A ‘Gaijin’ Woman’s Challenges in Japan

Yesterday, I was invited to speak at an International Forum in Japan. It was the first time that I didn’t feel like a ‘foreigner’ in this country. I felt like a human being having a chat with other human beings. What a rare experience it is in Japan. It was also the first time someone pushed me to give my genuine opinion about life in the land of the rising sun. 

I am not a tourist. I’ve been living here for close to two and a half years. And no – I do not live in an expat bubble. At work, I am the only ‘foreign’ staff member. I am not married to anyone Japanese. Even amongst ‘foreigners’, I am an outsider. A majority of foreigners in this country are either white, Chinese, Korean or Filipino. I’m a brown girl from Singapore who is a ‘third culture kid‘. 

Today – I’m finally going share some of the challenges I’ve faced in this country. As someone who comes from a lot of cultures and no culture in particular – my purpose in writing this is not to offend anybody but to share my personal experiences. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, my only hope is to talk about things openly to create some much-needed cross-cultural understanding. 

Common questions Japanese people ask me

1. Why do foreigners never stay in Japan? Why do they suddenly quit their jobs and go home?

Because we are not given the opportunities to make a meaningful contribution in this country. We are treated like outsiders. There is no genuine dialogue. Barely anyone asks us about the challenges we face and what could be done to keep us around. 

If we have jobs – we’re just expected to be there even when we have a fever. No one actually stops to realise that our families are far away and how badly some of us need the companionship of people who can empathise with what we go through. 

Most people don’t walk out of a happy situation. Unhappy people run for their lives.

2. Do you like Japan? Do you like Japanese food/men/onsen/shrine/insert noun of choice?

Most locals – regardless of where they are from – want to hear how much you love their country. Nevertheless, I have always always believed that you don’t ask questions that you don’t want answers to. I’ve lived in four countries and visited all the continents except Antarctica. 

Yes – I do like Japan. Do I think it’s the best place in the world? No comment. 

Hello! I’m the ‘token’ foreigner friend.

The next time one of my Japanese friends calls me a ‘foreigner’, I’m lowering their status from ‘friend’ to ‘acquaintance’. I didn’t mind the term so much when I first moved to Japan. But now that I’ve lived here for a while – it drives me nuts. 

Many people treat ‘gaijin’ friends as souvenirs. You may be the only foreign friend they have. They may even be more honest about their true feelings with you than with a fellow Japanese person. They may like you. Heck – they may even love you.

But most of them will never see you as an equal human being. To the average Japanese person, you are an outsider. You are not family. You are not a colleague. You come last in the hierarchy. You are a novelty item. You usually have to make ALL THE EFFORT to get to know them. 

And you do know, I’m a teacher, right? Asking me to correct your English and go through your essays on my day off – is selfish as hell. Find another token gaijin. I have better things to do on the Sabbath. 

The spotlight without the limelight

Everyone is always looking at me, but no one actually sees me. 

People stare at me all the time. They make comments on my appearance. On my clothes. On my behaviour. On the food that’s in my bento. About how I hold my chopsticks the Chinese way. ALL DAY LONG, I have to hear how everything about me is not Japanese.

Yet – when I open my mouth, people are surprised by my near perfect imitation of the Kanto accent. I AM SO SICK OF HEARING – nihongo wa jyozu des ne. Your Japanese is so good. Can you please ask me a real question?

Everyone in Japan has studied English. Many of them even score highly in the EIKEN exam. But having an actual natural conversation in English with some people is just … Lets just say, I know LOADS of other expats in Japan who don’t speak Japanese and I don’t know how they manage. 

Concluding Remarks 

I’m not naive. I know every country comes with its gifts and challenges. Ultimately, I am here by choice. I’ve had several opportunities to leave Japan. But I haven’t truly wanted to say yes to a single one. I have a lot more to say, but since this is a blog post and not a book, I’ll stop here for now. 

Yesterday was the first time since coming to Japan that I didn’t feel like a foreigner. I truly do love this country – and it is my hope that I will feel less like a foreigner in the days to come. It is then and only then that I might consider staying here for the long haul. 

Unfortunately, I do not know when that day will come. Life is short – and patience isn’t one of my virtues.