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.
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.
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:
- Part 1: Dealing with foreigner celebrity status
- Part 2: Learning Japanese
- Part 3: Making your own fun
- Part 4: Teaching in a countryside classroom
- Part 5: The best and worst things about living in rural Japan
- Part 6: Leaving the countryside for the city
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!