Living Japan #8: On Racism

I read on Quora stories by non-Japanese residents of Japan who felt hurt because “people in the train would get up to find another seat” to avoid sitting next to them. Or because a co-worker stopped talking to him when the co-worker realized his English was not good enough. Apparently, the co-worker was friendly to the Quora poster only to practice English.

Do these stories sound crazy? They do. But I used to feel insecure about my existence too.

In my experience, in the first few months of living in a new country one will be extra sensitive to social interactions. You will analyze how some people look at you: is that condescension, curiosity, lust? You will avoid meeting their eyes. You will observe and over-analyse every little thing you encounter in daily life.

It takes more than a day to realize that it’s not always about you, epecially if you live in a place with low diversity such as Japan.

After more than three years of living in this country, both in big and small cities, I’ve understood that it’s not me. I’ll always be an outsider, or a newcomer, but I’ll not be a victim.

Take the subway case for example. The next time you get on a train in Tokyo, spend some time to observe. You’ll see that many people avoid sitting next to each other, not only to foreigners. I believe this is because keeping personal space is an integral part of the way of living (I’ve adopted this habit too).

Im not saying that Japan is racism-free. Racism exists in Japan. It’s a fact that some apartment owners refuse to rent out to non-Japanese people. There’s a girl with head cover who had to confront two teenage boys arguing in front of her about whether sitting next to her is dangerous. There’s a mindset that Japan is a ‘big brother’ superior to other Asian countries.

I notice a big difference in the collective culture of this country and of others that I know in terms of treating foreigners who came to live. Foreigners to Japan are expected to act as the locals do. Everyone is expected to speak fluent Japanese, to behave in the standardized way, to dress in uniformity. It wasn’t how I was expected to be when I was living in different cities in Indonesia, in Italy, and in Malawi.

I’m not only talking about the language. Of course I suffered in the beginning because no one spoke English. But I know that ordinary Japanese people are not obliged to learn English to cater to non-Japanese speaking residents. Furthermore, the English education part of the whole system didn’t do them justice. Coming back to the story on Quora, it’s obvious to me that the co-worker stopped talking because he was embarrassed of his English skill. In terms of English speaker, Japan is similar to other countries in Asia. 

The country’s education system was designed to build discipline and harmony, which resulted in the highly equal and organized society that we can see now. English was traded-off. And it’s changing, albeit slowly. Three years ago, at train stations, you wouldn’t find direction signs with Roman letters. Or meet English-speaking shopkeepers. 

But beyond language and manners, there are standards that are expected of you and for you to feel accepted. The vibe I feel is ‘you are behaving a lot like a Japanese, therefore you are a good person.’; ‘you are very Japanese.’ That sucks sometimes.

The stories on Quora showed the culture shock of people who came to Japan with the high hopes of being embraced. Many of them disillusioned with the hospitality of Japan during their two weeks of travel, which they confused with friendliness.

Hospitality and facility are admittedly world-class. Safety, comfort, and cleanliness are hard to beat. But Japan, especially Tokyo, isn’t the warmest place in the world, although outside Greater Tokyo people are warmer.

There is no perfect society. Portrayal of the Japanese society on viral videos is over-generalized, you don’t see those with drunk people scattered on the street or on the subway platforms  You’re not exposed to the information that there are shop with a sign that says “Japanese only” (granted I haven’t seen this in person). Or about how sexism and feminine objectification exists and embraced, much behind other countries. How TV shows take foreigners as guest stars and ridicule them for their body size.

Some people who came to Japan had long culture shock and became frustrated for a long time. They then adopted the personal-space principle and chose solitude. When combined with pressure from work, it can be very easy to get stressed or depressed. Those were the phases I went through. Living in Japan as a foreigner can be deeply isolating. To be fair, even the Japanese feel isolated. I’m not sure which one of these have it more rough. But I think most people can return to being themselves.

Now, after three years, I still get the “looks”. The difference is I care much less and have become comfortable in my own skin – again. Now, I stare back at their eyes and I can tell at least to myself which type of stare that is: “are you Japanese?” (curiosity), “what you’re doing is wrong, but okay, you’re not Japanese” (condescension), “you’re cute, I wanna sleep with you” (lust), “you fucking gaijin” (rude). I still feel when people are being sexist. And I’m back under my thick skin.

Transition can be tough but I’m not saying you should not move here. By all means, get out of your town, your country, see the world. Take that opportunity. Beat your insecurities. But at the same time, don’t expect it to be easy. Be ready, be strong about who you are and how you want to act, about what your purpose is.

I went out here, I became uncomfortable, I changed and complied, I struggled, and now I am back to myself – with the knowledge of what to keep to myself and what to expose.

Not every Japanese will expect you to behave as they do and many will accept you for who you are. Find these people and stick with them. Find your own way to respond to nosy questions. Remember that Japanese culture has “honne” and “tatemae”*. Adopt them for a selected audience. Always be respectful to local culture and way of doing things. In time of cultural misunderstanding, an apology is gold.

Fight and be strong; be yourself and don’t restrict yourself too much because of what’s expected by the society. This way, at least you’ll make yourself comfortable.

See you out there.


*Honne may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one’s closest friends.


Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one’s position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one’s honne.

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