Is There a Reason Why Caucasian Foreigners in Japan Flaunt Brutally Cold Shoulders to Other Foreigners in Japan?

25 Jun

Now that’s a pretty loaded question but it’s one worth asking since I’ve been here almost two years utilizing my southern hospitality on passersby. In compliance with a pretty happy face, the Southern Manners in the Street Manual states clearly one must walk, smile, greet the person who makes eye contact, and walk on. You may think it strange but it’s mandatory in the South.

Boy did I get a rude awakening when I came to Japan: walk, smile, awkward nod, walk on, mentally say ‘da faq?’ What’s even more mind boggling is it’s not the Japanese pedestrians who I have this exchange with (Japanese pedestrians would make great Southerners) it’s many Caucasian westerners.

No matter if I am in Saitama, Kanagawa, or any part in Tokyo, spotting another foreigner prompts two actions, 1) the is-that-a-foreigner double take, 2) a burning urge to say ‘hello.’ Remember I’m the happy-go-lucky person in the street, I need my ‘Hello’ fix.

The first foreign American woman I came across,  I said my ‘hello’ and well whaddaya know, she blew right past me. This happened many many times. I chalked her up to being an ‘Ugly American’ and went on.

On the flip side, I used to have this annoyance with certain Africans, Indians, and Brazilians. These bombastic guys were dying to know if I was married, if I was seeing anyone, and if I was from Cameroon. For the record, if I ever decide to go the way of Alex Haley and find my roots, I may just start in Cameroon. But hey, at least they were waving.

I’ve especially received warm greetings from foreigners from other Asia Pacific nations: walk, smile, wave, get a little chat in, and move on on a higher note than before I met the person–the whole point of why we greet people in the street in the South anyway.

I realized two things after my recent move from Oyama to Kawasaki. 1) There were more ethnic foreigners in Oyama than Caucasian ones. 2) Caucasian westerners handle other foreigners differently than many ethnic ones do. After being blown past in the street for the umpteenth time and being talking to for the umpteenth time I, it got a bit more clear. From experience, foreigners from non-western countries really tried make an effort to get to know others and meet new (non-Japanese) strangers in the street.

Now I’ve never held the white man’s Yellow Fever in much consideration –it sounds a bit too controversial and bigoted. However, there might be some meat to it. I’m not limiting this to a fetish or an obsession as film director, Debbie Lum, does in Seeking Asian Female, but it does highlight a sense of tunnel-vision priorities for westerners living in Japan and eager to reenact Dance with Wolves amongst the Japanese.

The Japanese attitude doesn’t help quell any sense of western privilege entitlement either. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed people are deities in Japan and having porcelain white skin has been all the rave for centuries. I remember seeing a train poster of Beyonce when she did that controversial L’oreal skin-lightening ad. Let’s just say she out did Snow White in the Japanese version.

In the end to each Japan-visiting foreigner to his/her own. As for me, you can take the girl out of the South but you can’t take the South out of the girl…maybe I’ll just greet Smurfs.


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2 responses to “Is There a Reason Why Caucasian Foreigners in Japan Flaunt Brutally Cold Shoulders to Other Foreigners in Japan?

  1. Mr. Outside

    January 14, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Being a Latino who passes for white raised in a Western country, I can chime something from all sides.

    I used to be relatively friendly and opening, but, five years in Japan, I found myself with this same frustration of being constantly rebuffed by Japanese and Westerners (I hesitate to say Caucasian). Especially Japanese, who would straight up put their hand in a polite but silent “No, thanks” gesture.

    Of course, over the course of my five year stay in Japanese, I started to realize that, whenever people would come up to me out of the blue for a conversation, they tended to be on the loopy side. Not all, such as a really friendly old lady who gave me a lot of confidence for speaking Japanese in my first few months, or that American guy who turned out to be making greenhouses in Tokyo, but 9 times out of 10, it’d be the dreaded “I want to practice my English but I have absolutely nothing in common nor any idea what I want to say” dude(tte); a (Japanese) guy literally begging for 500 yen; or a Westerner (usually American) who, to put it politely, was a crackpot in some way or another.

    I don’t give a straight-up cold shoulder – a smile and nod suffice – but I was hesitant to really begin conversation after some time in the country. Not a superiority complex, just a defense mechanism of sorts.

    • misopow

      March 5, 2014 at 4:38 pm

      Mr Outside, thank you for this insightful comment. Shame on me for taking so long.

      I’ve definitely met with the eager loopy-sided people from time to time. You have met a diverse bunch of strangers. It’s the rarest of rare to have a conversation with another American while commuting. Typically, I’m able to talk to other Americans at international parties or through a friend. It’s rare but not impossible. Amazingly shocking is getting not getting a response from other black Americans. I wonder if other black Americans in Japan are practicing a similar defense mechanism, usually minorities are so open with each other in the States.


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