Who’s Really Japanese?

When I first came to Japan, things were so much simpler.  Men were men, Japanese were Japanese, and foreigners were gaijin.  Now everything’s gone to pieces, nuanced to the point that when somebody talks about “the Japanese,” I don’t even know who they mean.  That it’s not me is the only thing that’s clear.  Things are complicated in modern Japan, is what I’m saying.  Three things, actually, or maybe four.

Thing 1:  A lot of Japanese Aren’t Japanese

I mean literally, they’re not.  You know those polite Japanese folks who’re always welcoming you into shops and restaurants and bowing like crazy when you leave?  And when you get home from vacation you tell people how wonderfully polite Japanese people are?  Well, a lot of them aren’t from Japan.  As with service-sector positions the world over, they’re frequently staffed by immigrants, meaning folks from China, Korea, the Philippines, even the Middle East.  I’ve even met one Asian-looking Australian gal who wore a kimono and worked as a waitress.  She let tourists think she was Japanese, and got a real kick when they took her picture.  So polite, those Australians.

Now, if you know me, you know I eat out a lot, with “a lot” being synonymous for “every meal.”  And so I was in a restaurant a couple of weeks ago, but no matter how many times I asked the waiter for some cold tofu, he just couldn’t get what I was saying.  See, I’ve been on something of a cold tofu diet lately—what can I say, it was a hot summer, plus I gotta watch my weight, since I eat out all the freaking time—and because I order it every day, I know my pronunciation is spot on.

“Do you serve cold tofu?” I asked in Japanese.

“Old dofu?” the waiter replied with a Chinese accent.

“Uh, no.  New dofu, but cold, as in chilled.”

“Gold stove flue?”

“Cold tofu.”

“Mold-toe shoe?”

“Yes, mold-toe shoe.  That’s what I would like.  Please bring me a steaming plate of mold-toe shoe.”

Finally he disappeared and a Japanese person came by and took my order.  Damn foreigners, always messing up the place.  I swear.

Thing Two:  Books and Their Covers

You know how all Japanese people look alike?  Well, my first job in Japan was teaching English, and it was maddening, since all of my students looked exactly the same.  I had 400 adults and I couldn’t keep any of them straight.  It was like teaching a race of clones.  But as the months and years passed, I grew more accustomed to Japanese faces, and people started to look a little different.  Then super different.  Some people had flat noses and small, squinty eyes, while others had high noses and rounded eyes.  Some faces were fat, some were gaunt, and they seemed to span every imaginable color.  I even had one guy who was bright orange.  Gotta watch your beta carotene intake when that happens.  All them cantaloupes and carrots really add up.

Anyway, after a couple of years, I started working with kids in the public schools.  Now that’ll expand your mind in a hurry.  Kids all look completely different!  Something about young people—you can see the genetics much more clearly, before they sit through years of mind-numbing classes that weather their faces into similar masks of boredom and resignation.  A number of them obviously had various Asian, white or black blood somewhere in their lineage, and a few were even whiter than I was, which is saying something.  Of course, the idea that all Japanese are Asian is as much a fiction as saying all Brits look like Prince Charles.  I had several Japanese students who sported afros, others were blond, and a couple with blue eyes.  Quite a few weren’t Asian at all.  But somehow their outward whiteness or blackness failed to magically convey upon them the power of English.  I’d be like, How’s it going? and they’d tilt their heads and go, Eh?  They were as foreign as Obama is Kenyan.

Which brought up an interesting point.  It’s often said that Japan is a nation of one race, but the more I researched the subject, the murkier things became.  Not only are there numerous races in Japan, but there seems to be no agreement upon the number of races in the world, or what “race” even is.  The scientific consensus by people with extra-large brains seems to be that race, as such, is an artificial construct, and doesn’t actually exist in nature.  This probably isn’t news to anyone who didn’t sleep through four years of high school Biology class, but it was to me, and might be to the majority of the Japanese population as well.  It also turns out that there’s more genetic variation within races than between races, meaning that although I look as white as Eminem, I might actually be blacker than Chris Brown.  Given that, you’d think I’d be a better dancer, but apparently there are some things that science can’t yet explain.

The clearest definition I was able to find divided the world into three races of people:  Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid.  Where this leaves all those Mexican people, I have no idea.  But anyway, I now understand the error I made.  I thought I was a gaijin living among a nation of Japanese people, when in reality I’m a Caucasian surrounded by a bunch of Mongoloids.  So I guess that’s some comfort.

Japanese Ethnicity

Perhaps a more compelling way of determining who’s Japanese and who isn’t is the concept of ethnicity, where members of a group are distinguished by their common language, background, culture, and ideals.  While this sounds a reasonable, I wonder how well it really works in practice.  For example, I once met a dark-skinned black guy in a book store in L.A.  He was college-aged, dressed in almost overly stereotypical African-American clothing:  baggy jeans, Timberland boots, jersey, baseball cap, chains.  He looked like a rapper, frankly.  But what drew my attention was that he was fully engrossed in a software manual written in Japanese.  I asked him how it was that he could read it, and he replied in heavily-accented English that it was because he was Japanese.  He’d been born and raised in Japan, and was now studying abroad.  A lot of Japanese who don’t fit the mold of “typical Japanese” seem to chose that option.  Can’t imagine why.

Now, I can easily accept the idea of a black man being ethnically Japanese.  I mean really, if he was born in Japan, what else could he be?   But I wonder how well it works out for him in Japan; how many times he’s gone to a restaurant and been handed the English menu.  Even fourth-generation Koreans get singled out as “not Japanese,” despite having lived in Japan all their lives and having their ancestors come from a country that’s so close you could kayak there.  The idea of ethnicity defining what someone as “Japanese” seems simplistic.  Or is that idealistic?  I really gotta save up for a dictionary.

We all Live Overseas

I don’t want to start you tripping balls here, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how quickly the absolutes of nationalism, race, and ethnicity fall apart.  In a world where you can fly Tokyo to L.A. in nine hours and watch Simpsons reruns from your condo in Kyoto, boundaries frequently overlap and blur.  If a child is born in Japan, but raised in the U.S., is that person Japanese or American?  What if one parent is white, does that change the equation?  Then take the opposite case:  If a child is born in the U.S. but raised in Japan, is the child Japanese?  What if both parents are Asian?  Both white?  And if your cat has kittens in the oven, does that make them biscuits?

When I took Japanese in college, two of my classmates identified themselves as “Japanese.”  They grew up in the U.S., and in both cases, their grandparents had emigrated from Japan.  They were third-generation Japanese-Americans, one had never even been to Japan, and both knew less about the language and culture of the nation than I did.  How that’s even possible, I have no idea, but somehow they’d managed to be whiter than I was.  Similarly, one of my colleagues at a Japanese university was a white man who’d been born in Japan, had a Japanese name, but had attended international schools in Japan and thus spoke only meager Japanese.  He said he was American, despite having never lived there.  So apparently it’s possible to be born in a country, but not be of that country, and the reverse is also true.  Maybe a diagram with some circles and arrows would help.

Thing Three:  You Gotta Appreciate People who tell you the Truth

I met a rather, let’s say, “free-thinking” individual, in an izakaya a few months ago.  Now, I know what you’re saying:  Ken Seeroi in an izakaya?  Zoinks, Scoob, like that’s impossible.  Hey, I’m branching out.  Anyway, in the course of a conversation spanning several glasses of shochu, he informed me that a) he sometimes sleeps with transvestites, also known in Japan as “new halfs,” and b) that Japanese people are terribly insecure about their own identities.  Frankly, he had me at transvestite.

“All Japanese people know their families originally come from places like China and Korea,” he said.  “We just deny it.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “Go back to the part where you said you sleep with women who are really men?

“As long as they have breasts,” he said, “I’m okay with it.  But I’m not gay, you know.

“Dude, if you say so.  Anyway, China and Korea what?

“And other places in Asia, and Russia.  Look, we all came here from somewhere.  Only the natives of Hokkaido and Okinawa are really Japanese.  And even they had to come here sometime in the past.

“I think we’re out of shochu,” I said.  Then, “I’ve heard they’re hugely discriminated against.

“Well, yeah,” he said.  “How else could the rest of us feel like we’re the only ‘pure Japanese’?

“Sounds like native Americans in the U.S.” I said.  An image of an Indian with a small tear running from the corner of his eye came to mind.

“Try asking a Japanese person where his family was from before they came to Japan.

“You’re freaking me out,” I said.

“You mean that Japan’s really just a nation of immigrants?

“No, that you sleep with dudes.  Like, doesn’t the plumbing get in the way?

“No, they look just like women.  You can’t tell the difference.  I’m not gay, by the way, you know.

“Yeah, and I’m not a gaijin.”

Now, you can be pretty sure that anybody who tells you he sleeps with transvestites isn’t sugar coating things a whole lot, which is rare in this nation.  Understandably, Japanese people don’t like to have discussions about racial purity with people of other races, any more than white Americans would feel comfortable discussing “white purity” around black people.   Still, I’ve had the discussion here several times, and the topic of what it means to be “racially pure Japanese” (純日本人) is hardly rare.  A quick internet search for the Japanese term will turn up plenty of threads on the topic.  It’s also common to hear Japanese people remarking among themselves that one of their group looks more or less “Japanese” than another.  In my discussions with close friends, one thing has become crystal clear:  preserving one’s identity as a “real Japanese” is of the utmost importance.  That and the best way to do so is by labeling everybody else as gaijin.  Okay, that’s two things.  Whatever.  I’ve never been good with math.  After a dictionary, remind me to get an abacus.

Race is Everything in Japan

The truth is, as specious a concept as it is, race is a huge deal in Japan.   Japan is roughly where the U.S. was in the nineteen-fifties, with people of all skin colors routinely distinguishing between those who are viewed as “Japanese” and those who are “gaijin,” just as notions of “white” and “black” used to be much clearer in the U.S., before suburban kids discovered hip hop.  By contrast, consider this recent headline:

Shouryya Ray, from Dresden, Germany, solved two fundamental particle dynamics theories.

The German teen solved a 300-year-old mathematical riddle posed by Sir Isaac Newton.  Yeah, well sure, anyone could do that at sixteen.  It’s not like he has to do his own laundry.  Only later in the article did it say that he’d arrived “from Calcutta four years ago without knowing any German.”  Yet despite growing up in India, recently moving from India, having an Indian name, and looking about as far from Aryan as humanly possible, he was identified as being “German.”  Well, why not?  He lives in Germany.  And people who live in Germany are called . . . goooogle . . . oh right, German.

Now, grok on that for a moment.  If Shouryya Ray had come to Japan, with his Indian name and looking all Indian and everything, then solved that theory, would anyone—even a single person—have said he was “Japanese”?  Shaa, right.  And why not?

In a word, Race.

The standard retort seems to be, “Well, that’s just Japan,” followed a shrugged, “It’s a different culture,” and “Japan will never change.”  But really, it already has, and continues to do so at a fierce pace.  You can see it walking down the street—from the Japanese sumo wrestlers, some from Mongolia, walking through Akihabara in massive kimonos, typing like mad on their Chinese-made American iPhones—to the legions of Japanese people lined up for their traditional lunch of McDonalds and Starbucks, in stores staffed by Japanese people from China.  The nation’s awash in foreigners and foreign culture even as it struggles to deny it.  If Japan doesn’t have a Rosa Parks moment, it’s only because so few people actually want to be “real Japanese,” with all the awkward social interactions and workaholic lifestyle that it entails.  But as the population ages and the world gets smaller, for better or worse, the notion of what it means to be “Japanese” will continue to evolve.  Sure, things never change.  Until one day, when they suddenly do.






58 Replies to “Who’s Really Japanese?”

      1. Great question. I’m going to venture a Yes, simply because if you looked “foreign,” you’d be denied admission to the place. That’s generally the rule with businesses like that. “Looking Japanese” goes a long way in Japan.

  1. God, I don’t even know where to start!
    Couldn’t agree more!

    One of my previous co-workers was born in Japan. She grew up in Japan, went to Japanese schools.
    However, her parents were American and she looked exactly like what Japanese people would think an American looks like! She’s big, blue eyes and blonde.

    I often got to hear her stories.
    It must be so frustrating. Of course she speaks Japanese fluently. She went to college in America where she met her husband. She moved back to Japan with him and has now 3 kids.
    They also were born in Japan and grow up here.
    Are they considered Japanese? Not at all and never will.
    And because none of the parents is Japanese (as in holds a Japanese passport), the kids will never get a Japanese passport – at least not as far as I know.
    Maybe somebody knows more about that?

    Some Japanese people are so freaking …. full of themselves. They think they are a superior race. That others can’t ever understand or learn Japanese, because our brains aren’t as well developed as theirs.

    But really … who’s Japanese and who’s not?

    Whenever I go traveling people ask me where I’m from.
    I tell them I live in XY. Then they ask me where I lived before that and I tell them in XY Prefecture.
    And then they’re like: “No, I mean WHERE were you BORN?”
    They just can’t imagine that somebody who looks completely foreign might have been born in Japan.

    Good thing that you mentioned Germany there.
    You know .. because of our history I think the way we treat “foreigners” in our country has changed a lot.
    Coming from that kind of place to Japan was a real shock! Try to point at someone in Germany and scream: “FOREIGNER!!!!” ….. In Japan it has happened to me a few times.

    And yes! It’s easy to obtain the German citizenship. It’s easy to be considered as a German.
    I’m sure it’s the same for America.

    1. Well, I’d never hold the U.S. up as a paragon of racial tolerance. It has it is own challenges with race relations, as do many countries.

      The difference is that, in the U.S., people are at least aware that race is an issue. From that awareness one can make a conscious decision whether or not it’s a factor, but at least you’re thinking about it. There are still plenty of people in the U.S. who dislike those who don’t resemble themselves, but it’s not publicly acceptable. Nobody’s going to point and say “Look, a Mexican!” At least not twice.

      People in Japan have yet to give an ounce thought to the issue. Many folks have never considered that someone who looks unlike them could actually live normally in the country exactly as they do. They view people who look differently as outsiders. The U.S. may have it’s problems, but a black man is unlikely to hear, “So, when are you going back to your country?” Man, I get that all the time.

      1. This article was a great read, as was zoomingjapan’s comment. I am always asked “how long do you plan to stay in japan for?” – as if I couldn’t possibly be living here permanently. In fact, once I replied “until I decide to go home” to which the person thought, then replied “how do you buy groceries?” … haha they can’t even imagine how I survive here (with my minimal japanese skills – I’m still studying!)
        Anyway, this is such an unexpected side effect to living in Japan! Never realised this was a thing until I got here…!

        1. Yeah, I get that all the time. And the corollary, “Did you go home over the holidays?” Naturally, I know what they mean, but I’m always like, Home? You mean Japan? That’s always good for a laugh. And then they’re like, No, really, did you go home?

  2. And just when I had decided that all Japanse spend their days reading manga and watching anime, you confuse the hell out of me.

    You see, Japanese doesn’t interest me a single bit (the language, that is). But I’m always interested in getting to know other cultures. This was a really good read, thanks!

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you found it interesting. Japan is certainly a unique culture, with lots of good, and some bad. In that, it’s just like everywhere else, I suppose.

  3. Truly great read, I’ve always wanted to get some kind of “insider’s perspective” on this topic. I’ve been studying Japanese for a while, but since I’ve never been to the country (and frankly, I’m more interested in the language than the culture), I’ve never been able to find this stuff out by myself.
    Since, as you say, there’s no actual definition of race, I think that the “pure Japanese” myth is a very chimerical concept kept up for the sake of tradition and habit.
    I wonder how long it will take for Japan to become closer to othern western countries, in which you can’t tell whether someone is a foreigner just by looking at him… it’s bound to happen sooner or later, but considering Japan’s love of the status quo in these matters, I wonder if it’ll be during my lifetime.
    By the way, I’ve been wondering something for quite some time: can Japanese people tell whether someone is Japanese, Chinese, Korean and the like? I once met a couple of Korean girls that claimed they could, but I’ve never been able to test them properly.

    1. Yeah, I do think it will happen within your (and my) lifetime. I feel that the pace of change is deceptive, because we tend to look at the past and then predict the future, like, Oh, people have been earthbound for millenia; they’ll never fly. And then one day somebody invents the plane and a few years later you’re up in the sky sipping a cocktail and bitching about the fact that you’ve only got eight channels of movies. Things don’t change for centuries and then, Boom, suddenly no more samurai and everybody’s wearing Levis.

      As for telling people apart, the short answer is Yes. You can make an extremely good guess based upon a person’s face, hair style, actions, clothing, and the people they’re with. Put that all together and you’d be right most of the time. But that’s really not using race as a factor. Do me a favor: do a Google Image search for the term “Peruvians” and tell me what you see. And I bet if you put a Japanese person in a colorful poncho and stand them next to an alpaca you’d see a Peruvian.


      1. You’re very right on your observations about the pace of change. I had never thought about it that way, but now that you’ve mentioned it, it seems obvious (like many things, they seem obvious once they’ve been explained to you — I call it the “Sherlock Holmes” effect).

        And thanks for the answer about “races”! When I asked the question I hadn’t factored in non-racial features, for the simple reason that I have a hard time spotting them (unless I hear them speaking, then I can usually tell whether it’s Japanese, Korean or Chinese — the latter of which I lump together with “miscellaneous languages” because I don’t speak it). But it does make sense that they would stand out much more to Asians who identify with their cultures. After all, I can spot German “summer tourists” from a mile away, so why shouldn’t the Japanese be able to do the equivalent? =P

  4. $20 says I’m the only one who caught the White Men Can’t Jump reference.

    And race, yeah, it’s a thing in Korea too. On the one hand I could complain because I’ll never be accepted as Korean, but on the other hand I get treated like a rock star for doing mundane things like learning the language and being able to eat hella spicy Korean food, just because of my race. For instance, yesterday in Jeju island a middle school kid walked up to me and said “Excuse me, I think you are awesome. You are so… awesome! Can I take a picture with you?” So there’s always that. I guess it’s like a double-edged sword with a greased-up, awkwardly shaped handle.

    1. Yeah, that’s the thing–some people get off being treated like a rock star, and others don’t. I used to dig it, but eventually it started to feel like I was more of a pet than an object of admiration. Like, picture that in America. Hey, there’s a black guy! Yo, my man, come over here so we can all take a picture with you! Can you eat pizza? Wow! And you speak English so well.

      But I’m not hating on it. A lot of people are okay with that treatment, and they get a something out of it, like free pizza. But I can’t really feel good on either side of that equation. I kind of wish I could.

    2. Haha that even happened to me several times in Spain, simply because of my height. Even though I’m a dark-haired, brown-eyed European, I still get attention because I’m 6’5″

  5. I found this post kind of amusing; my mom is Japanese, and my dad’s parents are Samoan and German (and I was born and raised in Hawai’i). I’m always surprised at how hard it is for some people in Japan to get their heads around that whenever I’m visiting relatives there.

    1. People here could stand to have their minds blown a lot more. They’re still hung up on people from Kanto marrying people from Kansai. That’s a great heritage—you’ve singlehandedly managed to cover most of the earth’s “races.”

      Although, I think it could be argued that the same is true for all humans, despite any appearances to the contrary.

      1. Another amusing thing is a friend of mine who tags along a lot whenever I fly over to Japan. He’s the whitest tall, blonde, blue eye guy you can imagine (literally looks like a guy from a nazi propaganda poster). And he was born and raised here, and his family has been here for several generations. A lot of people in Japan seem to have the *hardest* time realizing that he identifies far more with a lot of local (not necessarily native) hawaiian things more than anything “American” or anything else really.

        1. There are definitely white (and black, and brown) people who were born and raised in Japan. I mean, no surprise there—people are gonna have babies no matter where they are, and that’s a fact. And certainly, what those individuals “are” could be debated. It’s actually not that they are or aren’t Japanese that interests me; it’s that it seems only one in a thousand “Japanese” person has even considered the notion that someone who doesn’t look like them could be like them. But knowing what they’re taught in school, it’s easy to see why they have that understanding. From grade school they’re constantly taught that when they see a face unlike their own, the proper greeting is “hello,” and not “konnichiwa.”

  6. Sometimes I feel that race is more an artificial construct than anything else. Even though I was born in the US I still feel like I poorly imitate the language of white folk. It’s just not a language I culturally identify with, but it’s the only language I’ve got to work with. But on another note, I do hate when people ask when I’m going home. As if in order to remain anywhere one has to marry someone from those parts.

    1. The problem with race seems to be that people frequently infer values and behaviors from it. For example, I have no problem acknowledging the color of my skin; I’m just not sure what it “means.” Obviously some people have lighter or darker skin, and various colors of hair and eyes. But does that tell us anything about the person? Are blondes really less intelligent? Do they really have more fun? And if I dye my hair, will that apply to me? Because if so, that’d be great.

      It certainly doesn’t bother me that people in Japan notice that I’m white. That’s true. But they then infer a whole array of cultural stereotypes, including language, religion, cuisine, beliefs and behaviors. Many of those assumptions are probably wrong. I don’t know how much you can know about a person just by looking at him or her. Probably not much.

  7. I have been reading your blog for almost a year now and you really have a fascinating take on life, studies and culture. I really enjoy your work.

    Anyway, I am South African. Here that means very little, seeing as we are numerous different peoples who claim that title. We have so many different kinds of people living here that many of them rather refer to themselves according to their culture, not to their nationality.

    I have a few Japanese pen-pals. Last night I was speaking to one of them and he simply did not understand what I meant with me being part German. The concept was completely foreign to him, as if races/peoples were not meant to mix… That was a bit of a shocker, I must say.

    1. It means a lot to me that you read and enjoy this crazy stuff. Japan, like any country, is a complex and diverse place, and I try to reflect that in my writings. Plus, I guess a lot of bizarre shit just happens to me. Or maybe I make it happen, I don’t know. To be honest, I’ve got a ton of stories from the U.S. too, but I don’t know when I’d even have time to write them all down. Maybe when I move to the Arctic and live in an igloo. God, I hate the cold though.

      Anyway, it’s interesting that South Africa doesn’t have a strong national identity. I can see how that might baffle some Japanese people. In some ways, Japan is a very international country. But at the same time, people can have an almost comically simple view of the rest of the world. It’s weird. Really.

  8. This is such a great post, and it’s something I experience regularly and see a lot.

    I teach English at a big-chain eikaiwa and I too had problems telling students apart. It was more to do with their attitude than how they looked for me though. Everyone was subdued and so the only students who stood out for me were the ones who had ‘personalities’ and would talk like a normal person. These days it’s not so bad because I have gotten so used to being here that the smallest of differences make them seems miles apart as people. I work with what I am given.

    Your comments about not being accepted as Japanese if you don’t ‘look Japanese’ reminds me of a student that I used to teach. Let me elaborate. I used to teach a Russian girl. She was really shy but was always angry and bitter. When i first met her I asked her if she was from the prefecture, and the look on her face was a mixture between confusion and disgust. She went on to explain that everone knows that she isn’t Japanese because of the way she looks and I explained to her that I have met Japanese people who look like they are ‘foreigners’ but who are as Japanese as anyone else on this rock. Long story short, she told me that she didn’t like the way she was treated because she didn’t look like everyone else, even though she could speak perfectly good Japanese. This was the first time it made my blood boil a little. I mean, sure, being stopped on the street and asked for a photo, or some random person talking to me because I look different is one thing, and it works in favour as a way of stirring up interest in coming to the school, but for her, to be segregated by her classmates for not looking like them, it makes me angry and annoyed. I hope that Japan moves on from this way of thinking sooner rather than late.

  9. I bought an used iPhone 4 few days ago, and I was unable to buy anything in iBooks because I live outside the ebook market. I picked a public domain book titled “Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation” by Lafcadio Hearn and I’m halfway there.

    Just found your blog today, and holy s**t a lot of things suddenly make sense now, from the suicide event to this race issue, which is shared communal experience around unified language, ancestor worship, filial piety, complete belief they’re descendant of gods etc. It fits.

    Your lineage must be pure, you must be born in the land of the sun, you must look like everyone, you must grow up in japan and experience what everyone’s experiencing, and think and behave exactly like everyone. Be proud with it. Anything less like born with Korean lineage or with blonde hair and you’re not real Japanese anymore.

    Yamato-Damashii is really complex, but two things that I’m sure are 1) It can be understood with some research 2) If you’re not Japanese, you will never be a Japanese

      1. Yeah they were isolated for centuries that they developed a very strong sense of Us vs Them. As far as they know they’re the only true human being living in the only true land. They’re the main character.

        Hearn drawn some parallel between pre-Buddhist society of Japan with early days of Greek and Rome. It’s like stages of culture / social development, and Japan only opened their border to outside world recently in 1854.

        I guess appearance is the first step before you can attempt to act like Japanese and blend in, though you’ll never have the Yamato-Damashii.

        1. That’s okay, most native-born Japanese don’t have Yamato damashii. Actually, the opposite. For anyone who wants to “act like a Japanese,” the best bet is to spend all day long slumped over in your chair, staring at your iPhone and wishing you lived somewhere else.

          For them, there’s nothing special or interesting about Japan. It’s not as glamorous and exciting when you’re born here. The modern version of Yamato damashii is apparently the person who can’t wait to get the hell out of Japan.

  10. Being pointed at and called a gaijin was dealt with as follows by a Norwegian (comment found on another forum):

    I was shopping at my local supermarket when a 30ish year old couple saw me and went: “外人だ!”
    I’m like “WTF?”, pointed at them and went “あっ!日本人だ!”
    They turned red and ran away. ざまみろだ!!

    [He simply pointed back and said “Aaaa! Japanese!”]

    1. You have no idea as to how many times I’ve done the ああ外人だ! thing. It never really gets old, especially when its in the town that I’ve been going to pretty much every summer since I can remember.

      1. That’s good, but whenever I hear “Ah, gaijin!” I like to look around and say in Japanese, “Gaijin? There’s gaijin here? Where?”

        It makes a little different point.

  11. Yeah, great casual transphobia there. Congratulations, you just dehumanized and offended a whole marginalized group of people there in the name of comic relief.

    Because certainly us “transvestites” (which is a slur, btw) wouldn’t be reading this blog or maybe have an interest in Japan.

    1. Well, when you’re right, you’re right, and I apologize. Sometimes I take my humor too far. For what it’s worth, that conversation was not fictional, although I understand that relating it as I did might have offended you. If so, I absolutely apologize. Please realize that I’m writing for a wide audience—like, uh, the entire world—so it’s pretty effing hard to be humorous without offending someone. But I wonder it the point I was trying to make wasn’t lost . . . that is, that I personally make no distinction between gay, straight, transgender or whatever. Japanese or gaijin. I really don’t see the difference. People are people. That was my point. Again, if I said it in a way that offended you, I apologize, but I was not trying to belittle anyone, other than those who belittle others.

      1. Calling trans women “transvestites”, “dudes” and “really man”, implying that no straight men would feel attracted to us (they do. ALL THE TIME) doesn’t feel like “making no distinction”.

        Barring actual physical violence, there’s nothing more hateful and vile one can do to a trans person than denying their gender. Which you did.

        We’re not “really men”. We’re not dudes. There’s absolutely nothing surprising or wrong with a straight men being attracted to women, even if they happen to be trans.

        And we’re not some unfuckable sub-human thing. And that’s exactly what’s implied when you say only gay man would want to date a woman. Imagine saying that to some woman friend of yours. Imagine a whole group of women who has to hear that EVERYDAY, while dealing with the hundreds of (straight) men who want to fuck us, but only if no one finds out. We’re not a fetish, we’re not men, regardless of how our body is or used to be.

        All that put (I really needed to get this stuff out), I really feel you apology was sincere, and for that I thank you.

        1. And thank you for stating your point so well. I can easily understand where you’re coming from. It’s clear that you’ve faced a lot of discrimination and had to put up with a lot of horrible shit. I think that’s terrible, and I certainly didn’t mean to be a part of it.

          Please understand that what I write, pathetic an attempt as it may be, is intended to address difficult issues and diffuse them with humor. Topics like race, sexuality, religion, and belief systems are not easy to talk about, so I make fun of myself, Japanese people, and pretty much anybody else. There’s a lot of different ways that things can be read, and sometimes what one person finds humorous another person finds offensive. Hell, I got offended tonight when I went to the freaking Apple store and employees addressed me by my first name. Now that may seem like a small thing to you, but it happens everyday, and only because I’m white, so somehow it bothers me. I know they thought they were being nice. And maybe they were and I’ve just lost my mind. Okay, that seems probable. But hey, we’ve all got our hot buttons, I guess.

          For what it’s worth, I personally believe that every person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. The differences that garner so much attention—such as race, physiology, or sexual orientation—are far less important than the fact that we’re all humans with amazingly similar feelings, including the capacity to be hurt by others. Sorry if I contributed to that.

  12. Hay Ken,

    Great writings. Really digging the blag.

    In Mongolia racial pride has surfaced here in the way of 1930s Germany. Groups of people dress-up as actual Nazis (trench coat, trousers tucked into large boots, swastika arm-bands and please I promise you it’s not a Buddhist one) and beat-up foreigners and Mongol women dating or allegedly dating foreigners.

    Rekindling love of a near millennium-old hero, Chinggis Khan, is fanning flames. He’s the namesake of dozens of restaurants and brands of alcohol and everything else in the country. Every single male here vehemently claims to be a direct descendant of the legendary conqueror and many insult the purity of women who dare mix their precious blood with the unchosen.

    So far no Kristallnacht.

    I’ve been to Japan twice. It’s definitely racist but not scary and very manageable. I find racism comes as either in a passive aggressive way (fingerprinting foreigners are airports, never searching the baggage of Japanese, or people not sitting next to the white guy on a crowded bus) or in some condescending, possibly positive, way (handing out an English menu immediately, complimenting on a utensil a five-year-old can master or offering to give directions).

    1. Whoa, that’s crazy. Okay, I’m crossing Mongolia off my list of Christmas vacation destinations. Too bad, because I hear Mongolian Santa is awesome.

      You pegged Japan exactly right, as “definitely racist but not scary and very manageable.” There’s nothing particularly bad about the way “Japanese”-looking people treat “non-Japanese”-looking people. It’s just condescending and a bit annoying, what Debito Arudou refers to as “microagressions”: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120501ad.html . But hey, that’s Japan 2012.

      As they say, tomorrow is another day. It always is.

  13. Thanks for the great article. Well thought and funny at the same time. I promise I will try to find out something I can be offended by from your future writings but I failed this time. Sorry.

    In the comments someone asked when Japan will become closer to other Western countries. I am now more confused than when I became a rock star by eating natto. I thought I went east like all good young boys should.

    I bet you 2.000 yen that Japan will change during my lifetime. They better or I just hang on here and refuse to die. Either way you will never see the money.

    There are already a big number of those here who are not 100% Japanese, either being born outside or having lived there long, or, gasp, being born here but with one of the parents non-Japanese.

    Having contributed to the last category I still have failed to see them treated differently. Though my daughter just told me a new boy who moved to her class from Osaka took a look at her and her friend and said “wow, the girls from Kanto really are tall” I failed to see that as racism either. Maybe I am just confused and should start to complain more.

    Lastly, and leastly, I would like to comment on the “when are you going home?”. If you had like 20 word vocabulary in a language but still wanted to do small talk with an alien living next to you what you would ask if you wanted to try to get little closer and outside of the “nice weather, eh?”?

    1. You know, I actually try hard not to offend people.

      Well, maybe not super hard. But I do think about it, sometimes.

      Just wanted to clarify a bit on the last point you made though. I mostly speak Japanese, so when people make small talk or ask things like “when are you going home?” they’re typically doing so in their native language. Still, I understand that it’s not always easy to think up good, safe topics. Nor am I often referred to as a conversational mastermind myself. All the same, maybe the best opener isn’t “Wow! Gaijin!” Just a thought.

  14. Very interesting article! I remember once confusing a Japanese woman for being Chinese and she wasn`t impressed and I felt really embarrassed. I think the Japanese people have such an interesting culture. I would love to travel there one day! Thanks for sharing and you have a great blog!

    1. It’s funny to see how worked up Japanese people get when confused with people of other nations, considering how frequently they assume that White = English speaker and probably American, to the consternation of many Europeans.

      Japan certainly has a very different culture from the West, and it’s really amazing to compare the two. I hope you have the chance to travel here in the future.

    1. That was interesting. It’s the kind of thing you hear discussed a lot in forums like Gaijinpot, and among people who’ve lived here for a while. Racism exists the world over, apparently. It’s just manifest a bit differently in Japan.

  15. this is why I tell everyone I know to really travel and experience the world. You learn. You experience. You get enlightened….and become a better person from it

  16. Your use of the term “aryan” is incorrect. Technically, the person you described could be considered to be Aryan. Although it is archaic, the term originally referred to people of indo-european descent who spoke sanskrit. The term was co-opted by some writers in the late 19th and early 20th century (including H.G.Wells) and ultimately, it became a term used by the Nazis. In its present meaning, it refers to people who inhabit the region of Ariana, the eastern part of Iran.

    My work here is done.

    1. Thanks for the enlightenment.

      I actually used to date a girl named Ariana, and she wasn’t white either. So I guess that proves your point.

  17. The more exposure a person gets to something, the less special it seems. A foreigner who speaks and behaves as the japanese do draws a lot less attention in Tokyo than the boonies.

    I definitely see things changing a lot in my lifetime. That said, I’m not sure the change will come in the form of a Rosa Parks moment. It seems the change will be a lot more gradual.

  18. Great post, on top of being quite entertaining really sheds a lot of light on the topic for me to understand Japanese society in general and in particular how they might treat Naomi Osaka, who just made the US Open final at 20 so will surely become a massive celebrity over there over the next few years. Apparently she’s already gotten some very strange reactions from the media and judging by what you write I’m guessing many people in Japan will feel some pride to some extent about her representing them, while at the same time considering her a strange-looking ‘hafu’ rather than 100% one of their own. But hopefully this will open up some discourse about the subject and help the culture progress towards a less prejudiced multiracial society where a Mexican-born, Croatia-raised Jewish girl with Syrian and and Zimbabwean heritage could walk into a bar and be greeted with ‘konichiwa’ .

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