Saturday, June 26, 2010


My college age friend, Sasha, asked me some questions about being a foreigner in Japan for her research paper. I thought I'd answer here and make this today's topic.

Even though I have lived in Japan 33 years, I am a foreigner and will always be a foreigner. As a Western foreigner Japanese are very accepting of me and go out of their way to be helpful and make exceptions for me. But I remember when I first came to Japan I met someone who somewhat bitterly said to me,

"Everybody treats you Americans like royalty. You get special attention and everyone wants to be your friend. Sure you like Japan. Everything is laid out for you. Try being a Taiwanese or a Chinese foreigner. Try coming from Iran or the Philippines. Those foreigners aren't as well treated as you Americans."

The person had a point. There is still a difference (I don't like to use the word discrimination) towards foreigners from the Asian countries. Japanese friends will innocently say things like

"There's a man in our neighborhood who is from (some country). I'm scared of him."


"Look at all the foreigners here today. It is very colorful at the pool today. Whites and Blacks even."

Well. I could go into the comments that I've heard that sound very racist yet I don't think my friends realize it at all. And maybe they don't even remember that I am one of the foreigners whom they are stereotyping.

So personally I feel accepted in my adopted country but that is certainly not true for all the foreigners who live in Japan.

Would I ever want to have Japanese citizenship? No. It has never crossed my mind. It is very difficult to get Japanese citizenship in the first place and it would mean renouncing my American citizenship which I am not about to do. Japanese law will not allow dual citizenship after a certain age (my children still are dual). I don't see any benefits of giving up my American citizenship and gaining Japanese. Sure, I guess I could vote (I don't have voting rights in Japan) or stop having to carry around my Alien Registration card or something but as long as Tetsu or one of the kids claim me as their dependent I lead a pretty fulfilling life.

And outside of my immediate circle of friends, Japanese will always see me as a foreigner. It doesn't matter how fantastic my Japanese is (it's not all that fantastic), how long I've lived here, how much I have assimilated into the culture, my face and my accent gives me away. And by the way, there are people who have been born in Japan, speak flawless Japanese and yet are not awarded Japanese citizenship by the government and are "foreigners" in their own land.

Some of Sasha's other questions included one about what foreigners have to do to be accepted.

Smile a lot!

Be willing to try anything and everything. I truly think culture and food are inseparable so it is important to be able to eat at the same table and not make a face at the food offered. The nudity in the spas is another hurdle a foreigner has to overcome in order to really experience the Japanese culture.

Commit yourself with time and effort. If nothing else, everything in Japan takes TIME. In order to change things, in order to make judgements, years go by! It is a little frustrating for the Western foreigner at least. Japan runs on tradition and ancestors and the tried and true. To make a change or to personally make a difference one has to be committed to a job. Japanese will spend a couple YEARS contemplating whether an idea is good or bad before they even get around to perusing the ways of implementing an idea. The foreigners in Japan tend to give up or make new plans before their Japanese counterparts have even made arrangements to put something into consideration... Yes. To be accepted in Japan you have to commit yourself.

Another question from Sasha was how much Japanese language is necessary to come to Japan. Not much! There are loads of people here who can speak English. I once heard that there are more English teachers in Japan than teachers in any other subject and that includes the academics and cultural subjects. That doesn't mean that everybody speaks English (far from it) but that most people want to give their lessons a little practical use. If worse comes to worse they can always find someone who speaks even better English to help out. So while knowing the Japanese language can be convenient I have known foreigners who have lived in Japan 20 or 30 years and don't really speak the language all that well...

Well Sasha, I hope that answers some of your questions. I have had people say I've lived too long in Japan and am not even foreign anymore (my foreign friend disgustedly made that comment). And I've had people say that I have more Japanese mannerisms and characteristics than real Japanese (a Japanese friend said that as a compliment).

I guess I'm as accepted as I'm ever going to be.

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