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!