Life as an 'Outside Person'
An NPR Correspondent Describes How Foreigners Fare in Japan
Listen to Eric Weiner's report on Morning Edition.
Sept. 4, 2001 -- Because Japan was virtually isolated from the outside world for centuries, its population remained ethnically homogenous. Now, though, the number of foreigners living in Japan is growing -- and so are complaints of discrimination.
In the seaport city of Otaru, a sign outside a hot-springs bathhouse excludes all foreigners.
Photo: Olaf Karthaus and Dave Aldwinckle, courtesy of ISSHO
On Morning Edition, NPR's Tokyo Correspondent Eric Weiner reports that "Foreigners living in Japan face a number of daily indignities, from the merely annoying to the infuriating" -- everything from having to carry an ID card at all times, to being denied entry to some bars, shops and resorts.
During 10 years as an NPR correspondent, Weiner has lived in Jerusalem and New Delhi, and has traveled extensively through the
Middle East and Asia. In all that time, he says, he never experienced racism -- but in Japan, he is "constantly reminded of my foreign-ness." Exclusively for NPR.org, Weiner writes about his experiences as a foreigner in Japan today.
By Eric Weiner
You may have heard that the Japanese are blatantly racist. That they clearly don't like foreigners. Having lived here for more than two years, I can assure you this is definitely not true. There is nothing blatant or clear about Japanese attitudes towards foreigners. Their feelings are complex -- murkier than a bowl of miso soup.
NPR Tokyo Correspondent Eric Weiner in front of his favorite sushi restaurant (which, obviously, does allow foreigners).
That leaves us gaijin -- literally "outside persons" -- playing a constant guessing game. A
cab passes me by, picking up a Japanese passenger instead. Was it a racist slight? Or did he simply not see me? I'm riding the subway; the train is crowded, as it almost always is, yet the seat next to me is empty. Xenophobia or mere coincidence? In Japan, you are never sure.
To be honest, I've never experienced racism before. During my previous postings for NPR -- in India and the Middle East -- I was treated with reverence bordering on the sycophantic. It's different in Japan. Foreigners are treated alternatively with admiration and suspicion -- and, occasionally, both simultaneously.
Just as we have a stereotype of the typical Japanese, the Japanese, I've learned, have their own two-dimensional image of us gaijin. We're big and hairy. We're messy. We're prone to unpredictable, occasionally violent outbursts.
Of course, not all gaijin are created equal. There is a definite pecking order. We Westerners are at the top of the heap. At the bottom are the Nigerians, Taiwanese and other less prestigious foreigners. I can only imagine what life for them is like here.
As a foreigner living in Japan, I am constantly reminded of my foreign-ness. I am required -- by law -- to carry an "alien registration card" at all times. Although it is uncommon, I still might be barred from a restaurant or hotel that has a policy of "Japanese only." Even a Tokyo nightclub called Club International -- and, as columnist Dave Barry says, I am not making this up -- has a sign outside that reads "No Foreigners Allowed."
That more or less sums up Japan's attitudes towards all things foreign. Yes, they crave the cosmopolitan flavor that foreigners bestow; but no, they don't want to get too close to them.
Japanese consumers can't get enough foreign products. This is the single largest market for Louis Vuitton and other European designer goods. The latest trend here is to wear T-shirts embossed with English words, apparently chosen at random. The English words carry no meaning; they are merely decoration.
On the one hand, the Japanese welcome foreign influences. You can get a reasonably good fajita in Tokyo these days, and you are never far from a latte. Yet they manage to keep these foreign "contagions" at a safe distance. They even use a separate alphabet just to write foreign words.
So I've come to the conclusion that there is simply no way for a foreigner like myself to gain acceptance, let alone to assimilate. I know foreigners who have mastered the Japanese language. The Japanese refer to them as the "gaijin who speak good Japanese." One American even went so far as to become a naturalized Japanese citizen -- a long, tortuous process. He is now known as the "gaijin who has a Japanese passport" (and, incidentally, he is still barred from establishments that say "Japanese only").
In many ways, the United States and Japan couldn't be more different when it comes to attitudes towards foreigners. The United States is a diverse nation of immigrants. Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation (or views itself as one) where you are either born Japanese or you are not. You do not become Japanese.
If it's possible for a nation to have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex at the same time, than that nation is Japan. On the one hand, the Japanese believe they are better than us foreigners. (Japanese rice is better. Japanese cars are better.) Yet they exert tons of energy trying to look like us. Many young Japanese women dye their hair blond, wear platform shoes and have plastic surgery to make their eyes more rounded.
There are countless rules to follow in Japan, and no matter how careful you are, no matter how fastidious you are, you, as a foreigner, will break several rules every day. Some of the rules are simple, such as taking your shoes off before entering a home (I now find it unseemly to wear shoes indoors). But other rules aren't automatically self-evident. Don't eat while walking. Never, never blow your nose in public. Always apologize when brushing against someone, even if it wasn't your fault.
Recently, I was in a sento, a Japanese public bath (and one of the truly luxurious experiences of living in Japan). The rules say you must scrub yourself thoroughly before entering the hot tub. Knowing that gaijin like myself are held to a higher standard of cleanliness than your average Japanese, I scrubbed and scrubbed. And scrubbed. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Excuse me," said the Japanese man next to me. I braced myself for an anti-foreigner tirade or, at the very least, a critique of my bathing technique. "Excuse me," he repeated, "but you are washing yourself with shampoo. The soap is over there." I mumbled a thank you, privately ashamed for anticipating the worst from my fellow bather.
I now break the rules here on a regular basis. I figure I'll never be fully accepted, so I've decided to enjoy the slack that we foreigners are afforded. Being a gaijin, it turns out, does have its advantages.
Learn more about diversity and discrimination in Japan from ISSHO Kikaku -- translation, "The Together Project" -- a non-profit group that addresses multiculturalism issues.