Japan: Incidental Prejudice with Foreigners

Living here so far, I’ve discovered that the Japanese are the kindest, most polite people I’ve met.  I live in a relatively rural region so I can only speak for the ones I’ve met.  But every time I’ve asked for help from friends or strangers, they always agree, and sometimes even go out of their way to do it.

However, I’ve found that people here are prejudiced against others – and not in the conventional American sense.  People here have zero animosity towards those they judge.  They simply have preconceptions and there are a number of reasons why this is the case.  I’m no expert, but I believe the biggest cause is their culture of non-verbal communication.  Every interaction here is about “reading the air,” sensing the atmosphere of the situation.

And “reading the air” means the Japanese are good at reading the surface.  I get a sense that generalizations aren’t a negative thing as they would be in America – it’s just a way of understanding.

I could write an entire essay analyzing every aspect of Japanese behavior, but what I witness the most is their perception of American foreigners.  A few Japanese people I’ve met say the same things to me:

  • Can you eat this?
  • Does this bother you?
  • You’re so skilled at using chopsticks.

These questions reveal Japanese preconceptions:

Can you eat this? — Americans are picky. 

If you ever decide to live here, Japanese people will ask if you can eat: raw fish, miso, natto, macha tea, wasabi and more.  They are often surprised if you can. Never would a Japanese person ask a fellow nihonjin these questions because they usually eat everything offered to them.  Again, they are really polite.  Americans on the other hand, might refuse something they haven’t even tried.

Foreigners refuse food for a few valid reasons, such as religious beliefs or levels of vegetarianism.  But it’s a fact you never know when a random American will judge a dish before taking a bite.

Does this bother you? — Americans can’t handle Japanese ways.

A local hotspring bath.  They say foreigners can't handle the nudity or temperature.

A local hotspring bath. They say foreigners can’t handle the nudity or temperature.

Some Japanese people I’ve met actually bring this up as a topic of conversation.  They assume that Americans dislike their food, squat-style toilets, baths and ways of life.  To a certain extent, this is true.  You can always find a foreigner who has some gripe about Japan, from the mundane to people-to-people relationships.

You’re so skilled at using chopsticks… Chopsticks only exist in Asia?

Here's the bento lunch I eat at work almost every day with chopsticks.

Here’s the bento lunch I eat at work almost every day with chopsticks.

Some people who ask me this genuinely believe foreigners can’t use chopsticks.  The majority of people ask me this like they’ve all read the same etiquette guide on how to treat foreigners.  It’s funny because either they don’t know about the ubiquitous  Asian cuisine in America, or they were trained to say the same thing.


Besides the thing about chopsticks, these strong ideas about foreigners makes me realize the culture clash between America and Japan.  Sure, over-generalizing is wrong because individuals defy stereotypes.  I, for one, like all Japanese food, toilets and bathing in public with strangers (but I’m aware that sounds weird…).  There are also plenty of gaijin who love everything about Japan.  The thing is, these preconceptions are definitely true conceptions about a lot of foreigners.  Perhaps I haven’t been here long enough to be a voice of authority because long-term foreigners always say, “give it time,” and I’ll start complaining about things.  Right now, the biggest thing that bothers me is the Japanese will continue to judge foreigners in this manner.  But it’s also wrong to assume every Japanese person you encounter will meet your expectations.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with something that surprised me:

Yep, there's an annual St. Patrick's festival in the small city of Matsue.  People wear green and drink Guinness beer.

Yep, there’s an annual St. Patrick’s festival in the small city of Matsue. People wear green and drink Guinness beer.

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