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June 23, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Not quite the welcome they expected

Family when we lived in Hamamatsu, circa 1987


(February 25, 1993)    

When we were living in the city of Hamamatsu some years ago, part of my daily routine included walking by the lake early in the morning. With the exception of a couple of old ladies with whom I always chatted about the weather, and perhaps a few joggers, I’d seldom see anyone. Then one day I saw a foreign couple, and the three of us stopped dead in our tracks.

Although I now hear that “gaijin are all over the place,” at that time in Hamamatsu it was unusual to see a foreign person you didn’t already know. If you did, you usually found out that you had heard their name, or knew someone in common – it would only be a matter of time until you met.

Just around that same time I went to Tokyo, and chanced to be in Roppongi.  I was certain I saw more foreigners in one evening there than I had in the preceding ten years in this country. I was later told that was because many foreigners live in and frequent Roppongi. But already in Tokyo station I’d had to adopt the nonchalant look of the many foreigners I saw there, and make a conscious effort not to try and stop and query anyone. I pretended that seeing so many foreigners was normal for me, too.

However, around here, what was normal, and expected, was that one would accost or be accosted by, any foreigner you happened to see. In fact, a sure sign that someone was “just off the boat” was if they didn’t do this.

But now I no longer turn my head when I notice a foreigner. It’s taken some practice, but I can now feign unconcern and look like I’m not interested in them or what they’re doing of why they’re here or where they’re from.

In any case, this young couple, who were traveling around Japan, were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. We introduced ourselves and talked briefly. They were unabashedly curious and definitely interested to know what I was doing in Japan. I suggested we continue our conversation over tea, and invited them to come home to have breakfast with me.

What they found especially intriguing, as it turned out, was that there could be any foreigners who could like this country enough to live here. I, of course, readily answered that I more than liked it. I went on about the nice aspects and assured them that I was indeed living here of my own free will.

The young woman expressed disbelief that we could ever accept the way we are stared, laughed, giggled, and pointed at. I explained that though it was certainly unpleasant, often people were showing their embarrassment, and were simply afraid they couldn’t speak the foreigner’s language.

Since I too have traveled in many countries where I could not speak the language, I was prepared for her response to an answer that was part cover up. She did not expect people to speak English, or any of the other languages she spoke. (She was Israeli and her husband Dutch. In addition to Hebrew and Dutch, between them they spoke English, Arabic, German, French and Italian.)

The woman felt that when people are trying to communicate it needn’t be with words alone. She said she could not count the times she and her husband had been rudely rebuffed on the occasions they had tried to talk with people here. She said she’d hardly been given the chance to say she couldn’t speak Japanese.

Clearly she’d been hurt by those who waved her off, simply because of how she looked, and by others still, who found her looks a source of amusement. Angry, she couldn’t wait to leave Japan.

Her husband seemed to me more forbearing and said he could understand how people here felt – but he was disappointed. In Holland, he told me, “We consider the finest stereo equipment and cameras and many other goods to come from Japan. We think the Japanese have the most sophisticated technology in the world because they produce these things. And all Dutch people appreciate the fine workmanship of things made in Japan.” He reflected for a moment before adding, “I just think it’s a pity that the people don’t seem to measure up to the products they make.”

Well, as I said, that was a number of years ago, and maybe if that young couple were to come here now, they would find things have changed, and improved.

During a recent visit to New York City, I was surprised when my friend’s daughter told me she would like to visit Japan again. She had come with her mother about 14 years earlier, and had had such a hard time, I thought she might have written Japan off her mental map. She was 10 years old at the time, and after spending a day out with our daughter, had come back to the house in tears because so many people had pointed and giggled at her. It hadn’t helped at all to tell her they were just marveling at her beautiful blonde hair and pretty blue eyes.

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POSTSCRIPT

Well, that was really a long time ago.

There are now so many foreigners one truly doesn’t notice anymore.

Well, not quite. Especially around here.

When we built our house in this danchi (residential subdivision) twenty-one years ago, we were the only foreign family around. Now, two Brazilian families have houses here.

The city of Hamamatsu, the largest city near us, has a large population of Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent. The majority of them came when Japan changed its immigration rules to allow them to come and work here. The country needed their labor for the many factories in the area – especially manufacturing and sub-contractors for the auto industry.

And of course, the JET program and other international exchange programs, and globalization in general, have changed the landscape as far as foreigners being as rare as they once were.

I think that Dutch couple would be surprised, and happy, to see the changes.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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