Foreigners In Japan

Photo by Asdrid

On the eve of my first day at an American Junior High School I was nervous. Really fucking nervous. America. The US of effing A. It was a whole new world for me. I had absolutely no idea what to think, or what to expect. Was it really like Saved By The Bell? Would I have to murder a Blood just to fit in? Did it matter that I didn’t have Reebok Pumps? I was a long way from home.

“Don’t worry about it,” reassured my dad’s friend. “You’re a minority. The girls love a minority.”

This was news to me. Having bright blonde hair and the kind of complexion that would give solarium owners cash related hard-ons, I’d never considered myself a minority, and as I was going to a predominantly white school in the New England suburbs, I had considered it even less.

“I’m a minority?”

“Of course you are. You’ll be the only British kid in school.”

A touch on the covert side of racist Paul may have been, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. The majority of my American school life was spent cosseted by girls two or three years older telling me how cute I was and how my accent was the height of adorableness. Being a minority was pretty cool, I decided, conveniently ignoring how little attention the other Mark in my class, the only black kid from a rough part of town, was receiving. Of the positive kind at any road.

Recollections of my time as a happy minority often spring to mind nowadays. It could be the stares I get on the street. It could be people’s refusal to sit next to me on the subway. Or it could be the sign on the door of the Health Club (i.e. wristie retreat) opposite my apartment building that states ‘Sorry, our shop is for Japanese’. It’s a little more polite than ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’, but the sentiment is very much the same.

Until 1868 Japan was a closed nation. Apart from the port of Nagasaki, which was used primarily for trade with the Dutch and Chinese, foreigners were forbidden entry and no Japanese were permitted to leave, under pain of death. In many ways, this island mentality has remained.

Of a population of 127m, 98.5% of its inhabitants are ethnic Japanese (the rest being made up of 0.5% Korean, 0.4% Chinese and 0.6% other), so it is perhaps understandable that there is some a lack of understanding when faced with people of other races.

While the Japanese tend to consider themselves very open to the rest of the world, in actual fact foreigners, or gaijin, are openly ridiculed for their funny ways and strange odour. You can purchase fake round eye and pointy nose sets from fancy dress stores, as subtly racist as a westerner pulling his eyes slanty and going “Herro, herro, prease! Ching chong, ching chong!” And yet, despite the mockery, the (white) western aesthetic is very much coveted, with Japanese women spending small fortunes on skin bleaching treatments and double eyelid surgery (and if you fear the surgeon’s blade you can always tape your eyelids open).

Of course, with this imitation can also come ‘positive’ stereotyping. Occasional ego boosts can come in the shape of the smiles of pretty girls in the street enticed by the ideas of otherworldliness and the presumption that you are carrying in your trousers the sort of gear usually found swinging under a Melbourne Cup winner, but the perpetuation of any stereotypes – positive or otherwise – is as dehumanising as it is supposed to be flattering. ‘They may not be like us, but they sure got rhythm.’

What is perhaps most concerning, however, is the complete ignorance as to the way foreigners are treated in Japan. A friend of mine, something as an oddity himself as a gaijin television personality, told me about a current events program he saw discussing the proposal of ID cards for Latinos in the southern US combined with a stop and search policy as a way of combatting illegal immigration. On this show one of the panel was outraged as to how a supposedly civilised country such as the US would consider treating immigrants in this way. The rest of the panel agreed wholeheartedly, yet couldn’t hear my friend shouting from the other side of the television screen, waving his Alien Registration Card under their digitised noses.

Yes, as a foreigner in Japan, like everyone else not of Japanese heritage, he and I must at all times carry a little card that announces our legal status in the country and failure to produce it at any time to police if requested, can result in being dragged off to cop shop until able to provide evidence of our legality.

And it is this bureaucratically approved ostracism that allows the overt racism to flourish. Police regularly stopping you on your bicycle (a particularly frequent occurrence if, god forbid, you happen to be brown or black). Restaurants affronted by your presumed inability to use chopsticks refusing entry, and children of mixed race, half Japanese, being told that, as foreigners they are not allowed to enjoy the sort of activities afforded to ‘proper’ Japanese kids such as posing for photographs with dolphins at a local Aqualand. (True story. As if the dolphins have a natural affinity with only people of 100% Japanese blood, a likelihood only possible if we believe that the hunt in Taiji has created some sort of aquatic Stockholm Syndrome amongst the dolphin population.)

But what can be done to change this sorry state of affairs? What will it take to alter the anti-foreigner bias that exists in this otherwise wondrous nation? Perhaps Lady Gaga or One Direction, inexplicably immense stars in Japan, could take inspiration from the way artists boycotted apartheid-era South Africa and refuse to perform until things change*. Maybe the Australian father of half-Japanese toddlers will launch a one-man suicide bomb attack on Aqualand, leaving it to resemble nothing more than the bloody floor of a fish-gutting factory. Or what about me? Could I be the spark that changes a nation’s mind-set? Might everything change if I marched into that Health Club and refused to leave until they lubed up my white cock and wanked it until my filthy foreign muck desecrated their pure Japanese hands? It only takes one spark to start a fire and maybe, just maybe, me getting tossed off by a pro could ignite the revolutionary tinderbox.


*And before those of you who are under the impression that everything placed on the internet is designed to be a personal affront to you start to get arsey, the tip of my tongue is well and truly in the side of my cheek as I compare my mild annoyance at getting funny looks on the subway with the way black South Africans were treated during apartheid. Calm down for fuck’s sake, and give up on the pathetic High-Horsery. You’ll give yourself a heart attack.


Mark Guthrie is a freelance journalist who is compelled to wear a bicycle helmet, even if it makes him look like a bell end. You can read some of his other musings at The Daily Heckled whic, is in no way a rip off of The Onion. Not in the slightest. Social Media-ites can find him on The Instagram and The Twitter.

Categories: Short & Sharp
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