As an American who moved to Japan as an adult, mid-career, it didn’t take me long to figure out that there are few places more different from one another than my home country and my adopted one. Indeed, entire books can be and have been written on the subject. For instance, the American appreciation for individuality conflicts with the Japanese preference for community harmony. Americans are often friendly and casual, even with strangers, while for Japanese there tend to be different levels of formality for interpersonal interaction that must be maintained. And also, Americans drive on the right while the Japanese Drive on the left. You know, important things like that. These differences are sometimes tough to deal with, but they’re usually instructive and they’re always interesting.

One of the most obvious ways that Japan differs from most Western countries is in the ethnic composition of the populace. In the United States, for instance, you can hop off a plane from pretty much any country in the world, and you’re going to see people who looks like you somewhere nearby, at least in a city. The people you meet will probably just assume that you’re a U.S. citizen, and they will almost certainly expect you speak English, unless and until they find out you don’t. (Oh, and if you don’t speak English, better be prepared for a wide variety of reactions from Americans, ranging from kind and accommodating to xenophobic and abusive.) Japan, on the other hand, is far more homogeneous with respect to culture, language and ancestry.

Here’s a little data on the subject. I won’t be offended if you find it boring and skip down a few paragraphs.

In the U.S., the population is pretty diverse.  According to the CIA World Factbook, which isn’t nearly as menacing as its title suggests it should be, here’s the deal on the U.S. We’re 80% white, 13% black, 4.5% Asian, just under 1% native American, and less than one-fifth of one percent native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. The Hispanic population is handled in a way that makes it tricky to put into context, but the way the Census Bureau measures it, this group is about 15% of the population and overlaps completely with the other categories. And while I don’t really like using the word “race” in this context since we’re all homo sapiens and it seems needlessly divisive, according to the U.S. government more than 1.5% of people in America are so-called “mixed-race.” Point being, the United States is just kind of a big ol’ melting pot.

Now let’s take a look at Japan, where things are decidedly different. According the CIA World Factbook entry on Japan, the population here is 98.5% ethnic Japanese. 98.5%! That’s a pretty overwhelming majority. The rest of the breakdown is 0.5% Korean and 0.4% Chinese, leaving just 0.6% for “other,” which in this context seems to simply mean “visually distinctive.”

Japan’s population, while declining, is about 127 million people as of this writing. This means that the black, white, Latin American, Pacific islander, etc., populations in the entire nation total around 762,000 people, or less than the population of San Francisco. So (non-East Asian looking) foreigners – or gaijin (外人), as we’re usually called here – tend to stand out in the crowd.

Moreover, the vast majority of these 762,000 noticeable foreigners reside in the major cities, like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. So if you head out to the countryside, you could go days without seeing another obviously foreign face.

Hell, even in my neighborhood in the 38-million-strong Greater Tokyo metro, I’m usually the only foreigner I see on any given morning’s commute, even on the region’s notoriously crowded trains. Being an American of German and English descent – i.e., a former member of the 80% of the U.S. population I mentioned above – this is a whole new experience for me. So if you like standing out and attracting curiosity, and you don’t look like you could be mistaken for a Japanese citizen, maybe give Japan a try.

Now, none of this is to say that we foreigners are treated with hostility or anything like that. Pretty much everyone I’ve run into has been pleasant and friendly, if occasionally curious, and almost all of my personal interactions have been quite benign. (Almost.) You do get the mildly annoying questions like, “Can you use chopsticks?” or, “Can you eat sushi?” that other bloggers before me have complained about. You also get the occasional gush of praise just for being able to say “thank you” or “good morning” in Japanese. But given what minorities have faced in certain other countries (ahem), it’s generally pretty harmless. For all practical purposes, what it means is that the gaijin will just always stand out from the crowd in Japan, no matter what.

It’s particularly interesting that this fact of life for the foreigner in Japan often has results that seem positive from the gaijin perspective. Take the neighborhood festivals that are held several times a year. Neighborhoods in Japan are usually very close knit, and we have frequent street festivals (matsuri, 祭) that provide a chance for everyone to come together and enjoy food and drink, games for kids, music, local sumo wrestlers pounding rice into mochi with big wooden hammers, and lots of other family friendly fun for young and old alike. And because foreigners are a rare sight in my neighborhood, everybody seems to know who I am. So at the matsuri my minority status actually works to my advantage. Lots of people want come up and say hello or practice their English with me, and more importantly, I get offered lots of free drinks. So you can see that standing out from the crowd is sometimes a plus.

Speaking of people practicing their English on you, one amusing incident happened here shortly after I arrived. Remember that, among themselves, Japanese people tend to be reserved around strangers, and most will not strike up a conversation with someone at random in public. That’s viewed as weird behavior. But that stoic demeanor can fly right out the window when a foreigner is thrown into the mix. A couple years ago I was walking down the street when an elderly gentleman coming the other way stopped dead in his tracks in front of me.  He looked at me for a moment in obvious surprise, then said, in elegantly accented English, “Good afternoon.” Then off he went on his way without waiting for a response, probably thinking, “Nailed it!” (1)

I’m a guy who usually likes to fit in, so one source of anxiety for me here is the fact that in Japan social order is very important. As a result, there is a long, unwritten list of rules for social and professional behavior. For instance, respect for one’s elders is so ingrained that even the younger students defer to upperclassmen. Also, “ladies first” isn’t really a thing here, so a man’s attempt to hold the door open for a woman might be met with confusion. And God help you if you wear the wrong slippers into the bathroom! People will look at you like they just caught you eating out of the toilet. Just trying to remember the finer points of civilized behavior can be a bit of a stretch for even the most well-meaning foreigner.

We Americans are known for not being too big on rules like these. We admire people who play by their own sets of rules. Lack of conformity to social pressure is often considered a virtue in the west, and I can appreciate that aesthetic. Everyone toeing the same line can be very frustrating. Individuality can be quashed, and those who march to their own drummers can face being ostracized, bullied or worse. This is one of the starkest contrasts between the two cultures.

I have a dirty little secret, though. I find the fact that Japanese society at least tries to govern itself by an elaborate and universal set of rules very comforting. I don’t always admit this, but I really do like that these rules exist.

What I don’t like, of course, is that even now I still don’t really know what all the rules are.

But here again, being an obvious foreigner can be turned into a positive. Japanese people know full well that foreigners aren’t going to be familiar with all their social peculiarities. The fact is that if you lock your entire country away from the rest of the world for 200 years, as Japan did from 1641 to 1853, a lot of customs and habits can evolve that don’t exist anywhere else. And it is exactly for that reason that we gaijin tend to get a pass on the whole “social rules” thing. In fact, foreigners are expected to screw up the particulars of certain interactions, and if we don’t some people can actually find that off-putting in itself.

This whole situation reminds of when I was young. When I was a kid, our neighbors had this big, cool dog, and sometimes the neighbor’s dog would get into our house. He was housebroken, and he wasn’t poorly behaved, but he was a dog after all, so he didn’t really follow all of our household customs, per se. That didn’t matter, though, because I knew that after he was finished livening up our day, eventually he would wander back outside and our lives could return to normal. It’s kind of like that. Gaijin are kind of like a neighbor’s dog.

Now, don’t think I’m trying to paint everything as being too rosy, or suggest that Japan has no racial issues of its own. The ethnic Koreans who have lived here for generations would definitely have something to say about that, for example. And people who are half-foreign and half-Japanese – literally called “half” (haafu, ハーフ) – have their own set of awkward experiences. I am not minimizing any of that.

I also know there are certain business establishments in Japan where foreigners are simply not allowed. It might be a small, local “Japanese only” restaurant. In Tokyo, maybe it’s a “no foreigners” club in the red light district (not that I would know anything about that, of course). recent photos of “No gaijin allowed!” signs are pretty easy to find online. The undertone can be quite sinister, to say the least.

About the closest I’ve come personally to experiencing something like this was at a favorite little craft beer pub in Tokyo, and it was teal Ly just a trivial incident. A Canadian friend and I were sitting outside in the cool evening air having a beer, when two Japanese women came out of the bar to do the same. One of them gasped, and said in Japanese, “Oh, there are white people (hakujin, 白人) out here,” and they went back inside to finish their beverages in relative safety. Kind of gross, but in the grand scheme of things not that big a deal.

Ultimately, what my own experiences have shown me is that it really just doesn’t matter how well I ever learn to speak Japanese or follow every little Japanese custom. The rest of the gaijin demographic and I will always be fish out of water here. But maybe that’s not always such a bad thing.


  1. As a matter of fact, this exact thing has happened to me twice, with different elderly gentlemen, both greeting me with, “Good afternoon”.  Maybe they were in the same English class as kids….
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