What it feels like to be a foreigner in Japan

What is it like living in Japan as a foreigner?

My thoughts on this are much more qualitative (how it feels) than quantitative (measured across the spectrum of foreigners from different home countries).

I think there’s two ways I could approach this question:

First, the usual approach focuses on the Japanese and how they perceive and interact with foreigners.

Within this perspective, it’s remarkably easy to start making assumptions about how the Japanese treat people from various countries: Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Americans, English, etc. In fact, you could get really granular and separate out Americans, British, Canadians, Aussies, and other mostly caucasian countries, because they are fundamentally different, and in the last year, thanks to the current American President (I write this going into 2018 after Trump’s first volatile year in office), I can absolutely say that Americans are now perceived differently than before Trump. I hear it in conversations all the time, nearly every day. And this isn’t just anecdotal - these perceptions have been identified in statistically valid surveys and studies this past year, and are typically found in journals like the Japan Times.

I don’t like this approach because it creates too many opportunities for someone to fall prey to the fundamental attribution error. For example, just today the Japan Times reported that Japanese authorities rounded up 341 asylum seekers that were working illegally in Japan, with a variety of conditions including overstaying past their visa limitations. The top four largest groups of foreign nationals, over 80% of the 341, were from Vietnam, Thailand, China (not specific) and the Philippines. It would be really easy to draw a false conclusion based on that one fact and claim that the Japanese are treating other neighboring countries unfairly because of the disproportionate percentage of illegal workers from those countries. And that claim would be pure bunk, because there are a lot of other factors. How many Americans and British sought asylum? The two represented here answering this question came voluntarily and for great, high-quality business and career opportunities.

The approach I prefer to take is qualitative.

It’s much more fun and much more interesting and, I would argue, much more revealing to go deep and ask foreigners how do you feel living in Japan? How do you feel about the way Japanese people treat you?

It’s much more interesting because of one very peculiar and eye-opening observation:

Across the board, Japanese are very, very consistent, even in spite of differing individual personality types.

This is because Japanese society operates in an incredibly consistent manner, at least in the past few decades, and grooms young Japanese from an early age to understand what is expected of them within Japanese society. As an amateur social psychologist, I’m keenly aware that Japanese have all the same personality profile types that Westerners and other foreigners have, but the manifestation and presentation of those personalities is way, way muted and toned down. In fact, sometimes it’s next to impossible to tell the difference between a wall flower and a driven executive type just from the first few meetings. Look up the Japanese social practice of honne and tatemae, one’s true inner feelings versus the socially tuned controlled expression, respectively, and you’ll understand more how being treated differently as a foreigner may actually be difficult to detect, even if it’s happening.

With foreigners, what is variable are personality types, but what is consistent is how openly (and sometimes agressively) they can express themselves, their satisfaction or dissatisfaction, etc., openly and often quite loudly.

From my perspective, Chinese and Koreans have more in common with Americans than they do with each other or with the Japanese. I come from Irvine, California, where all of these groups - mostly expatriates - live and work together. Foreigners in general, especially those new to Japan, tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves, they react, often without consideration for the social norms and tatemae behaviors that are genuinely expected by all Japanese. Of course, there are also Japanese who behave this way too, but if you take a person from Orange County, California or the West side of LA who reacts to something they don’t like by being loud and obnoxious here in Japan, they’re certainly setting themselves up for being treated differently.

One thing I’m very curious about is how well an asian foreigner in Japan who speaks Japanese very well can blend in and even be somewhat invisible. Obviously there are issues that will inevitably come up based on place of birth and citizenship, but these are much more macro issues that I don’t ever see on a day to day basis interacting with Japanese here. That said, it is complicated. I can’t pretend to be Japanese, even if I'm silent. I wake up every day, go out, and go home and go to bed wearing my gaijin (foreigner) face.

I see this as an opportunity to not dwell on how the Japanese treat me, but to better understand how and why they think and behave like they do with foreigners. For example, and a Starbucks in Okamoto today I moved my chair over about 3cm so another customer could comfortably take the chair to my right, and when I did I said one word: “sumimasen” (politely excusing myself). She immediately and visibly reacted in what would appear to be almost ridiculously obsequious way, exclaiming out loud in Japanese “oh my, you speak Japanese!”

I said one word.

And the word is probably in the top 10 words used daily by Japanese out and about. The point is, it’s not necessarily obsequious, and the obligation is on me, a foreigner, to go deep and learn why that kind of reaction happens even after hearing the utterance of one Japanese word by someone like me, a white guy. And especially interesting is that I’m in Kobe, probably the most progressive city in all of Japan. I work out at a Crossfit box with Indians and British and others who were born and raised here and speak Japanese natively.

It’s complicated, isn’t it?

All that said, here’s my brief opinion of what it’s like to live in Japan as a foreigner:

I love living in Japan as a foreigner.  And even more specifically, I love living in Kobe.

I’m treated with respect on a day to day basis far more than I ever was in Southern California. I usually could care less about prejudices people may harbor.  People keep that to themselves anyway. What I do care dearly about is making the best possible impression on everyone I meet. I go out of my way every day to learn more of the language. And I must remain open minded and childlike in paying attention to what manners and behaviors and requirements are expected of me. When you do this, you avoid being frustrated and it opens up your eyes to some very wonderful aspects of living in Japan.

Let me share one recent experience as an example:

I failed my first driver’s license driving test about a month ago. And I was mad. Really, really mad. On the inside. Why? I am licensed to drive cars and motorcycles in California. We drive 110 kilometers per hour (70 miles per hour) almost everywhere there. Here in Kobe the typical speed limit is 40–50 kph. How could I fail?

I sucked up my pride and my wife and I hired a professional driving instructor. He was the driving school equivalent of the kung fu master in Kill Bill. I spent three hours with him, and now I drive 10X better and more safely than I ever have. I passed the test on the second round, while watching other students drive into gutters and over curbs, again.  I am learning every day to swallow what I believe is a pretty strong American trait: Assumed pride.

The first time I failed it the test was because I was going to fast. There was nothing more too it: I was going too fast. It doesn’t matter if I feel I can drive safely at faster speeds (which I did). And it’s doesn't matter if the police officer harbored any negative sentiments about foreigners (he didn't). I was just going too fast.  Everyone learns to obey the rules, whether they like it or not. And at the end of the day I’m happy that automobile-related fatalities are less than half of where I lived in California. Now I practically understand why where before it was a conceptual observation about Japanese driving safety. As a dad and husband I feel really good about this.

What are your thoughts on how it is to live in Japan as a foreigner?  Let me know in the comments.  And as always, you can find me on twitter @japaneur and on instagram @japaneur.  And make sure you sign up for updates here so I can get ahold of you about really cool things I have coming up related to Japan (it's free).