The restaurant staff had been solicitous and the food top-notch. It was decided that we would take a photo of our meal there with David, our Caucasian friend.
“Shashin, ok?” David turned to the bemused patrons at the next table. A young Japanese man stepped up to take the camera. We smiled, said “chee-zu!”, and were returning to our seats when – “Iidesuka?” The young man who had taken our photograph gestured towards David, smiling.
“You want to take a photo with us?” David asked.
“No,” the young man replied. “Onry you” – pointing at David. “With famiry.” From behind him, a lady and a little girl emerged. The man turned away from David to us. “One of you,” he ordered politely. “You help take photo.”
Afterwards, David did his best to stifle his laughter. “I mean, I’m really something to look at,” he winked. “It’s not necessarily the race thing, mates.”
To be fair, David is dishy – a cross between Robin van Persie and an American fratboy – but the Japanese young man would probably not have asked an Asian ikemen for a photograph. This may sound cynical, but is simply the culmination of our experience in Japan. As ethnic Chinese Singaporeans who are often mistaken for natives here, we are resigned to being left out of Japanese photographs, much as we have learned to be amused when locals praise David’s awkward Japanese over our JLPT-tested fluency; when English lesson recruiters ignore us in favour of our American friends; when television reporters stop us in the street but direct their questions only to our European companions.
For most Westerners, Japan is the perfect getaway. Its culture could not be more foreign, but its modern and civilised society allows them to feel right at home. Add to this the endless Japanese fascination with Caucasian faces, and it becomes clear why Japan is one of the most popular destinations for Westerns seeking an exotic adventure. They might be lost and lost in translation, but with the creature comforts Japan hides amidst its ninjas and otakus, more often than not these travellers have every faith that they will “find themselves” in the land of the rising sun.
But what if a foreigner looks no different from the Japanese? What if the foreigner is of Asian descent, or even from one of the many neighbours that Japan has invaded before? Despite sharing kindred looks, cultural histories and even languages, Asians in Japan know they should expect less “yokoso!” than “yo, why are you still here?” For them, there is no feeling of being extraordinary; only of being extraneous.
But maybe it makes sense that the newcomers who feel the most alienated in Japan are the ones who are, geographically and historically, closest to it. After all, familiarity breeds contempt; towards the other Asians who sojourn in their country, the Japanese likely feel less enthusiastic interest than economic rivalry, residual guilt, and a reminder of their less sophisticated past. Indeed, not all Asians behave perfectly in Japan either. The guy jabbering on his phone in the bus and the family attempting to jump the supermarket queue are, in our experience, more likely to be Asian gaijin than Japanese – stereotypes that have no doubt added to the Japanese antipathy towards other Asians.
The upshot of all this is that Asian interlopers in Japan have a higher threshold to cross to find favour with the Japanese than do Western ones, who simply have to look different and say a charmingly accented “konnichiwa“. Still, we believe there is a much higher upside that awaits the Asian gaijin. An overtly foreign face is always a fun novelty, but only someone who looks Japanese can truly ever fit in. So an Asian foreigner, by learning the local ways and language in earnest, will in time gain not just the goodwill of the Japanese, but also their acceptance in a way that will never be open to a Westerner. For a society as comfortable to live in as Japan, this is effort that might well prove worthwhile. Dodesho?
by Fiona Chan & Sze Tan, Singapore & Singapore, Journalist & Lawyer
Opinions expressed here are our writer’s and not the publisher’s.
Only in Japan, you say? Share YOUR opinion here in print and online.
Pitch your idea: email@example.com (email)
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn176, August 2013)