われわれ日本人: We Japanese, You Gaijin

Which one of these things is not like the other?

I was recently asked to answer a few questions for the new website iShare-Japan about my experiences since I have moved to Japan. As some of you know, I have lived in Japan for almost a year; my so-called ‘Japaniversary’ will be on August 3rd. That’s no where near long enough to have developed a deeply nuanced understanding of Japanese culture (years of research on the country notwithstanding). I found this the most difficult question to answer: “What are some of the worst things about living in Japan?”

My mood routinely fluctuates between obscene love for Japan, disbelief that I am actually living here, and irrational frustration towards everything Japanese. The truth of the matter, though, is that living in Japan is now my daily life. That makes it difficult to identify if the problems I encounter are unique to my geographical/cultural location or merely representations of the difficulties everyone encounters from continuing to breathe.

Upon closer examination, I realized that there is a very easy way to depict the challenges I have faced since coming to Japan.

I am going to tell you something about myself that is readily apparent to anyone with eyes: I have been lucky enough to live a privileged life (and continue to do so). I come from an upper-middle class background, I attended a respected private university in the East Coast, and I conform to nearly every societal beauty standard without much difficulty – I am not fat, I am tall, I maintain a decent standard of athleticism, I have blonde hair, blues eyes, and, above all, I AM WHITE. In truth, the only institutionalized difficulty I may have faced in America is that I am female. And let’s face it, gender is less of an obstacle in America than most places in the world. That said, I’d also like to point out that the rest of the blog will be draw from my personal experiences, which are influenced by my privileged background. I cannot speak for anyone but myself.

What I’m getting at is that I have come from a culture of white privilege. Feminist writer Peggy McIntosh has written about the subject of white privilege extensively, and I will draw from her essay on the subject throughout this blog. She accurately sums up my life in America as such;

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.

When I moved to Japan, the privilege that I unconsciously lived with for my entire life was thrown out the window. I moved from being a member of ‘the dominant cultural form’ to being a minority. This will happen to everyone who moves to Japan who is not Japanese. Most of the complaints I hear from foreigners about living in Japan are directly related to this.

Peggy McIntosh outlines a list of 50 Daily Effects of White Privilege. All of these will be reversed when you move to Japan. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

Unless you are living in a large city in Japan (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto), you will no longer have this privilege. In my case, I am the only foreigner on the entire island and no longer have the luxury of being in the company of other foreigners unless I leave the island and go to Tokyo.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

This luxury will also disappear. There are many apartments and establishments in Japan that will not admit foreigners. This does not mean that as a foreigner you cannot find housing in Japan, it just means that your race and country of origin will pay a larger role in Japan than it (most likely) did back home.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

I am not implying that Japanese people are racist. But there are Japanese people who have learned or been taught to mistrust foreigners. If you live in Japan long enough, you will encounter these people.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

In my daily life, I am stared at constantly. I am stared at a work, in the grocery store, when I workout, and pretty much any time I leave my apartment. I have been approached, followed, and harassed by drunken Japanese men on a number of occasions. I have been groped. This is not only a function of my race, but also of my gender. This happens in my home country as well.

18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

This will disappear. Everything you do in Japan has the potential to not only reflect upon your race but upon all foreigners.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

Closely related to #18, this will also disappear when you move to Japan.

23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

It’s hysterical looking at this from the perspective of a foreigner in Japan. Everything you say here in Japan, be it positive, negative or neutral, will be attributed to your permanent status as an outsider.

25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

I have been pulled over while driving my car for the sole reason that I was white/foreign/gaijin.

27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

‘Isolated,’ ‘out-of-place,’ and ‘outnumbered’ are all words that you will be able to use to describe some of the experiences you will have in Japan.

33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.

This is probably also a function of my gender, but my body, shape, and body odor are regularly scrutinized. I have had Japanese women come up to me to compare the color of my pubic hair with theirs while in onsen (Japanese public baths). Men, you can look forward to having your penis size speculated upon.

39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.

Lateness will almost always be seen as a function of your status as gaijin.

50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

While I rarely feel completely ‘unwelcome,’ it is impossible to feel normal when you are the only person who does not natively speak Japanese, look Japanese or act Japanese for miles around.

This post is not meant as a criticism of Japan. I love Japan and at times feel like I am more nationalistic than most Japanese people. I will also be the first admit that my background has made some of these effects much more surprising to me. Living in Japan has opened my eyes to the invisible, unspoken of privileges I enjoyed back in America. And, in light of the fact that this list was originally oriented towards American culture, I am obviously not trying to imply that America is superior to Japan in any way. Every country and culture in the world has its own problems.

But, this is a realistic look at some of the difficulties you will experience when you move to Japan. Regardless of your experiences back in your home country, in Japan you are a foreigner. In many ways, ‘foreign’ is synonymous to ‘race’ in Japan. You are either Japanese or you aren’t. Japanese people are very sensitive to ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups.’ This is not racism, because these ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups apply to Japanese people as well – your family, your job, your school, etc. As a foreigner, you will need to accept the fact that you will belong to an ‘out’ group and the rest of the Japanese minzoku will be the ‘in’ group. It doesn’t matter how long you live in Japan, how fluent your Japanese is, or how nuanced your understanding of Japanese culture is. You will always be a foreigner in some aspect of your life in Japan. This will work to your advantage at times and your disadvantage at others.

And that’s all I have to say about that!

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Comments (26)

  1. atheistwithfaith

    Very interesting post. It’s obvious now you have drawn my attention to it, but I never really thought about some of those priveleges I might have being white in a white country.

    June 24, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I also never really thought about all the privileges I had back in America until I moved to Japan. Living in Japan has taught me to appreciate how comparatively easy my life was back home! I do think it’s important for us gaijin in Japan to realize that most Japanese people (having never traveled outside of the country or been exposed to many foreigners) also don’t consciously realize some of the privileges they enjoy within their home country. Rather than complaining about discrimination and/or racism, gaijin should take some time to think about how the institutions in most societies are set up to favor the dominant culture/race/ethnicity.

      June 24, 2010
  2. amannin

    Wow, how close did they get to you when comparing pubic hair color? If someone tried to touch me or my penis in any way while naked in a bathhouse well, I would probably be banned/arrested for breaking that person’s arm, hand, and or any other joints close enough for me to react to.

    Also, about being groped: was this at work, out in public, or on a train, or other? And was it full-on grabing, or being brushed up against? And do guys (white or otherwise) ever experience this?

    It’s always a pleasure to read your blogs, keep them coming 😀

    June 24, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      No one ever touches me in onsen without permission (I have let some female coworkers touch my tattoos, because they don’t realize that tattoos are slightly raised from the scarring). But Japan has a much different culture when it comes to public nakedness and body image than American culture (at least between members of the same sex). I’m not sure what it’s like for guys, but I have had male friends tell me stories about their young students (Elementary school age) suddenly coming up and trying to handle the family goods. =P

      Drunk old Japanese guys are a fixture of almost every festival/matsuri in Japan. I was in Koyasan in Wakayama-ken during the biggest festival of the year and was surrounded by a group of five drunk old men. One of them tried to ‘dance’ with me (which really just meant he tucked my arm under his for an oddly long amount of time) and another guy got really close and his hand magically materialized on my butt. I gave him a firm chastising in Japanese, told him to be careful and went on my way. Half an hour later they tracked me down again, their number having doubled, and gave me some candles. These perverted old men are considered fairly harmless in Japan (I certainly wasn’t scared or concerned) but you’ve got to make sure you don’t let them walk all over you. =)

      June 24, 2010
      • vanessa21

        I realize this is a very old post, but I’ve applied to JET so I’ve been trolling these old updates…I was under the impression that onsen did not allow tattooed guests. My Japanese instructor (an EXTREMELY older lady) claims it’s in order to keep out ruffians (yakuza). I don’t know how out of touch she is; she’s in her 70s and has lived permanently in the US for more than half of her life. Also, is it not difficult for women to find onsen that they’re allowed to use?? I’ve heard it mostly caters to men/businessmen. I only ask because I am a woman with a tattoo and I’ve kind of felt like these mark me (no pun intended) as one who will never enjoy the baths.

        November 4, 2012
  3. apple Ѽ

    What an interesting take on a question that gets asked of many JETs. Instead of just jumping on things that bothered you and are largely affected by mood, I liked how you broke it down by the things that can bother you are symptoms of some of those privileges being taken away.

    Ah, I couldn’t think of how to say that in a way that DIDN’T sound like a frickin’ summary, but I really did like this post. I was a soc major in college (so I eat this crap up, haha), and I just thought this was a unique look at the topic. 🙂

    June 27, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I often find myself wondering why life in Japan can sometimes be so challenging, even if I’m not dealing with specific problems. I hope that I was able to address some of the underlying, day-to-day challenges that foreigners can face when living in another country.

      July 13, 2010
  4. nessa

    I enjoy the article… its a great prep for what is to come for me this year. I am excited but also apprehensive and reading these posts helps put things in perspective.

    June 29, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      From what I’ve observed, the overall experience people have on JET is highly dependent on their placement. The biggest issue I have with my placement is that it is very very isolating, which can be extremely lonely. I hope that you have a bigger network of fellow JETs in your placement than I do in mine!

      July 13, 2010
  5. tsactuo

    It’s known as “ethnocentrism”.

    July 8, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      And sometimes as eurocentrism, something which my boyfriend likes to constantly accuse me of! =P

      July 13, 2010
  6. Matt Takeno

    As a Japanese-American dual national, I found the article quite interesting. I was born in the States, but never actually lived there until I was 18 when I attended college in California; I’ve also lived in Japan for 7 years when I was younger, and I’ve lived in various other countries, and I am currently living in France.

    When I was in the States, I found that sometimes, when I criticized public policy, the remarks I received had the connotation of ‘who are you to criticize what we do?’, and more often then not, I felt that I was discouraged from speaking my mind.

    When I’m in Japan, I tend to think that Japanese people around me tend to think that I’m not Japanese enough in the way that I think, etc., and I believe they classify me as an anomaly, yet, I’m probably more nationalistic then most. I’m neither Japanese nor a gaijin, so I get put into the ‘other’ box, whatever that may entail.

    The last time I went back to Japan, I struck up a conversation with a few Caucasian ‘foreigners’: one from Canada, and the other from the United States. They were in fact, both Japanese citizens. In the Canadian’s case, I picked up his accent and asked him what part of Canada he was from, and he took on an assertive tone and told me that he’s Japanese. ‘Fair enough, fine by me’, I thought.

    In fact, I tend to find the opinions of minorities in any country I happen to be in to be quite interesting, and I wouldn’t dare suppress anyone’s opinion on a country’s modus operandi whether they are part of it or not. Perhaps that’s just me, but I think in either case, both of my countries need to be more progressive and accepting in allowing all members of the community to feel welcome and share their thoughts without any fear of being told otherwise.

    July 26, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Thanks for your comment, Matt! I think your experience with the subject is extremely valuable. As a dual national, you probably have the ability to relate to both cultures better than foreigners can, yet it sounds like you also often find yourself in the role of ‘outsider’. In many ways, your situation reminds me of my boyfriend – he is Japanese and grew up in Japan but has now spent so much time in America that if he would ever move back to Japan he would no longer be considered ‘Japanese.’ However, he will never fully be ‘American’ either.

      Both America and Japan have much to improve on when it comes to the treatment and acceptance of foreigners. I would like both countries to become more open to the opinions and feelings of foreigners rather than dismissing them as irrelevant.

      August 10, 2010
  7. jaydeejapan

    First time reader, interesting post. I’ve been living in Japan for more than 5 years in and around Yokohama, so I know the area quite well. I’ve very rarely encountered any negative experiences here. I’m sure I have a completely different perspective, since I’m a man. I’m generally not stared at, and if I am, it’s usually old men staring at me. And in all of my time here, I’ve only once been told to get out of Japan by some stranger in a train station who also pushed me. But apart from that, no trouble.

    Anyway, good luck! Check out my blog about life in Japan, if you’re interested.

    September 7, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I’ve had very few negative experiences as well (with the exception of a particularly belligerent student). The staring certainly increases the further you get into the countryside…anyways, I was just trying to capture the general atmosphere of being a foreigner (and thus a minority) in a foreign country with this post. Just like in America, most of it is so subtle that it goes completely unnoticed.

      I posted a link to your blog on my page. Keep up the good work!

      September 7, 2010
      • jaydeejapan

        I think one thing that I couldn’t understand in Canada is what it felt like to be a minority. I know now. But many people in Japan don’t notice it at all.

        Thanks! I’ll link back to your blog 🙂

        September 7, 2010
  8. Daniel

    I am a 14 year old caucasian American, and a first time reader. I have always had an interest in Japanese culture. In fact, I’m urging my parents to let me to spend a year there as a foreign exchange student my sophomore year. I wondered how I would be treated by the people in Japan, being a white person. My dad actually explained how the Japanese are critical of outsiders. And, after reading your article, I feel that I am more prepared for what I will face during my trip, or even someday citizenship, to Japan. Thank you.

    September 28, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I’m not sure if the Japanese are necessarily ‘critical’ of outsiders (though some of them definitely can be), but they are definitely very aware of ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. I’m glad you found this post helpful. Good luck!

      October 10, 2010
  9. FragRock

    I wonder how the dynamics would change for a Native person visiting or choosing to live in Japan considering we’re seen as exotic others both here in the States and no doubt would be seen as an other in Japan. Would the notion of having a privileged status being broken still apply?

    March 31, 2011
  10. angrygaijin

    In no other way could this have all been better summed up~~ ;_;

    December 2, 2011
  11. Atsushi Torihata


    December 17, 2011
  12. Dr Blood

    I’ve encountered nearly everything you’ve said here (and a few worse things) as a white male Brit living in America. I think it’s just an ex-pat thing and isn’t peculiar to any one country.

    July 30, 2012
  13. 本道

    I just stumbled upon this post accidentally.
    I can relate to most you write about, it’s my second year in Japan.
    I know it’s tough.. but I hope it’s worth it.

    So, I just want to say: ファイト!

    April 15, 2013
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