As an American who moved to Japan as an adult, mid-career, it didn’t take me long to conclude 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. The American spirit of individuality conflicts with the Japanese preference for community harmony. Americans are often informal and friendly even with strangers, while for Japanese there tend to be protocols for interpersonal interaction depending on the circumstances. Americans drive on the right, Japanese on the left. 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 diversity of the populace. For instance, in the United States, you could hop off your plane from pretty much any country in the world, and there are going to be people who look like you somewhere nearby, at least in a city. People you meet may expect that you’re a U.S. citizen, and they will almost certainly assume you speak English unless and until they find out you don’t. (If you don’t speak English, there are a wide variety of possible reactions Americans might have when they find this out, 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 is a little data on the subject. I will not be offended if you find it boring and skip down a couple 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 U.S. Census Bureau handles the Hispanic population in a way that makes it hard to put into context. The way the Census Bureau measures the group, it is about 15% of the population but it overlaps completely with the other categories. And finally, 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, we’re kind of a big ol’ melting pot.

Now let’s take a look at Japan, where things are significantly different. According the CIA World Factbook entry on Japan, the population here is 98.5% ethnic Japanese. 98.5%! That’s a pretty overwhelming proportion. Moreover, 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 shrinking, is about 127 million as of the time of this writing, so 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.

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

Hell, even in my neighborhood in the 38-million-strong Greater Tokyo metro, I’m often 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., part of the 80% of the American 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.

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

What I found particularly interesting about this fact of life in Japan is that in many ways, the results are positive from the gaijin perspective. For example, take the neighborhood festivals that take place throughout the country 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 the 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. Because foreigners are relatively rare 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 to say hello, and sometimes practice speaking English with me, and, more importantly, I get offered lots of free drinks. Sometimes standing out from the crowd comes with benefits.

Speaking of practicing English conversation, one amusing incident happened shortly after my arrival. Among themselves, Japanese people tend to be reserved around strangers, seldom striking up a conversation with someone at random in public, which is viewed as weird behavior. That stoic demeanor can fly right out the window when a foreigner is thrown into the mix, though. I remember walking down the street toward the train station a couple years ago, and 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 smiled and said, in elegantly accented English, “Good afternoon.” He continued on his way without waiting for a response, probably thinking, “Nailed it!”*

As a guy who usually likes to fit in, one source of anxiety for me living here is that Japan is a country where social order is very important. As a result, there is a long, unwritten list of rules for professional and social behavior. Respect for elders is so ingrained that even younger high school students defer to upperclassmen. “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 a confused expression. And wear the wrong slippers into the bathroom and people will look at you like they caught you eating out of the toilet. Trying to remember the finer points of civilized behavior can be a bit of a daunting task for even the most well-meaning foreigner.

I know that we Americans are known for not being big on rules, and actually admiring people who play by their own. Lack of conformity to social pressure is frequently considered a virtue in the west, and a lot of the time I very much 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. These things happen.

My dirty little secret, though, is that 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 like to admit it back in the U.S., but I really do like that these rules exist. What I don’t like 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. There are rules of behavior here in Japan that don’t seem to exist anywhere else. 200 years of isolation from the rest of the world (1641-1853) can lead to such things, after all. And it is exactly for that reason that we gaijin tend to get a “pass” on the whole “social order” thing. In fact, foreigners are almost expected to screw up the particulars of certain social interactions, and if we don’t some people can actually find that off-putting in itself.

This whole situation reminds of when I was a kid, and sometimes the neighbor’s dog would get into our house. He wasn’t poorly behaved, but he was a dog after all, so he didn’t really follow all of our rules, per se. It didn’t matter, though, because I knew that after he was finished livening up our day, he would eventually wander back outside and life would return to normal. It’s kind of like that.

Please 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 have something to say about that, I’m sure. People who are half-foreign and half-Japanese – literally called “half” (haafu, ハーフ) – have their own set of experiences. I am not minimizing any of that.

I also know there are certain business establishments in Japan where foreigners are simply not allowed. Sometimes it’s a small local “Japanese only” restaurant. In Tokyo, it’s often a “no foreigners” club in the red light district. I’ve never seen one myself (of course!), but recently taken photos of “No gaijin allowed!” signs are pretty easy to find online. The undertone can be sinister, to say the least.

The closest I’ve come personally to experiencing something like this was at a little craft beer pub in Tokyo, and it was only a trivial incident. I was with a Canadian friend, sitting outside in the cool evening air having a drink, 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.” They went back inside to finish their beverages in safety. Kind of gross, but in the grand scheme of things not that big a deal.

What my own admittedly sheltered experiences have shown me is really just that it doesn’t matter how well I ever learn to speak Japanese or follow Japanese customs. 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.


* 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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