Monthly Archives: October 2011

Favorite photos so far

My uncle took me on a massive tour of Tokyo on my 3rd day in Japan. In Shibuya I tried to sneak a photo of these girls as they walked past. Obviously I didn’t quite get by unnoticed.

Skyscrapers made for some crazy angles outside of Shinjuku Station (one of Tokyo’s commercial centers)

These were all from temple complexes in Ueno, the site of a sort of “last samurai” battle in 1868 when the Meiji government took over.

My first view of Yokohama (where the Meiji government dumped all the foreigners) as I stepped out of Sakuragicho Station.

Li, Alonna and some beautiful architecture in Yokohama

Yokohama has the biggest, busiest Chinatown in Asia (outside of China…)

I’m really happy with this one, of the famous crossing outside of Shibuya Station. The photo doesn’t show how ridiculously many people there are 24/7 at this particular intersection.

My station, Higashi-koganei, at sunset

Possibly my favorite photo! I loved how it turned out in these sections of primary colors, not to mention the juxtaposition of local and global cuisine 🙂


Perception and prejudice

Edit: (11/27/12) I’ve written a follow-up to this post. Please check it out!

The title of this blog is “A gaijin [foreigner] in Japan,” and obviously being a foreigner is a major determining factor in my experience here. In some ways, though, it’s actually pretty different from what people led me to expect before I came.

Upon learning that I was coming to Japan, many people in the U.S. told me that the Japanese were just infatuated with white foreigners. There was often an implication that Japanese people would be grateful that people who looked like me were visiting their country. I vividly remember meeting a fellow American at a Japanese conversation table who told me that any effort at speaking the language, however mangled, would elicit an effusive response from the average Japanese listener.

Not true! And why should it be? I don’t think it’s that unreasonable to expect someone residing in your country to have at least some knowledge of your language. Can you imagine an American praising a foreign tourist for forcing out an accented or mispronounced version of “Where is the bathroom”? I think it betrays a certain arrogance on the part of foreigners here to imagine that their tiny efforts at the native language are really that appreciated.

I was told in the months leading up to my arrival that people would stare and even comment on my height and coloring. Nope. Yes, because of my appearance I stick out here, but the Japanese generally don’t behave in a way that accentuates that difference. This includes their treatment of my language ability: cashiers and servers speak to me and my foreign friends at normal speed and volume. (I mention volume because I keep thinking of the stereotypical Hawaiian-shirted American tourist speaking in very slow, exaggerated English to a local.)

So I guess my experience a few days ago stuck out to me because of this backdrop of a general lack of articulated prejudice. I was walking home from my train station and I passed a group of high school kids taking up the whole sidewalk. When one of the boys realized he was in my way, he said “Oh — sorry” in English as he moved aside, and laughed with his friends at his little witticism as I passed.

I felt really bothered at first. This kid had engaged in special behavior upon seeing the color of my skin: I’d been treated differently according to what I looked like. The use of my native language by a non-speaker felt mocking. Why should he assume that I didn’t understand the word for “Excuse me” in Japanese?

Then I worried that I was overreacting. After all, although he’d made a funny by switching languages, it was in the context of a politeness. Maybe I was just irritated that I’d been made the butt of a joke by someone younger than myself!

Still, I think it was insensitive for this stranger to treat me the way he did. I’m thinking again of an American analogy: most of us know that it would be bad form to say “Gracias” to a Latino/a upon completing a transaction, for example.

I think linguistic standards are in place to help keep society in order. All of us, foreigners and natives, use the “official” language (actually, de facto: Japan doesn’t have an official language. Interesting!) because it’s the proper thing to do. Code-switching (switching to another language, dialect, accent, etc.) like what this high-school boy did is powerful because it makes a statement about the individuals involved. And when we start to make such statements about strangers, that can disrupt the harmony and order of public life.

Linguistic and cultural diversity are great, and I don’t agree with ideologies like theEnglish-only movement of a few years ago. When I’m with other foreigners here, for example, I speak English, and I think the right to use one’s native language is essential everywhere. But I also think it’s my responsibility to pursue basic linguistic competence in order to function in the society I’m currently a part of, and what this high school boy did was tantamount to a refusal of that effort at integration.

I guess I’m saying that living in such a diverse modern world is a major challenge. We have to understand and celebrate our differences while at the same time preserving standards for interaction at the public level. Living as a foreigner has really crystallized that opinion for me.

Buying deodorant in Japan!

This year, many parents worried about earthquakes and radiation when their children came to Japan. But one source of anxiety more constant than that is the availability of deodorant.

You’re thinking, wait, what? Isn’t deodorant one of those things you can buy anywhere in the world? Well, yes — Japanese people do use deodorant. But the standard here is a little different from what Americans are used to. The most common types of deodorant are wipes (like the wet wipes your parents used to use on your face) and powders. And most of the deodorant you can buy doesn’t include antiperspirant. Apparently Japanese people don’t sweat.

For those of us who do, then, deodorant is one of those legendary challenges of living here. Most people coming to Japan just bring a huge supply of the stick-style deodorant and don’t have to worry. I only packed one, so I was pretty worried about having to go into Tokyo and find some specialty Western-goods store or something.

Just to exhaust my more local options before taking the trip, I stopped by the department store near ICU today — and they had an impressive selection, including, miraculously, stick-type! It was at least twice as expensive as in the United States. What I ended up buying is smaller than the size of my hand and it cost about US$10.

Notice that it says, in English, “for problem perspiration.” A little jab at us sweaty foreigners?

(In case you’ve stumbled on this post out of desperation for deodorant: I bought this one at Ito-Yokado, a department store chain you can find all over Japan. I’ve heard you can also find American-style deodorant at Don Quixote and Tokyu Hands in the bigger cities.)