Life in Japan

Do Japanese People Really Keep Staring at Foreigners?

It’s time for another post in the blog series “A German Alien in Japan“.

There are so many things I want to share with you, but I should have started writing about them right after I came to Japan.
Why? Because after a few years most things seem so normal to you although they felt so strange in the beginning.
If you’ve gotten used to things, you usually forget about them. They become routine and you certainly don’t write about them in your blog.

One thing that is always present and that most people living in Japan won’t be able to get used to is THE STARING IN JAPAN! [ insert horror background music]

I know that a lot of you are worried about how you will be seen or treated as a foreigner in Japan.
I’m sure you’ve heard a lot, but you shouldn’t trust everything you hear and just experience things yourself!

Of course it’s a good thing to get some information prior to coming, but always keep in mind that things are never 100% accurate and your own experience might be completely different!

Life as a foreigner in Japan: Staring in Japan

 

Staring in Japan is everywhere:

If you come to Japan just know that you WILL be stared at if you don’t look Japanese.
How intense, how often, how many people will stare .. all that depends on various things.

I expected to be stared at when I first went to Japan as a tourist, because that’s what I heard anyways: “Japanese people stare at foreigners.”
At that time I went to major tourist spots such as Tokyo and Kyoto.
YES, people stared, but not as much as I expected them to. I was almost disappointed. *g*

However, if you live in Japan for a certain time – NO MATTER WHERE YOU LIVE – you will experience a certain degree of staring.
Usually at the major tourist spots they’re used to seeing a lot of foreigners, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be less staring.

I have always only lived in the Japanese countryside where there aren’t many foreigners, so there is some staring going on – EVERY SINGLE DAY!
When I go to a bigger city, I usually expect to get less staring than back home, because … it’s a BIG city, lots of FOREIGNERS, right?!
Interestingly there’s often even more staring going on there!

 

Who will be stared at:

Personally I hate being the center of attention, so I try not to stand out.

In Japan I stand out no matter what I do … just because I look different.
And in my case I don’t even look THAT different, I’d say! I’m not that tall, I have dark brown hair and dark eyes.
From behind people have confused me with a Japanese person.
But it’s my Western face that seems to not blend in at all.

I can understand that people are staring when there is a super tall or big person. They literally stand out in a crowd of Japanese people.
Or if there’s a tall, blonde and blue-eyed foreigner.
Even I stared when there were two blue-eyed, blonde and apparently foreign children speaking Japanese fluently with their foreign mom on a train.

That’s something you don’t see every day!

Foreigners have become quite a common sight, at least in bigger Japanese cities and yet there’s all this staring!
As long as you don’t look Japanese they will stare. [Can I have the horror background music one more time?]

Another thing I noticed is: there might be less staring when you’re alone.
Simply because one foreigner doesn’t stick out as much.
You’re aware of the staring a lot more if you’re alone, though.
If you are with a group of foreigners, you’re usually busy talking to them and you don’t notice so much what’s happening around you, but there is in fact more staring going on.

 

The Daily Stare:

If you have to deal with staring in Japan every single day for many years it can get very exhausting. smilie

You can never really relax, because you know some people are watching every single step, every single movement.
You can’t even sleep in peace on the train without being stared at.

I’m sorry to tell you that, but you can’t avoid the staring in Japan!
Most Japanese people will look away the second you look at them (whereas Chinese people often keep staring).

While what I just mentioned might be true for adults, it’s a whole different story for kids!
Children can be very persistent and annoying when it comes to staring.
Kids stare at me every single day. And a glimpse is not enough! They want MOAR! Even when they pass by their head turns in my direction so that they can keep an eye on me. smilie

Speaking of Japanese children and staring there’s just one story out of many I’m going to share with you for now:
I was sitting in a Starbucks smilie and there was this little girl with her family right next to me.
The little girl turned over and had her face only a few centimeters away from mine.
She kept staring and staring … I couldn’t enjoy my coffee at all. smilie
I was waiting for her mom to say something, but despite being well aware of the situation, she didn’t do anything!

Eventually I asked the girl in Japanese if there was anything strange in my face.
A “normal” young girl would have probably turned away immediately, but this girl just shook her head and kept staring.
IT WAS SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ANNOYING!
I tried to turn away from her as much as possible, finished my coffee very quickly and left.
Yes, there ARE days like that!

But things could be worse. After all staring is pretty harmless, right? It’s annoying, you might feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t really do anything to you.

What if it’s not just staring, though?
I had kids point at me, screaming: GAIJIIIIN!!! (Foreigner!!!!!!)
Of course, everybody else immediately turned over to “look” at me. smilies
I was thinking about just pointing back, screaming: NIHONJIIIIN!!! (Japanese!!!!) smilie

In this situation as well the mother didn’t do anything about it.
Usually a mother would say: “Stop that! You can’t just point at people!”
I think that’s ONE reason why Japanese people stare so much. They weren’t taught that it’s a bad or rude thing to do.
If you ask a Japanese person about it, you often get the answer: “I thought foreigners are ok with it. It’s normal in foreign countries to stare at people, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, sure. Just like the flying pink elephants here in Japan …”

Sometimes the staring is accompanied by random comments. Luckily I mostly get nice ones, but to me it’s still annoying most of the time:
“Beautiful!”
“So tall!”
(I’m only about 173cm and I never wear heels!)
“Look, a foreigner!” (“Look! A three headed monkey!!” …)

People often tend to suddenly speak English or change the topic to something about America (because they think you are American) when they see you.

 

How to deal with staring in Japan:

Well, there are people who mind and people who don’t mind.
It might even depend on your mood on that specific day.
Even I have days where I just HATE being permanently stared at and then I have days when I barely notice it or just don’t care.

If you don’t mind being stared at at all then congratulations! smilie Tell me your secret! smilie

I have no idea about good ways to deal with “The Daily Stare“, but here are some ideas you might (NOT) want to try:

You can stare back.
You can just say something. Anything is fine.

  • “Is there something funny in my face?”
  • “Are you in love with me?”
  • “Have you never seen an alien before?” (“Michael Jackson was one, too!!”)
  • “I know I look like George Clooney, but in fact I’m a woman!”
  • “Could you just stop staring at me? Please?? PLEASE!!!!”

You can cover your face, start crying, start screaming or just make funny faces!

Why do Japanese stare at foreigners? - Staring in Japan

Photo Credit: Arni Kristjansson

Or you can get this awesome book cover for free!
The title of the book translates to: Why do Japanese stare at foreigners?”
I’d love to get it just to see what would happen! *g*
Obviously that only works when you’re in a train or sitting in a café, not when you’re walking through streets or in a department store.


Now it’s your turn! Please share your experience! smilie

How do you deal with the staring in Japan?
What’s your weirdest experience?
Do you have the ultimate technique to stop staring?
Do you even mind when people stare at you?

123 Comments

  • Gerade über martinemuellers Blog gefunden.

    Sehr umfangreich und ein tolles Design. Dazu interessante Beiträge. Wirklich toll, was du hier aufgebaut hast. Ich werde ab jetzt mitlesen.

    Zum Starren: Als ich letztes Mal in Japan war hatte ich so gut wie nie das Gefühl angestarrt zu werden. Ich war auch nicht an Touri Orten sondern bin morgens ganz normal mit der U-Bahn zur Arbeit gefahren. Ich achte aber mal genau drauf. Bin ab Februar wieder in Yokohama.

    LG, Die Kirschblütenfee

    • Hallo! ^___^

      Ich freue mich über jeden neuen Leser, v.a. über deutschsprachigen Zuwachs! *g*
      Wir haben uns ja bereits über E-Mail gesprochen, aber ich möchte mich nochmal für den lieben Kommentar bedanken.

      Was das Starren angeht, da scheinen echt viele Faktoren eine Rolle zu spielen. Ich habe auch Tage und Orte, wo es kaum spürbar ist, aber im Schnitt ist es halt doch ständig gegenwärtig und oft auch nervig.

  • Well, I already commented about my staring experience under your 1. part, without knowing, that you will make a separate part for the staring, lol :ehehe:
    Anyway, while I was living in France (yes another European country) I also got lot of staring, which was much more annoying, since I could not understand : 1.how do they spot me not being french, 2.why on earth they stare me, at all?
    Moreover, that kind of “cow-staring” , as doesn’t matter whether I stare back or wave or do whatever, they kept staring with the same, expressionless face.
    Actually my face is more flat and my nose shape also less sharp then usually caucasians have, so, Asian people often thinking I am mixed (though I am “full blood” Hungarian :hihi: ) But, I just do not think, that it would be too much weird for France …
    However. I think, the staring amount is also depending, which area you are. Some regions people might be less shy to stare than in others. Or just more curious …

    • That’s very interesting!
      I haven’t been to France yet, but I heard some things from friends who went there for vacation and I think France is a bit “special” about foreigners or tourists from what I heard.
      It starts with them not speaking English at all and ignoring you when you try to speak English to them when you can’t speak French (again this is just what I heard).
      But I really don’t know why they would stare at you so much.
      Maybe somebody living in France could enlighten us here! ^__^;

    • French reader here. :shiawase: Your experience sounds rather surprising indeed. May I ask in which part of France you were living then? I’m sorry they treated you this way. Personally, I find French people, especially in Paris, usually more rude in their way of ignoring people than staring. I’m from Paris and confess to having been sometimes guilty of that, mostly out of fear of ending up being hassled. :sweatdrop: However, I’ve lived a bit in other Northern French cities in the past few years and have generally found people there to be a lot more considerate and kind.

      On the other hand, an Asian American friend of mine was the subject of annoying “nihao” cat calls when we were walking through tourist spots in Paris. I was rather confused, since it’s not like there aren’t a lot of Asian-looking people in Paris. Maybe they’d heard her speaking English? As for I, I’m mixed, have slightly tanned skin, straight dark hair and brown eyes and can pass off as being from various places (a Thai lady was once so convinced I was also Thai she wouldn’t even listen to me :ehehe: ). I don’t think I ever get stared at here in France, unless I’m wearing flashy clothing…

      Anyway, thanks for the interesting read! I know very little Japanese but I wonder how people might react when I’ll visit Japan (although if I go with my boyfriend, his blue eyes will definitely give us a gaijin look). Japanese people in France sometimes mistake me for a half-Japanese girl.

      • Hello! :)

        Very interesting!
        It’s hard to tell how Japanese people would react. You won’t know until you come here and experience it yourself! ;)
        They would probably treat you like most foreigners (even when your blue-eyed boyfriend is not around *g*). Even when YOU think you could pass as a half-Japanese girl, Japanese people surely won’t! ;)

  • Hi i am experienced with starring in germany since i worked as museum guard in entrance at airport information and guard for american diplomats in their housing area. The main thing to keep in mind is humans are social beings who learn much more from observing others behaviour. Just look in the sky for two minutes with another two friends. Almost all near by walkers will look up.!! I have a japanese penfriend since 5 years and we write about everything. See japan is a homogenius societyplus island . They in general are aware of western development creeping into their every day life. Since they are mentally open they do it. Now this was the mental approach for your developed (!!!)mind. For your heart its even easier . Feel the oneness in it!!! I always get joy when i see japanese especially young woman. Their gracious walking even handling of spoon fork manners!!! Finally i want to say get joy not beeing ignored. Indifference is one of the main factors of practised cruelty by this i mean careless about others. It is up to you to stay in the dividing mind or the unifying heart. I love japanese so it makes it so easy get joy from them. You can use the oportunity looking at them back with gratitude joy and childlike innocent. It will help you!

    • Matthias, thank you very much for the detailed explanation.
      I know WHY Japanese people stare, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s annoying.
      What you say about ignorance is true. I guess I would hate being completely ignored even more than the staring!

  • I mean, I wasn’t in Japan before, but I even in Germany they stare. (So maybe it’s right, when japanese they it is ok in foreign countrys?! Even if I think it’s absolutly NOT ok :notamused: )

    I mean, I am german, looking like a german (even if I am not that tall, having brown eyes and only sometimes blonde hair ;P ) but even so I am being stared at. I don’t think I am bad/funny looking. I often get heard I am cute :luvit: :ehehe: but I don’t tink it’s special. I am not super skinny and not fat, and I am wearing “normal” clothes in a normal way. So I don’t get why people always stare at me and sometimes even start to talk about me! :ehno: It’s sooooo rude!! :whyohwhy:

    What I wanted to say, I think I would feeling more at ease if I am in Japan an get stared at, at least I would know why :sweatdrop2:

    But I also think, it’s normal if little children are staring at you. They are just interested in the world and find so many things so fascinating. So they look at you for a long time and most times I (and also friends told me they do it like this) smile at them, they become happy and smiling back, so for everyone it becomes a nice memory :shiawase:

    • Even here in Japan I sometimes wonder WHY they stare, though. *g*
      And you have to be careful what you do because EVERYBODY observes you – at least that’s how it feels sometimes! (T_T)

  • Das ist ueberhaupt nicht meine Erfahrung. Ich lebe und arbeite seit 25 Jahren als Deutscher in Japan, in verschiedenen Staedten und Unternehmne. Niemand “starrt” mich an. Kinder “gucken”, wenn Sie etwas Ungewohntes sehen, aber das ist normal. Es ist im uebrigen genau anders herum: Kulturell bedingt vermeiden Japaner Augenkontakt. Als Fremder wird man in Japan nicht “angeguckt” wie es in vielen westlichen und auch asiatischen Laendern ueblich ist. Wenn jemand richtig “glotzt”, dann sind das Deutsche.

    .

    • Vielen Dank, dass du deine Erfahrung mit uns teilst.
      Vielleicht definieren wir “starren” und “nur mal kurz gucken” einfach anders, aber ich hatte wirklich schon sehr viele Situationen, wo von “kurz mal anschauen” keine Rede mehr sein konnte, sondern es schon gezieltes und penetrantes Starren war.

      Aber so macht halt jeder seine eigenen Erfahrungen. Freut mich zu sehen, dass es offenbar auch anders geht! ;)

  • Mir ist das gar nicht so aufgefallen :D Ich war bislang aber auch nur im Urlaub dort.
    Die Japaner schauen immer sofort weg, wenn man sie auch ansieht, das ist ganz angenehm. (außer Kinder…aber es sind nunmal Kinder xD) Bei deutschen finde ich das Starren viel schlimmer. Ich werde immer angestarrt, weil ich mich ein wenig anders anziehe. Aber ein deutscher starrt einfach schamlos weiter, auch wenn man ihn ansieht :hum:

    • Hallo PrinzessinPeach! :)
      Ja, als Urlauber bekommt man das in der Tat nicht so mit, v.a. weil man ja auch damit beschäftigt ist, Japan in vollen Zügen zu genießen.
      Als ich damals zum 1. Mal in Japan war, gab es so viel Neues zu entdecken, da habe ich sicher nicht gemerkt, falls mich jemand angestarrt hat. *g*

      Interessant. Ich nehme an, es kommt auch darauf an, wo man in Deutschland lebt?
      Ich empfinde es immer als sehr erfrischend, wenn ich für einen Kurzurlaub zurück in Deutschland bin und in der Menge total untergehe! Keiner starrt mich an und keiner gibt mir das Gefühl, dass ich nicht dazugehöre. ;)

  • I don’t get stared at when I was in Japan because I look just like them. ASIAN…. fair skin, dyed hair. But that can be really difficult for a person like me who knows little Japanese.

    However speaking of ‘getting stares’, I feel like an alien in my own country! People just stare all the time! Of course when you’re with friends you don’t feel anything, but when you’re alone (which happens all the time) and on that one day you woke up feeling subconscious, you can feel it even if you don’t look! I’m from Singapore, btw.

    Hence when I go travelling to HK, China, Japan, Australia, I feel as if I have reached paradise. People don’t stare, instead they would greet you and talk to you as if you are like long lost buddies. This is quite the opposite to your experiences here, ne? >.<

  • Completely true… But this a phenomenon that you have pretty much everywhere in Asia (and it’s better in Japan than in some other countries where people are staring at you to figure out when would be the best time to steal your wallet/purse/cell phone etc.)

    Also, correct about Chinese people. They also like to stare and really don’t look away when you look at them. I was also followed around in super markets where people were super interested in seeing “what foreigners eat”… Unfortunately for them, I really like Chinese food, so my cart looked a lot like theirs.

    There are also people who talk about you right to your face (I believe there is a post about that somewhere, too). Sometimes I would turn around and say that I speak Chinese, but they would just shrug their shoulders, like, “So what?” In Chinese, you could describe them as people with “thick faces”, since nothing embarrasses them.

    However, on the other hand, I have seen children stare at Asians in the US and ask their parents (in front of the people) why their eyes are so funny and whether or not they can see. So, I guess it goes both ways. At the same time, I have yet to hear such comments in Germany (probably because the area that I live in has SOOO many different ethnic groups). I hear at least four different languages every time I leave the house (and sometimes German isn’t one of them!!!)

    Great post, I feel the hurt. It’s annoying. I need that book cover.

    • Hello Jordan!

      Very interesting! I know only a little bit about Chinese culture and Chinese people, so it’s good that you share your experience here!
      I guess in Japan it’s the complete opposite. There are almost no people with “thick faces”. Losing your face in public is something very shameful in Japan. If you tell Japanese people flat out that you just heard and understood what they said about you, they will probably be very embarrassed and even apologize.

      Yes, exactly. I know that since I left Germany it has even gotten more extreme. I remember sitting in a bus to university and I was surrounded by people from many other countries. I was THE ONLY ONE who spoke German in that bus. And they were not tourists. I guess German people are quite used to seeing foreigners. And often we just take it for granted that they live in Germany and thus also speak German. Often we can’t even identify a foreigner as one. Completely different from Japan.
      I’m surprised to hear that it’s sometimes different in the US. I always thought it’s THE multi-culti pot!

  • I live in Japan (on the rural/isolate island of Shikoku) in a decent sized city (although not as big as the major cities in Japan but bigger than a small city in other countries). And I hate it when I ride my back or walk back from somewhere to go home at the time when elementary school children come out of school, and the problem is they seem to get out of school at different times depending on the day. They crowd all over the streets so I have to either ride my bike on the road to get around or somehow squeeze past on the sidewalk, and I hate it because they always shout and laugh at me EVERY TIME -_- they yell hello and some other stuff in English to me and some kids laugh and they yell stuff in Japanese too and demand I answer them, but I always just ignore them everytime. I am tempted to just yell something in Japanese at them finally like “Have you never seen a foreigner?,” to scare them.
    I went to an all you can eat buffet at a mall in Japan and a kid at the next table over stared at me the whole time. I got angry after awhile and was complaining to my husband about it out loud in front of the kid but he continued to stare. The little kids are the worst at staring and yelling at foreigners and being rude and un-excepting of foreigners.

    I find that the high school kids mind their own business and stare way less. The elderly people stare the least out of all the age groups because either their eyesight is really bad or they just do not care anymore about anything so they mind their own business. And I have had some elderly people actually be helping and nice to me, while the little children seem to be ignorant and rude. People in other countries seem to assume Japanese children in Japan are little angels but if they came to live in Japan they would find out the children are the most racist and they throw fits in public and do not get disciplined for it. Japanese children are spoiled rotten and then are slammed with discipline later in life which does not make sense to me but that is how they do it in Japan.
    I want to run and hide when the little kids are out in public.

    • While I’m on your side and share pretty much the same experience, I think we can’t get too angry at kids.
      After all they’re just kids.
      Of course, they shouldn’t behave like that, but it’s not their fault! It’s their parents who won’t do anything about it!
      When I had kids stare like crazy at me who wouldn’t even stop after saying something to them, the parents who sat right next to the kids didn’t do anything about it.
      Usually you should tell your kids to stop and that what they’re doing is rude, but in most cases that’s not happening here in Japan. *sigh*

      I guess sometimes it’s because the parents think it would be okay to stare at foreigners.
      I once asked a Japanese friend about it and she said: “Well, it’s because we are taught that it’s common to stare in foreign countries – and foreigners always stare at each other.”
      I was like: “Whuuuuuut???” -___-

      • Oh thats sad your friend thought that, I never look at people of other races in my home country, its considered rude. I heard that mixed kids/half Japanese kids get made fun of by the full Japanese kids if they go to regular school (instead of international school). But I am not angry really, mostly scared and avoid coming into contact with Japanese kids in public. I just thought maybe I should speak up next time since I am usually too scared and ignore it. Yes I think the parents have alot to do with how their kids act, they ignore their kids when their kids are being naughty in public or are staring. Also some parents probably say racist/stereotype of jokes in front of their kids. Another thing is Japanese media/tv teaches Japanese kids these sort of ignorant ideas as well, there was some little childrens book before that taught some racist thoughts (I seen somewhere online before an article about it). If only someone could inform and teach that its wrong, but its a homogenous country and very stubborn/traditional/set in one way so its really hard to see and make a change in Japan.

        • Luckily not everbody is like that and some of my kids (the ones I teach) are different, but we will keep experiencing “ignorant” kids and parents for a long time. Quite frustrating.

          I understand about being scared, but sometimes I’m just so pissed off that I do say something. More often than not it doesn’t help much. Very few kids are scared or surprised, some just keep staring or do whatever. (T___T)

  • Soooo funny :) sorry if I laugh, I really enjoyed your post and the comments. I am about to study in Kyoto for 1 year ( hope I can stay longer) and I am sure I am going to deal with the same situations. Staring is not only available for Japan. A friend of mine is married with a Chinese girl and lives in Hong Kong. When they vist me everybody stares at my Chinese friend, saying stupid things either on Japanese or Chinese. When I say ‘saying stupid things’ I mean pretending to speak in an Asian language. Annoying even for me, not to speak about her.

    Thanks for the wonderful post :)

    • No reason to feel sorry. I’m glad you enjoyed this post! ^_^
      I hope you’ll enjoy your time in Kyoto and that you can stay longer if you wish to.

      I noticed that Chinese people stare even more than Japanese people, but that’s all I can say. I’ve never been to China, only met Chinese tourists here in Japan.

  • Hello, I read your article this morning during class, and I could not stop laughting :p This is soooooo true ! 気持ち悪い! I live in Japan and feel really embarassed because of this, especially in trains. Sometimes, when a girl stares at me I look at her and ask 大丈夫ですか?and it’s over. But when it’s a guy, since I am afraid I usually pretend to sleep or run away. In my country staring at people is extremely rude and very creepy. I like Japan, but I can’t stand that attitude.

    • Hi Alex!

      Thanks for reading my blog – even during class! *g*
      It is very hard to accept all the staring when you’re from a culture where staring at people is considered to be rude. I totally understand. *sigh*
      And apart from that I hate feeling like an animal in the zoo! (T___T)

  • ahahah exactly. next time pretend to sleep in the train. it works! i think i’ll print out the fake book cover and try this technique.
    but I think some people stare at foreigners with good intentions. For example, my boyfriend always looks at foreigners cauz he loves meeting new people and wish to help them if they are lost in the city. He lived abroad for a while, and meeting poeple is always a nice opportunity to make new friends.

  • What I do is, with my forefinger and middle finger, point towards my eyes, then at theirs, and then I point to another Japanese, and ask them to stare at the other Japanese. I dont say anything. It snaps them out of their trance and they feel uncomfortable. Im a bit crazy, it comes from being in Japan too long, but I found that crazy keep me from going insane. What I have found in Japan is that when you take the attention away from you and put it back on its source, it tends to diffuse the situation. Its not so innocent as “they just never seen a forienger” or blah such as this. Sweetheart talk will never work in Japan. Rudeness or violence wont either but you can play your own mind game. Its been going on for decades and will continue too. Its something deeply disturbing in Japanese culture, and its in other cultures as well. Japanese will tell you that its rude, to the point of violence to stare at another Japanese (gan tobasu). The rules dont apply to foriegners, so I make my own rules. I once carried on a whole conversation, without saying anything, just with hand gestures. The staring person was so embarassed they exited as soon as possible because they thought I was nuts.

    • Hi Fred!
      You admit it yourself, you are crazy. *g*
      I agree that in order to stay mentally healthy one has to turn crazy sometimes (I know this doesn’t make any sense).
      I guess I’m too shy to do the same as you did, but I do have times when I snap. ;)

    • Fred, your technique is amazing ahahah. But you need to be quite confident to be able to do this. When Im alone in train I smile or ignore, or leave the car. When Im with my boyfriend, I sometimes make funny faces and JiroJiro stops right away :p