So I’ve been living in Japan for about two and a half months now, so I’ve had time to gather my thoughts on the whole thing. I think I should start out by saying that it’s fairly obvious who the foreigners are in Japan. I’ve heard from my East Asian (namely Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean) friends that they can usually pass for Japanese, but everyone else stands out. For someone that was born and raised in the United States like myself, this lack of diversity was quite a shock when I first arrived. Walking around the streets in Japan feels like you have a big, lit-up sign over your head that says “THIS PERSON IS NOT FROM HERE”.
You may be wondering, “how do they treat foreigners in Japan?” Well, it’s not all that bad. The city where I’m in, Kyoto, is filled with tourists so most people are accustomed to dealing with foreigners at this point. They’re usually very polite and understanding, but there’s a huge language barrier. Because of this, sometimes Japanese can come off as a little…cold. Even if they want to be friendly and say something, they can’t.
But what’s it like for me, someone who can speak the language (kind of)? Well, it’s frustrating. I really want to practice my Japanese, but I’m often not given the chance. If I approach someone and speak Japanese, whether it be ordering food at a restaurant or asking for directions on the street, my Japanese has to be perfect. If I stutter even the slightest, or if I forget or mix up a word, the person I’m speaking to usually resorts to their very bad English. Then I have to say “bye bye” to my Japanese practice because I’m only getting answers in English. I don’t really blame them, you know? Most foreigners learn a couple of Japanese phrases and never really go past that. So it’s understandable, but still frustrating.
The last thing I want to touch upon is the long list of unspoken rules that Japanese culture has. Here, I’ll give you a few examples. When you get on an escalator, you have to stand on the left hand side so that people in a hurry can walk on the right. It’s considered rude to talk on your phone on the subway. Pretty standard so far, right? Well, there are other, more complicated rules. For example, if you go out to dinner with one of your peers that is older than you, it’s considered appropriate for you to fill up their water glass when it’s getting empty. And if you go to one of those cool restaurants where you cook the meat yourself, the younger person is supposed to be the one turning the meat. And the list goes on and on. But, if you’re a foreigner, you don’t have to follow half of that! Like I said before, the Japanese are very understanding, and as long as you’re not going out of your way to be a dick, you should be fine.
All in all, being a foreigner in Japan is pretty decent. There’s not that much expected out of foreigners, so it’s pretty easy to impress people. I went to the store the other day and I was looking at tea cups when a worker approached me and said “That nice cup.” (Remember, their English isn’t that good) I responded in Japanese with, “Yes, I like it very much. How much does it cost?” Pretty basic stuff, but it was enough to get a “oh you’re Japanese is so good!” in response. And that felt pretty good.