Thoughts on Being a Foreigner in Japan

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.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Being a Foreigner in Japan

  • July 20, 2017 at 7:56 pm
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    This is a cool post about Japan and it was interesting reading your input on it. I actually grew up in Japan and you may be able to tell from my name that I am not Japanese. I’ve been planning to visit this beautiful country once again, but haven’t had the opportunity to.

    I don’t know how much Japanese you have learned before, but the reason why Japanese people will resort to “broken” English if they notice a foreigner speaking “broken” Japanese is because Japanese is a language where intonation or pronunciation is very important. You could have a word that is spelled the same in Hiragana, but it is differentiated using Kanji and is pronounced slightly differently. The pronunciation may be very intimate or subtle. Japanese people are very good at this because they grew up speaking the language. Therefore, to fuse the confusion Japanese people try to speak English. But, I don’t know… this is just my theory…

    I hope that you do continue to practice Japanese, the country is a modern day beauty in terms of language and culture.

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  • July 20, 2017 at 9:15 pm
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    Wow. It seems like there is just a complete culture shock going to a country that is just so much different than the USA. I actually have a friend who experienced a lot of the similar problems as you. I think hearing about all the different social etiquettes that vary in Japan is incredibly humorous. I can only imagine having someone getting mad at you for something so simple as standing on the wrong side of the escalator. I would love to be able to travel to a country like Japan one summer!

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