The Strange Look That All Foreigners Will Get In Japan

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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.

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Refusing to be a bitter gaijin since 2007.
  • AonghasCrowe says:

    Told the owner of an Okinawan restaurant I loved his soba much I had to come back for more. He smiled and gave me a spoon. Um.

  • Martin McNickle says:

    I don’t understand what this article is talking about.

    • John George Bauer-Buis says:

      I guessed accurately what it was about just by looking at the title, and I’ve never been to Japan (nor do I speak Japanese…yet). I will attempt to explain it as best I can. Basically, people who are not excellent English speakers (not just in Japan, but potentially in virtually any country where English is not the native language) will be a bit nervous when they see an obviously foreign person coming up to them, because they don’t know that they will be able to communicate effectively.

    • Bugra Arslaner says:

      Same. It also doesn’t provide anything new or interesting.

  • Anna says:

    Omg, that look. It’s not the worst tho. From what I experienced, in restaurants or shops, it’s mostly fine. They just say the same robot-like sentences they would tell to every customer, and that’s it. The look I hate is when you’re like aaah going for a walk, enjoying the fresh breeze and the sun, birds singing, and then you walk pass by people and they stare at you the whole time. I don’t know about Japan, but from where I come it’s quite rude. But even in my country I was used to it, ’cause I have not a “wear the same thing as everyone” type of style, but what irritates me is that every single person I see give me that look. Even people that I see like every day but just don’t talk to. Just get over it, I’m white, your eyes work well, no you don’t need glasses x) Still enjoying Japan tho.

    • Robert Churnside says:

      When I get this stare, I let them know that I think I saw a ninja. I then ask if they can perform Reiju to purify my negative karma. I ask them to bring me a knife and fork. When I see sashimi, I make sure to ask if it is safe to eat raw with the Fukushima radiation. To ensure safety I asked them if they can emit Hado power and purify it with Ki.

  • Mightyflog says:

    Hahahah I get the “LOOK” in the US all the time. Many service workers do not speak English and when you ask them for something or to sub something on the menu I always get the look.

  • Khaled Ahmed Mahfoudh says:

    My super polite Chinese companion has ordered me a cup of coffee in a pretty fine Cafe in Shenzhen and left to bring his luggage because we were heading to another city together, “The look” was really at it worst when i asked for more sugar as the young waitress speaks no English and neither did her supervisor to make “the look” spread rapidly to most of the staff – 5 at least were in action – but the chaos ended well when another waitress brought almost everything in their lockers that related in anyhow to coffee for me to choose stupidly the cursed sugar ! and everyone applauded to her which made her turn “the look” into something very sweet on her face, i tried my best to keep smiling at them and make it fun as possible with my body language !

  • Jenn J says:

    A lot of it depends on where you live. In Tokyo and Kansai, staff are much more accustomed to dealing with foreigners so they’re less likely to give The Look. When I’ve been in these cities I haven’t been stared at by anyone. In smaller cities or rural towns that get less tourism, it’s only natural for some staff to feel worried when they see a foreigner who may or may not be able to speak Japanese, because unlike those who live in big cities, they don’t interract with foreigners every day.

  • D Johnson says:

    Did a dozen years in Seoul and traveled as much as I could. Never had any problems. I respected those whose homeland I was visiting and it was typically reciprocal.

  • DarthBabaganoosh says:

    I never got “the look” in Japan, but got it nearly every day in Korea. Also, in Korea, I would occasionally get “the huddle and a game of rock paper scissors to decide who serves the waegukin”

  • Razaan says:

    I’ve just returned from a week-long trip to Tokyo and whilst I occasionally Iprobably did get the look I did not even notice it. What was clearly more welcoming was the great helpfulness and respect shown by everyone that I’ve interacted with. This was my second time to Japan and whilst some do not understand English I also cannot speak Japanese so it really works both ways. The look is a global response not endemic to Japan.

  • Heimrik says:

    “The Look” is rather inevitable but understandable, I personally believe that if you want to move to another country other than your own, you ought to be prepared to face this kind of occurrences. Learning that country’s language beforehand will go a long way towards helping you adapt.

    • Jettoki says:

      100% agreed. If “the look” gets you overly upset, you should not move to a foreign country. As James also explained, it’s not something people do to be mean to you, but more a sign of their own insecurities. in a majority of cases.
      So far I only really registered “The Look” in more rural areas of Japan, or parts of the city, not many foreigners know about, anyways.

  • Evan Loveless says:

    Interesting. Never really noticed it here in Kansai. I think it’s okay to get the looks. It’s also okay that Japanese who don’t know you might not think of you as a normal human being because you don’t look or sound like them. If Japanese treated foreigners like Japanese people, most of those foreigners would probably not want to live in Japan anymore. People who you don’t know make silent judgments about you all the time, even in your own country, but you’re still alive and well. It’s okay everyone. Don’t sweat it!

  • Mary Gebbie says:

    I did get mad one time though, obviously unintentionally. I speak Japanese at an N2 level, aka pretty darn well. I was at a tourist destination climbing a mountain but I was getting tired. I saw people climbing down, so I figured the destination must be relatively close, but I wanted to know how much longer. Every person I looked at returned my gaze with The Look and scurried by. I eventually spoke up to a couple whose gaze lingered long enough for me to think they’d be receptive. I asked them in Japanese without problem how much farther to the top. The guy just kept walking, but the lady tried to awkwardly go past me but then stopped when I followed her a few steps while asking my question. She stammered random words and eventually wakarimasen. I thought I had mistaken another tourist for Japanese so I said, I’m sorry, you don’t speak Japanese? She said, No, she does. Then I think she saw the taken aback look on my face because she followed it up with an Eigo akan. I curtly replied that I was speaking Japanese. A few people around noticed this exchange, so I’m sure the woman was embarrassed. She repeated my question back to me and when I confirmed that is what I asked, she said she didn’t know how much farther. I thanked her, probably not with the nicest tone. We decided to climb up. It was one minute farther. I don’t know what the other Japanese people around thought of the exchange, but two other foreigners who witnessed said they thought it was weird and rude what the lady did. I am sad to say that this kind of thing wasn’t a one time only experience though.

    • Jenn J says:

      The reality is that most foreigners in Japan CAN’T speak Japanese very well, so why are people so offended when locals assume that they can’t either? It comes from their past experience of dealing with other foreigners, probably tourists, who don’t know the language. It’s only natural for them to make assumptions about your Japanese ability based on their past interractions with foreigners. This is a reality in a homogenous country that has so few foreigners living here. As for Japanese people replying: ‘I can’t understand you’ when you’re speaking Japanese, this has happened to me and it’s a little annoying, but remember that most L2 learners speak with an accent no matter how good their speaking skills are, which explains why some Japanese people freak out when we speak Japanese to them. Small pronunciation errors can be a big deal here because the locals aren’t used to hearing them. There are also many areas of Japan that have thick dialect and accents of their own. Older people in particular who haven’t done much traveling outside their own prefecture might struggle to understand you if you aren’t speaking in their local dialect. Everyone needs to chill out and stop getting so offended.

      • 8675309 says:

        It’s not just pronunciation errors and accents that get in the way. Many times, just like in a comedy movie where the American tourist overseas is way too over-confident in their L2 abilities — Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold trying to chat up his German relatives by speaking gibberish to them in “European Vacation” comes to mind — the L2 speaker may be so far removed from reality as far as their actual second-language speaking abilities are concerned that they may have no idea how others are perceiving them let alone understanding them – if at all. That said, it’s always easier to blame the target rather than than the marksman when attempts to express ourselves in a second language miss their mark.

      • Chief Presiding Judge says:

        No one is getting “so offended”. The person had no obvious accent, and the Japanese lady was clearly being rude. You’ll notice that after she was pressed she actually answered the question.

        I think you need to stop excusing clearly rude behavior and need to stop telling people what they can and can’t take offense too. Especially when that thing is legitimately rude.

    • omae mona says:

      Mary, I am asking truly out of curiosity. The JPLT N2 test does not test speaking ability; it’s a written-only test. So what did you mean by “speak Japanese at an N2 level”? Separately, have you had any objective measurement of your speaking ability, or is “pretty darn well” more based on your own evaluation? Thanks.

    • AJ P says:

      I know this type of event well myself. One time back in 2003, I got lost in Tokyo and needed help with directions to get to where I needed to go. I was trying to meet up with some friends at some place, but had no idea how to get there or where it was exactly. But despite all the people, most people in that place just ignore others (this is not unique to foreigners, they just largely ignore each other for the most part, that’s just the way Tokyo is). Anyways, the few times I did get a look from someone, it was quick and lasted only a few seconds as they were walking by. Regardless, I was determined to ask someone for help. I tried a shop that was nearby, but was dismissed by the lady inside. She made it quite clear she didn’t want to “deal” with me. I said “thanks”, and left back outside. After that, I tried to ask a few people on the sidewalk for directions (In plain, clear, normal Japanese), and either my existence was completely ignored, or the person would quickly move away from me, or I would get the ever so common, “I don’t speak English” response. I was speaking in Japanese, yet that was completely ignored as if it never happened and they automatically replied that they don’t speak English – as if I spoke English to them and not Japanese! Needless to say, someone finally actually listened to the words that came out of my mouth, and after a few words of surprise (and some remarks at how well I spoke), they were able to help me get going on my way. The funny thing is, that not an hour or so prior to this whole event, I had just finished lunch at some restaurant, and the people there were very nice! Not going to lie… it’s frustratingly angering and hurtful too when you can speak the language well enough to be understood in conversation, as well as understand what others say perfectly fine, but upon first encounters, people just ignore your existence or the actual words you say, all because they have made an instant judgement that they can’t communicate with you since you’re a foreigner…

      The whole thing with “the look” works the exact same way. Sure, it’s perfectly acceptable to understand that it will happen, especially in the beginning, but after a few years, one would think that they would finally be able to stop having to explain their existence to others, you know? Now, I don’t living in Japan at the moment, but I have many friends who still do, and we all share the same experiences and thoughts on this subject…

      Person A: Thinks to themselves *Oh no, here comes a foreigner… What do I do?*
      Person B: “Um, Are you from around here? Could you please help me? I’m lost and I need directions…”
      Person A: “Ahhh… I don’t speak English!”
      Person B: “But I’m not speaking to you in English, I’m speaking in Japanese…?”
      Person A: “Oh?! You speak Japanese?!”
      Person B: “Why would you think I couldn’t?! My initial question was clearly in Japanese!”

      You know though… I have to admit. I think I would rather someone assume that we couldn’t communicate – but at least make the effort to do so or at least find out – than completely ignore my existence simply because they assumed it was impossible…

      And for THAT matter, I must say, the common Japanese way of thinking about the whole thing is probably better in some cases because it shows they are at least trying to think about you as well, and not just themselves… …In the west, more often is it the case that people almost always automatically assume that you CAN speak their language (whatever country you just happen to be in). Sometimes, however (like in France I have found out is quite common), the average person will get angry at you after the fact, and instantly dismiss your existence, once they find out you DON’T speak their language… …In that case, I think the Japanese “precautionary” way of thinking is better. For a person who is willing to interact with you, but – in thinking about you as well as them – presumes there might be a communication barrier, I would rather have that happen any day than have to deal with a person who automatically assumes I speak their native language, and gets angry, VERY rude, and dismissive once they find out I can’t…

      …And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is why I will never live in France… LOL! …Now Germany, on the other hand… I lived there for years and LOVED IT! I didn’t know any German when I first moved there, but people were all so nice, and no matter how many times I needed to communicate with anyone there, not only would they try to help as much as possible, but they would also try to help me improve my German at the same time! I learned so much that way and it made the experience so much more gratifying! Why can’t Japan take a hint from that?! 😉

  • omae mona says:

    “The Look” is a figment of paranoid people’s imagination. I dare anybody to do a blind test. Film the face of an employee dealing with customers. Make sure one of the customers is a foreigner, but a foreigner who is behaving normally – like other customers – including speaking Japanese. Now let people review the videos of the employee’s face and guess which one is the reaction to the foreigner. I’d bet money nobody can identify it.

    I don’t experience “the look”, and I am white as a marshmallow.

    • Chief Presiding Judge says:

      Let me guess you think racism in the US is dead because Obama is
      president? AJ P right. Your entire argument is one large fallacy.

      Just because YOU haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to lots of people.

    • DarthBabaganoosh says:

      I never got the look in Japan, either, but I would never presume to disregard other people’s experiences. However, try going to Korea, then telling me it’s a figment of our imaginations.

    • AJ P says:

      Your argument is a fallacy of composition. You’re applying your own personal experience to the thesis and then making the claim that something doesn’t exist for the whole just because it “may” not exist in only your limited case. You’re attempting to say what is true for part or some, is therefore true for all, and such an argument is fallacious.

      Check this video out.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLt5qSm9U80

      It is – of course – a dramatization… But this kind of thing really does happen. Furthermore, ask yourself, just how in the world would you feel if you were the one that had to “explain” yourself to the waitress at the end? Because you “look” foreign, she had an – all too common – predisposition about you, and you had to “explain yourself” to her… Ok, I get it, that kind of thing will happen, right? Sure! It happens in a lot of countries (not really much in Europe though, or North America either, but it does in Africa and South America in some places, however, MOST often in Asia) Now… repeat that “requirement to explain yourself” over, and over, and over again, in nearly every new encounter, for years… That kind of thing gets very old, very quick.

      No one ever said that “the look” (which you CLEARLY see at the beginning of the video) was something that happened to EVERYONE… but it does happen. Just because YOU don’t “think” it has happened to you, doesn’t mean it hasn’t, and just because YOU refuse to acknowledge it’s possibility with others, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen either.

  • AZ-Zakwanul Faiz bin Zakaria says:

    I usually get & give “the mute” or the “trying so hard to make me understand their native language”. On the contrary, i do get “the look” in my own country & the bad treatment because i don’t look like them (racism by my own race???).

  • Daniel Kaiser says:

    Having a Japanese mother and being raised in the deep south in the U.S., having gotten “the look” all my life in the states because I looked Japanese and having gotten “the look” for my 27 years here in Japan, I can tell you with 100% certainty, that it’s much better to get the look HERE. Fewer epithets!

  • AJ P says:

    I fully understand that the best course of action to being on the receiving end of this reaction is to simply learn to not care about it… for as many places and nations as I have lived over the years, and for as many nations and cultures I’ve visited and interacted with over the years, one would think even a well-traveled person like myself would have that down… and while I admit I – for the most part – couldn’t care less what people in general think about me, after getting “the look” for the 500th time that day or week… it eventually gets really old, you know?

    It’s something like this – I think – that is the largest contributing factor to someone’s frustrations and even anger at times. It’s not as if all people are so weak and easily offended that 1 or 2 or even 100 minor “looks” over time would make someone angry, and getting a “look” is so miniscule and minor, it’s often barely even worth acknowledging it even happened in the first place… yet even something so small, repeated again and again… now add months and years on top of that… and it is when it still happens with regularity… then even that ever so miniscule thing can eventually drive someone emotionally over the edge.

    The average person can only take just so much, and even intelligent, reasoned, and mentally tough individuals have an eventual breaking point… “the look” is one of those things that may seem minor, and to anyone looking at it from the third-person perspective as it happens, may think nothing of it… but to the recipient, it hits deep, even if you don’t think it does, and even if you refuse to think it does… Regardless, it IS a fact of life when you live in a 99% mono-culture that – for the life of the majority – absolutely refuse to even care about seriously learning a second language, let alone actually take a real interest outside of their own little bubbles… (there’s a “key word” back there, understand that).

    The most intelligent thing to do would be to remember… you don’t go to, or move to, Japan to expect diversity, understanding, and a sense of home… you go there for any number of other fathomable reasons other than those… mostly reasons that “conform” to “Japan”. You get “the look” because you’re NOT a part of that mono-culture which is inherently disinterested in anything other than itself (and that also applies directly to non-Japanese “looking” natives whose parents are foreigners, but who they themselves were born and raised in Japan). At the end of the day… If you are a foreigner, it’s best to just accept that you’ll never really be accepted to the full 100%… even after 30 years… to those born and raised, yet of foreign parents, and who don’t look the part, yours is a special struggle in Japan, and you all have my sincerest sympathies…

  • TheFox InThe Middle says:

    The look hmm. I think the underlying problem is international. If you are a not looking like then you will allways get some kind of reaction to your appearence. I am born and raised in germany and Its funny but I know how you feel. Ive encountered so many times The look that I simply just barely feel it. I had the same thoughts etc etc. People are afraid to deal with foreigners. Its sometimes a burden for them. Even if you are not a foreigner like in my case. Regularly as soon as I start speaking it breaks the ice and the recognise fast that I must life in germany for the longest time. Its annoying but as long as you are appearence is other than norm you will always be by some kind alianated. Its human nature. In my case I dont know it the other way. If go to my parents country its nearly the same as soon as I start to speak. The people think: Oh whats wrong with him. Why cant he speak perfectly.
    So I have no place where I dont get The Look. But I think over many years it wont bother you that much. Because from the people you really care you wont get that face 🙂 Shortly what are assumptions really worth that made because you look different. 0

  • 威驪 says:

    for those who thinks a lot about “the look”, just ignore it seriously. stop focusing on how people see you. start focusing more on yourself. if you keep thinking about what people thinks about you, you’ll be stressed out, demotivated and so on. STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK! the gaijins are different! so be it! we are the gaijin and we are different. so what?

  • endlessgrowthdoom says:

    japan is many times more “normal” than other places, like taiwan for instance.

  • Aentik Sparda Ten-no says:

    I m not sure what look ill be given but its not a thing i would even bother i Know the language, ive spoken with my Iaido sensei in japanese i love japanese Girls and i intend and Will marry one being new i always dig that whatever happens. : )

  • Bryan says:

    Never get this, except when I tell them I’m actually American! LOL! It’s like the total opposite for a Japanese American, who speaks pretty fluently.

  • espaguetialabolognesa says:

    Lovely blog. I’m looking forward to visit Japan in the next years and am truly taking note about what it might feel and mean to be there.

  • espaguetialabolognesa says:

    LOL! Carl claims to be a big-shot-non-fuck-giving-no-holds-barred-John-Wayne, but he takes so much offense (probably by his own insecurities) to comment a blog post. Twice.

    • Carl MacIntyre says:

      You’re clueless. If you’re going to make ridiculous assertions about someone, why don’t you try to base it on fact instead of your own childish fantasies infused by your evident inferiority complex about Americans? BTW, why don’t you actually visit Japan before you comment on someone’s attitude about living here?

    • Carl MacIntyre says:

      What a twit. If you’re going to make ridiculous assertions about someone, why don’t you try to base it fact instead of your own fantasies? BTW, why don’t you actually visit Japan before you comment on someone’s attitude about living here? Moron.

  • Kyle says:

    I usually only go out to eat with my GF(who is Japanese) I`ve just gotten into the habit of ordering for the both of us. It usually seems to sooth they waiter/ waitress out a lot and sometime sparks a conversation with them depending on the place we`re eating and and how busy it is. My GF gets a kick out of it because I`ve gotten really good at ordering.

  • 米生以印(Beki) says:

    Sure “The look” can be disconcerting if you’re not used to it, but the huge smile I get when I speak with them in near-native level Japanese is even nicer to see. (Especially in rural areas I’ve lived in). If I get a chance to change the perspective about foreigners and make them feel less uncomfortable around “us”, I feel better. Then I always end up getting special service or make new friends or have a fun conversation after this happens! Just be kind.

  • Jenn J says:

    I agree with Carl. Some foreigners in Japan are super sensitive and feel the need to psychoanalyse every time someone stares, looks at them or laughs at them. Is it really a surprise when these things happen? We’re living in a homogenous society so of course things things are bound to happen, and the reasons for them are vast and varied. As you said in your article, most service workers who give ‘The Look’ are probably anxious because their English speaking skills are poor and they’re unsure if you can speak Japanese. It’s unhealthy to make mental notes every time a Japanese person reacts in a strange way to you, in the end it will just make you paranoid.

  • MrGoodNews says:

    I usually go to same store around my place. Got the look at first. Spoke Japanese fluently.Now I think they recognize me.lol

  • Carl MacIntyre says:

    “We all wish we could be “totally accepted” by Japan”. Sorry to disagree, but that is not the case. Some of us don’t need the validation provided by being accepted by Japan since it’s not a requirement to find fulfillment in life. Perhaps when you stop caring about people’s reactions to your presence, you can start living an independent life.

    • Bradley Fried says:

      Yes, its simply not possibly to ever be “totally accepted” in Japan. Enjoy the freedoms of being an outsider not subject to the social expectations and pressures that Japanese face, and focus on relationships and connections with the people who like you for you.

    • james says:

      Never be sorry for disagreeing. I write these articles to start conversations and to hear opinions like yours. Not caring about “The Look” is obviously the best course of action, but for some that’s easier said than done. Thanks for the comment!

  • bombaykitty2010 says:

    I never get that look since I’m Chinese-Canadian and tend to get mistaken for Japanese, but then they get really confused when I can’t speak perfectly fluent Japanese and I get the “Is this person OK? Is she a foreigner? Or just kind of dim?” look.

    • Quietech says:

      I had some American born Japanese coworkers that were the same. I’m half, so I’d get it occasionally. I think it depends on the lighting 😉

    • Oi-Ocha says:

      Anyone that can’t put together that there are other kinds of Asians besides Japanese, and that you a probably one of them, is kind of dim. Unfortunately, that seems to include a high number japanese people 🙁

    • james says:

      Still counts!

  • Daniel Linton says:

    Thank you very much for this post!!

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