I’m not sure why this is, but foreigners who have lived in Japan for a long time consider themselves experts about life here. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been pseudo-“advised” or “educated” by an old-school expat. Tips have ranged from “Don’t drink tap water; the Japanese all drink bottled” to “You won’t be allowed into an onsen with a tattoo.” And those are just the most coherent nuggets of wisdom I’ve heard from long-termers.
Certainly, there is some insight to be gained from a wizened expat entering his second decade here, or a family man with the obligatory Japanese wife and mixed-race child. But what these sages too often ignore is that Japan is a dynamic country, one that’s constantly evolving. Big cities are different than small towns, Kyushu is different than Hokkaido, and Tokyo has a heart thumping to a beat all its own. The hard-and-fast rules espoused by these gurus serve, above all, to create a kind of expat mythology that thrives on anecdote, circumstance and generous helpings of stereotype.
Now, on to what set me off on this rant: I was recently approached by a manager at a foreign company I sometimes work with. He pulled me into his office—much like the disciplinarian at my Catholic high school had done circa 1996—to inform me that my blonde highlights were unacceptable in the Japanese workplaces to which I was sometimes dispatched. He indignantly explained that this hair lightening had a particular “resonance” in Japan, and he went further to suggest that if I didn’t know what this means, maybe I should “look it up.” Scoff scoff, wink wink.
So that’s what I did. I searched around for hours looking for something, anything, to give me insight about the offense I’ve caused by lightening my hair. Guess what? I couldn’t find a single thing. Sure, I’d heard that Japanese with brassy blonde hair and tattoos run the risk of being seen as yakuza-affiliated. But certainly the Japanese clients I worked for would not mistake me for a potential gang member? Even the older ones must have seen photos of Brad Pitt or David Beckham. Surely they wouldn’t go running in terror from the gaijin with blonde highlights?
Ever since this “talk” with my boss, I’ve begun noticing more and more people with frosted hair. Sure, most of them are youngsters who have not yet been roped in to the stereotypical Japanese corporate world of black hair, black suit and no soul. But they’re visible and they’re out there. So how shocking or offensive do you think it would be for a 50-something salaryman in a Japanese investment bank to lay eyes on a foreigner with blonde highlights? What was I missing?
Nothing. Old-school expats need to take a serious step forward. Perhaps when they fist arrived in Japan as (gasp) English teachers back in ’92, they were the rock stars of the local izakaya. But it’s time for an update. Contrary to the stereotype, Japanese society is a dynamic creature, and the tried-and-true “rules” are going by the wayside. What’s more, the mythology created by long-termers is collapsing thanks to the experiences of a new generation of expats.
I appreciate the advice, Master Gaijin, but let’s give the Japanese a little credit. Some of them use Brita filters instead of bottled water, and most could even stand being in an onsen with a tattooed foreigner. They know that highlights are a Western fashion thing; they’ve seen it and they can handle it. My highlighted hair has perhaps disturbed your notion of what the Japanese think, not the Japanese themselves. Like the proverbial old wives, your tales have reached their sell-by date. It’s well past time to bring that “Gaijin Handbook” into the 21st century.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today