On being Asian-American in Japan

Now that I have internet, there’s going to be more photos coming up on my tumblr! Feel free to check it out. 

Japan is a very homogeneous place. It’s historically been isolated. It’s very difficult for foreigners to obtain Japanese citizenship. As a result, the large majority of people here are, naturally, Japanese.

As a result, Japanese people have an odd fascination with non-Japanese people, known as 外人(gaijin, literally “foreign person.”) We’re rare, after all. Groups like mine—with 18 college gaijin—get lots of attention. Little kids and middle schoolers in particular enjoy staring at us.

People have even taken photos of us.

Japanese people, as I’ve experienced, don’t expect gaijin to know any Japanese. Like, at all. So, unlike America, where we expect everyone to know English, saying any Japanese to a Japanese person them induces shock.

If you’re white in Japan, then, any effort is appreciated. But what if you’re not white? What if you’re Asian, like me, who at first glance could pass as a Japanese girl? I’ve been told that Asians that are in Asian countries, but cannot speak the native language, are totally rejected. I expressed my worries to a friend of mine:

Which, for the most part, has proven to be true. Except I mentioned before that I had a really bad cold, the worst I’ve had in years. I was coughing and sneezing and hacking and sniffing, hoping to god I wouldn’t get any of my fellow students sick. And in fact, there was a way I could prevent it. A very common thing in Japan, when one is sick, is to wear a hospital mask:

This way, the afflicted does not spread their germs. So I decided: Why not? When in Rome…

I wore the mask for a couple days, throwing the people around me into confusion.

Cashiers assumed I was Japanese, and didn’t hesitate to speak their language rapid-fire at me:

The best was when my group went to watch a sumo wrestling tournament, however. The guy at the ticket booth was handing out programs in both Japanese and English. To the rest of the kids, he automatically handed them an English flyer. But when I came up, he paused:

Otherwise, though, I haven’t experienced much trouble. Thank goodness! And now I’m better, so the mask is off. Besides, as soon as I open my mouth, people can pretty much tell I’m a foreigner.

My goal by the end of this trip is to be able to pass as a Japanese girl for 30 seconds. Think I can pull it off?

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8 thoughts on “On being Asian-American in Japan

  1. Love this! The mask thing is great. Grace had mentioned something about this when she went to Hiroshima last year.

    I think you’ll DEFINITELY be able to pull off Japanese for thirty seconds. I’m already impressed. XD

    • Hahahaha hopefully! I think my big problem is understanding Japanese… everyone speaks so fast! I can only pick out certain words and phrases– but maybe by the end, I’ll get better 😀

  2. Pingback: On being American in Japan | I think in comics.

  3. Pingback: Breathing is irrelevant in a Japanese kimono | I think in comics.

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