Most Americans (and Westerners, in general) who are interested in travelling hear amazing things about Japan: amazing food, beautiful scenery, polite people, and incredible culture. I’ve been lucky enough over the past two months to experience these things for myself. For example, I went to a world-renowned restaurant for tonkotsu ramen with a fellow American and went sightseeing around downtown Kyoto at 3:00am while walking home from a friend’s birthday party. Both were positively sublime and will be memories I cherish, and that’s only covering what I did in one night. If we went over everything I’ve done since I got here, we’d be here a while. There’s no denying that Japan is a seriously fun place.
Frankly, all of those narratives about the food and culture hold up…but that’s not what I’m going to be talking about in this blog post. Rather, all of those great touristy things is not the real Japan, just like how Times Square and Yellowstone and Wingstop are not the real America. There’s a side to Japan that you start to pick up on once you get past the veil of being a tourist. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly the same great feeling you get as a tourist.
Let me give you some context. Just like everywhere else, Japan puts its best foot forward when showing off to the rest of the world. There’s a culture of omotenashi here. It roughly translates to “hospitality” but when referring to Japan it’s defined as “Japanese service culture”. It’s characterized by extremely polite language and behavior, and a willingness to go to any ends for the customer to ensure a good experience. However, there’s a separation there: while they treat you as a welcome customer, that is all you are to them and nothing more. They will not get friendly or warm with you, they will not be frank or genuine with you, and they won’t extend the conversation longer than it has to in order to complete the transaction. Yes, this is how they treat any customer, but it is especially compounded by the fact that you are a foreigner.
This same “at-arm’s-length” politeness exists in every part of life in Japan as a foreigner. Japanese people are polite to you, they try not to be offensive or say anything to upset you, but they do not necessarily like you or your presence. You are simply tolerated because they see you as a necessary evil for their country. They do not see foreigners in their country as more than tourists, providing money for the country and its businesses. Rather, they are a bothersome presence to many people here in Japan.
The current political majority in Japan is conservative and borderline ultra-nationalist, with the current Prime Minister belonging to an ultra-nationalist political organization that blames the United States for starting World War II and preaches a return to pre-war nationalism. Conservative Japanese media is filled with references to foreigners’ arrests and poor behavior, with plenty of material provided by the influx in tourism and the recent major tourist events such as the Rugby World Cup; it’s not unlike the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that we see in so many other countries in the West. The novelty of foreigners in Japan has almost completely worn off, replaced by a stronger push for Japanese ethnocentrism. A friend of mine who studied at Ole Miss last year told me that Japanese people do not see non-Japanese people on the same level as their countrymen. I have found this to be an accurate statement.
No, it’s not violent, and people aren’t coming up to me and telling me to go back to my country. That said, there have been interactions in Japan where it’s been obvious that I wasn’t a welcome presence. Especially when it comes to the more obvious foreign people (i.e. not Asians), they assume you do not have the intelligence and language skills to navigate Japan and therefore treat you either as a nuisance or a child- or both. Most of all, it’s cold. As an American, the standards for good experiences with others typically involves people being warm and kind to each other. When the vast majority of people aren’t willing to try to talk to you and build rapport with you, it feels cold and a bit lonely because that’s what we’re used to experiencing. I could just be that way because I’m from Wisconsin and live in the South, two places where people are typically warm and open with each other, even in a business atmosphere; also, I’m not the only one this has happened to, and Americans aren’t the only ones who are treated as foreigners. That said, there’s also no denying that it definitely has affected my interactions here in Japan due to various domestic and foreign matters. I won’t get into those details for obvious reasons, but there has definitely been some situations here in Japan where recent events have impacted the way that I was treated.
I’ve observed an interesting side effect of this: it’s caused the foreigners here to get closer together, both in groups of people with shared cultural values and in groups of people from the same country. I’ve definitely experienced this for myself. I’ve struck up friendships and hung out with all sorts of people who’ve been wanting to have a little warmth in a country that is cold and rather uncaring. Most of all, the closest friends I’ve made here are Americans, and I’m eternally grateful for them because they’ve made my life here so much more fun and easy.
There’s also exceptions to the rule: my favorite ramen shop, run by a mother and her two daughters, who remember me every time and are always nothing but kind and warm; the nice older fellow who comes up to me and my American friend Graham at sento (Japanese bathhouse) and talks to us in easily understandable Japanese because he enjoys the company; and the teachers at Ritsumeikan and community assistants at the dorm who are used to foreigners and are more willing to open up to them. It’s a welcome change of pace, and it’s made me feel a bit more comfortable in a place that sometimes feels a bit off for me.
And of course, I’m not saying I’m not having fun. It’s been a great ride so far. But- with that said- don’t let yourself be tricked into thinking Japan is a tourist’s paradise, because it’s far from that. The real Japan is a cold, uncaring place if you’re a foreigner. It’s a country reliant on tourists and global trade that doesn’t like people who aren’t from here, and has a strong culture of “Japan and Japanese above all”. Just keep that in mind when you come here.
Also, I keep hitting my head on things here and I think I’m going to get a brain injury from it, if I haven’t already.