Being a Foreigner in Japan (or Korea or anywhere), part 2

Recently I read an interesting article by Khatzumoto at AJATT and he writes about having bad experiences when living in Japan. Obviously, this advice applies to anyone living in any foreign country. However, if you look online, there expats who complain endlessly about Japan being racist, xenophobic, etc. If you listen to these people only, you may get a negative impression about places like Japan or Korea that have so few foreigners.

I think Khatz makes some really good points:

You know, every now and then, here in Japan, I’ll meet someone who’s a jerk, and I’ll think “what am I even doing here? why did I even bother? Japanese people are so X”. But…that’s unfair; it’s unfair of me to slam all of Japan and Japanese people because of the occasional drunken middle-aged man, or housewives who stare, or even the lady at immigration who is, in fact, a retard [you can talk to her in keigo, and she will respond in baby talk; she is clearly a first-degree retard], or whatever….In the vast majority of cases, it seems to me that if someone is a jerk to you [for being a foreigner], they are generally jerks to fellow countrymen, too — this is a fact. When Momoko and I were trying to get married here (looong story), there was this…creature…at city hall, and I had my Japanese friend T-star talk to him to see if City Hall Creature could be tamed, and T-star calls me back after attempting to negotiate with City Hall Creature and says: “Khatz, that guy…he’s…a richardhead; I have never had to deal with someone so unreasonable. Japanese people aren’t supposed to act this way, and don’t take him as an example for the whole country”.

But I think the key to success in a foreign country is really, really learn the language well (which is the point of that article). Based on Khatz’s experience:

Most of the time here, old women are telling me that I’m a “nice young man”, more than once older guys have randomly said: “Khatz, you can’t leave Japan! You know so much about it now, it would be a huge waste. You should just stay here forever; you’d be a good Japanese person.” One time, a schoolkid came up to me and went “Harro (hello)” and I said “欧米かっ?![stop trying to be American!]” and we had a huge laugh about it. I’ve only bought rice twice since I came to Japan because T-star’s family sends me HUGE bags of fresh rice and vegetables from their fields. People will *thank* me for speaking Japanese because they were worried that they were going to have to use their rusty English. The taxi drivers by my train station always take the time to say hello, and update me on what’s happening in Prison Break. The people at the Japanese Consulate in Denver processed my visa with incredible speed, and then said “good on ya, kid; ganbatte in Japan” to me. The other week, I was pausing from a walk to read manga, and a random man stops his minivan and goes: “[You can read Japanese manga?]” and I’m all “…yes?” and he says: “Good job!” and then drives off.

In my limited experience, I have the same experience with people being happy I can speak Japanese or “good job” because I read Japanese manga on the train. Unlike Khatz, my Japanese isn’t very good, but I can survive walking around, asking questions, etc. When I do this, I can see some people are relieved. If a big blue-eyed foreigner like me walks up and can’t speak Japanese and suddenly starts speaking English, how might you feel?

Finally Khatz says:

So…if you really put your negative experiences into perspective, you’ll probably find that they are easily cancelled out by the positive. Perhaps it’s time to recall what made you want to learn the language in the first place.

The secret I think is to really make the effort (not “weekend warrior”, full-time) effort to learn and blend in, stay positive and remember not to take some things personally.

P.S. Part 1 is an old post I wrote 3 years ago. 🙂


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

5 thoughts on “Being a Foreigner in Japan (or Korea or anywhere), part 2”

  1. I live in Japan, and I have now for more than three years. I’ve never had a bad experience that I can recall. I’m married to a Japanese woman, who also speaks and reads English. I’m very familiar and comfortable with Japan. I can’t speak much or read Japanese, but I do OK. Technology provided by smartphones is a huge relief. I need to learn to at least speak Japanese, but it’s very difficult to devote time to it while I’m trying to finish school. Everyone’s circumstance will be a little different, but there’s no excuse for sheer laziness. Living in a country with a different language, three different alphabets, and a completely different culture and mindset can be very overwhelming at times. But as I said, my experiences have been positive.


    1. Hi Steve and welcome! Thanks for your input. I live outside Japan but visit yearly so my Japanese really isn’t that great either even with converted study. 😉

      In any case though, people definitely seem to appreciate the effort when I am there. No one’s impressed certainly but trying to fit in goes a long ways even if you stand out.


  2. Just after having to deal with a completely unappreciative foreigner I can sympathise with what you say. The majority of Japanese are friendly, helpful and sympathetic people.
    I think the big problem which foreigners have with living with overseas is in terms of systems or how society operates.
    For example, there is discrimination here towards foreigners but what most people forget is that there is also a tremendous among of it towards women as well. They don’t get the same pay as men and often have to quit upon getting married, something men don’t experience.
    People often blame the people around them for this systematic discrimination without understanding the root of the cause. It is actually due to the system. Thankfully in countries like the US and where I come from there is little systematic discrimination and it tends to be from individual to individual.
    So when people see discrimination here in Japan they think it is personal when it is rather due to the system and something people have grown up with. There is a big difference between the two.
    It can be frustrating and systems can take many years to change but understanding things can relieve a lot of stress and make your anger more effective rather than blaming everyone.
    Hopefully by Japanese people hearing the opinions of foreigners like us they can take action to change. To make things, like discrimination, less systematic.


    1. Hi Aussie and good to hear from you. Interesting insights about systemic vs. individual discrimination. It’s harder to be a woman anywhere (even in the US, woman usually make less money than men), but I agree there’s a lot of pressure on women on Japan (probably more so in Korea and other places).

      Hopefully by Japanese people hearing the opinions of foreigners like us they can take action to change.

      To be honest, I’m a little skeptical. If change is to occur it has to be change from within the society and not from an outside group. I see change coming from Japanese women themselves and native-born 2nd 3rd generation immigrants rather than expats.

      If you imagine the same situation in reverse on your home country you can kind of see why.

      At least that’s my opinion. 🙂


  3. Very well said, I travel to Japan for work nowadays but studied there for a year at high school. Never had any particularly bad experiences, and always find making the effort to speak Japanese helps a lot. Cant wait to get back later in the year!


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