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The Strange Thing Foreigners In Japan Do When They See Each Other

What do you do when you see another foreigner?

By 4 min read 103

If you’ve spent any amount of time living in Japan, you already know exactly what I’m talking about. But in case you’re not familiar, or you call it something else, I am talking about The Gaijin Nod.

You’re walking down the street, admiring the sakura while the sounds of your city provide a pleasant Japan soundscape. As you approach a traffic signal, you notice something. Maybe it’s curly blonde hair, maybe it’s a strange lack of a man purse, maybe it’s just the person’s height, but something tips you off that a possible fellow foreigner is coming your way.

You play it cool and continue walking, knowing that you’re destined to cross paths in a few moments. As that moment draws near, you will lock eyes. At that point, you’re automatically engaged in an uncomfortable game of chicken, never sure which side will make the first move. Eventually though, one of you will perform The Nod: the slightest bowing of the head, which is usually reciprocated in precisely the same manner, and then both of you will continue on your merry ways, happy to be past that awkward encounter.

What is that? Why do we do that? (And yes, I’m saying “we,” because I’m just as guilty as anyone.)

More specifically, why do we do that instead of actually saying hello? Does another foreigner in Japan make us feel slightly less special about being a foreigner in Japan? Is it a Fight Club situation, where we’ve all independently started to believe that the first rule of being a gaijin in Japan is never say hello to a fellow gaijin in Japan? Or is it like when you’re leaving the adult section of TSUTAYA and someone else walks in, and your eyes meet and you have to scramble for a way out of the situation?

Are any of those the actual reason we do The Nod?

I guess in some ways The Nod makes sense; once you lock eyes with someone, doing nothing is usually the most weird/creepy option. But why do we escape to the cranial bow, the lowest form of greeting gestures?

Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to say “Hello” in cases where I would have previously given The Nod, with mixed results. I have no official data for my study, but the results were roughly as follows:

50% still responded with The Nod.
25% responded with “Hi!” or something similar.
20% didn’t respond at all (and gave me the creeps).
5% responded with “Hi, James-sensei!” (← mistakenly did test during school twice)

Is The Nod necessarily a bad thing? Well, no, not necessarily. People do similar stuff all over the world to acknowledge someone without having to actually engage with them. In a lot of circumstances, it’s a “knowing glance” that can help you and your fellow Nodder to feel more at home. But it’s certainly not the best option to accomplish this goal.

In the end, it’s totally up to you to decide how you respond when you see a fellow foreigner. You could continue nodding, but I’d recommend you try upgrading your nod from time to time. Throw in a “Hello!” and/or a smile every once in a while, and see what happens.

You could brighten another person’s day, feel proud that you were slightly more human, and you might feel better yourself as well.

I know Japan has crazy/creepy/scary people; so does every other country in the world. You don’t have to stop and have a conversation, but try to think of that shared “foreigner” title as something that puts you two on the same team. If you were a Yankees fan and you were watching a baseball game in Houston, and you saw another person wearing a Yankees cap, that’s the kind of potential camaraderie you can imagine.

You could brighten another person’s day, feel proud that you were slightly more human, and you might feel better yourself as well. The best possible case is that it’s a hottie on the other end of your greeting, and he or she thinks you’re just the cutest, and you hit it off.

Worst case, they think you’re weird-looking or just odd for saying hello, and they rush past. Most of the time, it’ll fall somewhere in the middle, where they either smile and say hello back to you, or just give you that classic Nod. That’s a pretty good risk-reward balance in my book.

If you think I’m crazy, or you just want to stick by your tried and true Nodding ways, that’s fine, too. I’m sure we’ll pass each other on the street one day. We’ll end up in each other’s gaze because of that invisible force that always makes it happen.

And it’ll be up to you: lean your head down 5 degrees and walk on by, or say “Hello!”

…and THEN walk on by?

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  • Alma Crawford says:

    Asian Americans travel in Japan as well — this nod thing seems to be an acknowledgement of white people expressing kinship with each other. White people in Asia could be South African or Australian, or North American or German or Estonian. Not that much in common but you might pass by a fellow high school classmate travelling in Japan because he/she is Asian American. Race is a strange thing. I am an African American and never got any nod from white people when I was in Japan.

    • Jason Jones says:

      Stink. I come from nz and we call everyone bro. In Japan I saw an African American and I said “hay bro”before cringing. He laughed and we had a bit of banter.

  • Baibaikin says:

    Oh and I think he didn’t really understand those guys were catcalling me…

  • Baibaikin says:

    I did get the job though 🙂

  • Anthon Deutsch says:

    I think that it is quite normal. The foreigners look different and just acknowledge there is another foreigner living the same or similar experience in a very different culture. I have lived in all continents at it happens especially where foreigners stand out. This happens in Kenya also though they are classified into whites, Indians/Asians and Arabs. So it is not bad to do that. It is not bad to say hi to locals if you feel like doing that also. In that respect no difference should be ,add but yes foreigners do and will always cling together in foreign nations.

  • Marco says:

    I say Hello or Konnichiwa every now and then, as well. I partly grew up in the city and countryside alike. While really uncommon in the big cities, saying hello to each other is a very frequent occurrence in smaller towns. I believe that Japanese aren’t very different from that.
    I was hardly greeted in Osaka, but when I went to the outskirts of Kyoto prefecture and went on to Tottori-shi hundreds of people greeted me. Most of them were Japanese, as well. Of course I greeted back or initiated the greeting.
    Once a local even stroke a conversation with me. Wearing a Gamba Osaka uniform gave me the chance to talk about something interesting to both of us.
    Sure being in the West and South of Japan helps as people there are not as uptight and shy at times, but then again I greeted and was acknowledged in Tokyo and Morioka, too. Much less though, I admit.
    But it’s one hell of a good feeling to greet others. Often people return it with a slight surprise and a smile. Makes my day every damn time. 🙂

  • Steven Thacker says:

    I’m American and totally get what you’re saying. But guess what? Italians can be incredibly obnoxious too.

  • Brad Thomas says:

    Because not every culture has the same values as you do. You act as though it’s insane not to say something but what if the other foreigner doesn’t speak English, or comes from a culture where it is considered rude to just start talking randomly to someone. The nod is merely a compromise because whether you talk to ppl or ignore them, it is still hard to not notice another foreigner. Generally I ignore them for the most part but I always notice whether I want to or not. I am open to convo if someone starts it usually, but not if I’m busy

  • Blue_Ninj4 says:

    I know their are differences in Japanese people, I’m just saying as if looking into a crowd it looks very similar wherever you go. I suppose you’re right that it’s just as interesting to talk with someone Japanese as with anyone else, but I guess just meeting a foreigner gives you a sense of nostalgia for the culture you came from. I loved Japanese culture, but there was still a small sense of being different that nagged in the back of the mind, making contact with others from foreign places a small subconscious acknowledgement of “I see you, I know how you feel. We’re in this together, we understand each other.” Of course it’s a slightly different game if their culture was different from your own, but the same things apply to living in Japan such as learning Japanese or getting accustomed to foods there, etc. So in that one “Hi” or a nod, there is a lot of subconscious reasons behind it.

    • Barnaby Jones says:

      OK I see what you mean 🙂 But perhaps you’re not in Tokyo? There’s LOTS of gaijin strolling around there! Many of them tourists.

      • Blue_Ninj4 says:

        True 😀 I didn’t think about that too much. I was usually in a small-town area in the north Touhoku area, so it was bit more difficult to find gaijin in certain cities.

  • paul evans says:

    As a touring cyclist in Japan on 4 different occasions to date I have found that virtually no foreigner even so much as nodded hello to me. There are not hoards of foreigners surrounding you when you ride the length and breadth of Japan, but I find that all those who spoke, or indicated that they had seen me were Japanese cyclists or from other Asian nations. The few Europeans I have seen ( some as Ohenro , cyclists , hikers) simply have not even eyed me off. As an older Australian abroad I say hello, konnichiwa to anyone who looks my way. I like to think that outside of cities some response would be good manners, maybe not in this day and age.

  • GeneralObvious says:

    I don’t know about that. Most prefectures have at least 30+ JETs as well as 30+ Interac ALT’s and that’s not even including all the private school, direct hire, and free lance language teachers. There are also other hiring agencies that headhunt for the government (besides Interac and JET) too. And I’d say my numbers are pretty conservative; 30 ALTs per company would be for a pretty small prefecture.

    You’re right though. I see ads for teachers of foreigner languages other than English too. They are pretty much always in Tokyo though. I’m not saying you should have talked to those 2 girls either, especially if they didn’t even make eye contact with you. You said you live in a small town in a small prefecture though, so there’s a very high probability that they were either English teachers or on vacation. There’s really no other jobs available for foreigners in small towns other than English teachers. Well… unless they are a permanent residents. That sounds unlikely based on the scenario you described though.

    On a side note, English is actually a Germanic language. About 70% of the German population can speak English and even more can understand it. So if there were 2 of them there, then there’s a good chance at least one could talk to you. ; )

  • yoyi says:

    Interesting point, I didn’t know about this part of Mexican culture. I don’t want to sound rude, just not very knowledgeable in this – when I walked around at home, and met about 100-200 strangers on my way for errands… in Mexico, would I be expected to say hello to everyone of them? If not, how do you choose who to say hi to? 🙂

  • yoyi says:

    I don’t aknowledge anyone I don’t know. I mean… that is just weird for me, if I don’t know the person, why would I be saying “hello” or bowing? And I don’t notice Japanese doing the same in Europe. Maybe I am just a type of person who does not talk to strangers and never strikes a conversation on the street with strangers. If anyone tried to approach me with hello, I think I might natually make a weird face trying to remember if I know the person, and say “hello?” in a strange doubting voice. And aknowledging a stranger by greeting them just because you are both gaijin…is just further perpetuating a stereotype of all foreigners knowing each other. Anyway… I always believed that when someone starts talking to me out of the blue in my home country… that it’s just rude. Because I don’t know the person, and I have things to think about, and a stranger talking to me is kind of bothering me. Especially when it comes to the opinions, and opinions about the shop/government/taxes/prices…. Thank goodness, in Japan this almost never happens to me (happened like twice). I like that very much about Japan 🙂

  • Vaggaran Van Viggoro says:

    I live in Asia, have traveled all over it. I share nods with some people (foreigners and locals alike), and I don’t with others, depending on my mood and the way I perceive their mood. And I never nod at someone because of the colour of their skin, hair or other natural physical features. The 20% of you’re supposed little “secret society” who didn’t nod back, give them a break, don’t get “the creeps”. That’s the kind of playground attitude that encourages social segregation. Maybe they were just having a bad day. This phenomenon is based on a sense of isolation, not physical features, and is the kind of thing that would happen in your own country when walking past someone on an otherwise deserted street.

  • Blue_Ninj4 says:

    Haha, sorry, it’s just hard to guess what Nationality anyone is while there. Maybe you could respond to them in French.

  • Rogers says:

    The whole point is to try to learn to fit in. You don’t do that by speaking English, living in a “Western ghetto”, or by emphasizing your differences. In America, we are sorry to see foreigners that live in a segregated neighborhood, won’t learn or speak English, and have friends only with people like them. We much prefer people that try to be American, no matter where they were born. Why should we emulate them?
    Actually, it’s a shame that Japanese don’t acknowledge strangers more, or start up a conversation. Americans do. It’s also a shame that Japanese almost never socialize with those other than colleagues and never invite people to their homes. At least those who have regular jobs don’t.
    But so be it.
    We are living in Japan. We’re not tourists. If we want to be friendly with a “nod”, make it for everyone.

    • yoyi says:

      I am ok with not being invited to people homes too often, and I think it’s a huge plus (for me) that Japanese people don’t start up a conversation. It happened to me though, and it was bothersome because a guy wanted to take my pics and have my contacts and I’m like what?! (dame yo…dame, dame!)

    • Lemuel Lopez says:

      I too want to live in “Mr.Rogers Neighborhood” lol

  • Jasmine says:

    Thank you. It’s normal to misinterpret from time to time, as I also did with the author of this post. No grudges held!

  • Barnaby Jones says:

    I’ve never understood why you’d greet one random stranger and not the other? Just because you’re both “gaijin” ? Would you do this in any other country in the world?

    • Jason Jones says:

      Yep…..I did in every far flung place that wasn’t a tourist highway. Haven’t been to Tokyo since 94 so it might have changed 😉

    • Blue_Ninj4 says:

      Yeah, just because we’re gaijin. In Japan at least, everyone has identical features. Even if someone’s hair is noticeably a lighter brown it stands out from one side of a train cart to the other. I’m not saying all Japanese people look exactly the same, but it’s easy to pick out someone with a difference from the normal white-shirt, bag-carrying, or dark-haired individual. It almost gives you excitement mixed with anxiety. The hard part is guessing if they speak English (most likely), whether they are a European, American, Canadian, Indian, etc.

  • Nice observations. They mostly apply to my case, too, when I was there.

  • Lawrence Klepinger says:

    People are people. If I see someone who looks nice, I say hello, regardless of race or gender. And if I see a prick – of any persuasion – I just walk on by.

    Usually, by the way a person dresses, walks and handles himself (and yes, herself) is a pretty good indicator if I extend a friendly greeting or not.

    Pretty simple, when you think about it.

  • bonzo says:

    Very odd…..why would I want to say anything to another person…because he or she MIGHT have come from my country? Or…even if he or she has huge stickers all over…indicating street address was the same as mine used to be back in wherever it was? I do not know this person, I have no reason to know this person. I have no reason to make any gesture, or say any word.

  • Samuel Foster says:

    Funny. I’d normally call this a “black thing”. (Stranger in a strange land syndrome.) Seriously. Watch the people who don’t fit into ‘your’ groups. You will see this “I see you” nod of recognition :-).

  • Radical says:

    well said! I feel a bit sorry for Jasmine, she is trying so hard to fit in, she will probably never fit in anywhere. In my country, Ireland, it is normal for people to smile and nod and even say ‘hello’ to complete strangers. I am 63 years old and experiencing the Japanese culture for some months this year. I talk to people, Japanese or other, in English or with my dozen or so Japanese words. It has been my experience that most people understand ‘Hello’ even if are not from an English speaking country.

    • Jasmine says:

      I come from Canada, and in Canada too it is usually friendly; if you meet someone’s eye and nod or say “Hello” it’s not weird. Also, starting a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line, for example, is also totally OK.

      Now here, we are talking about JAPAN, the country where small talk is almost non-exisent. Moreover, we are talking about foreigners saying “Hello” to OTHER foreign-looking people only. That’s the whole point of the article. That’s why there is a feeling of weirdness along with it.

      You can’t compare that with Ireland. Also, what we’re talking about here is as if you were saying “Hello” or nodding to only foreign-looking people in Ireland. But you don’t do that, now don’t you? You said you say Hi to everyone. The cases are different.

      And your comment on me not fitting anywhere was uncalled for.

  • JC in Kobe says:

    Where you’re from is a big factor. In certain parts of the US, greeting and/or striking up a conversation with a total stranger is quite common. So, to live in a huge Japanese city where the natives themselves are totally alienated from one another, desperately averting their eyes 24/7, well, it’s quite an adjustment.

    As others have pointed out, this doesn’t stop some of them from singling you out for the staging of a fascinating little kabuki: “A Japanese Greets a Foreigner.”

    And I second the comment about certain minority groups doing this in their native countries. My black friends always have in California. Likewise many Mexcian Americans do. There’s some shared recognition and respect shown to one another. I think long term residents here are in a lot more fragile place than they care to acknowledge, even to themselves. Such awkward interactions seem like a form of compensation to me–the hey, I’m doing just fine, bro. I’m intergrated, adapted, perfectly fine and no mere courtesy is going to shatter what I’ve built up here.

  • Vasu Seshadri says:

    Being yourself is the thing to do. An outgoing gaijin whose extroverted manner springs out from all sides is just not considered being cool specially if you have a demeanor like Jim Carrey or Jerry Seinfeld. That is my problem. Crazy and warm and joking to break the ice or the glacier has been an old habit of mine. This has been a major adjustment although comedians can cope under excruciating circumstances. Grinless cold responses are the rage of the day so let it be. Urusai as the saying goes.

  • Joëlle JP says:

    we do it out of pride…..we leave our country (for me, USA) so to be surrounded by foreigners not foreigners like ourselves, even though we come to a point where we’d love to have ease and diverse conversations in English as we did back home, after a long day’s of work in being around only non-native English speakers….being westerns we don’t like to appear needy, but in actuality, we need some sort of community…..i’m sure we may have other reactions if we saw a fellow foreigner with the same sports team on our caps or shirts and possibly throw around info on teams’ status’ of late besides just The Nod…..

  • John Mullins says:

    What about the Co Mayo one finger salute whilst driving? I bet you don’t get that in Tokyo.

  • GeneralObvious says:

    It was based on your previous comment before you explained it in more detail.

  • Carlos Covarrubias says:

    Thank you very much for the post, I was lauhing while reading it, because I had never thought about that invisible force hahahahaha well I will follow your suggestion and say hello time to time!!

  • ichifish says:

    I reciprocate the nod, but unless the other person looks like they *really* want to make eye contact or start up a conversation (usually those new to Japan and still high on the otherness of it all), I don’t initiate. It treat them the same way I treat people I see anywhere. The reason is simple:

    I don’t appreciate it when Japanese people go out of their way to point out my foreignness or assume that I have shared interests with other foreigners (the other 7 billion people in the world), and I don’t want to do that to others. Having lived here for a decade, I have plenty of concerns other than “being a gaijin.”

  • I put on a big smile, my best Tony Soprano voice and loudly say: “Heeeey! How ya doooooin’?”

  • I put on a big smile, my best Tony Soprano voice and loudly say: “Heeeey! How ya doooooin’?”

  • Baibaikin says:

    This isn’t exactly about “The Nod” but reading the comments made me want to share a story.

    Yesterday, I had a job interview at Forever21 in Namba, Osaka. I entered the store early and went to ask the staff where I needed to go, some really friendly guy offered to show me where to wait (his makeup was fabulous btw) and we went up the escalator.
    While going up, I saw two guys going down on the other escalator. They suddenly started shouting at me: “Dang girl, I can see your tits! And your ass!” even though I wasn’t wearing anything revealing. When I tried to ignore them, they kept going “Ohhh man, she gave you that look hahaha….” etc

    This whole situation made me so uncomfortable that I alost panicked (considering that I was already super nervous since my Japanese is by no means perfect yet and that was my first interview in Japanese). The nice staff guy smiled at me awkwardly and asked if they’re my friends…It felt like they ruined my first impression and self confidence.

    This is one situation out of many where other foreigners made me look like an idiot and that’s why I don’t really try to approach anyone tbh.

  • Alex says:

    I don’t say hello to other foreigners on the street, and usually I don’t nod either. Is this because I think I’m better than everyone else? No. It’s because I wouldn’t randomly nod or say hello to strangers in my home country either. You make it sound like we’re all members of some sort of “Japan Club”. If there’s a reason to talk to each other, that’s fine. But I’m not going to do it solely because we’re both not Japanese.

    • Brad Thomas says:

      Well I see your point, I have to say that sometimes it’s worth striking up a convo. Some of my best friends were gaijin strangers who I actually talked to. To be fair, it was in an arcade and not just on the street but I was just walking by.

    • yoyi says:

      I agree. If told “hi” I can always “do I know you” back 😉

    • This guys knows what’s up. Ditto.

  • Winton Yuichiro White says:

    It’s because we’re a minority in Japan.
    Every minority does it: black people in America, Indians in England, even most of us hafu folks notice each other.

    • iwgw says:

      I don’t think that’s true. Asians here in America never do that. And by “foreigner”, it doesn’t mean “white foreigner”, does it?

      • Winton Yuichiro White says:

        Far East Asians, in general, are very reserved so they (we) are less apt to do that. It also depends on where in America because in California there are many of us. And even though we’re technically a minority we’re not viewed nor treated the same as other minorities (sadly).

  • Genki says:

    “More specifically, why do we do that instead of actually saying hello?” – maybe because not every foreigner living in Japan speaks English.

    I’m all about nodding and smiling and being friendly, but just because you’re both foreign and in Japan together doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to become BFFs. Sure, there’s a certain solidarity and shared experience that come with being foreigners together in Japan, but I’ve also met a lot of fellow Americans in Japan who were insufferable to be around. There’s no reason to be a dick and ignore other gaijin, but unless you have something to say ‘Oh, I like your San Antonio Spurs shirt!’ or ‘Could you tell me where XYZ is?’, I don’t feel it’s rude to just give a pleasant nod and continue on.

  • Bernie Low says:

    I’ve never encountered this nod and I pretty much ignore everyone, regardless if they’re a foreigner or not when I’m out. It does get weird when other foreigners approach you just because they want a fellow foreigner friend…. like oh hey, we’re both foreign let’s be friends, you speak English and Japanese? PHEW I can’t speak Japanese so can you help me do xxx and yyy?

  • Pieszczoch777 says:

    Honestly I hate it in any country. Why people can’t talk?
    Everyone wants to connect through phones , Internet, drinking, party etc.
    what if i don’t own pic and phone and don’t drink alcohol and coffee and don’t smoke?
    And I don’t do casual sex.
    People forgot how to simply greet , talk, etc.
    Author is right about saying hello being more humane .
    And I really feel like there’s gaijin contest. Whenever I meet Japanese people who have as friend not only me but also native English, that native English usually is trying to make some fun of me or anything me related.
    Why can’t we be equal or compliment each other?
    I always say hello to other people on the street.

  • mikesensei says:

    We just need Team Gaijin gear: Hats, jerseys, giant foam fingers…

  • Lava says:

    I never do anything, I just behave the same way as I do in my own country in that I don’t say hi or make eye contact or really anything to strangers and those I don’t know. Being in Japan doesn’t change anything for me, especially since I’m a non-caucasian born and raised in the Ireland, so Japan feels the same to me in terms of me being different from everyone else.

  • criminy says:

    We get the same thing in Korea. My reason for giving minimal to no response is that I find most foreigners who come here to be a bit too “spring break” for my tastes. Vapid, directionless, looking for the next party and/or drunken lay.

  • Jhak walker says:

    They only foreigners I’ve seen in hamamatsu were mainly Brazilians….

  • Lisa Williamson says:

    “As much as you’d like to pretend like it’s not true, Japan is one of the most homogenized countries in the entire world. Literally 99% of the country’s population are native Japanese and you are not one of them. You are different. You grew up in a different land, with different foods, different customs and different people. That makes you interesting and special to the natives regardless of the location you travel to, not just Japan.”

    This is actually not true. The statistic is still VERY high, like 80-something percent, but it’s not 99. Even Zainichi Koreans are reminded in various ways all the time that they are foreign, even if they have lived here for generations and even if they only speak Japanese. I have American friends here who look Asian even if they aren’t and “pass”, and are spoken to in Japanese instead of me, even if their level of Japanese is lesser than my own, and -even- if I am the one who was speaking to them. Just because people “look” Japanese doesn’t make them Japanese, and 99% are not “literally native Japanese”. That isn’t to say that I don’t understand your point, I do. And yes, you are correct in saying it is one of the most homogenIZED countries in the world. But it’s actually not as homogeneOUS as the government or media would like you to believe it is.

    And, for the record, I have Japanese people being rude about me right in front of my face all the time when I’m taking trains, especially if it’s men together. They always feel the need to comment on my body, especially. That isn’t, by the way, to say that they’re /not/ courteous and helpful, because their culture is in fact generally accommodating that way. It’s just that I definitely can imagine and have seen Japanese people be rude to strangers, even to other Japanese, and especially inside youth cultures towards foreign people.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      The CIA world fact book has Japan’s ethnicity listed as 98.5% ethnic Japanese; I rounded up. The remaining ethnic groups are: Koreans 0.5%, Chinese 0.4%, other (Including people from the Philippines) 0.6% .

      Aside from that, you realize you contradict your self immediately after you make your second point right? You say that Koreans get reminded everyday that they aren’t Japanese, then you immediately go on to say that your “Asian friends” pass as Japanese.

      Aside from that, you live in a country where 98.5% of population are Japanese people, do you honestly hold it against them for assuming the Asian person you are with is of Japanese descent? If you went to England you’d probably assume every white person you saw was English too. I’ve also made the mistake of speaking to non-Japanese Asian people in Japanese a few times since I’ve been here. It’s pretty common I’d say, who cares?

      On your third point, unless they are commenting to you directly or speaking about you in a way to get your attention, then they aren’t being rude. If anything, you are the one being rude by eavesdropping on their private conversation.

      I’m not really sure why you even brought up your last point since you largely agreed with me. Who cares about a few hormonal teenagers going through some growing pains? You’ll also run into a few elderly that hold a grudge for WW2, those minorities are far from indicative of the country’s societal norms however.

  • Jasmine says:

    I agree with you: about 99% of the population is (or look like) Japanese. And I am effectively a foreigner right now. But what if I get the Japanese nationality someday? Am I less of a Japanese, because I don’t look Asian? That’s the problem, I think. Because even if I lived in Japan longer than in the country I was born, I would still be treated as a foreigner by most people. It’s not that I wish that I was Japanese-looking, it’s just that I wish I could have at least a chance to fit in. I love Japan, but no country is perfect, and that’s a side that I don’t like and get to me.

    And for the abrasive part, if someone greets me in Japanese (when it’s a stranger) or smile at me, of course I smile back and greet them. The only instance when I become abrasive is when I’m being cat-called in English and followed by strangers who try to speak English with me and get my e-mail, shouting “I LOVE YOU”. I mean, who wouldn’t be? It’s just creepy. And yes, Japanese are very polite, but there’s rude people everywhere. Japan is not an exception.

    Standing out, being stared at and hearing people whispering about you on your way is one thing; assuming English is my first language and treating me as a forever tourist/foreigner is another. I understand why it’s like that, of course. I just don’t like it, and don’t want to perpetuate it, so that’s why I don’t nod or say “Hi” to fellow foreign-looking strangers.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      So you return a smile or nod when a Japanese person does it, but you don’t when a non-Japanese person does it? And your reasoning is that you don’t want to perpetuate the the practice of Japanese people viewing you as a permanent tourist. I don’t understand the logic. If anything I would think you would do the opposite, since the Japanese are the cause of your issue and tourists usually go around greeting random people not residents. I really don’t see how being courteous to other foreigners affects the situation one way or the other.

      About fitting in, if you stay in the same place long enough you will make close friends and be accepted by them. It takes a long time to become good friends with Japanese people though. It can takes many months or even years before they consider you a close friend. You should look up the Japanese philosophy of Uchi Soto if you don’t know about it. There have been a lot of papers written about it and they can do a much better job of explaining it than I could ever hope to.

  • Dan Dooley says:

    When I was in Japan this year I was confronted be several foreigners when attending the same venue. People are incredibly friendly. From just chatting to people on the train to being stopped in the street. It’s a good part of this culture that I hope to see stay, cities like London are atrocious. You could be dying in the street and people will just walk past you. I think for you NOT to be able to respond to someones kindness by greeting them back you should really re-evaluate yourself as a person. It does NOT take a big effort to just say Hi and carry with whatever you were doing. Even if you don’t know them, it just boils down to manners. Let’s keep Japan friendly 🙂

  • Dan Dooley says:

    Haha ah what a bummer, don’t be put off approaching foreigners though! If it were me and someone approached me I would be more than happy to talk. I was approached several times in Japan and I really enjoyed just the friendliness of the people there. I stay in Kyoto for about a month every year and I always enjoy the kindness of the people there!

  • Alistair Decross says:

    You know, not in every culture outside Japan it would be considered normal to nod/smile at someone you don’t know, unless there’s a reason to do so. It would be actually considered awkward and weird in many Central European countries, I guess.

  • Allie says:

    No big deal if I see another foreigner or not. I just carry on my way.I think it’s a little presumptuous to assume they speak English.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      Except in Japan nearly every non-Asian foreigner is an English teacher. Unless you live in Tokyo, there’s a good chance that almost every foreigner you see is one. It’s not racist, it’s just a byproduct of the Japanese immigration system.

      • CTLee says:

        In my opinion, it’s still racist. I live in a small ‘inaka’ town down in Kyushu, and aside from us English teachers, there are also two white chicks that I see fairly often around town. I’ve never called out to them, mostly because I’m not the sort to do that, but even if I was, I wouldn’t. Why? Because one day we happened to sit next to each other in a restaurant, and I overheard their conversation– it was in German. So, in my small town, nowhere near the big cities of Tokyo, 2 foreign, white-skinned, blonde-haired girls are -gasp- not English speakers, but in fact, German-speakers. CRAZY.

        • GeneralObvious says:

          For someone who supposedly doesn’t like to make assumptions you’re making an awful lot of them. Just because someone can speak German automatically means that they can’t speak English? I didn’t know those 2 languages were mutually exclusive.

          Just for future reference all of the major suppliers of ALTs in the country, i.e. the JET program, Interac, etc., hire English speakers from all over the world, not just countries where English is the primary language. As surprising as it may be I have met ALTs from Italy, South Africa, France, Korea and many, many other countries through my company. Maybe even more surprising is they they can all speak the language of their home country as well as English! Some of them can even speak 3 or 4 languages! CRAZY!

    • Lisa Williamson says:

      This is EXACTLY why I usually do nothing/don’t say anything. I’m from Canada, where everyone is a foreigner, and you have no idea what someone’s background is. In Canada you can USUALLY assume people speak English, but just because someone looks a certain way that DEFINITELY doesn’t mean they can speak a certain language from the region you’re assuming. This is exactly it.

      • Jasmine says:

        To Lisa, I don’t know if it’s because we both come from Canada or not, but it seems like we have the same view on this! (You commented earlier on one of my comments and our replies were at the same time, pretty much saying the same thing haha).

        I think the same as you, Allie. I never assume another foreigner speaks English. We’re in Japan, so we should speak Japanese if we don’t know anything about their background!

  • GeneralObvious says:

    I think it’s courteous to make some gesture if you make eye contact with someone. It’s kind of rude not to smile or nod, etc. If I make eye contact with Japanese people I do the same thing and they usually reciprocate.

    I think it just feels different with foreigners in Japan because there are so few here. Once you are here for a while you, just like the native Japanese, are a little surprised when you see a new foreigner that you don’t recognize in your area.

  • Ryan says:

    It is very presumptuous to say that someone who doesn’t respond to a smile thinks they’re better than the smiler. There could be many reasons for this.

  • james says:

    My personality is much better suited for your alternative. I didn’t mean to promote “The Nod” in anyway, I wish it didn’t exist. But it def does. Maybe if instead of “the nod” people said hello they will see how weird it really is and stop it all together? I’m talking to myself as well here. I don’t try to nod, it just happens. I like you, just want to be treated like anybody else as much as possible.

    • Jasmine says:

      I’m sorry, I made assumptions about you and misunderstood your point of view in the post.
      You’re right, maybe they’ll feel how weird it is!

      • Radical says:

        It is sad that people think it is strange or weird to say ‘hello’ I am glad that I come from a culture where it is normal to greet everyone with a smile and a ‘hello’ and here in Japan people say hello to me all the time in English or Japanese and I smile and greet them back. I am in Fukuoka so maybe it is more friendly here than bigger cities. I must remember not to say ‘where are you from?’ to young people because from this conversation I have learned that many young people are uncomfortable with communication.

      • james says:

        If you misunderstood, that’s my fault so no apology needed. Thanks for your comment!

  • james says:

    Good way to be

  • james says:

    Yeah the bigger the city, the less the nod, it seems.

  • james says:

    I took some liberties for bad comedy, and even though everyone’s situation is always different, I still would venture to guess you knew what “the nod” was before reading the rest of the article.

  • james says:

    I go in with the intention of the smile, but my head is magnetically forced down 5 degrees every time. I’ll keep working at it.

    • Voidseer says:

      That just might mean you have a better social ‘charge’ or social energy 🙂

  • james says:

    Agreed. In my town the loudest foreigners are 3 Indian dudes that run a restaurant. When their restaurant closes, I hear about it a block away.

  • Anthony Joh says:

    I only nod to fully kitted riders. Squids get ignored regardless of bike. 😉

    • ChuckmaNorris Fuckgoogle says:

      Yeah, same here. I ignore them as well. Most I have seen here in Mel, Australia ride properly with full proper protection not acting like morons.
      I do miss riding. Will soon convert aus license to Japanese license.

  • Ket says:

    I live in Darwin, Australia. Here we are a melting pot for different races and cultures. That head nod you describe is a very polite way of saying “hello, I acknowledge your existence.” or when dealing with Chinese, “Thank you.”

  • hisoka87 says:

    When I go alone, I’d say hello to them. But when I go in group, somehow we avoid our fellow countrymen.

    • james says:

      In my experience groups in general get very, “don’t break the bubble” when going out sometimes. Unless people in the group are looking to meet members of the opposite sex of course.

  • Jesse says:

    I find it more usual to be ignored than to get the nod. Living in Yokosuka, there are tons of gaijin around so it’s not unusual and there’s no pressure. When I head up towards Tokyo, I’ve rarely locked eyes with another gaijin. Everyone has their eyes fixed straight ahead or on their phones. I don’t mind…no one is obligated to engage socially with someone else…that’s one of the nice things about a city. If I am in a small town or a remote part of Japan and I see a gaijin, hang on, cuz I’m gonna talk to ya!

  • Pick Up says:

    I totally agree with papiGiulio.
    Tourists sometimes are quite rude.

    However, I am always open to help in Japanese translations where ever I spot Japanese people finding it difficult to explain things to Gaijins.

    • james says:

      The difference between tourists and people that work in the country is def huge, and I didn’t include them in my “Nod” analysis. Should have tho.

  • Boey Kwan says:

    Not sure if my experience counts cuz I go to Hong Kong, but I’m probably guilty of the opposite. If I see a foreigner I talk to my friends in English in case the poor tourists need some help.
    They probably get really annoyed at me, though. Nearly every young person in HK now knows English (albeit they speak with a British accent). lol 🙂 Cool article~

  • Stardog says:

    I don’t usually say hello because I don’t know if the person necessarily speaks English or not.

  • Randy Lane says:

    Who’s the illustrator? Love the image.

  • papiGiulio says:

    Hmmm, really depends on where I bump into foreigners. If I go to the city (Osaka) or Kyoto, I ignore them (or at least don’t nod) assuming the foreigners there are mostly tourists and dont give a rats*ss about me nodding to them.

    If I see foreigners in my hometown, I might nod (depending on if they look friendly) or even start a conversation as I live in the countryside since its quite rare to see or bump into foreigners.

    • james says:

      That is true, and was probably worth a mention in the post. The closer you get to the heart of a city, the less of “The Nod” you see. The more inaka you go, the more of “The Nod” or better you encounter.



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