Since this is a sensitive topic, let’s put a big, fat disclaimer in the beginning: Neither do I nor will I ever claim to know what Japanese people in general are thinking. What I’m going to talk about are my very own observations, experiences and thoughts. I am aware that those are only a very small piece in the puzzle of the ’universal truth’ (if such a thing even exists), but I feel it’s a piece worth mentioning. I acknowledge that fellow foreigners in Japan might have had very different experiences, but that’s why I’d like to have my experiences acknowledged also. I’d been wanting to talk about this topic for a long time but I didn’t feel I had ’earned the right’ to do so yet, as someone who had just arrived in Japan. Now that I’ve passed the one year mark as a resident, I think it’s time. But let’s back up a few years. 9 to be precise.
I had just moved into my student hall when I met the girl who lived next door from me. She was Japanese and quickly we became friends. Our first conversation in the hallway I remember distinctly because she surprised me by saying: “I will be gone for a week from tomorrow, because I’m traveling to Greece.“ By herself, as a teenager. And that was only the beginning. She traveled all the time, eager to see the world and learn more about it. One day we traveled to Paris together, and I discovered my love for traveling that to this day, hasn’t gone away. She tried all the foods she came across and made friends with everyone she met. Her excitement for anything new, no matter how foreign or different, is something that impressed me deeply and changed how I saw the world.
I already hear you protesting. “One person doesn’t portray the whole of Japan. There are people who never leave Japan. What about those?“ Yeah, what about those? How have they been treating me and talking to me in the past year? I’ll tell you. They’ve treated me so much better than I could ever deserve. I’ll dedicate a whole other post to the kindness and support I was showered with, every time things were going bad for me. A few days ago, I came back from traveling to another Asian country (that shan’t be named) which shocked me with its rudeness and ’rip-off tourists mentality’. Arriving back in Japan, I felt a warm feeling of relief and safety flooding through me. I feel like people treat me well here.
Of course being a foreigner isn’t always fun and games. As someone who didn’t grow up with Japanese culture and who arrived in Japan without speaking Japanese, I’m destined to do things wrong. Which results in people telling me off, all – the – time. This can be disheartening, yes, but in my opinion, that’s part of the deal of moving abroad and learning about a new culture and learning a new language. In a whole year, among the hundreds of times that I was told I’m doing something wrong, there was only one incident that hurt my feelings. Other than that, people have always, always approached me with a gentle, face-saving way that never left me feeling embarrassed or stupid.
So that’s Japanese people dealing with me stumbling through their culture, but how about them being interested in my culture in return? A lot of people I meet are interested in where I’m from and ask me questions about my country. Or tell me where in Germany they’ve been to and what they saw and ate and drank there. (Have a guess!) The curiosity doesn’t end with Germany though. I have found Japanese people to be genuinely interested in other countries and cultures in general. In my experience, people are open-minded and interested and eager to learn about what’s going on outside of Japan, even my friend’s grandparents who live in the mountains, far from anything hip and new and modern.
In Tokyo, where everything indeed is hip and new and modern, I went to see the St.Patricks’s Day Parade in Omotesando this March. While my friend and I were watching the musicians, dancers, and sign-holders marching by, I could see in people’s faces what I’ve been talking about above: The openness towards other cultures and the joy to participate in them. Yes, Japan is a country with harsh visa regulations and such, and being a foreigner here comes with a lot of obstacles. But I just need to take a look at these pictures to be reminded that politics dictated from above don’t always reflect how people really feel.
I’d like to end this post by reminding of something simple, but crucial: Human interaction is always a two-way street. I for example, for the longest time, was irritated and annoyed by kids staring at me in confusion or even fear. Then, a few weeks back, I thought ’Oh what the hell’, smiled at the kid who was staring that day, waved and said “Konnichiwa“! Guess what. The little girl suddenly smiled all over her face and said it back to me. I think this is a classic example of ’What goes around, comes around’. If you move to another country, you have to be the bigger person, make an effort, take the first step. With that approach, you have the best chances to succeed in Japan.