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Invisible Gaijin: Postcards from a Non-Japanese Japanese Person Living in Japan

It's a complex question to answer: As an American of Japanese decent, in America, I'm "Japanese," but in Japan — who am I?

By 5 min read

Being a visible foreigner in Japan comes with its pros and cons. You don’t have to worry about speaking imperfect Japanese, but you may also become frustrated when Japanese refuse to respond to you in anything other than broken English. For better or for worse, those particular problems will never apply to me. Living here as an American of Japanese descent — an “invisible” gaijin — has been both enlightening and extremely vexing.

By way of example, from the countryside to the city, my Japanese face has provoked these responses and more:   

  • At a bicycle parking area (from a Japanese person): “You aren’t American. What’s wrong with you, baka (stupid)? Why can’t you speak Japanese?”
  • At a club in Shibuya (from a Japanese person): “Hey. He wants to talk to you. You can’t speak Japanese?” *Disappears*
  • On the Keisei Liner home from the airport (from another foreigner): “Wow, your English is perfect. Where did you study?”
  • In a local ramen shop (from a Japanese person): “Ah, you’re nikkei, so you’re hafu? No? Quarter?”
  • At an event for foreigners in Tokyo (from another foreigner): “So, how long did you live in America? Do you enjoy being back in Japan?”
  • At the end-of-the-school-year teacher’s enkai, or banquet (from a Japanese person): “Eh! What are you wearing? Have you lost your mind? Dame dayo (Don’t do that)!”
  • At a men’s baseball practice (from a Japanese person): “What the $%#@?! Etchi! You can’t wear those shorts. That’s sexual harassment!”

How would you respond with limited Japanese ability? How would you prove to someone that you’re purely American, while speaking in Japanese and having visibly Japanese features? At the time, I couldn’t find the proper words to explain myself to people in Japanese. I felt guilty and voiceless.

You’re not really Japanese, you just look the part

As a nikkei, or person of Japanese descent, I felt an overwhelming amount of pressure to learn Japanese. I thought that my jigsaw puzzle of cultural problems was caused by my inability to speak my ancestral language.

Back in the U.S., learning how to speak Japanese is not common for the Japanese American community. Based off the U.S. Census, 82.5 percent of U.S.-born Japanese Americans speak only English. I fall in this category, too — or, at least I did until I moved to Japan. I am a Japanese American with black hair, dark brown eyes, short stature (154 centimeters) and I was born and raised in the United States speaking only English.

Last of the hanami in Kyoto.

When comparing Japanese Americans to other Asian Americans, 60 percent of U.S.-born Chinese and Korean Americans speak more than one language (English and a second language). Japanese people often tell me in Japan, “You look so Japanese!” Unlike other Asian foreigners, I can’t deny that statement. I also cannot justify being anything other than Japanese.

By blood and by the English term “Japanese American,” I can’t claim to be just American or erase my Japanese origins. In America, I’m “Japanese” but in Japan — who am I?

Japanese face, American erased 

Everywhere I look, I see people who look identical to my aunt, uncle, cousin and brother. Yet, the moment I speak in English, my face lights up into a huge sign that screams: “Foreigner!” Almost all of the people I meet for the first time in my small Japanese town look at me with wildly confused faces — especially when I use my broken Japanese.

In America, I’m ‘Japanese’ but in Japan — who am I?

During my interview for my current ALT position, I was asked, “What three things would you bring from America to show your culture to your class?” My American culture is comprised of a combination of old customs passed down and preserved from old pre-war Japan (my great-grandparents generation) and the culture of my hometown, Salinas, California. Similar to other 5th-generation Japanese Americans born in the state, I grew up going to obon festivals, eating delicious tacos and enchiladas, going to girl scouts, playing piano and playing sports. I answered with: “A picture of Mexican food, a softball and a photo of my family.”

Behind this Japanese face, however, is a true American. I was taught at a young age to be different and unique. Being independent, expressing individuality and cherishing diversity are seen as positive characteristics back home. In Japan, however, I feel cultural pressures unlike those in America. I notice daily that community comes before self and that people should sacrifice personal time to others in order to contribute where society needs you the most.

Summer obon festival in California.

I became reserved and passive. I even began to fear how Japanese people would react if I did not act like a proper Japanese woman. For the first time in my life, I questioned my nationality and began to feel as though my Japanese American identity no longer existed. I also thought that the “Japanese” part should be left out, since I really don’t identify with Japan. Yet whenever I return to America, simply saying, “I’m American,” won’t be enough.

 Embracing Japanese Culture


A year later, things that once were difficult are now easy because I can speak more Japanese. I can send packages, read my bills and make phone calls without being misunderstood. I can sometimes weave in and out of society, playing both the foreigner and the Japanese national. But the experiences from my transition year are difficult to forget and have created deep feelings of regret for not being able to read Japanese or fit into Japanese society. Culturally, I will never pass as a local, but I am starting to accept my ambiguous identity.

Learning how to embrace Japanese culture and hold tight to my American values has been a blessing in disguise. Navigating life as a foreigner of Japanese descent will continue to be both challenging and rewarding — but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Although these are my personal experiences, can you relate to any? Let me know!

Everyone’s experience in Japan is different and perhaps some of my encounters with Japanese people had nothing to do with cultural differences but were rather personality clashes. Please refrain from assuming that these experiences ring true for every foreigner of Japanese descent. If this describes you, though, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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