Many people are curious about what it is like for a foreigner to live in Japan. However, depending on the type of foreigner you are, experiences will vary pretty greatly. I can only speak for my experiences as a Singaporean Chinese (although there are anecdotes of my Singaporean Indian friend included as well) living in Japan (Tokyo and Saitama).
I’ve been here for a couple of years now, and there are too many aspects of it for me to cover. I will probably leave out something that I will later kick myself for not including, but I’m going to attempt to tackle this topic anyway. Here goes!
You’re not Japanese?
As an Asian foreigner, the biggest advantage (in terms of blending in, not when looking for a teaching job) is that on first sight, no one will be able to tell I’m not Japanese. I easily look like one of them! This is extremely convenient because I don’t have to endure curious looks/stares that foreigners who look distinctly non-Japanese sometimes receive.
My Singaporean Indian friend, Mumu, went to a cosplay event once and the Japanese were asking if they could take photos WITH her! They were fawning over her eyelashes (so long! so thick!) and were generally just besotted by this exotic person in their midst.
So while I get to dodge things like open ogling/judgement, the cat is out of the bag the moment they see my name or if I speak extensively. When they realize I’m not Japanese, their first guess is that I’m Chinese (although Korean is coming up quite often this days). And ALL Chinese come from China, right? Technically, that is probably not entirely incorrect, but please just go along with me and say no for this case.
The instant I clear things up and say I’m from Singapore, almost 100% of the time, surprise will register on their face. And it may well be my imagination, but I feel that the mood shifts ever-so-slightly as they become much nicer and less guarded. Why? Probably because I’m one of the few Singaporeans they have met and they don’t have any particular impressions (negative or otherwise) of Singaporeans.
Singapore, though? Apparently everyone loves Singapore. Singapore is this wonderful country; rich, safe, modern, unbelievably beautiful, with streets so clean they sparkle, and a majestic, iconic building that wows the world over. Thank you Marina Bay Sands for coming into existence and placing us Singaporeans living in Japan in such good favor with the locals, although nobody ever knows its name and everyone calls it “the ship thing”.
Of course, no one (well, not unless they have visited Singapore before) actually KNOWS where exactly Singapore is (surprise! we are nowhere near China!), how tiny it is (Tokyo alone is three times the size of Singapore; Japan collectively? More than 500 times), and they are always shocked when I tell them it’s summer in Singapore all year round.
They think we have our own language (not entirely off the mark, because, Singlish, but still) and are flabbergasted to learn that we speak English in Singapore. And when I tell them we learn two languages in school from young, thus effectively making us bilingual? Minds blown. By the time their brains struggle around to the fact that I am speaking to them in THEIR language, they are pretty much incoherent from shock. Depending on my mood, I may or may not tell them I also speak two other dialects and also learning Korean. I usually do though, because their reactions are priceless, haha.
But yes, that is the typical Japanese I have met. They aren’t travellers; they don’t travel much domestically, and way lesser (if at all) overseas. I easily win any Japanese I’ve met in terms of traveling within Japan, and let’s not compare international travel. The result will just be tragic. On top of little travel, they generally also have little knowledge of other countries/cultures which may be why they are easily impressed by lil ‘ol me.
But you speak Japanese!
When people realize I’m a foreigner, I always get praised for how well I speak Japanese. Always. Even though all I may be uttering are simple sentences like “I’m from Singapore.” Some blogs I’ve read that are written by other foreigners living in Japan express distaste at being praised just for being able to speak a few simple Japanese words (when their Japanese level is in fact much more advanced), because they think that Japanese are being condescending and think “Oh my god! A non-Japanese is actually ABLE to pronounce a few words of our extremely complex and difficult language! She definitely deserves praise!”
But I personally don’t view it that way.
I feel that to the Japanese person who only knows one language, being able to speak a second language is an amazing accomplishment, something that they can only dream of. Thus, when they meet a foreigner who even bothers to make an attempt to speak Japanese, they are full of genuine praise for that person, and woven into that praise is admiration and envy that being able to speak another language is something they can only dream of. I think it’s something akin to the feeling of meeting a person who can play the piano with his feet. Well, if that is not incredulous enough for you, feel free to replace that with whatever it is that you find amazing, and that you could achieve if you set out to do it, but in the meantime is nothing more than a lofty aspiration.
Maybe it’s just my imagination or I’m being naive, but that is the kind of vibe I get from them when I hear their words of compliments. Which is why I’m always pleased to hear them, and always thank them with a smile. Yes, even if they’re praising me when all I’m saying is the super basic “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (pleased to make your acquaintance).
Well, so far, the above is instances when I had the chance to have an extended conversation with the people I met. There are many times when all they can see in me is someone that resembles them in appearance. In those times, I feel that there are certain expectations, much different from those of a non-Japanese-looking-person.
To illustrate, let me bring up the golden example of this day many years ago when Fu and I were on holiday in Japan, and we were out with Mumu and her husband, M (also Indian). We had to ask for directions and my Japanese back then was very basic and Fu’s was non-existent, so we left it to M to do the asking because he’s extremely fluent in Japanese.
We stopped someone, and M did the asking. The guy promptly turned to Fu and me and fired off the directions in rapid Japanese. Then he looked at us expectantly, waiting for a reply or some sort of acknowledgement. I could only stare blankly at him while my brain reeled from the intense chunk of foreign words thrown at it as it struggled to hold on desperately to the few words it recognized and caught.
I didn’t even had the presence of mind to reply the guy, and could only look pleadingly at M to help us out, but he was shaking from trying to suppress his laughter -_- When M finally spoke to the guy in between chuckles, the guy actively avoided looking at M, and he faced Fu and I when he next spoke again. It’s like his brain cannot process that an Indian is speaking fluent Japanese to him!
So yes. Looking like a Japanese in Japan is a double-edged sword, where the downside is that I’m expected to speak like a Japanese too -_-
In general, I didn’t really have any particularly bad experiences living in Japan. Sometimes, I do get the feeling that I’m being slighted because I’m not Japanese though. However, part of it may purely be psychological and potentially stem from the fact that I’m always conscious that I’m not Japanese.
I consider myself to assimilate into the culture pretty well; I separate my trash, I never talk on the phone on the trains, I keep to the left on escalators, I present my neighbors with gifts when I move in, I buy souvenirs even if I’m traveling within the country, to name a few. I respect their culture and follow their rules.
But even doing all that, I feel I might always remain an outsider and will never be “one of them” because… I’m not. Truth is, I don’t really feel like I fit in Singapore either. Perhaps I don’t really belong anywhere? But right now, I am happy and comfortable in Japan. It’s still the place where I want to be and it’s still exciting for me. I also have my loved ones with me, so that’s more than enough for me to call home :)