I have now entered week five of my three month stay in Japan as an intern for the Ibaraki Christian University’s English department. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what I’ve termed the gaijin stare — a phenomenon in which, as one of very few foreigners living in the Japanese countryside, I get stares from just about everyone, wherever I go.
This concept got me thinking: what happens when the gaijin stare is misplaced? Japan used to think of itself as a homogenous nation. Some people still think of it this way — though times are certainly changing and interracial marriage is growing increasingly common.
By one statistic, one in every 49 babies born in Japan today is considered “mixed race” — or “haafu,” which natives presumably take to mean half-Japanese and half-foreign. While this number may not sound staggering, it means Japan’s mixed raced demographic cannot be ignored.
After experiencing the gaijin stare myself, I spoke to a few students at the university who are considered “haafu” for their take on racial perception in Japan.
A freshman English major named Manami, born in the United Kingdom to a British father and Japanese mother, moved to Japan with her family when she was very young.
Manami told me everyone thinks she can speak English fluently — when in reality, she lost her father when she was 12, so her family speaks Japanese at home. Manami is equally as fluent in Japanese as any other native speaker. She goes to college with other Japanese students — where she, like them, diligently studies English, needing to practice every day to learn it. Despite her fluency in Japanese, however, people still mistake Manami for a foreigner. One day in the convenience store, she explained, she kept the door open for an old man and he, thinking she was foreign, said, “Thank you” instead of, “Arigatou.”
As a non-citizen, I have these kinds of experiences all the time — and it’s troubling to imagine what it must feel like to actually be Japanese but be treated like a foreigner, simply because you do not look like everyone else.
Manami said more than anything, the experience is uncomfortable. She is not angry or sad, but frustrated.
Sophomore English major Shunsuke said being Japanese is largely cultural. Japanese, he said, is a low-context language — a system which often conveys meaning outside vocal words and sentences — whereas to him, English is a high-context language.
Others I asked provided more traditional answers — that being Japanese has more to do with ancestry and place of birth.
Nevertheless, I’m left very glad to be an American, one of the very few countries on earth where you can be anyone from anyplace and still become a true American — both officially and perceptively — at some point in your life.
Though I am loving my stay in Japan, it’s this realization which makes me remember that though I love Japan, I’m a die-hard patriot, through and through.