Ken Seeroi Interview With the Author

What I like the best is when I’m in line at the supermarket behind a woman with a kid. And the kid’s like six months old, not even vocal, yet already he knows. He’s just glaring at me, not even blinking, like, There’s something different about that dude—the eyes, the nose, the amazing fashion sense—what is it? And I’m like, uhh, the term you’re searching for is “gaijin.” Congratulations to me; I just beat out “mama” as your first word.

But the little guy keeps staring, like a midget superman trying to melt my eyeballs with his x-ray vision. I’m like, Jeez, lady, rein in your infant before he turns me into a pillar of salt.

Pure Japanese

Japanese Rule of 7 Book

It’d probably be unfair to say Japanese people are born with a built-in ability to distinguish “the Japanese” from “the foreigners.” That’d make it sound like racism was an innate trait of Japanese folks. So let’s not say that. Probably all the children I encountered were just anomalies. And anyway, it’s hard to look past a person’s exterior; I get that. Which is why I was thrilled when Ben Tanaka at Retire Japan asked for a Ken Seeroi interview, about my new book, Strange Nights, and Some Days Too: Why You’ll Love Japan, for About a Year.

The Ken Seeroi Interview

Or maybe I asked him. Eh, details. Anyway, Ben was awfully kind to provide me with a chance to finally express my true self. Retire Japan is a useful resource for anyone interested in managing their yen, retiring in Japan, or both, and I hope you enjoy the brief Ken Seeroi author profile.

37 Replies to “Ken Seeroi Interview With the Author”

    1. Hey, I’m happy half the time. Fifty percent ain’t nothin’, baby!

      Glad you’re enjoying the book. I really appreciate that.

  1. Book arrived last week. Been reading pages out loud to my wife. Since we cannot be there right now, your musings are the best substitute.
    Brad in SJ, CA

    1. Hearing that really makes me feel good; it’s mighty kind of you. I really hope things will improve globally and that you’ll be able to visit soon.

  2. About the supermarket baby (6 months), I know this is “tongue in cheek”, but the fact is babies do not see clearly at 6 months, however their sense of smell is well developed. And to a well trained Japanese nose I am sure a gaijin smells like a dirty pig wallowing in his own filth (bit of exaggeration there Ken). So it is more likely that the (hypothetical baby) smells you as different not sees your well known big nose. In fact I don’t recall reading any of your Japanese tales and you mentioning sense of smell. Congratulations on the book, despite denying any possibility 3 years ago you have in fact delivered. Ken Seeroi delivers big time!!

    1. Hmm, the old “gaijin smell different” thing. Remind me to send you some sweaty t-shirts so we can put this myth to rest.

  3. When my Japanese niece was very young, she kept staring at me and then finally said “Okaa-san, Ningen mitai!” (Mommy, he seems to be human!). Everyone laughed, but that was a revelation…..

    1. Yeah, I get that with my first-and second-grade students. The monster’s alive!

      It especially weird speaking Japanese with kids. They often ask, “Are you Japanese? Are you half?” As though appearance somehow relates to the words that might come out of a person’s mouth. How they get indoctrinated to that notion at such a young age…

  4. Here’s a quote from my book on the subject.
    “A friend of mine later gave me a very useful method to overcome this. He said, “it’s very simple. Japanese people have an English/ Japanese switch in their head. When they see a foreigner, a little light goes on that says “expect to hear English”. At that point they are expecting English to come out of your mouth. If you speak in Japanese, they will just assume that it is English, whether it is or not. At that point, they will say that they don’t understand English, or think that they suddenly understand English and try to answer with some form of English words. My friend’s solution was effective. When you go up to a Japanese person to ask a question, he explained, say “excuse me” (sumimasen) in Japanese before you say anything else. At that point, the switch in their head will override their initial reaction to your foreign face, and they will expect the next words coming out of your mouth to be in Japanese. I have found this to work beautifully, especially with taxi drivers. My”

    — No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners!: My Life in Japan in the 80’s. by Joe Palermo

    1. That might actually explain why I haven’t encountered that particular thing in more than a decade . I always “sumimasen” first. I always wondered why others have had such a different experience. Could it really be just that one word?

  5. Hi Ken. Thanks for letting me mention my book so much on your blog. I just bought your book and am really enjoying it. If you’re interested in reading mine, let me know. There may be a free electronic copy floating around. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks, Joe. I really appreciate that, and I’m happy to support a fellow writer. Let me email you about the book.

  6. In your book, you often mention how Japanese people refuse to call you by your last name, as they do each other. I had an interesting way of handling that when I lived there back in the day. People would always call me Joe-San, so the head of Japanese language in the local government education office where I worked in Gunma, created an alias name for me. The name was 城正夫。This is Jo Masao, with Jo being the family name. It can also be read with the Chinese reading as Jo Sei Fu or Joseph, so it was a play on words. At any rate, I registered this as my legal alias and received a hanko (inkan) with the character Jo (城). I could now legally use this name, so my American Express Card said Masao Jo and I signed it in Kanji on the back, which always blew people away. Also, the characters for Masao mean “good husband”. It was almost like a stage name!

    1. A legal alias—very cool. I’ve never heard of that, but if it works as you’ve described, that would present a solution to this problem. Alternately, I could just fly back to America, legally change my name there, and then return to Japan as Hideo Tanaka. Probably should’ve done that years ago, before I had a million documents and hanko already with the Seeroi crest.

      Although an alias wouldn’t address the underlying problem (apartheid), it would get the job done. I just don’t know how much more crazy I want to throw at this whole weird situation.

  7. I hear ya. I was in my twenties back then and seriously considered legally changing my name, but I’m glad I didn’t. When my son was born in Japan, they had just changed the laws so you could have a foreign name on a Japanese family register. Otherwise, my son would have had to take my wife’s maiden name and be on her register. They changed the law as they were hosting an international conference for women that year and didn’t want to look bad (?). Anyway, I used the legal alias on my business cards when I worked for a Japanese company and also when I joined the Nielsen company in Japan. I kept my full real name on the English side and the Japanese alias on the Japanese side. It was always a good conversation starter to talk about where the name came from.

    1. Oh wow, yeah I actually did the same thing and used that same first character, so I went with 城南燦 (as a reference to my LA roots, heh). Though after a few times of going to the bank or kuyakusho without my hanko, I realized F this…and went back to using the good old gaijin signature. Though I guess Japan starting to phase out the hankos now?

      I was actually tempted to take my wife’s name when we got married because of all the issues I had with my name in katakana and recognition issues for like the bank or other official forms…I was reading that some were having issues getting their COVID payments because of a discrepancy between their My Number registrations and their bank registrations.

      1. I’m trying to remember a long time ago, but I think I used 城南山 back when I was TEFLing.

  8. Hi Ken, bought your book a few days ago.
    Is there any way to get a digital copy of the book? Kinda wanna read it at *cough* work, but i don’t wanna carry the big book with me.

    1. It’s available on Kindle right now. Let me see about other digital options. Thanks for buying it (and sorry it’s so damn big; there’s kind of a story behind that too. Of course.)

      1. Thanks for the reply.
        I saw that its available on the Kindle, but i’m personally using a Kobo so i don’t believe i can use it there if i get the amazon version.
        Thanks for looking into other options!

  9. The book arrived last week, and I’ve been reading it sat in the garden through Lockdown. I think my neighbours think I’ve gone potty, giggling away to myself.

    1. Of course, there’s no guarantee that you haven’t. But I’m mighty glad to hear you’re enjoying it.

  10. Ken, I’ve put your book on my Amazon list but haven’t ordered yet because of Barack Obama. When his new book came out I put it on my list but was waiting for Garrison Keillor’s memoir before ordering, and when I went to do so Amazon wasn’t shipping Obama’s book. Only Kindle (which I don’t have) and other sources that are very expensive.

    It’s been about a month and no change. I checked and Amazon isn’t shipping any of Obama’s books. If I had more energy I’d come up with a nice conspiracy theory. Maybe something about Jeff Bezos. Like Bernie Sanders with his Billionaires Enemy List and how everybody’s out to get him, will stop at nothing to defeat him because they’re TERRIFIED he’ll stop the status quo blah blah blah.

    Anyway, I’ll order your book next month, even if Amazon says “No, we can’t” to Obama.

    1. Hey, thanks for thinking of me.

      I’d guess it’s more related to some printing or distribution issue. But you never know—could be a conspiracy.

      What a world we’ve made for ourselves.

      1. And by the way, I haven’t read blogs about living in Japan for a long time and yours is exactly what I need right now. My husband abruptly retired early recently (I don’t even know the details of why — don’t ask, don’t tell) and we’re moving to his hometown in Aichi prefecture next year.

        Here in the city I can be anonymous (sort of) and live in my foreign bubble, but in a small rural city with relatives and neighbors, I have to deal with Japan. It fills me with dread. So thank you, I’m enjoying reading old posts. Most of the foreign women living in Japan have mommy blogs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m not interested in children. I was one once and that was enough.

        1. You don’t feel the need to replicate yourself in miniature? Hey, that’d be a great hobby, for about twenty-plus years. Yeah no, I’m the same way.

          As for living in a foreign bubble, I’ve no idea what that’d be like—I was dropped into “real” Japan from day one. I think it’ll be quite an adventure for you at any rate. There may be some significant downsides, but undoubtedly some good points as well. Don’t forget to count those! I suspect you’ll come to understand the country in a different way. Maybe you can write about it? If you have some interesting observations, I’d be happy to publish them here!

          1. Ugh. Having miniature mes requires responsibility. That is bad. My husband’s niece and nephew still live at home, one unemployed, and my sister-in-law’s paranoid it’s her fault they have no interest in starting their own lives. She’s tired of taking care of everybody. I don’t know for sure, but I think each Japanese generation becomes lazier. Welcome to my world, the world of the lazy.

            You’re right, moving will be an adventure. The older I get the less I like change. Settling into a comfortable rut is easy in Japan and I like a nice rut.

            I wanted to keep the husband’s parents’ old house, empty except for his dead parents (their shrines in the Death Room) but he decided he wants a new one because it’s freezing in the winter and new houses have insulation. A house is a large adult responsibility that makes me nervous.. But it will be a small house. The two neighbors have a few generations living there, I think five in one of them since the youngest came back from a year in the city pregnant without a husband a couple years ago.

            The best thing about living there will be farmers co-ops and roadside farmers stands. I go a little nuts every time we visit, fill up the car with vegetables as if they weren’t available where I live, which in a way they aren’t — not fresh-from-the-garden bags of produce for ¥100 or ¥200. I get extremely exited when I find beets, it’s kind of embarrassing. And I can have my own garden! A normal sized kitchen. The one in my apartment is like a coffin. A narrow space where I turn around from the sink to open the refrigerator without taking a step, no place to put anything and cheap materials, obviously designed by someone (man) who doesn’t understand what goes on in a kitchen. The air and water are clean in the countryside, too.

            Come to think of it, there are things I can get in the husband’s hometown that I can’t in my Nagoya neighborhood: rosemary, sage, thyme. No herbs here except for basil. The local liquor store there has Austrian Hello Toni cheese and American marshmallows and Norwegian canned sardines. Not here. Amazing.

            I’m feeling better about this already. Japan isn’t as uptight as it used to be. After we got married, my father-in-law wouldn’t allow me in his house. His beloved older brother died in a Siberian prison camp in the war and he blamed the U.S. (me) for starting it (embargoes). Oops, my bad! Mother-in-law confessed to her son she was relieved I wasn’t a big fat loud blonde she assumed all Americans were. What’s funny is that I’m really shy, but nobody thinks it’s possible for an American. Inconceivable. Ironic.

            1. I remember once going on a tour once with an international group for a couple of weeks. At the end, we exchanged contact info to stay in touch and some of the people were surprised to see that I was American. “You were reserved, courteous, and polite…we thought you were Canadian!” Hah!

              1. Yeah, that’s the image. What a great reputation the U.S. has.

                On the flip side, there’s this notion that Japanese people are polite, reserved, deferential, shy, you name it. It’s funny how stereotypes don’t often match reality.

                1. Hah yeah, and then when people mention that I say…well maybe to your face, internally, they probably hate your guts…

                  …and then they go, oh I get that…so like Midwesterners?

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