Why Won’t Japanese Sit Next to Foreigners?

  • CULTURE
  • Picture this. It’s 8 AM and you are taking the Tozai Line to work. The train is packed. Absolutely packed. People are so close to each other they could morph and become a new creature. For some, having someone glued to their bodies like that represents a level of intimacy that is often reserved to one’s bedroom. In a nutshell, a mosquito could not find space to fly if it could. Two people stand up to get off the train, gifting you with the opportunity you had been waiting for over those atrocious minutes. You take your seat, and then realize that the one next to you remains vacant. At first, you don’t make note of it. However, you suddenly remember that it’s rush hour, and that the train is so saturated people would suffocate if the doors were not opening at each station. You then realize that this is not the first time this has happened to you, and you later find out that it won’t be the last.

    Depending on your personality, the realization leaves you infuriated, broken, sadden, indifferent, relieved, a mixture of some, or even a mixture of all. Ergo, the experience can leave some with conflicting emotions as they try to come to terms with the phenomenon, what it means, and whether they will be able to get used to it after living in Japan some more years.

    The Eternal Debate

    “Why won’t locals sit next to me even if there are no other seats available during rush hour?” The question has come up more than once during conversations between foreign residents, igniting debates of whether the action constitutes racism or if those who complain are making a bigger deal about it than what it actually is.

    To a vast majority who go through this every day, the phenomenon represents the core xenophobia of a very homogenous country. Many of my friends have complained about this at least once, and during those complaints they state that having no one sit next to them is a constant reminder that they are outsiders, and that it doesn’t matter how long they live in Japan and how good their mastery of their language is, they will always be outsiders.

    To some, however, the whole question is absolutely ridiculous. After all, not everyone experiences this phenomenon. Not to mention that many people, regardless of where they come from, can be very selective when choosing their seatmates. It can also be a sort of a tit-for-tat. If people don’t sit next to me, then I’ll have no remorse letting people know I also don’t want to sit next to them. Things tend to work both ways, after all.

    The Subtleness of a Microaggression

    Microaggressions are acts and remarks that make people feel attacked or insulted due to their race, gender, religion, etc. even if the action itself was not done with the intention to harm others. It’s a complicated term, for sure, since it puts emphasis on people’s emotions, thus triggering more debates on whether those feeling hurt are being oversensitive, or if a harmful action did take place.

    Microaggressions happen everywhere, no matter the country; and they can also be prevalent in workplaces and schools.

    In Japan, one of the most common actions people complain about is when Japanese ask foreigners if they can use chopsticks. I will indeed sound like a broken record for saying this again, but people’s reactions to that question will greatly differ based on each person. To some, it’s a simple question with a “yes” or “no” answer. To others, though, it’s a very harmful microaggression that continues to put a barrier between the “us” and the “them”.

    Similarly, those who feel hurt when people don’t sit next to them will see the phenomenon as a microaggression; an act that is so subtle and innocent in nature, but with long-term effects on those it’s affecting.

    Conversations surrounding this topic tend to draw two different conclusions: that the phenomenon is an act of xenophobia, or that those who complain about it are over-exaggerating. Based on this, it’s easy to see that subjects involving what people perceive to be microaggressions can be very polarizing. So ,which one is it? To tell the truth, there is no clear answer here. When asked about it, some Japanese can become very defensive, making up silly excuses to justify the behavior. Such reactions can of course support the hypothesis that the phenomenon showcases people’s racism. However, there’s another thing at play that people sometimes forget: homophily.

    Homophily

    So, what’s homophily?
    Homophily refers to the tendency individuals have to associate with those who are similar to them. Homophily can be observed in many aspects of society since people will prefer to be with those whose ideologies, religion, race, ethnicity, and economic status resemble theirs. Ergo, birds of a feather flock together.

    Homophily has been observed across decades, and there have been numerous studied devoted to it.

    It’s easy to assume that in a country as homogeneous as Japan one could witness homophily at play in many situations, and people not sitting next to foreigners could indeed be one of them. In the end, people are more likely to choose seatmates that look like them. Additionally, those who have grown in more diverse environments are less likely to behave in ways that reinforce this type of homophily. It would also be unfair to equate homophily with racism since these terms are very different despite the perceived correlation between them. Besides, homophily is not exclusive to race.

    Conclusion

    As you can attest, this can be a tricky subject that leads to very opinionated conversations with no clear answers. While some will easily consider that when Japanese don’t sit next to foreigners they are showcasing their xenophobia through a microaggression, others will simply see it as a harmless action with no concealed meanings other than homophily.

    For that reason, we would like to know your take. Have you experienced this phenomenon? And if you have, what are your thoughts about it?

    1. Andrew says:

      I visited Tokyo last October and this is the first time I hear about this. Never happened to us and we used the metro more than 30 times at different hours. Even when the car was almost empty people sat next to us.

      Japanese people were extremely friendly, they tried to talk to us even when it was clear that we did not speak Japanese. We felt very welcomed. They smiled, nod and helped us every time we needed. They even tried to speak english or even spanish! (We are from South America)

      I read a lot of articles before the trip saying things like the Japanese don’t smile, don’t laugh out loud, don’t show emotions or hold hands in public, etc. but we saw a lot of people doing just that specially young people.

      Maybe times are changing or Tokyo is very different from the rest of the country.

    2. MF says:

      Well tbh they might just think that big sized foreign (color difference gaijin) stink in the summer. Being a same colored skin gaijin I don’t recall such issue.

    3. Mark says:

      Yes, it’s happened, even last weekend. I don’t care. I’ve even been blatantly mistreated for being a foreigner as well. I still don’t care. People want to be victims, so they can gripe about someone else or play the victim card. Get over it and live your life is my motto. If you live in Japan, take the good with the bad, just like everywhere else.

      The people who avoid sitting near me are strangers. If you spend the time making some Japanese friends, they’ll give you the trust and respect you have earned, just like everyone else…and they’ll happily sit next to you on the train or anywhere else.

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