Japan to Foreigners: Tell Us How Impressive We Are

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From the Japan Times

by Robert Moorehead

The above photo and caption from the Japan Times really says a lot about Japanese attitudes toward the country and the rest of the world.

The article is about a symposium in which youth from various countries, and dressed in their ethnic attire, gave short speeches in Japanese about peace and communication. Hailing from the United States, Poland, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Romania, Kazakhstan and China, the speakers spent a month in Japan, visiting various sites, including Toyota Motor Corporation and tsunami-hit areas of Tohoku.

One speaker discussed the need to challenge Japanese stereotypes of Romania as a dangerous place. Another discussed the need for people in Poland to become more rule-abiding, like the Japanese.

We can analyze the symposium, and others like it, as performances that are staged to define meanings and relationships. In particular, the symposium is about “internationalization” and “native place-making.”

As Jennifer Robertson notes in her article “Empire of Nostalgia,” “internationalization and native place-making exist coterminously as refractive processes and products, and … together they index the ambiguity of Japanese national identity and its tense relationship with cultural identity (or identities)” (p. 98).

While the symposium includes the views of non-Japanese, the event is less about “securing a place for ‘real’ foreign bodies in Japan and more about reducing the level of ontological anxiety supposedly experienced by Japanese” (p. 101) who worry about Japan’s place in the world, or who are exposed to non-Japanese inside Japan.

The photo at the top of the article captures a telling moment, in which the speakers are asked to hold up signs displaying their thoughts on “the most impressive feature” of Japanese corporate culture. In other words, they were asked to tell their hosts how great they are.

The cynic in me imagines the conversation going a little like this: “First question, tell us how great our corporations are. Second question, tell us how great our culture is. Third question …” you get the idea. “Now go back to your countries and teach everyone how great we are.” By implication, the message is also how inferior the youths’ home countries are.

After spending a month in Japan, these youth are not going to be offering analytical insights on life in Japan, or on the merits or demerits of the organizational culture of Japanese corporations. But that’s not the point. The point is to reify differences between Japan and the rest of the world by dressing up foreigners in ethnic attire and having them talk about Japan from “foreign” perspectives.

Robertson notes something similar in the inclusion of foreign residents in a parade during the city festival in the Tokyo suburb of Kodaira. In 1992, City Hall allowed the first foreigner contingent to march in the parade, and required the foreigners to dress in kimono.

Instead of using the parade as an opportunity to display visually the differences represented by a multi-ethnic assortment of resident foreigners, City Hall has insisted on their marching dressed in kimono. Accompanying the sartorially Japanized foreigners are Japanese residents wearing the stereotypical folk costumes of the representative foreign countries. Both parties are reduced to caricatures of cultural and ethnic difference in a spectacle informed by an underlying ontological anxiety (fuan). (p. 100)

… what is represented as ‘international’ is but dominant stereotypes of the national characters, as it were, on parade (e.g. lederhosen for Germany and Stetson hats for the USA). Not only do the kimono-wearing foreigners reify Japanese tradition, but the diverse cultures they represent are reduced to the quaint and unthreatening images embodied by the costumed Japanese. (p. 117)

In 2006, my family and I participated in the city festival in Kasugai, in Aichi Prefecture. Our role was to sit at a table in City Hall so that Japanese could come up to us and practice speaking English. We smiled as people approached us and said hello, or pushed their children use the English they had been learning in school and private lessons. After two hours, we had sufficiently performed our role of reducing English-speaking foreigners to “quaint and unthreatening images,” while making Kasugai seem like a cosmopolitan hub of cross-cultural communication. There were no tables where Japanese could try their hand at speaking other languages, and my neighborhood still had crime-watch signs in Chinese posted in front of nearly every home, so Kasugai still had a long ways to go before it became truly “international.”

These events define Japanese and foreigners as distinct entities, and internationalization as a controlled space where the twain shall meet only briefly, and under safe conditions—like going to the zoo, except in this case, the animals are not asked to tell the humans how impressive they are.


Robertston, Jennifer. 1997. “Empire of Nostalgia: Rethinking ‘Internationalization’ in Japan Today.” Theory, Culture & Society 14(4):97-122.

Learning to read hiragana, katakana, kanji, and the air

Celebrate Diversity!by Robert Moorehead

With the spring semester now over, I’ve been thinking about the challenges of getting students to think differently about incorporating non-Japanese into Japanese society. The arguments students make and the ones sociologists usually cite in the research literature are like two roads that never meet.

As I’ve written before, students’ view of Japanese history seems to skip the roughly 100-year period between the Meiji Restoration and the Tokyo Olympics—nothing important happened in Japan between the 1860s and the 1960s, did it? Based on this, students often claim that Japanese people have little to no experience interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds. Plus, Japan is an island and thus was inaccessible to other groups. The invention of boats around the world apparently didn’t impact Japan … but I digress.

Students also state that Japan, unlike other countries, is a “high-context culture,” meaning that much communication in Japan is unspoken. Meanings are implied, and understanding those meanings requires reading between the lines and reading the context of the situation. Those who can’t “read the air” (空気を読む or “KY”) are treated as socially inept and may struggle in their social interactions.

This is a fair point, as communication in Japanese proceeds somewhat differently compared to communication in English, Spanish, or other languages. But, can’t people learn to “read the air”? Is Japanese culture so byzantine, so complex and inscrutable that non-Japanese can’t simply figure out how to talk to people?

Students also claim that because Japanese are not used to interacting with “KY” people, they can only accept people who are just like them. Interacting with non-native Japanese speakers and people who can’t “read the air” is too much work, so non-Japanese are just out of luck.

This inherently conservative argument could be extended to justify excluding pretty much anyone. Japanese women want a right to equal opportunities for employment? Too bad. They could never really understand men’s particular communication style, and their presence might make men uncomfortable—no more sex jokes in the workplace—so women will just have to settle for serving tea and lower pay. The disabled want to work? Sorry, accommodating their needs could be inconvenient, so they’ll just have to stay home. Okinawans and the Ainu want to express their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness in mainland Japan? Sorry.

This approach dismisses the rights of the individual in support of the rights of the majority. That is, the majority only has to respect the individual rights that are convenient. This approach fits with the LDP’s planned revisions to the Japanese Constitution. As Lawrence Repeta notes, these revisions would subordinate individual rights, such as free speech and free assembly, to the demands of public interest and public order.

On the one hand, I should be thanking students for their honesty. But do researchers cite any of these ideas when analyzing immigrant incorporation? I just finished teaching a course on international migration, and we spent the semester reviewing the sociological literature, including the main schools of thought, and issues of gender, education, transnationalism, citizenship, among others.

And not once in that literature did anyone talk about “high-context cultures,” or the whether interacting with cultural others might be too inconvenient.

So, have sociologists missed the boat? Are we just talking in circles, clueless as to the real issues?

Or is communicating across cultural and linguistic lines simply a fact of life for many people on the planet? Don’t we have to make all sorts of adjustments every day, even if we don’t have any foreigners in our midst? We communicate across lines of class, gender, age, and sexuality all the time, so why should we treat communicating across cultural lines as some special case?

As famed anthropologist Harumi Befu (2001) has noted, the United States is often held up as the main contrast to Japanese society. The US is multicultural and a nation of immigrants, while Japan is neither of those things. In the US, people complain about the challenges of diversity, like struggling to pronounce new names, understanding various accents, and talking with people who are still learning English. But … so what?

Seriously, so what? Is learning new names and using a modicum of patience to interact with non-Japanese really that difficult? Is “reading the air” really that complicated? Are foreigners really that inept at communicating in Japan?

Is it more difficult than figuring out how to pay for health care and pensions for Japan’s elderly, when Japan’s population is dropping and postwar boomers are retiring?

Since Commodore Perry’s black ships forced open Japan to international trade, Japan has gone through the Meiji Restoration, imperial expansion across much of East Asia and the Pacific, multiple wars, fire bombing, nuclear attacks, defeat, occupation, democratization, reconstruction, development into a global economic power, bubble economies, inflation, deflation, stagnation, population booms and declines, earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear disasters.

Change is the constant. In light of all that, talking to foreigners seems like it should be the least of their worries.


Befu, Harumi. 2001. Hegemony and Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Identity of Hafu and Japanese

by Kanami Hirokawa

One in 30 children is born as a hafu today in Japan. Hafu have parents who have different nationality and looks. Therefore, hafu tend to have different looks with Japanese and they may catch people’s eye easily. In such a situation in Japan, how do hafu people build their own identity? Do they have only one identity or hybrid identity? Why do many Japanese think hafu is cool and beautiful?

First of all, it is necessary to think about identity of hafu. When I watched a video about hafu in class, many of hafu said that they have a hybrid identity, but they said that they can not become complete and true Japanese. Many of hafu in this video grow up in Japan and know the Japanese culture. Moreover, some of them can speak Japanese fluently. However, why can’t they become ‘true’ Japanese? In order to have the consciousness of belonging, to have same value and culture is needed. For example, if they live in Japan, they try to speak Japanese. In addition to this, it is also important that hafu are appropriated by Japanese, regarded as a member of Japan and they can join Japanese society.

Next, Japanese often regard hafu as a ‘stranger’ even if they know Japanese culture and can speak Japanese. Hafu often attract people’s eye and they are regarded not as Japanese but as a special people. Today, in Japan hafu and foreigners are minority and many Japanese still have the fixed idea that Japan is a homogeneous nation. This is why hafu and foreigners are regarded as a ‘stranger’ in Japan. Such a fixed idea should be broken because Japan has been a multicultural country since the old days. For example, Ainu people lived in Hokkaido as native people and in the 20th century many foreigners like Koreans and Brazilians came to Japan. I suggest that Japanese must change their fixed idea and appropriate hafu.

Japanese tend to ask hafu questions like “where are you from?” even if they grow up in Japan and have Japanese values and Japanese culture. Japanese must know that people who have different looks with Japanese live in Japan as Japanese. Moreover, Japanese should accept hafu as a member of Japan and should not make borders between Japanese and hafu because they grow up in Japan and have same identity with Japanese. In order that hafu become Japanese completely, not only Japanese accept hafu as a member of Japanese in Japanese society but also Japanese government should begin the approach to make Japan a ‘true’ multicultural country. Japan is based on the idea of jus sanguinis and conservative to foreigners. Today, in the world, globalization is developing now and Japan should review their principle.

In conclusion, hafu are often regarded as special people in today’s Japanese society. In order that hafu become true Japanese, Japanese should break their fixed ideas and Japanese government should change their policy. Furthermore, in the future Japan may have to accept more foreigners because of the declining birth rate and the lack of workers. If such a situation comes, foreigners will come to work in Japan and have more opportunities to get on with foreigners. The number of hafu will be increasing from now on. Therefore, Japanese need to appropriate hafu and foreigners.


Hafuwokangaeyou [Let’s think about hafu].(2010). Sandra, H. Retrieved May 8, 2013, from http://half-sandra.com/qa/

Natalie, M. W, and Marcia, Y. L. (2010). The Hafu Project. The Hafu Project.

Seichisyugi [Jus Sanguinis]. (n.d.). Murato Lawyer Office. Retrieved May 8, 2013, from http://www.japan-immigration.com/article/14579964.html

The Impacts of Immigrants in Japan

by Yurika Chiba

The number of foreigners is small in Japan compared to other countries. Basically, it is said that Japan is mono-cultural, homogeneous and monolingual society. For example, all of my classmates in high school were Japanese who have black hair and speak Japanese. We did not have opportunities to interact with foreigners in Japan. When we see foreigners, we feel they are “different” because they do not look like Japanese. It is hard for foreigners to live in such a society, I think. For instance, there was an international student in my high school. She was from America and had gold hair. I mean her appearance was completely different as Japanese. We saw her as “gaijin.” We did not know how to communicate with her although we wanted to get along with her. Finally, she could not fit in our class. One of the reasons why Japan has few foreigners is that Japanese society is said to be homogeneous. Therefore, Japanese people tend to refuse foreigners and different cultures. However, it is time to change Japanese society to make comfortable society for foreigners because globalization has been expanding. I mean that Japan needs foreigners in order to lead to economic growth.

The number of immigrants would be increasing if Japan became comfortable place to live for foreigners. Immigrants are important to solve some problems in Japan. In particular, the problem about the declining birth rate and a growing proportion of elderly people. For example, immigrants come to Japan in order to work and marry Japanese people. Their children probably will also work in Japan. This will help increase the population long term and help to solve Japanese population crisis. Immigrants have an important role in Japan.

However, Japan has difficult problems to solve in order to absorb immigrants. There are strict rules of immigrants in Japan. In addition, the rules are different from their countries. It is said that the crime rate will go up if immigrants increase. Japan might not be ready to receive immigrants. Japan should make new laws about immigrants. For instance, new laws to allow immigrants to live in Japan easily. The laws suitable for immigration should be established. Besides the laws, Japanese people need to change values like understanding different cultures. For example, Japanese children should be educated in English since a kindergarten. They can go abroad more often and communicate with foreigners easier if they can speak English well. I think English has a important role to accept immigrants.

Japan has some difficulty of absorbing immigrants. Japanese government and Japanese citizens should be aware of and solve these problems. Of course, things cannot be changed soon. It takes much time to make better society for immigrants. Japan has to do what it can do for immigrants immediately. I hope that my children or grandchildren would be free of prejudice and live in multinational society in the future.

To Marry Zainichi in Japan

In Japan, if you want to marry someone, you have to take many necessary steps for it. “Marriage is not the problem of your own but the problem of houses” is Japanese marriage and every Japanese thinks that they have to get their parents’ permission to get married. I think so too. By the way, if your partner was “Zainichi Korean”, do you think your parent allow you to marry with them?

Michihiko Noguchi, professor of sociology at Osaka City University, asked 7500 Kyoto citizens “ If you have a child, what will you do if they are from Douwa, Zainichi Korean, Japanese foreigners and impaired people?” In result, the most case that they tell their child to think again was impaired people and the second was Zainichi Korean. How can this happen?

Japanese are tending to be nervous about neighbors and family. And also Japanese have their special “personal space” and they don’t like to get inside of it, especially elder people. In Noguchi’s writing, the percentage of people doesn’t care about their partners situation getting higher that their age get higher. I think this is the biggest reason why it is difficult to marry with Zainichi people in Japan. Most of these things are their assumption and some people say these prejudices are past things. But now I feel things are getting more extreme. Young people have understanding of other countries culture so that they don’t care where ever their partners come from or even they are Zainichis. Either way, I think it is impossible to get away the discrimination of Zainichi in Japan. Even it get better, I think it is too difficult to forget the conflict between Japan and Korea. So we, the young people, have to think more about the relationship between two countries and try to know more about each other.


野口 道彦

by Kyoko Yamada

Looking at Japanese Characteristics

From my experience living in several countries and traveling around the world, I myself felt lots of differences between Japan and other countries, which are the way they live, their sense of values, their common sense and so on. I started to realize the characteristics of Japan and Japanese people objectively by comparing with other countries. In order to avoid the conflict which may happen from these differences, I want to show the Japanese characteristics which I have felt from my experience.

I think one of the biggest difference of Japanese and foreigners are Japanese people are more collectivism than individualism. In order to have a good relationship with other people, they often have to care about the others. Therefore, it seems that they put more emphasis on harmony with others rather than having their own determined attitude. This phenomenon is quite different from other countries because it seems that they put more emphasis on having their own thoughts and their own opinions. Japanese people are also unlikely to attract attention in order to maintain their harmony. There is a Japanese term called “KY” (空気読めない) which means not to read the atmosphere. If you act or speak something which does not really fit into that situation, you may be called “KY” by others which I think it is peculiar characteristic of Japanese.

Other characteristics of Japanese people are that they are polite, calm, and shy. Of course everybody is not like that but I think it tends to be like that when I compared with foreigners. What I see the difference the most is the service toward the customers. People treat customers as if they were gods in Japan. It rarely happened when I lived in Paris. However, it may be a big stress for workers because their services are highly expected by the customers. Also, I think many foreigners think Japanese people are very shy. For example, when I went to American school, I was surprised because many students were often speaking in class. I remember that I rarely could speak in class because I haven’t taken classes that students have to give their opinions in front of the people. Therefore, I think Japanese people are not really good at giving their opinions in front of the people compared with foreigners.

These are only some examples of the characteristics of Japanese people but I think it is important to know about it because not knowing anything about people who live in different country may provoke conflict and it could also be obstacle of communication. I want foreigners especially those who are willing to live in Japan to know how Japanese people are and try to understand about our character! (Of course, I want to emphasis that not all the Japanese people are like this. I just want to present the general character of them.)

by Mao Shukunobe