Surviving the Inaka: Foreigner Celebrity Status

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Surviving the Inaka in Japan

When I first discovered that I was being placed in southern Ibaraki as an ALT, a rural prefecture famous for being the home of natto – I was terrified. My fear multiplied when I searched my city online to find the amenities it offered were a large river (which subsequently flooded my city that same year), a supermarket (which stopped selling Frosties cereal four months into my stay) and one of the oldest trees in the region (I believe it still is a tree).

A million questions were running through my head, fueled by fear. I didn’t speak the language; how was I going to make friends? How would I ask for a haircut? Would I look good with long hair?

Having lived in the countryside, or “inaka”, and survived, I can say that all of these questions had a positive answer (except maybe the long hair).

But one worry I didn’t anticipate was how to deal with my newfound celebrity status. A new foreign person in a town of mostly Japanese people, I was suddenly thrust into the local spotlight without doing anything.

This is something a lot of foreigners say they experience to some extent in Japan but what exactly is it all about?

What is the “Celebrity Status”?

The celebrity status is the phenomenon that many members of your community will somehow know who you are, where you work, and will probably be looking at you whenever you’re walking down the street.

I once asked a Japanese friend about this who said that it was because many people living in the countryside aren’t given many opportunities to interact with foreigners and so like to explore every opportunity available.

This isn’t exactly exclusive to people who look very obviously non-Japanese.

I’ve had friends who are from other Asian countries comment that as soon as people heard the different accent (or the fact they weren’t speaking Japanese), they were quickly assaulted with the same degree of questions and fascination.

What you might experience

The celebrity status will manifest itself in several different forms, and it is imperative to embrace it where you can if you want to survive.

At first, the interactions might be small. When buying a bento at Lawson, the worker there was quick to inform me that I taught his son and went on to ask me as many questions as he could think of as my bento heated up in the microwave. I tried to use this to my advantage, offering grades for free onigiris, but alas, I left the store empty handed.

Hitachi Seaside Park

Alex was placed in Ibaraki – famous for natto and the Hitachi Seaside Park

As time goes on and the community begins to notice your permanency, you may quickly find yourself in some more unique situations.

When visiting a local festival with a group of friends, a man began bombarding us with questions about our countries and why we were in Japan. He then produced a box of donuts for us and introduced us to a woman who he called “Ms. Japan”. We were never able to verify the claim.

The celebrity status didn’t stop there. I remember watching a local dance when the Mayor suddenly appeared out of nowhere, grabbed my friend and I and forced us into the parade to dance. It wasn’t until Monday that I realized the gravity of the situation, when teachers and students were talking about us dancing in the festival, and rating our skill.

Compared to larger cities, in the countryside you’ll often find yourself being asked to join in local events. This enables you to have some cultural assimilation, and once people know who you are, it breaks down a barrier of confusion as to why a foreigner is in a village that rarely gets any.

I found it helped to diminish the feeling of isolation I originally felt, as well as the fear of making local friends.

To survive, you should make sure to be proactive in joining, or at the very least, going to these events – they open up a world of possibilities and make the countryside a bit less of a scary place.

The downsides

That being said, it isn’t all free donuts and meeting Ms. Japan. It can be arduous at times.

When people seem to know who you are and where you work, your actions will always be scrutinized. Crossing the road in the middle of the street, for example, might seem like an innocent action to most of us but if a PTA member sees you, you might expect to have a little chat the next day.

People always wanting to ask you a plethora of questions when you’re just trying to buy petrol are certainly fun at first but will be understandably annoying at times.

When I found myself not wanting to weave my way through the sea of eyes on my way to Family Mart, the best remedy I found was to seek refuge with other foreign friends. It gave me a chance to sink back into the comfort of speaking my own language, and being able to melt into a group – if people were staring at us, it was at the group, and not each individual member.

Tips for survival

In the inaka, Japanese people are often rarely given a chance to speak or express themselves with people from other cultures. Your celebrity status is born from this.

People will likely know your name, where you work, and if they have any relationship to you, before you’ve even met them once, and although this might seem painful or scary at first, the key to surviving is understanding that this comes from a position of curiosity.

The good part is that you have the opportunity to share your culture and language, allowing you to become part of community. This is something which is much more difficult to do in a larger city and just one of the things that makes living in the inaka special.

Next time on Surviving the Inaka: Learning Japanese – Tips for making the most of the fact that no one speaks English and the best ways to immerse yourself in a new language.

This is the first article in Alex’s “Surviving the Inaka” six-part series. To read more:

Do you live in the inaka? Have you had similar experiences? What do you think are the reasons for foreigner celebrity status in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

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British teacher, Japan explorer and writer. I will exchange witty jokes for Marmite.
  • Bernie O'Mahony says:

    17 years in rural Yamaguchi and I still feel their eyes on me as I walk down the street in my own town! Cities like Hiroshima and Fukuoka though? Love going there because no-one looks at you twice!

  • Vv says:

    I live in the Chiba inaka. And pretty much everything you’ve said, the good and the bad, I’ve experienced. I would have to say that it is mostly older folks who want to basically stalk you or hangout with you all the time. Younger adults seem to have their own lives / perhaps more used to having an ALT in their school. It’s interesting to see more and more students who are half- or not not asian, who are certainly japanese, but don’t fit old peoples’ stereotype of a Japanese person. I both am happy that Japan seems to be changing, but also, my heart goes out to those students who are likely caught between two worlds — even if they grew up in Japan — simply by having a foreign mom or dad.

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      Hey Vv, sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I’d have to agree. Thinking back, most of the extreme examples were from elderly people (although I did get my fair share of young people/children starring at me as I walked to 7/11 for the fifth time that day). Since coming to Tokyo I’ve been teaching a lot more “half” Japanese students, and I have to agree – unfortunately, it must be a strange situation for them to be in. I never really got to see its effects in the inaka though. Thanks for your comment.

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