JLPT BC 164 | You’ll always be an Outsider in Japan

JLPT BC 164 | You’ll always be an Outsider in Japan post image

I grew up in white bread America where the corn grows high and hills don’t. I spent most of my time in a city of a mere 10,000 where everybody knew each other (and who was doing what to who). It was not uncommon to go downtown to run some errands and run into a handful of your friends on the way.

I met a girl, and thought I was in love. What was peculiar was that I never met her parents. In fact, her parents prohibited her from dating, which, of course, didn’t stop her from dating, but made things annoying for the two of us. You see her parents were 1st generation immigrants from a more traditional country. The dad was a cardiologist and the mom was a super intelligent housewife because that is what super intelligent women do in the old country apparently.

What struck me as odd was that her parents were whole-heartedly planning to spend their whole adult lives in the States, but were going to retire to their home country. That to me, seemed like a bit of shame. You spend your whole life in another country longing to be somewhere else. I’d much rather enjoy life while I live it and not while I’m decrepit and my joints lock up so much I can hardly get out of the house. But, hey, that’s me.

To this end, they didn’t go out. They didn’t come to community events. I rarely saw them at school functions. I only saw her mom once the whole time we were dating.

And granted, back then, living in backwoods America, I wasn’t racist (although plenty of my peers were) but I just didn’t have the view of the world that I do now. So, it was very frustrating to see someone making their living in my dinky little city, but not actually living there if you catch my drift.

In our city, like a lot of other small towns in the States, there were a lot of doctors and specialists from all over the globe. That was basically my main exposure to diversity. Most of them kept to themselves, while their kids tended to be incredible socialites, some of them being the most popular kids in school.

It always struck me as odd that their parents were such outsiders while the kids tended to be the opposite. While I tended to know most of my friends’ parents quite well, their parents always remained in the shadows.

“You’ll always be an Outsider.”

There is a comment that seems to be battered about that goes something like “you’ll never fit in, in Japan.” And like a lot of things that seem to be attributed to being uniquely Japanese, I have always been a little suspect of this. I’ve never really felt this that much. On the contrary, some people I’ve worked with and hung out with have looked past a lot of my oddities and treated me as one of the gang, despite my awkwardness.

Yeah, I’ve been laughed at for wearing toilet slippers where I shouldn’t have. I’ve went into the wrong bathroom once and got a few odd looks. I’ve found myself at the drugstore looking at a package for a few minutes before realizing it was an enema. I’ve been there and done that, sometimes very publicly, but my friends have stuck with me and given me the benefit of the doubt.

Do I feel totally at home? Does everything come naturally to me? No, it doesn’t. So in that sense I do feel a little out of place, but then again that’s what I signed up for. Every day is a new adventure, and I inevitably learn something new, usually through painful failure, but I’m a guy that likes to learn things the hard way.

The one thing I don’t feel is that I don’t fit in, or that I’m a trained monkey. Why? Because I try my best to fit in. I leave my house, socialize with non-English speakers, and mingle with the locals. I participate in my community as much as I can, sometimes begrudgingly, but I’m still there.

In other words, I work hard to be here like any new resident of a place anywhere should. Even if you were to move to another part of your home country, wouldn’t you try as much as possible to meet new people? Yeah, sure you would. So why would being in a different country change that?

When I think about the people that complain about ‘not fitting in’ I think back to my earlier days and my old girlfriend’s parents. They were working in the States for sure, but were they living there? Not really. Fitting in is something that you have to take an active role in. You are not going to be passively sucked into Japan. You need to take action and surround yourself with people that can help make that happen.

This is not Uniquely Japanese

People have problems fitting in anywhere. Maybe those immigrants in my old hometown felt too uncomfortable to fit into society. Maybe they felt like the culture was too radically different for them to really be able to expose themselves to it. But, the reason they didn’t fit in, at least at the root, was that they didn’t get out and try to mingle. They made up their minds that staying in America was only temporary.

And there are a few people that are like that here. They never really planned to stay that long, but nothing enticed them to go back, and so they stayed on. But, they never laid the foundation to feel at home here. They keep to their English speaking friends, go to foreigner bars, do foreigner events, and still act like they just got here.

I think, for some people, it’s fun to keep up that newness. But, that newness eventually wears off, and reality sets in. This is generally known as culture shock, and tends to happen about 3 months after you arrive. For some people though, it happens a lot latter. And they wake up and realize they don’t fit in, which does suck.

Big City Problems

I’ve found that like other things that Japan gets a lot of flack for, this problem is most apparent in Tokyo. The bigger the city, the easier it is to get lost in one of its small little corners. It is also a lot easier to find people with similar backgrounds, do activities that are very similar to what you did back home and generally isolate yourself from the culture.

When I did my stint out in the backwoods of Japan. I felt more at home and a part of the group. There would be times when I would only see one other foreigner (a colleague) about once a week. It was actually the best experience I’ve had here. I made a lot of great friends.

But, I had to move to the big city for a variety of reasons. The biggest one was to be able to fly to the States fairly easily. In the countryside, I would have to take an overnight bus after work to Osaka, sit around for a few hours (the bus would arrive ridiculously early), then grab a transpacific flight to my parents. It was a grueling 2 day ritual that would bookend any trip I took. Something I simply couldn’t sustain if I was going to stay in Japan for any length of time.

Do you fit in?

Is it easy to find your place in Japan? Let me know your experiences in the comments.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • John July 16, 2015, 2:04 am

    Great article. By the way, why don’t you make July JLPT first reactions 2015 this time?

  • Rody July 16, 2015, 3:56 pm

    Clayton! You wrote that you’ve been studying for N1. Did you ever take/pass it?

    • Clayton MacKnight July 21, 2015, 2:22 pm

      I took it a few times, but I’ve since taken a break from it. I’m focusing on more work stuff when it comes to Japanese to be honest. There is a lot of documentation I have to read and write in Japanese daily. My goals have shifted a bit. I still want to pass it, but I’m currently taking a break from making attempts.

  • Doug July 22, 2015, 5:37 pm

    Enjoying your article and your site. As for fitting in, well, considering Japan has spent a fair amount of time keeping people out it kind of makes sense that fitting in may be difficult at first. I believe that no matter how well a person does or how many friends a person may have there, knowledge of Japan does not make one a Japanese. On the other hand, I found that acknowledging that I was a foreigner brought peace of mind and more openness of the local people I encountered. Not to mention the numerous faux pas I committed. Accept your foreignness and you will fit in just fine and more doors will be opened to you.

    • Clayton MacKnight July 28, 2015, 2:46 pm

      That’s definitely something else to consider. I think it is sometimes good that we are not held up to the same standards as most Japanese to be honest. I like being able to get out of some of the more ‘just for ceremony’ stuff.

  • Jared August 20, 2015, 4:39 pm

    I’m coming to this a bit late, but as someone who will likely be here until I retire on some small island somewhere, this is a topic that I also often think about.

    I understand your point and I agree with it. I see and hear a lot of complaints from people about living in Japan and how they are treated by Japanese people. I often wonder why they stay in Japan for as long as they do while constantly moaning about the experience. I find the people who fit into this category often 1) don’t speak Japanese very well (but often think they are great at it because they can order from a menu) and 2) basically look down on Japan as inferior to their home country. They may not consciously think they are taking the higher position, but they often are, making it seem that things back home are so much better for xyz reasons.

    I think to “fit in” is really just to let go of all the things you wish you had and accept that what you do have is great for it’s own reasons. The grass-is-always-greener effect can be strong and really make people long for what they used to have.

    Coming to Japan or any foreign country short term is great. I recommend it and even if it isn’t your cup of tea, it’s totally fine. But when those people claim that Japan is this way, or that way, and talk down about everything with such certain authority, I feel they are taking their opinions too far and shoving them on others. It’s not right for everyone, but it’s right for some, and people should respect that. And also take some responsibility for not fitting in. It’s not always the other party’s fault, and that’s ok. You don’t have to fit in here, but be careful who you blame for it in the process.

    All that being said, the title of this post is more or less true. As a white man, I will always be an outsider. As you said, I can build my reputation and become known in my local community. But every time I step out, I will be treated differently. I will be handed the English menu. I will have eye contact avoided while they speak over me to my wife standing behind me. It will always happen and it’s almost always because of the assumed language barrier. This is the result of a mono-cultural, mono-race country and won’t change anytime soon. Just speaking up and addressing the person usually solves the problem quickly, but it doesn’t stop the basic outsiderness of the situation. The people I describe above are usually the first to get tired of this phenomenon and complain about it. But every time you speak to someone in “normal” Japanese, you help shape their view of non-Japanese-looking people. If you continue to do that, hopefully it will spread and people will learn. You can’t change things overnight, and you can only change things by being yourself. Accept the rest of it and you’ll be fine.

    So in summary, the single best way to avoid as much of the outsiderness as possible is simply, speak Japanese. If you do, life is so much easier. I hear very little complaining from folks that do.

    • Clayton MacKnight August 26, 2015, 12:00 am

      I approve of this comment. 🙂

      My friend and I call those people that have specific opinions of Japan ‘Mr. Japan’ (because it is usually a guy let’s be honest). Those people drive me nuts.

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