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Japan Day 48: On Being Japanese

Today I want to explore a more philosophical topic that I have been giving quite a bit of thought recently. It is different from the other posts about Japan so far, but I hope you enjoy it! If you have any feedback or thoughts, let me know!


People who are not fully Japanese in ancestry who have lived their entire lives in Japan stick out and usually feel the need to point it out upon introduction.

One of the girls in the elementary school I do my internship at is half Filipino. How do I know? Both she and her friends were all very quick to tell me the day we were introduced. Every one of the students in the classroom seemed to think that we should be introduced—maybe because we would have something in common or maybe because there aren’t that many foreigners in the area, I am not sure. Either way, in my mind it was incredibly unusual. Thinking back to how I group people in the US, I can see myself pointing out when my friends are both study abroad students but haven’t met, but otherwise I feel that it is typically obvious when people are “American” or “Non-American” and that they can figure it out for themselves. In this situation though, the half-Filipino girl is someone I would consider to be “Japanese”—though it was clear from the introduction of her to me by the other students that the other students also grouped her into a “Foreigner” category.

In another situation, a girl who goes to my university here was introducing herself to me, and after telling me her name she told me that the reason she doesn’t look Japanese is because her father is from Jamaica. Why would she point this out to me? Well, she clearly looks more Jamaican than Japanese, but if you hear her say anything or even just look at her actions, it is immediately clear that she is Japanese. At first I thought maybe she was trying to make sure I knew that she was not an exchange student, but upon knowing her longer and with further reflection, I believe this is the way she introduces herself to everybody.

I would love to look into this further, and am definitely going to keep my eyes and ears open for future examples of this type of situation. It has also caused me to reflect a lot about how my friends with non-European ancestry and/or have not lived in America their entire lives introduce themselves. So far it is my feeling that in America, names are all that are needed during an introduction—no matter what you look like or who your parents may be. But here in Japan, anyone who is not 100% part of the homogenous group of people who are “Japanese” needs to somehow explain why they are or are not a part of that group.

On a related note, my being white as a ghost with curly brown hair has gone a long way in helping me to avoid needing to deal with this situation. While sometimes it is assumed that I speak much better Japanese, no one would mistake me for a Japanese person and I am not held to the same standards as people trying to be accepted into the group of “100% Japanese” people. It is harder, however, for my friends on the program who have some type of Asian ancestry or have the coloring to perhaps be mistaken at a glance as being more Asian. For them there have been times when they need to introduce themselves and explain that they are American, they don’t speak Japanese fluently, and then also explain why they appear Asian.

Well that’s all for now! Thanks for reading!



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