lifestyle

You’re not really Japanese; you just look the part

31 Comments

Being a visible foreigner in Japan comes with its pros and cons. You don’t have to worry about speaking imperfect Japanese, but you may also become frustrated when Japanese refuse to respond to you in anything other than broken English. For better or for worse, those particular problems will never apply to me. Living here as an American of Japanese descent — an “invisible” gaijin — has been both enlightening and extremely vexing.

By way of example, from the countryside to the city, my Japanese face has provoked these responses and more:   

  • At a bicycle parking area (from a Japanese person): “You aren’t American. What’s wrong with you, baka (stupid)? Why can’t you speak Japanese?”
  • At a club in Shibuya (from a Japanese person): “Hey. He wants to talk to you. You can’t speak Japanese?” Disappears.
  • On the Keisei Liner home from the airport (from another foreigner): “Wow, your English is perfect. Where did you study?”
  • In a local ramen shop (from a Japanese person): “Ah, you’re nikkei, so you’re hafu? No? Quarter?”
  • At an event for foreigners in Tokyo (from another foreigner): “So, how long did you live in America? Do you enjoy being back in Japan?”
  • At the end-of-the-school-year teacher’s enkai, or banquet (from a Japanese person): “Eh! What are you wearing? Have you lost your mind? Dame dayo (Don’t do that)!”
  • At a men’s baseball practice (from a Japanese person): “What the $%#@?! Etchi! You can’t wear those shorts. That’s sexual harassment!”

How would you respond with limited Japanese ability? How would you prove to someone that you’re purely American, while speaking in Japanese and having visibly Japanese features? At the time, I couldn’t find the proper words to explain myself to people in Japanese. I felt guilty and voiceless.

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© GaijinPot

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31 Comments
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Everywhere I look, I see people who look identical to my aunt, uncle, cousin and brother....

Seriously? Identical?

For someone complaining about being stereotyped, that’s a very odd way of looking at a group of individuals.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I sure look Japanese, since my parents are Japanese, but even after 2 decades here, when I meet new people they will treat me as "smart gaijin or really stupid Japanese" and because of my looks I am afraid the later is prevalent!

7 ( +7 / -0 )

At the end-of-the-school-year teacher’s enkai, or banquet (from a Japanese person): “Eh! What are you wearing? Have you lost your mind? Dame dayo (Don’t do that)!”

What were you wearing?

5 ( +5 / -0 )

What were you wearing?

The shorts he wore for baseball practice. :-)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

This is something I can't imagine having to deal with on a daily basis. Just being spoken to in German when flying with Lufthansa is enough to perplex - having it all the time, added to the particular prejudices that come along with it - must be quite difficult.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

What were you wearing?

Banana Republic calf-length black business dress, with cap sleeves, and neckline was up to my throat. Nothing revealed except my arms. Shoulders were covered. I forgot my jacket, so I was standing in the back of the room, and the grounds keeper came up to me and gave me a mouth full. My face was on fire from shame and embarrassment, and he mentioned it two other times before dinner started. I couldn't ask a teacher to bring me home just to pick up my cardigan, and it was hot, so I just thought I could go this one time without a cardigan. So, it was my fault for forgetting the cardigan, but also, the dress wasn't revealing at all. Other women teachers told me not to worry, but I couldn't forget what the man said to me, since he continued to remind me that I forgot Japanese customs.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

The shorts he wore for baseball practice :)

I play for a men's baseball team in the A-league in my city. I'm the only woman playing in the league. I wore Nike running shorts because it was summer, 33 degrees.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

grounds keeper

Someone with no power wanted to flex their ego. They saw an opportunity where they thought "I'm smarter than you" (clearly not the case) and just talked down to you.... he basically walks around day after day thinking to himself "I could do that job..." but he is a grounds keeper.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Someone with no power wanted to flex their ego.

This. This is so common in Japan. Well, I guess it's pretty common all over the world, but maybe more so in Japan because "the nail that sticks out" and all that, people here love telling off anyone who isn't following the rules exactly. Any small excus will do for the type of people that love to do this.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Hey your written English is pretty good....where did you....ergghhh sorry couldn't resist!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

A sleeveless dress? ffs... The same sexist nonsense as I saw nearly thirty years ago in a rural city (if you know what I mean). The kind of bullying that happens when the bully thinks the person they are attacking can't/won't answer back. Screw him. He was wrong and that is it. The burning anger of being talked to like that takes time to leave, I know.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I shed tears reading this. Such a harsh life. I am sure moving to Afghanistan would be an improvement.

But seriously, taking things in humor will help a lot although I know it is vogue in the US to play the victim forever.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Kristy, I'm curious... of the comments that were made to you, as written in your article, how many were made by men and how many by women?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

But seriously, taking things in humor will help a lot although I know it is vogue in the US to play the victim forever.

But seriously? An American male is telling a woman of colour how she ought to react to being treated badly, and telling her to suck it up because they have it worse elsewhere?

To Kristy and anyone else who needs to be reminded - if someone is rude to you or disrespects you, be angry, be firm, and tell them where to go. Don't tolerate crap just because some ignorant middle-aged fool who has no idea of your experience tells you what they think you should do.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

On the Keisei Liner home from the airport (from another foreigner): “Wow, your English is perfect. Where did you study?”

At an event for foreigners in Tokyo (from another foreigner): “So, how long did you live in America? Do you enjoy being back in Japan?”

I'm not sure I understand why these comments are annoying to the person if they didn'T know them and didn't realize they weren't born and raised in Japan. Lots of Japanese go to "foreigner" events and many Japanese study English and would love to be told that comment. If after they had explained they weren't born and raised in japan, I could understand. I think it's harder for the "half" kids who are constantly spoken to in English and told they aren't "real" Japanese when they are born and raised here.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

No wonder you're upset - everyone's telling you that you don't fit, or they can't figure you out or relate to you. I suspect some if given time would also be able to come up with something like: "I find you a really interesting conundrum. Can I ask you a lot of questions until I figure out what it's like being you?" As it is, pretty much no one in Japan will be able to relate to your predicament apart from other Japanese-American women who don't speak Japanese fluently. The irritating encounters that play havoc with your identity will continue for as long as you are here and will be one of the reasons you are happy too leave again. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfield, life's about choosing your irritations. Which can you tolerate least: irritating reactions and comments in Japan or outside Japan? I'd say, take comfort from the fact that you can choose to leave, and for now work on minimising the extent to which it hurts, and reapply that new strength in other contexts at home. You could also redirect your anger and frustration into learning to speak Japanese fluently and discover you care a bit less about peoples' reactions because you have a more positive selfimage.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Gotta agree with those who talk about those who want to try and flex their ego.

My first year, I was living in Nagoya, and because I was into judo started practicing with a university team. During one practice, a humorous situation developed between me and one of the players, and we both laughed about it.

One of the seniors, trying to play the big boss, started screaming at both of us in Japanese. At the time my Japanese was terrible, so I just shrugged and went back to practicing. He kept up, switching to English, yelling (roughly), "This is judo! We train to be warriors! You no understand warrior mindset!"

My reply to him was simple (and with mixed in Japanese with words I knew): "I am former US Army. Graduate of West Point, US Military Academy. I am warrior. I know real war, real army. What is your point again?"

He never tried to criticize me again.

Most often with these ego strokers, standing up to them and telling them you won't be bullied will shut it down very quickly.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

The false indignation still escapes me. I have for example gone to Europe a few times and maybe been mistaken to speak Italian for example. There is no angst or newspaper story about how hard it is for me, I simply explain I am an American and I speak English.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Hi, without wanting to raise the thorny topic of positive discrimination, if the JET program is intended to give Japanese people contact with foreigners and to become used to them, its very good to have ALTs who look Japanese. This is because such people make the biggest mockery of judgements people make on physical features alone.

At an event for foreigners in Tokyo (from another foreigner): “So, how long did you live in America? Do you enjoy being back in Japan?”

As Kirsty describes, Japanese-looking people from Western countries also end up on the receiving end from other non-Japanese. There are worse forms of prejudice than this, but this amounts to prejudice all the same.

My wife is Japanese and is dark-skinned, so she often gets mistaken for a Thai, both inside and outside Japan. When she told one Japanese man she was Japanese, his reply was "Oh, so you've taken citizenship". There are definitely some very closed minds out there.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Many coincidences here, Kristy - my daughter (born to her American father and Japanese mother) was born and brought up in Japan, then tossed into a college in California. Don't get me started on the hoops I had to jump through to exempt her from the SAT: She's American, I said, but her language skills are not up to that level of test. (A letter to Gov. Brown finally solved things.) I did think to send her to a 3-month ESL program in the summer before her freshman year, and now in her sophomore year, she's doing a part-time job for that very program! Fitting in in America as a "half" is a cinch; at her college, finding someone who isn't a generation away from a foreign country is difficult.

The coincidences are that her (given) name is Lauren and she attends CSUMB, just next to Salinas. Drop in to say hello next time you're there - and bring me back some tacos carne asada!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Kristy Lauren

you are probably aware by now, Japan, like any other country has its fair share of plain idiots, people with a low IQ. Such persons, being the weaklings they are, take real pleasure into attacking anyone seemingly weaker than themselves (smaller women, children). As discriminating as it might sound, you will find such persons mostly doing low-pay low-amount-of-thinking jobs (such as ground keeping and bicycle park guards). You're much better if you just ignore these types, they have a grunge with perfectly native Japanese as well.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone in such a job is a bad person, quite the opposite, I'm sure the idiots are the exception.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I became reserved and passive. I even began to fear how Japanese people would react if I did not act like a proper Japanese woman

Never give in to that kind of ridiculous pressure. What is "proper" anyway?

Be yourself and celebrate who you are. One can do that and still be part of a different culture.

Jeez; I get grief from people online who will never meet me but assume my life/concerns/hopes are detrimental to their well being.

Haters gotta hate as that saying goes...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

On the Keisei Liner home from the airport (from another foreigner): “Wow, your English is perfect. Where did you study?”

I've had tourists I've assisted at the station say similar things. I usually say to them "WOW you're English is good too!"

2 ( +2 / -0 )

the last two has nothing to do with the article.... dress the part for the event...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The shorts he wore for baseball practice. :-)

It's not a he, it's a she. That's why it was sexual harassment LOL.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I play for a men's baseball team in the A-league in my city. I'm the only woman playing in the league. I wore Nike running shorts because it was summer, 33 degrees. So basically your a western woman stuck in Japanese body ( thats a compliment ). The J guys must think your a nutter , or completely terrified of you. LOL

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Some of you may appreciate reading the following book: "The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. The Ugly American depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language, culture, customs and refusal to integrate was in marked contrast to the polished abilities of Eastern Bloc (primarily Soviet) diplomacy and led to Communist diplomatic success overseas." I highlight certain portions of particular interest.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Kristy, I'm curious... of the comments that were made to you, as written in your article, how many were made by men and how many by women?

I don't want to think that that's the only reason, but, all of the comments I've received have been from men. I've never been asked that question before :)

Most of the comments perhaps could be shrugged off by other foreigners, but because I live in the countryside, they happen more frequently. And, because I play baseball, I do surround myself with more men. And, my identity is sensitive only because I haven't yet built a think enough skin to just block out certain comments. But, I'm getting there slowly. Thanks for your comment!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I don't want to think that that's the only reason, but, all of the comments I've received have been from men.

I thought so. After living in Japan for more than 20 years, if there is one thing I know is that, not all but many, Japanese men like to look down on women. They are also bullies, and the easiest target of their bullying is women. You make an even easier target being a women and a Japanese American. I have no respect for this type of person, and when I see it happen I call these cowards out to their face, in Japanese. They are usually quite shocked a man would say the things I say to them. Be strong, and just let their childishness run off your back.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"I haven't yet built a think enough skin"

Ah ha, you've regressed in your English fluency. That should endear you to those meathead ball players in the boonies. Now you will speak in obscure slang and your fate will be to join the sad lost tribe of the inaka expats.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I wonder if Yu Darvish ever gets tired of the other Dodgers constantly speaking to him in Farsi? Those wacky baseball superstitions.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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