The three phases of foreignness in Japan
Are you being seen as a friend or foe... or just a fool?
In this day and age, I will still meet Japanese with whom I am the first non-Japanese person they have met. I've also been super lucky to have met a lot (A LOT!) of really nice people and developed a lot of relationships in the country, both in my personal life and also as a business person.
In my experience, there seem to be six categorizations that non-Japanese are put into as they build relationships and exist in Japan.
1. The Foe… or Fantasy
These are usually random encounters because the more you get to know someone in Japan, the less likely they can sustain this sort of biased or prejudice.
You are the Foe with people who refuse to speak with you or will only speak with you in a very confrontational manner.
I ordered lunch once at a restaurant and had to deal with an elderly gentleman who wouldn't stop muttering under his breath how much he disliked foreigners. Not a pleasant encounter at all, and confusing considering that I wasn't even sure what I had done to him to warrant that sort of abuse.
The Fantasy stems from the fetishization of foreigners.
For whatever reason, be it your height, ability to speak English, or curly hair, there are some people who will latch onto you because you satisfy their fantasy.
There isn't always a sexual motivation - I endured an hour-long train ride once with a businessman who took a liking to me because he had been to Hong Kong once and really liked it, apparently - but might figure into the equation.
The best advice I can give you for dealing with these two types is the popular expression: stay calm, carry on. Try not to spend too much of your energy on these people. Find the nearest exit, and be on your way.
2. The Fool… or Freak
These categorizations are usually assigned by friends of friends, or acquaintances, or just friends who aren't interested in learning about non-Japanese cultures.
Just as other countries have their own culture and practices, Japan has a unique set of principles and things that seem "logical". Violate any of these principles and you may be labeled as the Fool.
I've been guilty of not knowing that ginger and green onions were a must with soba, or not knowing the proper way to set a dinner table, or how to properly use the Japanese name-stamp "inkan" without making a mess.
Originating from a similar lack of sympathy for differences across countries and cultures is the Freak.
I've been called out for ordering two set lunches (yes, for myself) and cutting my own hair.
Oh, the shock of someone ordering more than a single lunch for themself (okay, I was hungry) and not going to the stylist to cut their hair! (it doesn't make sense to pay someone to shave my head when I can do it myself more cheaply)
These categorizations are more likely to arise, in my opinion, and experience, with individuals who have less exposure to non-Japanese culture. They probably don't mean to be offensive, but it can still hurt if you're not used to dealing with this sort of intolerance.
3. The Friend, The Force
If you've made it this far, congratulations. You're in the home stretch, and this is a good place to be.
You'll know you're a Friend in the same way that you'd make friendships in your native country and language.
Once you get past the Fantasy and prove that you're not the Fool that everyone thinks you are, you might get lucky enough to build some real relationships, with individuals who like you, for you.
There will also be times when your uniqueness - in that you're not like 99% of everyone in the country - will be an asset, a Force for change.
Friends will rely on you to say the things that they're "unable" to say, for fear of stepping out of line with what's accepted or come to you for a perspective that only you can provide, from someone who's seen other ways of life. This can be an incredibly empowering experience if you manage to make it this far.
No one is asking you to change the country but understanding where you fit into the intricate balance of things that is Japan will help you understand a bit more about how people might see you, and how you can respond in kind.
Kevin is a professional writer with experience in music, education, news media and entertainment. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English before moving to Japan for work. He's lived all over Japan, spending time in Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Okinawa.
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