The other day I attended a barbecue with a few people from my local area. It was held by a Japanese family who had friends in the international community. I represented Britain well by quickly turning lobster red in the sun and eventually snoozing in a chair with a beer on my stomach. Other guests included Filipinos, Brazilians, Peruvians and a woman from Bolivia. All of these people had come to Japan as adults to make a new life here. Their children, however, had not. Their children had been born here and attended the local primary school. The children’s friends were Japanese. Most had never left the country. This was the only country they knew. They spoke Japanese as any native speaking child would, as you would expect.

As you would expect, well-adjusted reader that you are, but not, unfortunately, as a couple of otherwise seemingly well-balanced Japanese women in attendance would expect. They overheard a ten-year old girl of Brazilian parentage chatting merrily with her Japanese friends and expressed utter amazement at her wonderful Japanese ability. They commented with slack-jawed admiration at how she could speak just like a Japanese.

‘She was born here,’ I said. ‘It’s basically her first language.’

‘But, it really is just like a Japanese child,’ one woman said.

They later spoke to the girl directly. They asked her when she had come to Japan and if she liked Japanese school. Not if she liked school, which would be a reasonable question to ask a child, but Japanese school. What did she have to compare it with? They asked her about whether or not she could eat various foods. They complimented her on her Japanese.

The young girl quickly got bored and rejoined her friends. I watched them as they played happily together as any group of children can. The young girl seemed to be a part of the group every bit as any of the other kids. But as I fell  into conversation with the other women again, I wondered if things would one day change.

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26 Responses to Expectations

  1. jjwalsh says:

    It is a bit sad isn’t it that some people just don’t “get it” we are raising kids alongside theirs at Japanese schools, they think of themselves as Japanese, but just don’t “look” Japanese or maybe don’t have Japanese bloodline, but many people here can’t get their head around the concept. Hopefully the longer we are here raising our kids alongside theirs we will slowly start to change perceptions.
    I was complemented on my chopsticks use the other day. I answered that I have been using chopsticks since I was 4, same as Japanese people, as I grew up in Hawaii- still there was dismay. Somehow even chopsticks skill is seen as uniquely Japanese. Lack of travel experience and interaction with people from other countries breeds these types of ethnocentric ideas.

    • We can only hope that as those kids that grow up here become adults things start to change a bit. I suppose it just takes time and less homogeneity before things can really change.

    • Maggie Hohle says:

      The funniest response I ever heard to this situation was from an American friend of mine who was raising dual-culture kids in Tokyo in the 80s. When someone expressed amazement that a kid spoke “like a Japanese child” (same deal, born and raised there), he said, “Yeah, but she can’t say ‘gaikokujintorokushomeisho’ yet!”

      (for anyone not familiar with it, it’s the foreigner card that gaijin have to show to authorities when asked.)

  2. sibylleito says:

    Fully agree with you that this is a common experience in Japan. When I addressed then this point with good friends, there is at first shock that this behavoir is easily understood as discrimination based on the race, color of skin. I think overall the concept of acception others as a human being and not as a member of a certain race is sadly not yet common in Japan.

    Dreaming about a Japan where everyone is accepted as a human being and not as a “sample” of an unknown species.

    Keep on writing,

    Sibylle Ito

  3. Derek says:

    For those poor kids, I recommend ignoring those idiots. For adults experiencing this, it’s much more fun to comment on how well they speak Japanese too.

    “But I am Japanese!”

    “Oh, really? I thought you were Chinese. You really look Chinese!”

    This enrages people that believe “the Japanese” are a unique bloodline.

  4. Rob says:

    That’s what I love about having lunch with the kids when I visit elementary schools; they’re the only group of japanese people who don’t comment on my ability to use chopsticks, because of course it’s completely normal.

    I told this to a japanese friend and she replied, ‘Well, it’s because they’re too young to know about different countries,’ as though I was somehow annoyed they hadn’t spotted my uniqueness. I didn’t know how to begin to explain that I was actually happy about this, that the kids saw me just as a ‘teacher’, not a ‘foreign teacher’. Ah well…

    • Right. And they similarly don’t make the assumption that you won’t understand any Japanese. Sadly, your Japanese friend may be right as they gradually get taught that Japanese are different.

      • Rob says:

        Yep, at least until they retire and just start yammering at you in their fastest, thickest dialect. Until about the age of 10 they are too young to know about any differences, and after about they age of 70 I reckon they are too old to care. And that’s just fine, it’s just the ones in the middle who have issues.

        I really like your blog, by the way. A lot of it chimes so true to my own situation it’s almost scary. I still have all my own hair though 😉

        Keep up the good work.

      • Thanks – and you’re dead right about the old folk and kids!

  5. David says:

    The fact that so many Japanese people keep on confusing nature and culture never cease to amaze me.
    I admit that I find it more funny than annoying, but maybe that’s because I don’t live in Japan. I assume the annoying would quickly take over if I did.

    Yeah, Japanese people are often amazed that I can use chopsticks (especially because I don’t speak the language). When they’re being told that I learned as a kid by my Vietnamese neighbor who regularly invited me for lunch, there’s often a silence after that. I suspect that some think “Mmm… That doesn’t make sense, a foreigner taught by another foreigner to use Japanese chopsticks?” I’m sure that some people think Japan is the only country in the world that uses chopsticks.

    And I like old Japanese folks too, because although they’re the only ones that are not afraid to talk to me, the fact that I don’t understand them doesn’t seem to matter at all most of the times.

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Gentlemen, welcome to life as the “perpetual foreigner”, which Asian immigrants, including third and fourth generation Asian immigrants, undergo all the time in the so-called liberal West

    But you dont have to take my word for it:


    Until you live in a foreign country, you’ll never appreciate what people have to deal with in your’s.

  7. jyankee says:

    oh i have heard that so many times…. it’s one of the FEW things that i don’t like about Japan, though having said that… there are opposite ends of the spectrum in the US that are just as annoying. having said that, being Chinese-American and being asked, “do you like rice?” “you use chopsticks really well” and “do you know soy sauce?” are pretty interesting questions to say the least!

  8. softypapa says:

    As the dad of a 10 year old this blog hit home big time. I encounter this often & lately my kid has begun to notice too. Curious times ahead I think.

  9. Jeffrey says:

    Completely unrelated to this post, but I saw this today and immediately thought of your story about the Christmas “show” at the first school you worked for.


  10. fembassist says:

    I’ve had to put up with a lot of ignorance myself, and I’ve only been in Japan for 3 years. O.o Both Japanese and Chinese people will comment on how skillful I am in using chopsticks. Too bad the shock doesn’t kill these people when I tell them I’ve been using them for 20 years. I’ve asked people if they could speak Japanese because they’d respond in English when I’m speaking Japanese to them. I’ve gotten a lot of ignorance from people when I’d ask for a Japanese book, and they write the title in romaji so I could “find” it.

    I think the ignorance really got to me about the term “African-American” and it referring to black people. I was working with a teacher who had lived in the USA for awhile so he was used to hearing it. The jr high school where we taught had a black student in 2nd grade. The teacher called him an African-American, and I corrected him stating that while yes the child could have an African parent, we don’t know if that parent is also American. The other parent is Japanese. In my mind, there was nothing foreign about this student other than him being darker than the full-blooded Japanese students. He is just as every bit Japanese as his peers, and nobody treated him any differently.

    I can relate to the girl in your post about quickly getting bored with people. People who make a fuss about me being able to write kanji or even just speaking the language will quickly be ignored and they are left talking to themselves or their friends. That girl did exactly what I’d do. 🙂

    • David says:

      Concerning the “African-American” being applied to all Black people, I think Americans are to be blamed, not Japanese people, are they are the ones that will use the term for all Black people from fear of using the word “Black” even when the Black people in question are not Americans. You don’t know how much it drives my Jamaican and African friends nuts.

      • fembassist says:

        I can just imagine about your friends, but what can they do since American TV is always on at a touch of a button? From what I understand, anyone learning English will usually watch American TV so naturally they’ll always hear the term. I place the blame squarely on American media and the whole political correctness it tries to do.

      • Agree – I once witnessed a girl referring to a black woman from London as African- American. She looked a bit confused when it was pointed out that the woman was not in any way African-American. Mind you, that girl wasn’t the smartest girl in the world. The whole hyphenated thing isn’t really done in Britain. A black English guy is English. I’ve never heard anyone say African-English.

      • David says:

        @Fembassist: They’re not being called that by other foreigners but by American people. People from other countries call them Black and they’re fine with that. The same way I’m fine being called White and I find it stupid to be called Caucasian (because supposedly White people first appeared in the Caucasus one million year ago or so)

        @Goodandbadinjapan: Yeah, “African-American” is America’s racist way of thinking it’s not being racist when talking about Black people.

      • fembassist says:

        @David – I’m American and I DON’T say African-American when referring to Blacks. I find the term misleading as I’ve went to college with white South Africans who happened to become American citizens. They certainly tried to get scholarships based on being “African-American” since technically they are, and being turned down because they were the wrong color. Yes, the southern states are still behind the times from the rest of the country (world). Also the term was never used when I was growing up.

        BTW, it’s the Blacks themselves that are calling them that. I guess if you scream “racism” loud and long enough people will start calling you whatever terms to keep you quiet. The rest of us couldn’t care less what you want to be called.

        People really need to stop watching American TV and find culture to enrich their lives.

  11. Karen says:

    How many countries can Americans go to become a citizen of let’s say Denmark? And lived there with our family for 30 some years? What would we be called? Americans. Gawd forbid Dane/Danish be attached to our identity. America at least let’s people be American if they got citizenship. People in the US can call themselves whatever they want. Many have “American” as a suffix to their identity i.e. Cuban American. This way, they remember their where they come from and where they are. Can this be done in right-wing Japan? It’s just that with black people, the politically correct name is “African-American”. So, we walk on eggshells so as to not offend and adapt accordingly. Then we travel abroad, and we make (not out of arrogance) but just the simple mistake of remembering that politically correct term.

    So, what are blacks called in Russia?

    • Hi Karen – I don’t think people are objecting to the term African- American per se, or at least I wasn’t intending to. I think the point David and I were making is that some people apply the term African-American to all black people regardless of where they are from. A person of African descent who was born and brought up in England can in no way be called an African-American. That would be ridiculous. Yet I have seen people try. Maybe as you say it was a simple error borne out of habit. But my point was that such a person would be, I suppose, African-English, but that nobody, or almost nobody, uses such a term in England. There is nothing wrong with hyphenation when appropriate.

      In answer to your question about people being able to become Japanese citizens. Yes, they can. Most foreigners don’t choose to do so, but it is certainly possible. Getting permanent residence status is also possible and not particularly troublesome.

      I wasn’t quite sure what your first sentence meant. But I suppose if an American went to Denmark and became a citizen many would simply call them Danish. If they chose to abide by the American convention of hyphenation then they would, I suppose, be American-Danish (or to take it a step further African/Cuban/Italian etc-American-Danish).All of that is fine and you are right that people can choose to call themselves what they want. But our point ( correct me, David, if I’m misrepresenting you ) was that they don’t have the right to call other people what they want if that label is technically not correct. And calling an Englishman of African descent African-American is simply wrong.

  12. Usman Makhdoom says:

    This is one area where I think there is a great deal of myopia amongst foreigners in Japan.

    Any academic study of Japanese education will fond, as did Merry White, that Japan had integration and the early beginnings of diversity recognition in its primary education systems. This was as early as the 1960s and 1070s – when the foreign families of immigrants and their children in the UK were harangued into ghettoization (they are now blamed for these ‘no-go zones’ ) and they hardly fared better in the US.

    Remember that at a time when the UK had a similar number of immigrants to what Japan has now, Enoch Powell was giving his cheered ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and skinheads were an actual danger. Even today the BNP is loud, popular and in full force actively demonizing and abusing children of certain immigrant or nonwhite communities alongside their parents. Tea Party politicians in the US call children terrorist scum and Australians threw rocks at children in schoolbuses after 9/11. Canada, where I live now, is hardly different. I spent my junior high and elementary years here. Those were the 80s and 90s. You can be sure many white Canadians were terribly impressed with how good my English was. And still are, to this day.

    Not to single out Western nations, of course – others are much, much worse, Burma for example.

    The ‘oh my you speak the language so very well!’ thing is an annoyance, and certainly it is ignorant and non-inclusive and doesn’t help children’s psyche or help foster feelings of inclusiveness. It’s wrong and not defensible. But, with other countries as a comparison, I’d really have to say Japan does quite well by such children considering the low numbers of immigrants and Japan-born children of immigrants.

    That’s not to take away from the foreign parents who (rightfully) actively fight the regardless very serious issues of their children being treated differently ranging from mild issues to outright bullying.

    But I tend to think such things need to be taken in perspective, otherwise a very skewed sort of perception develops and Japan yet again made out to be backward.

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