Unexpected drawbacks of being a foreigner in Japan

Tiny pants, the garbage police, and the more friends you have, the lonelier you might be

There are some things that nobody who moves to Japan wants to learn. But sometimes it’s these unwelcome lessons that unlock all kinds of other mysteries…

Too-short pants

Is it me, or are these pants just laughably small?

The first time I went shopping for clothes in Japan, I made a beeline for the pants rack, but there were only three sizes on display: small, tiny and miniature. I said to the clerk, okay, excuse me, where are the rest of the sizes?

Uh. There’s weren’t any.

In Japan, 98% of the population is ethnically Japanese, so they didn’t need more than three sizes. Nearly all Japanese women fit within that range.

That was the first time I ran into the problem of not being Japanese, but it wouldn’t be the last. The longer I lived in Japan, the more I noticed the subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that You Are Not One Of Us.

Because it wasn’t just pants that failed to be designed with me in mind. Glasses frames looked goofy, proportioned wider for Japanese cheekbones.The largest shoe size was seven and a half. Lipstick only came in colors that look good with black hair and brown eyes.

Okay, no problem, I can survive without buying makeup or <sob!> those really, really, cute red boots. And although I’m a Plus Size Big & Tall compared to Japanese women, I’m pretty much exactly the same height and weight as the average Japanese man, so…

Team carrying o-mikoshi portable shrine at Sanja matsuri in Asakusa Tokyo

I’m not going to get a bad case of Foreigner Shoulder from being too tall to man the long poles used to carry the portable shrine through the neighborhood at the annual festival. I’m not going to hit my head on door frames as I walk into a room. And if I snag a men’s yukata instead of a women’s at the traditional inn, I won’t be prancing through the corridors, flashing the natives. I should fit right in.

Except…I don’t. I’m no bigger than 50% of the population, but…

Packed Yamanote Line train waiting at the platform

…why are the two last empty seats on crowded subway trains always next to me?

I mean, I’m not any wider than the other people on the train, and I don’t manspread. I don’t smell bad (at least not as bad as that elderly uncle near the door) and I’m not eating or drinking or putting on my makeup or listening to loud music or any of the other sins harangued about on subway manners posters. So…what gives?

It’s because everyone knows…

Foreigners are an accident waiting to happen

Author Jonelle Patrick with shiba fan

They’re all afraid if they sit next to me, I’ll talk to them. In English. And that will certainly escalate into an awkward dance of mutual misunderstanding, and no one will be able to escape until the doors open at the next stop, when there will be a mass migration to a different car to escape the foreigner whose baffled expression will confirm what everyone knows…

Foreigners don’t understand Japanese

Never mind how many times I’ve turned around at the local coffee shop and discovered that one of the three Japanese people conducting a lively conversation at the table behind me is actually African, the belief that foreigners don’t speak Japanese is so entrenched, there’s a famously horrifying (but hilarious) video about it:

Ha ha, you think, of course they’re exaggerating. And they are. But not as much as you think.

After this happened to me a few times, I figured I could get past this Us and Them thing by speaking Japanese early and often. But that didn’t work either.

“Oh! Your Japanese is so good!” they’d exclaim, when all I’d said was, “Thank you.” They’re not trying to be insulting—far from it—but it tells me right away that when they look at me, the only thing they see is Danger Will Robinson Not One Of Us and their expectations are so low that the actual meaning of this so-called compliment is the same as what a waitress accidentally blurted out in front of one fluent foreigner I know:

“It’s like hearing a dog speak!”

Even if we go on to have a perfectly decent conversation, and speak nothing but Japanese, I know that barrier hasn’t gone away. They are Japanese. I am Not.

I have to admit, though, everyone’s willingness to believe that Japanese is hard for foreigners does have its advantages.

Time after time, one of the first questions out of someone’s mouth after being introduced was, “How old are you?” Buh? I finally figured out it’s not because they’re curious or trying to be rude, it’s because age has to be factored in when deciding what kind of grammar to use in conversation.

Which is why I always claim the honorific forms are beyond me. Sorry, I can’t really use keigo, I say, apologetically. Oh, they reply (relieved), don’t feel bad. Even Japanese people get it wrong a lot.

But the reason I duck it isn’t because it’s too tricky to refer to others in a loftily formal manner while simultaneously referring to myself as the unworthy worm I am. It’s that using honorifics puts a spotlight on differences, rather than paving the way to friendship. Once they give me permission to speak as equals, with an utterly inappropriate level of informality, they eventually relax and do it too. Pretty soon we’re chatting away like old friends, instead of doing the stilted the-pen-of-my-uncle-is-on-the-desk-of-my-aunt thing.

But not understanding Japanese isn’t the only facepalm-worthy assumption people make about foreigners. The favorite among landlords is…

Foreigners don’t understand garbage

That’s right. Taking out the garbage is a notorious foreigner fail. One that infuriates neighbors so much, it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against non-Japanese renters on that basis.

And here’s why that’s so easy to believe:

Detail of garbage collection schedule for Meguro-ku shwoing burnable and non-burnable types of trash
These are just two of the many categories in the garbage/recycling collection schedule for the neighborhood I used to live in. “Burnable” and Non-burnable” are the two types of unrecyclable trash, and as you can see, deciding which is which is not exactly intuitive. Recyclables fall into a dizzying number of other equally picky categories, and there’s a 24-page booklet that details how and where to recycle everything from milk cartons (which must be washed and reduced to single flat sheets, then returned to the bins at the grocery store) to styrofoam trays (which must be tested with a toothpick to determine which category they belong to)
Headless plastic character figure awaiting trash collection in Tokyo
And woe to you if you have to throw away something that doesn’t fit in any category. That headless character figure will be following you to the grave.
Clean recycling in trash bag in Japan
Naturally, recycling must all be washed first, and put out on the proper day, lest the garbage police publicly shame you…
Trash bags rejected by garbagemen in Tokyo because wrong type of bag was used or recycling types were mixed
…by refusing to cart away anything that’s not clean enough, or is in the wrong kind of trash bag (yellow notice) or not sorted properly (purple). I’m sure you can imagine the spike of anxiety I felt when I returned from school one day and saw these two left at the curb by the building where I lived. I scurried over to make sure they weren’t mine. Whew, not guilty! Not that I expected to be—foreigners who live in Japan are actually EXTRA-careful about doing garbage right, so as not to confirm the stereotype. But as I climbed the steps, I had the unwelcome thought that even though those bags weren’t mine, the neighbors might assume they were. #becauseforeigner

But maybe the hardest thing about being a foreigner is the thing you learn after you’ve lived there long enough for it to feel like home and you speak the language fluently…

The more friends you have, the lonelier you feel

It takes time to make real friends anywhere, and Japan is no different. The first time I lived there, most of my friends were foreigners, because my Japanese was still pretty hilariously rudimentary, so I tended to send them into gales of laughter after solemnly remarking about how hard it is to eat that kind of seaweed, when they’d actually been talking about their sister’s divorce.

By the second time I lived there, my Japanese had improved. Not only could I do a pretty decent job of explaining the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I could participate in random topics of conversation at a table full of native speakers, even after two beers.

Except during the month of December. December is bōnen-kai season. Everybody I knew was suddenly crazy busy, their evenings filled with the annual parties where the failures of the past year are booted out the door and everyone toasts the hope that things will be better in the next. Everyone can get behind that! And they do.

Pouring overflowing sake in cups standing in wooden boxes

Every night of the week, everyone I knew was happily posting pix of themselves hoisting beers with groups of friends. Except me. Even if I knew everyone in the photos, nobody even considered inviting me, because I didn’t qualify as a member of their group. I hadn’t been friends with them since third grade at Asakusa Elementary School. I hadn’t played on their high school soccer team. I didn’t work at that company, back when it was headquartered in Nagoya. I understood why I wasn’t included, but it was still profoundly lonely.

When most of my friends were foreigners, I didn’t expect to be invited. But once most of my friends were Japanese, it hurt to be left out.

That might be the time I most intensely felt like Robin Swann, the stranger-in-a-strange-land foreigner in The Last Tea Bowl Thief. I bet you can guess where she got her experience of what it’s like to live in Japan for years, and why she still struggles with how to deal with being too tall, too wide, and definitely too…wait, why am I spoiling this? Here’s the chapter from The Last Tea Bowl Thief where we meet her for the first time:

Present-day Japan

Art Authentication Specialist Robin Swann shoves her front door shut with her hip, dumping the mail and her handbag atop the shoe cupboard with a sigh of relief. Why is it that no matter how big her purse is, the stuff inside expands to fill it? Rubbing her aching shoulder, she scuffs her feet into the fluffy pink slippers waiting beyond the edge of the entry tiles and trudges down the hall toward the kitchen. Detouring to the pocket-sized bedroom on the way, she trades her pantyhose and suit for sweatpants and a t-shirt, zips a faded college hoodie over the top. Then she grabs a shapeless sweater and pulls it over her bush of blond hair, because it’s still two-sweatshirt weather in her apartment. People have been posting bursting blossoms online for weeks now, but anyone who has read the haiku masters and lived in Japan for eight years knows that’s just an invitation for a late dump of snow. 

Ugh, has it really been eight years? She takes off her glasses and rubs her tired eyes. She’s over thirty, still living year-to-year on a precarious academic visa that has to be renewed every April, and has had a longer relationship with her goldfish than with any man since she arrived. Speaking of which . . . she crosses the room to the clear glass bowl and peers in. The orange fish lurks near the bottom, not moving, but not belly-up either. She taps in a few flakes of foul-smelling food, and it waves its feeble fins, rising slowly to the surface to nibble. 

At first, she’d kept the unwanted pet in a pickle jar, expecting it to move on to goldfish heaven within the week. Instead, it was her romance with the Japanese chef who’d won it for her at a shrine festival that died a quick death, while the stubborn orange fish lived on. After being ghosted by two more prospective boyfriends—neither of whom had been able to deal with her being taller and heavier than they were, even at her skinniest and in flats—she’d reluctantly bought the fish a clear bowl with a fluted blue rim, sprinkled some colored gravel on the bottom, and given it a name. 

Fishface is now two—no, three—years old. Surely that’s some kind of record for a festival goldfish. She keys a search into her phone. Nope, apparently, she and Fishface would have to live here thirty-eight more years to challenge that one. The very idea makes her want to . . . what? Scream? Drink wine straight from the bottle? Eat a whole carton of green tea ice cream?

She tucks the canister of fish food back behind the framed photo of her solid Middle American parents, flanking a beaming, longer-haired Robin who’s squinting into the sun and clutching the diploma proclaiming her a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies. She’d been so excited that day, a week shy of stepping onto a plane to begin her graduate program in Kyoto. So many shining roads had stretched before her, and on that sunny afternoon she still had no idea that the one she’d chosen would lead her further and further from the Japanese poetry master who was her passion, and turn her into a reluctant expert on Yoshi Takamatsu’s tea bowls instead.

The truth is, her fairytale life in Japan is slowly grinding to a halt. She has a dead-end job authenticating antique ceramics, a month-to-month studio apartment near an inconvenient train station, and a marked-up fourth draft of her PhD dissertation languishing on her laptop, the file unopened since mid-December. 

That reminds her, she still hasn’t gotten the letter from her thesis advisor that’s key to renewing her visa for another year. If she doesn’t submit her application next week, she’ll be in deep trouble. Retracing her steps, she scoops up the wedge of mostly pizza flyers and utility bills, shuffling through it until she spots a fat envelope with her academic advisor’s return address in the corner. Whew. If she makes the dreaded pilgrimage to the immigration office next week, her visa renewal should nip in under the deadline.

Abandoning the junk mail, she returns to the kitchenette and tugs on the overhead light’s grubby string pull. The fluorescent UFO overhead stutters to life as she opens the refrigerator. There’s a gap where the wine bottle usually stands. She groans, remembering that the last of her California chardonnay had contributed to last night’s vow to get out more, meet new people, maybe even sign up for a matchmaking service. As if.

Turning to the cupboard, she discovers that her wine supply has dwindled to a single bottle of pinot and the dusty bottle of champagne she’d received when she finished her master’s degree. She twists the top off the red and pours some into the glass that never quite makes it back into the cupboard from the dish drainer. A nightly glass of wine is her one indulgence, and although American wine is more expensive than French in Tokyo, she considers drinking California chardonnay and Oregon pinot among her few remaining acts of patriotism.

She takes a sip and plops down at her low table with the envelope from her advisor. Slits it open, to make sure everything has been signed and sealed.

It has. But a note is paper-clipped to the renewal form, and her smile fades as she reads. The professor, who supervised her research establishing that the tea bowl discovered in the Jakkō-in convent’s treasure house had indeed been made in the 1700s by Yoshi Takamatsu, regrets to inform her that if she doesn’t submit her doctoral dissertation within the coming academic year, he’ll be unable to sponsor her visa again.

Robin’s heart sinks. If she fails to finish her dissertation, she can’t stay in Japan. And if she can’t stay, where will she go? Certainly not home.

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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