An Englishman in New York

March 19th, 2013By Category: Culture

Being a minority in Japan is something every foreign resident here must come to terms with as we live our lives in this unique and charming country. For many of us, it may be the first time we have ever been in such a position, and there are certainly positives and negatives which have been widely experienced on a personal level.

On the one hand, we can often be out on the town and find ourselves in situations where the Japanese community are treating us with near celebrity like admiration and warmth, while on the other hand we may find ourselves in situations where we are left in the cold or treated with a near second class status.


However, from my very first day of arrival in Tokyo nearly two years ago, one thing that struck me, presumably along with my counterparts from other nations, is that I found myself on this island as a minority within the minority. I am from the UK, but now live in Akita prefecture. This is my first ever post on the Gajinpot website, and is in fact the first time I have ever written for anything ever, other than on Facebook or for school – (so constructive criticism is very welcome!) – As such, before writing this I quizzed a friend of mine who has more experience than I about where to start. His advice was great as one had hoped, and he replied; “Just write about things you notice, things that are funny, or things that are scary” …Well, there are plenty of funny and scary things which have certainly happened that I would love to go over, and I’m sure it will be a pleasure to do so in the future – Yet writing about the things I notice takes a bit more thought power, so, my pal enlightened me further; “I think being form the UK you have many unique experiences I will never have, probably being confused as an American, for one” – and he was exactly right!

This struck me from the very beginning as I arrived and sat down at a table for breakfast next to a very-very-very happy blonde lady from Florida on the first day staying at the hotel for Tokyo Orientation of the JET programme. It is something that has come up often in my day to day life since. The number of foreign residents living in Japan who come from the USA vastly outnumber residents from any other foreign nation. This, to my experience, is the status quo here and has apparently been so for a number of years. As a result, we non-American inhabitants of the countryside are very often mistakenly presumed to also be from the great country which gave the world Muscle cars, Dolly Parton and IHOP.

I have had the very lucky opportunity to live in the heart of America, far away from the beaten track, as a student for a year at a small collage in Indiana and have nothing but wonderful things to say about the country, the people, the food and the culture. Although, after two years of living in Japan – constantly being placed automatically into a category of people from a nation where I have no roots has brought me to frustration.

I know that the average Japanese person probably see’s my big cheery face and has absolutely no clue as to where I come from. I understand this. With such a high percentage of American nationals living in this country it makes complete sense for Japanese people to presume that I, also, must be from the other side of the pacific pond. However, the thing which irks me most is that nine times out of ten the Japanese stranger I am meeting for the first time will simply assume my nationality without asking anything about me first.

I have had people say all sorts of things to me in English and in Japanese to make my eyes roll – Some good, some not so good (but I’ll keep it positive and round out by top 5/most common):

  • “I love Obama!”
  • “You are from America?”
  • “Your face is like Louis Armstrong.”
  • “I want to go to USA.”
  • “Which state are you from?”

The list of amusing comments is quite extensive. Number three particularly made me giggle at the time as I am in fact quite Caucasian; …perhaps they meant to say some other trumpet wizard?!

Back onto point. If my nationality is decided for me before I even open my mouth then I worry; what other stereotypes or presumptions are being placed upon my shoulders each day as I go about my business? I find that the people of Japan, while warm and loving in nature, do not easily engage in discovering the real me. There is seemingly so much judgment made based on the fact I look different prior to engaging in conversation that it builds a barrier that has often made interaction awkward and uncomfortable. In the worst case, presumably the fear of me attacking them with English, some people have simply resorted to grunting at me for communication, despite the fact I have adequate Japanese to chit chat with anybody I meet on the street.

This is merely a commentary on my experiences, and of course there are a fantastical bunch of exceptions to this whom I cherish dearly, however my overwhelming desire and dream is to work out a way to break down this barrier so that every person I meet will feel more comfortable talking with me and with all of us.

Yes, I am not from Japan. However, I do have a personality and character unique to myself. I want to encourage the people around me to have a go at getting to know who I am beyond the foreigner-ness. I don’t really mind being mistaken for an American every so often – but with the foreign population of this country on the rise, along with the number of mixed race families in small communities, I just hope dearly that some time soon people of this nation which I adore so much can get over the shock that we are different in appearance and treat us ‘gaijin’ like normal, ordinary individuals.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. So, I guess it’s just something we will have to work at one person at a time; but if I can make it two or three people at a time, that would be all the better!

Author of this article

Kenneth Grant

Hi, I'm an ALT from the UK living on the west cost of Akita prefecture. It can feel quite far away from society and even further away from home, but it has certainly become a wonderful place to live and I hope you are able to come and see the place while you are in Japan. I'm very interested in English Education and would one day like to become a University professor here in Japan. I'm new at writing, so hopefully you will enjoy what I have to say and I'll try and keep it a light hearted as possible!

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  • leslie nguyen says:

    Thanks for the read. I can imagine the response I would get from citizens in Japan.

  • zoomingjapan says:

    If you already feel like that as a native English speaker, imagine how all of us feel who have another language as their mother tongue!
    People just always assume I speak English (well, I do …), but why should I speak a language with Japanese people that is neither their nor my native language?
    I speak Japanese fluently and we are in Japan, so there’s no need to speak in English to me.

    And I guess I could write a book about all the weird phrases people have thrown at me over the years. I didn’t get the “Obama” one yet, but the ones you have up here as an example sound all too familiar!

    It’s just something that almost all Western foreigners have to deal with here in Japan.

  • Hayley Rule says:

    Great article! But unless Globalisation starts coming directly from the UK as opposed to the US, I don’t see this reaction from Japanese people dying down anytime soon. I’m Australian of mixed-heritage, and instead of “Are you American?”, I get “What country are you from?” since they can’t work me out on appearance alone.

  • Ryan Weatherston says:

    Great article. I enjoyed it very much. The only critique is font it is in is a bit small and makes it hard to read. Not sure if that is something you can control, though.