(Presumed) American in Japan

When I worked in a Japanese elementary school, there was a homeroom teacher who refused to believe I wasn’t from the USA. I told her again and again that I was British, but there seemed to be some kind of mental wall there.

“Tell the students about Christmas in the USA.”
You tell them, I’ve never been there and you spent the holidays in California.

I’m not so sensitive that this bothered me, but it was bizarre. I mean most Japanese people have heard of London. Why was it so ingrained that foreigner = American?

Most of the stereotypes of foreigners in Japan are based on Americans. I don’t just mean the Japanese stereotypes of foreigners being loud, friendly, large, and loving hamburgers. I also mean, perhaps more importantly for me, that the ‘foreigner in Japan’ narrative as told by the English speaking media presumes ‘American-ness.’ Many of the difficulties described and advice dispersed on websites like Gaijinpot and the Japan Times applied to someone culturally American and much of it wasn’t really relevant to me.

“Japanese flats are small.”
I pay half what I did for rent in London for a place almost twice the size.
“You will have to get used to living without a car in Tokyo. You can get the metro everywhere.”
Anyone heard of a thing called the Tube? I believe it’s the oldest subway system in the world…
“Japan is different to your country because it’s an island nation with four seasons and a long history.”
Come now, this is getting embarrassing.


One of the scariest things to hear in a British office

When comparing Japanese, British and American stereotypes, I imagine a scale of 1 to 6, like the Kinsey scale. At 1 are the Japanese, indirect, super polite and reserved. The Americans are at 6, loud, assertive, direct and friendly. The British are probably sitting on a 4. Obviously we’re closer to the Americans, but those ‘Japanese things’ that I was told would bother me – indirectness, face saving, social awkwardness and only expressing our actual feelings when wasted – we do those too. And it’s for this reason that I think we sometimes adapt better to Japanese work culture than our friends from across the pond. It’s less of an adjustment.


Something strange has happened to me. Far from Japan making me more Japanese, I think Japan has actually made me more American. I’ve had British friends before saying that I may have the soul of an American, meaning I’m loud, assertive, overshare and I don’t embarrass easily. Nothing wrong with any of these traits, I just posses them more than your average Brit, especially your average British woman, so in the UK I would tone them down a bit. Now I’m in Japan I have very few British friends and spend my time surrounded by Americans as well as a host of other nationalities. I also am in an environment where this foreigner = American thing is the dominant narrative so people expect me to behave in an ‘American way,’ especially my Japanese friends. This is no bad thing as it’s nice to not have to restrain this part of my personality. Moreover, I genuinely get on well with the Americans I meet in Japan and mean no disrespect to your country. It’s just worth remembering that all foreigners bring something different to Japan and there’s no one ‘gaijin experience.’

I’ll leave you with a slide from the often amusing comic White Rice, which is about foreigners in Japan:


Image credit: http://www.whitericecomic.com





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