Asian and Gaijin: What It’s Like to Be An Invisible Foreigner in Japan
By Joyce Wan
On November 3, 2016
It’s a common complaint among foreigners who live in Japan: when Japanese people talk about them within earshot, under the assumption that they can’t speak Japanese. I’ve gotten that too, but I’ve also had a slightly more unique experience.
Once, sitting on a train, I overheard some other foreigners talking about me under the assumption that I didn’t speak English. It wasn’t anything bad. They were complimenting my outfit.
As a so-called invisible foreigner, a non-Japanese Asian person living in Japan, I considered writing a list of the pros and cons associated. It seemed kind of pointless, though; after all, they’re linked to something that we’re just born with. Reading a statistic in the news recently provided me with a different perspective:
It claimed that most accounts of foreigners’ experiences in Japan are written by white men, with Asian women representing the most silent group.
My experience as an ethnically Asian woman living in a small northern city often differed from the representations of “gaijin life” most commonly found in blogs, Youtube, and other media sources. So it seems worth writing about for the sake of everyone else who feels frustrated or confused at not being able to relate to the dominant conversation of what it means to be a foreigner living in Japan.
Invisibility is great!
Arriving in Tokyo for the whirlwind JET Program orientation, I was treated the same as everyone else in my cohort of new expats, as we wandered the streets starry-eyed and obviously fresh off the plane. But within mere days of arriving in my placement city, one anomaly was clear: if I didn’t open my mouth, I was seen and treated as a Japanese person.
While there may be certain features predominately associated with specific ethnic groups, the idea that Asians can tell all other Asians apart is a myth.
I’d been mistaken for a Japanese person multiple times before ever setting foot in the country—the most memorable example, though not from another Asian, being a white woman who subtly complained about the increasing Chinese population in a nearby suburb, and asked for my views as a Japanese person (note: I’m Chinese).
So I got to reap the benefits of blending in. I went about my business without being stared at, and never had to think about how uncomfortable it might be until other foreign friends expressed frustration. Once a white male friend said he felt more comfortable travelling with me in our small city, because he got suspicious stares otherwise. And at the start, I never had to worry about being mistaken as a local for long. My beginner language skills, mixed with general cluelessness, revealed me for what I was within seconds.
Blending in too much
As time ticked by, things got more complicated. I learned more Japanese. I became attuned to subtle cultural norms, bought new clothes and got blunt bangs. The longer I stayed in Japan, the more of a chameleon I became. Blending in has its downsides as well: foreigners in areas with low tourism often rave about the kindness of strangers in Japan, likening it to being something of a celebrity, but someone who looks like a Japanese person receives little of that adoration.
Old people in the neighborhood don’t give you gifts; young people looking to make foreign friends don’t strike up conversations.
That seems like a given, though. I knew to expect it before I arrived in Japan, and for the most part it didn’t bother me, since there was nothing I could do to change it except be more outgoing myself. What I had not expected, and what really dug quietly and deeply into me as I continued my life in Japan, was something a lot harder to pin down:
The sense of being shunted awkwardly back and forth across the border of “us vs. them”.
In my interactions with strangers, there was the constant underlying stress of wondering if and when to reveal my foreignness. I could never be sure if an interaction would go perfectly smoothly, or if I would do something wrong or encounter unfamiliar language. I felt bad saying I didn’t understand after someone had already taken the time to explain things to me, leaving me nodding helplessly along to long streams of Japanese.
Of course these problems are faced by all expats, but because I had tasted what it was like to belong, I felt a strange pressure to keep up the act. When I accidentally broke my charade, such as by failing to heed instructions and thus walking or standing in the wrong place, I shrank under the stares of disapproval.
Whether real or imagined, I felt a pressure to be Japanese.
New twist on an old identity issue
I was born and raised in a diverse Canadian city, where I was lucky to grow up without facing the discrimination that many other minorities encounter. But there were the occasional reminders of otherness; people who asked me where I was from, strangers who greeted me in the usual assortment of Asian language ‘hello’s – the sudden jabs of alienation that broke up the flow of daily life.
I became a real foreigner in Japan, but that was somewhat ironically accompanied by the experience of being, for the first time, part of the overwhelming racial majority.
Japan is a society that values conformity. The pressure to blend in made me want to look and act like others. And gender roles are much more strictly defined and traditional than I was used to. In a wry twist of fate, so many of the traits that Japan reinforced in me – submissiveness, daintiness, quiet timidity, and a focus on appearances – were the same stereotypes of Asian women I’d fought to throw off back home.
As I shopped for makeup and spoke to everyone in a reserved manner, I felt like I was turning into a more passive version of myself. If I was blending in, it was only further and further into the background.
My misguided attempts to become more Japanese did little to help me gain a greater sense of belonging. It would take many more years to learn the language and unwritten rules that evaded me. I felt like a bit of a disappointment to the Japanese people around me who expected a more interesting gaijin. Meanwhile, I was still trying to mimic their behavior so I could fit in.
Coworkers praised the chopstick skills I was practically born with, and new acquaintances that learned of my nationality remarked with surprise that I looked Asian.
These things seem just as much a part of me as my first language and my nationality, and though I knew that people were just being friendly and meant no harm, such exchanges disoriented me, in the same way that a well-meaning man in Vancouver, who said arigatou after I held a door for him, made me feel for a moment like I wasn’t myself.
A place to be
Life in Japan may have been the first time I felt such a conspicuous pressure to conform but in truth I have been chasing cultural belonging for far longer than that.
It’s a story every minority knows well: the subtle push to imbibe the dominant culture, movies and books and music and whatever else.
I genuinely grew to love many of these things, but they couldn’t be found in my own house and didn’t reflect my face. The pressure is almost more internal than it is external; it’s fueled primarily by the hope of being accepted.
Living in Japan added a new dimension of complexity to my relationship with race and identity, but that in turn has helped me better understand my own identity as an Asian-Canadian woman. I’ve seen both here and there, and I’m sure it holds true everywhere else, that trying too hard to fit into a culture can only lead to feeling like an imposter.
When you embrace your own identity, you yourself will acknowledge that you belong. I hope that if I return to live in Japan one day, it will be with a much greater sense of confidence that I belong wherever it is I happen to be.