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Asian and Gaijin: What It’s Like to Be An Invisible Foreigner in Japan

What is it like to be an Asian foreigner in Japan? One writer shares her experiences of blending so far into the background that she became invisible.

By 7 min read 18

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.

The “gaijin” discourse in Japan is dominated by white foreigners.

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.

Everybody wants to fit in.

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.

Being Asian in Japan is a strange path to navigate.

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.

Wherever you go, there you are.

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  • Greer H says:

    This is so true! It articulated so well what I couldn’t put my finger on about being an Asian foreigner in Japan

  • Bmorebedouin says:

    Great post. Def need more diverse voices. As a black woman in Tokyo, my experience has beeb up and down. Random people in the street are nice, yet this has been some of the worst service i’ve ever received. I’m in a fancy hotel, traveling for business. The staff makes me feel invisible. At this moment, i have been sittong for 30 mins unnatended in a restaurant, watching staff scramble fkr white patrons. I can’t say i’ll recommend this place for non white/Asian travelers.

  • VUUV says:

    I really took the time to read this. Finally, a blog that voiced out my unsaid emotions. #Relate

  • If Japanese want Japan to be Japanese, I have no issue with that. Japan has been theirs since time immemorial, and whatever historical mixing may have occurred is inconsequential. The Japanese have remained Japanese throughout their history and I think that is praiseworthy.

  • Annie Zhong says:

    I relate with this so much. I myself an a Chinese-born Canadian woman who grew up in Canada and now lives and works in Tokyo. While a lot of the time it’s a relief to be able blend in with the crowd so easily (especially since I speak the language fluently too) that sense of “being shunted awkwardly back and forth across the border of “us vs. them”” feeling is all too familiar. Obviously I can’t, and have no wish to become fully Japanese, but my Asian appearance and language abilities also creates a distinction that somehow makes me feel like less of a foreigner. Most of the time I can get away with pretending to be a Japanese and no one will doubt me unless I flip out my residence card. It kind of feels like being the filling between two cookies; you’re very close with both sides, but you can never truly mingle with either. And while this feeling can sometimes lead to loneliness, I still don’t have a strong desire to want to categorized into neither group. After all, it’s the filling that people tend to love best~ XD

  • maulinator says:

    What basically sucks is that as an Asian foreigner in Japan regardless of ethnicity, you get all the crap that foreigners get in Japan without any of the perks. While the white and black gaijin can get away with gaijin smash and gaijin privilege, the Asian foreigners don’t. So we get the all the crap and no benefits. In addition it sucks further in that when you come from the West, you are an outsider in your home country as you are not white, and you are an outsider here in Japan as well. You don’t “fit in” anywhere. But who wants to fit in anyway. Being the anomaly is always more interesting than being a part of the herd. The crowd mentality in Japan is a hard thing to overcome and it would make life easier, but if you are a foreigner in your home country then you get used to the uphill battle. Revel in your diversity and be proud that you had to endure more than other people. It makes you stronger.
    If someone looks disdainfully at you for not being subservient- look at them like “fuck you”. Haters gonna hate.
    It is hard to undo a lot of the microaggressions that result from being a part of a homogenous society, but if you are from the West different forms of micro-aggressions exist and it is just a part of life. While in a ideal world such annoyances should not exist, in the real world there is always friction.

  • Dani Pascual says:

    I grew up with people mistaking me for a Japanese (I’m Chinese) and when I went to Japan in 2014 people probably mistook me for one of them but my not so mastered Japanese probably gave it away I was a foreigner so I imagine if I move to Japan I will most likely experience the same thing

  • Andrew Liddiard says:

    Thank you so much for your article, being ourselves and finding a way to fit into Japanese society is more natural and hopefully less stressful

  • modestprophet says:

    Don’t try to fit in at all. I don’t. I’m loud and proud from the get go, once I open my mouth and let the native English fly. That said, I find the advantage to having an Asian face is that people are immediately more comfortable around you. It’s also fun impressing them for no other reason than with your fluent eigo. The only drawback is that I don’t get the rockstar attention from the women that the white guys do. But then again, you probably don’t want to get with people who are just into the foreigners anyway.

  • 日系人も日本に「外人」です。Finally someone articulated many of the feelings I could not put into words while I was living in Japan. As a Nikkeijin, I became patriotic for a country I only heard in my grandparents’ stories, studying 武道 in order to capture what everyone Romantically called 大和魂. I bathed in the praise and attention of many homesick Japanese expats, thinking that Japan is the place where I belong. I began to create the belief that my fate has always been tied in with my ancestors’ homeland. When I finally got to live in Japan, it was more like what you have written above. The fact that you speak and understand Japanese culture, the greater the pressure it is, not just to conform, but to prove yourself to be more Japanese than others. Every mistake I made was depressing. I felt like I was a huge burden and disappointment to my boss, my host, my colleagues, my friends, etc. You are not given the same leeway and excused like the white foreigners. You can never relax and be your lazy carefree self like back in the islands. The words「やっぱり、外国人ですね。」seem to be the most painful words I have heard in my life and the moment they start excusing you in the same way as the white guy, it hurts even more. It becomes complicated. You want to be excused like the next white 「外人」but when they start treating you like one, you begin to hate it and hate yourself even more. Gone were the praises I received from homesick Japanese expats back in the islands. Once in Japan, you begin to realise, that despite your best efforts, 日本には日系人も、やっぱり、外人です。

  • Sol says:

    The same happens to me as a Nikkei-jin. But one of the first things I say about myself is that I’m gaijin, that way they wont expect me to know much Japanese. Being a gaijin is what sets me apart from the rest. And yes, being invisible I LOVE IT, in my own country I was treated as a gaijin because of my looks.
    On the other hand, I’ve been living in the same place for the last 3 years without knowing there’s a couple of neighbords who speak my language, because they never approached me because they didn’t realized I was gaijin, until my super white husband moved in…. and they went to ask him where he was from and found out that “OMG that Japanese is ALSO GAIJIN”.

  • ashened says:

    I can relate to your experiences as an Asian woman living in Japan, but it’s actually worse when you’re of Southeast Asian descent – when they learn where you’re from, the subtle, judging stare is palpable.

    • Joyce Wan says:

      Thanks for sharing this perspective! I completely agree that experiences are different for East Asians vs. South or Southeast Asians. I also think that since I was teaching English and almost all the other foreigners I hung out with were in the same business, I don’t know what it’s like for people doing other work in Japan. I’m especially curious about the experiences of Asians who don’t come from English-speaking countries.

  • Takeshan says:

    I don’t get the big deal why you or other East Asian for that matter, should act as Japanese just because they look closer to them than other foreigner?

    Just be yourself, even if you look like them and try to act like them, Japanese still consider you as “soto” heck even Japanese Brazilian or Japanese American who have more in common with them than average Asian person
    are still treated as soto.

    • Joyce Wan says:

      Very true. But while I get that in theory, what I wanted to express is that it’s harder to put being yourself into actual practice when you’re immersed in a culture that strangers expect you to conform to. It was confusing to figure out that pressure while other foreigners got away with “gaijin smashes” and I often couldn’t relate to their experiences. Does that make sense? Thank you for reading!

      • overmage says:

        I’m Asian but i get away with smashing all the time. The trick is to speak English loudly and proudly. You entrap yourself by trying to confirm, yet you will never be Japanese (not even if you were Nikkei), so why bother?

        Nice article by the way

  • Lancaster says:

    It’s great being Asian-Canadian in Japan. Now people will stop automatically asking if I speak Chinese, lol.

    • Casey Tan says:

      I know being a Chinese foreigner in Japan could be tough but remember, some people have it worse. Take or example my friend Takeshi Yoshida who was born in Seattle, Washington.
      This pressure can compound to fit in greatly if one is a Japanese American dual citizen who is repatriating to Japan. One cannot excuse oneself for being Chinese, and you are really pressured to “get with the program” in the real sense. And for your ID, well that Japanese passport in your hand isn’t exactly going to help you pull a gaijin smash anytime soon either.



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