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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