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Life as an East Asian in Japan

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

(this is purely my own experience)

Lots of foreign people who has lived in Japan will tell you that Japanese people are really not used to seeing "foreign people". They often "freak out" or is overly fascinate by simply the sight of them. To be honest, I'm not sure how true that is anymore, especially in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. The foreign population in Japan is only growing, and as most job opportunities (outside of teaching) are in big cities, I would have to argue that they shouldn't react twice as much as they did before.

To be fair though, it's not something I can relate to.

Yes, I'm foreign. But I don't look foreign. And while we absolutely do "blend in" (for the most part), Japanese people often get more confused by us, than those who are "visibly foreign".

That's not to say it's really a bad thing. But their lack of understanding can sometimes lead to rather interesting conversations, and perhaps borderline offensive - depending on what type of person you are.


Are you... Japanese?

I showed up at orientation at my first ALT job in 2014. This was sort of the first time you meet one of your Japanese Teachers of English (JTE) - one of your teaching partners, and you get to introduce yourself, learn a bit about your schedules and your school bit more.

My supervisor walks in with me to one of these sessions, and of course, I thought it would be more polite to start off speaking Japanese (like よろしくお願いします。) instead of English. So I bowed, spoke the Japanese and sat down. There were a lot of curious faces then. I wouldn't say it's confusion, but just more of a "but she's Asian, can she really speak the American English we want?" sort of thing. Then my supervisor does a brief introduction of their company and tells everyone in the room my name and where I was from (Canada).

I guess knowing that I was from Canada brought some relief because I definitely saw some sighs of relief that Canada = English speaking country = I can speak English.

The mental gymnastics I must have caused.

I then preceeded to do a short introduction in English and in Japanese, as advised by my supervisor as a curtesy. I told them I was Chinese-Canadian which seemed to have put the mystery of my origins to rest. It's not that I don't think they've never seen an East Asian speak English, but I simply just think that they often associate western countries like Canada to have only western looking people. So I as sort of a rarer breed at the time. And if you think about it, 2014 wasn't exactly a time when a lot of Asian people appeared in English media so there were still tons of learning moments to be had.

The same JTE later told me that she was 100% convinced I was Japanese and I take that as a compliment. :p

Speaking Preferences

If you’re the Asian friend with your foreigner expat friends, I’m 100% sure you’ve experienced this. If you are ordering something, or paying for something, the Japanese staff will always default to you as your friends’ spokesperson. Even though you aren’t Japanese.

It’s probably because they are more comfortable with the East Asian face. Which more or less looks similar to the Japanese. I think this old youtube video is still extremely relevant and summarizes the experience perfectly:

The Bar is Set Very High for You

Because I was Japanese-passing due to being of East Asian descent, Japanese people often assumed I understood things when I didn't. Or if there was a western foreigner around, they'll think you'd understood whatever the assignment was better than your counterpart (but in actuality, it's sometimes the opposite).

The Honeymoon Phase was Short, If Any

There was a time when I was on the subway with a western friend. She was visibly foreign, and we had been speaking English the entire time of course. We were just sitting on the train, minding our own business when a Japanese man comes up to us and hands my friend an origami crane.

"For you. Welcome to Japan!" he said to my friend before getting off our train and waved.

After the interaction, we laughed and joked at how random that was and how we had already been living in Japan for 3 years and people would still approach her like this.

The entire time I was also thinking, "WHERE IS MY ORIGAMI??"

Not that I actually cared for one, but it's not like I wasn't a foreigner either...... "oh wait, but was it because I looked Japanese?"

(realistically it could be that I just wasn't hot enough lol)

As a visibly foreign person in Japan, I think this kind of interaction and hospitality often lasts the entire time you are here and never quite goes away. Whereas many people wouldn't immediately think I was a tourist or a guest to the country, and the interaction is null. Certainly, there are pros and cons. If you just started living here as a visibly foreign person, it can be a nice and sweet gesture. Been in Japan for 10 years and people still treat you like a guest, I ought to think that can be a bit defeating. Definitely a win for being East Asian there! ;)

I don't think there is much of a point I want to ring home tonight. But I just think that it's always been interesting to me how being "foreign" can differ in experience in Japan just by looks. And that often times the "problems" other English speaking foreigners run into don't really apply to me.

I don't know. If you're East Asian, what are your experiences on being foreign in Japan? Is it different? Share your experiences with us in the comments or on twitter with us!

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