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Being a Foreigner in Japan: The Greats and Not-So-Greats

It's not all anime and sushi.

By 5 min read 35

Many people who have never lived in Japan may come to the conclusion based on Japanese stereotypes that Japan is a very strict, conservative country that would be hard on foreigners to live here. On the other side of the spectrum, many other people who may have only heard a few things about Japan might come to the conclusion that it is a bona fide paradise for foreigners.

We that live here in Japan know that it is actually a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B. There are things that are beneficial for foreigners and there are things that seem to just catch us out of our element.

A Great: “All You Need is English”

I use this phrase rather loosely, because I believe that to truly experience Japan you should also speak the Japanese language to communicate with Japanese people and understand the culture better. However, many foreigners have lived comfortably in Japan for several years due largely in part to that fact that they are native or near-native speakers of English and can use that to their advantage by teaching English.

If you are a native speaker of English or are bilingual (with fluent English being one of those languages), your chances of being able to live and work in Japan as an English teacher are greatly increased, granted that you have a basic college education. Many foreigners have lived in Japan for several years using only with English doing this job.

As a matter of fact, many of my Japanese friends who do not speak English have told me that they are very envious of those who can speak English fluently and can go so many places in the world because of that. One of them told me this eye opening tidbit in way I’d never thought about it before: “Many foreigners from English speaking countries can come to Japan and many other places in the world just because they speak English. We can’t just go to an English speaking country because we can speak Japanese.”

A Not-So Great: “Being Truly Accepted by Society is Difficult”

So you can come to Japan and teach English without speaking the language, but you may quickly realize that truly being accepted by society past simple pleasantries is a lot more difficult than it may sound. I simply can’t express the disdain I have felt in my heart when hearing someone say to me “まぁ、外人だからしょうがないよね” (Well, you’re a foreigner so it can’t be helped) when I didn’t understand a situation that was going on around me. Or worse, I did understand and they just assumed I didn’t because I’m a foreigner.

It is expected by some Japanese people that we won’t understand what is going on with some cultural subtlety or won’t understand what’s being said because we aren’t expected to understand Japanese. It has been said in the past in many culture classes about Japan that in order to be truly accepted, one must have the blood (Japanese blood), the Japanese language, and be from Japan. Most of us are physically incapable of satisfying all three of these, and some Japanese people assess these factors subconsciously.

This is fortunately becoming less of a thing in Japan in more recent years, but it is still very much alive in certain places.

A Great: “Oftentimes You Aren’t Held to the Same Standards as Japanese People”

This may be a good point for some and a bad point for others, but to me this is a plus. Japanese people have to constantly be considering their place in society according to the Japanese hierarchy, particularly in the workforce. 

Japanese people are expected to be able to read a situation at all times and make the right decision, talk to someone with the correct amount of politeness (or casualness) and society in general has high expectations of them as people.

As foreigners, we are for the most part not expected to live up to the same standards as Japanese people because we were not brought up in the culture itself. To a certain extent of course, we can get away with not following established yet unspoken social protocols—if a Japanese person didn’t follow such protocols, they were be judged much more harshly.

Considering this, many foreigners have been very happy to live in Japan for many years as pariahs of society, being able to observe but never fully expected to participate. This is again, very dependent on your outlook on whether or not this is a good thing.

A Not-So-Great: “Without Proficient Japanese, Your Job Options are Extremely Limited”

This is the other end of the stick in direct relation to point number one. While it is true that you can live and work in Japan with only your fluent English, you are almost entirely limited to nothing but English teaching in the educational system unless you get very lucky.

To work in other jobs in Japan, be it media, engineering, science or otherwise related, most companies require at that very least a certificated stating you are of JLPT N2 proficiency (Level 2 in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, the second hardest Japanese language test in existence.)

The JLPT N2 is a fairly difficult test to pass, and if you do pass it your Japanese language skills will be recognized as business level.

What other great or not-so-great points of living in Japan can you think of?

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  • Nick says:

    If your a programmer/computer scientist, then finding a job in Japan isnt too difficult. Python, C, C++ and many languages use english syntax in Japan from what I heard

  • I suppose I am in Japan because I could find greater acceptance than anywhere else, a.k.a employment. In my case employment as a scientist, in a cocoon of multilingual, well-travelled Japanese scientists. Ability with academic English has helped me to some extent, but that could have been case in most parts of the world, including countries where English is a first language. English no longer belongs to England! Who sets the standards? We all do, including Japanese who can criticise poor English as well as anyone else. Being of European descent? No – I don’t think this was a major factor. Education is what got me here, and encounters with Japanese in New Zealand, Australia, and Germany while getting my education. Fundamentally, I am colour blind, but I understand that others are not. What colour am I? It rather depends on what brand of flourescent light I happen to be sitting under.

    • Roberta says:

      Actually, I am a scientist too, and I think I am working among not-so-well-travelled Japanese scientists. However, they avoid me without hiding it, when I try gentle and educated conversation (say at coffee breaks of conferences) it happens that they just make the X gesture with the hands speaking Japanese or hardly saying that they do not speak English. But they publish in English. I think I didn’t do anything inconvenient to predispose them against me, because they never really give me the chance to make any impression at all. Also, I am almost the only woman in the research group, and surely the only one that shows up to the common activities of the research group. I am taking two different Japanese courses to learn the language, but losing motivation. Wish I was in Tokyo, things there seem to be more foreigner-friendly.

      • Manish Mirani says:

        What you are experiencing happens to alot of people.please dont end up believeing that there is something wrong with you.

  • Sayan Maiti says:

    Umm…I am an 20 year old Indian…I intend to shift to japan next year…but my money prospects are incredibly low..How will I be able to survive there?

  • fgonzalez1980 says:

    I really don’t care “to be fully accepted” even if you are Japanese you may not be fully accepted in society just as any other country. Just learn the language, be polite and respectful and DO YOU. Japan is a beautiful country with very nice people willing to help you in any way possible.

  • Asztal Kapitány says:

    You’ve pretty much already cut the tree under yourself with the “All You Need is English” thing. If you can’t speak any Japanese, you’re basically stuck on the tourist level. Yes, people are going to be nice to you, but people are also going to assume that you have a limited knowledge of the way things go in Japan.

    As for your Japanese, it has to be AT LEAST N3 in order for Japanese people to take you seriously. Many people keep whining about how they went to a store in Japan, asked something in Japanese and the shopkeeper responded in English, and how that’s condescending, racist, etc. But think about it, whenever some deluded foreigner stumbles in to that poor shopkeeper’s business, and they pick something up and go “sumaymaysen, aikurah des kay?”, the employee has to options:

    A) respond in Japanese, which the foreigner probably will not understand, since all his knowledge emanates from an “SOS Japanese” tourist brochure
    B) respond in English, which the foreigner will surely understand

    TL;DR: without at least N3 and long-term plans, there is no chance in hell you’re going to get accepted into society, as a true member of it.

  • Chris♆♆ says:

    “Being Truly Accepted by Society is Difficult” happens anywhere.
    This is something I understood thanks to my fiancé: I was complaining that when I’ll move to Japan, I’ll never be truly accepted by society. She said: “If I move to Spain, will I be truly accepted?”
    And the answer is, obviously, no.
    Of course some people will be accepting that maybe she’s spanish [as we have a lot of people from America and China, and probably from other countries], but a lot of people will only see a “chinese” [even if she is Japanese] and she’ll get some shit from some people.

    So, I guess, you get this “not truly accepted by society” thing whenever you move out of your country.

  • Kyle Lipscombe says:

    I’ve never had much trouble being accepted; however, it feels like one you enter into the Eikaiwa system you’re kinda the stereotypical foreigner only there to play around for a few years. Even after passing the N2 to converse with the owner of my favorite restaurant here in Okayama I had to learn much, much more. Which does meaning learning how to read situations and learning more about topics that aren’t on the narrow spectrum of N1 and N2. I’ve found, wether it is good or bad, that after reaching a certain level it’s less about being accepted and more about proving I know more than just the spectrum contained in the test; which are rather dry subjects in my opinion. Consequently, I’ve hardly had conversations conversing about politics, education, or business in Japanese. Most of my discussions are about matters pertaining to the newest advancements health and longevity, or hobbies.

  • Dale Goodwin says:

    A Great: Japan is one of the safest countries in the world and everything is on time. Unless there is a major accident or something, you can almost set your watch by the trains in Tokyo. If you are female, you should have nothing to fear about walking home alone at night.
    A Not-so-great: Unless you are from Southeast Asia or China or Korea, you will stand out in a crowd. I put that in the not-so-great collumn because it is literally like having spies watching you whenever you go out. I have been living in my neighborhood for close to 30 years now and I will still get people come up to me and talk to me like they know me when I don’t know them. I can take a walk in my neighborhood (or even drive my car) and a couple of weeks later people will tell me “I saw you at such and such a place, what were you doing?” (I know it is their way of being friendly, but yeah, it gets old after a while.)

  • Artur Vasconcelos says:

    the most I read about these things, the less I want to go to Japan. It’s like Japanese people are sorta kinda xenophobic. It’s like for then, bein not a japanese is something bad, like you’re missing a limb or bein blind

    • Brandon Hargrave says:

      Sounds to me like they have a very ordered society which requires one to be very perceptive. Mastering the language is one thing, but projecting a respectable demeanor probably requires sharp wits and a lot of time reading into situations.

      • Manish Mirani says:

        Having deep knowedge of Japanese language and talking to Japanese people in Japanese are both very different things.

    • Vamp898 says:

      You take away a job otherwise a japanese would have got. And a _very_ lot of foreigners (especially from the UK) act absolutely inacceptable. When im in Japan for vacation i always get ashamed for people from the UK, especially when Japanese see us all as “European”.

      But luckily if you say you are German they no longer think you are an retarded drunkhead. I noticed, coming from Germany, i get a warmer welcome than most people from other countries and a lot of respect.

      But you don’t hire Germans for English teaching jobs and 99% are here because of that. Get into japan without working for it. And that’s also a point.

      A very lot of people here get there job not because they have good qualifications but because they happen to speak English as their mother tongue.

      And a lot of these act like “Why are japanese not like the people in my country but better, why are they “”stupid”” in so many aspects”. And they confront Japanese with that and don’t accept the rules nor have respect for the different culture and so on.

      I even seen people getting angry about that not all Japanese speak English and how stupid they are because of that.

      “I don’t speak Japanese, so they all have to speak English. Its stupid that they don’t and they should change that. Thanks god im here to help those underdeveloped people”

      And if enough of these people got into japan, how do you expect to get threatened?

    • Dale Goodwin says:

      Your choice. It can’t be helped because Japan is an island nation.

  • Anthony says:

    I have only visited Japan, never lived there. As a foreigner who is only coming for short visits (mostly to spend money and geek out over the culture, especially the food!) I’ve always found Japan to be very welcoming and the Japanese people to be quite open and friendly. As long as you are not trying to “be Japanese”, I think the perception is quite favorable to foreigners. I’ve felt more at home and more welcome in Japan at times than in the US in California. As a “person of color” – what Americans call anyone who is non-white – Japan has opened my eyes to the fact that there are places in the world where your race and skin color have very little to do with how people perceive you – its more about where you’re from and what your skills are.

    I feel like people who complain that Japanese people will go way overboard in praising you if you demonstrate a basic knowledge of Japanese are just too sensitive. One time I was out with Japanese friends and said “おながいします” to a server at a sushi restaurant, and my Japanese friends (who speak perfect English, by the way) made it seem like they were so very impressed with my pronunciation. It actually made me feel kind of good that they would take a moment to give that praise, even if it was only because it was “required” to do so. The fact that there’s an entire culture that “forces” people to be nice and polite to one another doesn’t bother me at all, I actually found myself also going out of my way to say please and thank you, to remember what is socially required when entering and exiting establishments, to be super nice to people around me. It’s infectious, and that’s not a bad thing.

    Too many times in America we confuse independence and “freedom” with “being a dick”.

  • marshallcross says:

    A not-so-great point (for me), is the obligatory JLPT (or in general, test) score system that everyone has to take because everyone else is doing it and all people are the same, right? 😛 My best friend lived in China for 2 years as a teenager so she knows Kanji, and after not even 1 year in Japan (we were exchange students at the same university), she tried the N1 test and passed! I’m not sure if she is really on the level of N1 (especially in terms of conversation or speaking), but another friend from Brazil who is really good in speaking and understanding Japanese, struggles with N2/N1, and I think, tests like the JLPT are so unfair. I understand a lot of Japanese and was surprised that I almost didn’t pass the N4 for a few points, but luckily I did. Why? Because the test is too much based on just reading or understanding the meaning. So number 1 skill should be Kanji, then vocabulary, then grammar, and then understanding. Speaking? It’s not being tested… So I think it’s easier for someone who already knows Kanji to pass the test, but it doesn’t mean that he is good in Japanese conversation. I hate such tests. I was happy that I studied English and French based on ALL skills at school. I also met Japanese students who prepared for the English TOEFL, and their skills were almost entirely based on passive skills (reading / understanding / listening). Speaking? Who needs that. I just want a certification. Lol.

  • JustSomeGuy says:

    But I wonder. Do Japanese really want to learn English? I’ve come across a few videos and a few forum posts that they do want to learn the language because it’ll get them to go abroad, either to America or U.K. Or even to other English speaking countries.

    • Anthony says:

      My fiancé taught English for 6 months in Japan, and she found that most Japanese students really do like speaking in English. It seems like its seen as very sophisticated to be fluent in both English and Japanese as a Japanese person.

  • リンキ ジョン says:

    I would agree with many points brought up in this article. The parts elaborated on about “being a foreigner and never being fully accepted…based on your viewpoint…” I have come to accept. As being half Hispanics, half White myself, I never truly felt accepted by either community in Los Angeles growing up. So, coming to Japan, I’ve noticed, for the most part, all “gaijin” (foreigner) are treated rather ‘equally’. Now this may not be the egalitarian utopia that many societies seek but never attain, I find it close enough for me, based on experiences, both positive and negative growing up in LA.

  • maulinator says:

    The last point of being able to speak the local language to open up your ob options is true of any country. If I did not epak fluent English I do not think a lot of paces in the UK or US would hire me for any role. For better jobs you would expect graduation from a good school that requried high SAT scores or the equivalent. Language fluency is a must for any nation.
    As for being totally accepted into society, that point is true of any country as well. Being Asian in the US, it is hard to become 100% accepted as part of the culture. You get the feeling that you are Asian first and not American first. This clearly comes from the color oy my skin and nothing else. As a mnority in another country you will be accepted as part of your social group over time. Your friends local or gaijin will accept you, but do not accept that to happen at the national social level. One of the things I noticed is that the foreigners here in Japan tend to become more vocal about the socal injustices they experience but are not as vocal whent hey go home and it happens there, but not to them. This if course is not true of everybody, but people are more vocal when the social injustice happens to them and are quiet when it happens to someone else…..
    The thing about the standards being different are true. However it is the same coin as not being accepted socially. If you want to be accepted into society then the same rules should apply. The foreigners who eventually do get accepted tend to be stricter about the rules than the Japanese are just so they do not get treated in any different way. YOu can’t have it both ways- get treated special and be fully integrated into the society……

  • Loved the article. So true! I wish I had the opportunity to attend Japanese courses in my town. Not possible here. And It’s not like Learn English by yourself, without a teacher. I think learning Japanese requires real teacher and classes.

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      I totally agree, Sebastian! I am of the opinion that learning Japanese should be equal parts classroom and practical (hands on) study out in Japanese society, with Japanese friends, etc. One without the other is only half of the picture, to me.

  • Mikey says:

    People expect you to be “genki Gaijin” all the time , its kinda like youre always “on”. But the payoff is that girls seem to like that gimmick and its fun to go nuts in Shibuya nightclubs and not get get kicked out ha ha.

    Being considered handsome just because your foreign is nice too I suppose…


    • maulinator says:

      It is how they are portrayed in the Japanese media. The foreigners in the media are all clowns. Even Pakkun who graduated from Harvard apparently acts a bit clownish- as he is a comedian. In general they are the comedic relief, or serve as the toekn foreign perspective. So people expect that in real life too. It is ignorant of people to expect that, but it happens to all racial types in all countries so you either get used to it or just ignore it. Or you can correct the error when you see it but it won’t make you seem like a friendly person.

      • Mikey says:

        I wonder what the other side of the gaijin-clown is? The lunatic angry violent gaijin? Is it an archetype were fitting into? Archetypes always have a dichotomy right?? Is the spectrum Pakkun to Debito Arudo? And we all fit in there somewhere

        • maulinator says:

          The problem is that the spectrum is not two-dimensional. What is the opposite of gaijin-clown? Is it the lunatic angry violent gaijin? Or is it the introspective quiet gaijin who desperately wants to fit in? Or the intellectuals who come to Japan to study the culture or the businessman/investment banker who get paid the big bucks to move large sums of money around? We all fit into the spectrun somewhere and where you fit is also dynamic. I might be the investment banker durign the day but the lunatic gaijin at night.
          I think that people like Debito Arudo who are actively trying to change discriminatory policies and educate people are great, but the plight of the gaijin will never get much traction in Japan. This is because, for all the discrimination that the gaijin get, the gaijin also have “gaijin privilege.” Many locals envy gaijin in one form or another and gaijin have it easy in many ways that the locals do not (as seen in the article). For every bad aspect there is a good aspect for being a gaijin. The discrimination that is felt by gaijin is not as terrible as the discrimination that is felt by minorities and people of color in Western nations like the UK or US. There is no upside to being a minority in the States. Compared to the plight of the African-American, the problems foriegners have in Japan would be considered petty. Every nation will have dickheads and racists, but you don’t see Japanese racists burning crosses or shooting foreigners on sight at night, burning mosques or gangs of Japanese beating on foreigners.
          As Japan becomes more open to tourists the merchants in general (like I said there are exceptions and dickheads) are also becoming more open to foreigners as they realize these people are paying to keep the lights on.

          • Mikey says:

            I totally agree with you Maulinator.

            What you say about the plight of the gaijin is right. I pointed out Arudou because I dont think yelling and screaming about anything works in Japan – and thats what he seems to be doing.

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      In many respects I feel like we are sort of expected to be clowns–to have exaggerated movements and strange, extremely “foreign” idiosyncrasies. I am a fairly reserved person, so this seems to catch quite a few Japanese people off guard.

      • Emily_7 says:

        That’s so interesting. I’m coming to Japan next year, and I wonder all the time if I’ll be perceived as clownish because I’m from a theatre background. In Canada, I’m called “expressive”, but I worry that the confidence and assertiveness I’ve worked to build up will be perceived as impolite or too direct in Japan.

        • Anthony says:

          What I’ve found is that Japanese folks tend to have different expectations of foreigners than other Japanese people. I didn’t change my behavior at all while in Japan and I’m what I would call “expressive” as well – I tend to be boisterous, and I love having a good time and not being shy about it. The Japanese folks that I encountered seemed to respond very well to having an “excuse” to cut loose and having someone egg them on to be loud and have some fun. They would regularly “blame” me for causing their behavior – “you’re so wild!” etc. But they also would express how much fun they were having and two of my friends even gave me hugs at the end of the night, which as far as I understand isn’t a common social thing for Japanese people.

      • Mikey says:

        I know what you mean. I find myself wondering if we are just towing the line of gaijin-clowns who came before. Like maybe we are continuing and creating an environment that expects us to be genki-gaijins by encouraging this interaction. Dont get me wrong, theres no shortage of quiet, intellectual, bookish gaijins obsessing over history and flower-arranging to balance the scale – but theyre not in the spotlight and theyre not the ones that Japanese society is basing its judgments on.

      • Andrew says:

        I agree Kyle. I’m fairly reserved as well, but being a 6ft 2in black guy in Japan, you’re kind of expected to be a certain way, which is out going and loud. I’m neither of those things and I think it makes people feel a little uncomfortable around me.

        I get this in American society as well….the whole “you look a certain way, so you must act a certain way” mentality of people isn’t exclusive to Japan.



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