lifestyle

Answering the tricky 'Where are you from?' question in Japan

35 Comments
By Jes Kalled

Living abroad is an exciting and at times delicate beast to behold. One of the first prolific things I noticed when trapezing in and outside of state and country lines was the near-constant reminder of being asked to know who I was, where I came from, and to be able to explain my background succinctly.

Appearance, voice, accent, even the way I carry myself signifies different things to different people in a way I have not been able to contain. On occasion, I’m mistaken for being from somewhere else, sometimes questioned even in my home country.

It’s a curious, interesting thing: identity, where nationality intersects with ethnicity to compound the complexity of you. An equation that is somewhat the sum total of your parts, plus or minus the other experiences that also may have defined you nonetheless. 

“Where Are You From?”

In the six years that I’ve lived in Japan, a country that is 98% Japanese, it is no surprise that it has become commonplace to have to identify myself and where I’m from on a regular basis.

My approach and my reaction to this seemingly uncomplicated “Where are you from?” question have changed over time. Perhaps that’s due simply to the number of years I’ve spent fielding it in a homogeneous country as a semi-mixed person.

Conversely, it could be that the question doesn’t comprehend the complexity of which I’ve come to associate it with, especially depending on who’s asking and why. That said, I like to keep things simple. “The States,” is my usual response, or sometimes even, “I live in Tokyo.” 

In order to better understand the subtleties of this location-identity phenomena myself, I reached out to thirteen people to see how they navigate this question and the conversations born from it. 

An Innocent Question, A Frustrating One

Interviewees responded that they were, for the most part, unbothered or trying to be unbothered by being asked “Where are you from?” in Japan.

Of the thirteen people interviewed, nine of them mentioned the same word in their answer: curiousor curiosity, usually citing that if the asker was Japanese, the question was most likely coming from an innocent, “curious” place.

Despite understanding what seems like an innocuous intention, some interviewees cited feeling frustrated due to the sheer amount of times being asked in a week, and to the implication that being asked, identified someone as being different or other than the asker. 

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© Savvy Tokyo

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35 Comments
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Welcome to the club, Jes.

People of color especially Asians get asked that a LOT in non-Asian countries.

Whether Europe or America, people will always be intensely curious about which Asian that person is, and will regularly be asked where are they from.

Nothing mean spirited about it.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Whether Europe or America, people will always be intensely curious about which Asian that person is, and will regularly be asked where are they from.

Not in my experience. Nice over generalization.

1 ( +8 / -7 )

Well Caucasians think I am Asian. My black friends thought I was white, and here at home...well I get massive compliments on my Japanese until I say my name and that I’m from here (jaws hit the floor)

0 ( +2 / -2 )

If the person is Japanese and just trying to strike a conversation with me just to compliment me on my Japanese skills, I tell them I'm from Tochigi. Which is true as that's been my home for more than a decade. If it's someone I'm actually interested in talking to, then I tell them where I was born.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I get asked where I'm from in literally every country I go to - even when I'm in the one I'm from (they ask what region).

So many foreigners in Japan have a chip on their shoulder about being asked this question. If someone says 'hey where are you from', and you get weird about it, you're the weird one here. Not the person asking.

8 ( +12 / -4 )

If the person is Japanese and just trying to strike a conversation with me just to compliment me on my Japanese skills, I tell them I'm from Tochigi. Which is true as that's been my home for more than a decade.

I tell people I'm from the city I spent my first decade, where my wife is from. Just for fun though, when they get the look on their face I tell them my home country. It's fun.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

The idea that "Where are you from?" is a tricky question seems almost ridiculous to me. Particularly in Japan.

Seriously, Japanese ask each other that all of the time, particularly in Tokyo. Because there is an assumption that someone may not be from Tokyo and that their furusato is somewhere else.

No different with foreigners. And, c'mon, even amongst foreigners, we all ask each other where we are from.

It provides a frame of reference in finding something out about other people.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

@oldman_13

People of color especially Asians get asked that a LOT in non-Asian countries.

In my experiences, Asians are typically assumed to be chinese until they say otherwise. The only time that may be different is if another group of asians dominate the area. An example is Fort Lee New Jersey where most people are assumed to be Korean.

My response to this question is usually: Earth.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

"If someone says 'hey where are you from', and you get weird about it, you're the weird one here. Not the person asking".

Strangerland

The idea that "Where are you from?" is a tricky question seems almost ridiculous to me. Particularly in Japan.

Zones to Surf

These are interesting quotes. I agree to a point. The question is very innocuous and it is crazy to fly off the handle when asked it. I do think your responses lack a little nuanced understanding, though, for why the situation is not so simple.

I have found that answering with my home country, which I left more than 20 years ago and rarely visit, leads to people talking about that country and their experiences on holiday there or having met its people. Sometimes this talking points are based stereotypes, sometimes we might have an interesting conversation.

So I am not rejecting out of hand going down this conversational road.

The main problem, though, is what we miss out on in this situation. If the conversation can be steered on to other ground, which it often can, again, all is well and good.

However, I am sure that many non-Japanese people in Japan have experienced people who are determined to put non-Japanese people in a box, and want to talk about "foreigner" and "foreign" things, almost in denial that the person they are talking to has been an active member of the community in Japan for decades.

When our lives, both personal and professional, are based here, why are we constantly required to refer to ourselves in the context of a place we no longer live in in a way that denies our connection to the society we are currently part of?

People who are determined to press on in bad English. People who express ridiculous surprise when a non-Japanese looking face tries to discuss anything Japanese-related in any detail. People who cannot just relax and let a non-Japanese person join in whatever they are taking about without making a deal over their "foreigness".

Now "where are you from?" is clearly a simple question that should not be reacted to with vitriol or a "chip on your shoulder". Sometimes, though, after you've been asked, you just know where the conversation is going and what little box you are going to be categorized into.

I think it is this attitude, which is extremely widespread in Japan, that causes the backlash, rather than the innocent question itself.

Good luck integrating everybody (because if you can't it's clearly your fault for not doing it properly and absolutely nothing to do with the hurdles placed in your way by the attitude of many local people....)

2 ( +3 / -1 )

It provides a frame of reference in finding something out about other people.

If the above is TLDR, consider this. Why can the frame of reference not be that I have been a regular, honest, hard-working member of your society, just like you, for the past quarter of a century?

Why does your reference need to be a place I left decades ago and do not have a life in?

My life is here, can you not make that your reference point?

Again, the question itself is innocuous, but it often comes from a place of doubting certain people's qualifications as a paid up member of society.

Of course, it goes without saying that this is not the same for everyone.

But you cannot deny that there exist those who, on hearing your home country, reference everything back to that and have seemingly little interest in treating you as a regular member of the community (particularly the free English lesson seekers)

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Wherever I’m living, which is Tatsuno City at the moment.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Just say whatever country you're from, then ask, "Where are you from?"

3 ( +3 / -0 )

So many foreigners in Japan have a chip on their shoulder about being asked this question. If someone says 'hey where are you from', and you get weird about it, you're the weird one here. Not the person asking.

Just what I was thinking.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

People getting their knickers in a twist over nothing.

I usually answer something on the lines of, ‘I was born and raised in the UK, but I’ve been in Japan a long time.’

Then we can just get on with the conversation.

Depending on the situation, sometimes I’ll answer ‘I’m from N-Town in Tochigi’. Then we can talk about local things.

Life isn’t long enough to get upset about other folks’ conversation openers.

10 ( +10 / -0 )

"Igirisu" usually does the trick. Once, I attempted to be a little daring and say "Ingurando", to which the person said "Igirisu?"

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Atchi Mura is another one I use.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Why can the frame of reference not be that I have been a regular, honest, hard-working member of your society, just like you, for the past quarter of a century?

Why does your reference need to be a place I left decades ago and do not have a life in?

And why can't it be both? When I ask someone where they are from (which is invariably one of the first questions I ask in a conversation, it's because I have an interest in the person, and their culture, language, and the area in which they grew up interest me. I usually am also ask what they do for a job, and what they do for fun, as I'd like to know these things about them as well.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Again, the question itself is innocuous, but it often comes from a place of doubting certain people's qualifications as a paid up member of society.

Such a negative attitude, and in my opinion, only really negative people look at the world this way.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

"What's it to you?"

Interestingly my relative who is a world traveler is part Lebanese and although it doesn't seem obvious to me, apparently he is often asked if he is an arab.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Chillax. It’s all good. People are curious.

When I say what country I’m from, they usually respond with, “so I guess you’ve been in Japan a long time.” Conversation usually snowballs from there.

Unless you really just hate people in general. In which case, you should just turn the volume on your headphones up, pull your hoodie over your eyes and keep walking. They won’t bother you again.

Seriously.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

It seems a fairly normal question, but is there a difference whether it is asked because someone looks different or because they sound different? Is an accent not more of an indicator of where you come from than how you look? Where I live now in a part of Scotland, I'm unlikely to ask the question if the person has a local accent, whatever color their face is. But I may ask if they have a different accent that I can't place.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Of all the questions I get asked, this is certainly the least annoying. I do get tired of being asked "When are you going home?" or "Do you have XYZ in America?". That said, I try my best to answer every person as though it's the first time I've been asked it, however banal the question.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

@Clippety

I hate that “Do you have XYZ in America?” too.

Partly because I’m English....

8 ( +8 / -0 )

It's equally annoying when it comes from non-Japanese foreigners. After they ask they say they thought I was from that area. Then that they've been there (or in a neighboring country) once. Then they ask what language I speak and how many languages I can speak.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

@lucabrasi, Yeah, me too! People who I have known for several years still ask me such questions. There's one guy I know who I've nicknamed 'Nihon-dake-san', because if I reply to that question in the negative, that's the next phrase out of his grinning mug.

When I'm feeling mischievous I ask them if the have black pudding in China too, just to eff with their heads.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@Clippety

I hear you. I was asked about income tax in America. When I said “I don’t know, I’ve never been there,” the reply was “You know what I mean!”

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@Luca Haha! Shame on you for not kowing that. Maybe it's part of an eloborate national wind-up, and Americans get asked if they have onigiri in Canada.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I respond immediately to the question of where are you from with, "Are you genki?" The response is always 100% "Yes". Then I ask them, "Why?" Watch their expressions.

Sometimes I also say I am from earth...just like all of us humans.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@Clippety

; )

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Where coming from?

Me: Guess.

This is my go to response. Kids and adults love it and it throws the question back on them. It's a harmless enough inquiry, good people like the Japanese are curious about their guests. Some of the answers are hilarious though. Brazil? Finland? Dublin?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I particularly can't stand people who say "I know someone from your country. Do you want to meet with them?" Why would I want to meet a total stranger introduced by another total stranger?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

If someone who I am acquainted with asks me this then it's no problem. However strangers sometime walk up and ask me out of the blue. All of them are still waiting for my reply.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

take it easy. these days they just want to find out if you are from china...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It's equally annoying when it comes from non-Japanese foreigners. After they ask they say they thought I was from that area. Then that they've been there (or in a neighboring country) once. Then they ask what language I speak and how many languages I can speak.

Yeah it’s so annoying when people express interest in you as a person and try to find ways in which to form a connection. So pathetic.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Yeah it’s so annoying when people express interest in you as a person and try to find ways in which to form a connection. So pathetic.

+1

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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