‘Foreigner’ 「外国人」

DSC_0101 (2)Episode 1.

Let’s call him Mr Belltree. He is the home room teacher of one of my grade 5 classes, and we co-teach my self-introduction lesson playing games using an Australian flag, several enlarged photos, and the following keywords: Melbourne, Australia, wombat, hiking, piano, etc.

Two weeks later he gets to class a little bit early and asks me, in Japanese: What are you doing next year? Going home to America?

Episode 2.

On our way to an event for the volunteer group that teaches Japanese to foreigners living in the area, I am chatting with a volunteer I haven’t met before. She asks me what I do, so I tell her, I’m an ALT. She asks, what do those letters stand for again?

Assistant Language Teacher.

She says, oh, really? I always thought it was American Language Teacher. But now that I think about it, you’re from Australia, and there are people from the UK and other countries too, right?

Episode 3.

My middle school is doing the unit about fair trade, so the English teacher decides, let’s make it fun and have some chocolate! She tells me she’s ordered some foreign chocolate online, it’s from Mexico. Is it fair trade? …Ah.. I don’t know.

At the class, she brings out the chocolate. It’s Hershey’s. (Who told her that was from Mexico?) All the kids get to try it, and so do we. It’s not very nice. She asks the class, Which do you prefer: Japanese chocolate or foreign chocolate?

Episode 4.

I am at work at my primary school, walking down the stairs. Some grade 2 kid sees me, points, and goes, in Japanese, ‘AUSTRALIA!’ I start laughing, and say, yes, that’s right. Another kid goes ‘AMERICA!’

Maybe you’ve heard that Japan is 98.5% ethnically Japanese: in other words, 1.5% of the population is made up of ‘non-Japanese residents.’ I’m not sure where this places people of mixed ethnicity. But of this 1.5%, according to Wikipedia, the vast majority is Chinese, followed closely by Korean. Then, quickly decreasing, the nationalities represented are the Philippines, Brazil and Vietnam. At number 6, with about half of the Vietnamese population in Japan, comes the US.

So, statistically speaking, there aren’t many non-Japanese people in Japan, and there are really very few people who don’t, at first sight, look Asian. The assumption on seeing a white person is that you’re American (although given the above, it’s actually more likely that you’re Brazilian). If you look foreign and are not white, who knows? One of my POC/black American friends is apparently often asked if they are from India. But generally speaking, in the words of my Japanese teacher, in the eyes of most of Japan, ‘foreign’ = American.

Translates to 'idiot'


To generalise horribly, the image of foreigners that seems to be held in Japan is that they are attractive, loud, rude, ignorant and helpless. This is occasionally useful, when you haven’t got the energy to do things the proper way or when you feel like singing loudly on the street. Most of the time, though, it can get a bit frustrating.

Is this what we look like?

The first time I went to Osaka, doing tourist stuff with a local friend, I was approached by a white family led by a loud American woman.

‘Do you speak English? Oh thank God, nobody speaks English around here.’

She then proceeded to ask me and my friend where to go and which was best of these three temples, and how could she get there and how long it would take… she hadn’t done her research properly and basically wanted a free tour guide. I had no idea about anything in Osaka, and let my poor friend explain a couple of things, and then we all went to the closest temple. The woman then bombarded the receptionist with a barrage of useless questions in loud, fast, English, and the receptionist did her best to communicate, and somehow everyone managed to proceed on their way.

What an obnoxious woman. My friend and I were so glad when we finally managed to shake her off.

Racist? Ignorant?

The way that tourist behaved in Osaka fits with many Japanese expectations of foreigners. There is an assumption that you must speak English with people who don’t look Japanese. (And an underlying assumption that all white people are tourists?)

Where I am from, this would be seen as racist. In Melbourne there is a huge Chinese population, and large populations of people from other Asian countries too, and many of them are descended from immigrants years and years ago. If a white person says ‘Ni-hao!’ to an Asian person on the street, that would likely be seen as racist or ignorant, especially as for the majority of people who can’t speak Chinese in Australia, that’s the only word they know. There’s a large chance that the ‘Chinese’ person in question: speaks Cantonese, not Mandarin; is Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malay, Singaporean, or another nationality; only speaks English; and most importantly, doesn’t want to talk to some random stranger.

It’s also offensive to ask someone where they’re from on the basis of their appearance. (Accent is another question.) This video illustrates this pretty well, and also gives me the idea that it’s not only where I’m from that it’s offensive.

So that’s my background. Aside from that, I’m living in Japan, where the local language is Japanese. Outside of work, I didn’t come here to speak English.

However, most Japanese people see me and assume they’re supposed to suddenly start speaking English. Due to a huge host of factors, most people have very little confidence speaking English, and a small few have more confidence than they really should. So people handle seeing foreigners in a variety of ways, particularly if you meet them at a party or something. Sometimes they just giggle in an embarrassed way, sometimes they say in Japanese, ‘I can’t speak English!’, sometimes they just stare at you. These days I often go to these situations with my Japanese boyfriend, so people usually glance at me, then start asking him questions about me in Japanese, like ‘Is this your girlfriend? Where is she from? Where did you meet? Can she eat Japanese food?’

Hello! 🙂 

In a work environment, if I meet people I don’t know in groups (e.g. student teachers), some of them say ‘Hello’ and some say hello in Japanese. Invariably the others in the group then start teasing that person for speaking Japanese to someone who is obviously a foreigner. I’ve noticed that some teachers also do this to kids they see greeting me in Japanese.

Meanwhile, the Board of Education is paying my company to pay me to give Japanese kids a positive impression of foreigners, and to encourage and enable them to use English. Practically speaking, lessons are only part of this: the rest of the time, this means smiling at and saying hello to everyone at work, wherever you meet them. For the kids, this kind of means getting randomly surprised with the appearance of a foreigner on the way to class, where you have to suddenly switch to ‘dealing with a foreigner’ mode, i.e., English, and say ‘hello’ or ‘good morning.’ So on my more cynical days, it feels like outside of actually teaching, my job is to reinforce the stereotypes I mentioned before: that all foreigners are outgoing, loud, friendly, speak English, and want to speak only English. By the way, I think there will be a post or two later on about the education system here and my experience of it.

In shops, restaurants, etc., when people have to deal with you as a solo customer, the question of what language to use is invariably absent and it’s respectful Japanese all the way. However, if you are with an Asian-looking person, usually the worker interacts with that person to varying extents, and occasionally this sort of thing happens.  My Japanese companions have had questions from wait staff standing behind me, on if I’m vegetarian (no), and in that case should they give me a ‘hamburg steak’, and should they change the pickled daikon for some omelette because I probably won’t be able to eat it… I’m sure the person in this case was trying to improve my experience, but unfortunately their behaviour didn’t have that effect. But that doesn’t happen every day.

Also, in the general public some people deal with encountering a foreigner by avoiding speaking with them, some people jump at the chance to use their English skills. This brings to mind two particular experiences.

At the convenience store:

I am in the process of printing something at 7-11 from a USB stick, and waiting for it to load. A lady comes out of the toilet area, comes over to the photocopier and opens it to find a piece of paper that someone has left behind. She then starts apologising to me in Japanese, presumably thinking that I was photocopying that piece of paper. I’m surprised and thinking about what to say, and meanwhile she assumes I haven’t understood what’s going on and starts to speak English instead. Finally, my mouth starts working and I explain in Japanese that the paper isn’t mine, I’m printing from my USB. She accepts this and goes to look at a magazine while she waits for me to finish printing. Then as I leave, I say to her in Japanese, ‘It’s all yours,’ and she replies to me in English, ‘Thank you.’

At the station:

On my way back from Osaka, where the line for the ticket machine was long, the train was leaving soon and I wasn’t sure which machine to use for a ticket back to Gifu, I take my IC card to the ticket window, because it doesn’t work at the turnstiles after going between prefectural zones. This is the third time I’ve done this, but the man on duty today is slightly put out at having to deal with it and tells me about the zone thing and to buy a paper ticket next time. I’m a bit annoyed at this, and then as I leave the station, a random man in a hat asks me in English, ‘Did you understand?’

Yes, I did, thank you.

‘He was telling you that this is the wrong ticket. You have to buy a paper ticket next time.’


To be honest, I didn’t understand absolutely everything that the ticket guy said to me, and I still don’t really get why the IC card is fine between Gifu and Nagoya, but not Gifu and Osaka. But this random guy didn’t know that, he just wanted to tell me himself that I had made a mistake and not to do it again.

Um. So. As a privileged white person from a very privileged background in a first world country, I can really thank Japan for all the (still limited) insight I have gained on what it can mean to belong to a minority group. Thanks to Japan, I have realised I am a feminist, and started to care about things I never really noticed before.



One thought on “‘Foreigner’ 「外国人」

  1. Hi Cath. Just shared this with my own “Japanese girl” currently working in Osaka. I shared it in a message rather than on her timeline, because she has hundreds of Japanese friends. Thanks for the interesting read. I wonder if Steph has had similar experiences.


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