I lived in China for over two years, and on my first day in the country (living in a city that was not known for having many Westerners there) a middle-aged woman walked up to me on the street and touched my hair… Welcome to China! Living in a foreign country, especially one where people look different to you, can be a daunting experience and puts many people off travelling abroad. However, the way in which you are treated as a foreigner varies from country to country, and being a ‘White Girl’ in Japan is, for me, not really a big deal at all.
In Japan, I feel safe. Despite the fact that I stick out like a sore thumb, I rarely feel like I’m attracting unwanted attention. I can walk around town on my own at night without feeling like I’m going to be a target for crime because I’m foreigner. Sometimes I get unwanted stares, but that happens wherever you are, and as most Japanese people are very polite, they will be modest enough to look away once they’ve been caught eyeing the goods.
In some places, foreigners are treated as ‘honourable guests’ and as such have much attention lavished upon them. In days gone by, I feel that Japan was very much of this ilk – in Josie Dew’s book ‘A Ride in the Neon Sun’, she describes how surprised Japanese locals were to meet a foreigner in Japan (in the 1990’s) and how they would run out of their houses to stuff her bike panniers full of gifts. As most places in Japan are now used to having at least a few foreigners around, this doesn’t happen so much, even in smaller cities, but foreigners are still treated respectfully. In fact, it’s a blessing that the royalty treatment has been toned down in modern days – it can be a bit much to deal with the over-the-top treatment all the time when you’re just trying to go about your daily life.
The big ego-booster – getting compliments that you totally don’t deserve. You can be a little overweight, have teenage skin and unwashed hair, but because you look exotic people will still think you’re gorgeous, particularly if you happen to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Frequently heard compliments are ‘Your skin is so white!’ and ‘You look like a white doll’, both of which make me laugh every time I hear them, especially when I’m surrounded by stick-thin Japanese girls with fancy hairstyles and perfect make-up.
Japanese people know that most gaijin in Japan won’t speak Japanese (or at least, not very much) and they are very forgiving when you don’t understand. People will often go out of their way to help you when you get stuck – one of the biggest perks of being a foreigner in Japan (compared to, for example, China, where locals would often avoid a foreigner rather than having to deal with a difficult situation.) Occasionally you get a flustered shop assistant who experiences ‘gaijin panic’ where they don’t know how to help you and worry that you’re going to like, explode, or something. When that happens I just want to give them a little shake and say ‘Calm down – yes, I’m white, but it’s all going to be okay, we’ll get through this!’
Any downsides of being a gaijin in Japan? Despite all the perks, of course, there are still things that could be improved. Japan is more multicultural and multi-ethnic that it ever has been before, but it is still fairly homogeneous, and by the looks on their faces, there are some locals that are less than happy with the foreign invasion. In Tokyo, I often noticed how the seats either side of me on the subway were the last ones to fill up, even during rush hour, with some people preferring to stand rather than sit next to a gaijin. Occasionally people stare at you in a ‘what-is-that’ kind of way, but usually it’s more along the lines of ‘oh-look-isn’t-that-interesting’. I mentioned that in China, someone touched my hair and I thought that was, obviously, quite strange. So there I was thinking how pleased I am that kind of thing hasn’t happened to me in Japan… when an old man got off the bus and touched my face. So, there you go – weirdos exist everywhere! For the most part, I feel welcomed and at home in Japan. I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully immersed here – that kind of inclusion takes decades and decades of multiculturalism, and for it to really work it’s necessary for the locals to be 100% willing to completely include foreigners, which, at present, doesn’t happen in Japan. But I’m happy – I don’t feel harangued, I don’t feel singled out, and if people want to follow me around telling me that I’m a beautiful white doll, that’s fine too.