The Strange Look That All Foreigners Will Get In Japan
By James Winovich
On December 5, 2015
I’ve covered “The Nod”. I’ve covered “The Laugh” And to continue that series, this time I’ll be talking about “The Look.” The Look comes in many different forms, but the following is probably its most common.
You’re enjoying a night out with your friend from back home, and you want to show him the wonders of Kaiten Zushi: the tuna, the cheap prices, even the cute little shinkansen that brings your plates. You’re genuinely excited to show this little piece of Japan to a friend who will be seeing it with the same fresh eyes you did all those years ago.
You walk in, and since it’s not busy you don’t even need to take a number to be seated. Sweet! You notice the staff standing by the check-in counter and you make your approach. As you reach the podium, your eyes meet and BAM.
She performs The Look.
The Look is what occasionally falls over a service worker’s face when they notice they are about to be forced to deal with you, a foreigner in Japan.
Of course, you’d prefer it if they didn’t let their feelings show while they’re serving you, since you’re the paying customer, but let’s think about it from their perspective. Their heads could be filled with anxiety-inducing questions like:
– Will this person understand me?
– Will I be forced to use my very simple English?
– Do they want to sit in a non-smoking section, but it doesn’t matter because it’s right next to the smoking section?
– I want to use the English I’ve been practicing, but what if they don’t understand me?
There are about a million doubts that can swim around in their heads at the moment they see us, and sometimes those doubts just get the better of them. The Look is the physical manifestation of that.
So what do you do? I’ve seen a wide range of responses. You can simply pretend you didn’t see it. You can attempt to put them at ease by speaking a few sentences of Japanese. Or you can jump all the way up to just flat-out telling them you speak Japanese fine, and to relax. My own reaction has changed over the years, but now it is always the same.
Internally, I can’t help but feel a little twinge of guilt because I put some sort of small burden on this person. Externally, I do my best to put the person at ease by answering any question they ask in Japanese, or by easily following their guidance to my table, where I can consume my sushi, yakitori, ramen, or whatever else I might be stuffing my face with that day without thinking twice about it.
What do you do when you notice “The Look?”
I think almost any normal human reaction is fine, as long as it doesn’t involve anger.
For whatever reason, this person is nervous about interacting with you. Maybe he/she is like that with everybody. Maybe the last four customers were jerks, and he/she is just worried that you might be as well. Maybe they just want to finish their shift. Maybe you’re really cute and they’re trying to flirt…poorly. No matter what the reason, as long as you react with civility and politeness, you’ll be fine.
We all wish we could be “totally accepted” by Japan. So sometimes, we can get irrationally upset at the part-timer sporting “The Look” for a brief second while taking you to your seat at Kaiten-zushi because its evidence that we aren’t. But allowing that frustration to get to you only adds anxiety to your time in Japan, which is a decidedly un-fun way to go about things.
So just put on a smile, answer their questions, and enjoy whatever reason brought you to that shop/izakaya/yatai/restaurant, and Japan, in the first place.