We all know that foreigners get treated differently depending on what “kind” of foreigner they are. For example, foreigners come in varying degrees of foreign-ness, ranging from your garden variety white Canadian living in Minnesota, to the only Zimbabwean family in rural Finland.
The way locals talk to the super-foreign foreigner is quite different from how they talk to the not-so-foreign foreigner.
As a very white European living in Japan, I fall toward the super-foreign side of the spectrum. Luckily, I would say that Japanese society is quite accepting of foreigners like myself (perhaps less of foreigners from other parts of the world, but I can’t write to someone else’s experience). Most of the awkward conversations are not the byproduct of racist hostility, but rather of discomfort, or a lack of cross-cultural experience.
I’d like to give you a taste of some of the bizarre conversations I’m party to on a regular basis. Here is my compilation of the weird things Japanese people say to foreigners.
White men can’t speak
Let’s start with a pretty common conversation pattern, especially in parts of Japan with fewer foreigners:
[At a restaurant]
Me: We would like a table for three.
Waiter, eyes stricken with panic, sees I’m a white guy and tries to answer in English.
Him: TABLE, 3? Uhhhhhh, smoke? You smoke?
Me, responding in fluent Japanese.
Me: A non-smoking table, please.
Waiter sees that one of my friends is Asian, turns to him and continues in Japanese.
Him: A non-smoking table, of course! Right now all the booths are taken, could you wait 15 minutes or so?
My Asian friend looks dumbfounded. He’s just visiting and doesn’t speak any Japanese. I try in vain to draw the waiter’s attention back to me.
Me: He doesn’t speak Japanese. It’s fine, we’ll wait.
It’s useless. The waiter responds once again to my friend.
Him: Thank you very much, I’ll call you when we’re ready.
Any non-Asian having lived in Japan can tell you these kinds of interactions happen all the time. While more and more shops and restaurants in Tokyo are used to having foreign patrons that speak Japanese, most staff still strongly associate having a white customer with having to know English. These guys really nailed the feeling in their YouTube video:
The one skill foreigners are known for
Here’s another one I get all the time.
[At a party]
Her: Where are you from?
Her: So you speak… Swiss?
Me: I’m actually from the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Although I’m fluent in English as well; I lived in the U.S. and the U.K. for a while.
Her: Wow, so you teach English here in Japan? I’ve always wanted to learn!
Another very common assumption people have of English speakers is that our work must be related to language. Usually they think English teacher, but I also sometimes get translator or interpreter (especially when people realize that my Japanese is quite good).
The most frustrating example of this is on dating apps. I can no longer count how many times I’ve matched with a seemingly interesting, attractive lady just to immediately have her ask me, “Could you teach me English?”
And not in a flirtatious way. In a I-don’t-want-to-pay-for-lessons-so-let-me-use-my-looks way.
I used to teach English to pay for my language school. It was not for me. I don’t want to go back. If you want me to teach you English, I don’t care how cute you are, be ready to pay the big bucks.
Here’s one that foreigners all around in the world can relate to.
Her: So where are you from?
Her: Oh wow! I only know about the cheese.
That’s it. That’s literally where the conversation stops. I don’t know where to go next, so I usually change the subject. Or I tell them we also have good chocolate.
It makes sense in any conversation to want to show curiosity and openness by engaging with the other person’s topic. If someone tells you they’re from Peru, perhaps say you’ve always wanted to go, or that you’ve been before and really appreciated this and that.
But showing curiosity is different from blurting out the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name of a country.
Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to know anything about Switzerland. I don’t get offended if you’re unfamiliar with our main exports or our political system. This is not a quiz. If you want to learn more, I’d be happy to talk about my country—just ask!
That being said, at least Switzerland is famous for its cheese. When I tell people I was born in Russia, usually I just get, “You must be good with vodka!”
The universal representative
This last one happens especially at work, and could warrant an article of its own.
Boss: This marketing strategy should resonate with Japan’s strict business culture. Does everyone agree?
Boss: I’m curious, what about overseas? Are businesses less strict? Alex?
Me: Uhhhh… what do you mean by “overseas?”
Japan is an insular country. It doesn’t share land borders with any other nation. For many Japanese people, the world is divided into “inside the country” （国内, kokunai）and “overseas” (海外, kaigai).
I’ve been a foreigner in many countries. I often get asked about life back in “my country.” Japan is the only place where I get asked all the time, “What’s it like overseas?”
In the example above, my boss isn’t asking me about my home country. The subtleties of Swiss business culture are pretty much irrelevant for my company.
If I press on, I’ll typically get asked more specifically about Europe, or The West. But even there, think of how different American business culture is from that of Germany, or Spain, or Denmark. I’m familiar with some, but certainly not with all. What am I supposed to say?
I think this way of dividing the world is symptomatic of a broader issue in Japanese business. In order to compete on the global stage, leaders in Japanese companies need to adopt a much more nuanced, complex way of thinking.
But that’s a topic for a different time. For now, let me just say I’m grossly unqualified to be the Ambassador of All Things Overseas.
And by the way, so are all the foreigners on Japanese T.V. who answer those kinds of questions without nuance or afterthought.
2 thoughts on “The Weird Things People Say to Foreigners in Japan”
I don’t know your name sorry I really appreciate your writing though. Thank you. I love the transparent honesty your cultural skill and your earnest responses to Japanese culture. It feels like on one hand funny yet oh so human. Swiss cheese and chocolate comments I am a nurse hoping to return to Japan in April not sure totally why. Just love it. Your words were very relevant to me personally big thanks fp
Hi thankks for sharing this