The other day I was chatting with a fellow who had been in Japan for just over a year or so. He was talking about some of the things that got to him – you know, the usual things like being asked if he can use chopsticks, being stared at and whatnot. His grumbles seemed minor ones but they set me thinking about all those gripes and moans we hear again and again as foreigners in Japan and I wondered how valid they are and how commonly the apparent slights occur. This is a list of such things in no particular order – just as they happened to occur to me – together with my comments about whether or not I have experienced them and some of my thoughts. I would be interested to know how my experiences over almost two decades tally with others.
- Been stared at in public
Has happened often but nowhere near as common now as it was when I first arrived in Japan in the mid-nineties. It’s rude but can’t say it bothers me much, or ever did.
2. Been refused entry to a hotel, bar or restaurant due to race.
Never experienced it.
3. Been complimented on chopstick use.
More times than I can count and I have never been particularly upset about it. To be honest I don’t really get why this bothers some people so much. I get that it grates to hear it again and again and again, and I understand that some think the one issuing the compliment is somehow trying to ‘other’ them, to make a point of how very non-Japanese they are and therefore how something like using chopsticks should be beyond them, but mostly I think that is nonsense. Rather, the person likely has no idea how long the foreigner has been in Japan and is simply making conversation and trying to be polite.
‘But we have Chinese and Japanese restaurants at home!’ argue the aggrieved. ‘It’s hardly difficult.’
Both those points are true but not everybody, in Britain anyway, is great at using chopsticks or even uses them to eat Chinese food. Many don’t. I once had a friend in Japan who hailed from Yorkshire. His father came to visit him in Japan and at one point in a restaurant his dad was sitting with a chopstick in one hand, a fork in the other exclaiming, ‘I’m half way there, son. I’m half way there!’ My own father managed to feed himself with chopsticks when he visited, but it wasn’t always pretty.
Even if people do know how long you have been in Japan and ought not to be surprised by your ability to transport food to mouth via short sticks, rare is the person who actually intends to ‘other’ or offend someone with their compliment. It’s a throwaway line and to scream that it is micro-aggression seems a bit over the top.
4. Been complimented on great Japanese after uttering a single word.
Yes, even after a simple arigatou. But I feel much the same as I do about the chopsticks thing. Even if they don’t mean it and it’s obviously not true, it’s just someone trying to be nice. Like when you tell a new parent their freakishly weird-looking baby is beautiful.
5. Been refused entry to hot spring.
Never experienced it.
6. Had someone in a hot spring get out of a bath because you entered.
Have been suspicious but can’t be sure. Once, after having a few pre-bath drinks I got into a tub and one old fellow who hadn’t been in long immediately got out and went to sit in a different bath. I decided to entertain myself with a game of annoy the possible racist and followed him to the next bath. He moved again. This happened one more time, but then again he may not have been racist in the slightest – he may well just have been feeling understandably awkward that a big naked chap kept following him and sitting next to him in baths. And who could blame him?
7. Had people leave an empty seat next to you on a crowded train.
Never experienced it.
8. Been stopped by the police and asked to show your alien card for no reason.
Never experienced it.
9. Been talked about by strangers in public within earshot.
An unusually large percentage of people sitting in my vicinity in cafes and restaurants seem to end up talking about English or foreign travel. A few people have talked about me quite openly, but usually just remarking that I am tall. One mother in an elevator warned her kid not to catch my eye once!
10. Had people comment directly to you about your appearance.
People regularly mention my height. Some openly tell me I have a ‘high’ nose. An ex-student I hadn’t seen for some time and who couldn’t formulate the correct way to ask if I had gained weight asked rather bluntly, ‘Are you fat?’ (to which I had to concede that yes, I was a bit) and an immigration official at the airport told me I was much fatter than in my passport picture. It was less than a year old.
11. Had people shout random English words at you in public.
Not for quite some time. A few ‘hello’s from kids and some annoying shouty greetings from drunk people, and one rather odd demand from right across a street that I tell the fellow where my country is.
12. Had people ask you if you have / do ( ) ‘abroad’.
Often, and this probably annoys me more than any other. I don’t even represent British people, never mind all foreigners yet many seem to think that I am a spokesman for everywhere that isn’t Japan.
13. Had people tell you that Japanese snow, seasons, sea or whatnot are ‘different’.
I’ve been told the snow is different and once managed to offend a chap by telling him we, too, had seasons in Britain. He clearly thought I was lying.
14. Been asked by a stranger if they can practice their English.
Once or twice. But more often I have just had people try to talk to me in English. Don’t mind if they are talking because they want to talk and will happily slip into Japanese if I do so. Find it a bit irritating if it is an interrogation and they are clearly just trying to practice or trying to show off. (But I bet this is every bit as common when, say, Brits who speak a bit of Japanese bump into a Japanese person in London or wherever. We all want to show off a bit!)
15. Had people just look blankly at you when you speak passable Japanese.
Only when my Japanese was in fact still shit. I thought they were actively trying not to understand, but it may well have been my fault. After all, it doesn’t seem to happen nearly as much when your Japanese gets better.
16. Been on the good end of discrimination and been treated to things just because you are a foreigner.
Often had drinks and food bought for me or been given lots of random gifts. Some quite lovely.
17. Been refused an apartment or housing on the grounds of race.
Never. Although most of my housing was supplied by employers until I got married. Never tried to rent as a single foreigner.
18. Had someone go through your rubbish and complain (unjustly) about something.
I once had a bag of rubbish ‘returned’ to my doorstep as it had been put out on the wrong day. It wasn’t mine.
19. Had someone complain about you to somebody (police, boss etc) rather than to you directly.
When I was much younger I had a few friends over to my house and we were up late. We weren’t being outrageously noisy, but we could probably be heard by the neighbours and they would have been within their rights to tell us to keep it down a bit. They didn’t, though. Instead one phoned my boss the next day to complain about my rowdy behaviour. They also once phoned my boss to say that the weeds outside my house were needing to be picked and that I hadn’t done it. Actually, several Japanese people I know say they would rather call the police than complain directly to a neighbour. Perhaps it’s cultural but a bit annoying nevertheless.!
20. Been called ‘gaijin-san’ by someone in customer service.
No, but the house mentioned above came with a parking space, complete with a handmade nameplate saying ‘gaijin’! The house did pass from teacher to teacher, so perhaps it was just too much effort to ask each person to write their own name! Considerately, it was written in katakana for those who couldn’t read kanji.
21. Had a server or shop assistant direct all conversation at your Japanese partner / friend.
Yes. Not always but does happen.
22. Had shop staff give your change to your Japanese partner / friend.
Rarely, but has happened a few times where I pay and they give the change to my wife.
23. Had someone ask questions about you right in front of you.
Occasionally people will ask my wife questions about me when I am standing right there. ‘Is this your husband?’ is fair enough, but then to follow up with, ‘Where is he from?’, ‘How long has he been in Japan?’ ‘Can he eat Japanese food?’ and such instead of asking me directly can grate.
24. Been refused a credit card or bank loan on the grounds of being a foreigner.
No. Had no issues getting credit card. When I applied for a mortgage most banks did say they wouldn’t consider me without permanent residence status, but being foreign wasn’t an issue. One bank did give me a mortgage even without permanent residence and another did try to tempt me to switch to them when my PR had come through.
That’s all I can think of for now. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I don’t think there is much there to get bothered about. Wonder how others’ experiences compare.