The Japanese Gaijin That Wasn’t

I came back from a trip to Japan recently, and I’ve discovered things I wouldn’t have believed previously. Japan is a popular tourist destination. Thanks to Japanese Anime is fairly popular in the western world. So I couldn’t believe nobody was talking about this!

Tale of Two Worlds

I have a friend who lived in Japan for several months. He’s a good looking British doctor there on exchange. He told me Japanese people were very friendly, and would always be up for conversation. He mentioned that people would stop him in the streets and ask for pictures. This was very different from my experience.
When I took the subway, it was almost always quiet. Rarely anyone was talking. When I talked on my phone in the subway station, everyone turned their heads to look.
Culturally, Japanese are very quiet and tend not to talk to each other in public. In the subways, there were no bums panhandling for money on the subways, which is drastically different from New York.

Japanese Shield (The B* Shield)

I noticed that when I would approach people in the streets, whether asking for directions or otherwise, people were extremely wary at first.
When I approached someone, they would walk away.
If they were standing still at the subway station, they would turn away when they see me approach.
If they were walking and I walk towards them, they turn an arc to avoid me.
When I said “Hi” to someone on the street, that person yelled at me and ran away.
And yet, contrast this with the fact that the people who do stop to talk, were extremely friendly.
This is what boggles my mind. I ask two Japanese girls for directions, and they walk away quickly. I keep talking and they ignore me for a full 20 seconds… then suddenly they stop, listen to what I’m saying, then offer to walk me to where I’m going. What the heck just happened?

The Reality

Racism. Yes, unfortunately this boils down to racism. Apparently, foreigners or gaijin are respected in Japan, but ONLY if you’re the right kind of foreigner!
As a Canadian Chinese guy, I could pass for Japanese local or Chinese tourist. This is a class of foreigner that just doesn’t make sense for Japanese. When I say I’m Canadian or I’m from America, they get surprised and don’t believe me.
My friend, a white British doctor, received drastically different responses from locals. The favorable responses he received from Japanese locals, were similar to the responses I would receive after the initial conversation. When they find out I’m Canadian Chinese instead of a tourist from China or a local Japanese, I receive a reaction somewhere close to what my friend receives right off the bat, because he’s white. So why the distrust of Asians in Japan? Tell me in the comments below.

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