In a world striving for globalization, Japan is still a national state, with foreigners making up only 1.5% of the country’s population. The biggest foreign communities are concentrated in big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, and little to none are to be found in smaller towns and rural regions. With so little international contact, most Japanese people tend to regard foreigners as some kind of exotic creatures who happen to be out shopping at their local konbini. They stare a lot. They only speak English even if you ask them something in Japanese. And then they stare again. Needless to say, being a Westerner in Japan is no ordinary experience. As a young woman in particular, you will probably get lots of attention from strangers as well as from colleagues or even working superiors. Knowing how strict Japanese society is when it comes to social ranking and interpersonal relationships, how do you deal with all that unwanted attention without offending anyone? Here are some frequently occurring situations and tips on handling them politely.
Whether you’re coming to Japan for the first time as a tourist or you’re on your fifth year of living there, glances and staring never go out of fashion. As a foreign woman, your specific Western physique and clothing style stands out from the mass, transforming you into a daring head-turner for Japanese men. No, literally. You will turn heads. As shy as they might be, Japanese men are not embarrassed at all to gaze insistently and ever turn their head when they see a Western woman. Don’t believe me? Walk by a high school or go into a curry shop. It’s going to feel like Angelina Jolie just entered the building. Some of you might find that persistent staring uncomfortable or even offensive at times (I remember that I used to think I had something on my forehead, oh man…)
Tip: As avoiding the staring is quite impossible to say the least, you could try to stop it. When you’re feeling someone’s gaze upon you, turn to them and smile nicely. They will most likely look away and act as if you never existed. Even Japanese men will get embarrassed when caught on eye contact. It might seem obvious, but it’s really the best thing you can do.
Bonus points: You’re grinding down a bit the stereotype of evil gaijin that Japanese have encrusted in their minds. You might be an exotic creature, but hey, at least you’re a nice one!
Speaking English and English Only
To me, this seemed like the nastiest one of all. Being on a research program on Japanese language and culture, I was hoping to get as many conversation opportunities as possible. My level of the language was pretty decent at that time, so talking to my professors was not a problem. While everything went smoothly with the woman teachers, I noticed that almost all of the male staff at the University was only speaking to me in English. Well, in broken English which I couldn’t understand most of the time. I found myself in a stupid situation, where I kept asking them to speak Japanese to me because I did not understand what on earth they were saying. And they did not. Switch. To Japanese. Ever.
One reason behind that is obvious: Men want to impress you with their Engrish. Japanese men think speaking English is a sign of refinement, which makes them look smart and cosmopolitan (which of course appeals to foreign women!). However, it usually sounds nothing like English (there are some exceptions, obviously) and they end up looking plain stupid.
Tip: What I found works best is pretending you do not speak English at all. This will work in about any environment (you probably heard that these situations happen a lot in restaurants, shops, or even on the street). Assuming that you have a good level of Japanese which you want to practice while in Japan, put on a confused look and… 「すみませんが, 英語ができません。」 Watch their jaws drop and enjoy a smooth conversation.
Bonus points: You help broaden Japanese people’s conception of the West. Not everybody comes from America and Great Britain. Some foreigners can speak decent Japanese as well!
This is a very delicate topic from a woman’s point of view. As foreigners in Japan come from different cultural backgrounds, one may be either amused or offended by these dirty jokes. It’s really hard to give tips on how to react to them, but let’s try it.
Imagine the scenario: You’re at a nomikai (drinking party) with a few of your coworkers and maybe a middle-aged boss. After your boss has raised his glass to a little toast, everyone proceeds to gulp down beer. Lots of it. After a few pints, the Japanese shyness will vanish like smoke in the wind, and you’ll notice your colleague (or even boss) taking a seat next to you and cracking a joke:
“Did you go to the town onsen yet?
Oh, you definitely should! I’d love to see you bathing naked.”
A Japanese woman’s reaction to this would be blushing, covering her cheeks with her palms, and being genuinely embarrassed. That is considered a cute and proper woman’s reaction. However, I can’t help but see a Western woman slapping the guy in the face and accusing him of seku hara (sexual harassment). However, as we are aware of the Japanese unspoken rule of social ranking and politeness, we might think of a less aggressive comeback. The key is being funny and spiritual.
Note: When I was just getting myself into Japanese culture, I read the infamous "Memoirs of a Geisha." It is, of course, a very inaccurate and offensive book, but I remember this one passage which described a teahouse party. A geisha had just finished telling a sensual story to entertain the drunk men about a young maiden who got her privates exposed, when one of them leans towards the younger apprentice: I bet you don’t have any hair yet… , to which she responds: Oh I do! I have a lot! , while touching her complex hairdo.
Tip: Try to think of a witty response to the dirty joke you’ve just been confronted with. Everybody will appreciate it. Actually, if there’s one thing Japanese men love more than shyness, it’s a woman’s ability to maintain a conversation. No wonder Japanese men have a history of paying huge amounts to geishas for the sole purpose of having a pleasant conversation with them! With a good comeback to his joke, you make a good impression and state your point--that dirty humor isn’t going to get him anywhere. Also, try not to get too serious about it and don’t take it personally as much as you can.
Bonus points: With this you tackle the most widespread Japanese misconception about Westerners--that they are rude. Congratulations, you just handled a delicate matter in a polite and witty way!
To sum it up, I should say that staying in Japan as a foreign woman might be quite a challenge, but in fact, it all depends on your point of view. If you stay positive and polite, no unwanted attention is going to ever hurt you. Even better, by reacting properly to it, you might even change the general perception and break the stereotypes about foreigners in Japan.
Nika is a full-time Japan researcher. She keeps her finger on the pulse of the Japanese culture--tackling any subject from classical literature to pop culture.