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Double Consciousness

Double consciousness creates an element of conflict within us, as we struggle to reconcile our identity as a foreigner and as someone living in Japan.

By 3 min read

“Do you need help finding your jeans size?”

A cold sweat ran down my back. I quickly turned around and stuttered, “N-no I’m just looking,” in broken Japanese.

Snap out of it man, why are you so nervous? I thought. Yet I was so conditioned to being watched. So conditioned to being aware of how others reacted to my presence. Even living in Japan still hasn’t lifted the double consciousness that was written into my brain’s programming at an early age.

Growing up, I watched my parents and relatives experience racism. As I got older I began to experience it myself. There were the little things, like being followed around in stores. And there were more serious incidents, like being accused of trespassing in my own, almost entirely white, high school; during school hours. Not to mention getting called derogatory epithets by some classmates for not fitting the black stereotype.

Ironic, right? All of these things made me very aware of how I was perceived in public. They molded what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “double consciousness”: an almost natural awareness of not just one’s self, but how one is seen through the eyes of others in their immediate environment.

Choosing to bow instead of shaking hands during an introduction

Just because an African-American man coined this term doesn’t mean that this phenomenon is only a part of the black psyche. Anyone who has been out of their comfort zone or is striving to adjust to a foreign culture has probably experienced this type of mind state. Having this kind of awareness allows one to adapt to unfamiliar situations. A Japan-related example: Choosing to bow instead of shaking hands during an introduction.

Yet when someone has practically spent most of their life with this awareness, what happens when they leave the culture they grew up in and move to Japan? Weird things, based off of my personal experience.

Whenever I enter a コンビニ (conbini, convenience store), I often feel like I have to buy something. Even if I don’t find what I came for, I still feel compelled to get something. I know I probably could stand in a Seven-Eleven reading magazines for hours and not buy anything, like many people do. And I know the last thing on the clerk’s mind is to accuse me of stealing. Yet even knowing this, I still feel like I am being watched with the same side-eyed glares I would get in Philly.

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I still sometimes worry that the clerk might just question me as I exit the store, as I’ve seen happen so often back in America. Even though I’m no longer in that environment, the effects of psychological oppression still find ways to sneak back into my life.

It took me some time to figure out why I had developed this habit of buying things so as not to arouse possible suspicion. In Japan of all places; where petty crime rarely happens on the scale that it does in the States. A country whose society has never been told the age-old narrative to fear the color black. I still felt like I was feared by society. When in reality, the people of Japan probably didn’t see me that way.

This is just one tiny example of how a country’s narrative—in this case, America’s—of a particular ethnic group can change how individuals within that group view themselves. Being in Japan has made me see how much I was subconsciously attached to that narrative. I was so attached that I kept living it out, even though no one else around me was.

  • maulinator says:

    I am fully bilingual Japanese-American, native speaking Japanese and English..
    I could go on and explan the grammar, but it owuld be a long explanation and boring. Putting the が in the sentence makes it awkward. Natives would not use GA in this form. If anything they would use は。Also the second problem is in 見ていない。That means “I was not looking” not “don’t look” (which is what I think you want to say). 見るなis the command “Don’t look”

  • Akiko Sakakibara says:

    Hi, I am a native Japanese.
    Just let me say,
    あんた達変態か?!見るな、ばか!) is right as Mr./Ms. maulinator pointed out…

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    I’m Filipino but I have Japanese, Chinese and Spanish from my father’s side and Malay from my mother’s. I have some experiences of racism especially in the midwest, that is why I was ecstatic when I went to San Francisco, I did not stuck out like a sore thumb! California is a heaven for Asians (^_^) Anyway, I read that the Japanese called Filipinos “Black Asian” because of our skin. Unfortunately, I cannot remember where I read it. But since there are a lot of Filipinos in Japan today, I don’t think we are still being look down. Oh yeah, a lot of Americans where I live look down on Mexicans. Unfortunately, they can not tell the difference between an Asian and a Mexican. And oh, I am always compelled to buy something especially when the store is small, not like Walmart.

  • eBunny says:

    I’m in a different situation. I live in West-Europe and I’m not really black, but, as someone with social anxiety, I still feel like I can relate to the double consciousness thing to a certain degree.

  • Iliyana Mitova says:

    I am white and in my country the people are also mostly white- that’s why when I see a black person- I notice that I am following him.. mostly out of curiousity.. thinking “What is that person doing here?. is he married to a bulgarian? Is he a tourist?”, etc. I always try not to do that, but even so I do it uncontiously. I actually do that with a lot of foreighners. Also- I feel the same way in almost all stores (but i never do- just stand and read withouth buying- I personally find it rude). I hope that you will overcome your feelings about not being accepted. I partly understand how you feel, because I am kind of fat- and everywhere I go I see slim people around and magazines for slim people. I don’t fit the human standarts of any race. I was laughed at in school for that (but also for my funny shoes and for just wearing glasses). Even Japan that I so love – have you ever seen a fat person in there (not including the ones training Sumo)- I guess I will be like a hypopotamo in there 😀

  • Kaname Shizuka says:

    Actually, even though I’m white and haven’t stolen a thing in my life since I grew up, I also feel really oppressed when exiting a store without buying anything. I feel as if they might think I stole something and so I act a bit weird… which I shouldn’t be doing. It’s such a weird feeling, because you know full well you’re not a criminal, you did nothing wrong, and yet you feel this pressure of society’s eyes on you. I will be going to Japan soon, so I’m really wondering what it will be like there for me. Thank you for sharing your story!

  • Brodie Taylor says:

    This is a really interesting article, and as a white person who is free from the daily hassles that black people face in the US, the small example of how you feel compelled to buy something in stores because they might accuse you of theft made me so sad to read.

    As a foreigner in Japan I can relate to the experience of always feeling you’re being watched. We are, by default, ambassadors for all foreigners so even if we do something slightly wrong, eg: take up too much space on a bus seat, we feel like we’re letting all foreigners down.

    As much as I understand the reasons for why Japanese people stare at foreigners (homogenous society and all that) some days it bothers me and I’m tempted to say “what are you looking at?”. I’ve always managed to bite my tongue, but a few times it has made me very angry, especially in an onsen when a group of old women were gawking at my naked body for 10 minutes, looking it up and down. I eventually started to cry from the humiliation and ran out of the onsen (their eyes still glued to me).

    It can feel like every second of every day, society is set up to remind you of your Otherness. The one question that really hurts me is when I’m asked “when are you going home?”. I understand people are just trying to make conversation but it can cut deep to have everyone reminding you that you’re just a visitor, that you don’t belong, as if you don’t already know this.

    I like living Japan and the idea of leaving, though I will leave eventually, makes me sad. Why can’t I just exist in this moment in time, and not have to always think about when it will end, or where I came from? Fortunately for me I don’t have this problem back home but my time in Japan has given me a glimpse – however small or insignificant in comparison – of what it must feel like for oppressed groups back home who are constantly made to feel like they are outsiders in their own home, that they must apologize for their own existence.

    • Maggie Flos says:

      I completely understand your urge to say ‘What are you looking at?’, I have days like that sometimes too. Although I have gotten used to the looks for most of the part the long staring bothers me too, especially when it’s like super obvious. I get people being interested and looking, I did that too back home but I always tried to do it in a passing glance so it seems natural and the person doesn’t feel uncomfortable. I think this is something generally more taught in Europe not to gawk at people and to do it more subtlety compared to Japanese.

    • Children Of Nephilim says:

      Instead of crying and letting them win, next time ask them if they’re perverts and tell them to stop looking (あんた達が変態か?!見ていない、ばか!) . if you don’t know how to say it, then learn. You’re not actually suppose to stare at someone’s body like that seeing as how it’s disgusting and rude, and this is what Japanese will tell you. Stick up for yourself and screw worrying about being an “ambassador,” at least not to the point where you let people disrespect you and treat you shamefully, live for yourself, not for other. If others paint an entire race or nation based on the negative experience of a few people they meet, then that’s their problem (seeing as how they’re ignorant and not well educated), not yours.

      • maulinator says:

        あんた達が変態か?!見ていない、ばか!) is wrong

        あんた達変態か?!見るな、ばか!)

  • Maggie Flos says:

    Your story has made me a bit sad, because it’s awful that someone develops a double consciousness out of the fear of being accused of something. I can however relate to having one over here in Japan, I wonder often if I did the social acceptable thing or did I offend someone, but that’s more due to trying to adapt to their culture and their norms. When you do feel being watched over here, try to keep in mind you are a sensation over here since they don’t see a lot of black people, so it’s more out of curiosity then suspecting you of something.

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