A ‘Gaijin’ Woman’s Challenges in Japan

Yesterday, I was invited to speak at an International Forum in Japan. It was the first time that I didn’t feel like a ‘foreigner’ in this country. I felt like a human being having a chat with other human beings. What a rare experience it is in Japan. It was also the first time someone pushed me to give my genuine opinion about life in the land of the rising sun. 

I am not a tourist. I’ve been living here for close to two and a half years. And no – I do not live in an expat bubble. At work, I am the only ‘foreign’ staff member. I am not married to anyone Japanese. Even amongst ‘foreigners’, I am an outsider. A majority of foreigners in this country are either white, Chinese, Korean or Filipino. I’m a brown girl from Singapore who is a ‘third culture kid‘. 

Today – I’m finally going share some of the challenges I’ve faced in this country. As someone who comes from a lot of cultures and no culture in particular – my purpose in writing this is not to offend anybody but to share my personal experiences. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, my only hope is to talk about things openly to create some much-needed cross-cultural understanding. 

Common questions Japanese people ask me

1. Why do foreigners never stay in Japan? Why do they suddenly quit their jobs and go home?

Because we are not given the opportunities to make a meaningful contribution in this country. We are treated like outsiders. There is no genuine dialogue. Barely anyone asks us about the challenges we face and what could be done to keep us around. 

If we have jobs – we’re just expected to be there even when we have a fever. No one actually stops to realise that our families are far away and how badly some of us need the companionship of people who can empathise with what we go through. 

Most people don’t walk out of a happy situation. Unhappy people run for their lives.

2. Do you like Japan? Do you like Japanese food/men/onsen/shrine/insert noun of choice?

Most locals – regardless of where they are from – want to hear how much you love their country. Nevertheless, I have always always believed that you don’t ask questions that you don’t want answers to. I’ve lived in four countries and visited all the continents except Antarctica. 

Yes – I do like Japan. Do I think it’s the best place in the world? No comment. 

Hello! I’m the ‘token’ foreigner friend.

The next time one of my Japanese friends calls me a ‘foreigner’, I’m lowering their status from ‘friend’ to ‘acquaintance’. I didn’t mind the term so much when I first moved to Japan. But now that I’ve lived here for a while – it drives me nuts. 

Many people treat ‘gaijin’ friends as souvenirs. You may be the only foreign friend they have. They may even be more honest about their true feelings with you than with a fellow Japanese person. They may like you. Heck – they may even love you.

But most of them will never see you as an equal human being. To the average Japanese person, you are an outsider. You are not family. You are not a colleague. You come last in the hierarchy. You are a novelty item. You usually have to make ALL THE EFFORT to get to know them. 

And you do know, I’m a teacher, right? Asking me to correct your English and go through your essays on my day off – is selfish as hell. Find another token gaijin. I have better things to do on the Sabbath. 

The spotlight without the limelight

Everyone is always looking at me, but no one actually sees me. 

People stare at me all the time. They make comments on my appearance. On my clothes. On my behaviour. On the food that’s in my bento. About how I hold my chopsticks the Chinese way. ALL DAY LONG, I have to hear how everything about me is not Japanese.

Yet – when I open my mouth, people are surprised by my near perfect imitation of the Kanto accent. I AM SO SICK OF HEARING – nihongo wa jyozu des ne. Your Japanese is so good. Can you please ask me a real question?

Everyone in Japan has studied English. Many of them even score highly in the EIKEN exam. But having an actual natural conversation in English with some people is just … Lets just say, I know LOADS of other expats in Japan who don’t speak Japanese and I don’t know how they manage. 

Concluding Remarks 

I’m not naive. I know every country comes with its gifts and challenges. Ultimately, I am here by choice. I’ve had several opportunities to leave Japan. But I haven’t truly wanted to say yes to a single one. I have a lot more to say, but since this is a blog post and not a book, I’ll stop here for now. 

Yesterday was the first time since coming to Japan that I didn’t feel like a foreigner. I truly do love this country – and it is my hope that I will feel less like a foreigner in the days to come. It is then and only then that I might consider staying here for the long haul. 

Unfortunately, I do not know when that day will come. Life is short – and patience isn’t one of my virtues. 

18 thoughts on “A ‘Gaijin’ Woman’s Challenges in Japan

  1. Excellent post. You were very tactful. As an ex-expat living there in the mid-80’s and again the 90’s– at a time when gaijin were much more rare, I can say I felt all of the things you expressed. And I was the wife of a Japanese man, trying my very best to assimilate and do everything the proper way. But still, I was and always would be a curious pet.

    The other day I posted “A March on Tokyo in Tokyo” and I would very much like your feedback on it. Foreign women, especially those from the West, are all to accepting of the way Japanese women have been conditioned to behave and rarely speak up to encourage their Japanese sisters rise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. I just read your post as well – I think Japan is so entrenched in tradition in so many ways and things that I don’t even know where to begin… the role of women in Japan is but one of those traditions that just seems to go on and on and on…

      Personally I haven’t quite come to a conclusion about the gender issue in Japan. After living here though, I have no doubt that patriarchy is as damaging to men as it is to women.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting that I had similar experiences growing up in the South in the US. I came here at the age of 9 and became a naturalized citizen, but till this day always seem as a foreigner first. It no longer angers me when people say “oh you don’t have an accent.”

    But I realize your experience is unique to you, and in a different context. But I found the parallels interesting.


    1. Despite all that’s going on in the US right now – the country is still very much a nation of immigrants. Japan on the other hand….

      You don’t have an accent! Oh lord… I’ve always found that comment hilarious. Everyone has an accent… you know?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One would think there would be all kind of foreigners in Japan nowadays, I’m surprised to hear you feel like an outsider even in the gaijin world.
        I have friends who are Japanese American (born and raised in the US but now live in Japan) and I know some of them really struggle when locals don’t quite understand how they can look Japanese but not speak the language (fluently). I think the rest of us have it easier in that sense šŸ™‚


      2. Yea it’s kind of hard being an outsider in Japan, period. If you’re looking for a sense of belonging, you’re unlikely to find it…

        Unfortunately, for me – it’s hard with western people and also on the Japanese side…

        What’s your story? How long have you been here?


      3. I agree, no matter how much you try the Japanese will always consider you an outsider. I am coming in terms with that.
        I’ve been here for a year now and in some ways feel like it’s still my honeymoon period going strong. I definitely have no more delusions about how perfect Japan is – sometimes life here can be infuriating.
        But I’ve lived in many different countries throughout the years and can honestly say that right now Japan is the only place I’d want to be šŸ™‚


      4. I feel the same way as you at the moment. Being here drives me up the wall at times, but yea it’s also a fascinating place with lots and lots to offer. It’s the 5th country I’ve lived in so yea I get where you’re coming from.

        Where in Japan are you?


      5. Cool, this is my sixth country šŸ™‚
        I live in Hiroshima. I really enjoy how it’s a small city with yet lots to offer.
        How about you?

        Liked by 1 person

      6. In Yokohama. Have u ever been here? Feel free to get in touch if you’re ever in the area. I love playing tour guide haha!

        I’ve never been to Hiroshima. I must come and visit sometime šŸ™‚ what do you recommend I do?


      7. I’ve never been to Yokohama, no! I will definitely take you up on your offer šŸ™‚ I’m planning to come over there sometime this spring or early summer – will let you know šŸ™‚ Thank you for the offer!
        Oh you must visit Hiroshima, it’s a wonderful, laid back little city! I recommend Shukkei-en garden here, the Peace Museum, Miyajima and Mitaki-dera. And of course you should eat okonomiyaki here! I know the best okonomiyaki restaurant here, so when/if you come around, do let me know, I’ll take you there for sure šŸ™‚


      8. Do indeed let me know if you are in town. I know about all the places that only the locals know about.

        I love love love okonomiyaki. It’s my favourite Japanese food. I really should come and visit Hiroshima sometime and thank so much for the tour guide offer! I will definitely take you up on it.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s