Epilogue – Being a Foreigner in Japan

Consider this an epilogue of sorts. Four months in Japan is a long time, relatively at least. For someone who has never left the country, never traveled alone, and especially never lived alone, it feels like forever. However even as the trip came to an end, I knew that my experience only scratched the surface of what others have been through.

Some of my friends here have been studying since last September, meaning their return marked the conclusion to a year-long trip. Having spent about seventeen weeks dumping all my thoughts and experiences into this blog, I figured it would be nice to look a bit outward and do some research.

In this essay I will endeavor to report the experience of being a foreigner in Japan, contrasting my experience with the accounts of those I’ve grown close to along with some statistical information and stories I’ve found online.

Prior to coming to Japan, I was under the impression that there was an ongoing discussion about immigration in Japan and that perception of foreigners was mixed. I figured that the view of tourists was more positive though and that this view mainly held true of foreigners living in America. I myself wasn’t too worried, but you never know what kinds of characters you’ll run into.

As it turns out, that fear wasn’t necessarily warranted, both because the numbers disagree with that notion and because the nature of Japanese society leads people to be very polite in many cases. A survey by Nikkei Asian Review found that “74% of respondents reported an increase in the number of foreigners in their workplaces and neighborhoods.” (Kono)

To my surprise, 66% view it as a positive, with less than three for every 10 people viewing the change as bad. “The findings reflect hopes that foreigners will make up for labor shortages and lend social support as Japan’s population dwindles and ages,” according to the survey. (Kono)

This positive view of foreigners is mostly reflected in the younger demographics, with “80% of 18- to 29-year-olds welcoming the development.” Even in higher demographics, 71% of the 40 year-old demographic see it as a good thing, “while just over half (52%) of those in their 70s said the same.” (Kono)

All this being said, the reception isn’t entirely open acceptance of foreigners, but more often resignation towards an unavoidable outcome. “While 27% of all respondents said such workers should be strongly welcomed, the largest share, 55%, said the increase was undesirable but unavoidable.” (Kono)

After four months, I can safely say I never felt as though I was ever unwelcome or on the receiving end of racism. I considered, however, that my limited time here could have been a factor, or that I was just lucky. Because of this, I decided to get the perspective of people who have been here longer.

Firstly, I spoke with Erik Gruber, the head of the English Lounge at Nagoya Gakuin’s Taiho campus, who has been working in Japan for 12 years. The second was my friend Tom Verderbruggen, who hails from Alaska and who was studying at NGU since September of 2018 before returning around the same time as me.

I started my questioning broad, asking them what they liked and didn’t like given their time there. Tom was quite taken with Nagoya. He appreciated how comparitively quiet it was to bigger cities like Tokyo. Being from Alaska, Tom has an appreciation for nature and prefers places like Nagoya to big cities because there is more greenery. It’s that same reason for why he loves the countryside of Japan, a sentiment I too share after my visit to Gifu.

Erik was a bit more casual in sharing his thoughts on living in Japan. “I wouldn’t have lived here for twelve years if I didn’t enjoy it,” he told me. For the first few years, he said that everything was amazing and new, but that like with anything, things became natural as the years pass.

Erik was adamant that he did not enjoy not having a car and that Japan’s public transportation wasn’t as perfect as some claim. “This idea that the trains are always on time… it’s not true,” Erik explained. He didn’t deny it had its charm though, something which Tom was very receptive of, given his circumstances.

“Public transportation is amazing. I’ve never lived in a place with a metro,” exclaimed Tom. After getting used to it myself, I think I find myself in agreement with Tom on this subject, but I imagine that Erik’s view of Japan’s metro might be influenced by his experience with American public transportation and the benefits of having a car.

In regards to the people of Japan, both Erik and Tom observed a similar behavior in Japanese people, particularly students. Japanese people are more typically guarded when it comes to their emotions and deep personal aspects. Contrasted with America, where people often speak their mind, this is a change that is easily noticeable.

Erik recalled a metaphor he had heard that we both agreed described Japanese people very well. Japanese people are like coconuts, while Westerners are like peaches. On the outside, Japanese are guarded, but as soon as you crack the shell, they will share all sorts of things about themselves. It is getting to that point that can be hard and Japan’s drinking culture is heavily influenced by this concept of breaking the shell.

Both interviewees were very satisfied with their time living in Japan, and had pinpointed areas which the people of Japan differed greatly. However, I wanted to know if either of them had experienced any prejudice against them or felt that they weren’t welcome.

Erik was quite forthcoming with a firm “no.” Apart from one run in with a drunk guy flipping him and his friend off, Erik affirmed that in his twelve years working in Japan, he never felt unwelcome. Tom couldn’t think of an instance either, which tracks with the statistics mentioned earlier.

A lot of this could have to do with America’s influence on the culture, as both interviewees hail from the USA. I stress this because both subjects and I have noticed that American culture is everywhere. “Every third person has a dodger’s hat on” cited Erik. In my first weeks, I was surprised how much American music was played on radios in shops and at school by other students my age.

So, because American culture is so prevalent, oftentimes a lot of people look to Americans rather enthusiastically and ask many questions about life in America out of curiosity. Erik described this as a form of “polite racism,” the kind that tends to attribute stereotypes to a foreign group. It hasn’t bothered me in any way, but it is certainly noticeable.

I can’t help but feel foreigners of other countries or minority groups may not have as warm a welcome though. An article by Asahi.com brought together several foreigners who shared far more depressing stories of their interactions with the Japanese. Paudel Baburam from Nepal cited an incident in which an old man who fell “alleged that [Baburam] pushed him, forcing [him] to be interrogated at a police station.” (Asahi)

I’ve often heard stories about how people of non-Japanese descent who were born an raised in Japan are seen as foreigners because they don’t LOOK Japanese. This type of racism is still prevalent and while it isn’t as hostile in many cases, it speaks to a part of Japan’s philosophy on foreigners that Erik summed up thusly…

“You are a foreigner, and you always will be.”

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