but great experiences and have always been treated wonderfully. My children who range from 27 to 9 also love bring in Japan and are treated so well. Maybe this is because I am half Japanese but my father wasn’t and was never ever treated with anything but respect.

  • I’m Japanese. I think Japanese people need to change. I also wish that foreigners could be interested in me ( Japanese or asian people), because I live in Canada now, and I knew it’s common there are a lot of asian in Canada. I wanna talk about Japan but I can’t. So I think it’s one of good points that Japanese people who look like foreigners are talked.

  • Hi,

    Very interesting blog piece and thanks for the information.

    I personally have no experience with this topic, but the tone of the blog and video almost sounded creepy and that the Japanese society is bad. Sorry, but just my impression.

    To me, what you describe sounds like the usual lack of information by people that turns into a very uneducated conversation and assumption, on their behalf. But that’s no different from when someone is talking talking about politics and have no clue about it – they’ll ask and say things which are not really correct. But that doesn’t mean they are or mean bad.

    My story is, my family is 100% Japanese in heritage and blood, but I was born and raised in Brasil. To be honest, I consider myself Brazilian, I speak Portuguese and can’t speak Japanese. Brazilians too used to call me Japanese (or Jaspion – a Nikkei TV series character), then again, that’s just banter. And of course, there was one of two who would go for the insulting terms like ‘mentioning my squinting eyes’ etc, but that was just cos they wanted to be insulting and ran for the closest association of words that they could find , far from racism.

    And more, I’ve been living in England for the past 17 years, and the number of times people in general would come to me asking where in China I was from… totally assuming that I’m asian born purely by my looks. And when I explain that I’m Brazilian, then there’s that usual question… ‘Yes, but where are you REALLY from??’ If I’m feeling patient, I explain to them that the biggest community of Japanese outside Japan is in Brazil, and I’m the 3rd generation there, then I guess I might be helping them open up their minds to the fact that not all Asians have to be born in Asia. But again, I don’t feel it’s racism at all – just lack of information.

    One more thing that came to mind is (and this is my own personal take), maybe the Japanese culture and brains are not wired to understand the concept that being Japanese can mean anyone that is born in Japan, other than having to have the blood and racial characteristics. In Brazil, in the Japanese community, we tend to refer to Brazilians as ‘Gaijin’ (foreigner), basically anyone that’s not Japanese to us we call them that. But if you think about it, we are the gaijin/foreigners in Brazil. Funny that, right? :)

    And again, what I said is by no means intended to diminish anyone’s bad experience that they may have had in Japan on this topic. And hopefully these situations will be very few and far in between.

    Thanks again for the blog and all the best of luck in Japan or wherever you are.


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